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-~/\~-
Prologue - The Real Prophecy
-~\/~-

Albus Dumbledore continued watching the door of his office long after Harry had left, tears making their way down his face silently. For his world and the boy he thought of as his own, he would lie. He would hurt Harry to save him. That was the greater good.

Fawkes trilled from his perch.

Albus looked over and smiled at his familiar. "My time grows near, old friend. I only hope, in time, that he forgives me."

Fawkes flew over to Albus and settled on his shoulder to preen the old man's white hair.

Albus reached up and scratched Fawkes' head. "I have lived a long life. I've made enough mistakes. Fawkes..." He paused and the phoenix on his shoulder stopped preening his human's hair curiously. "Fawkes, when I die, will you go to Harry? Watch over him for me? And... And when he's ready, will you take him to my vault?"

Fawkes trilled softly in agreement.

Albus closed his eyes and smiled in relief. "Thank you."

Fawkes started preening his hair again.

After another few moments, Albus sighed and touched his wand to the Pensieve in front of him. Sibyll Trelawney's tiny figure rose up again, but her words were different, though no less ominous:

"The change approaches. Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies. The other will mark him as his equal, and he shall show the other things he knows not. When the child meets the grandfather, he shall know only trust. By his seventh year, shall things be made clear. Once-enemies unite, by hands entwined shall the world rise. Yet, to rise, something first must fall; the grandfather's fate is clear. As the seventh month dies, the change comes near."

Albus leaned back in his chair again, upsetting Fawkes, who grumbled at him in trills and flew back over to his perch.

"Apologies," Albus assured the bird, who huffed and turned his back on the old man in response. Albus chuckled at that, then rose from his chair and retrieved the memory of the real prophecy, leaving the fabricated one to swirl around in the stone bowl.

Waving his wand to lower the lights in the room, Albus retired, feeling every one of his one hundred and fourteen years.

-~/\~-
Chapter One - The Summer of Change
-~\/~-

Harry Potter was not happy with things the way they were. The Headmaster had asked him and his friends that they not trade owls that summer, which had sounded like a great idea at the time of the promise, but now seemed like the stupidest thing Harry had ever agreed to. And that was saying a lot.

It didn't help that, when his relatives didn't have him acting as their personal house elf, he was brooding in his room about his godfather's death mere weeks before. With the memory so painfully fresh in his mind, Harry found himself often thinking "What ifs”, as if he could find a time turner that could have taken him back so he could have stopped himself. Stopped Sirius. Stopped someone.

Why Dumbledore thought it was a good idea to leave Harry to wallow in his misery alone was beyond the teen, but he was beginning to think that no security risk was worth him slicing his wrists open, which he had considered doing more than once. The only thing that had stopped him so far was the prophecy. "Either will die at the hand of the other." Harry was torn between his sense of duty and the ironic question of whether he could kill himself without Voldemort's help or permission – not that Harry thought there would be much question in the madman giving him either.

When thinking of Sirius led to the very real urge to kill himself, Harry would often switch to an even more depressing topic: the prophecy.

He'd questioned again and again what his "power" was. He sincerely doubted it had anything to do with love, as Harry wasn't sure he knew what "love" was. Well, he knew it was a feeling of affection, like what he felt for Ron and Hermione when they stood by him, but he couldn't comprehend something more powerful than that.

He knew now, of course, that what he'd felt for Cho had been nothing but lust for a pretty face. At the time, he'd almost been willing to think of his feelings towards her as romantic love, but that had just been the stupidity of youth.

He'd loved Sirius, despite how briefly he'd known his godfather. (He wasn't yet enough over his loss to consider that he'd truly loved the idea of having somewhere to go that wasn't the Dursleys', rather than loving Sirius himself.) He'd always looked up to Dumbledore as a wise and all-knowing man, but he wasn't sure he'd call that "love".

How could one use a power they didn't understand? Perhaps Dumbledore would teach him this coming year; the old Headmaster certainly seemed to know love, for him to profess such care for Harry himself.

And how could Dumbledore love Harry so, yet leave him to lick his proverbial wounds at the Dursleys' of all places. Why couldn't he have gone to the Burrow? Or even stayed at Hogwarts, as the young Tom Riddle had once done?

And yet, Dumbledore had said something about wards to protect him. Love, from his mother's sacrifice.

But hadn't Voldemort found a way past that sacrifice? He could touch Harry now, despite his protection. What's to say he couldn't just waltz right into the house and kill them all – not that Harry would complain too much about a couple of fat sacrifices.

With the wonderful mental image of the Dursleys getting what they deserved at the hands of everything they hated, Harry fell asleep after another long day of being moody.

-0-0-0-

Harry found himself seated in a comfortable red chair in front of a roaring fire. The quote about Kansas from The Wizard of Oz crossed his mind and he grimaced and said, "My name's not Toto and I've never even been to Kansas."

"Irrelevant, although I think you did get the better of that. I hear Kansas is a tedious place. Nothing but fields."

Harry stood and pointed his wand at the intruder. "What are you doing here?" he growled.

Voldemort smiled coldly and waved his hand, making Harry's wand disappear. "I might ask you the same thing, young Potter. This is my mindscape, after all."

"Your what?" Harry demanded, completely baffled and not a little frightened.

Voldemort blinked, and then let out a chilling cackle. "So, Severus really did fail to teach you anything. After that vision had worked, I had thought so, but I'd still wondered..."

Harry had tensed at the mention of his failed Occlumency training with Snape and even more so at the mention of the vision which had gotten Sirius killed. "You–"

"Tea?" Voldemort asked in the most terrifyingly polite voice Harry had ever heard, rendering the poor teen speechless. Voldemort smiled. "I'll take that as a yes. Now, I know how young men your age are, so how much sugar would you like?"

Harry narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Are you going to poison me?"

"How uncouth," Voldemort replied, putting two lumps into a cup of tea and waving it Harry's way. "I couldn't kill you if I wanted to, not here," he added, taking his own tea and drawing up a high-backed green chair. "Do sit."

Harry sat and took a long swallow of his tea. "You can't kill me here? But, why not?"

Voldemort sighed, and it was such a human action, Harry almost dropped his tea. The dark lord smiled as Harry slopped tea on his too-large muggle jeans and said, "You are in my mindscape, Potter. This is the physical representation of my mind that a Legilimens would see if one were able to get in here. My memories are hidden in this room – don't bother trying to find them. The mindscape is not meant to be a hostile environment; rather, it is a peaceful place, where one cannot harm the occupants. I cannot kill you, but I am free to evict you or forcibly keep you here, which would make your body seem as though it were in a coma.

"Eventually, if kept you in my mindscape for too long, your body on the outside world would die of lack of nutrients and water, so I could, technically, kill you that way. But since you'll probably be found in the morning and force-fed nutrients until you came back, there would be little point in me keeping you here."

Harry frowned and looked down at his tea. "Doubtful. No one cares if I'm alive."

"That's funny," Voldemort replied dubiously, "since your name seems to appear in every paper these days. I swear, if I see one more mention of you on the front page..." Voldemort trailed off as he saw Harry's hopelessly confused look. "You don't read the paper, Potter?"

"I'm not to receive any owls this summer. They may lead you to me," Harry stated, as though repeating back orders that had been given to him.

Voldemort blinked, then sneered. "Because I'm going to waste my people on following owls all day when they could be destroying the Ministry."

"Exactly!" Harry exclaimed, sloshing tea on his jeans again. After a moment, he hopefully added, "Is Fudge dead yet?"

"No," Voldemort replied, disgusted. "The worm is hiding out somewhere outside the country and conducting business from there. I don't have the people to go after him, not with how many you got put into Azkaban," this was stated with a rather nasty glare, "And I have better things to do than hunting the frightened worm down myself."

"Somehow, I'm not surprised," Harry commented.

Voldemort smirked. "Well, I suppose you could save me some trouble and tell me where you're residing."

"Nice try," Harry shot back.

"Well, at least tell me so that I make sure my people don't kill your family on accident."

Harry snorted. "Please, be my guest. Just make sure you send me a Pensieve memory of their deaths when you're done, won't you?"

Voldemort let out a surprised chuckle. "I'm surprised at you, Harry. Such a dark side. Does Albus know his pet lion is so cruel?"

"I'm no one's pet!" Harry spat, standing and dumping the rest of his tea on the carpeted floor.

Voldemort tutted and cleaned the carpet with a wave of his hand. "My people in Hogwarts say otherwise. 'Gryffindor Golden Boy,' always doing what Albus wants? I hear you even named your study club after him."

Harry bared his teeth and had the insane urge to hiss. "I'm no one's pet, Voldemort!"

Voldemort smiled right back. "As you wish, little lion. Now, why don't you go on home to your loving family, hm? Perhaps tell them how you're no one's pet?"

And then the fire and Voldemort were gone and Harry felt himself waking up.

-0-0-0-

Harry spent the next couple of weeks being furious at the dark lord for insinuating he was Dumbledore's pet, of all things. He didn't end up back in Voldemort's mindscape, either, so he couldn't take it out on the man.

It was only after getting beat by Vernon for taking his fury out on Petunia's roses that Harry sat down and looked past his temper. That was when he realised that, since he'd been angry at Voldemort, he hadn't angsted about Sirius or the prophecy. And, thinking about it more, Harry realised that some of the hurt had healed from his godfather's death, as if his anger had burned away the infectious pain.

Harry was only a little upset to realise that he owed his healing anger to Voldemort.

For the next few days, he tried everything to get back into Voldemort's mindscape, but eventually gave up, coming to the conclusion that Voldemort had found a way to block him.

Mere days after giving up, Harry returned to his room with a line of welts on his back and burned fingers from a punishment meted out after he accidentally burned the chicken. He went to sleep in pain, and thinking again about torturing the Dursleys.

"You're hurt," said a slightly surprised voice, and Harry opened his eyes to find himself sitting in the red chair in Voldemort's mindscape. Said man was staring at him in surprise. "How did you get hurt?"

"I–" Harry winced as his back moved against the back of the chair. "I burned the chicken, so they punished me."

"You let muggles do this to you?" Voldemort replied, sounding both appalled and understanding.

"You make it sound like I had a choice," Harry snapped back, scooting forward on the chair so his back wouldn't hurt as much. "You grew up with muggles too."

"I never let them treat me like this," Voldemort snapped back, then hissed out a curse in Parseltongue and waved his hand.

Harry blinked at him, surprised, as his back and hands no longer hurt. "Th–thank you."

Voldemort sneered. "I won't have you hurting in my presence when it isn't my doing," he replied shortly, then turned to get some tea.

Harry smiled at the dangerous man's back, wondering if anyone had sincerely thanked Voldemort before. "Is the healing real?" he asked.

Voldemort shook his head and waved a cup of tea towards Harry. "You will be in less pain – a healing in the mental world will speed up your healing in the physical world – but you won't be completely healed. The mental and physical worlds only barely affect each other."

Harry nodded. "Okay."

Voldemort gave the boy a suspicious look. "What brings you here after so long away, Potter?"

Harry sighed. "I tried to get back here a couple of days ago, after I'd got over being angry at you–"

"Pity," Voldemort commented into his tea.

"–but I hadn't been able to manage it until tonight, and I don't even know how I did it," Harry finished, acting as if he hadn't heard Voldemort's interruption.

Voldemort looked at him and said, "Think, boy. What similarity is there between this time, and the first time?"

"Uhhh...."

Voldemort sighed in exasperation. "What were you thinking about as you fell asleep?"

Harry thought about it for a long moment, then said, "Uhm, torturing the Dursleys?"

Voldemort blinked, then nodded. "Muggle torture. I find that to be an acceptable past time, so that would put us in similar mindsets, opening the way for your mind to come to me. Curious."

"So," Harry thought out loud, "if you were to be thinking of something acceptable to me as you went asleep, you would enter my mindscape?"

Voldemort sighed and rubbed at his eyes. "Potter, only Occlumens have mindscapes."

Harry's mouth fell open into a comprehending 'O'.

Voldemort sneered and sipped his tea.

"Could you teach me?"

Voldemort gave Harry the same look Hermione always gave him when he said something stupid. "Now why would I want to do that? You're a much easier target this way."

Harry sipped his tea and thought really hard about that for a moment, then nodded to himself and said, "Because the Headmaster is a Legilimens too?"

Voldemort gave him a pleased smirk. "Why, Harry, that was practically Slytherin of you."

Harry rolled his eyes. "From you, that's a compliment."

Voldemort chuckled darkly. "Indeed. Very well, I will teach you. I will send you an owl–"

"But, you don't know where I live!"

Voldemort gave him that 'you're an idiot' look again and said, "Potter, how often do you add the address to a letter that you're sending out by owl?" Harry blinked, then stared in somewhat horrified comprehension. "An owl doesn't need an address as long as it knows the recipient. I assume you've been to the owlery before?" Harry nodded. "I will send Severus' owl, then. With her will be a book about the mind arts. Study it thoroughly, and then return to me. I don't want to see you again until then. Understood?"

Harry blinked in surprise, then nodded. "Yeah. What's the owl's name?"

Voldemort closed his eyes as if for patience. "Desdemona. Expect her in the evening. Now, go."

And Harry left.

-0-0-0-

Desdemona had arrived the next evening with a thick book in her talons. Harry quickly unburdened her and led her over to Hedwig's cage – Hedwig had been warned before that they would be having a guest that evening – where she could get a drink of water. Harry took a moment to insure the black owl was all right – he didn't like Snape, but that was no reason for him to hate the man's owl – before going over to his bed and cracking Teaching the Novice open, mentally groaning about how he was going to end up doing more reading this summer than he did during the school year, if Voldemort had any say.

Then again, if the old snake-face was going to teach Harry how to protect himself against him, who was Harry to say no?

-0-0-0-

Snape had, of course, been going about teaching Harry the wrong way. According to the book Voldemort had lent – given? – Harry, a teacher of a novice Occlumens was supposed to walk them through the meditation techniques and, once they were calm enough to have a steady place to organize their thoughts, help them do so. Eventually, during the organization process, the mindscape's form would take shape. Once you had a stable mindscape, you could start building walls and traps to protect your thoughts and feelings.

Harry also noted that a teacher to a novice Occlumens was required to take a Wizards' Oath that they would not share anything they learned about the student with anyone. Harry couldn't help but wonder if Snape ever took such an oath.

The meditation techniques were in the first chapter, so even as he continued reading the book, Harry spent time each day simply breathing. He found, much to his surprise, that he did a form of meditation while he was doing chores, since he knew them all so well that he didn't need to think about them.

Three weeks after first starting the meditating, Harry woke to a barren room with a Slytherin crest on one wall. Surprised by the Slytherin intrusion on what should have been a completely empty space – assuming this was, of course, his undeveloped mindscape – Harry walked over and poked at the crest.

"You prodded?" a bored voice asked from behind him, and Harry spun to find Voldemort standing in the middle of his mindscape. At Harry's half-questioning, half-surprised look, Voldemort added, "That would be the physical representation of our bond. I hid the Gryffindor crest in my mindscape behind a bookcase."

Harry laughed at that, completely unsurprised that the dark lord would be adverse to having Harry's own House symbol on display in the otherwise very Slytherin room. "Perhaps I'll just leave that one there," he decided out loud.

Voldemort sneered. "And why is that, Potter? So you may prod me whenever you please? Perhaps you intend to drive me insane so that I'll take my own life?"

Harry laughed again and shook his head. "No. It's just.... well, the Hat wanted to put me in Slytherin. I've come to accept that now, so it seems silly to hide that in my own mind."

"Curiously thoughtful of you," Voldemort replied in a blank voice.

Harry rolled his eyes. "So, once I knew how to 'clear my mind' it got a lot easier to understand what Snape had been trying to teach me. He just went about it backwards."

"Severus, as you may know, hates children and teaching them. He is particularly hateful of you."

"So why doesn't he resign?"

Voldemort sighed. "Potter, there is more going on in this world than simply a war between Dumbledore and myself, and there is little distinction between 'good' and 'bad' in this war. I made the choice to go after your mother, who Severus had feelings for. He went to Albus to make sure she would be protected, and Albus gave him the choice between going to Azkaban for his crimes as a Death Eater, or working in Albus' school until either his death, or my permanent demise. Severus chose the school, as it was a better prison, though still a prison."

Harry bit his lip and turned from the tall man before him to look at one of the blank walls. "Uhm, well, are you going to be my teacher? Or am I on my own in building my mindscape?"

"You trust me so much that you would want me as your teacher?" was Voldemort's response.

Harry shrugged, still looking at the wall. "You could have done something to that book to kill me; put some sort of poison on the book. Or had someone follow Desdemona and kill me. But you didn't. Anyway, you're supposed to swear an oath."

Voldemort let out an amused cackle and Harry shuddered. "Very good, Harry. It seems you're actually reading the whole book, rather than just skimming it, as Severus seems to think you often do."

"Snape's biased," Harry shot back with a glare. "Anyway, it's not my fault he spends all class standing over us like an overgrown bat and mocks us or vanishes our work if the potion's even slightly off colour."

Voldemort cackled again and Harry glowered at him. "Ah, Harry, Severus never says what a sense of humour you have. And, yes, I will be your teacher and take the Oath if you wish it. However," Voldemort added, eyeing Harry with such an air of seriousness than Harry had to pay attention, "if you try and add in there that I won't kill you, I will leave you to your building alone. This Oath will only be for my helping you in your mindscape."

Harry blinked. "Yeah? Okay. Uhm, I'm supposed to word the oath?"

Voldemort sighed. "I thought you read that book, Potter."

"I did!" Harry cried, thinking hard. "Uhm, oh! Yeah, I guess it did say that the oath should be worded by the novice Occlumens. Bugger."

Voldemort chuckled. "Think on it and call me back tomorrow night." And then he was gone.

Harry sat on the floor of his mindscape and pondered how to word the oath so that Voldemort couldn't find a way around it.

-0-0-0-

As soon as Voldemort appeared in Harry's mindscape, Harry handed over a piece of notebook paper with the oath written on it. Voldemort read it over once, then looked at Harry curiously. "Just 'minion or foe'?"

Harry rolled his eyes. "It's not like you have any other sort of relations, right? Your family's dead, and the day you call someone friend is the day I give up fighting you."

"Indeed," Voldemort agreed with a twisted smile. Then he pulled out his wand and intoned, "I, Tom Marvolo Riddle, also called Lord Voldemort, hereby swear upon my honour as Salazar Slytherin's last descendent and upon my magic, that I will tell no one, minion or foe, of anything I learn, hear or see pertaining to my training of Harry James Potter in the making of his mindscape and Occlumency walls. So mote it be."

"So mote it be," Harry agreed, then smiled at Voldemort. "So, where do we start?"

Voldemort scowled at him. "Have you given any thought to how you want your mindscape to appear?"

"Uhm, the Gryffindor Common Room?"

"And where will you put your memories? In the cushions?"

Harry frowned, recalling that the book had said you should never put your memories in something that a visitor would regularly access, such as a chair. A good example was books – which Harry figured was what Voldemort had done with his – and then ward the bookcases against wandering minds. He thought of all the places he'd been in his life and couldn't really think of a good place to keep his memories.

Voldemort sighed and created a chair for himself to sit in. "Your mindscape doesn't have to be comfortable, and it doesn't have to be a room, Harry. It doesn't even need to be a real place. It simply needs to be able to hide your memories and thoughts. I created my own mindscape after what I would have wanted my office to be, if I ever had the chance to have an office. Severus' mindscape is a potion's lab, but not one that he's ever been in. Albus' mindscape is his own office. Others have picked their bedrooms, with toys or clothing scattered all over. I've seen one person create a brightly lit park as their mindscape."

Harry remembered his most recent adventure into the Department of Mysteries and how confusing the prophecy room had been, with all its little glass balls. And how only the people the prophecy referred to could take it from its stand. Maybe he could make it so only he could take down the memory ball?

"That could work," Voldemort commented, sounding a little surprised.

Harry opened his eyes to find that a couple of the prophecy shelves had started forming with little glass balls on them. "Oh."

"How will you organise them?" Voldemort asked.

"Uhm..." Harry walked over and picked up one of the balls. The memory of Sirius falling through the Veil came to him and he dropped the ball in shock. Before it could hit the floor, it disappeared and reappeared in its stand. "I-I suppose I could put the good memories in the back, and the bad memories in the front? That way, if someone were able to access any of the balls, they would get the bad ones first?"

"Probably put the ones of being in physical pain in the very front, followed by the ones that are emotional," Voldemort agreed. "Most people will be put off by having to go through the physical pain at the first. How are you planning to keep people from touching the orbs?"

"Uhm, well, in the Department, you could only pick it up if you were a part of the prophecy, right? So, I just change it to, you can only pick up the ball if you're me?"

"And you can only see the memory if the orb is resting in your hand? Clever."

"Thanks," Harry said, surprised to hear someone call him that, rather than Hermione. "Uhm, how do I organise them? Do I have to touch every memory...?"

"No," Voldemort replied crisply, and Harry felt a wave of relief wash over him. "Once you have an idea of how you want your mind to be organised, make it appear so in the mindscape. It will take time, however. You won't get everything organised in one night. You're doing this reasonably young – most novices are in their twenties – so your sorting shouldn't take too long, no matter how many horrible memories you have."

"So, wait. I just...imagine everything where it needs to go?"

Voldemort sighed and shook his head. "No, not quite. It's more an act of will. It's an organisation of your memories, so you'll have to remember them, to put them in the right places, but you must place them with a firm hand. You shouldn't have too much trouble with this, however, as you're a very strong-willed person." The dark lord cracked an ironic smile at Harry, who smiled sadly back.

"So I will have to remember things?"

"Yes."

Harry sighed and glanced back at the orb that held Sirius' death in it, and wondered how many memories he could actually remember of Sirius. It would hurt.

"It will not be easy," Voldemort admitted, and Harry looked at him with surprise at the open expression on the other man's normally cruel face, "and you will sometimes wish you could simply stop the sorting and leave it lay. But the outcome is worth the entire ordeal, if only you can make it. And you will, I assure you, find memories you didn't know you could access. You may see your mother's smile, or enjoy your first birthday. I did not care for such memories, but you will."

Harry nodded, knowing that he would give anything for memories of the time with his family.

"I will leave you to your sorting," Voldemort spoke. "If you need me, you know how to contact me." He nodded to the green pennant on the opposite wall. When Harry nodded his understanding, Voldemort disappeared, leaving Harry to stare at his shelves with trepidation.

Chapter Text

Between the Dursleys and Voldemort, Harry had enough memories of physical pain to fill three and a half shelves. Another four had emotional pain. Memories of happier times with his friends and Sirius filled the eight shelves after those. The last half-shelf contained the memories of his parents: Lily's smile, a snippet of a lullaby, James suggesting getting a broom for Harry's fifth birthday, Sirius looking young and happy next to Remus, and a brief shot of a family picture.

Harry wished he could turn memories into photographs.

After all the standing, Harry decided he wanted a safe place where he could sit and not think. So he made a door in the wall behind the shelves and created a cosy little room with a fireplace and two red chairs, which looked very much like Gryffindor common room. He moved Voldemort's link into the room and, feeling gloomy, added a couple of dementors to the room with the shelves.

Then he slammed the door shut and settled into his chair with a sigh. He mentally called up a pillow to rest his head against and a bottle of warm butterbeer, then lost himself in the flames.

-0-0-0-

Voldemort came for another visit two days later and seemed rather surprised to see the new room. "Where did this come from?" he asked Harry, who was, once again, enjoying the fire with a bottle of butterbeer.

"I got tired of looking at the spheres," Harry commented quietly, then nodded to the door next to the fireplace. "They're in there. I added some dementors, too, just for kicks."

Voldemort chuckled and changed the empty chair green before sitting in it. "You finished sorting, then?"

"Yeah." Harry glanced over at the dark lord. "What did you think about to get over here?"

"Crucioing Bella."

Harry smiled grimly and glanced at the fire again. "That would work."

"I considered imagining killing your relatives, since that worked for you, but I don't know what they look like."

"Well, Bella seemed to work, so it doesn't matter, I suppose," Harry agreed.

Voldemort nodded and glanced around the room. "This place is rather barren. Just the fireplace."

Harry shrugged. "Couldn't think of anything to decorate it with. I really just wanted a place where I could sit and not think. Seemed proper, somehow, with all my memories on the other side of that door."

Voldemort nodded. "What might you decorate it with, though, if you ever did?"

Harry glance over at the other wizard curiously. "Pictures. I always enjoyed Aunt Petunia's photograph collection, even if I didn't care for the pictures themselves. I'm just not sure how to make it work."

"Potter, this is your mindscape. Whatever you want to exist, will."

Harry blinked a couple of times, then smiled sheepishly. "Oh. Yeah."

Voldemort sighed and rubbed at the bridge of his flat nose.

Harry glanced around the room and imagined gold and silver frames lining the fireplace mantle. In each frame he put memories of him and his friends as they'd grown. He made pictures with Sirius in them, and pictures of his parents, as he'd seen them in his memories. Near the centre was a picture of the whole Weasley family, smiling and waving.

And, in the very centre, Harry placed that memory of the photo being taken when he was a baby, with James and Lily and Sirius and Remus and the Longbottoms. He'd mentally removed Dumbledore and Peter from the picture because he didn't want them.

Voldemort nodded at the line-up appreciatively. "Much better. Are you going to decorate anything else?"

Harry glanced around at the emptiness behind them and shook his head. "No, I like it."

"Then I believe our time together is done."

Harry blinked at the dark lord. "Okay. Do you want that book back?"

Voldemort shook his head and stood. "Keep it. Give it to your muggleborn friend for her collection or something, if you don't want it."

Harry bit his lower lip, then, just before Voldemort left, he blurted out, "Are you leaving for good, then?"

Voldemort smiled strangely. "Harry," he said, waving at the pendent, "I will never be gone for good, so long as we both live."

Harry nodded and turned back to the fireplace. He spent the rest of the night debating whether or not to add a picture of Voldemort to his mantle.

-0-0-0-

Not long after Harry learned to guard his mind, Dumbledore finally collected him and took him to the Weasleys' to stay. Harry decided to keep his book from Voldemort and didn't tell his friends about his newly-learned Occlumency skills, though he did tell them the entire prophecy. Hermione spent a lot of time trying to figure it out, while Harry and Ron spent as much time as they could on the Weasleys' quidditch pitch with Ron's brothers and Ginny.

A trip to Diagon Alley for their books – and a trip to Fred and George's shop – found the three best friends following a suspicious Malfoy into Knockturn Alley, where they heard some suspicious talk.

That night, when they all went to bed, Harry imagined killing his relatives and found himself in Voldemort's mindscape, where the man in question was sitting behind his desk, looking over papers. "Voldemort?" Harry asked.

The Voldemort behind the desk pointed to a sign on the front of the desk which said, 'Don't touch anything, just sit. I'll be here shortly.'

Harry chuckled to himself and took one of the chairs in front of the fireplace, which he cheerfully turned red. He was just debating getting up and looking at one of the books on the walls when the Voldemort behind the desk disappeared and the real Voldemort appeared in the other chair.

"To what do I owe this visit?" Voldemort inquired, sitting back in his chair calmly.

Harry cocked his head to the side and considered how to phrase his question. "You wouldn't have, ah, a certain.... no, uhm..."

"Potter," Voldemort said with no small humour in his voice, "just ask it."

"Draco Malfoy," Harry settled on.

Voldemort sighed and shook his head. "I take it you saw him acting oddly, and decided to be a Gryffindor and simply ask me."

"Well, yeah. Uhm, is he? Working for you?"

Voldemort simply looked at Harry for a long moment, then said, "Unfortunately, Lucius is in Azkaban with a number of my other best Death Eaters. I've found myself looking to the younger generation for assistance."

"You Marked him," Harry deciphered.

"And if I did?" Voldemort challenged.

Harry felt something lock into place and realised he couldn't feel his own body any more. He took a deep breath and met the glowing ruby eyes. "What do you have him doing?" He figured, if he was going to die trapped with Voldemort, he might as well do it knowing what the man was plotting.

Voldemort smiled a horrible smile. "I don't think I'll tell you."

Harry sighed and turned back to the fire. "Fine. Are you going to keep me here, then? Keep me from telling anyone else that I know that Draco Malfoy is Marked and is plotting something for you?"

"That's the plan," Voldemort said, sounding very satisfied.

"I suppose it's a more peaceful way to die than what else you might have had planned for me," Harry decided.

Voldemort didn't say anything for a long time, then, "You're truly not afraid, are you?"

Harry shook his head. "No. Should I be?" He cocked his head curiously at Voldemort.

Voldemort rubbed at his eyes and Harry could feel his body again. "No one would believe you, anyway. And you can't prove it."

"No, I don't suppose I can," Harry agreed, standing. "You won't tell me what you've got him doing?"

Voldemort smiled humourlessly. "He'll fail anyway."

Harry shrugged. "Perhaps." Then he returned to his own mindscape and let himself sleep.

-0-0-0-

Harry decided he didn't care what Malfoy was up to; Voldemort clearly thought the other boy would fail, which meant he had a back-up in place, which meant that, even if Harry knew what was going on, he wouldn't be able to stop it. So he decided not to worry about it. Hermione would have been proud.

When term finally started, Harry and Ron were surprised to learn that they were to continue Potions under the slimy Slughorn, who was, admittedly, a better teacher than Snape would ever be. Harry's borrowed book was an impressive collection of Potions knowledge and spells.

