With Malice Aforethought
S. P. SmithChapter Eighteen: A Plan Best Served Cold
Harry appeared midair, low over the fens in the glowing darkness of early evening. A quick look around at the low, depressed shrubs and sodden ground suggested that Foulness Island really wasn't able to afford the niceties like hills and trees. For miles around, there wasn't anything rising on the horizon but for a single, weathered manor house.
Harry dropped low to the ground and accelerated toward the house. As he drew nearer, he could see why generations of Malfoys must have loved it. There was no gaudy or ostentatious ornamentation to soften the heavy granite lines of the place. The closest thing to decorations were the single central tower, and the carved stone spindles for the railing on the widow's walk. And with the ground around it level with the surrounding ocean for miles, an attentive guard should be able to see anyone coming.
Yup, Harry thought, it's cold, colourless, and vaguely paranoid. Draco must feel right at home.
Harry swerved through the ornamental flower garden, dodging large stone urns and hedges. Up at the top of the tower, Harry noted two men uncovering a shrouded lamp. Lookouts, he thought. Harry charged the front doors, leaning over his broom to accelerate to full speed.
The huge brass pulls grew as Harry raced towards them. At the last moment, Harry hooked his heels around the haft of his broom, pushing down with his feet and pulling up hard with his hands. The Firebolt skidded vertical inches from the façade, and Harry accelerated vertically up the side of the building. He dodged window sashes and downspouts as he raced toward the central tower.
Harry drew his wand, clutching the neck of his broom in a desperate bid to avoid slipping free. He whistled loudly, and two heads poked over the railing to look down. Harry recognized Crabbe and Goyle Seniors in the instant before he hit them with a pair of stunners.
He overshot the tower, and had to loop back around in order to land.
The two Death Eaters were sprawled haphazardly atop one another in a tangle of unconscious limbs. The shrouded lantern was tipped over, though fortunately not leaking onto the wooden floor of the watchtower. Harry alighted next to the two, bent over, and righted the lantern. He freed himself from his broom, the undid one of the loops of torn coverlet he had tied under his robe. Pulling it free, he tied it around the neck of his Firebolt, then slung the broom over his shoulder.
There was an iron ring set into the floorboards, and Harry bent over and heaved with all his might on it. With a groan, the access door pivoted open and slammed back against the floorboards behind the hinge. Below, Harry could make out a wide spiral staircase, mounted to the circular wall of the tower. The central shaft was open all the way down past the ground floor of the manor house below.
Harry hastened down the stairs, jogging loosely with his wand out. Two circuits of the tower later, Harry met with the first doorway. He really wasn't sure where to start looking, so he decided to start at the top and work his way down.
The door had a simple through latch, which Harry undogged before opening the door. He pushed the door open, and came face to face with a short, ugly, large-eyed face. Kreacher. The foul little house elf's eyes widened in shock, and he looked Harry up and down in a way that made it quite clear that somehow, he could see Harry. Kreacher vanished with a pop just as Harry lunged for him.
"Blast," Harry snarled.
From one floor below, Harry heard sounds of alarm. Then doors into the stairwell opened, and heavy boot steps thudded upwards towards him. Harry turned tail and ran, unsure of how many there were below him.
Red stunners flashed against the stone by his shoulder, and Harry flinched away from their dazzling impacts. He could see two more wizards on the circuit below him, but on the opposite side of the tower. With the open shaft through the center of the tower, they had a clear line of sight. Harry's only question was how they could see him.
Harry threw a few mild hexes over his shoulder as he ran, more to keep their heads down than with any hope of really stopping them. He just needed to get clear of them!
Then a voice he recognized, Avery, changed spells. "Avada Kedavra," he called out, and Harry hit the steps as the sickly green light shot over his head.
A second voice, Nott's, rang out. "Reducto! Reducto!"
Stone chips dug into Harry's out flung hands as the spells blasted chunks from the wall over his head.
