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Chapter 1: Descending
The headline was short. Twelve words, the ink smeared from where hands had touched it too soon after printing. Twelve words on the grimy newsprint. Twelve words that burned into Harry Potter’s mind like Fiendfyre.
Ten Wizards Brutally Killed In Forest of Dean; Aurors Nowhere In Sight
The day had been long, and Harry was looking forward to nothing more than returning to his flat so he could sleep. Thank goodness tomorrow was his day off – he couldn’t have endured another one, not like today. A mug of tea, and a pillow, was all he needed at the moment.
“Harry!” The voice behind him, accompanied by the frenzied tapping of heels on the highly polished hardwood floor (don’t look at the floor) caught his attention. He turned in time to see Hermione weaving between people in an attempt to reach him, a thick leather briefcase clutched in her right hand. She was waving an arm above her head, as though he might have otherwise missed her.
“I’ve been chasing you since you got off the lift,” she said, panting slightly but grinning at him, brushing a strand of her bushy brown hair out of her eyes. Those same eyes narrowed as she was able to get a closer look at his thin, drawn face. “You look awful. Have you been sleeping well?”
“Not really,” Harry muttered, reaching up to rub his eyes beneath the lenses of his glasses. “Been busy.” She looked as though she highly disapproved of this response, and was about to tell him so, but thought better of it.
Suddenly, across the hall, Harry saw something move out of the corner of his eye. Hermione had opened her mouth to speak again, but he turned away abruptly without thinking about whatever she was going to say, his attention now riveted on what had diverted him. Across the hall, standing by the fireplaces now burning with green flames, was a man in a mask and a hooded black cloak.
“Harry?” Hermione’s voice cut through his thoughts again; her hand was shaking his elbow, and she looked even more concerned now. It was plain to him now that she’d been asking him something, but for the life of him he couldn’t have said what. “Harry, what is it?”
“That man,” Harry said hoarsely, his voice rough in his throat. “I – what is he doing? He looks like…” But he didn’t want to say it. That would make it true. His stomach roiled, and his heart beat quickly against his Adam’s apple just at the very thought.
He had no idea how a Death Eater had infiltrated the Ministry, over a year after Voldemort’s downfall.
He turned to look back at Hermione, knowing she’d know exactly what to do – she always did – but she was still staring at him as though his head had suddenly gone missing. “Don’t you see him?” he asked, his voice sharp with frustration.
“See who?” she asked warily. “What are you talking about, Harry?”
“There!” he burst out angrily, not caring about the odd looks he received as he turned on the spot, gesticulating toward the fireplaces.
But the man was gone. As though he’d never been at all.
There was no other word for the night but silvery. Everything seemed coated in something invisible and ethereal, and the whole world was snug in its seeming security and pleasantness. Harry sucked in a deep breath of the air as he exited the Leaky Cauldron, his head buzzing pleasantly after the butterbeer, but for some reason the mild temperature and pleasant atmosphere didn’t bring him the satisfaction it should have. This disappointed him – he’d hoped, perhaps in vain, that tonight would have finally been the night where the world had magically righted himself. But magic only worked so far, it seemed.
It was only nine o’ clock, but he had nowhere to be, nobody to see, and nothing to do. Once upon a time he might have gone to Ron and Hermione’s, or met Ginny somewhere for a walk. But there was none of that now, and hadn’t been for a few weeks. It was routine as usual – go to work, work, go to the Leaky Cauldron for dinner, and walk home to his small flat about a mile away. And nothing to deviate from the increasingly repetitive and boring schedule.
The heels of his shoes clicked pleasantly on the cobblestones of Diagon Alley as he left. Somewhere behind time, the sound of a glass breaking filtered through the air, and he paused briefly, his senses alert for something. He didn’t know what, and soon shook his head slightly and continued on his way. His pace quickened, though, ever so slightly, his throat constricting the barest inch to press uncomfortably on his voice box.
Panic, unnamed but no less feared, began to creep in.
The trees whispered overhead, their branches rubbing together and making eerie sounds in the otherwise silent world. Harry halted and watched them, temporarily unawares of the three men behind him, who had all stopped to watch him. They looked up as he did, thinking perhaps he saw something there, had located whatever they were looking for. They had no way of hearing the voices in the trees as he did.