When Hermione's first search of the library turned up nothing, Harry went to his own source.

"Good evening, Harry. Here to ask about Draco again?"

Harry shook his head. "Knowing you, you've got a back-up plan waiting to go when Malfoy fails, and I wouldn't even know where to look for it. No, I was wondering if you know who the Half-Blood Prince is?"

Voldemort looked surprised. "The Half-Blood Prince? Severus."

"Snape?"

"The same."

Harry was silent for a long moment before starting to snicker. At Voldemort's curious look, he said, "Hermione said he's got handwriting like a girl."

Voldemort chuckled cruelly at that. "Where ever did you find that name?"

"Uhm, well, I didn't think I'd be taking NEWTs Potions, but I am, so I had to borrow a book, and the book I borrowed was Snape's. Hermione couldn't find anything, so I figured I could try you." Harry scratched his head.

"Severus' old school book." Voldemort tapped his chin with one long finger. "When you get a new copy – I assume you ordered one?" Harry nodded. "Good. When you get it, give that book back to Severus. I doubt he wants it in student's hands."

"Am I currying favour with him, now?" Harry asked with a touch of irony.

Voldemort smiled. "No, you're giving the book back to its rightful owner. And teaching him that he shouldn't leave things where they might be used by students who could trace them back to him."

Harry sighed. "If he gives me detention, I'm blaming you."

"And I'm sure you'll spend the entire detention cursing my name. Go back to bed, Harry."

"Okay. 'Night, Voldemort."

"Good night."

-0-0-0-

Harry didn't bother telling Hermione who the book belonged to, more amused by her trying to figure it out on her own, and not having a good explanation as to how he figured it out himself. When he got his replacement, he stayed after in Defence Against the Dark Arts and, when Snape glared at him, walked up to the man's desk and placed the book on it.

"What is this, Potter?" Snape spat, not even looking at the book.

"It's your Potions book, sir," Harry said softly. "I thought I should return it to you, now that I've got my new one. Good day." Then he turned around and walked out of the room, smiling at the horrified expression that had graced Snape's face when he announced what the book was. He might have to make a photo of that for his mantle.

-0-0-0-

The one thing Harry didn't dare bring up with Voldemort was the rather useless help the Headmaster was giving him. While he hadn't really been afraid when Voldemort had locked him in his mind the last time, the idea of the dark lord doing it again was terrifying, and Harry didn't really want to face dying because he'd mentioned Voldemort's past.

Not that he was given much choice. After Harry's second meeting with Dumbledore, he went to bed to find Voldemort sitting in the green chair in front of the fire.

"What are you doing here?" Harry asked, taking his seat.

"You're thinking about me and it's irritating," Voldemort said rather bluntly, then looked at Harry. "The old man has you looking at my childhood?"

Harry sighed and rubbed at his face, careful of his glasses. "You went looking through my memories," he said. It wasn't a question.

"Why does he have you looking at my past?" Voldemort replied suspiciously, neither confirming or denying his transgression.

Harry considered that he needed some way to keep Voldemort in the room with the fire, so he didn't pry. Perhaps a door that only Harry could go through?

"Potter."

"I don't know, okay? Something to do with defeating you. And how did you get to the spheres, anyway? They're supposed to be keyed to me."

Voldemort smiled. "We share a very special connection, Harry..."

Harry scowled and folded his arms over his chest. Perhaps a door that was specifically meant to keep Voldemort from using it? Or have it disappear when Harry wasn't in his mindscape, and unable to reappear until he was? That could work.

"And what have you learned from these lessons?"

"Absolutely nothing, okay? Will you go away?"

And, before Voldemort could say anything else, he was gone.

Harry blinked at the empty chair, then at the pendent on the wall, which twitched faintly, then hung still.

Satisfied that Voldemort was gone, at least for the moment, Harry fixed his door, then went to sleep, thinking about the young Tom Riddle, but taking every care to not get pulled into Voldemort's mind.

-0-0-0-

Somehow, Harry managed to keep Voldemort out of his mind well enough that the man finally sent Harry a letter with a sharp-eyed owl, which had Snape spilling juice on himself.

After Snape's reaction, Harry could guess who the owl came from and told it, "Go away. Take it back and tell him to piss off."

"Fighting with someone?" Hermione asked.

Snape stalked over to them before Harry could answer and said, "Potter, don't touch that letter."

Harry rolled his eyes. "With all due respect, sir, I don't want to." He stared at the owl again. "Take it back. I don't want it."

The owl screeched angrily. When Snape reached for it, the owl threatened to bite the man, so he drew away, glaring.

Harry huffed. "Drop it in the lake, if you must get rid of it. I don't want it. And I'm not taking it."

"Harry," Hermione tried.

Harry stood. "I forgot my books upstairs, excuse me," he said to his audience, then stalked from the hall, where about half the population was staring at him. When the owl started to follow him, he told it, "I'll hex you if you don't leave me alone."

The owl was not perturbed and merely clicked its beak at Harry's nose.

Harry sighed and started up the stairs to the Gryffindor Tower. "Is it a portkey? And are you trained to lie?"

The owl screeched at him angrily.

"Fine. If I take the bloody thing from you, will you go away?"

The owl shook its head, which threw it off course a bit.

Harry stopped on the landing and leaned against the railing, staring at the bird. "He wants a response, of course."

The bird landed calmly on the railing next to Harry and started to preen its wings.

Harry sighed and untied the letter from the bird's leg. As he was opening the scroll, he heard footsteps on the stairs and glanced up to find Snape, with Hermione not far behind.

"Potter," Snape warned.

Harry decided to ignore him and glanced back at the letter.

'You WILL speak to me, boy. I WILL NOT be ignored. NOW.'

Harry rolled the scroll back up and turned to the owl. "Tell him I read it and I don't care."

The owl glared at him and snapped its beak warningly.

"What does He want?" Snape demanded.

"And what is going on?" Hermione asked, glaring at Harry from around Snape.

"Granger, this is none of your concern," Snape informed Hermione.

"Actually," Harry cut in, "it's neither of your concerns. It's not even his concern," he added, waving the scroll about.

Harry wasn't quick enough and Snape grabbed the scroll from his hand. Harry was about to yell when he saw the completely baffled look on Snape face and figured that the letter must have a spell on it to allow only Harry himself to read it.

Hermione managed to get a look at the parchment and said, "Harry, you have a piece of parchment with squiggles on it."

"Squiggles?" Harry parroted, feeling stupid.

"Parselwriting," Snape said, thrusting the letter back at Harry. Next to him, understanding dawned on Hermione's face. "What does it say, Potter?"

"And why are you writing to Voldemort?" Hermione squeaked.

Harry took his letter back from Snape and glared at both of them. "I'm not writing to him, he's writing to me, thanks. Now, if you'll both excuse me–"

"Thirty points from Gryffindor!" Snape snapped.

"You can't do that!"

"Forty!"

"It's my letter and my business!"

"Fifty!"

"May I ask what's going on here?" Dumbledore asked serenely as he climbed the last few stairs to the landing they were all crowded on.

"Potter," Snape spat, "has a letter from the Dark Lord, and won't say what it says."

Dumbledore glanced at Harry from behind his half-moon spectacles. "Harry?"

Harry scowled at all of them. "I don't see why it matters. I don't want anything to do with him. And I'd appreciate it if everyone would bloody-well leave me alone."

"Potter–"

"Severus, please. Harry, we're simply concerned about you."

"Be concerned about someone else, then," Harry snapped, then glared at the bird. "And you. Go home. Tell him to piss off. I don't care!" Then he turned and stomped up the stairs again, intent on locking himself in his mindscape and staring at the fire.

When no one followed Harry up, he climbed into his bed and did just that, ignoring the owl who sat itself on his canopy.

Chapter Text

Harry opened his eyes to find Voldemort sitting at his desk. "How the hell did I end up here?" he demanded of the working figure.

The Voldemort working at the desk pointed to the sign telling Harry to not touch anything.

Harry tried to go back to his own mindscape, but found himself trapped by the dark lord's mind. So he did the only thing he could think of – he took his anger out on the bookcases.

Arms encircled Harry's upper arms and chest and held him tight, causing Harry to squeeze his eyes shut at the pain. When he stopped struggling, Voldemort said, "Don't attack my shelves, unless you want me destroying your spheres."

"I. Don't. Want. To. Talk. To. You."

"Yes, I'd gathered that much myself, thank you," Voldemort replied dryly. "If I let you go, will you sit in your chair and behave? Or will I have to restrain you?"

Harry ground his teeth together. "I'll sit like a good boy," he agreed grudgingly.

Voldemort let him go and Harry walked over to his chair with a scowl. Voldemort quickly repaired all the damage Harry had caused and sat in his own chair.

There was a long silence, during which Voldemort stared tiredly at Harry and Harry glared angrily back.

Finally, Voldemort broke the silence, "I think I know what Dumbledore is working to teach you, and I don't think it will do you much good."

Harry's glare softened and he glanced at the fire. "No? Then why is he telling me at all?"

"If he's teaching you what I think he is – and there's a chance he isn't, though slim – it's about my horcruxes, and he's telling you about them because they're keeping me alive."

Harry glanced over suspiciously. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because you're a nosey little brat and you'll find out anyway."

Harry shot him a disbelieving look.

Voldemort pointed at the shelves of books, which he'd just repaired. "Harry, any other wizard who touched those shelves would be dead right now. I can't keep you out of my memories any more than you can keep me out of yours. It's so much easier to just tell you these things than have you digging for them yourself." Voldemort smiled grimly. "At any rate, telling you the truth is so much more satisfying than not telling it to you. After all, it hurts so much more."

Remembering the prophecy, Harry had to agree. "Okay, fine," Harry allowed, "so, what are 'horcruxes', then? Sounds like someone you'd sleep with."

Voldemort grimaced. "Teenagers," he muttered, then said, "They're parts of my soul–"

"Wait! What? Your soul?"

"Yes, Potter, my soul. Because my soul is in multiple pieces, I cannot die, because a part of me is still anchored to this earth."

"Didn't it hurt?" Harry asked, rather appalled by the idea of splitting one's soul.

"Of course not–"

"You're lying."

Voldemort scowled at Harry. "What does it matter? I won't die."

"You know," Harry snapped, "your fear of death is almost comical, considering how many people you kill."

Voldemort looked ready to kill Harry at that, though it was nothing new.

"And, really, is death all that bad, when the alternative is another thirteen years as a parasite?"

Voldemort took a deep breath. "Potter..."

Harry shook his head. "Alright, how many times did you tear your soul, then? You said horcruxes. Plural. How many times have you hurt yourself for the chance at immortality?"

"Seven," Voldemort answered. "One was unintentional."

"Seven?" Harry almost squeaked. "Seven? Are you mad? Okay, fine! Which one was unintentional, and why?"

"You."

"Me? Me what? Oh. Oh no. No!"

"Harry, exactly how did you think the connection formed?" Voldemort enquired tiredly.

"I'm carrying around a piece of your soul?" Harry replied, still stuck on the horrible truth.

"Yes, and I've got a piece of yours. Or did. Nagini might have it now."

"Wait, what? Nagini? The snake? Why would she have my.... you made her into a horcrux," Harry realised dully. "You made your snake into a horcrux, and because you've got so little soul left, some of which is mine by the way, you think it's possible that my soul is in the snake. Some of it."

"A not unreasonable deduction," Voldemort agreed.

Harry took off his glasses and rubbed angrily at his eyes. "So I can't keep you out of my memories because you've got a little bit of me with what's left of your soul, and you can't keep me out because I've got a little bit of you with my soul?"

"Exactly," Voldemort agreed, sounding rather proud that Harry had figured it out.

"Can we, I don't know, trade back? Or something? Pretend this never happened?" Harry half-pleaded.

"I don't know how," Voldemort replied.

"Somehow, I knew you were going to say that." Harry put his glasses back on. "So, if I'm going to kill you, I need to destroy six horcruxes and kill myself? Basically?"

"Five," Voldemort corrected.

Harry blinked. "You said there were six."

"You've already destroyed my diary. And, actually, I think Dumbledore may have destroyed my grandfather's ring..." Voldemort trailed off, looking thoughtful.

"Brilliant. So, destroy four horcruxes, then kill myself. Much more doable. Thanks," Harry amended drily.

Voldemort laughed.

"So, wait, have you looked for the prophecy yet in my head?"

Voldemort abruptly stopped laughing and stared at Harry intently. "Should I be?"

Harry thought about it for a moment, then said, "Should I be looking for your horcruxes?"

Voldemort's red eyes glinted. "Does it say how you're supposed to destroy me?"

"I know Nagini, tell me one more."

The two had a minor staring contest.

"Slytherin's locket. I believe you saw my mother with it."

"A power you know not."

Voldemort frowned. "Descriptive. What does Dumbledore think it means?"

"Another horcrux, first."

Voldemort sighed. "Hufflepuff's cup."

Harry frowned thoughtfully and firmly wrote that into his memory. "He thinks it's love."

Voldemort sneered. "He would." He leaned back in his chair and eyed Harry thoughtfully. "The last is Ravenclaw's diadem. What do you think it is? And be honest."

Harry mentally noted the last horcrux and rubbed at his face. "I don't know, but I don't think it's love any more than you do. It's not like I know any magic that you don't or anything, Merlin knows you've had longer to learn things. I almost thought it was the prophecy, but that just seems silly."

"Might as well tell me the whole thing, then," Voldemort said, trying very hard to seem blasé about the whole thing.

But Harry smiled knowingly. "I know what they are, but where might I find them?"

Voldemort ground his teeth together. "The cup is in Bellatrix's vault."

"That wasn't that hard, now was it?"

"You're only getting one, Potter."

"I'm sure the whole prophecy is worth more than just one horcrux."

Voldemort debated between hunting for the prophecy himself.

Harry smiled, seeming to know what the elder wizard was thinking. "I've locked it into a room and keyed it to Dumbledore. Even I can't get in there."

Voldemort let out a couple of choice curses in Parseltongue, which made Harry's smile widen, then said, "In a cave along the coast, guarded by inferi. And it's only worth two."

Harry shrugged and told him the entire prophecy.

Voldemort was silent for a long time, deep in contemplation. Just as Harry was considering going back to his dorm or trying Voldemort's bookshelves again, the man said, "If only I'd heard that next part... No matter. So, if neither of us can live while the other survives, let's just agree to both live and stop surviving."

"Because it's that easy," Harry replied sarcastically.

Voldemort hissed angrily. "No, I suppose not. Okay, well, let's just kill you and be done with it." He smiled nastily.

Harry rolled his eyes. "I don't intend to spend however many years as a floating half-dead thing, thanks."

"Hm, that's right. Well, we could just agree to stop trying to kill each other."

"Voldemort, I'm not trying to kill you, I'm trying to avoid you. I'd love it if the whole world decided I wasn't important and left me well-enough alone," Harry snapped back.

Voldemort blinked. "Well, Potter, I can't help you with the rest of the world, but I suppose I can stop trying to kill you."

"I sense a 'but' in there," Harry muttered.

Voldemort smiled cruelly. "I want a Wizard's Oath that you'll leave my horcruxes alone."

Harry winced – how would he explain that one to Dumbledore?

Voldemort seemed to notice his indecision, because he added, "I will include your friends in this safety net for so long as they don't actively try and stop me."

"Which of my friends?" Harry demanded.

Voldemort cocked his head to one side. "The ones that came with you to the Ministry."

Harry considered the group he'd placed in so much danger the previous year. Finally, he nodded. "Deal."

"Swear your Oath. And if I see any loopholes, you're doing it again," Voldemort demanded.

Harry frowned and thought about what he could say. Finally, after almost four minutes had passed, he said, "I, Harry James Potter, hereby swear upon the names of my parents and upon my magic that I will never go actively seeking Voldemort's horcruxes, nor will I knowingly destroy one, or have another person destroy it in my stead. So mote it be."

Voldemort thought Harry's Oath through for another minute, then nodded. "So mote it be. Actively seeking?"

"If I find one accidentally, or it comes into my hands through the doing of someone else, I don't want to lose my magic," Harry replied firmly.

Voldemort hummed a bit, then nodded, completely agreeing with the sentiment. "Ronald Weasley, Ginevra Weasley, Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, and Neville Longbottom will be left alone by my people, unless they start hostilities. You may wish to warn them."

Harry swallowed and nodded, not looking forward to that discussion. "Right. Thanks." After a brief moment, he added, "No Oath?"

Voldemort smiled nastily. "I can promise that I won't attack your friends, and I can tell my people to leave them alone unless they attack first, but I won't chance losing my magic because someone got a little curse happy."

Harry sighed. "Yeah, okay."

Voldemort nodded, and Harry suddenly found himself in a bed in the hospital wing, Ron and Hermione standing over him worriedly.

"Harry?" Hermione whispered, then leaned down and hugged him tightly, face wet with tears.

Harry blinked up at Ron in confusion. "What...?"

"We couldn't wake you," Ron said, voice tight. "Your scar started bleeding at one point. The Headmaster had you moved down here." He paused, then pointed just behind Harry and said, "The bird followed you."

Harry glanced over at the owl Voldemort had sent and sighed. "We've spoken," he told the bird, which then flew off and out one of the windows.

"Oh, Harry..." Hermione whispered, clearly upset. "We were so scared."

Harry swallowed again and hugged Hermione back. "I'm fine now. It's okay. He didn't do anything to me."

"But, your scar," Hermione replied.

Harry closed his eyes. "I ruined some of his things. He stopped me before I could ruin more. It hurt a bit. That's all," he reassured her. "All we really did was talk."

"About what, my dear boy?" Dumbledore asked, walking up beside Harry's bed.

Harry narrowed his eyes briefly, before sighing. "Horcruxes, sir."

Dumbledore's eyes widened.

"What are those?" Hermione asked, pulling back so she could see Harry's face properly.

Harry blinked. "Containers for pieces of a person's soul. Voldemort made them, so he wouldn't die."

Hermione looked horrified, while Ron looked a bit confused.

Dumbledore looked resigned. "You know about them, then. Do you know how many?"

Harry frowned. "I know what they all are, sir."

Dumbledore looked absolutely gobsmacked.

"But he knows the prophecy. And I've given an Oath that I won't touch the horcruxes," Harry added, watching the man's face carefully.

Dumbledore didn't seem to care all that much at the mention of Voldemort knowing the prophecy, which seemed odd, and he seemed mostly resigned at the knowledge of Harry's Oath.

Hermione shook her head. "Oh, Harry. Don't you want to get rid of Voldemort?"

Harry swallowed. "Not at the cost of your life. Or yours, Ron. Or Neville's, or Ginny's, or Luna's. I can't."

"You didn't. Oh, Harry," Hermione looked like she might cry again. "Harry, our lives aren't worth the fate of the world."

"Your lives are worth everything," Harry hissed, eyes bright. "And so is my freedom." He turned to Dumbledore. "I refuse to be the wizarding world's scapegoat. If they want rid of Voldemort, they can bloody-well do it themselves."

"My dear boy," Dumbledore said, with such sorrow and hurt in his sparkling blue eyes, "I don't think you have a choice."

Harry sat up in bed angrily. "Too bad. I've practically sworn that I won't defeat Voldemort. They can deal."

"But, Harry," Ron pleaded, "if someone else destroys these nasty soul things, couldn't you kill him anyway?"

Harry stood and looked coolly at Ron. "Are you asking me to let someone else kill me, Ron? Because I'm a Horcrux too." And, with that, Harry turned and walked from the hospital wing, leaving Ron and Hermione to stare on in horror, and Dumbledore in resignation.

-0-0-0-

Luna found him sitting in the Room of Requirement, which looked like his mental sitting room. She quietly took the open chair and turned her eyes to the same fire Harry was staring at. After a long silence, she commented, "They've been looking for you. Worried, I think. It seems strange, them worrying so much about you. Doesn't it?"

Harry turned to look at Luna and smiled at her absent-minded expression. "Do you think I'm mad for refusing to fight Voldemort?"

Luna cocked her head to one side and glanced over at Harry. "Should I?"

"Everyone else seems to."

"Well, it's your choice, isn't it? Everyone should get a choice. Especially the Chosen One."

Harry smiled sadly. "You believe it, then? That I'm the only one who can defeat him?"

"Perhaps you are, and perhaps you aren't," Luna commented softly. "We make our own fate, not someone else. Listen to your heart; you don't do enough of it."

Harry swallowed and turned back to the flames. "Thanks, Luna."

Luna smiled. "You're most welcome, Harry. I'll leave you to your fire." Then she got up and wandered back out, looking as calm and untouchable as ever.

Harry smiled. "If only everyone else were like you, Luna," he murmured to the flames.

The door opened again and a brown head poked in. "Harry? Luna said you were in here."

Harry glanced over at Neville and waved him in. Once the door was closed, he said, "I've decided not to fight Voldemort."

Neville blinked. "Okay. Any particular reason?" He sat in the open chair Luna had just vacated.

Harry eyed Neville curiously. "It's not worth the lives of my friends. And it's not worth the knowledge that I won't survive it."

Neville turned to the fire. "Before last year, I didn't have any friends. I don't think, back then, I would have understood your reasoning. But, now..." Neville looked back at Harry. "You know about my parents. They went mad because of Voldemort. I love them, and I hate Voldemort, but is it worth it to get a bed next to them? Or, worse, to know that, by fighting him, I may start visiting my friends with my parents?"

Harry swallowed. "It could have been you," he whispered. "You could have been the Boy Who Lived."

Neville grimaced. "In all honesty, Harry, I'd rather you have it."

Harry laughed and smiled at his friend. "Thanks, Neville."

Neville smiled. "Sure thing. But you might want to come out of here, eventually. I'm surprised Ron and Hermione haven't found you yet."

"Perhaps..."

Neville stood and paused a moment to look around. "Just Slytherin?" he asked.

"Hmm?" Harry looked up at where Neville was pointing at the Slytherin pendent. "Oh. I guess."

"But you're a Gryffindor."

Harry blinked and realised what Neville was getting at. Almost immediately, the other three house pennants took up spaces on the wall in the room, as well as in his mind. "Thanks, Neville," Harry said again.

Neville smiled brightly. "Sure thing. You coming?"

Harry stood. "Yeah."

-0-0-0-

Hermione and Ron found Harry sitting with Neville over their books for Herbology three hours later.

"There you are," Ron said, then proceeded to throw himself into the chair next to Harry. "We've been looking for you everywhere."

"I know," Harry replied, pausing in his writing to look up at his two best friends. "Are you still cross with me?"

"Oh, Harry..." Hermione shook her head. "We were never cross with you. Worried, but not cross."

"Well..."

"Shut up, Ronald," Hermione hissed, kicking Ron's ankle.

Harry frowned at them. "Go ahead, Ron."

Ron glanced between Hermione's warning look and Harry's curious frown and swallowed. "Erm, nothing, mate. Nothing important."

Harry eyed Neville, who rolled his eyes, and looked back at his two friends neutrally. "Very well. If you'll excuse us, then, Neville and I are finishing our homework."

"Oh, well, we'll join you!" Hermione decided.

Harry eyed Hermione oddly. "Hermione, you're not taking Herbology."

Hermione blinked. "Oh..."

Harry and Neville traded looks again, then returned to their work, leaving Hermione and Ron to figure out something to do with the time left until dinner on their own.

Chapter Text

After a week of Dumbledore trying to get Harry to come with him for the locket, the Headmaster left on his own in the night. While he was gone, Draco called the Death Eaters through and mayhem occurred.

Ron and Hermione had been on rounds when the Death Eaters came through. Ron sent Hermione back to get some people from their house to fight, while he followed them to find out what they were up to. Hermione only left after Ron swore he wouldn't attack the Death Eaters on his own.

When Hermione burst into the common room, only a few students were sitting there, including Harry and Neville, who had become much closer as the year continued and Hermione and Ron refused to support Harry's decision to be neutral.

Harry stood when he saw Hermione and asked, "What's wrong?"

"Death Eaters downstairs."

Everyone else in the common room let out surprised sounds and a few went running up to the dorms to either hide or grab help.

Harry sat back down and returned to his work with Neville. When Hermione stalked over and hit him, he looked up at her angrily. "The hell?"

"Don't you care?" Hermione yelled. "Those Death Eaters are going to kill everyone! And you're just sitting here calmly!"

Harry frowned at her. "I'm not fighting, Hermione. We've been over this."

"You only swore you wouldn't destroy Voldemort," Hermione spat, brown eyes glinting furiously. "Nothing about his people. Nothing about not protecting your friends!"

"He is protecting us, Hermione," Neville said tiredly. "As long as we don't get involved, we're safe."

"We're too young to be fighting, anyway," Harry added. "Let the professors handle it."

"They don't know!"

"Then go tell them," Harry replied.

"Dumbledore's out of the building again, Potter," one of the seventh years Harry barely knew snapped. "I don't think the rest of the teachers will be much use against those Death Eaters. We need you."

Harry turned to the boy, eyes narrowed warningly. "If a group of fully-trained adults can't defeat a bunch of Death Eaters, what makes you think I can?"

"You've done it before!"

"No, I didn't. The same adults you have no trust in came right before I was about to get killed. They defeated those Death Eaters, not me. If you want to go and get killed, fine. But I'm staying here."

"Aren't you even the slightest bit curious?" Hermione tried, almost pleaded.

Harry paused and eyed his once friend. He couldn't help but be curious, it was in his nature. And he had wanted to know what Malfoy was up to all year, but had decided to not snoop because there was nothing he could have done about it. If he had to guess, he'd say Malfoy had been trying to find a way to bring the Death Eaters into the school, but he wasn't sure why. Dumbledore would be back, and they couldn't really hold the school against him. So they must have been after something specific. But what?

Neville rubbed his face. "I am assuming, based on your discussion with us after your deal, that if we go out there, the Death Eaters won't attack unless we attack first."

Harry nodded.

"Might as well, then. No harm in going to see, yeah?"

Harry nodded again and stood with the other boy, pulling out his map. "Alright, Hermione, we'll come look. But I'm not raising my wand against them. Understand?"

Hermione frowned in disapproval, but nodded.

"I solemnly swear I am up to no good," Harry told the map, considering that, as far as the makers of the map were concerned, not attacking Death Eaters was no good. "Mmmmm... They're heading towards the Astronomy Tower, I think. Oh, Dumbledore is back."

"Where?!" half the room begged, leaning in to see.

"In the Astronomy Tower," Hermione breathed. "He'll be over-run. We have to go help!"

Harry eyed Hermione with a small frown, but pocketed the map and followed her and her entourage of brave Gryffindors anyway. Harry glanced over them and, upon seeing a third year, shouted, "WAIT!" Everyone froze and he frowned at the lot of them. "No one below fifth year. All of you, turn around."

"That's not fair!" the third year Harry had spotted complained.

"I'm not leading you to your deaths," Harry snapped, and caught sight of Hermione cringing next to him. "Go back into the dorm. I can't stop the upper years, but I'm not letting you lot get murdered because you were curious."

"He's right," Hermione agreed. "Fourth years and below, go back inside."

Grumbling, the students did as they were told under the two sixth years' glares.

"They'll just come out again after we've left," Neville commented.

Harry nodded and turned to the Fat Lady. "Please don't let anyone out until one of the Prefects or teachers comes and tells you otherwise?" he requested of her. "There are a bunch of Death Eaters in the school, and I don't want them hurt."

There was the sound of the portrait locking and the Fat Lady nodded grimly. "The other dorms are locked down, too. You lot shouldn't be running around either, you know."

"That's what I tried to tell them," Harry replied drily, then turned and led the way quickly through the halls, using a few secret passages to get to where the Astronomy Tower was. As they got closer, they heard the sounds of fighting.

When they ran into the corridor leading to the Astronomy Tower, they saw the back of Snape as he ran up the stairs to the top of the Tower. The hallway was filled with professors and Order members fighting the Death Eaters. Ron was crumpled up in one corner, with Flitwick fighting determinedly over him. As soon as Hermione saw her downed boyfriend, she ran forward with a cry, wand drawn, and entered the fray.

As if that was their cue, the rest of the Gryffindors who had followed them ran forward as well, adding their own spells to the fight and attacking the surprised Death Eaters.

Harry sighed at the lot of them and looked over at Neville. "Want to see what Snape's up to?"

Neville shuddered. "Not particularly. You go on, I'll try and help protect people without actually fighting them."

Harry nodded and handed over his dad's cloak, then sprinted from his cover and dashed up the stairs. He didn't hear the shout from McGonagall about how no one but Death Eaters had got through, so he didn't bother slowing down. If Neville hadn't been paying attention, a spell would have killed their Head of House when she stared in shock after Harry, who had run right past the barrier without a pause.

When Harry got to the top of the tower, he found a group of Death Eaters with their backs to him. Draco Malfoy and Snape were between the nameless group and Dumbledore, whose eyes widened briefly at the sight of Harry.

At that moment, Draco turned his wand from the Headmaster. "I can't," he whispered.

"Come now, Draco," cooed Bellatrix Lestrange.

Harry almost grabbed his wand to curse the murderer before freezing and telling himself no.

Snape raised his wand and pointed it at the Headmaster, making Bellatrix cackle with glee.

"Severus. Please," Dumbledore whispered, eyes filled with acceptance.

"Avada Kedavra," Snape intoned.

Harry blinked in surprise as the old professor's body arched backwards and fell from the tower.

The Death Eaters all turned to go and there was a moment of surprise before Harry stepped to one side peacefully.

"Let's go," Snape said, shoving Malfoy ahead of him.