Harry fumbled at his pocket, pulling the Potter's Pez free. He flicked the head open, and a giant headstone slammed into place between him and his attackers. As Harry watched, a dazzling green light slapped into it and stopped.
There was a pause, then a flurry of Reductos shattered the headstone, dust and shards arcing away down the vertiginous drop of the tower shaft. The blistering red spells kept coming, and Harry tried to burrow further into the wood. He held up the Potter's Pez, but one of his attackers cried out with an Expelliarmus, and the little object flew out of his hand and toward Avery.
Nott kept hurling Reductor curses, and one of them shattered the flying Pez dispenser. There was a whooshing rumble as seven headstones expanded to full size midair, still arcing across the tower towards the two Death Eaters.
Arms flung over his head, Harry only heard the splintering of wood, then yells and screams. The tower shook, and more splintering crashes followed, sounding for all the word like an avalanche. Harry grabbed hold of the rock wall to keep himself from being flung out into the tower's central shaft.
As the rumbling echo faded away, Harry raised his head and peered around. The stairs on his side of the tower still clung to beams mortared into the tower walls. The opposite side of the tower, however, was smooth stone wall punctuated by the shattered stubs of the wooden supports. Down at the base of the tower, a cloud of rising dust partially concealed the splintered wreckage of the stairwell that had been sheared away.
Harry coughed on the dust and struggled to his feet. The stub of a stairwell groaned around him as he fought to get his footing. The shattered staircase now ran back up to the top of the tower, and down partway to the door he'd found Kreacher behind.
"Well, I'm not walking out of here," Harry said to himself as he looked around. Harry unlimbered his broom, and realized abruptly why everyone seemed to be able to see him.
He had forgotten to Disillusion his Firebolt after he'd cast the spell on himself! All this time, they'd only had to target the bobbing and floating broom.
From down at the bottom of the tower, Harry could hear someone yelling as they picked through the rubble. Harry pulled his Invisibility Cloak off and tucked it away, deciding that since stealth was out, he'd rather be able to move more easily.
Harry hopped on his broom, and angled downward, hoping to find an unlocked stairwell door.
With a flash-bang, eight students popped into being and promptly tumbled to the ground. As quickly as possible, those students who'd been at the Ministry the year before scrabbled to their feet, wands out. Seamus, Crabbe, and Goyle were left sitting on the ground, shaking their heads and looking around.
The room was so dark, Seamus tentatively held his wand aloft, and called out, "Lumos!"
The harsh wandlight set the wet black stone walls to shimmering as he pointed around the room. Every drop of water leaking from small fissures in the stone echoed in the large circular room. He and the two Slytherins were sitting chest deep in ice cold fog . Surrounding the eight students were a series of squat, light coloured standing stones. Despite the fog and the wet walls, they alone were warm and dry.
Hermione spun around in a tight circle, taking in the rough archway leading to the only door out of the room. "Doesn't seem like anyone waiting to spring the trap."
Ron nodded grimly. "Well, Harry did get here first..."
Hermione turned on him with a horrified, shattered expression. Ron shook himself, and continued. "Not that he was here. Just, you know, he probably pulled everyone away from the trap when he showed up somewhere else. Yeah."
Hermione fumed slowly for a moment before turning to the three people still collapsed on the floor. "Goyle! Where in the Malfoy house are we, exactly?"
Goyle scoffed. "Sure, right after we made the house team, Lord High Malfoy hisself gave us all a tour of the family dungeons."
Hermione raised an eyebrow. "The dungeons?"
Goyle lumbered to his feet and slapped the dank walls. "Yeah, dungeons. What, you think he's got a plumbing leak right off the formal parlour?"
"Don't touch anything," Hermione hissed.
As she stalked toward the door, Goyle shot Ron a truculent, aggrieved look. Ron could only shrug helplessly. Hermione threw open the door and jumped back as a cascade of broken lumber and shattered stones tumbled into the room. Ron ran over, and peered over her shoulder at the pile of debris. Two Death Eaters were tangled up in it, unconscious or worse. Above them was the scarred and damaged shaft of the tower stairwell, the nearest door hanging some twenty feet over their heads.
