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Here's the summary:
Marauders' Era Time Travel AU: A better prepared Harry never faces Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest. Six years of fighting follow that costly choice. His inevitable defeat does not leave him dead and buried, but stranded in a strange world ruled by Dumbledore, Grindelwald, and their greater good.
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Harry Potter and the Conjoining of Paragons
Chapter 59: The Power of Love
April 22, 1944
The stained glass windows dimmed the flash of lightning, but the panes shuddered as the wind howled and the roaring thunder rattled Harry's goblet.
"You're sure?" Charlus asked when the racket outside lulled.
"I'm only telling you what our spies have told me," Arcturus said plainly. "Their information could be faulty."
"But you're confident they're still your spies? Even though Britain's on the brink?"
"There would be no reason to lie about this. It gains Grindelwald nothing. All it would mean is a steadier defence would be prepared faster."
Harry felt the sting of his nails biting sharply into his palm, but it was a distant feeling. Stronger was the cold fist of panic clamped tight around his chest and the adrenaline that made his shoulders shake.
Cool fingers pried at his fist until it unfurled. His palm continued stinging. Harry glanced down and saw slim crimson beads bubbling on the surface of several shallow gashes.
They meant nothing.
There would be far worse when Grindelwald came, and if their spies were to be believed, that would be within the week.
"They say he'll choose a quieter day," Arcturus went on. "It won't be a Friday or a Saturday."
"Of course it won't." There was bitter hatred in Charlus's voice. "He knows the wards won't break easy. That will give us time to rally the defences; he doesn't want that time to be any longer than it needs to be. He hopes it will catch us off guard."
"Will it?" Dorea asked. "It's not really like we can go to the professors or one of the ministry workers and tell them we know he'll be attacking midweek."
"Why not?" asked Charlus. "What does it matter how we know? It's better than anything they've done."
"They won't see it that way," said Emily. "They'll doubt us in the best case and suspect us in the worst."
Charlus grunted. "Why would they suspect us?"
"Because they're panicked." Emily's eyes dropped towards the floor and her grip tightened around Harry's hand. "People act strangely when desperate and panicked. It brings out an entirely new side of people, and it usually isn't pretty."
Harry squeezed her hand right back. "We could tell Gress," he suggested.
All heads swivelled towards him. "Gress?" Arcturus asked. "As in, the lunatic Dippet hired to teach Alchemy?"
"He isn't a lunatic," Harry countered. "It's an act. We've talked to him more these past few months. He's… different."
Arcturus snorted. "Different is certainly a word for it."
"I doubt the ministry would believe him," said Charlus. "Especially not with him being a foreigner."
Harry's shoulders sagged. "So we just let him attack then? We let him catch most of the castle off guard?"
Emily circled her thumb across the back of his hand. "I could try and convince Dippet. I think I could, but I don't know how much control he has now that half the castle is filled with high-ranking officials from the ministry."
Arcturus's expression was pensive. "If you're sure you can convince him, it can't hurt. The ministry can't rightfully ignore something coming from him. But only if you're sure." Arcturus held her stare while Emily nodded.
"I think that's all tonight," the Black lord sighed. "I'm doing my best to rally outside support. I'll be there when everything happens, but I'm hoping I won't come alone. We'll have to wait and see."
The scraping of their chairs was the loudest sound in the room as they stood. The wind had calmed outside and the once crackling fire was little more than embers still smouldering in the hearth.
"Harry." He paused; it was rare for Arcturus to use first names. "A word."
The dining room's door creaked shut and several moments passed before the Lord Black began. "How completely do you trust Riddle?"
Harry felt a flush of heat rise up from his stomach and fill his chest. It threatened to creep higher, but he stifled it and fought the urge to scowl. "We've gone over this before."
"I'm asking one more time." His stare was unwavering. "Something feels wrong. She's hiding something."
His pulse quickened. She promised no more secrets. There couldn't be anything else, could there? What could she possibly be hiding?
"I'd trust her with my life." Still, their staring contest continued. "If she wanted to betray us, she could have done it back in Hogsmeade."
"True." There was a long pause. "What are you hiding?"
Harry's blood ran cold. "What do you—"
"You were too quiet."
"I'm always quiet."
"You're attentively quiet. It felt like you were in your own world tonight."