"But, Potter–" Malfoy complained.

"Potter has immunity," Snape snapped, shoving Malfoy harder. "Go, Draco."

As they hurried past him, Bellatrix paused to smile nastily. "Is ickle Potty scawed?" she cooed, pointing her wand at him.

Snape grabbed her hand. "Let's go, Bella. You know our Lord has decreed the brat isn't to be touched."

Harry met Snape's eyes and felt a horrible regret that wasn't his own. When Snape turned away, the feeling faded, leaving Harry gasping as the two Death Eaters hurried down the stairs.

Harry swallowed and walked over to the edge, where Dumbledore had fallen. Down below, the Headmaster's body lay, broken.

Harry turned away and was about to go back downstairs when he kicked something which clattered. He looked down, then bent down to pick up Dumbledore's wand. He stared at it for a long moment, feeling numb. In his mind, he saw the acceptance again on Dumbledore's face as Snape's death spell flew towards him. Acceptance of his death. Of his fate.

Acceptance that, without Harry, the wizarding world was doomed.

And, in that moment, Harry understood Ron and Hermione's disgust with him, because he felt it himself.

-0-0-0-

The funeral had been painfully silent, considering the excitement that had preceded it. Ron, Hermione, and Ginny sat apart from Harry, blaming him for Dumbledore's death. Near them were Ron's parents and brothers, none of whom had truly accepted Harry's decision to not fight Voldemort. Neville and Luna sat with Harry, offering silent support for a pain they couldn't understand, if only because Harry had refused to explain his sudden epiphany from that night.

Harry took a walk alone as the funeral got to be too much, and found himself by the lake, where a lone man stood in dark robes. Harry blinked once in surprise, then took up a position next to the red-eyed man. "Tom," he murmured.

Voldemort's mouth quirked. "Mourning the fool, Harry?"

Harry considered the question, then shook his head. "Mourning what he meant to the rest of the world. Mourning what I mean, now that he's gone."

"Now that you're all that's left in my way," Voldemort deduced. "What a horrible fate for a child to bear."

"For anyone to bear," Harry corrected. After a moment of silence, during which the two watched the funeral close with a last speech, Harry asked, "Now what?"

Voldemort glanced sideways at Harry. "Now? I can take the Ministry. Hogwarts. The world is at my fingertips, Harry."

"So you'll kill all the muggleborns and half-bloods," Harry said sadly. "And then what? Rule a world where you're the minority? And what about when the new generation comes? Will you kill those muggleborns too? Or would you leave them at the tender mercy of the muggles who fear them?" He turned to Voldemort, who was watching him with a touch of surprise. "Would you have them kill their muggle families because they can't control their own magic, Tom? Would you have them live in fear of themselves? Or die to save others?"

Voldemort narrowed his eyes and Harry flinched at a spike of pain from his scar. "Perhaps you're not that different from Dumbledore after all."

"Perhaps not," Harry agreed, as Fawkes flew over to them. The phoenix gave Voldemort the evil eye, but came to rest gently on Harry's forearm, which he'd held up in surprise.

Voldemort sneered at the bird. "It seems the Headmaster has left you his bird, Potter. How quaint."

Harry shook his head with a sigh. "Go fight your wars, Tom. You've already won here."

Voldemort eyed the imposing castle rising above them. "Not quite. Only a battle, not the war."

"Harry! There you are!" the current Minister for Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour shouted, hurrying towards them.

Voldemort smiled nastily. "I shall leave you to your adoring public, Harry." He turned to leave.

"Traitor," Harry muttered, earning him a faint chuckle before the Dark Lord walked off, leaving Harry to the tender mercies of the Minister. "Hello, Minister," he said, turning to the man.

"Good chap, good chap," Scrimgeour said, taking the hand of the arm Fawkes wasn't standing on and shaking it furiously. “I see Dumbledore's familiar has already picked you out. Any clue who that fellow was? No one seems to know."

"An old student of the Headmaster's," Harry answered quietly. "They were never on good terms, but he came anyway. What can I do for you, Minister?"

Scrimgeour's eyes practically danced behind his glasses. "Well, my boy, just making sure you're with the Ministry. Trying times, you know. We need to assure the public that the Chosen One and the Ministry are working together to fight You-Know-Who. We must show a unified front!"

Harry smiled pityingly at the man. "Perhaps you haven't heard, Minister, but I'm not fighting in the war. I have a pact of neutrality with Voldemort."

Scrimgeour just sort of stared at Harry in horrified shock.

Harry shook his head and walked away from the Minister, turning to the phoenix on his arm. "I take it you're intending to stay with me, then?"

Fawkes trilled an affirmative.

"Even though I'm not fighting Voldemort?"

Fawkes shook his head sadly and chirped.

"Hm. Well, okay then. But just so we're clear, Hedwig was here first. If she tells you to butt out, go somewhere else. Right?"

Fawkes chirped in agreement, sounding horribly amused.

"Harry, you know you've got the Headmaster's phoenix on your arm, right?" Neville asked as he and Luna met up with him on the way into the school.

"Yeah. He flew over to me while I was talking to Voldemort by the lake," Harry commented calmly, ignoring the horrified look on Neville's face and the slightly surprised one on Luna's. "I think he intends to stay."

"V-V-Voldemort?" Neville asked nervously.

Harry eyed Neville oddly. "No, Fawkes." When Neville continued to look horrified, Harry sighed. "He's not attacking the school right this minute; I think he's waiting to take down the Ministry first, personally. Maybe next term. He was just here for the funeral."

"Why would he come to Dumbledore's funeral, though?" Neville demanded, still shaking a bit.

"I would assume he wanted to say good-bye to his only real enemy," Luna offered airily.

Harry's lips twitched. "Likely. He didn't seem much like he was gloating, at any rate."

"How out of character," Neville replied, sounding much calmer.

"Mmm, no. Not really."

"You said he likes to talk all the time," Neville pointed out. "Said it makes it easier for his opponent to come up with escape plans."

Harry smiled at that. "He likes to gloat about his own achievements. He didn't kill Dumbledore; Snape did."

"And he can't even pretend it was his idea," Luna added, staring at the ceiling. "The mufflewings tell me Dumbledore told Snape to do it."

Harry blinked at the girl, remembering the acceptance in Dumbledore's eyes and the regret of Snape as he pulled Bellatrix down the stairs. "I know," he whispered, closing his eyes.

"Wait, Dumbledore told Snape to kill him?" Neville practically squeaked.

"He was already dying, anyway," Luna said. When Harry and Neville stopped to stare at her, she blinked and commented, "His hand was cursed. He would have died in a few weeks."

Harry blinked, then started laughing. He laughed so hard he upset Fawkes to clutch at his stomach and leaned against the nearest wall.

"I don't see what's so funny, Mr Potter," McGonagall snapped, coming to a stop next to Neville and Luna, both of whom were looking at Harry as if he'd finally lost it.

"Probably thinks it's great fun Dumbledore's finally out of the way for You-Know-Who," Ron said scathingly, arm held protectively against his ribs, which had been broken during the fight.

"Ronald!" Mrs Weasley admonished.

"What set him off?" Hermione asked of Neville tiredly. She had an angry red line across one cheek from a curse that had brushed her. Pomfrey had told her she'd likely have a scar.

"Luna just said Dumbledore was already dying from his hand," Neville told the crowd. "Harry just started laughing."

Harry wiped at his eyes and got his laughter under control so he was only snickering briefly. "Voldemort," he told them between snickers, "ordered Dumbledore's death, not knowing he was going to die anyway. So Dumbledore went out in a fight, like the wizarding world would have expected of him, rather than succumbing to a curse like your average, stupid wizard. In the end, he won! And Voldemort knows it!"

Understanding dawned in Neville's eyes, while the rest of the Gryffindor onlookers shook their heads in disgust. "So he couldn't gloat," Neville whispered.

Fawkes chirped angrily at Harry and landed on his shoulder. Harry gave the bird a half-smile and said, "Sorry."

McGonagall let out an explosive breath. "Fawkes chose you?"

"Yeah. Dunno why."

"Perhaps he's hoping you'll figure out what you did with your sense of what's right and decide to fight You-Know-Who after all," Ron snapped. He'd been angry with Harry since the battle, as if it was Harry's fault that he'd been cursed and almost died.

Harry rolled his eyes. "I think Fawkes is smarter than that, Ron."

Mrs Weasley let out a helpless sound and firmly directed Ron away from Harry. "Come on. Madam Pomfrey wants to see you one last time before we go."

"You're going home?" Harry asked the rest of the Weasley family, as Hermione followed Ron and his mother.

Ginny shrugged uncomfortably. "Yeah. Professor McGonagall's letting students go home immediately if their parents come for them." She'd, wisely, stayed out of the fighting, instead choosing to stay in Gryffindor Tower in case the Death Eaters got up there. Ron, apparently, was quite cross with her.

"Oh," Harry said. "Okay. Well, have a good summer, then. And, Mr Weasley?"

"Yes, Harry?" Mr Weasley replied as the rest of his family and McGonagall continued on.

"Be careful," Harry said. "He'll probably take the Ministry this summer."

Mr Weasley's eyes widened. "Why are you telling me this, Harry?" he asked, knowing about Harry's declared neutrality.

Harry shrugged uncomfortably. "I don't want you all hurt. You're all I've got." He swallowed with great difficulty.

Mr Weasley set a gentle hand on Harry's shoulder. "You mean a lot to us too, Harry. I'll be careful, but I can't just stand by while he kills people. None of us can."

Harry's return smile was forced. "You're better than me, in that way," he told the man, then turned and walked away, Neville and Luna following.

-0-0-0-

"When are you leaving, then?" Vernon demanded as Harry got into the car.

Harry sighed, feeling older than his time. "Don't know. Not long, I should hope. I can probably leave after a couple of weeks. I'd suggest maybe moving when I do, but..." Harry shrugged.

Petunia shot him a surprised look. "You think he'll come after us?"

Harry blinked, then smiled grimly. "Certain. I may not like you lot, but that doesn't mean I want you dead." No matter what I may dream of to get into Voldemort's head, Harry added silently.

Petunia turned back around. "We'll consider it."

Harry shrugged and the rest of the trip finished in silence.

-0-0-0-

"Where'd that bird come from?" Petunia asked one afternoon a few days later.

Harry glanced up from his Defence book to where Fawkes sat on a perch the bird had taken from Dumbledore's office. Hedwig hadn't seemed to mind the intrusion, so Harry had let him be. "That's Fawkes. He came to me after Dumbledore died."

Petunia looked shocked. "He's dead?"

Harry looked at her oddly. "Yeah. Died a couple weeks ago."

Petunia looked rather like she might be sick. "Then what is there to stop him? Lily said Dumbledore was all that stood in his way."

Harry shrugged and turned back to his book. "Maybe the rest of my world will decide to fight for itself, for once, rather than depending on Dumbledore to protect them."

"What about you?"

Harry glanced up at his aunt with haunted eyes. "I'm not fighting in this war. Not any more."

Petunia bit her lip and turned to hide tears as her nephew turned back to his book. She couldn't help but wonder if it was her fault he'd chosen not to fight.

-0-0-0-

'Mr Potter,
'This is to remind you that on 31st July of this year, you will be of age, and able to withdraw money from your full family account. Please make time after that day to come into Gringotts and sign some paperwork so your account can be handed over to you and you can claim your family ring.
'If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.
'Griphook
'Potter Family Vaultkeeper'

-0-0-0-

Harry made his way to Gringotts on his birthday in high spirits. He had left his relatives' three weeks ago and they had left Britain shortly thereafter, much to Voldemort's disgust – Harry assumed the man had been intending to kill them, since Harry didn't care. Harry had been staying in the Leaky Cauldron under an assumed name since he'd left their house. He'd considered going to the Weasleys', but since Ron wasn't answering his letters, he hadn't bothered. Fleur and Bill's wedding was the next day, and he'd received an invitation, so he figured he'd go to that and see how Ron felt about him then. Maybe he'd stay with them after that, if Ron wasn't about to hex his head off.

When he got to the bank, Harry walked right up to the open teller and held out the letter he'd received. "I have an appointment with my family vaultkeeper," he said, having made previous arrangements with Griphook.

The goblin looked at the letter, then something in a book on his counter. He touched what looked to be a bell to one side which didn't make a sound and handed the letter back to Harry. "We've been expecting you. Griphook will be out directly."

Harry nodded and got out of the way for the next customer, who glared at him in distrust. Harry rolled his eyes and waited for Griphook to come get him.

Once Griphook had found him, he was led back to a cosy office of gold and silver and took the offered seat with a smile. Griphook smiled nastily back and held out a small pile of papers for Harry to sign. "The deeds to your vaults and properties stating that you are of age and willing to take the responsibility of managing them. You may also switch to a new vaultkeeper, if I am not satisfactory."

Harry blinked and took the papers, as well as a quill. "I wouldn't know, but I have no complaints about you right now."

Griphook smiled that goblin smile again. "Of course, Mr Potter."

Harry shook his head and quickly read through and signed all the papers, which he then handed back to the goblin.

"Very good," Griphook said. "Is that all, Mr Potter?"

Harry cocked his head to one side, remembering an earlier curiosity to see his parents' will. "Uhm, would it be possible to see my parents' will?"

Griphook nodded and waved one clawed hand. A moment later, a paper appeared in his claws and he handed it over to Harry.

"Thanks," Harry said, then looked down to read the will.

About halfway down, Harry was furious with the dead headmaster. By the time he got to the end, he wished the man weren't dead, so he could kill him himself. "Do you mind if I keep this?" he asked Griphook, who had been looking on with increasing worry as Harry had started gnashing his teeth more.

"It is your copy, Mr Potter," Griphook told him.

Harry nodded and got up to leave. "Thank you, Griphook," he said over his shoulder, just as he was about to leave the office.

"You're welcome," Griphook replied. After the door closed, the goblin added, "I think."

Harry stalked out of the bank, practically radiating fury. He paused to nod politely to the goblin who held the door for him, but otherwise allowed his anger to take him over. As it was, he paid so little attention to his surroundings, he ran right into a man with black hair and distinctive red eyes before even noticing his scar hurt.

Voldemort looked down at Harry, who had fallen on his bum in the middle of the street, with a slightly disgusted look. "Do you mind, Potter?"

Harry sneered up at him, pulling himself to his feet. "Don't you have people to kill?"

"Yes," Voldemort replied, just as irritated as Harry. "And I was doing so, until I got this massive migraine because you're throwing a temper tantrum about something!"

"Well, excuse me for ruining your wonderful day," Harry snapped. "Please, return to your happy pastime and I'll just kill myself so you don't have to worry about my temper tantrums giving you headaches."

Voldemort gave Harry a disgusted look and practically dragged the boy into the Leaky and ordered them some lunch. Harry was too angry to feel the pain in his scar and only complained a little at being manhandled.

Once their food was ready, Voldemort threw up silencing wards and demanded, "What is it, then?"

Harry huffed. "Like you care."

"You are giving me a migraine, Potter. Of course I care," Voldemort snapped.

"Yeah? Payback's a bitch," Harry informed him. "I get migraines from you on a weekly basis."

Voldemort ground his teeth together. "What do you expect? Do I need to apologise?"

Harry grumbled a bit and took a bite of his sandwich.

Voldemort sighed faintly. "What's wrong, Harry?"

Harry crossed his arms and scowled at his sandwich. "I got to read my parents' will today."

"Suddenly reminded why you hate me?" Voldemort asked, half teasing, half sneering.

Harry rolled his eyes. "You know, Tom, the world doesn't revolve around you."

Voldemort bared his perfect teeth at him.

"You've got a bit of lettuce," Harry said, motioning to his own teeth. When Voldemort just glared, Harry snickered. "No, just got a new reason to hate Dumbledore."

"Hmm, hating Dumbledore. My favourite pastime. Continue. What did the coot do now?" Voldemort asked amicably.

Harry rolled his eyes again, feeling much calmer now that he had someone to talk to about the will, someone who wouldn't try defending the deceased Headmaster's actions. "My parents specifically stated that, under no circumstances, was I to be placed with my aunt and uncle. Mum said they'd treat me horribly because I had magic, and she didn't want me growing up in that environment."

Voldemort 'hmm'ed a bit around his sandwich. Once he'd swallowed, the Dark Lord asked, "Where were you supposed to go, then?"

"Sirius first, then Peter. If neither were available, Neville's parents. If they weren't available, I should have gone to Professor Lupin, assuming he hadn't been the traitor, or another member of the Order. Dad wrote he'd prefer I was brought up by Snape, rather than Mum's sister."

Voldemort's lips curled with a nasty smile at the last. "Well, I can see why you weren't given to Severus, at any rate. And the Longbottoms were crucio'd into insanity a couple days later."

"Yeah, but I was with my aunt and uncle the evening after the attack," Harry said. "That's, what, three days I could have been with Neville's family before the attack? And if Dumbledore had thought it might not be safe there, he could have still given me to someone else. Hell, the Weasleys would have taken me."

"True. Any idea why he put you with the muggles?"

"Blood wards," Harry spat, referring to Dumbledore's previous excuse.

Voldemort blinked, then cackled madly.

Harry crossed his arms over his chest and scowled. "Feel free to share," he said once Voldemort had calmed down a bit.

Voldemort smirked nastily. "What did I take from you for my re-birthing ritual?"

Harry blinked and tilted his head to one side. "Blood? What does– Oh. Oh. That, that, that... ARGH!"

Voldemort snorted at Harry's eloquence. "Alas, if only I'd known, I would have ordered Lucius or Severus to get me your address."

"Pity," Harry shot back with a sneer.

"Rather," Voldemort agreed with a smirk.

After that, the two finished their meal in silence. Voldemort paid for his half and, just before he got ready to apparate, Harry asked, "What about Ron and Hermione?"

Voldemort shot him a slightly confused look. "What about them?"

"They fought your people at Hogwarts..."

Voldemort sighed and sat back down at the booth Harry had yet to leave, as he was still nursing his butterbeer. "Harry, the deal was one chance."

Harry thought back and shook his head. "No. You just said they would be left alone unless they started the hostilities. And, well, I don't know what happened with Ron, but I know Hermione only got involved because Ron had been hurt."

Voldemort gave Harry a disgusted look. "I thought Weasley wasn't even talking to you right now. Why do you care?"

"Because he's my friend!" Harry snapped. "My best mate. And fighting doesn't change that."

Voldemort shook his head and stood. "One more chance. But this is it, Potter. Do you understand?"

Harry nodded. "Yeah. Thanks."

Voldemort sneered. "Don't thank me yet," he warned, then apparated away.

Harry swallowed the last of his butterbeer and paid Tom before making his way back up to his rented room, where he could consider his parents' will in peace.

Chapter Text

Harry apparated outside the wards to the Burrow and almost immediately found himself encased in a hug from Mrs Weasley.

"Oh, Harry! It's so wonderful to see you! We've been so worried..."

Harry eyed Ron, who only looked a little happy to see him, and vaguely apologetic. "I'm sorry, Mrs Weasley," Harry said to the woman who had been like a mother to him. "I guess the letters I sent must have been lost in the mail." Ron shuffled, looking guilty.

Once Mrs Weasley let him go, Harry shared a friendly hug with Ginny and a teary Hermione. He stopped before Ron. "Are you still mad at me?"

Ron frowned slightly. "A bit, yeah."

Harry cocked his head to one side. "Fair enough," he decided, then continued on down the line of Weasleys, sharing grins and handshakes, until he got to where Bill was standing dressed in a set of smart dress robes. "Well done, Bill," he told the elder wizard and they shared a firm shake.

Bill grinned. "Great to have you. Did you bring dress robes?"

Harry grinned and pulled forward a bag he'd slung over a shoulder before apparating to the Burrow. "Course."

"Excellent. Well, Ron or one of the twins can probably show you where to change."

Harry glanced down at the named Weasleys and found the twins grinning madly, while Ron looked a little disgruntled. "Hm, tough choice," he decided, then walked over to the twins, leaving Bill to chuckle behind him.

-0-0-0-

Harry somehow got volunteered to help Ron show guests to their seats. A few Order members gave him a disgusted look, while others nodded neutrally. Those among the other guests who recognised him – which were quite a few – seemed torn between giving him the evil eye or asking for his autograph – the former having heard of his decision to not fight Voldemort, the latter having either not heard, or not caring.

As things calmed down, Harry turned to Ron and asked, "You and Hermione still together?"

Ron glanced at him briefly. "Yeah," he said shortly.

Harry sighed. "You both still determined to fight him?"

Ron turned to him fully and glared. "What, not like we have a choice now, do we?"

"I got you another chance," Harry replied, quietly. When Ron simply stared at him, disbelieving, Harry said, "Ron, you and Hermione are my two best friends. I don't want you dead any more than I want you to fight with me, but if I must pick between the two, I'll have the latter."

"Harry, you're asking me to stand back and watch my family fight and die for the cause I believe in as much as they do," Ron said, desperately trying to get Harry to see his side.

Harry swallowed and turned away. "I know. I'm sorry."

Ron shook his head. "All you thought about was protecting a few of us–"

"No!" Harry hissed, spinning and staring at Ron. "No, Ron. I protected who I could. I protected the people who, at the time – and even now! – wouldn't be able to face the Death Eaters and hold their own."

"You think I can't fight Death Eaters?" Ron asked, a note of warning in his voice.

Harry took a deep breath and quietly replied, "After this past year, Ron, I can't help it." Then he turned to where Fleur was walking over to the canopy the wedding was to take place under. He smiled at her and her father, then turned and took his own seat on the groom's side of the seats. Ron sat next to Hermione, in the row in front of Harry shortly after, and the wedding got under way.

-0-0-0-

The reception was a loud affair, and Harry spent a lot of time avoiding his friends, especially since Ron kept shooting him murderous looks. He did take a minute to approach a laughing Bill and Fleur and held forward a bag of gold he'd withdrawn that morning. "I wish you many happy years together," he told them. "Hopefully, this helps."

Bill took the offered bag and looked inside while Fleur kissed Harry's cheeks. Once Bill realised how much was inside, he gave Harry a surprised look. "Harry, I can't take this much–"

"You sound like your mother," Harry teased lightly. Bill gave him a fond grimace. "I didn't know what else a newly-wed couple would need, and since money is good for anything, I figured it worked. Take it. Spoil your first kid, if you want." He winked cheerfully and skipped off into the crowd, Bill and Fleur chuckling behind him.

Harry was caught by Moody before he got far from the party. The man looked him over with both eyes before his fake eye rolled back in his head and watched the crowd behind him. "You think Voldemort won't betray you, boy? You think you're free of him because you have a deal that's protecting your friends for the moment?"

Harry tried tugging his shoulder from Moody's grip. "On the contrary, Mad-Eye, I'm certain he'll leave me alone, if only because it's in his best interest. And he knows that if my friends die at the hands of his people, without them joining the fight first, I'll do everything in my power to bring him down. But, right now, we are at peace with each other. I'm rather fond of it, thanks."

Moody bared his teeth at Harry. "So you'll protect a few kids, but leave the rest of the world to the wolves?"

Harry glared. "The rest of the world needs to stand up for itself every once in a while, rather than leaning on the strongest wizard around or a kid who got lucky. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to go back to enjoying the wedding."

Moody let him go, but warned, "You'll have to join the fight eventually, Potter. With any luck, it won't be too late."

Harry huffed and hurried away from the mad old auror and jumped back into the mess of people near the dance floor. There, he felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up at Tonks, who grinned at him. "Wotcher, Harry."

"Not you too," Harry groaned.

"What about me?" Tonks asked, looking mildly hurt. "You don't want to dance?"

"You going to pester me about being neutral?" Harry asked suspiciously.

Tonks rolled her eyes. "Moody jumped you, didn't he?"

Harry nodded. "Yeah."

Tonks shook her head helplessly. "No, I'm not going to pester you. I respect your decision, thanks. Remus and I both do. It's your life."

Harry smiled honestly. "Thanks, Tonks."

At that moment, Kingsley's patronus appeared in the middle of the dance floor and told them about the Ministry's fall, as well as about the Death Eaters coming their way.

"Get your friends out of here," Tonks ordered Harry, drawing her wand.

Fawkes appeared next to Harry in a blast of flame as Harry heard the sounds of multiple people apparating in. "I don't have the time to deal with you right now," Harry told Fawkes angrily, then set off after his friends, having spotted a shock of red hair that he recognised as Ginny. He had taken his anger at Dumbledore's betrayal of his parents' will out on the phoenix and told him to piss off and not show his face around Harry again.

Fawkes let out a disgruntled chirp and followed Harry anyway.

Harry reached Ginny at the same time as Ron and Hermione did. The four stared at each other for a long moment before Harry ordered, "Into the Burrow. Come on!"

"I'm fighting!" Ron snapped back, waving his wand around, which Ginny snatched from his hand.

"You're not fighting without a wand," she informed her brother firmly. "Let's go." Ginny turned and started hurrying through the panicked crowds towards the door of the Burrow.

Hermione grabbed Ron's arm and started dragging him after Ginny, leaving Harry to bring up the rear. He thought he heard Ron muttering angrily about Ginny, but was rather glad the girl had decided to take his and Voldemort's offer of protection to heart. Harry had a feeling, however, that once Ginny graduated, she would quite happily join the fight. And there would be nothing Harry could do to stop her.

Ginny had almost reached the doors when a Death Eater appeared out of the melee and shot a familiar bright green curse at her.

"Ginny!" Harry, Ron, and Hermione all shouted.

Just before the curse hit the girl, she disappeared in a column of flames and reappeared next to Harry, Fawkes on her shoulder.

Harry let out a breath of relief and drew her into a shaky hug. When Ron and Hermione ran over, Harry snapped, "Now do you understand why I asked for your protection?" to Ron. Then he pulled away and stalked angrily towards the Death Eater, who promptly let out a painfully familiar cackle. "Bellatrix," Harry hissed.

"Hello, ickle Hawwy. Snapey's not here save you this time," she threatened in a baby voice, aiming her wand at him.

Harry smiled nastily. "Oh, I don't need to hide behind Snape, Bella," he taunted. "In fact, from you, I don't even need to hide behind Voldemort's promise of my friends' and my safety, which, by the way, you just broke. I wonder, would it be kinder to die by my hand, or Voldemort's?"

"Harry, no!" Hermione screamed from behind him.

Bellatrix pulled off her mask, cackling. "Aw, ickle Hawwy lost his temper," she cooed. "Should I be scared, little boy?" she added tauntingly, before shooting off a purple spell.

Harry thoughtlessly shot the curse to one side, wand drawn, and continued to advance, completely ignoring his friends' shouts from behind him. "Oh, Bella," he replied in a sweet voice, "I think you should run for your life." And then he started shooting curses at her, curses he'd taught the DA and learned over the past year in Snape's class.

Bellatrix managed to block most of the curses, but a diffindo got through and sliced her arm to the bone. The woman just cackled all the more. "Look at the boy! Thinks he's grown up and dangerous! Here, little Harry, let me show you dangerous!" She turned her wand on Harry and just before she could start cursing him, a tall form appeared between them, red eyes glaring at Bellatrix, who immediately hit her knees, begging forgiveness.

Voldemort turned to Harry, whose eyes glinted angrily. "I had her!" he shouted at the Dark Lord.

Voldemort snorted. "Harry, I think she was about to have you."

Harry bared his teeth. "She attacked Ginny."

Voldemort inclined his head. "And she will be punished. But not by you." He spun and grabbed Bellatrix by the arm, then disappeared with her.

Harry kicked at the ground furiously. "Dammit!"

Hermione and Ginny both ran to Harry and enveloped him in a hug. Ron came up much slower, looking pale and shaky. "Mate," Ron whispered while the two girls practically sobbed, "you're mad, you are."

"Oh, Harry, you weren't really going to kill her," Hermione begged. "Were you?"

Harry looked at his two friends and felt his anger cool. He wrapped his arms around the girls and closed his eyes, not sure how to answer Hermione's plea. Because he'd had every intention of killing Bellatrix. For Sirius and Neville. And for attempting to curse Ginny, who had been under Voldemort's protection.

"Are you kids all right?" Mr Weasley asked softly, walking up to them.

Harry glanced behind the man and saw that all of the Death Eaters were gone and the wedding guests were all slowly picking themselves up and counting the dead.

"We're fine," Ron said, voice trembling.

"What did they want?" Hermione whispered, clinging to Harry with Ginny. "Why did they come here?"

"We don't know," Mr Weasley said. "He didn't say anything, did he?" he asked Harry, nodding to the empty expanse of ground behind the teens.

Harry shook his head. "No."

"Why didn't you just curse him?" a voice demanded angrily. One of the distant Weasley relatives stepped forward, wand gripped tightly in one hand. "You're the only one who can save us, and you just let him get away!"

"Auntie," Mr Weasley tried.

"No, Arthur. I want this boy's answer."

Harry carefully disentangled Hermione and Ginny and stepped forward, eyeing the woman calmly as he put his wand away. "Fight your own wars. We make our own destiny, and I refuse to let mine be akin to Atlas'. I won't carry your hopes on my shoulders. I'm only seventeen, for Merlin's sake!"

"You've already defeated him once, though," a younger male said, also stepping forward. "Can't you do it again? Give us peace." Around him, the voices of the wedding guests whispered their agreements. Even a few members of the Order were nodding.

Harry stared at them, feeling sick. "I'm only a child," he whispered to their pleas. "I can't..."

"Stop this!" Hermione shouted, dashing forward to get between Harry and the crowd's hopes. "Leave him alone!"