Ron looked over at Hermione. "Well, at least we know Harry's been through here."
"Don't be flip! Can't you see the stairs are out," she snapped at him.
Ron settled his hands on her shoulders. "Swish and flick, remember?"
"Leviosa, of course!" Hermione settled down a bit at this. She called back to the others in a forced whisper. "Come here everyone. We'll start flying people up to the ground floor!"
Seamus shook his head. "This doesn't sound good!"
Hermione and Ron took turns lofting their fellow students up to the nearest door in the tower. Soon they were the last two left in the low stone chamber. Hermione cleared her throat. "I'll send you up, and you lift me up once you're on the next floor."
Ron grabbed hold of her wand impulsively.
"You're in love with him, aren't you?" He blurted it out as though he couldn't hold it in any longer.
Hermione flushed. "Ron, please! Ginny was entirely-"
Ron held up a hand to forestall any more. "I know you two weren't up to anything. I'm just saying, you're in love with him now, right?"
Hermione couldn't meet Ron's eyes.
Her best friend and ex-boyfriend patter her arm delicately. "You really should tell him, you know."
A voice called out from up above them. "Oy, hurry up, you two!"
On the floor above, Harry scrambled through an elaborate maze of richly appointed private apartments and dark paneled hallways. More Death Eaters than Harry remembered seeing at Voldemort's rebirth pursued him, Impedimante and Alohamorae echoing from never more than a room away. He pushed an armoire over into the the door he'd just come through, then bolted for the next door into the corridor.
He pulled a smallish box from his pocket, and set it alight with his wand tip. Dropping it onto the ground outside the door, Harry left it there fizzing and smoking as he rounded a bend in the corridor and kept running. Behind him, the fizzing smoke just obscured the WWW logo on one side. Hot on his heels, a half dozen black-robed men burst from the room into the corridor.
The last of Harry's stash of Weasley Wizard Wheezes detonated, spinning Catherine wheels arcing through the packed mass of Death Eaters. As the dim corridor lit with flickering fires and echoed with piercing shrieks, Harry turned back and raised both his wand and Draco's at the ceiling.
"Iacto beams!" Harry concentrated, and parts of the ceiling ripped free. The nearest Death Eaters shoved their way through the fireworks and their compatriots in order to get out of the way. With a groan, the floor upstairs bucked, sagged, and collapsed, sealing the corridor tightly.
Harry turned and ran, knowing Bellatrix and Lucius were racing through the south wing to cut him off. He'd seen them a minute before, headed the long way around the manor, sealing doors as the ran. Harry knew what the other Death Eaters were to those two; the hounds to the hunters. He pushed open one of the doors to the library, only to see Lucius and Sirius' killer race through the far entrance.
Lucius was shaking with fury as he screamed spells out, hurling pieces of furniture at Harry. He ducked several chairs, then looked up to see a huge Thracean statue flying at him. Harry leaped away from the library doors as the statue struck, fracturing in midsection. The doorway broke with a rending crack, one of the doors pinwheeling away over Harry's head.
Harry slipped and slid along the parquet flooring as he tried to get out of the way of Lucius Malfoy's enraged spellcasting. He hurled a stunner backwards as he tried to get away, but Lucius' shield was too strong, and the red spell rippled and died feet from his face.
Harry was getting desperate as a writing desk blew through the plaster and lathe wall just over his head. He aimed for the floor under Lucius' feet. "Scourgify! Tergify! Tergify!"
Scrubbing brushes and suds appeared around Mister Malfoy's brightly polished boots, briskly soaping and scouring the very floor under his feet. With a roar, Lucius lost his feet, and toppled over.
Harry rolled onto his back, trying to get a clear shot at the senior Death Eater. "Leviosa Malfoy!"