“All right, mate?” Ron broke in finally, clapping a hand to his friend’s back to start him out of his reverie. Harry blinked and looked around, and nodded. He cleared his throat a bit, eyes darting restlessly to the other two grouped a bit behind Ron. He couldn’t remember their names at the moment.
“This isn’t the place,” he said loudly, trying to keep the trees from intruding on his thoughts. He nearly clapped his hands to his ears, they were so loud… So loud, so loud, so loud… He was nearly shouting now. “We have to get –“
A bright, sudden flash of light, accompanied by a cracking sound like fifty people Apparating at once, rocketed through the trees. Harry ducked, his face hitting the dirt so fast the bridge of his glasses snapped. His heart was beating uncomfortably hard through the thin of his jacket. He sucked in a huge mouthful of mud, and coughed.
“Harry?” Ron had scrambled to his hands and knees, looking more concerned than ever. The other two were staring at him as though he’d lost his mind. He fumbled about, trying to look as though he’d had reason to collapse to the ground. No one else appeared to have heard the crack, or seen the light.
Why hadn’t they?
“Dropped my wand…” he muttered, still tasting the bitter earth on his tongue. He spat and quickly tapped his glasses with the wand, mending the break. His eyes darted about. He was quickly coming to realize that maybe - just maybe - nothing had happened at all...
“This isn’t the place,” he repeated loudly; the trees had started moving again, and he was scared of them without cause. “Let’s get out of here.”
“But you told us this area needed patrolling,” one of the other two – what were their names? – called out in a voice dripping with annoyance.
“And now I’m saying we need to leave,” Harry snapped. “That shouldn’t be hard to process, should it?” The man who’d spoken up looked as though he was going to retort, but instead swallowed deeply and said nothing.
“Are you sure, mate?” Ron asked in a low voice now, stepping closer over a root between them. “This area’s supposed to be crawling –“
“I’m sure,” Harry said quickly, rubbing his forehead, trying to get the trees to shut up. Didn’t anyone else hear how loud they were?
With dubious looks, the two nameless men Apparated away. After a moment, Ron did the same. Harry sucked in a breath, cast his eyes about, and followed those who had gone before.
The voice came as he was about halfway between the pub and his flat, and he wasn’t even entirely sure it was a voice at all. It was so fleeting and insubstantial that it was entirely probable he could have conjured it from nothing but paranoia.
“Potter… Potter… Potter…”
The wispy voice bounced around the walls and the ground and the air, everywhere and nowhere at once. It had a name, but one he couldn’t think about. His throat constricted; Harry pulled the collar of his coat that much tighter about his neck, as though to shield himself from it. If he pretended it wasn’t there, maybe it wouldn’t be.
He concentrated hard on the sound of his own footsteps, rhythmic and predictable. Left right left right left right. Breathe in, breathe out, and don’t think about anything but the patterns. If he was only able to keep his mind on the patterns, things might return to normal.
His mind’s eye flickered briefly back, and Ginny’s face swam in front of him suddenly, a mirage or an illusion and yet still very real. He started and even jumped back, coming to a dead halt in the middle of the winding cobbled lane. A witch passing in the opposite direction raised her eyebrows at what she took for strange behavior, and scuttled on out of sight.
“It’s not going to do any good thinking of her, or any of them,” Harry said loudly, and it took him a moment to realize he’d said anything at all. Somehow the words had wormed their way out of his mind before he could check them. He pushed on resolutely, attempting to think of nothing but home, and the patterns to take him there. His lungs sucked in the velvet, his ears closed out the whispering quiet, and he counted his steps without realizing it.
Left one right two left three right four. Over and over, almost marching but not quite, counting steps to keep from losing focus of the world entirely.
“I don’t understand you, Harry.” Ron shook his head slowly, truly looking baffled, his brows knit and the skin above them creasing oddly. Harry watched him without really seeing him, sitting slightly back in his chair. His fingertips seemed to be frozen in the act of pushing away the desk that separated them, as though scared that Ron might leap up and do something.