Ron rested a hand on Harry's shoulder and Harry glanced up at him. "I'm sorry, mate," Ron whispered, looking as ill as Harry felt.

Harry just closed his eyes and wished it would all go away.

-0-0-0-

Hours later, the wedding guests had gone home to lick their wounds and Harry had hidden himself up in Fred and George's old room. He'd spelled the door shut and ignored Hermione and Ginny when they'd asked to come in earlier.

Bill ended up being the one to talk him into coming out, in the end. He'd knocked on the door and, when Harry didn't answer, said, "You can't be expected to live your life for other people, Harry. I know Ron and Hermione have been prats about this whole thing – hell, they know they've been prats – but hiding up here isn't going to change that. I know you want to be left alone, but sometimes you just need to be with your family. Please come down? We promise not to pester you about anything, but we want to spend time with you."

Bill was silent for almost five minutes, hoping, when the door finally creaked open and a distraught Harry poked his head out. "I..." He swallowed and shook his head. "You think of me as family?"

"Oh, Harry..." Bill sighed. "Both you and Hermione are as good as Weasleys. Especially as far as Mum's concerned."

Harry bit his lip and came fully out of the room. "You'll really leave me alone about Voldemort? All of you?"

"Really. They promised before I came up," Bill replied with a smile. "You'll come down?"

Harry smiled faintly. "Yeah. I miss Mrs Weasley's cooking."

"Excellent." Bill made for the stairs, Harry following quietly.

Bill was halfway down the stairs to the first floor when Harry said, "Hey, Bill?"

"Yeah?" he asked, turning to look back up at Harry.

"I thought you were supposed to have a honeymoon after your wedding."

Bill smiled a little sadly. "Yeah. Fleur's family got us a nice little cottage next to the sea, but we both decided to spend one last night here, since today was such a mess."

"I'm sorry," Harry whispered.

Bill shook his head. "We mostly stayed for Mum, Harry. And maybe to spend a little bit of time with you, since we haven't seen you all year."

Harry grimaced. "Yeah. Wasn't sure I was welcome here over Christmas. Not with the way Ron was acting."

Bill grinned. "I'm sorry about my brother, at any rate. He's a bit thick. Think he was cured of that today, though."

Harry grinned back, remembering the horrible understanding on Ron's face when his relatives kept pestering Harry. "I reckon he was, yeah."

Chuckling, the two made their way into the kitchen, where Mrs Weasley had just made a delicious dinner. No one mentioned anything about the attack for the rest of the night. And, for once, Harry felt rather at home.

-0-0-0-

The Order apparently decided to use the Burrow as a base, of sorts, for the rest of the summer. After the first meeting, where he was stared at and pestered to re-join the fight every ten minutes or so, Harry decided to make himself scarce during meetings. Ron and Hermione would sit in on meetings, still determined to help, despite Mrs Weasley's attempts to get them to wait until they'd finished school. After everyone had cleared out, the two seventh years would come up to Harry's room, where he and Ginny would spend the meetings playing card games, and let them know anything they thought they might be interested in.

Two weeks before school was set to start again, Harry took a nap during an Order meeting, feeling rather disgusted with the lot of them and found himself in Voldemort's mind. He glanced around for a moment, rolled his eyes at the fake Voldemort behind the desk and was heading for the bookcases when the real Voldemort appeared.

"Harry," Voldemort warned.

Harry grinned at him and walked back to his red chair. "Just wanted to see. It's not like you haven't played with my memories, you know."

Voldemort snorted and took his own green chair. "What brings you to me, then?"

Harry shrugged. "The Order's invading the Weasleys' again, so I took a nap."

Voldemort blinked in surprise. "I know you declared yourself neutral, but I would have thought you'd sit in on the meetings anyway."

"Yeah, and I'd planned on it," Harry agreed drily. "Right until I realised it meant being asked every ten minutes or so when I was planning to start fighting again. So now I avoid them and Ron and Hermione update me afterwards."

Voldemort snorted. "Do those idiots think they'll pester you into fighting me?"

"Apparently."

Voldemort sneered. "I almost think I shouldn't have had Dumbledore killed. I think their intelligence has decreased since his demise."

Harry snickered. "I'll be sure to tell them you said that."

"Hm, I wonder if I could get you to let me know when these meetings are?"

Harry looked at Voldemort like he was mad. "Uhm, neutral, remember? Not playing both sides?"

Voldemort chuckled.

"Why do you want to know, anyway? Planning to attack the Burrow and murder everyone at their weakest? They've fixed the wards since the wedding."

"Nothing so large-scale."

"Of course," Harry nodded, as if he'd expected as much. "So what are you plotting, then?"

Voldemort eyed Harry as if he was weighing whether or not it would be useful to tell Harry.

"Or I could try and find out on my own," Harry added, waving a negligent hand towards the shelves of books.

Voldemort smiled nastily. "We'll make you a Slytherin yet, Potter."

"Mm-hm. Still a compliment. And I'm still waiting," Harry replied with a nod.

Voldemort cackled. "All of the professors who stay over the summer at Hogwarts are members of the Order," he said, then waited to see if Harry could figure it out on his own.

Harry blinked, then, when he realised Voldemort wasn't going to continue, thought over what he'd said. All of the summer professors were in the Order. Voldemort wanted to know when the meetings were. When the building was empty... "Taking over the school," Harry murmured.

Voldemort cackled a bit more. "Very good."

Harry cocked his head to one side. "That's almost peaceful. How very not like you."

Voldemort sneered.

Harry grinned. "So you want me to tell you the Order meeting schedule so you can take over the school when there's no one there?"

"Basically," Voldemort agreed grudgingly.

"Well, for that, I'd love to. Except I don't know when the meetings are. I don't think the Order knows when they are."

Voldemort muttered some choice words at that.

"But, if you can have your force ready, and we can decide on some way of quickly passing a warning, I can let you know next time they gather."

Voldemort visibly brightened, which was a little odd to see. "Do you think that phoenix would help?"

Harry thought about it. He still wasn't pleased with Fawkes, but he wasn't as annoyed since the fire-bird had saved Ginny's life. "I can...ask him, I suppose. What if that doesn't work?"

Voldemort looked behind Harry at his desk, then stood. He conjured a bell and set it next to the sign about him not being there and to wait a moment. "Ring this. I've set it up to bring this conversation to mind as extremely important when it's rung."

Harry's eyes brightened. "Teach me how to do that?"

Voldemort sighed and returned to his chair. "Very well..."

-0-0-0-

Harry waited until everyone else had gone to bed before throwing up a silencing ward and calling, "Fawkes!"

The bird appeared and gave Harry a grumpy look, since the teen had told him he needed to stay away, unless he thought his presence would save someone.

Harry shrugged. "I'd trust you more if your last master hadn't left me with people who he knew would abuse me, you know."

Fawkes firmly turned his back on Harry and flipped his tail feathers at the boy.

"Yeah, yeah. I have a request for you, if you'll do it?"

Fawkes glanced over his shoulder at Harry, as though he was still angry, but also intrigued.

"It means helping Voldemort take over the school," Harry added, watching to see what Fawkes would think of that.

Fawkes clearly thought about it for a moment, then turned his body to face Harry fully and waved a wing, as if to say, 'go on.'

Harry nodded. "Voldemort wants me to let him know when the next Order meeting is, so he can take over the school when there's no one there. Scarily peaceful of him, really."

Fawkes twittered in laughter, then nodded.

"You'll let him know, then?"

Fawkes nodded again, then gave Harry an intense look.

"Mmm... I sense a 'but'," Harry deduced.

Fawkes nodded and tugged a feather from his tail. Harry winced in sympathy, then looked on in shock as the bird magically directed the feather to write out a note in fire-like writing on a scrap of parchment.

"I didn't know you could do that," Harry said, picking up the parchment as the feather fell dead.

'I will play messenger bird if you agree to let me stay with you until I do something against your person. I'm not Albus.'

Harry winced. "Okay, I'm sorry for taking my anger at Dumbledore out on you."

Fawkes chirped agreeably.

Harry sighed. "I suppose you can stay, then. But I can't promise I won't be grumpy with you."

Fawkes chirped and gave a little bird shrug.

Harry looked at him oddly, then said, "I think you've been spending too much time with humans, Fawkes."

Fawkes chirped cheerfully and disappeared, only to quickly reappear with his stand.

Harry snorted in amusement at the bird and took down his silencing wards to sleep. (The last time he'd slept with silencing wards and Mrs Weasley had found out, he'd been yelled at. She'd told him she liked knowing when he had nightmares, so she could come in and wake him.) "Good night, Fawkes."

Fawkes cooed, then started singing a peaceful song which lulled Harry to sleep.

Chapter Text

Harry liked staying with the Weasleys. After the wedding, none of them bothered him about his chosen neutrality. Remus and Tonks, who visited occasionally when the Order wasn't meeting, also left him alone about it, choosing, instead, to talk of better times, times without Voldemort. Harry appreciated all their attempts to make the Order's demands better.

Fawkes did go to Voldemort at the start of the next Order meeting. From the insane pleasure coming through their bond, Harry deduced Voldemort had taken Hogwarts with ease. He also realised that, if he was feeling the man's emotions again, their bond was either getting deeper or Harry needed to work on his Occlumency again.

Consequently, as the Weasley household was sitting down to dinner that night, a Hogwarts owl sped through the window with a hastily scrawled note from McGonagall about the school having been taken over. Once Mr Weasley had read it, everyone turned to Harry.

Harry shrugged. "Would you have rather he attacked when there were people in the school and killed a bunch of them? Or worse, when school was in session? It's what he was originally planning, I think."

"You're helping him now," Ron said, voice dull. "Harry, you're helping him take over our world. You do know that, right?"

Harry swallowed. "I prefer to think of it as saving lives, myself."

"How much more will you do for him under the banner of neutrality?" Ron demanded. "Will you give him my family next? Or perhaps Hermione's?"

"Ronald!" Ginny snapped, the only member of the table moving to defend Harry.

Harry stared at his best friend. "Do you truly think me capable of such?" he asked, not wanting to know the answer, but equally needing to hear it.

Ron met his eyes and said, "The way things are going lately, yeah. I think you are."

Harry stood and walked calmly from the kitchen and up to the room he was borrowing. There, he spelled his things into the bag he'd brought them in, then turned to Fawkes, who was watching him worriedly. "Can you take me some place away from here? Some place I can be alone?"

Fawkes cocked his head to one side curiously. After a moment, he chirped an agreement and flew over to Harry.

Seconds after they'd left, Ginny ran into the room, furious with her family and hoping she could keep Harry from leaving.

-0-0-0-

They appeared in a graveyard. "Morbid, yet oddly fitting," Harry commented drily to the fire-bird on his shoulder.

Fawkes launched himself into the air and flew a bit further into the graveyard, stopping atop a grave Harry could barely see from his distance. When Fawkes chirped hopefully, Harry sighed and started making his way to the bird.

Part-way there, he stopped when he saw a familiar name. "Dumbledore?"

Fawkes chirped in surprise and flew over to join him. He peered down at the stones and let out a sad cry.

"I take it it's not a happy story, then?" he asked the bird.

Fawkes shook his head and let a single drop fall on the stone of Ariana.

Harry swallowed and shook his head, desperate to think of things other than what pain the man who had betrayed his family may have faced in his own life. "Come. What were you trying to show me, then?"

Fawkes led the way back to the two proud graves he'd stood on before. When Harry saw the names, he felt his breath catch in his throat and wondered if he might cry.

Fawkes trilled in sorrow.

Harry reached out and touched his father's name, blinking away tears. "I never even knew where... Thanks, Fawkes."

Fawkes cooed softly.

Harry took a seat in front of the graves, wishing desperately that they could have been there. That they could tell him what to do; that they were there to support him when even his best friend thought him a monster.

Before Harry even realised it, he was telling the two gravestones everything. He told them about Voldemort and Dumbledore. He told them about the Dursleys and the Weasleys. He told them about his two best friends and how Ron had practically called him the next Voldemort. How he wanted to just up and leave for America or somewhere and leave the stupid wizarding world to solve their own damn problems.

And then he confided in the stones about how much of a child he felt. How scared he was, being expected to fight a war on the front lines. How he would have to die for the Light to win. How he didn't want to chance losing his friends, and didn't that make him selfish?

The headstones stayed silent through it all, but Fawkes crooned softly during Harry's monologue and, by the end, Harry felt as if a horrible burden had been lifted.

In the end, Harry conjured two small red roses and placed them in front of the graves. "Thanks for listening," he told the stones. "It helped. A lot." Then he turned and made his way out of the graveyard, asking Fawkes, "Will you show me the house? And maybe a place to stay in town? I don't really want to go back to the Burrow right now."

Fawkes chirped in reply, then led Harry to the place where his parents died and Voldemort marked him, sealing his fate.

-0-0-0-

That night, comfy in a bed at the local muggle hotel – it turned out muggles couldn't see Fawkes, a magical protection of all phoenixes – Harry dreamed.

He opened his eyes to find his mental sitting room. But, rather than finding it empty, or with Voldemort, he found it crowded with his parents and Sirius. He simply stared at them for a long moment, unable to comprehend their existence.

Sirius grinned at him and said, "Mind pulling up a few chairs, Harry? Maybe even expand a bit?"

Harry swallowed, then did as asked, conjuring up three more red chairs to fit into the enlarged room. He mentally pushed Voldemort's chair out of the way, bringing the new chairs to face his. "Please. Sit," he offered, wincing as his voice caught.

The three dead sat. Sirius again broke the silence, this time asking, "What's with the extra chair? And Slytherin green, at that."

Harry shrugged. "It's Voldemort's."

"Sweetie, why do you have a chair for Voldemort in your head?" Lily asked gently.

Harry shrugged again, then pointed at the Slytherin pendent on the wall behind them. "Because that's the link between our minds, and he occasionally likes to visit. Seemed only fair, since I've got a chair in his mind."

"Complicated, he said," James muttered to the air. Lily hit him.

Harry smiled at them. "What brings you here? Oh, that sounds funny. Why would I dream my parents and Sirius up?"

"Perhaps you just needed someone to talk to," Lily suggested. "And that's why we're here. Because you need us."

Harry swallowed. "Ah, perhaps. But I already talked to..."

"Our graves?" James suggested ironically. "I'm sure it helped, but just talking to stones is never enough."

"James knows," Lily said in a stage whisper. "After his parents died and the war escalated, he kept going to their graves to talk to them."

James huffed and crossed his arms over his chest. "Did not."

Lily just smiled knowingly at them.

"Yeah, well, seeing as how it's the first time I've even seen your graves," Harry muttered angrily.

"If I'd known..." Sirius mumbled, then reached over and ruffled Harry's hair. "I'm sorry, Prongslet."

Harry shrugged. "Honestly, I wasn't even sure you had graves. For all I knew, no one bothered."

"Oh, sweetie..." Lily whispered, reaching out to touch Harry's face. At the gentle touch, Harry closed his eyes and leaned into the hand, somehow both surprised and unsurprised to find it solid. "If only we'd been with you–"

"It's not your fault!" Harry snapped, eyeing the sorrow-filled gazes of his family. "It's not–"

"Then who do we blame?" James demanded, voice sharp. "Snape, for giving the prophecy to Voldemort? Voldemort for acting on it? Perhaps Peter, for turning traitor?"

"All of them? None of them?" Harry replied, shaking his head. "Perhaps we should blame Voldemort's mother, for falling in love with a muggle. Or even for believing the muggle wouldn't leave her once she was with child."

"We may as well blame the sun for shining on the moon," Lily whispered. "Perhaps it isn't anyone's fault. Well, not any one person's," she amended when James opened his mouth to argue. "We all make our own choices, and sometimes they're for the worse, sometimes for the better. We can't know until after they've been made and the consequences have been seen."

Harry nodded. "Yeah? And what about my being neutral? What sort of choice was that?"

"It was your choice," Sirius cut in, blue eyes burning. "Harry, no one has the right to tell you what you should or shouldn't do; only you can make that choice. If your choice is to sit this one out, then that's it."

"Sometimes," Lily whispered, "it's in attempting to avoid the supposed future that we accomplish what was set out for us. Perhaps, this 'power he knows not' is really your refusal to fight him."

"War is just that, war," James agreed as hope filled Harry. "There is no real beginning, and there is no real end. It is never ending, and started long before we were born. You may not be able to end it forever, but perhaps by refusing to fight, you can put this war on pause, show people a different route."

"And for that, my son, we are proud of you," Lily said, smiling.

"Thank you," Harry whispered, throat tight. He closed his eyes to ward off tears...

...and opened them to the ceiling of his hotel room. He glanced over at Fawkes, who was watching him from his perch. "Thanks," he said to the bird.

Fawkes inclined his head, then turned to look out the window, where the sun was rising.

Stretching, Harry climbed out of bed and walked over to the phoenix and gently stroked his feathers. "Do you think Ron'll still be a prat when school starts back up?"

Fawkes trilled neutrally.

Harry grinned. "Yeah, I think so too."

Fawkes just huffed and preened his feathers a bit.

-0-0-0-

Harry spent the rest of his time until school was to start visiting Godric's Hollow. He saw the statue in the middle of the square and visited his old house. He visited Dumbledore's old house, too, though it seemed just as dead as his own. Watching Fawkes mourn on the gate to the house, Harry wished he could speak to the bird. He wished Fawkes could tell him why he cried so much in this town. He wondered if Dumbledore ever wished the same thing; if only so there was someone he could confide in, without facing the rest of the fickle public.

On the first of September, Harry made his way to the train and found an empty compartment. When students walked by, they would sometimes shoot him a disgusted look, others would look pleading or hopeless. Harry tried his best to ignore the looks, feeling much better since he'd made his peace with his parents, even if it was only a dream.

Shortly before the train was to leave, Harry's compartment door slammed open and Ginny stalked in, eyes flaring angrily. Harry barely had time to blink before she was shoving a finger in his chest and demanding, "What did you think you were doing, leaving like that?!"

Harry blinked again, then shrugged. "I thought I wasn't welcome."

"Of course you were welcome, you prat! You're always welcome!" Ginny snapped, jabbing him in the chest with each word.

Harry shook his head. "Yeah? Ron says so too, then? 'Cause it's as much his home as it is yours."

That finally silenced Ginny. She leaned back and looked at him in surprise. "I don't know."

Harry nodded. "I wasn't welcome, then. It was fine. Fawkes took me to see my parents' graves. Cleared a lot up."

Ginny sighed and fell into the seat across from Harry. "Yeah?"

Harry smiled. "Yeah."

"You going to stop listening to my brother then? When he acts all stupid about this?" Ginny demanded. " 'Cause if not, I don't know if talking to stones did much good."

Harry shook his head, still smiling. "I know I did fine. I'm sure Mum and Dad are proud of me, no matter what I decide, and that's all that matters. It..." Harry turned and looked out the window. "It hurts," he continued in a small voice, "when Ron treats me like I'm turning into Voldemort, but I know I'm right. And that's really all that matters, right?"

"How sweet, Potter," a voice sneered from the doorway.

Harry and Ginny both looked up in surprise. Ginny jumped to her feet, wand out, and demanded, "What are you doing here, Malfoy?"

Malfoy smirked, looking pleased with himself. "I'm here to keep you Gryffindors under control. By order of My Lord."

"You mean he wanted you out of his hair," Ginny hissed.

Harry stood and gently pushed Ginny's hand down. "If you're going to cause trouble, then leave, Malfoy."

Malfoy sneered at him, then turned and stalked off.

Ginny huffed and threw herself back in the seat. "Dammit, Harry! I wanted to curse him!"

Harry cocked his head to one side. "So did I. But if Voldemort Marked him, that could constitute joining the fight, and then you're no longer safe."

Ginny sighed and put her wand away. "Nothing's ever easy with that bastard, is it?"

Harry chuckled. "Alas, no."

The door slid open again and both turned to see Neville and Luna. "Malfoy wasn't difficult, was he?" Neville asked.

"Harry scared him off," Ginny replied, smiling. "I almost cursed him."

"Please, come in," Harry offered, ignoring Ginny. When the other two slipped in, Harry returned to his earlier seat and smiled when Neville sat next to him, while Luna took the seat next to Ginny. "So, how were your summers?" he asked.

The rest of the trip was spent trading stories about their summers and discussing Voldemort's hold over the school.

-0-0-0-

The Slytherins were practically unbearable once the train got to the school. They were gleefully ordering the other students around, shuffling them into carriages and bullying those they felt they could.

Once he'd realised what was happening, Harry walked up to Malfoy, who seemed to be the head of this operation, and punched him in the nose. Then he turned to help a second-year the blond had just shoved down because his hair "wasn't quite right" or some such rot.

When Malfoy drew his wand on Harry's turned back, he found three wands pointed at him. Ginny hissed, "Oh, just give me a reason."

"I was under the impression," Harry said loud enough for most people to hear, "that Voldemort took over the school during the summer so the students didn't have to deal with the pain that came with the switch." He turned to look at Malfoy, eyes narrowed warningly. "Tell me, Malfoy, who, exactly, gave you the thumbs up to bully the younger students on their way to the school?"

Malfoy looked dreadfully pale under the waning sunlight. "Shut your trap, Potter!"

Harry smiled coldly. "No one, I take it? Does Voldemort know you're enjoying tormenting smaller children? Perhaps I should let him know?"

Malfoy sneered and shoved past Harry, jumping into the nearest carriage to take it to the castle.

Harry smiled nastily at the other Slytherins who had been bullying the younger students. "I'd suggest you follow him."

The Slytherin presence quickly vacated and the older students who had refused to let themselves be pushed around helped the younger students up, checking them over for any damage and fixing any hexes they could.

"That was almost more satisfying than cursing him," Ginny commented as she put away her wand. Next to her, Neville was checking over the second year Harry had helped while Luna was helping another student up.

Harry shrugged. "I acted on a hunch, that's all."

"It was a brilliant hunch," Ginny replied.

Harry shook his head and hurried over to where the group of first years had huddled together, looking confused. "Hey, you lot okay?"

"Y-yeah," one said. "But we don't know where to go."

Harry blinked. "I wonder where... Fawkes!"

The phoenix appeared in a blaze of fire and settled on Harry's outstretched arm.

Harry smiled at the awed looks on the first years' faces. "Can you go to the castle and find out what happened to the first years' welcoming committee?"

Fawkes chirped a question and mimed writing with one talon.

"Write a letter with the question?" Harry asked. When Fawkes nodded, Harry carefully went through his pockets, scowling when he came up blank. "I don't have anything to write on or with."

Fawkes let out an annoyed sound and ducked his head down to grab Harry's wand from his robe pocket.

Harry blinked at the wand for a second, then blinked and said, "Oh. Right." He quickly conjured a piece of parchment and a shabby quill. He wrote a quick, 'Who was supposed to meet the first years? They're standing here alone and everyone else is heading up to the castle. I can bring them up if you want.' Then he handed it to Fawkes and said, "Hand it to whoever he's set as Headmaster, yeah?"

Fawkes chirped an affirmative and disappeared in a burst of flame with the note.

"What was that?" one of the first years asked, awed.

"A phoenix," another kid said, looking proud of his knowledge.

Harry smiled at them. "That was Fawkes. He was Dumbledore's phoenix, but he came to me after Dumbledore died last year. I suppose you'd say he's my familiar, though we fight a lot."

"How can you fight with something so pretty?" a small girl asked.

Harry shrugged. "Bad blood," he said, then shook the comment off. "Right, how about you introduce yourselves while we wait for Fawkes."

The first years introduced themselves with some added hopes for Houses. Luna, Ginny, and Neville came over to join them just as Fawkes reappeared with a note. Harry took the note with a quick, "Thanks, Fawkes," and read, 'No one was told to get the first years – an oversight. If you'd bring them up, we'll have someone meet you at the doors.'

"Right! Let's see how many first years can fit in a carriage, yeah?" Harry said, waving them towards the waiting carriages.

There was a bit of a crush as the first years all tried to pile into the first carriage, but between the four left-over friends, they managed to sort everyone out, and they had few enough kids that they fit in only four carriages. There wasn't quite enough room for the upper years, so they all hitched rides on the thestrals, who didn't really seem to care about the added weight.

Professor McGonagall met them at the front doors. She shot Harry a neutral look that the boy felt was hiding a disgusted frown and said, "You four, go on in. First years, follow me."

Harry and his friends made their way inside and separated to sit at their tables. Ginny and Neville calmly sat on either side of Harry, and the green-eyed teen felt all the better for their support, especially when he caught Ron's frown from where he sat half-way down the table.

While they were waiting for the first years, Harry glanced up at the Head table. Snape sat in the Headmaster's seat, looking rather displeased at being there. Most of the former staff had remained on, though Hagrid and the Muggle Studies teacher had both been replaced by Death Eaters. There was also a Death Eater that Harry assumed would be covering Defence Against the Dark Arts, assuming they hadn't decided to change the class to just learning the Dark Arts.

McGonagall led the first years in and quickly led them through the Sorting. Unsurprisingly, most of the first years chose to sit near Harry's party or Luna, depending on their House. The Slytherin first years looked dreadfully out of place, and eyed the upper years like they might eat them. The Hufflepuff first years looked lost sitting all by their own until a few of the sixth and seventh years scooted down the table until they could sit with the kids.

Really, Harry considered, having Death Eaters at the school and the Slytherins bullying the younger kids did wonders for House unity.

Dinner was a silent affair, with everyone – even the Slytherins – afraid to talk and bring down the wrath of the Death Eaters at the Head table. Even Harry, who had less to fear than his fellow students with his immunity, was quiet, choosing to mime a request for the mashed potatoes, rather than ask for them aloud.

At the end of the meal, Snape stood and said, "As many of you will have heard, the Dark Lord now has control of Hogwarts. You will have Death Eaters as professors, and you will be expected to respect them as you would the rest of the staff." He looked straight at Harry, and the boy nodded his understanding; the warning was as much for him and his friends as it was for the rest of the students. "If anyone acts out inappropriately, they will face the consequences. And trust me when I say you don't want to know what those are." He smiled nastily.

"Now then, off to your dorms. Prefects, take care of the first years. Potter, come here," Snape finished, eyeing Harry with disgust.

"Go on," Harry said to his friends as Ron and Hermione came to collect the first years with the other prefects. "I'll be fine."

Ginny and Neville moved off, looking unsure. Before he started up towards the Head table, Hermione said, "Harry?"

Harry turned to her, face blank. "Yes, Hermione?"

Hermione flinched at the empty tone. "Th-the password," she said, handing him a slip of parchment.

Harry nodded to her and turned away. He walked quickly up to the Head table, where most of the professors were clearing out. Snape sat waiting for him, and Harry paused before the dais and asked, "Sir?"

Snape sneered and stood. "Finished chattering with your little friends?"

Harry bit his tongue to keep his first three responses in, finally settling on, "Yes, sir."

Snape narrowed his eyes, but motioned for Harry to follow him from the Hall. They walked in silence to the Head's office, where they stopped and Snape whispered something to the gargoyle. The man led the way upstairs and motioned Harry to a seat, taking his own. After a moment of watching each other, Snape said, "What happened at the station?"

Harry blinked, then sighed. "Hogsmeade?" he clarified. When Snape nodded, Harry said, "A group of Slytherins were harassing the younger years – third and below, I believe – and I told them to stop. They left. Since I saw the first years alone, I asked them what was wrong. When I found out there wasn't anyone to meet them, I sent Fawkes. Neville, Luna, and Ginny helped me get them into the carriages and up to the castle."

Snape nodded. "Who were the Slytherins?"

Harry shook his head. "With all due respect, sir, I'd rather not say."

"Potter–"

"If you knew their names, what would you do to them?" Harry asked quickly, wincing a bit as he spoke over Snape. "Will you curse them bloody and hope they learn their lesson?"

Snape eyed him for a long moment before saying, "Are you done?"

Harry swallowed and nodded.

"I wish to know their names so I can keep an eye on them, Potter. Actions will be taken only if they act out again."

Harry glanced up at the sleeping portrait of Dumbledore and felt bile rise in his throat. He quickly looked back at Snape's desk and recited the names of the Slytherins who he'd seen attacking the younger years, finishing with, "There may have been more; those are just the ones I saw."

Snape nodded. After he finished writing the names down, he looked back at Harry and said, "Your friends are protected so long as they act with respect towards their professors. My Lord has said that you are to be left alone so long as you remain respectful – unless given cause otherwise – and if you act out without reason, we are to report to the Dark Lord and let him handle you. Do you understand?"

Harry nodded, having expected something like that in a school run by Voldemort's people. It only made sense that, given their current situation, rules had to be set out ahead of time, so there were no questions later. "Yes, sir."

Snape nodded again and looked down at his desk. "You are dismissed."

"Thank you, sir," Harry replied, getting up to leave.

Just as Harry reached the door, Snape said, "And Potter?"

"Sir?"

"Twenty points to Gryffindor, for your quick thinking at diffusing the situation at the station and helping with the first years."

Harry swallowed. "Thank you, sir," he said softly, then left the man to his work.

Chapter Text

The first week wasn't easy for anyone. The students had to become used to having Death Eaters in the castle, which was especially hard for the non-Slytherins, but even the Slytherins found trouble when they tried to see if their people being in control of the school meant they were in charge. Slytherin detentions were high that first week, while the younger students often found themselves in the infirmary. Harry and his friends had stopped a number of attacks from getting out of hand, but even they could only do so much.