Lucius leaped aloft, slamming into the ceiling hard enough to shake plaster dust loose. Harry released him, and he fell bonelessly to the ground. Before Harry had a chance to smile at the sight, hideous purple and orange spells were burning the very air around him.
Bellatrix Lestrange stalked through the shattered library, clearly more comfortable attacking Harry with direct spells rather than the flying furniture of her distant cousin. She lifted the hem of her black Empire waisted dress as her patent granny shoes danced over the rubble on the floors.
Bellatrix advanced on him, her wide smile belied by the blistering madness of her soul deep black eyes. "Fitting, widdie baby Potter! First your mongrel Godfather and now you!"
Harry snapped, and the fear burnt away leaving a terrible smoldering clarity to his view of the ruined hallway. He bolted to his feet, and started hurling hexes with both hands as he advanced on her. Terrifyingly, her spells kept everything he was throwing at her at bay, and she cackled wildly as the air around her simmered and sparked from their curses.
Her twisted smile turned darker, and with blazing speed she redoubled her efforts, her wand a barely visible blur. Harry fell back suddenly, searching his mind for every defensive spell he could think of as he gave ground. She seemed to gain in size as she advanced, her ruined beauty presiding over a Victorian charnel house. Her smile was nearly a snarl as she pressed her advantage.
"Tell me, Ickle Potter! What's it like to fear death?" Her high, delicate voice was utterly out of place emanating from her madness-wracked form. "I wouldn't know!"
Harry aimed past the raving madwoman. "Accio stautue!"
The shattered pieces of the Thracian statue Lucius had tried to bludgeon Harry with had been lying discarded in the middle of the hallway. Now they lifted themselves up and raced through the air at Harry. And Bellatrix was solidly between him and the metric tonne of stone now airborne. Harry threw himself to the ground.
She screeched, and valiantly tried deflecting all the lumps of marble away as they battered her. But the sheer numbers outdid her, and Bellatrix slumped to the floor unconscious.
Harry stumbled to his feet again, robes ripped in a dozen places. A quick look suggested that if he made it out of here, he'd owe his broom a great deal of maintenance. Of course, from the pain of the cuts on his face and arms, Harry thought he could use more than a little maintenance himself.
A slow and genteel clapping echoed from the sitting parlour at the far end of the corridor, punctuated by the intermittent crunch of falling plaster. Harry turned around slowly, finding Lord Voldemort seated in a channel backed chair, his flowing robes starkly black against the rich greens of the draperies and rugs. He looked even less natural, surrounded by the details of everyday life, a cheerful fire burning behind a screened mantle.
Voldemort unfolded himself from his seat, his red eyes burning. "They didn't kill you, Harry. That pleasure, long denied, is mine alone."
Harry swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat, then advanced on the skeletally thin murderer and his inhumanly cold face. He pulled his tattered robes about himself as he walked, and tried to look dignified. "No, Tom. I'm here to stop you."
The deliberate use of his muggle name tightened Voldemort's lipless mouth in a brief spasm of anger. The expression melted away quickly, replaced by black amusement. "'Stop me?' Child, you've been so weakened by that muggle-loving fool you cannot even say what your heart truly wants anymore. You don't want to 'stop' me. You want to kill me. You want to witness my death, and you want to feel the pleasure of causing it."
Harry took a deep breath as he entered the same parlour Voldemort dominated like a long shadow. "You're wrong again. I just want the killing to stop."
"It never stops, child." Voldemort smiled widely. "That is the central truth, the reason I have sought for so long for my own immortality. Because all this world has in it, is the killing."
Harry took a shaky breath, standing not six feet from the nearly bloodless thing that had killed so many people. He stood up as straight as he could, trying to defy the Dark Lord with every gesture possible. "Then after tonight, there'll be one less killer in it."
Harry grasped the seam of his robes and ripped. The front split open, to reveal the Mirror of Morgraine tied crudely to his chest, facing outwards. Voldemort looked down upon his reflection in confusion for a moment, then stumbled backwards as the magics were stripped from him. The Dark Lord hit the chair behind him, knocking it over as he collapsed to one knee. His near-life was only sustained by magics dark and thick; with his ties to magic severed so brutally, he collapsed like a marionette whose threads were cut.