“I mean, you knew what you were doing… You must have…” Ron continued, not looking up from where he was frowning in concentration at a glass paperweight. He was searching for words that weren’t there, though, because it was all too clear that Harry had not known what he was doing. Harry’s own eyes landed on the paperweight, too. It was one Ginny had bought him, right after he’d been made head of the Auror office – molten glass in orange and green mixed inside in organized chaos. He had the sudden urge to chuck it in the bin.
“Did you need to see me?” Harry asked abruptly into the silence that had descended, not wanting to hear how miserably he had failed from his friend’s lips; he knew that already in his own mind, and he didn’t need it expressed. Ron looked up, but if the sudden conversation change fazed him, he did not say so.
“Oh. Erm, yeah,” said Ron, shifting a bit in his seat “Well, I – George has been having a bit of trouble with the shop. Not anything major, but… well, I was thinking about sort of taking off here and going down and helping him with it.” He said this last in a rush, as though he couldn’t wait to get saying it over with. His eyes searched Harry’s face anxiously.
Harry, meanwhile, was staring right back at Ron blankly. “Yeah, fine,” he said, a bit hollowly, scooting himself imperceptibly further away by the very tips of his fingers. If Ron noticed the sort of forced and strained tone his friend’s voice had suddenly adopted, again he feigned ignorance. He smiled with a bit of relief, the freckles near his mouth twisting with the gesture, and rapped the desk with his knuckles as he stood. The sound made Harry grimace involuntarily.
“I’ll get in two weeks’ notice before the end of the day,” Ron said, slinging the coat he’d brought in over one shoulder and holding it by one finger. “Thanks, mate.”
“No problem,” Harry said, not looking at Ron but again keeping his eyes fixed on the orange and glass in the paperweight. He heard his friend’s footsteps hesitate, and he knew Ron was going to ask him to dinner. He and Hermione had been doing that a lot lately; he didn't know their agenda, but he didn't trust that it was all in innocence and friendship. He'd seen them whispering fervently together one day when he was supposed to join them for a drink at the Leaky Cauldron, and they had stopped quickly when he'd come within earshot. That, to Harry, spelled anything but innocence. They were hiding something - he was positive.
Ron finally retreated from the office, whatever he'd been about to say remaining lost inside him. The last sound was the small snap of the office door closing, and then his entire world descended into thick silence.
Harry’s mind was buzzing with something he couldn’t quite explain, not even to himself. Why would Ron quit this job, the only job either of them had ever wanted since they were at school? Something didn’t make sense. He realized his mouth was still moving, forming the last two words he’d spoken over and over again, without his realizing it.
“No problem. No problem, no problem.”
He picked up the paperweight and hurled it at the wall before he had time to consider the action. It shattered.
The inside of his flat, once he finally reached it, was cool and dry, a welcome change from the strangely and inexplicably thickening air outside. Harry closed the door behind him with a small click, his heart beating and echoing and he had no idea why he felt as though he was about to be sick. Small white spots popped in front of his vision, and he clenched his head between two curled fists, willing himself to keep his head. Not here. Not now. Not tonight.
All those thoughts, those memories of Ron and Hermione and Ginny, painful memories he couldn’t deal with now. Memories he wasn’t sure if he could ever deal with. They had betrayed him, they had all betrayed him. After everything he had had been through, they had joined the side he’d once fought so valiantly to destroy.
The spots in front of him turned red as his brain shifted; something within him focused on the anger. The old familiar monster, long lodged in quiet slumber in his chest, made the first stirrings of awakening. How could they have done this to him? Did he mean so little to them that they would go and try to restart the very thing they’d helped shut down? What had made them see the ways of the Death Eaters, when only five years before they had scorned even a whisper of them?
A hand, invisible to even himself, clenched its strong fingers around his throat and stomach and twisted. His breathing had both increased and thinned, and he suddenly found that his tongue was clenched painfully in between his teeth. The scarlet spots swam and darted, taunting him, beckoning him to come forward. They stained the shadowed walls of the sitting room, and to Harry’s tired and overworked brain, he could very well imagine that they were stains of his enemies. They had come back for him. He knew they would eventually.