In between the attacks, Harry was finding that coming back to a school where Order members worked may not have been his best choice, even if Voldemort was in control. Every time he had a class with McGonagall or Slughorn, he found pleading looks, or disapproving ones. Sometimes, he would get an essay back with 'DO SOMETHING!' written on it next to the grade.

By the end of September, the attacks on the younger students had ceased, but Harry found himself preferring Dark Arts and Magical Creatures, as both were taught by Death Eaters who didn't bother him about the war.

The final straw fell on Hallowe'en, and Harry felt everything break. Ron had caught him without Neville, Ginny, or Luna in the hallway outside McGonagall's office and demanded, "Are you planning to become just like him still, Harry? Are you enjoying watching him destroy the Wizarding World? I bet you are, you freak."

Harry looked towards McGonagall's door and found her there, nodding in agreement with Ron's statement. He felt sick, realising that even his own professors thought he was a monster now. No matter what his parents may have thought, they weren't here.

He turned and ran from the jeering crowd around Ron. He made for the entrance hall and stopped there, hoping to see a friendly face. But only Slytherins were there, and they sneered at him, hating him as much as his own friends seemed to.

Harry ran past them, out onto the lawn and for the gate of the school. If he couldn't find a friend inside Hogwarts, perhaps it was time to look elsewhere.

-0-0-0-

Harry barely managed two days before the Death Eaters found him. Considering Fawkes was with them, Harry had an idea he knew how they'd found him, too.

They took him back to Voldemort's base, where the man and Harry enjoyed tea in the real world together for the first time. After a terse exchange of names, they sat in silence with their tea and their own thoughts.

Harry broke first and asked, "Why am I here?"

Voldemort considered him for a long moment before saying, "You left Hogwarts. No one knew why, and I couldn't reach you." He narrowed his eyes at the last.

Harry shrugged; he hadn't been trying to keep Voldemort out of his mind, but he hadn't necessarily wanted to talk to anyone else, either. "I was tired of the expectations."

Voldemort shook his head. "What expectations, Potter? My only hope was that you'd help Severus keep the students in line and that you'd keep your grades up, both of which you were managing quite well."

Harry rolled his eyes. The Dark Lord would be rather averse to having his human horcrux fail school, wouldn't he? Honestly. Dark Lords.

"Potter."

Harry sighed. "Remember how I said I couldn't sit in on the Order meetings?" Voldemort nodded. "Well, a number of the staff are members of the Order. And far too many of the students are with them."

Voldemort hissed some choice words, making Harry's lips twitch in amusement. "I told Severus to make sure those fools wouldn't constantly bother you," he finally said.

Harry blinked, surprised, then shrugged. "I doubt he knows, unless he stands over them when they're handing our papers back. They write little notes on mine." He grimaced. "And when students, like Ron, corner me in the hallways and demand to know why I won't fight, they simply stand there and look just as desperate to hear my answer as the students do."

Voldemort growled. "The Weasley boy again. I should have known."

Harry shrugged again. "I understand where he's coming from, you know. After Dumbledore died, I was kind of disgusted with myself."

"You're not disgusted now," Voldemort replied, and it almost sounded like a question.

Harry shook his head. "I made my choice, and it's not one I can go back on. You saw to that." He shot the Dark Lord a bitter smile. "I came to terms with it, because that's all I could do. Ron still has choices; he doesn't seem to understand that I don't."

Voldemort sneered. "Children."

"You fault them, then? For being what they are?" Harry asked.

Voldemort shook his head, refusing to answer that, and asked, "Will you return to Hogwarts?"

Harry sighed. "Do I have a choice? I wanted to complete my education."

Voldemort eyed him for a long moment before saying, "You can stay here. My library is comparable to Hogwarts', and you can always ask for clarification on anything you don't understand."

Harry considered the offer. "Is Bellatrix here?"

Voldemort's reply smile made Harry's skin crawl. "She's still serving her punishment."

Harry nodded. "I'll stay here, then."

Voldemort inclined his head. "I'll send someone for your things. For now, I believe Wormtail can show you to your quarters, and the library." He waved his wand at the door to the office they'd shared tea in and the rat stumbled in. "Show Harry to the Gold Suite and, if he wishes it, the library."

"Y-yes, M-master."

Harry stood and nodded to Voldemort, then followed his parents' traitor from the room.

-0-0-0-

Since Harry had joined the base on Sunday, he learned from Peter, he would be eating dinner with all of the Death Eaters who frequented the base. Any other day of the week, they ate dinner on their own, either in the kitchens or wherever they had it brought to. After an afternoon in the library, looking over the selection Voldemort had and picking a few out to read in his room, Harry followed his guide to the dining room.

Voldemort motioned Harry towards his own seat, then pointed to the chair on his right. When Harry sat, the Dark Lord asked, "I hope your accommodations are to your liking."

Harry shot the Dark Lord a suspicious look. "Yeah, they're fine. Any reason why you're being creepier than usual?"

Voldemort's mouth twitched and he said, "Simply setting an example, Harry."

"Well, you're creeping me out. Now stop it."

Voldemort chuckled, which silenced the room. He smiled nastily at his Death Eaters and said, "Mr Potter has decided to join us here for some time. You will treat him with respect." There was no reason for the man to say 'or else' because everyone in the room knew what would happen if they disobeyed their Lord; Bellatrix was still serving for her own crime, and she had always been one of Voldemort's favourites.

As the room started filling with voices again and the food appeared, Voldemort turned to Harry and said, "Your things should be here after dinner."

Harry nodded in understanding. "I'll probably retire to my room and read some."

Voldemort hummed. "Are you intending to try and do actual assignments, or just learn on your own?"

Harry considered the question while he ate a bite of mashed potatoes, then said, "I'm not sure. I wouldn't know who to send my assignments to, since the only real teachers I know of are part of the reason I'm here." He smiled crookedly. "I'll probably just study on my own. I'll have my school books, and I think I can figure things out from that."

"Very well. I would like you to meet with me every Sunday for lunch. If you have any problems, we can go over them then."

Harry nodded. "Okay."

Voldemort eyed him suspiciously. "You're being agreeable."

Harry grinned. "Creepy, isn't it?"

Voldemort smirked back. "Very."

The two returned to their dinner.

-0-0-0-

Harry's potions skills were mediocre at best, so he did a lot of studying the books he could find on the subject before having Wormtail lead him to the potions lab. (Voldemort had apparently set Wormtail to helping Harry around, and the two had come to the agreement that they would keep peace with each other, but they also wouldn't mention Harry's parents or Sirius.)

Surprisingly, the books he'd looked over helped a lot. Changing how one stirred a potion was a lot easier when you understood why it needed to be done. Harry had muttered grumpily during some downtime in his potion-making, that they should clearly have a beginners class for first years where you were taught the theory. Because the first year potions book didn't really teach you about it, it only told you what to do.

Not having a teacher and having to rely on books ended up doing wonders for Harry's knowledge. He had been beginning to realise since the middle of his sixth year that he'd relied far too much on Hermione for his work, but he hadn't really thought about how much he also relied on his teachers to explain things to him. With only books and Death Eaters to learn from, Harry found himself cross-referencing things more, which meant he actually learned things, rather than just doing them as another showed him.

Voldemort was a wealth of information as well, Harry was finding, but he didn't show Harry how to do things, like his professors had always done. Instead, the Dark Lord talked Harry through sticky spots, teaching the boy how to find the answer himself. It was something, Harry recognised, that Hermione had once tried to do for him and Ron, back in their first year, but since neither of them had been open to learning how to find answers themselves, she'd eventually given up.

Without a Hermione to show him where in the book his answer was, or a McGonagall to show him the wrist movements, Harry learned to find things out for himself. He was also finding that the wand movements they were taught in school were just basic movements, and that some people did better if they added an extra flick, or shortened a sweep. Once Harry had realised that his magic reacted better if his wand was closer to his body, his spells were much more powerful, and he learned the spells much quicker.

Beyond reading up on what his peers were learning at Hogwarts, there wasn't a lot else for Harry to do in the base. There was a clearing that Wormtail told him he could go flying in, but it wasn't quite the same, knowing he wouldn't be playing any quidditch games.

Eventually, after almost a month, Harry asked Peter if there were any Death Eaters who might be willing to play a game of chess or gobstones with him. Peter had looked at him oddly, then offered to play chess with the boy.

Peter, it turned out, was about on Harry's level when it came to playing chess, and the teen found he enjoyed the game a lot more when he had a chance at winning.

One afternoon in mid-December, the Lestrange brothers and Antonin Dolohov happened to walk into the library while Harry was crushing Peter. The brothers cheerfully wandered over and started rooting for Harry, making the teen roll his eyes. Antonin, seeing Peter's dejected look, walked over and whispered a couple moves into his ear. Peter, of course, immediately started winning, and Harry called foul.

Antonin commented, "It's only a foul if you don't cheat back," then nodded to the grinning Lestrange brothers.

Harry looked over at the brothers and considered them for a long moment before asking, "So, can you two actually play?"

"Are you implying our Lord keeps people who can't play a simple game of chess?" one of them demanded mock-seriously.

Harry cocked an eyebrow and jerked his thumb at Peter. "He hasn't killed Wormtail yet. No offence, Peter."

The animagus simply shrugged with an accepting smile.

"Yeah, but Wormy isn't usually on attacks," the other brother pointed out.

"Yeah, which means he doesn't screw them up like you lot tend to do all the time," Harry shot back.

"He's good," one of the brothers said.

"Impressively," the other agreed.

Antonin snorted. "They can play chess," he said.

Harry shrugged. "Yeah? Alright, then. See if you can help me cheat."

"Aren't you a Gryffindor?" one of the brothers asked.

Harry grinned and tapped his forehead. "Mentally connected to your boss; something had to leak through."

The brothers laughed while Peter shuddered and Antonin rolled his eyes. "We going to play?" the elder Death Eater demanded.

"We're playing," the brothers said, then both leaned over and whispered directions into Harry's ears.

The teen blinked, then smirked. "You're going down," he told his opponent.

Wormtail eyed the brothers on either side of Harry and sighed. "Oh, I know," he told the boy.

-0-0-0-

After the first chess game, Harry found that the Lestrange brothers and Antonin were willing to spend time doing things other than discussing spells with him. While Antonin preferred talking spells, he was also the unofficial gobstones champion in Voldemort's base, and while Harry was, by no means, a serious gobstones player, he did enjoy the occasional game, even if he got his arse whipped in the process. The Lestrange brothers, on the other hand, loved playing Exploding Snap, and Harry cheerfully joined them for the occasional game.

Other Death Eaters were introduced to Harry during games with the brothers or Antonin, but those three and Wormtail remained the people Harry spent the most time with.

Before Harry knew it, Christmas was only a week away, and he realised he didn't have gifts for his friends back at Hogwarts or the Death Eaters he'd been making friends with in Voldemort's base.

He broached the subject to Wormtail one evening while they were playing a game of chess.

Wormtail eyed him curiously for a moment, then shrugged. "I'm sure my Lord would let you take a trip to Diagon Alley, if you truly wished it; it's not like you're a prisoner here, Harry." He smiled faintly and added, "Or you could conjure something. Merlin knows you're far enough in your studies to manage a couple of trinkets."

Harry had spent the rest of the game considering the two options. As a consequence, he lost the game spectacularly, but did decide to go to Voldemort. He figured, if he couldn't find anything in Diagon Alley, then he'd worry about conjuring something.

So Harry bade goodbye to Wormtail and made for Voldemort's study.

When he knocked on the door, he was told to, "Wait a moment!" and so leaned against the wall next to the door. Harry rarely visited the Dark Lord's study unless it was Sunday afternoon, but he knew that the man was always busy with meetings during the week – he'd spent enough time at the relatively small base to notice the constant coming and goings, especially the ones that dropped by the study.

After another five minutes or so – during which Harry counted cracks in the far wall and wished he'd thought to grab a book – the door opened and Umbridge stepped out, looking quite smug. She paused when she noticed Harry and narrowed her eyes. "Potter."

Harry smiled nastily at her and clucked his tongue like a centaur, snickering when she paled and jerked away.

"Harry," Voldemort said from behind Umbridge, eyes light with amusement, "please stop torturing my minions."

"I promise not to make a habit of it," Harry replied, still eyeing Umbridge with a faint smile. "Go on then, Umbitch."

"You dare–" Umbridge started, but Harry already had his wand out, hissing, "Oh, please, give me a reason."

Voldemort cleared his throat, startling Umbridge. When the woman and Harry looked over at him, he no longer looked amused. "Dismissed, Dolores."

"Yes, my Lord," the toad-like woman said, then hurried away, shooting Harry one last disgusted look over her shoulder as she went.

Harry put his wand away grumpily and glanced back at Voldemort, who was looking at him like he wasn't sure what to think of the teen. "May I come in?" Harry asked, when Voldemort made no move to invite him in or otherwise.

Voldemort blinked, then nodded and stepped back to let Harry in. As the man closed the door, Harry traded greetings with Nagini, who was curled up in a warm corner, and took a seat after turning the chair red, something he did every time he visited the study.

"What was that about?" the Dark Lord asked, taking his seat behind the large ebony desk, which dominated the room. Behind him there was a wall of bookcases that bowed under the weight of papers and books that the Dark Lord used for reports and the brief moments of respite he had. On the wall with the door, maps of the United Kingdom and parts of the continent were spread out, with various coloured pins marking the movements of Voldemort's troops, as well as any resistance he knew about. On the opposite wall were more bookcases, which framed a window through which one could see the snow-covered grounds outside. Behind Harry was a fireplace, which Voldemort kept lit in the winter to keep the room warm without the need to waste magic on warming charms.

Harry sighed and slouched in the chair. "She and I had... disagreements in my fifth year. Mostly having to do with you being back." He shrugged. "I got a lot of detentions, and she almost cursed me with the Cruciatus Curse at one point."

Voldemort blinked, the only real sign of his surprise. "And the clicking?"

Harry smiled nastily. "She had a run-in with the centaurs in the Forbidden Forest at the end of the year and came out worse for it. We had a lot of fun making clip-clop sounds while she was recuperating."

Voldemort's mouth twitched with a suppressed smile, then he shook his head. "Don't make a practise of it."

Harry shrugged. "Wouldn't want her to become acclimated to it."

Voldemort chuckled at that and leaned back into his seat. "Well, it's only Thursday, so what brings you to my office? Other than tormenting my minions."

"I don't torment Death Eaters, only Ministry goons," Harry replied with a smirk, then sighed. "I was hoping I could get a way to Diagon Alley?"

Voldemort blinked again, looking curious. "Might I enquire as to why?"

Harry coloured and slouched down in his chair some more. "Christmas is next week, and I want to get gifts for my friends at school and some of the Death Eaters I've made... oh, friends, I guess, with."

Voldemort hummed thoughtfully, then nodded. "I see no problems with it, though I would prefer that you go with someone."

Harry grimaced. The Prophet had gleefully announced his change in residence shortly after he'd settled in at Voldemort's base, and occasional stories had popped up discussing how it was his fault Voldemort was taking over Britain without anyone to stop him. A lot of people were unhappy with Harry Potter, and with the students of Hogwarts on holiday, that number would be doubled, especially in Diagon. Harry could certainly see the reasoning behind taking someone with him, but the only people he would be comfortable with were the ones he was getting presents for.

Harry explained the problem to the Dark Lord and the man shook his head hopelessly, then stood. "Gryffindors," Harry heard him mutter, then, louder, "I will go with you."

Harry blinked in surprise. "I didn't mean to pull you aw–"

"Potter," Voldemort said with amusement, "let's go."

Harry shook his head and stood, then followed the man from his study and downstairs to the room set up to apparate in and out of. Before they apparated out, Voldemort cast a couple of spells to make himself appear like he had the last time Harry had seen him in Diagon Alley and to lighten Harry's hair and eyes. When he felt Harry looked sufficiently different to fool anyone who wasn't familiar with him, they apparated to the Leaky Cauldron together.

-0-0-0-

Shopping with Lord Voldemort was... different from shopping with anyone else. For one, he seemed to expect that everyone would treat him like he expected his Death Eaters to treat him, in spite of him not really looking like the Voldemort they all ran in terror from. (Much to Harry's surprise, Voldemort got the respect he demanded, though that might have had something to do with his red eyes.) For another, the Dark Lord didn't believe in frivolous gifts, especially since Harry could afford better things. When Harry had asked why he should waste his money, Voldemort replied, "If you're not going to waste it on those gifts you insist on buying, at least get yourself some new clothing. It's embarrassing walking around with an apparent pauper."

So, if only to shut Voldemort up, he'd let the man take him to Madam Malkin's to get a few new robes and some underclothing. Before Voldemort would let Harry leave the store, the boy had to change into one of his new robes and burn his old clothing, much to Malkin's amusement. Harry wasn't sure how he felt about the minor embarrassment, but decided it wasn't worth throwing a fit over.

With Voldemort's help, Harry managed to get something for the four Death Eaters he spent his free time with. He was rather impressed that Voldemort knew as much about the men's hobbies as he did. When he mentioned it, Voldemort just sneered and said, "Always know what your people do during their downtime. It boosts morale and tells you when there's something wrong."

Harry nodded his understanding. "I agree, I just didn't take you to be the sort of Dark Lord who cared." He grinned at Voldemort to show he was teasing and the man huffed and crossed his arms over his chest in a very un-Dark Lord-ish manner. Wisely, Harry chose not to comment on it.

Harry was just finishing shopping for Luna, Neville, and Ginny and considering whether he should bother getting anything for his two best friends – after leaving the school, neither of them had responded to any owls he'd sent, unlike his other three friends – when there was a small explosion down the street and people started shouting. Harry, being a Gryffindor – and cooped up for too long – immediately hurried off to see what was happening, leaving Voldemort to mutter angrily about teenagers and follow the boy.

The explosion had come from the twins' shop, unsurprisingly. However, the reason was surprising, as the shop had six aurors in front of it, all with their wands pointed at two angry-looking Weasleys. The twins were standing in front of a few young Hogwarts students, one of which had a nasty gash on his arm, which was being tended to by a girl who seemed to have a background in muggle medicine, if her practised ease with a plaster was any sign.

"Move aside, boys," one of the aurors ordered. "These monsters need to be taken in and dealt with."

"Muggleborns," Fred snapped, "are not monsters."

Harry jerked in surprise at the conditions behind the conflict and made to run forward when a hand grabbed his arm tightly. He looked back into red eyes and snapped, "Why is the Ministry hunting down muggleborns?"

Voldemort sneered at him. "Because they're polluting our world."

"They're only 'polluting' our world because the purebloods keep them from getting jobs, which forces them to return to the muggle world!" Harry hissed angrily.

"They weaken the bloodlines with muggle blood," Voldemort replied.

Harry scowled at the man. "Yeah? Then how do you explain you and me? Your mother was practically a squib, Tom!"

"That has nothing–"

"It has everything to do with this!" Harry replied, jerking his arm from the man's grip and hurrying past the gathered crowd to help support the Weasley twins in holding off the aurors. As soon as he added his shield against the barrage of spells from the wizarding world's finest, the twins breathed sighs of relief and looked at him to thank him.

"Hey, than–" George's words froze as he recognised the wizard who had come to their aid. "Harry?" he whispered.

Harry glanced at him briefly, then looked back at the attacking aurors, silently changing his shield to bounce a few of the less lethal spells back at them. "Why don't you two see about getting those kids out of here?" he suggested.

"From what Ron's told us, you would be quite happy to let them go about their work," George said as Fred moved to help the students.

Harry snorted. "Clearly, Ron has forgotten that my own mum was muggleborn, and so is one of my best friends, assuming she would talk to me again." He shot an irritated look at George. "Feel free to remind Ron of that, yeah? Just because I declared myself neutral doesn't mean I forgot my own morals."

"I'm sure it helps that no one'll recognise you," the older wizard replied drily, alluding to Harry's disguise.

Harry smiled grimly. "Are you kidding? Voldemort's here with me." Then he turned his full attention back to the aurors as they got some back-up, completely ignoring the slightly panicked look on George's face.

Just before the new arrivals could start adding their own spells to Harry's slowly weakening shield, there were terrified shouts from the crowd and Voldemort, in all his glory, stepped forward, causing a cease-fire with his mere presence. He met Harry's eyes and cocked an eyebrow in a silent, 'Will you stop this nonsense?'

Harry shook his head at him in response, but let his shield fall, carefully keeping his wand up in case one of the aurors decided to play Slytherin.

Voldemort hissed angrily and stepped up next to the auror who seemed to be leading the group to get a better idea what was going on. While he was busy with the Ministry lackeys, Harry glanced at the twins, both of whom were pale, and asked, "Are the kids safe?"

Fred nodded jerkily. "Got them out into London and called the Knight Bus for those who didn't have another way home."

Harry nodded. "Brilliant. Wait! Did they come into Diagon Alley alone?" he demanded, turning his head to look at the twins in horror.

Both twins grimaced. "They know the current political storm as well as anyone," Fred said grimly.

"Muggles in Diagon Alley would be killed immediately," George agreed. "Muggleborns stand a chance of getting by undetected."

Harry frowned at where Voldemort was watching him, still listening to the auror. The man seemed to be frowning at the explanation, so Harry asked, "How'd the aurors find out?"

The twins smiled grimly. "They didn't."

Harry turned to them with a frown. "What do you mean, they didn't?"

"One of the kids laughed at something we had that made a joke of the Ministry. A couple of those aurors took offence," Fred explained.

"They didn't find out until after the magical parents got their kids out of the way that the four still in the store were muggleborn," George finished.

Harry ground his teeth together, then stalked over to where Voldemort and the aurors were, completely ignoring the surprised sounds the twins made before hurrying to follow him. As soon as Harry was close enough, he snapped, "Which of your idiot men decided to fire on a child?"

Voldemort frowned at Harry, but the boy ignored him, more intent on getting an answer. The auror in charge of the group looked highly insulted and looked to Voldemort for his reaction to the interruption.

Harry snorted and looked to Voldemort at the lack of answer and said, "You know, I would have thought that the Ministry would have grown a backbone with your lot pulling the strings. Clearly, I'm wrong."

Voldemort's mouth twitched. "I believe he's more afraid of insulting me by assuming to answer a non-entity," the man replied easily.

Harry rolled his eyes, then looked back at the shocked aurors. "No backbone, and skin so thin you start shooting curses at laughing children. According to the Weasleys, your actions endangered some purebloods," he said, assuming the fact from what the twins had said. "Isn't Voldemort's stance the destruction of muggleborns and the strengthening of the purebloods?" He glanced at Voldemort while the auror in charge looked furious. "By the way, just to clarify, I take insult to your stance."

"I'm well aware of your thoughts on the matter, Potter," Voldemort replied with a glare.

Harry shrugged. "Just thought I'd make sure everyone else who has been smearing my name through the mud does," he replied, eyes flicking to where a few daring people had moved close enough to hear were standing, looking surprised.

Voldemort glanced over his shoulder and narrowed his eyes as a number of people jerked back fearfully. "Perhaps it's best if we took this discussion off the street," he suggested, though it sounded more like an order.

The aurors seemed to agree, now that they knew who Harry was, so the man in the lead suggested the Ministry and Voldemort nodded. The aurors quickly apparated to the destination, with Voldemort following them after glancing at Harry to ensure the boy meant to come.

Harry turned to the twins and said, "I don't expect this will be pretty."

The twins traded looks, then both reached forward and gripped one of Harry's shoulders. "You're always welcome at our shop, Harry," Fred said.

"We know a true friend when we see him, even if he is rooming with a git," George added.

Harry grinned at them. "Wouldn't have decided to if your brother wasn't such a prat," he told them before stepping back and apparating to the Ministry.

Harry and Voldemort followed the aurors up to the Head Auror's office. There, Voldemort removed Harry's disguise and they sat down with the Head Auror and the man who'd been in charge of the group that started the mess in the Alley. They spent the better half of three hours arguing over what had happened, with Harry firmly playing the devil's advocate, as it were, in the argument. Curiously, once she realised she had someone who wasn't afraid to debate with Voldemort on her side, the Head Auror was quite adamant herself about the aurors not attacking children, muggleborns or not. (The woman had two kids in Hogwarts – a first year and a fourth year, both Ravenclaws – and couldn't condone attacking kids. She didn't seem fond of Voldemort's stance on the eradication of muggleborns, either, but seemed much less inclined to argue that point with a man who had no compunctions about killing her, no matter who had her back.)

When they returned to the base, both Voldemort and Harry had massive headaches – which only seemed to be feeding off each other, much to the two's irritation – but Harry had got Voldemort to agree to leaving children out of the fighting while they were still under age. He may not have ended the hunting of muggleborns, but at least Harry had given them a chance to learn enough to fight back.

Voldemort wasn't pleased with Harry, especially since the boy had started the argument in the middle of the Alley, but both wizards agreed that they should save their own argument for tomorrow, after their headaches had gone away. In the end, both he and Harry had downed headache potions and turned in early, much to the surprise of all the Death Eaters in the base, none of whom knew why the two seemed so tired and snappish.

By dinner that night, the story of what had happened in the Alley got back to the base and wagers were made about the outcome of the impending talk that was sure to happen the next morning. Everyone knew better than to challenge Voldemort in public.

-0-0-0-

The talk actually happened that night. Harry woke from a nightmare around three in the morning and ended up retreating to his mind, where the line of photos on his mantle reminded him of better times. Voldemort, somehow sensing that he was up, came over to Harry's mind and settled comfortably into his own chair, mouth twitching with a smile when Harry chuckled at the man's comfort in Harry's own mind.

They sat in silence for a good ten minutes before Harry said, "I'm not sorry."

Voldemort sighed and looked at Harry tiredly. "Somehow, I didn't expect you to be."

Harry shrugged.

Voldemort shook his head. "Harry, we are the oddities; the children that don't fit the trend. Muggle blood dilutes the magic in any person."

"Muggle blood," Harry replied. He'd done some research the first time he'd heard some Death Eaters spouting their beliefs about muggleborns while he was studying one day in the library. "Not blood with magic in it. Muggleborns only have weaker children when they marry muggles. The few times they marry purebloods, their magic is stronger, especially when the pureblood comes from a long line of purebloods who kept intermarrying."

Voldemort sneered. "Like the Potters?"

Harry shrugged. "The Potters, the Dumbledores, the McKnights, the Jacobs." He smiled. "You and Snape. Although, admittedly, both your fathers were muggles, but you're both magically stronger than your mothers."

Voldemort leaned back in his chair with a frown, considering Harry words. "You've put some thought into this."

Harry sighed. "I looked at you, and I looked at me, and I thought it was strange, your take, when at least two halfbloods were stronger than most of the purebloods. So I looked into it. We're not 'oddities', Voldemort, we're the norm, for halfbloods, at least. Our world needs new blood. Consider, the number of squibs are directly parallel to the number of times a family has married a cousin, which means, from what I can tell, if we keep marrying only purebloods, we'll eventually die out."

Voldemort rubbed at his forehead and said, "And yet, the muggleborns keep returning to the muggle world, which raises the chances of our being discovered and does end in magically weaker children as they marry muggles."

Harry rolled his eyes. "How many muggleborns have jobs in our world?"

Voldemort considered that. "Not many."

"And why?" Harry demanded. "It's not like there aren't more that can get jobs. Plenty of muggleborns got good marks on their OWLs and NEWTs and could get a job in the Ministry or at a shop in Diagon Alley." When Voldemort shook his head, Harry said, "They go to the muggle world because the purebloods are given preference when applying for jobs, even if the muggleborn is more qualified. It's just like how women or those with darker skin are often overlooked for jobs or promotions in the muggle world. Vernon wouldn't have been as high in his job if the other people qualified for a promotion were white."

Voldemort sighed. "Muggleborns are often overlooked because they have strange ideas. Like how that muggleborn friend of yours thinks house-elves should be free."

Harry rolled his eyes at the reminder of Hermione's insistence, not even bothering to ask how Voldemort knew about that. "Perhaps that's because she was raised muggle, yes. And muggleborns often have trouble grasping the concept of magic because they're raised believing it doesn't exist. Perhaps we'd be better served trying to find a way to acclimate them to our world before they start their schooling, rather than just doing away with them." He leaned forward, seeing that Voldemort was honestly considering his words. "Voldemort, weren't you and I in the exact same boat as those muggleborns? Wouldn't it have been nice to have someone come to you when you first started showing signs of accidental magic and tell you what was going on? Maybe even take you away from muggles who simply weren’t capable of dealing with it?"

Voldemort narrowed his eyes at the boy, but he had to admit that, in spite of the mention of his own past, Harry had made a good point. And he knew the boy hadn't made it that way to hurt Voldemort, because Harry himself had suffered at the hands of muggles who hated magic. Rather, the boy was using an example that they both understood to make a point that, admittedly, hit rather close to home.

What would life have been life for Voldemort if he'd been told at five about magic? If someone had been there to take him from the orphanage and raise him away from the terror of bombings and beatings? Someone who could have told the young Tom Riddle about his heritage and made him feel special? Someone who hadn't shrugged off the need for recognition as Dumbledore had once done.

Seeing the indecision on Voldemort's face, Harry pulled out his trump card. "Wouldn't it be nice to know that no other children grew up hated, as we did?"

Voldemort jerked back, as if hit, and stared at the open green eyes across from him. Without another word, the Dark Lord disappeared, leaving Harry hoping that his words hadn't done as much harm as he feared they had.