How could I not be? They all had futures to fight for, but if Emily failed in her plans with the stone…
Cold and sharp, panic pressed in from all sides and threatened to crush him.
No! Harry forced his mind clear. Don't think about that — you won't be able to do it if you're overthinking. "I'm anxious. Not just about the battle — there are things I want to talk about with Emily when it's all over if we…" He couldn't make himself say it; this was one lie he could not tell.
Arcturus must have taken the breaking of his voice as the nerves he confessed. "We'll make it. The Blacks have always endured; this won't be any different."
Harry gave a nervous laugh. "I'm not sure if it's dawned on you, but I'm not a Black."
Arcturus actually smiled. "No, but you're allied with one. That tends to be the next best thing."
Meanwhile, back at Hogwarts…
Thick dark wine trickled from the rich bottle into Slughorn's gilded goblet. The professor's shaking hand spilled several droplets from the overflowing drink. They broke against his desk, glittering in the lantern light like fresh drops of blood.
Gress pulled a face while the other man's eyes were closed. There will be too much of that soon. Grindelwald had grown this past half-century; he had not been half so patient as a boy. But he won't hold out much longer. Soon this all will end.
"What a mess," Slughorn slurred across the table. "What a fucking mess."
Gress's lips twitched. Never had Slughorn cursed like that. "A succinct summary," he agreed.
Slughorn grumbled before draining his glass. "I don't understand you. You look like this is all some kind of game."
Gress really did laugh this time, but the sound was dark and mirthless. "What is life if not a game, my friend?"
Slughorn shuddered across the desk. Thick beads of sweat trickled down his brow and his chins quivered. "But what…" he swallowed. "What if the game ends? Does that not frighten you."
"Frighten me? Death is but the next great adventure for organized minds like mine and yours."
"The next great adventure," Slughorn muttered. "The next great adventure." There was a desperation in his voice while he clung to those words.
The next great adventure. I wonder what it holds in store for me.
"Who are you, Gress?" It was the clearest Slughorn's voice had been in what must have been an hour.
He offered Slughorn a tired smile. "Names are naught but words, my friend, and words are naught but wind." Slughorn continued staring, so he spread his arms wide. "I am a man who has lost the few things that brought him joy. A tired man whom you can count a friend and one who is willing to make the hard and painful choices."
Not painful, he told himself while fending off the fear. Peaceful. Like closing my eyes after a very long and weary day.
April 26, 1944
The Slytherin Dorms
Shadows swam just out of sight, swirling through a churning crimson haze.
Blood. The smell of copper was everywhere. None was in his mouth, but he could taste it.
The shadows began to whisper, soft and sharp, nowhere but everywhere.
The holly wand was cold against his sweat-soaked palm. His breathing was sharp and ragged while he turned slowly on his heel and watched for any sign of movement.
The first two shadows glided from the haze and took his breath away. Red hair fanned back from Lily Evans's face and blended with the haze around them. James's raven hair looked more like scarlet framed against the crimson haze, but it was not their hair that made him blanch.
Their eyes were glassy and lifeless, reflecting naught but blood and shadows.
They melted away before his eyes and two more shades came forward. A matted tangle of grime-smeared hair framed a fleshless face and sunken eyes.
No! He knew the other shade must be Hermione, but he couldn't look.
They too melted and the next pair came forward. Their faces were like a knife to his heart; soft, and sweet, and sunken; battered and lifeless.
"No!" His cry escaped him this time and he lurched towards them. "You're not dead!" he said, but Dorea and Elena remained still and lifeless. "You're not dead! I know you're not dead!"
They bled away like morning mist, rendering him panicked and trembling while the next two came forward.
Charlus was plain in death, but the other was burned beyond recognition.
Harry's heartstrings tugged; there was no doubt who it was. "I'm sorry," he choked at the burnt remains of Albus Dumbledore. "It's my fault; all of this is my fault!"
The final shadow glided forth. Emily's dark blue eyes were not lifeless, but brimming with pain, and loss, and sorrow beyond belief.
"You must win…" she rasped. Harry reached for her, but she was fainter than the meanest ghost. "Remember…"
"Remember what?" He was on his knees now, though he could not recall how he had gotten there. "What do I need to remember?"
A convulsion wracked her body and every inch of her spasmed while the light dimmed behind her eyes.
"The last enemy to be destroyed is death."