Harry smiled grimly, raising his wand. "It ends here, Tom."
"You're correct about that, boy," came the patrician voice from behind Harry. "Sella Leviosa!"
Voldemort's discarded chair slammed into Harry, sending him sprawling. His wand tumbling from suddenly nerveless fingers as he crashed into the mantle. Harry slid to the hearth dazed. He put a hand to his spinning head, and it came away wet with blood. He looked down, and saw his pale, blood smeared face reflected in the countless shards of a broken mirror. He touched his chest, and felt the cracked and empty frame tied there.
Harry rolled over, pressing his bruised and aching back against the carved fireplace. Though blurry, he could make out Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange enter the parlour and help their master to his feet.
Lord Voldemort was still unsteady, and Lucius summoned the chair for him to rest upon. The flat, snake-like nose dilated as he gasped for breath. "That was entertaining, child. Bella, see what other entertainment the boy might be good for. I want tonight to be... gratifying."
With her black hair speckled with dust and debris, falling wildly about her, and blood running freely from the cuts in her scalp, Bellatrix looked more unhinged than ever. Her twisted smile did nothing to give life to her broken, dead face. "Crucio!"
Harry arched backwards, screaming, as all thoughts died.
Crabbe looked up at Goyle from the back of the pack of students as they jogged down yet another richly appointed hallway as they followed the sounds of things breaking. "Do you think we ticked off the Chinese wif' out known' it?"
Goyle huffed, wand clutched in a sweating palm. "Wha'cho say that for?"
Crabbe was red faced, his shirt soaking. "Id'nt it their curse? May you live in interestin' times?"
"Good point," he gasped. "I shouldn't'a been so forward on that date wif' Cho Chang, should I?"
Crabbe shook his head, sweat flying off of his bristly pate. "She's not Chinese you twit. Listen to the accent. She's from Newcastle."
Goyle squinted as sweat ran into her eyes. "I was referrin' to her ancestry."
"Ancestry ain't got nuffink to do wif' it." Crabbe chugged along, arms flailing as his stamina failed him. "All's I'm sayin' is, you can't call down ancestral curses if'n yer from Newcastle. I mean, 's Newcastle for Merlin's sake."
Goyle ran in silence for a few more yards. Finally he worked up enough spit to keep talking. "Fair point. I can't think a' what we done to deserve this, then."
From somewhere up ahead, a boy's screamed out in agony. The wrenching noise ran on and on, long past being reduced to a hoarse cry. It was Harry.
Up ahead, Granger and the Weasleys started running faster. The rest of the group followed along, leaving the two Slytherins to slap the wooden floors more heavily than ever in a blind bid to even keep sight of the others.
The group, strung out in a long gasping line, rounded yet another corner in the ancient manor house, to find the open doorway to the sitting parlour some fifteen feet ahead. Through it, they could just see Lord Voldemort himself, Bellatrix LeStrange, and Lucius Malfoy gathered over a crumpled shape on the floor.
Hermione screamed. Bellatrix turned with a smile and a curtsy, and closed the door with a wave. Ron slammed into the door, but it didn't budge.
"Move over," Hermione gasped. "Alohamora!"
She rattled the knobs, but the wouldn't budge. She kicked them, and tried again. "Reducto! Incindeo! Oh, blast it all... Iacto door! Diducere!"
The door was utterly unmoved and unchanged by the assault. She ran a finger along the carvings adorning the door. She sounded frantic, desperate even. "Runes? No, no, these say the door is impervious to magic!"
Seamus reached over Ron's shoulder to pull her away from the sealed door. "We're finding another door!"
He turned around to see six masked Death Eaters rounding the end of the corridor, wands out.
"New plan," Hermione said quickly as she pulled loose from Seamus. "You hold them off, I'll get the door open!"