Chapter Text

The Death Eaters never got the blow-up many of them had bet on and, as far as they knew, the confrontation that should have happened after the show in Diagon Alley never occurred. Instead, life continued as it always had, with Harry spending most of his day in the library and his evening with one of the Death Eaters. Voldemort spent his day in his study, having meetings and apparently getting lost in thought about the paperwork on his desk. In reality, of course, Voldemort was thinking about everything Harry had brought up the night before, and some of his meetings were with experts on the subject of bloodlines and the strength of the magical gift.

Late that evening, as Harry was just finishing losing another game of Exploding Snap against the Lestrange brothers, Voldemort stepped into the library where Harry and the Death Eaters played games. The brothers immediately bowed to their lord and Harry turned to smile at him, smudges of black all over his face.

Voldemort cocked one hairless eyebrow and said, "I would have thought you'd be better at that game, Harry."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Not when playing against those two," he replied, shoving his thumb at the two Death Eaters, who were watching the interaction curiously. Harry and Voldemort rarely interacted outside of the Dark Lord's study, so most people in the base weren't aware how amiable the two were.

Voldemort eyed the two brothers, then glanced at Harry. "What's wrong, Harry? Are they cheating?"

Harry rolled his eyes again. "No, they're brothers. They know each other so well that they can avoid traps and help each other out. It's a lot of fun watching them play each other, though." The brothers hid smiles behind hands at the statement. Most of their games lasted far longer than a game played between anyone else, since they were quite capable of avoiding any traps.

Voldemort smirked and pulled up a chair at the table, chuckling when his Death Eaters both stared at him in surprise. He looked at Harry and said, "Would you like to try teaming up on them?"

Harry's eyes lit up at the prospect of finally taking the brothers down and agreed.

The game was far more gruesome than any Exploding Snap game Harry had ever played in Gryffindor Tower, but playing with Voldemort was rewarding, as the two trounced the brothers, and not just because the two Death Eaters had stopped their dirty tricks against their master. In the end, Harry and Voldemort faced off, resulting in a tie when Harry set a trap that they both, amusingly enough, set off.

Chuckling, the two parselmouths cleaned off the other's face and sat back in their chairs. The Lestrange brothers, sensing that the two powerful wizards needed some time to talk, said their good nights and left for bed.

Voldemort threw up some wards around the room and watched Harry as the teen smiled easily. After watching each other for a few minutes, Harry said, "You didn't come here just to stare."

Voldemort sighed, all signs of amusement disappearing. "No," he agreed, "I didn't."

Harry nodded and settled himself more comfortably, resigning himself to a long talk.

Voldemort gathered his thoughts and said, "I've been speaking to some people from the Department of Mysteries about your findings, and they agree with you. With everything you've said."

Harry's eyes widened briefly. He honestly hadn't expected Voldemort to go to the Department of Mysteries and have them back him up. The Ministry as a whole, Harry had found during his years in the wizarding world, tended to hire the sort more inclined towards Voldemort's way of thinking. Harry didn't think he'd ever met a Ministry worker who was willing to consider the bigger picture, and look past their own beliefs. Even the Ministry workers that Harry knew from the Order had one set of beliefs about the world and weren't inclined to consider the other side; it was what had made Harry's choice to be neutral so difficult for them to comprehend.

Voldemort seemed to read the disbelief in Harry's eyes, for he said, "The Department of Mysteries has always sought to hire people more inclined to look at the unusual. You may be unsurprised to learn that more than half their staff are muggleborn."

Harry blinked, then smiled. "That would make a certain amount of sense," he commented. "After all, muggleborns already have to put many of their life-long beliefs to the test when they join our world. And they have a lot of ideas about things that purebloods would never question, as the purebloods grew up with those things, and the muggleborns didn't."

Voldemort sighed and nodded. "I must agree with you there," he admitted.

Harry pulled off his glasses to clean some soot off the right lens that had been missed. "What have you decided, then?" he enquired as neutrally as he could.

Voldemort eyed the boy for a long moment, then said, "It pains me to admit that you may be right."

Wisely, Harry did nothing more than raise an eyebrow at the man.

Voldemort scowled at him. "But I cannot suddenly change the meaning of this war, Harry."

"Why not?" Harry asked. "Tell your people to leave the muggleborns alone; that's the first step, yeah? And maybe the Department of Mysteries could release their own findings on the matter."

"The Department of Mysteries doesn't release findings," Voldemort replied sharply. "And I can't just turn around and say, 'We're not killing mudbloods any more, we're going to try and bring them more fully into our community'!"

Harry snorted. "So maybe you can't change everything at once. Maybe your people are just too bull-headed to listen to reason – Merlin knows the rest of our world is! – but that doesn't mean there isn't something to do. Maybe I'll release my findings instead. My name is well-known enough that people might just read it."

Voldemort considered Harry's comment. Harry was known by practically everyone in their world. If the boy released his findings, and somehow got the Department of Mysteries to back him, the people would have to listen. Hell, the Death Eaters would have to listen. And after nearly two months in the base, most of the Death Eaters knew Harry was a clever boy, despite his age and what others might have said about him in school – Voldemort made a point to ask his people how Harry was doing, and had received nothing but positive responses.

"Do it," he finally decided. "I'll see if I can get the Department of Mysteries to back you up with their own, much more in depth findings."

Harry nodded, tugging a lock of hair thoughtfully. If he wanted people to listen, he'd have to be persuasive, yet open. It would be difficult to get the voice right, especially since he was, by no means, a good paper-writer.

Voldemort read his concerns on the boy's face and said, "I can read it over once you've finished, if you'd like."

Harry looked at the Dark Lord in surprise, then smiled. "I think that would help."

Voldemort nodded, then stood. "We'll have a long few days ahead of us if you want this out by Christmas."

Harry's face broke into a smile. "You think we can manage that?"

Voldemort eyed the boy with a faint smile. "Of course we can, you fool Gryffindor."

Harry laughed and followed the feared Dark Lord from the room, heading for bed with a much lighter heart than he'd had for weeks.

-0-0-0-

The morning of the twenty-second, the editor of The Daily Prophet received an interesting letter, borne by an angry-looking owl. He read the attached letter and fell out of his chair in surprise. The Dark Lord wanted him to post some findings that went completely against everything his cause was about? He briefly skimmed the article and smiled as he saw the name of the author. "Harry Potter," the man murmured, picking himself up off the floor. "Somehow, I knew you wouldn't fail us."

-0-0-0-

The Weasley household was quiet during breakfast. The twins had been trying to get Harry invited for Christmas, but no matter what they told their family about the boy's actions in Diagon Alley, their family wouldn't agree to it. Ginny was completely on their side, but after Harry had disappeared into Voldemort's base, Arthur and Molly had taken a hostile stance when it came to the boy, and Ron was all too happy to spread his lies about his one-time best friend. Hermione seemed unable to decide how she felt about Harry, so ended up staying silent about the matter, leaving the twins and Ginny to fight against their parents and youngest brother alone.

The uneasy silence was broken by the arrival of an owl bearing the paper. "Bit late this morning," Arthur noted, taking the paper and giving the owl the required money from a jar on the table. He opened it around his breakfast and set to reading it. He'd barely got three sentences into the front page article when his spoon clattered to the table.

"Arthur?" Molly asked, while the five kids around the table all looked up in surprise.

Arthur glanced around the table nervously, then cleared his throat and read, " 'Most of you know my name, and those who don't have been living with their heads in the sand. I've heard a lot of people say I've thrown my lot in with the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters – even my two best friends – but that's not true. As hard as it might be for you all out there, fighting against Vol-' " Arthur choked on the Dark Lord's assumed name, " 'Voldemort to believe, I'm right there with you, I just have a different way of fighting.

" 'One day, sitting in the library and reading a Potions book, I happened to overhear some Death Eaters discussing the issue that started this entire war: the superiority of pure, magical blood. Now, my mum was a muggleborn, and I've been told more than once that I'm nearly as magically powerful as the late Albus Dumbledore, so I, of course, can find no reason to believe this to be true. I ended up doing a lot of research on the topic.

" 'I'm not the first halfblood to be more powerful than his parents: Albus Dumbledore himself is a halfblood, as are his two siblings, and at least two of the three are more powerful than their parents. A charismatic and powerful Slytherin named Tom Riddle in the forties was the child of a muggle and a witch who was little better than a squib. You all know Tom by a different name now, but he's told me that if I tell you all who he is, I might just be killed in my sleep. (That should give you a hint, at least.)

" 'Any well-known pureblood family will find a muggleborn somewhere in their family tree, and that muggleborn's blood is helping supply that family with magic. Lucius Malfoy's seven-times great grandfather was muggleborn, while Arthur Weasley's three-times great grandmother had a muggle mother and a halfblood father. My own five-times great grandmother on my father's side was muggleborn.

" 'But there's something far more insidious about these findings. Have any of you ever heard of the Alians? I sincerely doubt it, as they died out sometime in the early nineteen-twenties. The Alians were one of the most well-known purebloods of the time – most purebloods today will be able to find one in their family tree – but they eventually hit a point where they birthed nothing but squibs. The man of the house had fifteen children by ten different wives, but they were all squibs. The most recent muggleborn or muggle on their tree was twelve generations before. An estranged sister married a muggleborn and their grandson was Florean Fortescue.

" 'These are only a few of the names I researched, but I can assure that everything I've written is true. Voldemort has the wrong of it, yes, because we need muggleborns if we are going to survive. I ask you, fellow wizards and witches, to consider these findings. Please, do your own research if you must, but don't ignore what I've found. If you can believe this, perhaps Voldemort can believe this. And perhaps, just perhaps, we can end this war.' "

The breakfast table was silent.

-0-0-0-

The Lestrange brothers hurried into the library, where Harry was dozing at his usual table. Voldemort was sitting next to him, reading a letter from the Department of Mysteries, which said they'd agree to putting out their own statement to back up Harry's. The boy jerked up when Rodolphus knocked into a chair and blinked up at the brothers sleepily while they bowed to their lord.

Rabastan nervously cleared his throat and said, "Might we borrow Harry, my Lord?"

Voldemort eyed Harry with amusement dancing in his red eyes. "What have you done now?" he asked.

Harry rubbed sleepily at his eyes and rose. "Haven't the faintest," he said with a shrug, then followed the two men to the other side of the library. There, Rodolphus shoved the paper in his face and said, "If our Lord gets wind of this, he'll kill you."

Harry blinked at him sleepily, then said, "He helped me write it," before walking back over to the table he'd been sitting at, saying, "You owe me four sickles."

Voldemort eyed him with amusement. "I thought the bet was for eight?"

Harry shrugged and said, "I bet it would be Rabastan, but Rodolphus was the one who warned me off." He fell back into his chair and dragged the letter Voldemort had been reading over.

"Then neither of us win," Voldemort replied.

Harry waved his hand negligently. "Rabastan still came with him to warn me. They're practically the same person, anyway."

Voldemort considered that comment with a grunt while the two Death Eaters in question crept back over to the table with wide eyes. After a moment, he pulled four sickles out of the pouch at his hip and slid them over to Harry. "Should have known better than to bet on Wormtail."

Harry snickered and put the coins away before reaching across the table to steal Rodolphus' paper. After a moment, he chuckled and said, "They kept your name in there."

Voldemort cocked a hairless eyebrow at the teen. "You did specify."

Harry grinned at him. "Yeah, but I didn't think they'd actually listen. Usually our world has such a fear of your name that they avoid all mention of it. Even in the paper."

Voldemort moved his head in faint agreement, then stood. "I have some work to see to. And you, Potter, should sleep," he said, then turned and left the room.

When the brothers turned to Harry questioningly, he said, "We were up all night working on the letter. And you know the Dark Lord wouldn't admit to having lost sleep." He grinned when the Lestranges covered smiles, then stood himself. "Sorry to miss our promised game, but I am rather knackered. Can we make a rain date?"

"We'll play when you get up," Rabastan promised while both brothers also rose.

When Harry frowned at them, Rodolphus said, "Some of the Death Eaters are very displeased with you over the article. I doubt our Lord would be happy with them if you were hurt, but no one yet knows that he agreed to the article. Normally, we wouldn't worry about you in the halls – you're more than capable on your own – but you're tired..."

Harry nodded in understanding. "Good point. Well, let's go, then." He smiled and led the way out into the hallway.

"Some of the Death Eaters who really don't like you are going to need more than just an article with a few findings to make them change their minds, you know," Rodolphus said, just to have something to say in the empty halls. It was still a little early for a number of the Death Eaters, as many had become slightly nocturnal during their stay with Voldemort.

Harry nodded. "Your wife."

Rodolphus winced, but it was no secret that Bellatrix hated Harry with a passion. Not even Voldemort had been able to punish her enough to curb her hatred. So Harry just made a point of avoiding her after she'd been released from her punishment and, after getting Crucioed a few times for seeking the youngest member of the base out, Bella had also started avoiding him.

Harry shrugged; he'd never held Rodolphus responsible for Bellatrix's actions. "The Department of Mysteries has been doing studies on this for a few centuries," he commented. "They've agreed to release their own finding in the next Prophet to back me up. Any disbelievers should be convinced with that."

"You got the Department of Mysteries to agree to release their research?" Rodolphus said disbelievingly.

"How are you so sure it will be enough?" Rabastan asked.

"I didn't get them to release it, the Dark Lord did," Harry said with a mischievous smile. "And their findings were what got him to believe my findings. If they worked on him, they should work on everyone else." He touched the knob of his door, which they were standing in front of. "Well, good night."

"Sleep well," the brothers chorused, looking a little gobsmacked.

Harry rolled his eyes and walked into his rooms. There, he relieved himself in the loo, then slipped into his bed. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

-0-0-0-

Voldemort sighed at the letter in front of him. Harry didn't know it, but all of his incoming mail went through the Dark Lord's office before it got to him; even his loyal Hedwig and the distrustful Fawkes didn't seem to mind and even, Voldemort thought, approved of the security. Especially early on in Harry's stay, it was necessary, as the boy got more cursed letters than even Voldemort. Impressive.

Voldemort was glad for the security, because his house guest had, once again, caught the attention of the public that couldn't seem to decide if they loved or hated him. But this letter had nothing to do with curses and everything to do with the apologies and offer in it.

Voldemort had not been blind to how much Harry's estrangement from his friends had hurt him, though he had often ignored it in favour of being disgusted at how childish they were. He knew that Harry craved their love and needed that support to keep going. The boy had managed, for a while, with the few friends he had left and the first years who had flocked to him after he'd protected them – Severus had told him as much – and after coming to Voldemort's base, the boy had made friends with a few Death Eaters.

Now, here, in front of him, was a letter written by Harry's two best friends. They had tripped all over themselves to apologise and then had ended the letter asking if Harry would come to the Weasleys' for Christmas.

Voldemort realised he didn't want Harry going anywhere else for the holidays or, worse, going back to Hogwarts when it started again. He didn't like that he felt that way – Dark Lords don't form attachments, especially not to boys prophesied to kill them, even if said boy had a part of his soul – but he couldn't deny it. He couldn't make himself magically reseal the letter and hand it back to the excitable owl who'd brought it so it could take it to Harry. He couldn't.

"You're Voldemort, most feared Dark Lord in centuries. You can hand a letter to a bloody owl," he growled at himself.

:What's wrong now, Tom?: Nagini asked from her warm corner.

Voldemort glanced at his familiar with mild irritation at his birth name, but had long given up on ordering – or even asking – her to stop it. :A letter for Potter.:

Nagini rested her head back on her tail coils. :So toss it in the fire.:

Voldemort snorted and considered the fireplace. :It's not that kind of letter. It's an apology and an... invitation,: he replied with distaste.

:Then why does it matter? Send it to him,: Nagini decided.

Voldemort shook his head. He loved Nagini, but emotions were not either of their strong points, and human matters were even more inconceivable to her than they were to him. He tried to figure out the best way to put his problem into snake terms, but the only one he could think of, he already knew her answer to: If you and another snake came across the same rat and the other snake was more hungry, what would you do? Hope you were faster.

But what if being faster wasn't in your character?

Voldemort sighed and looked back down at the letter. Human matters were so troublesome. And he didn't even understand why this was bothering him. The only other person Voldemort might consider talking to about the matter was Harry himself – and when had that happened? – because Harry wouldn't think less of him for being questioningly human for five minutes.

As if thinking about him summoned him, Voldemort felt the boy's presence in his mind. He glared at the letter one final time, then shot a spell at his office door to keep people away and sunk into his mind.

"Potter. What brings you here?"

Harry glanced at him from his red chair. "You woke me," he said simply, then glanced back at the fire, apparently willing to let Voldemort decide whether to dismiss him or sit down and talk.

Voldemort wasn't sure what to do, so he sat in his own chair and turned to the fire, hoping to find some genius in the dancing flames.

"I don't suppose I've had any mail from my friends?" Harry finally asked.

Voldemort blinked and turned to look at the teen, but Harry was still looking into the fire. He hadn't thought the boy knew that his incoming mail went through Voldemort's office, but Harry was probably used to the thought that his mail was watched. "One," he admitted.

Harry nodded. "Ron and Hermione?" he guessed.

Voldemort stood to get some tea, just for something to do. "Yes. They would like you to come visit them for the hols."

Harry hummed. "Well, that would be awkward. I don't think any of us has got the others gifts."

Voldemort looked at the teen incredulously. "You're worried about gifts?"

Harry smiled. "Maybe," he agreed. "But I'm also thinking it would be strange to visit with them again when we've had such a falling out." He glanced back at the fire. "I'm not sure, yet, how I feel about them. There were some... very hurtful words spoken before I left. I don't know if I'm ready to forgive them. Especially Ron."

"They spent an impressive portion of the missive apologising," Voldemort offered.

Harry smiled at him knowingly. "Did you mock them?"

Voldemort held a cup of tea out to the boy and retook his own seat, choosing to stay silent. He had, of course, mocked the teenagers and their angst at their own stupid choices.

Harry chuckled, taking the silence as an admission. "I'm sure they're very sorry, now that I'm working for what they consider to be the 'good' side again. And that's another reason I'm not sure I want to spend time with them." He sighed and took a sip of tea.

"There is no good and evil," Voldemort murmured, recalling what he'd once said to a much younger Harry in very different circumstances, "only power, and those too weak to seek it."

Harry inclined his head. "It took me a long time to understand what you meant by that, all those years ago, but over the past year, it's started to make sense. But Ron and Hermione..."

"They see the world in black and white," Voldemort offered when Harry was lost for words.

Harry smiled. "Yes. And I don't. I mean, I still see some white and some black, but I mostly see grey. They will see my article as a point for the Light and against the Dark. But it's not. It's a point in the favour of all of us – Light and Dark. I don't know that I'll be able to sit there while they congratulate me for something I didn't do."

"Expectations," Voldemort murmured, then shook his head. "You are welcome to remain here, if you prefer," he said, surprised at how easily the words came to him. "Both for the hols and once term starts up again."

Harry nodded into his tea. "I think I will. I like it here."

Voldemort just nodded in response, unable to voice the impossible joy that welled up at that acceptance.

Harry yawned and smiled a little sheepishly. "Ah. Well, I suppose I should be getting back to bed, then."

Voldemort inclined his head. "I apologise for waking you," he managed, with far too much ease.

Harry nodded and set his cup on a table that appeared at his elbow for it. "Not a problem," he said, then disappeared.

Voldemort remained in his mindscape for a while longer, sipping his tea and looking into the fire.

-0-0-0-

Harry sent back a gracious apology for his inability to spend Christmas at the Weasleys', saying he'd had previous engagements already and didn't wish to insult the person who he'd already agreed to spend the holiday with. He attached a couple quick things he'd magically thrown together for Ron and Hermione, as well the gift he'd found for Ginny and a few things for the twins, which he'd spent far more time on than Ron and Hermione's gifts. Once everything for them had been sent out, he read through his other mail from the article – the ones Voldemort hadn't burned – and responded to the ones that required it. By the time he was done, it was supper time and he left his rooms to find the Lestrange brothers, Antonin, and Wormtail, who he often ate with.

He found them in the library, whispering together over the table he often frequented when he was doing homework or playing a game with one of them. When they didn't look up at his approach, Harry shook his head, then cleared his throat.

"Ah! Harry," Wormtail said, nervously twitching his hands.

Harry blinked at the trapped looks on each of their faced and shook his head again. "I don't want to know," he decided out loud, then asked, "Supper?"

They all looked relieved at his first comment and rose in agreement at his second. As soon as they started out for the kitchen, Harry found himself drawn into a discussion about his article by Antonin who, while he seemed to have a valid interest, also seemed to be trying to distract Harry, and yet was distracted himself.

Finally, Harry said, "Either tell me what's got you lot jumping at shadows, or stop it. It's disturbing. And if this is about your whisper session which I walked in on, I will tell you now that I honestly don't care."

The four Death Eaters traded looks and nervous laughter, but stopped acting so suspicious, so Harry let it be.

-0-0-0-

A couple of days later, Harry woke to a room done up in garland and bright Christmas lights. There was magical snow falling and little fairies dancing around, humming and chattering pleasantly. Harry couldn't help but sit in bed for a few minutes and smile. Any upset at not attending the holiday with the two people he'd spent his best Christmases with completely evaporated.

When Harry finally talked himself into climbing out of bed, he pulled on a dressing gown and went out into the small study which was connected to his bedroom. He'd thought he'd heard some quiet chatter in there and when he opened the door, he was met with shouts of, "Happy Christmas!"

Harry smiled around at the four friends he'd made at the base and the six or seven other Death Eaters he occasionally joined for a game of Exploding Snap or chess. "Happy Christmas," he returned, walking over to the open seat between the Lestrange brothers, which Rabastan was pointing demandingly at. "This is wonderful," he said honestly as he sat.

"We had a hard time figuring out how to make a Christmas better than one at Hogwarts," Wormtail admitted. "It's never the same without your friends, but we'd hoped this would help make up for the lack."

Harry shook his head. "What little there is," he said drily. "I got an invite, but I turned it down. I much prefer spending time here, at the base, anyway." He grinned at the various Death Eaters and they all returned the smile. "I can actually win at chess, here."

The ones who had been worse than Harry chuckled ruefully while those who hadn't played the complicated game with him or always beat him just kept smiling.

A light breakfast appeared, brought by a party of house-elves, and they all chattered happily while they ate. Once the food was cleared, they traded gifts around and Harry was only a little saddened that he hadn't thought to get gifts for anyone besides the Lestrange brothers, Wormtail, and Antonin, but since the others hadn't seemed to expect anything, he decided not to worry about it.

Most of his gifts were wonderful and showed a lot of thought, but two gifts made him feel slightly disheartened; the bags of sweets each from Ron and Hermione. He knew they'd scrabbled for gifts, just as he had. But at least he'd actually put thought into his gifts for them – a bookmark that was spelled to remember the information on the last six pages it had been used to mark and a set of Keeper pads that would help protect Ron more from the Bludgers. (Given, Ron almost always gave sweets, but Hermione usually bought him something she thought would be useful, rather than something that would rot his teeth. She'd chosen sugar quills, at least, which could be used for more than a sugar rush. But still.)

But those two gifts were far outshone by the tens of other presents his other Hogwarts friends and the Death Eaters had given him. However, there was one gift which outshone them all, a Pensieve. And no one would admit to having given it to him.

Harry left the gift to ponder it more later and went to get changed into something a bit more acceptable for the large Christmas lunch, which was to be held in the larger dining hall, where the Death Eaters always shared supper on Sundays. Harry had been told that many families would also be there, so Harry would finally have some people his own age to speak with. Of course, Harry wasn't sure how much he'd want to talk to his fellow students, considering how the start of term had gone, but he was still unable to fully squash the part of him which was excited to be seeing some familiar faces from before his exile.

In the hall outside his room, he found Voldemort. "Happy Christmas," the teen said, still in a good mood from the morning's surprises.

"I take it this has been a good holiday for you," Voldemort replied without inflection.

Harry cocked his head to one side and looked up at the Dark Lord. "You could have joined us," he said, guessing why Voldemort was acting so aloof.

"Dark Lords do not join in on Christmas celebrations with their troops," Voldemort replied, turning to walk down the hall toward the stairs to the main floor.

Harry rolled his eyes and hurried to catch up to the disgruntled man. "Dark Lords are powerful enough that they can do whatever they please and no one will question them for fear of being cursed within an inch of their sanity."

Voldemort glanced at Harry with a faint spark of amusement in his bloody eyes. "True," he allowed. "But that doesn't mean we go to such events."

"That would be the royal we," Harry muttered under his breath, then, louder, said, "You could have come in some form that's not your own, like you do in Diagon, right? No one would ever need to know."

Voldemort sneered. "Everyone would know," he snapped, pointing to his eyes.

Harry rolled his eyes again and grabbed Voldemort's arm to stop him, not the least bit concerned by the death glare the man shot at him for touching him. "You're just vain," he informed the Dark Lord, then performed his own magical half-glamour, half-transfiguration over him. (After the trip to Diagon, Harry realised it would be helpful to know the spell himself and had researched it while the Death Eaters were busy plotting.)

Long brown hair just touched shoulders which were lower to the ground then Voldemort was used to them being. He glanced down at hands which weren't nearly as long and graceful as he remembered and blinked eyes that were strangely shaped. "What di–" he started, only to stop himself at the quiet and very not authoritative voice that came out of his mouth.

Harry smiled and crossed his arms over his chest. "I've been practising," he said. "Peter helped me when he wasn't busy with their little plans, so I know it's okay to use on people. And now your eyes are blue."

Voldemort blinked again. "You changed my voice," he hissed in what should have been an angry tone, but which sounded merely disgruntled.

Harry nodded. "Of course I did. Everyone in this base knows your voice and the tones you use when you're about to kill an idiot. It would be silly to disguise your appearance, only for you to be found out when you spoke in anger."

"I sound so..." He floundered for a word for a moment, not sure how he felt at the feeling of being speechless. He finally settled on, "Meek." Then he glared at the teen.

Harry rolled his eyes. "Be my guest for a day, okay? You can join it on the festivities and no one will watch their tongue or look nervous. They'll just be a little confused because I conjured you out of nowhere." He smiled. "Come on, Tom."

Voldemort twitched at the name, but admitted, if only to himself, that it would be nice to enjoy the Christmas festivities for once, instead of sitting above them and sneering when someone got up the nerve to offer him half a cracker to pop. "Oh, very well," he agreed. "But I will not be called 'Tom', Potter. Pick something else."

Harry rolled his eyes yet again. "Marvolo?" he suggested.

"...Morfin," he decided. "One or two of the Death Eaters know my real name."

Harry inclined his head, guessing that those were either Snape or one of the first Death Eaters, like Antonin. "Morfin it is," he agreed. "And you'll have to call me Harry, right? Because it seems silly that I would invite you to a Christmas party when you insist on calling me by my last name."

Voldemort tried a sneer, but he wasn't sure how effective it was, since they never phased Harry anyway. "Gryffindors," he muttered, thoroughly displeased with the mildness of his disguise.

Harry chuckled and grabbed Voldemort's arm in the same manner he might have once grabbed Ron or Hermione's arms and led the disguised Dark Lord, muttering under his breath the whole way, to the dining room.

"Harry!" Rodolphus called out, and the teen wound through the crowd that was filling the hall to where he could see the taller brother's arm waving wildly.

Harry completely ignored the various sneers and disgusted looks he still got from some of the Death Eaters, but Voldemort was a little surprised at how hostile his people still acted towards the Boy Who Lived when their Lord wasn't there to curse them for the transgression. From Harry's lack of reaction, Voldemort got the feeling that he'd been missing a lot from his seat at the top of the table.

"Who's this, then?" Rabastan asked of Harry's guest when they finally broke through the crowd to where Harry's four Death Eater friends stood near the head of the table.

"This is Morfin," Harry said with a grin. "We ran into each other just outside and I invited him along. You don't mind, do you?"

The four Death Eaters sighed and shook their heads, three of them quietly muttering, "Gryffindors," under their breath. Wormtail answered for all of them by saying, "Of course not, Harry. Welcome, Morfin. I'm Peter."

Voldemort nodded to each of them in turn as the other three men who served him introduced themselves. He'd known Antonin in school, so knew what he was like on a more personal level, and he'd seen enough of the Lestrange brothers when they didn't mind his presence that he knew what they were like when he wasn't around. But Peter was so brave when Voldemort wasn't around, and the Dark Lord was surprised at how very much like a Gryffindor the animagus was.

The four Death Eaters and Harry all took seats, Harry waving Voldemort to sit next to him. The Dark Lord just sat back and listened as the five traded jokes back and forth and challenged each other to the various games they played. It seemed so very surreal to Voldemort.

The strangest part was when Voldemort walked into the room and glared at the Death Eaters who scurried out of his way before making his way to his seat at the head of the table.

As the Death Eaters and their families slowly found seats, Harry leaned over next to the disguised Voldemort and asked, "You have a time turner?"

Voldemort was somehow unsurprised that the boy knew of the device. "Of course I do," he muttered. "I never would have allowed this insanity if I didn't. The meal doesn't start without me."

Harry rolled his eyes. "I should stop being surprised by your ego," he said half to himself and Voldemort sneered. "You don't feel left out, do you?" Harry asked, looking faintly worried. "I know we've been sort of off in our own silly world..."

Voldemort sighed and flicked Harry's forehead, getting an amused look out of the boy. "P– Harry, I don't care to join in your inane prattle."

Harry grinned at him, then looked at Rodolphus, who was sitting on his other side, and said, "I think Morfin feels left out."