Harry sat up with a gasp and his bedsheet came up with him. It clung to him like a second layer of skin despite his shivering. The porthole-like window nestled near his bed looked into complete and total blackness. It must still be early.
He could not lie down again. His heart was pounding and his shoulders kept shaking. The faces watched him each time he closed his eyes.
His body moved almost on its own. Trousers were pulled up and a robe wrapped around him. The sound of his shoes padding softly across weathered stones echoed like a Blasting Curse, but he was creeping and could not remember grabbing his shoes in the first place.
The tunnel's mouth widened up ahead, but he kept straight and ignored the empty common room yawning to his right.
The walls narrowed again and the stones sloped down beneath his feet. Harry glided past a set of doors on each side. Magic buzzed when he neared the fifth and he could sense the tight tangle of wards.
"Expecto Patronum." The silver stag drifted through the wards and cantered soundlessly through the solid stone door.
His feet carried him from the common room and behind a suit of armour, up a winding passage and then a marble set of stairs until he stood in a familiar bathroom and waited.
It was hard not seeing Abraxas each time he stared across the tiles, not hearing Myrtle's gasping sobs each time he neared her favourite cubicle.
So much death. Everywhere he went, it cloaked him. It will be over soon. No one else will die for me soon.
The door banged open behind him and his two oldest living friends drifted in behind his silver stag.
"Harry?" There was wonder in Elena's eyes as she stared from him to the stag.
"What do you think you're doing?" Dorea was unfazed by the Patronus and had her hands on her hips. "It's 5:00 in the morning; do you have any idea—"
She froze with her lips still parted as the sound of grinding stones accompanied the opening of Slytherin's hidden passage.
His friends' faces were paler than the porcelain sinks. "It's you," Elena whispered. "You're the Heir of Slytherin."
"Of a sort," Harry admitted, gesturing for them to follow him down into the darkness.
They shared no words until the double doors opened and admitted all three into the Chamber of Secrets. The girls stared around in wonder, their eyes wide and darting faster than a golden snitch.
"The Chamber of Secrets." Dorea's voice was softer than the dancing shadows.
Harry grimaced at their sight and pulled his eyes away from them. "The one place Grindelwald can't reach."
Elena gasped and Dorea's eyes went wide. "That's your plan, isn't it? He's after you, so you'll let them fight upstairs while…" her voice trailed off when he slowly shook his head.
"I'm going to kill him." His words were hard as steel and Dorea flinched back like they had cut her. "I… wanted to ask you two to wait down here when the fighting starts."
Dorea straightened up. "You fucking hypocrite! You—"
"Listen!" It was like the cry of a wounded animal. Dorea shut her mouth with a soundless snap. "I've lost everything." His shoulders began shaking and both his friends took small steps back. "My parents, my friends, my mentor, my home; all of them are gone."
"Harry." Elena took a small step forward and held out her hand, but she let it slowly fall when he held his ground.
"I can't lose you." The words scraped his throat raw, but he forced them out. I can't! "I…" What could he tell them? Anything but the truth. "I don't know what's gonna happen when Grindelwald attacks, but I need to know I'll have friends left this time." He swallowed hard. "I… I need this all to be worth it. I… I don't think I could live with myself having to start over again."
Tears were leaking from Elena's eyes and Dorea's face was screwed up against her own.
"Please," he whispered into the silence, hoping and praying while he held the girls' stares.
"I promise." Harry saw the lie in Elena's eyes, saw how badly she wanted not to but knew she would break her word.
"Me too." Dorea's vow was stronger and might not break.
I won't take any chances. He made himself smile despite the tearing pain inside his stomach and opened his arms to them.
Only then did he let his own tears fall.
The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
The chamber's doors ground open for the second time that day and he stepped across its shadowed threshold. He looked anywhere but at the walls as he strode across the weathered stones and looked up towards the statue looming above him.
"Speak to me, Slytherin, greatest of the Hogwarts four."
Cerastes slithered forth and came up close behind him. Something pinged against the stones.
Guilt stabbed through him, but he shoved it down. You should never have left the ring with him, Emily.
Harry closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath, turning the ring thrice between his fingers.
"You beautiful boy." That voice drove a sharpened stake down into his heart but dragged his eyes open. Dumbledore's hair and beard were auburn and the deep, aged lines were not yet in his face.