The wooden floors in the atrium of the Ministry of Magic were so highly polished they worked almost, but not quite, as mirrors. Harry Potter studied his reflection in them as he stood in a queue in front of the nearest elevator, his features oddly misshapen and blocky. He tilted his head, trying to see through the impairment, as though if he just got the right angle everything would become clear. But his face remained contorted oddly. He turned his head the other way. Something dark flashed through the floor, followed by a quick burst of green. He blinked in shock, and leaned a bit closer.
“Blimey, Potter,” came a voice at his shoulder, followed by the strong clap of a hand on his back. Harry jumped and looked about quickly. Burke, a young Auror who’d just joined the office only a month or two ago, stood there, grinning widely at him. Harry tried to remember how to smile back. His eyes darted back to the floor, seeking the dark and the green. It had been his hair and eyes – his own reflection had tricked him.
“It’s like you’re seeing something in those floors,” Burke chuckled, rising up on his toes to let a cross-looking witch with an armful of parchment squeeze by. “Crystal balls are passé, eh, boss?”
Harry shook his head slightly as though trying to shake something off and cleared his throat. “Going home, Burke?” he said, a bit gruffly, trying to shake off the odd feeling he’d gotten when looking at the floor. It hadn't been too long since he'd been made head of the department, and hearing anyone refer to him as “boss” still unnerved him a bit.
The queue swarmed forward as the grille clanged open. Harry and Burke were some of the last to make it into the car. It gave a jolt, and Harry’s hand went automatically to the wand in his pocket.
“You all right?” Burke said from somewhere behind him.
“Yeah,” Harry said slowly, releasing his grip on his wand and willing himself back to normalcy. “Yeah. I’m fine.” He rubbed his temples with one hand as the lift began to descend back towards the atrium. When it landed there with another jolt, he put it out of his mind. And whatever else he did, he would not look back at that floor.
“Potter,” the voice, that same voice, intoned. It was now louder than a whisper, for the man was in the room with him. His long thing fingers stroked the wand clenched between them, and he was smirking, taunting. Harry’s wand went to his pocket and he removed his wand. It was as though he’d been prepared for this all along.
“You,” he spat, wand pointed at the white throat of his foe. Lord Voldemort smiled the same mirthless smile.
“Me.” He coughed, a dry and rattling thing, like autumn leaves, and spoke again in his high, cold voice. “Your friends aren’t behind you anymore, Potter. They’ve deserted you. You’re alone. Even your memories have shifted their allegiance.”
Harry’s eyes darted from one red iris to the next, his hands clenched in fury. He found that the words that had become lodged in their throat had disappeared almost as quickly as they’d risen there. He swallowed, and said nothing, but moved a pace or two closer. Voldemort mirrored him.
“I’ve defeated you twice, Tom. I can do it again,” Harry said, wondering why the red spots were now swimming around Voldemort. Was this some magic, some spell he’d never learned? What was its purpose? He paced closer; his opponent did the same yet again. He knew every move Harry would ever make.
He looked at the bits of orange and green glass, sparkling up from the floor of his office. His chest was rising up and down, but barely any air was filtering into his lungs. Slowly, fluidly, his fingers found his hair and gripped. Harry sank back into the chair behind his desk, his nose near his knees.
In one out two in three out four. You’re fine, you’re fine, just keep breathing, it’s okay, in one out two.
It was true, it was all true. Ron and Hermione and Ginny, they had all turned against him. They had left him alone and he had no one to turn to and no one to trust. He couldn’t speak to them, they were not his anymore. His fingers tore at his scalp, but the reality remained.
“I’m alone.” The words, ragged and harsh, had never been truer.
Both raised their wands, one body, one mind. Nothing had changed, nothing had ever happened to separate them. They were linked as they had always been. Harry was Voldemort and Voldemort was Harry and they were one, and they had always been, and they always would be. He watched words form on Voldemort’s lips just as a spell issued from his own.
He wondered, idly, why his old scar remained painless.
And the mirror he was facing cracked. Time stood still just before the pieces, jagged and beautiful and dangerous, exploded everywhere, and for that brief oasis of time he saw himself. It had only ever been himself.
The fragments found him and became part of him, Voldemort and Harry and their downfall, their one downfall. He collapsed onto the floor and the wand slipped from his fingers, rolling away and meeting with shadow. The floor was red where it had never been red before and would always be red now. A hand raised to the neck, a confirmation received, and two lives finally passed on.