"I do not!" Voldemort snapped. Or tried to snap. He mentally cursed the mildness of his disguised voice.

Harry just smiled ever so innocently while Antonin, who had chosen to sit on Voldemort's other side, drew him in to a discussion about some magical theory books he'd just read. Voldemort, of course, had read the books before and found himself getting drawn into a lively discussion on the dangers of side-along apparation.

Next to him, Harry silently cheered. Mission accomplished.

-0-0-0-

After lunch, Voldemort got dragged off to a continuation of the Christmas party Harry had woken to. When he tried citing his need to attend the lunch as Voldemort, Harry said, "And eat a second lunch? Come on. You barely manage enough food for me, stunted in growth as I am. No, I think you'll come with me now and, when we start wondering about supper, you can leave. Anyway, time turners have a max of twelve hours, unless you've enhanced yours, which I bet you have. You don't need to leave yet."

Voldemort had to admit that the teen had a point, so he let Harry lead him into the boy's rooms and sat through a more lively party than he'd attended since Slug Club. Even Severus' attendance – he'd been invited by another party-goer at the lunch and had accepted, surprising everyone but Voldemort, who was well aware of Severus' love for Harry's mother and his debt to the boy's father – hadn't dampened the excitement.

Voldemort was, by no means, a social person, but Harry wasn't the most social creature, either, so they spent a great deal of time standing off in one corner and speaking with the people Harry knew best at the party, while everyone else talked loudly in groups elsewhere.

Eventually, Severus came over to their little corner. Voldemort and Harry were alone at the time, as both Lestrange brothers had been pulled away to face down one very disgruntled Bellatrix and both Peter and Antonin had found other acquaintances to speak with.

"Potter," Severus said, glancing curiously at Voldemort, who he'd, no doubt, observed spending time with Harry the entire afternoon and was wondering who he was.

Harry inclined his head. "Headmaster. Are the Slytherins behaving themselves?"

Severus sneered. "As much as ever. Although, I dare say your article this past week will embolden your fellow Gryffindors into acting stupid and drawing them into fights in the hallways."

Harry shrugged. "Not my problem," he said.

Severus shook his head. "No," he agreed, "I don't suppose it is. You won't be returning to Hogwarts for the spring term, then?"

Harry shrugged again. "I prefer it here, personally. Both because of the people and because I learn more." Severus glanced curiously at Voldemort, and Harry chuckled. "Sorry. Professor, this is Morfin. Morfin, Professor Snape. The Dark Lord made him headmaster of Hogwarts."

Voldemort nodded. "Yes, I know," he agreed.

Severus inclined his head, then looked back at Harry, having deemed the disguised Dark Lord as no threat. "And has He been treating you well enough?" he asked the teen, not needing to specify who 'He' was.

Harry nodded, discreetly grabbing Voldemort's hand before it could pull out his wand and curse his Death Eater. "He's been fine. Took me Christmas shopping and everything."

Severus raised a disbelieving eyebrow at Harry and the boy offered him a cheeky grin. Severus snorted. "Very well. If he ever gives you reason to fear, you will be safe at Hogwarts."

Harry nodded again. "I doubt that will occur, but thank you, sir."

Severus inclined his head and walked away.

"How dare he," Voldemort seethed.

Harry rolled his eyes. "He owes my dad a life debt. I'm sure he's only offering because he's still paying it off," he said tiredly. "Merlin's sake, Tom, calm down," he added when the Dark Lord wouldn't stop glaring at the direction Snape went.

Voldemort hissed wordlessly and subsided. "Don't call me that."

"Stop acting like a Dark Lord," Harry shot back.

"I am a Dark Lord, you wretched brat."

"Not right now you're not."

Voldemort huffed and crossed his arms over his chest, because Harry had a point. And he never would have known that Severus was offering to protect Harry from him if he hadn't been here. Anyway, he knew the man had a twisted fondness for the boy because of his mother. It made sense that Severus would offer what protection he could, even at the cost of his own life.

Once certain Voldemort wouldn't go into a homicidal rage, Harry relaxed and knocked a knee against the table leg next to him. The table wobbled a bit and a stone thump made Harry glance over. He blinked at the Pensieve, which had subsided peacefully with the table. "Oh, yeah," he mumbled and picked the stone basin up to look it over again.

"A Pensieve?" Voldemort asked, looking over to see what Harry had picked up. "Who sent you that?"

Harry shrugged. "Haven't the faintest."

Voldemort motioned for the gift and, when Harry had handed it over, cast a quick series of spells over it. "Well, it's not cursed," he announced. Then he cast one last spell and his eyebrows raised in surprise.

Harry frowned. "What is it?"

Voldemort handed it back over to him. "This belonged to Dumbledore."

Harry grimaced and set the Pensieve back on the table. "Always meddling, even in death," he muttered. "Well, at least this time it's something useful."

Voldemort inclined his head. "You might find some of his own memories as ghosts of a sort from time to time when you use it."

Harry blinked. "Really? But it's empty."

"Of memories, yes," Voldemort agreed in the best form of his teaching voice that this body could manage. "But when a Pensieve has been used as much as I would guess this one has been, ghosts of those memories will remain in the stone. You'll be able to view them, once you've begun placing your own memories in there, but they will never be as clear as your own memories."

"Huh." Harry touched the Pensive thoughtfully. "Perhaps this will answer some questions."

"Or provide you with new ones," Voldemort replied drily. He had little trust that anything useful would come out of those ghost memories.

"As long as those questions aren't further about myself, I don't really mind," Harry said, then grinned.

Voldemort rolled his eyes and glanced at the time. "It's almost time for supper. Am I released yet?"

Harry laughed. "Oh, I suppose. But, did you have any fun?"

Voldemort paused in the act of leaving Harry to his corner, considering the question. After a moment, he said, "I believe so," then walked off.

Harry nodded to himself. Perhaps Voldemort would pretend to be Morfin again, then. Harry had quite liked having him along.

Chapter Text

Harry sat back on the couch in his room, eyeing the Pensieve on the table in front of him. He'd had the damn thing for almost two weeks now and, after doing a fair bit of research on it, was finally comfortable using it. All he had to do, was decide what memories to watch.

Occlumency gave him the chance to recall memories, as he knew, but Pensieves were able to go one step further: A memory placed in a Pensieve could be watched from a third person view, allowing the person watching the memory to see everything. It was both a curse and a blessing.

Harry knew that he really wanted to watch memories of his parents, since the Pensieve could give him more of the memories than the brief flashes he currently hoarded among his memory spheres, but he felt as though he should be using this gift for something more useful, such as learning magic that he'd seen others cast in the past, or studying past lessons in school, since his NEWTs would be soon – well, 'soon' as in, 'four months away', but the Death Eaters, Hermione's occasional owls, and Voldemort seemed to think he should be studying for them right that minute, never mind that Harry wasn't worried about the damn tests, not with as much extra reading as he did.

Finally, Harry decided to do what he wanted first, and then worry about being responsible with the bloody thing. Maybe he'd learn something from watching memories of his parents; it wasn't like they hadn't been at war during his childhood or anything.

Harry touched his wand to his forehead and remembered the snippet of lullaby he remembered his mother singing. Once certain he had it, he placed the silvery memory into the bowl and swirled it in the memory potion required to make the Pensieve work. After a moment, he steeled himself and leaned forward.

Harry had seen flashes of his nursery before, but this was the first time he could truly observe it and he drank in the pale blue room. Flashes of red and gold caught his attention and he figured his father and godfather must have added their own touches after his mum had finished the room. (He knew Lily had originally decorated the room from Wormtail, during one of the few moments that Harry was willing to talk to the rat about his dead family.)

Lily was just tucking a baby Harry into bed as the memory began. Baby Harry giggled and cooed happily at his mother, fat little hands reaching up and grasping at her hair. Lily smiled and pulled the lock away, saying, "No, no, little one. Here, have Paddy." She handed over a stuffed black dog, which baby Harry immediately grabbed and set to gnawing on the nose of.

Harry grinned at that and shuffled a little closer to the crib as Lily started singing softly under her breath about pegasi and griffins drawing carriages with sleeping children off to their dreams. Baby Harry drifted off to sleep, but the older Harry stood and stared with tears in his eyes as his mother gently smoothed wild hair from an unmarked forehead, smiling with pain in her eyes.

"Sleep, Harry," Lily whispered. "Sleep and dream of peaceful things while you still can."

Harry found himself back in his sitting room, face wet with tears. The Pensieve sat innocently on the table before him, potion and memory still swirling slowly.

"Mum..." Harry whispered and leaned back against his couch, staring up at the ceiling. He'd long known that his mother had loved him, but it was one thing to hear her sacrifice herself to save him, and another thing entirely to hear her wishing him pleasant dreams on a normal night; to watch her putting him to sleep with a smile on her face.

Harry wiped away his tears and sat forward again, looking down at the stone bowl. Maybe he could see his father next.

-0-0-0-

The first memory that wasn't Harry's came during a fight about who would be the secret keeper. James wanted Sirius, but Lily wanted it to be Dumbledore or another friend from the Order. Neither adult had noticed a wide-eyed Harry crawling around the doorway when the argument had become raised voices.

Harry had been standing next to himself and almost didn't realise that another memory was appearing over top of his own memory until there was the flash of spellfire. At that moment, he froze his own memory and focussed on the shade of a memory that was running in the background.

The Potter family faded away and new players came into focus. Harry recognised a much younger Dumbledore, but not the two other males or the young woman. The woman was watching the fight with terror in her eyes, while Dumbledore and the blond man at his side faced off against the last young man who had the same colourings as Dumbledore. From Harry's brief research into Dumbledore's family, he thought that must be Aberforth, the Headmaster's younger brother.

Harry wasn't quite certain what they were arguing about, especially since spells had just started being thrown between the blond and Aberforth. Dumbledore seemed uncertain for a moment, but a cutting curse got past the blond's shield and he started casting against his brother, anger burning in his eyes.

The lights of spellfire darted across the room, mixing so it was difficult to see which spell belonged to who. And then the young woman let out a scream and ran forward into the spellfire.

Harry couldn't have hoped to track where the spell that killed her came from, and he doubted the duellers could, either. But they all froze as she crumpled to the ground.

And then the younger Dumbledore shouted, "Ariana!" and was running forward while the elder stood in horror and the blond blinked, surprised.

The memory faded away, leaving Harry alone with the frozen argument between James and Lily.

"Ariana..." Harry breathed, eyes wide. Ariana Dumbledore had been the younger sister of Albus and Aberforth. He'd seen her grave in Godric's Hallow, and Fawkes had cried over it. "Murdered during a fight between brothers and... Who was the blond?" Harry wondered, brows creasing with a frown.

He wanted the ghost memory to come back. Perhaps someone had spoken the blond's name. Harry wanted to know who it had been, needed to know.

"Fawkes," Harry remembered and pulled away from the Pensieve to look around his room. The light was fading outside and he should probably be heading out to find food soon, but Harry was more intent on his mystery. "Fawkes!" he called, holding up an arm for the phoenix.

Fawkes appeared on his arm in a flicker of flame and gave Harry a curious bird-look.

Harry smiled at the bird a little tightly. "I just saw a ghost memory in the Pensieve," he explained. "It was Ariana's death." Fawkes let out a sad trill and Harry's forced smile fell. "I know. But... do you know who the blond was?"

Fawkes considered him for a moment, then launched himself off Harry's arm and disappeared in flames again. Harry only had to wait a moment before the phoenix returned, clasping an ancient photo in his talons.

Harry took the photo and looked at the images of Dumbledore and the blond man from before smiling back at him. They were bumping shoulders in a friendly way. "Yes, him," Harry agreed even as he turned the photo over. There, on the back, was a note: Albus and Gellert, 1900.

"Gellert?" Harry murmured, frowning. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but he wasn't certain why, and Fawkes had left him to his musings.

A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts and Harry set the photo down on the table next to the Pensieve before going to open the door. The Lestrange brothers and Antonin were standing there, smiling. "Food?" Rabastan suggested hopefully.

But Antonin took in Harry's troubled expression and asked, "Harry, what is it?"

Harry shook his head. "Do you know of any Gellerts that were alive at the turn of the century?"

"Gellert?" Rodolphus repeated, frowning. Next to him, Rabastan was rubbing at his chin.

Antonin blinked, once, then nodded. "Gellert Grindelwald," he announced.

Harry jerked in surprise, then looked back over at the table where the photo lay. "Grindelwald...?" he wondered. But why would Dumbledore have been so friendly with the man he eventually defeated?

"Why do you ask?" Antonin asked, considering the young wizard with worry in his eyes.

"No reason!" Harry announced and stepped out into the hall, bringing his door shut behind him. "I'm with Rabastan – food?"

Antonin was still frowning even as the four set out for where Peter was awaiting them with food.

-0-0-0-

Harry decided to leave the Pensieve for the rest of the night and hid the photo of Gellert and Dumbledore under the basin before retiring to his room to read a book on runic theory that Voldemort had suggested to him when he'd mentioned some interest in learning about runes.

The next afternoon, after getting some studying in and enjoying a lunch with his Death Eater friends, Harry again returned to his Pensieve to view old memories. However, his first dip wasn't into a childhood memory of his first Christmas as he'd expected, but another ghost memory; Harry found himself standing next to an ocean with Dumbledore and the blond man that matched a picture of Grindelwald that Harry had found before lunch.

"It ends here, Gellert," Dumbledore was saying. "You've terrorised enough people for the sake of your beliefs–"

"Our beliefs, Albus," Grindelwald insisted, smiling a twisted little smile. "Or have you forgotten the years we spent together in your home, searching for a way to save the world–"

"Yes, save it, Gellert!" Dumbledore snapped. "Not destroy it!"

"I'm only destroying the unworthy," Grindelwald replied mildly.

"Like my sister?" the one-time Headmaster wondered. "Was she unworthy?"

Grindelwald opened his mouth to respond, then snapped it closed and thought for a moment. When he finally responded, it was with sadness in his eyes. "Albus, Ariana was in the way of your greatness–"

"She was my sister!" Dumbledore roared.

"She was a waste of space!" Grindelwald snapped back, pulling his wand out as Dumbledore did the same. "She was a good-for-nothing with magic she couldn't control! She even killed your mother, Albus! She's better off dead. For the greater good."

Fury lit Dumbledore's eyes and he shot out a curse towards his old friend.

The scene faded away as Grindelwald returned fire and Harry pulled away from the Pensieve, sick to his stomach. The 'greater good'. That was something Dumbledore had cited once or twice, and Harry wondered how he could bear to say such things when Grindelwald had spouted them about Ariana. How had those two ever been friends?

But, then, how could Harry be living with the man who killed his parents? How could he be friends with the husband of the woman who tortured his best friend's parents into insanity and killed his own godfather? How could he bare to joke with the man who had betrayed his parents?

Harry didn't like the correlations he was drawing between himself and Dumbledore. Halfbloods, friends with the dark lords who would rule their lives, estranged from friends and family for their choices...

He felt a sudden sharp pain from his scar and Harry blinked himself out of his silent angst. Voldemort wasn't in the room or at the door, so far as he could tell, so he closed his eyes and sunk into his mind. There, the Dark Lord sat in his green chair, scowling.

"Would you stop being a teenager already?" Voldemort snapped once Harry had fully appeared in his chair.

"I'll get right on that," Harry replied drily. "Why are you pestering me?"

Voldemort sneered and tented his fingers in front of his face. "Your emotional turmoil is disturbing my work."

Harry's lips twitched with a smile at the Dark Lord's phrasing. "So sorry," he offered.

Voldemort sighed when Harry didn't offer anything beyond his slightly sarcastic apology. "I'm a Dark Lord, Potter, not a therapist," he snapped, earning a surprised laugh from the teen, then continued in a much gentler tone, "but if you require an ear to listen to your problems, I am never far."

Harry relaxed back in his chair, touched by the offer, despite the man who was giving it. "Thanks," he said and took on a thoughtful air. "What do you know about Dumbledore's young adult-hood? Before he became a teacher?"

Voldemort sighed and settled back in his chair for a long talk. "I assume you've seen some ghost memories?" Harry nodded. "I know very little. I was never particularly interested in his past, only that I might eventually get him out of my way. What have you learned?"

Harry tugged on his ear lobe. "I told you that Dumbledore had two siblings, right?"

Voldemort shrugged. "Aberforth and the girl. What was her name? Andrea? Alice?"

"Ariana," Harry replied. "I saw her death. Dumbledore and his brother and a friend of Dumbledore's were arguing and duelling and she got in the way. It killed her."

Voldemort blinked. "So?"

Harry sighed. "Aberforth was rumoured to never like his brother, and I think that's why. But, anyway, Dumbledore's friend who was there was Gellert Grindelwald."

The Dark Lord sat forward, expression intent. "Grindelwald? You're certain?"

Harry nodded. "Yeah. I looked up a picture of him, this morning, and it's him. No joke; Dumbledore and Grindelwald were friends in the early nineteen hundreds."

"Interesting..." Voldemort rubbed at his chin, still leaned forward. "They were friends, and I suppose the girl's death forced them apart?"

Harry nodded. "Yeah. When they met for their 'final battle', Grindelwald alluded to Ariana's death as having been for the 'greater good'."

Voldemort jerked back at that, eyes darkening. "The 'greater good'," he spat. "Sounds familiar. They were friends, and the old fool used the same line for his whole life, in spite of Grindelwald using it. How... precious."

Harry rolled his eyes at the Dark Lord. "That's one way to put it."

Voldemort snorted and leaned back against his chair. "And so, how does all this bother you? Don't tell me you feel sorry for the dead fool now!"

Harry sighed and shook his head, eyeing his hands as they twisted in his lap. "No, but I do... empathise with him... I guess."

"Why?" Voldemort demanded, disgusted. "Why would you empathise with him? Why would you even care? He was a manipulative bastard who did more bad than good."

Harry shrugged and glanced up at the irritated Dark Lord. "I'm very like him," he commented softly. "I made the choice to make peace with you and made friends with some of your Death Eaters and my friends ostracised me because of it–"

Voldemort let out an irritated sound and reached forward to force Harry to meet his eyes. "I don't think I could ever understand what brought Grindelwald and the fool together, but I can say this: You and I are nothing like Grindelwald and Dumbledore. For one, we did everything backwards from them. For another, you don't manipulate people." He sat back, leaving Harry to stare at him in surprise. "I may not be good with reading humans, Harry, but I'm accomplished enough at reading you to know that you're nothing like Dumbledore. Perhaps you share some similarities, but can that not also be said of you and myself? Will you start fearing you're turning into me next?"

Harry shook his head. "No, but for all that we shared a similar childhood, our views of the world are completely opposite. But I see things like Dumbledore did–"

"Do you believe in the 'greater good'?" Voldemort demanded. "Do you believe that sacrificing one or two boys is okay if the greater number of people live better lives?"

"No!" Harry snapped, horrified at the very thought.

Voldemort snorted. "Perhaps you look upon muggleborns favourably, but you don't think like him, and I doubt you ever will."

"...oh..."

The Dark Lord sighed and stood. "I have work to be doing. Stop moping and view a quidditch game or something – that will cheer you up." So saying, he vanished from Harry's mindscape.

Harry felt a smile creeping across his face at the Dark Lord's exit. "Thanks," he said to the still pendent on the wall, then returned to the real world to follow the man's suggestion; watching Gryffindor decimate Slytherin would always raise his spirits.

-0-0-0-

Harry didn't know what possessed him to view the moment when Dumbledore told him the prophecy, but he did. Curiously, there was an odd dissonance to the words, as if they were trying to say something else. When Harry tried to focus on the dissonance, it went away and he huffed, irritated.

Three plays of the scene later and he still wasn't sure what he was hearing, but he'd finally been able to catch some words:

'..must fall...grandfather's fate...'

'...hands entwined...world rise...'

'The change approaches...'

When Harry tried watching the scene a fourth time, the dissonance was completely gone, so he pulled out of the Pensieve and wrote down the words he'd heard. Then he sat back and thought about them. What did they mean? What did it mean that they'd come through during that particular memory? Was it another prophecy? And, if so, who was it about?

Someone knocked on the door and, after a quick glance at the clock to see that it was, in fact, time for dinner, Harry got up and walked over to the door, shoving the paper with the mystery words into his pocket.

"Ready to go?" Peter asked, grinning at him.

Harry nodded and stepped out into the hallway, closing his door behind him. "The others already head down?"

Peter sighed. "Bella was being..."

"Bella?" Harry suggested, used to the Lestrange brothers having to leave him to care for the mad woman.

"Rather," Peter agreed, shaking his head. "And Antonin was working on something with Jason Nott, so they went down together."

"At least you haven't abandoned me," Harry teased, green eyes sparkling.

The rat animagus rolled his eyes. "I'll abandon you as soon as we get into the dining room. I don't know why you insist on sitting with my Lord."

"Someone has to sit with him," Harry pointed out. "And ever since Christmas, he's been too busy to meet with me in the afternoons."

Peter nodded, acknowledging the point. A resistance group acting out of France had been making strategic hits starting shortly after Christmas, and the whole Dark Order was being kept on their toes trying to catch the group. It wouldn't have been so much trouble if the idiots would stop attacking normal witches and wizards that weren't a part of Voldemort's group, only trying to get by under the Dark Lord's rule. But the French resistance had taken the stance that anyone not fighting against the oppression was for it, which meant everyone was fair game.

Voldemort didn't ignore any attacks during the Sunday dinners, but he also refused to call them off or even miss them himself, so he'd asked Harry if the teen minded moving their afternoon meetings to over dinner. Harry had no problem eating with the Dark Lord, unlike most of his followers, and if they needed to discuss anything private, they could speak in Parseltongue, which had the added bonus of freaking out the Death Eaters. (Harry had learned early on during his stay that the Death Eaters were all conditioned to flinch and start behaving when the serpent's tongue was spoken near them, something that he used with great glee when a Death Eater started getting overly rude or pulled out their wand to curse him.)

True to his words, Peter scampered away from Harry as soon as they entered the formal dining room, leaving the teen to walk up to the empty seat on Voldemort's right. (Harry had noticed, during past meals when he didn't sit with the Dark Lord, that the right seat was empty. It didn't escape his notice that Voldemort was making a point to his Death Eaters that Harry was better than them and they needed to respect him.)

Voldemort nodded to him once Harry took his seat and Harry nodded back. Since Peter and Harry seemed to have been among the last coming in, the Dark Lord turned to a watching house elf and gave the signal for the food to be served, which it was. Everyone tucked in with gusto and people turned to their neighbours to talk quietly.

Voldemort was carefully cutting into his rare steak when he asked, "What's troubling you?"

Harry grimaced – Peter may have been oblivious to his trouble, but the Dark Lord never was. :Something in my Pensieve,: he offered in Parseltongue.

The Dark Lord frowned faintly. :Another comparison between yourself and the old fool?:

:Not so much, but I believe it's another ghost memory,: Harry explained. :I was watching the prophecy and there were some other words that were coming through, but it wasn't a complete memory.:

:A ghost memory that's not complete? Something Dumbledore tried very hard to erase?:

Harry shrugged and reached into his pocket for the slip of paper he'd written the words on. :Something like that, sure. Anyway, I wrote down what I could catch before it completely vanished. Here.:

Voldemort set his utensils down to focus entirely on the paper Harry handed over. He pondered them for a long moment while Harry munched on broccoli and called over a house elf to request some milk. It wasn't that he didn't want the water next to his plate, but the house elves had added a spice to the broccoli which was a little too much for him to eat alone, and he'd found in the past that it was less stressful to request a glass of milk than ask for unseasoned broccoli or just leave it uneaten.

Finally, Voldemort set the paper down on the table and picked his fork back up. :It has the ring of a prophecy.:

:I thought as much,: Harry agreed. :But that was all I could get. I tried watching the memory again, but the ghost was gone.:

Voldemort let out an irritated hiss. :Blast it. I can try watching it to see if I can get more, I suppose.:

:Or?: Harry enquired, hearing the hesitation in the other wizard's voice.

The Dark Lord frowned. :Try asking that bird of yours. He lived with Dumbledore for long enough.:

Harry nodded. :I'll do it after dinner. Did you want to come with?:

Voldemort blinked, surprised, and glanced around the table at his people, a few of whom were leaning just slightly away from the two Parselmouths. :Why?: he wondered.

Harry shrugged. :A hunch. If it's a prophecy, there's a chance it's about one of us or him, especially if he watched it so much that it created a ghost. More so if he tried so hard to erase it.: Harry shot the Dark Lord a knowing look. :And you can't pretend you're not curious.:

Voldemort smirked. :Then I'll join you after dinner,: he decided, then switched to English. "Now, what have you been working on, other than your Pensieve?"

Harry sighed and started up a conversation about some runes work that was confusing him. As the two continued speaking in English, the Death Eaters all relaxed and the meal returned to being quietly cheerful.

-0-0-0-

"Fawkes?" Harry called once he and Voldemort had entered Harry's suite.

The phoenix appeared in a lick of flame and came to rest on the arm Harry held out for him. He glanced curiously at the frowning Dark Lord, then looked at Harry, giving the teen his full attention.

"I got a weird ghost memory in my Pensieve, one that seemed like it might have been erased. We're hoping you could help us figure out what it was supposed to be?"

Fawkes chirped an agreement and flew over to his perch, which he brought over to the table the Pensieve sat on.

The two humans took the hint and moved over to take seats around the table. Before Harry could pull out the paper he'd written what he'd heard on, Voldemort leaned forward and picked up the photo of Dumbledore and Grindelwald. "You kept this?" he asked the teen.

Harry shrugged. "What else would I do with it? I could throw it out, I suppose, but it seems wrong to just toss it in the fire.

Voldemort sneered and dropped the photo back onto the table. "Gryffindors."

"Slytherins," Harry shot back with a grin as he pulled out the paper. He turned to Fawkes and said, "It sounds a bit like a prophecy, see. Uhm... Something about a grandfather's fate and..." Harry trailed off as Fawkes flashed away. "That was odd."

"He was Dumbledore's bird," Voldemort helpfully pointed out.

"Well, yeah, but–"

Fawkes' return cut off whatever Harry had been about to say and the two wizards turned their attention of the phoenix, who looked quite pleased with himself as he deposited a bottle holding a shimmering memory in it on the table next to the Pensieve.

"That's the memory of the prophecy?" Voldemort asked, leaning forward eagerly.

Fawkes chirped an agreement, then set about preening himself.

Harry swallowed, then quickly emptied the bottle into the stone bowl. After a quick glance at Voldemort, who nodded, Harry touched the memory with his wand, as Dumbledore had once done with another prophecy.

As with the other prophecy, Sibyll Trelawney's form rose up over the Pensieve and recited a prophecy in a distant voice, "The change approaches. Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies. The other will mark him as his equal, and he shall show the other things he knows not. When the child meets the grandfather, he shall know only trust. By his seventh year, shall things be made clear. Once-enemies unite, by hands entwined shall the world rise. Yet, to rise, something first must fall; the grandfather's fate is clear. As the seventh month dies, the change comes near."

"But, that's..." Harry stared at the Pensieve, which had returned to its slow swirl.

"Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies," Voldemort repeated. "And the bit about being marked as an equal–"

"That's the same," Harry said, turning to Fawkes, who was watching them with his head tilted to one side. "Isn't it?"

Fawkes dipped his head in a nod.

"It's the same prophecy?" Harry asked.

Fawkes tilted his head in a sort of, 'Yes, but no,' response.

"Which one is the real one?" Voldemort demanded, reaching for the empty bottle on the table that had held the prophecy. "This one?"

Fawkes nodded and ruffled his wings a bit.

"The other one was a fake?" Harry whispered.

Voldemort tossed the bottle to one side negligently, then leaned back into his chair and chuckled. "Oh, well played, you old fool. Well played."

Harry stared down at the innocent slip of memory which was just the slightest bit paler than his own memories. "No one needs to die," Harry realised and looked over at where the Dark Lord was watching him, a bitter smile touching his lipless mouth. "Neither of us has to die!"

"Instead, we get to 'unite'," Voldemort agreed drily.

"Haven't we already?" Harry replied. "We've got a common goal, and maybe not all your people are one hundred percent on-board with it, but you and I are. Right?"

They didn't really agree on how to solve the muggle problem, Voldemort admitted to himself, but they agreed that there was one and that the problem was to do with the muggles and not the muggleborns. "Right, so say we're already 'united', what about the 'hands entwined' bit? Because...no. Just, no."

Fawkes twittered in amusement while Harry flushed and shook his head. "Don't make me kick you out," he threatened the phoenix, which just made Fawkes twitter louder. "Oh, piss off!"

Fawkes gave the teen a highly amused look, then disappeared.

"You shouldn't speak to your familiar like that," Voldemort mock chastised him.

"He was Dumbledore's familiar first," Harry muttered, kicking at the skirt of the sofa he sat on. "And...I don't know. Do we have to take it literally?"

Voldemort sighed. It was one thing to hear a prophecy tell you you'd either kill someone or be killed by them; it was another thing entirely to be told you'd have a romantic relationship with someone you'd spent a great deal of time hating. "I'm a little amused that it's calling Dumbledore your grandfather, you know," the Dark Lord offered.

"Hell. No," Harry replied, accepting the unspoken offer to ignore all thoughts of 'entwining their hands' or whatever. "Trelawney was on some sort of wacked out potions when she said that bit."

" 'Wacked out potions'?" Voldemort repeated, staring at the teen.

Harry shrugged. "Something Rabastan said to me."