I guess that answers that question. He had wondered whether the stone might summon souls from his own reality, but this would more than do.
"I'm sorry." Tears stung his eyes until he could hardly see the shade before him. "I got you killed. If I wasn't here—"
"We will never know." Harry wiped his eyes and saw that a sad smile rested on Dumbledore's lips. "You must let go of this guilt, Harry." Dumbledore's blue eyes twinkled. "As a version of me once told you, or so it seems, it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live."
"You know?" It was like a great weight lifted off his shoulders, but still, the tears fell.
Dumbledore hummed. "What an interesting question. I think the real answer is that you know." Chuckling at Harry's puzzled look, his mentor went on. "The stone of life, some have called it, but that is far from truth." Dumbledore spread his arms wide. "Who is to say if I am truly here? Perhaps I have glimpsed your world from beyond the veil, or perhaps I know because the one who summons me wishes that I do."
Harry's heart sank. "So the stone doesn't really bring people back?" He had known it all along; the story said as much, but a part of him must have held out hope.
Dumbledore let out a long sigh. "I think you know the answer."
His nod was grim. "It won't work, will it? Emily will never have her undead army."
"No more than Gellert will ever have his."
Dread coiled tight about him. "But he has the wand?"
"True, but so did Antioch, and Emeric, and all the others who came before him." Dumbledore hummed a second time. "The wand is not such a wonderful thing."
"You took it from him — not you, but… you."
Dumbledore chuckled; a symphonious sound that forced Harry's heart to swell. "So I did. I only wish I could have done it for all of you."
"I can't beat him, can I?"
"Can't?" Dumbledore tilted his head to the side as though listening to some unheard music. "'Can't' is not the right word. There are endless possibilities and all of them can happen."
"But it's not likely. I shouldn't rely on it."
Dumbledore's face fell and he looked, all of a sudden, like the old man Harry had first met almost fifty years from now. "I cannot make that choice for you."
"But you can answer my questions?" Dumbledore nodded, a grave look in his deep blue eyes. "You once said my mother died for me. You said her sacrifice was what let me survive Voldemort's curse."
"Sacrifice." Dumbledore weighed the word atop his tongue. "Magic is all about sacrifice. In most cases, it is an unnoticeable price, but the more demanding your request grows, so too does the cost." There was silence while Harry's mentor chose his words. "Your mother gave her life for you along with every moment you would have had together. There are few things more valuable."
Harry opened his mouth, but his throat fought him desperately. It's like it knows what the words mean and thinks that, if I can't say them, they won't be real.
He swallowed hard and forced them out. "And my life? Every moment I would have had with Emily? The freedom I've never had? The family I always wanted?" His voice broke at the end and the tears returned. "What about all that? Is it… is it enough?"
Dumbledore's smile was kinder than life despite the tears rippling across his blue eyes. "You brave, brave boy." Harry continued staring desperately up at him. "Yes. Yes, I think so."
His shoulders sagged with relief, but still, his knees trembled. "And Grindelwald? Will it… will it be enough?"
"Oh, Harry, you must know I cannot say. I am not a seer."
"But you think it will?"
"I think that when love is faced with the forces of evil, one is usually safe in assuming it will prevail."
"Does it hurt?" It was a stupid question that actually made him laugh; a watery laugh that just made snot trail thinly down his upper lip. Harry wiped it away and gazed up into the eyes of his mentor.
"Dying?" Harry nodded. "Not at all." Harry shut his eyes tight, but when he opened them, Dumbledore's were twinkling. "It is as I once told you — it is like closing your eyes after a very long day."
One last thing, then. "The cloak," he started, "do you—"
Dust rained down from the stones lost in shadow high above them and the chamber's pillars trembled.
Harry froze. "Is that—"
"I think so." Dumbledore reached out a hand towards his shoulder. It was not really there, but he could imagine its weight and warmth. "You have some time still. Gellert, for all his talent, will struggle with the wards and they will exhaust him for a time." Dumbledore removed his hand. "Go to them and be brave. Your parents would be so very proud of you."
But disappointed, he thought when the shade of Dumbledore faded away. They wanted me to have another life — not throw it away for someone I loved. It almost made him laugh. If anyone will understand, it must be them.
The waiting is almost over — the finale now looms large.
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