"Buail craiceann!" Seamus licked his lips, and took out his wand. He slapped Goyle in the chest. "You lads ready for a scrum?"
Crabbe and Goyle rolled up their sleeves, and lined up on either side of the short Irishman. Crabbe thumbed his nose, and spit onto the torn and smoking Persian rug.
Hermione turned back to the door as a hail of curses crackled through the air behind her. She read the carved runes hurriedly by the flickering red and blue light of spell fire. Given where the runes are placed, she thought, maybe the hinges...
Harry's hoarse screams echoed from the other side of the door again, and she had to squeeze her eyes shut tightly to keep from joining him. She looked over her shoulder, and saw that Seamus and Goyle seemed to be providing protective spells for the group as Ginny, Neville, and Crabbe kept their attackers at bay with a torrent of offensive magic. She turned back to the door, and the terrible screams, and tried again on the hinges.
Luna dragged her huge sack up to Ron, and dropped it at his feet. "She did say 'impenetrable by magic,' didn't she?"
"'Impervious,' actually," Ron licked his lips and sent a few spells arcing over his sister's shoulder and into the bubbling horde of Death Eaters. It looked like the students were winning, with three of the Death Eaters down and not getting up any time soon. "Got any ideas?"
"Sort of." Lune fiddled around in the bag for a moment, before pulling out a huge, dirty muggle object. "Do you think you could work this?"
His chest and throat burned from the screaming. With pale, shaking hands Harry tried feebly to push himself up from the floor, the taste of bile sharp in his nose and mouth. He struggled to his knees, drawing a polite smirk from Lucius, and a disturbingly childlike skip and giggle from Bellatrix. Voldemort merely steepled his unnaturally long hands.
"And this is all you have, child?" Voldemort peered down at him maliciously, his high voice cold and cruel. "No more threats? No more tricks? Just another unskilled schoolboy ready to die? Disheartening, really, that there should be no one of note for me to triumph over. Just sad little you."
"Dumbledore," Harry croaked, shaking as he tried to stand up.
Voldemort laughed, a creaking rattle. "Your fool and his precious little Order are fighting to gain access to this house even now. They seem completely at a loss, facing so very many Dementors. No Harry, he won't save you."
Voldemort crawled out of his chair, and grabbed Harry's jaw roughly in his cold white grip. Harry reached a trembling hand into his boot top, fumbling with nerveless fingers for Draco's wand. Now, he thought, maybe I'll have one last chance to finish this. Voldemort smiled, his blood red eyes empty. "No one will save you tonight, child."
A dull, luffing roar came from the sealed doorway. In a moment, the noise soared in volume and pitch, until it was an earsplitting burning shriek. I've heard that before, Harry thought dully.
In a shower of wood chips, a thick dull blade slid through the door just above the lock. Magically, the humming, shimmering blade sliced through the door in a shower of dust.
Lucius flushed, scowling petulantly. "That's impossible! That door was warded by my Great-Grandfather!"
The lock dropped to the carpet with a dull thud, and the door swung freely open. Ron Weasley stepped into the room, sweating and dirty, a roaring chainsaw in his hands and his wand tucked behind his ear. Right behind him Luna and Hermione charged in, finding themselves facing the three most vicious Dark Wizards in two generations.
Everyone was quiet, save for Harry's shattered gasps. "Hermione," he struggled. "Run!"
Lucius and Bella stepped forward, interposing themselves between the interlopers and their master. Ron, Luna, and Hermione exchanged a look and fanned out slowly. Ron shifted the chainsaw to his left hand, and drew his wand from behind his ear. The battle in the corridor was a mix of shouted spells and thundering impacts, muted by the wall. The chainsaw rumbled and sputtered in Ron's left hand, smelling like a petrol refinery. But the five people did not speak as they circled around.
Hermione lunged to the right, trying to get around Lucius and Voldemort. Bellatrix screamed an Unforgivable, and Hermione dropped to the floor as it arced on by. Ron lashed out with a Stunner while she was distracted, and winged her. Hermione got to her feet, pushing her hair from her face, and the slow circling began again.