"Salazar save me."

Harry grinned, unrepentant. "I'll have to tell him you called upon your ancestor to save you from his sense of humour."

Voldemort shook his head and stood. "I've got work to do."

Harry laughed as the Dark Lord made his strategic retreat. However, before he could open the door, the teen asked, "Hey, Voldemort?"

The older wizard looked back over his shoulder. "Yes?"

"What now?" Harry asked, waving a hand towards the Pensieve and the memory inside.

Voldemort sighed. "Now, you pass your NEWTs and officially graduate from Hogwarts. I refuse to have an equal who dropped out." He gave the teen a warning look.

Harry smiled back. "Okay. I think I can manage that much."

"Good." Voldemort swept from the room, sneering at the Death Eaters who darted out of his way in the hall.

Back in his room, Harry sighed and stood. "Well, if I'm going to pass those damn tests, I suppose I might as well study some. I'll worry about you later," he told the Pensieve, then picked it up and put it away in a cabinet in the corner. Out of sight, out of mind, as Aunt Petunia had always said.

Chapter Text

"You'll do fine," Rabastan insisted as Harry tugged on his robes again. He'd been tempted to wear muggle clothing, but since the NEWTs were going to be held at Hogwarts, that wouldn't go over well. Anyway, he'd sort of become used to wearing robes around the manor, even if it wasn't school robes.

"Hey, if Wormy could pass the tests, you know you'll manage."

"Thank you, Rodolphus," Peter muttered, rolling his eyes even as he swatted Harry's hand away from the non-existent wrinkle in his robe.

"I'm not worried about the bloody tests," Harry muttered, picking at a loose thread on the other side of his body from Peter. "There's no way I won't pass those. I'm more worried about the reception I'll receive from the students and staff." He grimaced at the admitted fear, but it was how it was. In the months since Christmas, all attacks on muggleborns had stopped, per Voldemort's orders, and it was actually safe for muggleborns in their world again. (Though muggles were still fair game.)

In spite of that favourable change in the Death Eater's policy, the attacks from the French Rebels kept Voldemort's rule from becoming at all popular. Harry's friends in the school – Neville, Ginny, and Luna, mostly – had been keeping him apprised of the tempers of Hogwarts. Most of the Gryffindors were all for getting rid of Voldemort, as were many of the Hufflepuffs and a few Ravenclaws. Practically the entire Slytherin House as well as most of the Ravenclaws and a few Hufflepuffs, were backing the Dark Lord against the Rebels, insisting that Voldemort had the right of the world. The few students who avoided the whole argument were in the younger years or came from historically neutral families.

The teachers, on the other hand, had a different division in their ranks. None of them liked the Rebels, but those from the Order couldn't seem to bring themselves to throw their lot in with Voldemort, no matter how much had changed in his policies. Instead, they were sort of sitting around, twiddling their thumbs. What little news Harry got about the Order suggested that the small band was occasionally jumping in to catch the Rebels and kick them back, but it was only when a muggleborn family was in danger. (Harry couldn't help but wonder if the Rebel problem wouldn't have been handled already if the Order was being more helpful.)

At any rate, he wasn't particularly excited about facing the divided school. The only thing he could possibly say he was excited about, was getting to see his friends again. Even Ron and Hermione, who he hadn't exchanged many letters with, simply because he didn't feel like tormenting himself with their expectations.

"Potter," Snape drawled from behind them, putting an end to any further discussion or fussing, "are you ready, or must we delay further?"

Harry bit his tongue against the need to point out that it had been Snape holding them up; the man had come for an in-person report to Voldemort, and suggested Harry return with him by Floo, since the fireplace in his office would already be connected to the Floo network. "I'm ready, sir," he replied.

Snape gave a brisk nod and led to way to the open fireplace. Harry followed after one last uncertain smile at the Death Eaters he was leaving behind.

On the other end, Snape's office was empty save them. The Headmaster took the time Harry used to orient himself to retire to his desk. Once he'd sat, he announced, "The Dark Lord has ordered that I give you a choice in quarters for the duration of the NEWTs. You may return to Gryffindor Tower, where Professor McGonagall assures me there remains a bed for you, or you may pick one of the guest quarters on the sixth floor. The east wing," he added, correctly interpreting Harry's confused frown. "I do require you to decide now, as I have far more important things to be wasting my time with."

It wasn't really much of a choice, in the end; Harry had been half considering requesting alternate quarters for the week as it was, given the welcome he expected. "I'd prefer the guest quarters, sir."

Snape nodded and snapped his fingers. A house-elf appeared – not one Harry was familiar with, though he honestly never got to know any, beyond Dobby and Winky – and Snape ordered, "Show Potter to one of the guest rooms."

"Yes, Headmaster," the house-elf replied with a bow, then motioned for Harry to precede him out, which Harry did.

It was a short trip, made in silence. Harry was given the pick of two different rooms, and picked the one with the less shabby bedclothes. (It was clear neither of them had been used in quite some time.)

Harry quickly put away the week's worth of clothing and set the books he'd brought with to read next to the bed, then left the room and went in search of his friends. Neville, Ginny, and Luna knew he was coming, and he'd told them to let Ron and Hermione know, but he hadn't known exactly when he'd be arriving. Originally, the plan was for him to portkey to the castle for the exams, then leave again once he was done every day. But when he'd decided he wanted to spend some time with his friends, if he was going to be there anyway, they'd had to change their plans a bit. Voldemort also had to be convinced; of everyone Harry spent time with, he was the most aware of what awaited Harry at Hogwarts, since he was screening the post. (Although, in all honestly, Harry wasn't completely certain that was the only cause for the Dark Lord's disapproval in his long visit.)

Ron and Hermione, at least, were in the library. There was a moment's awkward silence when they all caught sight of each other, which Harry broke by offering a strained smile. "Hi."

Hermione let out a breath so explosively, it seemed as though she'd been holding it since Harry had refused to come for Christmas. Then she jumped to her feet and dashed forward to envelope Harry in a hug. "Thank you," she whispered.

Harry was momentarily confused about why she was thanking him, but, to be fair, he'd been a bit thrown off guard by the hug; he'd rather got out of the habit of receiving them, seeing as he lived with Death Eaters. He carefully extracted himself from the hug, commenting, "You're welcome, though I'm not really accepting thanks for that." He shrugged at her frown. "It's complicated."

"How can it be complicated?" Ron replied quietly as he joined them, casting a quick glance over his shoulder towards the empty front desk. "You showed You-Know-Who that he was wrong." He grinned then, wide and bright.

Something sat heavy in Harry's stomach. "Hasn't done much, though, has it?" he wondered. "You would still rather Voldemort was dead."

"Well, yeah," Ron agreed, shrugging off the cautionary hand Hermione put on his shoulder. "I mean, he is a monster."

The heavy thing zoomed up into Harry's throat, choking him. He turned away, swallowing hard so he could whisper, "Excuse me," before he hurried from the library.

Behind him, he heard something that sounded suspiciously like Hermione smacking Ron and hissing, "Now look what you've done!"

Harry found Neville and Luna by the lake, the latter quizzing the former. They both smiled when they spotted him, warm and unhindered. He smiled back and gladly sat next to Neville when he patted the ground next to him. "Hey," he offered, and the word was wonderfully free.

"Hey," Neville replied while Luna handed over one of the buttercups she'd been using to mark pages in Neville's book.

"What are you working on?" Harry asked, nudging shoulders with his yearmate while twirling the gifted flower between two fingers.

Luna held up the book to show the cover, even as Neville muttered, "Transfiguration. I feel okay with the wandwork, but the theory is tripping me up."

"Mind if I join in?" Harry asked, even though he really didn't need the refresher.

"Absolutely," Neville agreed and Luna flipped back to the first buttercup to ask them a couple of things on that page.

-0-

Word had got around by dinner that Harry was in the castle, so there was only a brief pause in quiet chatter when he stepped into the Great Hall with Neville and Luna. Luna immediately skipped off to her own table, leaving Harry and Neville to wander along the Gryffindor table to where Ginny had saved them some seats.

"Heard you were back," Seamus commented as clean plates appeared before Harry and Neville. "Wasn't sure if I believed it, though, with no things on your bed."

Harry shrugged, focussing his eyes on the platter of ham he was serving himself from. "I was given to option to stay in one of the guest rooms, so I took it."

"But," Ron said, frowning, "it's more fun in Gryffindor Tower."

"Harry's not here for fun, Ron!" Hermione snapped. "None of us are; the NEWTs start tomorrow!"

"I know that!" Ron shouted. "How could I not, with the way you keep reminding–"

"Is there a problem, Mr Weasley?" Snape asked, coming up behind Ron with an unimpressed look.

Ron flinched and joined his Housemates in shrinking in his seat. "No, sir," he whispered.

Snape turned his stare on Harry, the only person who hadn't reacted to his arrival. "Potter, if your attendance continues to cause a disruption, you will be forced to eat at the Head Table."

Harry grimaced. "I'll keep that in mind, Headmaster."

Snape gave a brisk nod, then stalked back up to the Head Table.

"I'm not staying after the NEWTs," he commented quietly, guessing where Ron had been going with his talk of fun in the dorms. "I only came back because it seemed rude to ask the examiners to come out to the manor when I'm more than capable of coming over to Hogwarts for a week."

Ron made a face. "Why not? No one's going to stop you from staying here. I mean, yeah, there are some Death Eaters around, but–"

"Ron!" Hermione hissed, trying to shut him up.

"–at least there's no butt-ugly snake-faced dark lords around, right?" He started to grin, only to realise Harry wasn't smiling back. His smile vanished, replaced by a sort of confused frown.

"The nice thing about staying at the manor, which isn't true of staying at Hogwarts," Harry said quietly, "is that no one there expects me to share their opinion. In fact, pretty much everyone starts a conversation assuming we're going to disagree at least once. And then, when we do disagree, no one starts calling anyone else names or draws their wand."

There was a heavy silence, everyone either staring at Harry or looking away, ashamed.

Neville cleared his throat. "Even Bellatrix?" he asked.

Harry snorted. "Bellatrix and I make a point to avoid each other, even when we have to be in the same room." He tapped his plate with his fork and hummed thoughtfully. "You know, it turns out that, if you use the Cruciatus on a crazy person enough times, they do eventually learn not to do the thing they're being cursed for."

"That's...good to know," Ginny offered uncertainly.

Harry nodded. "It was very informative," he agreed.

Ron turned bodily away from him and struck up a conversation with a fifth year sitting a couple of seats down. Clearly, he wouldn't be talking to Harry again for a while.

Hermione sighed, looking tired. "Was that necessary, Harry?"

Harry stared down at his plate, thumb rubbing against the edge of his fork. "No," he admitted quietly, then shrugged and glanced back up at her. "I'm not here to mend broken bridges, Hermione. I'm okay where I am right now, and if someone can't accept that, then that's for them. I've had enough of changing who I am to please someone else."

She smiled at him, an edge of resignation to it. "Good," she told him, before asking about a Charms spell that often showed up on the NEWTs.

Which was how Harry got Hermione back, and lost Ron for good.

-0-

The NEWTs were about as draining as Harry had expected. He came away feeling good about them, but he was still glad they were over.

He was also ready to return to the manor. While it was true no one had bothered him, after Ron's outburst at dinner the first night, they did watch him silently, eyes crawling up and down his back at meals or when he was walking in the halls. It was actually probably more stressful than dealing with their words; at least those he could respond to, but the eyes left him hyper vigilant and nervous.

"You're sure you can't stay through dinner?" Ginny pleaded while Harry packed his few things. She and Luna had found him, Neville, and Hermione in his guest room, which they'd retired to once their last NEWT was done.

Harry shook his head. "I have to go eventually, and the sooner I get back to the manor, the sooner I can collapse into my own bed again." He patted the mattress of his borrowed bed. "Not that this one was horrible, only that it wasn't–" He stopped, voice vanishing as he realised he was about to call the manor home.

Which, well, it was. Had been since before Christmas. All of his things were there, and he'd made friends, no matter their history. No matter how often, in the beginning, he'd half expected to get cursed, it was still a far sight better than the stares here.

"Can we come visit, this summer?" Luna asked, head tilted curiously to one side. "I've never been in a dark lord's base before."

"Would it be safe?" Hermione asked around the fingers pressed against her bottom lip, which she'd been chewing on the nails of.

"I can ask," Harry offered. "I mean, if you can come. Of course it'll be safe. Remember, they can't attack you unless you start it."

Hermione smiled uncertainly. "I wasn't sure how well that would hold up in their base."

Harry spread his arms. "I'm still alive, aren't I?"

"True," Ginny agreed before shaking her head. "I probably won't be able to come, even if it's okay."

"Your mum?" Hermione guessed.

Ginny nodded. "You can probably come to the Burrow, though, if you want."

"Assuming Ron doesn't go telling tales," Harry agreed without venom.

"I'll tell my own tales right back," Ginny insisted.

"If nothing else, I can come by Fred and George's shop while you're visiting," Harry promised. "We'll work something out, one way or another."

Ginny smiled. "As long as you don't leave me alone all summer. Like you did at Christmas."

Harry rolled his eyes; she'd already chewed him out for that via post. He shrank his bag and shoved it in his pocket, satisfied he had everything. "I'm going to walk down to the gate and apparate, if anyone wanted to walk with me."

"One last look at the castle?" Luna guessed.

Harry smiled. "Yeah. Not likely to come back here any time soon."

"I'm not sure I have the energy," Neville said by way of apology.

Harry laughed and drew him into a quick hug, easier with the action after a week with friends his own age. "I know the feeling. I wouldn't consider making the trip out there if I knew I'd just have to walk back up to the castle." He offered a hand to Hermione, who took it with a smile and used it to pull him into a hug. "Enjoy your break, Hermione," he murmured into her bushy hair.

"I'll try," she allowed with a laugh as they drew apart.

"I'll walk you down," Luna offered as she slipped her hand into the crook of Harry's elbow.

"Well, I can't let Luna walk back on her own, she might get distracted by something in the forest," Ginny decided and they all shared a fond chuckle.

Amycus Carrow was in the entrance hall when Harry, Ginny, and Luna reached it. He narrowed his eyes at the three as they approached the front door and demanded, "And where do you think you're going?"

Harry offered the Death Eater a smile. "Ginny and Luna are just walking me to the gate, Professor. Apparating back to the manor tonight."

Carrow cleared his throat and took a step back. "Right. So long as they're back before dinner."

"I'll do my best to make sure they are," Harry agreed before ushering his two friends out of the castle.

Ginny let out a snort once they were beyond the doors. "I have never seen one of the Carrows so cowed. Are you sure you can't stay until the end of term?"

Harry rolled his eyes. I don't know that I'd be that useful, in the end. It's not me that's cowing them, anyway. Just the promise of who I'm off to go see."

"No, I'm pretty sure it's at least a little bit you," Ginny insisted.

"At least a little bit," Luna agreed before Harry could insist it wasn't. "After all, there aren't many people who can change the Dark Lord's mind. Especially about something like blood purity."

"I suppose..."

The rest of the walk consisted of talking about Ginny and Luna's end-of-term plans and meeting up at the twins' shop that summer. They solidified everything just as the school gate came into view.

"Well," Harry said as they stopped next to the gate, Harry with one hand on the wrought iron, "it's been fun, ladies. Good luck with exams and playing around the lake without me." He put on a pathetic face.

Ginny laughed and shoved him. "Oh, go on! You don't want to stay and we all know it."

Harry grimaced. "Yeah. Sorry."

Ginny shrugged, resigned to his decision. "I'll just make you buy me new robes to make up for it," she threatened.

Harry snorted and tugged on her arm to make her move close enough for a hug. "I buy you a bloody broom, if you want."

"I will hold you to that," Ginny promised, eyes sparkling in a way that was distinctly worrying. She pulled back to let Luna have a hug.

Luna pressed a kiss to Harry's cheek before pulling back. As Harry turned to go through the gate, she announced, "Trust in how much you mean to him."

Harry jerked his head around to stare at her, Ginny doing the same. "What?" Harry asked, almost too quiet for the girls to hear.

Luna just smiled a bit absently and tugged on Ginny's arm to get her to start back towards the castle.

Harry sighed and resigned himself – as one always had to do – to Luna's oddities. He pushed through the gate and turned to watch as he let it go, making sure it latched; the last thing any of them needed was the Rebels getting into Hogwarts.

Ginny turned to look back, and the smile freezing on her face was the only warning Harry got before everything went black.

-0-

Voldemort rubbed tiredly at his eyes for a moment before firmly returning them to the message in front of him from the only wizard he'd, so far, managed to get anywhere near the Rebels. Given, careful infiltration was never his preferred method of dealing with a threat, but between their habit of regularly moving their base and the fact that they were based in France, he was having one hell of a time pinning them down. They were organised and familiar with his tactics, which made them very much a challenge. Sending spies had been his only real choice, really, and finding a spy that would pass muster had been so difficult, it was shameful.

He'd read the letter from his spy four times already, and he still wasn't certain what it said. He managed to get that things weren't going well, but he was too distracted by avoiding thinking about the time to actually internalise anything.

He did not care that the NEWTs had been over for almost two hours and Harry wasn't back yet. It was perfectly natural for the boy to want to spend one last night with his friends. Or a couple nights.

He shook his head. 'I don't care if the boy decides not to return!'

There was a commotion in the hall and Voldemort glanced up, grateful for the distraction. "Come!" he ordered when someone knocked rapidly on the door.

Amycus burst in, clearly attempting to not look panicked. Two young witches in student robes followed him, one with red hair in Gryffindor colours, the other blonde and in Ravenclaw colours; Voldemort recognised them as two of the children under Harry's protection. The red-head looked as though she'd been crying recently, while the blonde's eyes were unnaturally wide and her hands were clasped together against her chest, as though to keep them from shaking.

Something heavy dropped into Voldemort's stomach. "What is the meaning of this interru–" he started.

"Harry's been kidnapped!" the red-haired girl shouted before her eyes overflowed with tears.

Voldemort went very, very still, turning half his attention to the connection between himself and Harry. "Explain," he ordered, voice gone low and cold.

The red-head opened her mouth, expression darkening with fury, but the blonde touched her shoulder before she could speak. "He decided to apparate back," the blonde explained, voice eerily calm, given the way her unclasped hands were shaking. "He had just left the grounds when a stunner hit him. A couple wizards appeared out of nowhere and went to pick him up. Ginny and I, w-we–" and there it was, a tremor in her voice that told everyone that she was far from calm "–tried to stop them, but the school wards stopped our spells."

Well, that was an unfortunate side-effect of tightening the wards to keep the Rebels out.

The connection finally completed. Harry was alive, but unconscious. Magically unconscious, apparently, since Voldemort couldn't nudge him awake. He couldn't tell exactly where Harry was, but he had an idea of distance and direction: France.

He stood from his desk, abrupt enough that the other three in the room all flinched. "Amycus, return them to the school," he ordered. "And have someone send the Lestrange brothers and one of the Malfoys to me on your way."

Amycus bowed. "Yes, my Lord," he agreed before grabbing for the witches.

The blonde went without a fight, but the red-head dodged him before closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Before Amycus could reach her, she opened her eyes and turned to stare at Voldemort, fearless and intense. "Save him," she ordered.

Voldemort couldn't help but admire the courage it took to order the Dark Lord about anything. There were few people who would dare, and even fewer who would do so for Harry, any more.

It was that last that had him stating, "You will be informed once Potter is returned home."

There was a strange taste in his mouth, following that last word. A taste of wrongness, like that wasn't the right word, wasn't personal enough, wasn't–

'That damn prophecy.'

The students left with Carrow, apparently soothed by Voldemort's promise to keep them in the loop, to some extent. He shook his distraction away and turned towards his map of France, focussing on the problem at hand.

The map was dotted with marks of possible bases and known former bases. With a quill, Voldemort marked off the area where he was near certain Harry was. It was hardly a singular house, but it was a thousand times better than the whole of northern France.

There was a knock on the doorway and then, because the door was still open, two heads poked in. "You asked for us, my Lord?" Rodolphus asked.

Voldemort nodded. "Potter was kidnapped by the Rebels," he announced, pausing to watch as the brothers stiffened before their expressions hardened; the loyalty Harry inspired was truly a wonder, but at least these two wouldn't fall to girlish hysterics. "I've narrowed the search, but it will require multiple groups to search."

"My Lord," Rabastan interrupted, "could you not use Harry's phoenix?"

Fawkes. Of course. He held out an arm and called, "Fawkes! Come here, you infernal creature!"

The phoenix appeared with a flare of fire. Voldemort's robe smoked slightly as the bird landed on his arm; punishment for the insult, he was certain. "Potter was kidnapped," he stated as a blond head poked into the room; Lucius.

Fawkes let out a sharp cry and took off from Voldemort's arm before wreathing himself in fire again. He was very still for a moment – even his flames frozen – before he let out a terrible scream and went up in flames, ashes falling to the carpet.

Voldemort knelt next to the pile of ashes, shocked and admittedly concerned; Fawkes hadn't looked anywhere near his Burning Day. His death was unnatural, and possibly–

A weak chirp sounded from the ashes and Voldemort brushed a small pile off the chick's head. "What happened?" he whispered, quiet enough that he didn't bother hiding the concern in the words.

Fawkes let out another quiet chirp before struggling against the ashes cocooning him. When Voldemort moved to help him, the phoenix climbed into his hand, then turned beady eyes towards the map behind the Dark Lord.

"My Lord?" Lucius asked, uncertain.

"Silence, Lucius," Voldemort ordered as he stood and brought the chick up to the circle he'd made in the map. Had Fawkes...?

The phoenix leaned forward and hit his beak slightly to the south-east of the centre of Voldemort's circle, leaving a hole in the map.

"He's there?" Voldemort demanded and the phoenix nodded. "I assume it's well warded."

Fawkes let out an angry-sounding warble, the meaning of which was clear: 'What do you think just happened to me?'

Voldemort turned to the three Death Eaters standing near the door. "Lucius, see to it that the healing ward is prepared and the dungeon rooms are secured. Rodolphus, collect a strike team; Bella isn't coming. Rabastan, return the phoenix to Potter's room, then join Rodolphus."

"Yes, my Lord," all three chorused. Lucius and Rodolphus immediately exited, while Rabastan stepped forward to accept the phoenix Voldemort held out to him.

Once the office was empty, Voldemort waved the door closed, then pulled out a mirror to scry on the area Fawkes had marked. It showed him a farmhouse with multiple outlying buildings. The land around it for quite some distance was flat, the nearest crops forming a sort of half-circular border around the property.

A ward line. Far enough out that it would be difficult to attack unnoticed, but at least Voldemort knew exactly how close they could get. He wasn't apparating them blind.

Like a bucket of cold water dropped over his head, Voldemort was suddenly aware of a feeling of terror. It calmed after a moment, a sort of determined stillness that was buoyed by a strange certainty taking over.

Harry was awake.

A plan formed in Voldemort's mind. It was crazy, every bit the sort of insanity Harry would plan, and which would actually work. But only so long as he could communicate it to Harry.

The only thing he could do was try.

-0-

Harry stood in the corner of the dark cell he'd woken in, one hand clenched tight around the bucket he'd nearly tripped over when he'd stepped into the corner. It was the only weapon he had, with his wand and every stitch of clothing he'd been wearing taken. Not that Voldemort's plan required him to have a weapon, he just felt more secure with something in his hands. (Something he could maybe use to give himself at least some dignity when his rescuers showed up. Which, yeah, that was embarrassing, but at least he knew rescue was coming, which was a far sight better than any of his adventures at school.)

A feeling like a bell going off in his head came over him and he took a deep breath, then let out the most terrified scream he could manage. It came out far too easily, in his mind, and sounded far too real, but he'd take what he could get at this point.

There followed a rise in voices and feet moving over his head. Some of them would have been scared themselves, others would have been confused. Some would likely know where it came from, and who made it.

Harry took another deep breath and screamed again.

Someone pounded on the door and a male voice shouted, "Tais-Toi!"

Harry let out his third scream, choking himself off with a sob that he couldn't help when the door slammed open. A brawny man stepped in, easily matching Voldemort for height, but physically built more like Hagrid. His eyes swept over the entire room before landing on Harry. He pointed his wand at Harry, then froze.

Above them, people were screaming.

Harry bared his teeth in a smile that was eight parts victory, two parts lingering terror, and threw his bucket at the man's head. What he lacked for in strength, he made up for in aim, and the man dropped to the floor like a sack of bricks.

Harry dove for his captor's wand and pointed it towards the open door as he backed back into his corner. Well it was true that he could escape, he was naked and armed with an unfamiliar wand, and Voldemort and the Death Eaters were upstairs trading curses with his captors. Harry was safest right where he currently was. (Anyway, he knew Voldemort would come for him as soon as it was safe.)

He actually didn't have to wait long before the screaming stopped. Not long after that, careful steps sounded above him, then on what sounded like wooden stairs down the hall from Harry's cell.

:Potter?: came a familiar hiss.

Harry let out a relieved breath. "It's clear," he called back.

When Voldemort stepped into the cell, red eyes glaring down at the unconscious man on the floor and robes marked with singes from spells that had missed him, Harry was hit with the need to hug him. So he dropped the wand and ran forward to do just that.

Voldemort was still for a moment, spine stiff under Harry's hands, before he suddenly relaxed in a rush, arms coming up around the younger wizard and holding him so tight, it seemed as though this was his first hug.

(Harry wouldn't have been surprised to discover it was, and that ached.)

"You idiotic child," Voldemort snarled, arms still tight around Harry's shoulders. "Next time, take the Floo."

"Okay," Harry agreed, even though he knew it was a lie; he much preferred apparation.

Voldemort finally pulled back, stiffness returning to his bearing as he took in Harry's state. "We'll have to find your wand," he declared as he pulled off his outer robe and handed it over without a word about it. "At least we've finally landed an attack on the Rebels; something good's come out of your idiocy."

"How much of a dent did you make?" Harry asked as he tightened the robe around his body and followed Voldemort from the room, the Dark Lord's wand tip turned up, towards its brother wand.

"We won't know until we get one of the survivors to talk, but I expect it was a large one; this complex has all the earmarks of a semi-permanent base."

"So this was better than just a 'good' victory," Harry pressed.

Voldemort snorted. "So it seems." He spun, then, completely unexpected, and gripped Harry's chin tight enough to hurt. "I will not have you getting captured again, Potter."

Harry could think of about a dozen responses to that, half of which would likely end with Voldemort leaving him here. He settled on resting his own hand over the one holding his chin and saying, "Thank you," with every ounce of honest gratitude he could muster.

Voldemort stared at him for a long moment, expression softening just enough to show the trace of desperation mixed with fear that Harry had felt when he'd first woken, before he'd realised what had happened and his own terror had overwhelmed it.

"Thank you," Harry said again, the closest Voldemort would probably let either of them get to admitting the Dark Lord had cared. There was something there, horcruxes or brother wands or a prophecy neither of them wanted to think about, there was something between them that they couldn't brush off. Right then, on the steps leading away from the cell he'd been held captive in, Harry could admit it, at least to himself.

Voldemort pulled away, turning to continue up the stairs. :You're welcome,: he hissed, a secret kept just between them.

-0-

"I'm sorry, Harry," Dumbledore said, his ghost memory self hugging a baby to his chest for a moment before carefully shifting it and picking up a bottle. He sighed and managed a twisted smile for the green eyes looking up at him. "Oh, my boy, why is fate always so cruel to those least deserving? How is it even the slightest fair that I must leave you to fend for yourself in the last place I would want to leave you? Why must a child so bright live a life so wretched? What is this punishment for, I wonder? And who is it most meant to punish: You, or me?"

Baby Harry let out a gurgle around the bottle and one little hand came up to grab onto the fingers holding the bottle, keeping them in place.

Dumbledore let out a quiet laugh, a little wet around the edges, and leaned his head down to kiss baby Harry's forehead. "My poor boy. Child, I am sorry. Sorry for everything I have to put you through, every pain you must suffer because of me. I'm sorry I can't keep you safe." He sighed, two tears falling free just before he closed his eyes and splashing against the end of the bottle. "I hope, above all else, that at the end of this, you find what I never could." He opened his eyes again, bright with tears, smile twisted by grief.

"Oh, Harry, child of my heart. He's sharp around the edges and flinches away at the slightest suggestion of love, but he's worth all the pain. They always are, the broken ones. Just–" he laughed again, a note of bitterness in the sound. "Soften him, don't blunt him. Don't make the same mistakes I did."

"Albus?" Madam Pomfrey's voice called. "Have you seen the child?"

"One moment, Poppy," Dumbledore called back before gently pulling the bottle away and kissing baby Harry's forehead again, directly over the angry red scar. "I don't deserve your forgiveness, child, and you can hardly give it, but I wish it all the same. Oh, Harry, my sweet boy, I'm so very sorry..."

The ghost memory faded away, leaving Harry standing in the middle of the swirl of inactive memories, tears marking his face as he stared at where Dumbledore had been standing.

For one moment, Harry allowed himself to hold on to a well of anger. Anger for a broken will, a childhood of abuse, a school-life filled with adventures no child should be forced to go through, a world with expectations for a single boy to become their saviour.

And then he let out a breath, something almost like a sob forcing past his clenched teeth, and the anger went with it. In his heart, something broken and jagged mended, leaving behind an ache that felt like a breath of fresh air.

Almost sixteen years after Dumbledore had first asked for it, Harry whispered, "I forgive you, Professor."