Luna pointed her wand at Lucius. "Immobulus!"
He flash his wand in an arc before him, and Luna's spell sizzled harmlessly before him. He flicked the tip at her abruptly. "Inflamare!"
A tongue of flame licked out at the Ravenclaw, who held her bag up in front of her face. The flames danced across it, but didn't burn through. She lowered her bag, and shot Lucius a nasty look.
Voldemort sighed, bored. "Enough, Lucius. I will finish them."
He turned his back on Harry.
Harry had the ebony wand in his unsteady hand, and he pressed forward until it was firmly between Voldemort's shoulder blades. He was afraid he'd miss otherwise. He grabbed Voldemort's tall bony shoulder for support, and snarled into the ancient wizard's ear. "Reducto, you bastard!"
With a bang, Harry and Voldemort tumbled apart. The smoking, splintered wreckage of Draco's wand fell from Harry's bloody and lacerated hand. Voldemort staggered forward and sank to the ground, pale and misshapen mouth working noiselessly as he tried to reach around to the smoking hole in his back.
Bellatrix screamed wordlessly, and turned on Harry in a hail of Dark magic. Harry scrambled behind a table, which writhed and melted under her attention.
Ron hit her in the back with another stunner, but she kept coming. She flicked her wand at Ron, and hurled him into a wall fiercely. The redhead crumpled to the ground, chainsaw coughing to a stop as the dead man's switch was released. Across the room, Harry dimly caught sight of Hermione battling Lucius with fierce determination.
Luna stepped in front of Ron as Bellatrix turned back to Harry, scorching holes through the floor all around him. Harry scrambled for his discarded wand, seizing it just as Bellatrix caught him with the Cruciatus Curse again.
Harry screamed for what seemed like forever. Suddenly, the pain was lifted, and Harry could look around in wonder. Bellatrix was standing over him, a look of demented rage twisting her face into a hideous mask. She had her wand out, trained on Harry, but wasn't doing anything. Suddenly, she toppled to one side, frozen in place. Behind her was Hermione, shaking as she put her wand away. Over her shoulder, Harry could see Luna checking on Ron.
Hermione ran to him and dropped to the her knees at his side. She threw herself into him with one of her rib-endangering hugs. "Harry, are you all right?"
Harry shook slightly. "I- I think so."
Hermione pulled away from him, and for a moment she looked like she wanted to read him the riot act. That look melted away somewhat, and Harry knew he had at least a few hours grace before he heard about his abrupt departure. She helped him to his feet, and steadied him there as he looked around. Voldemort lay crumpled by the fireplace, Lucius's fallen body was half hidden behind the settee, and Bellatrix lay frozen at their feet.
Harry grinned wearily, feeling shaky and somewhat empty. "I don't think we did too badly."
Hermione shot him a tight look, but helped him over to where Ron was lying on the ground. Luna had his head in her lap, and was running her fingers through his hair and humming softly. Hermione put a hand to her mouth. "Is he alright?"
Ron smiled with his eyes closed. "If she'll keep playing with my hair, I'm fine."
Harry rolled his eyes, and looked out into the hall. The rest of the students were milling about in the doorway. Still clutching Hermione for support, he gestured for them to come in. Neville had his tie bound around a cut on his arm, and Seamus was leaning on Crabbe and limping, but otherwise they seemed unharmed.
Seamus nodded at the four of them in the room. "You lot alright, then?"
Ron spoke from his place on the floor. "Fine. You?"
"Sure." Seamus hopped a bit on his one good leg. "Never better."
Neville pointed at the lump of rags in the middle of the room. "Is that You-Know-Who?"
Harry could only nod. He felt Hermione's arm tighten about his shoulders.
Neville nodded. "Good."
Harry swayed in place in the middle of the room before his eyes snapped wide open. "Dumbledore! Voldemort said he and the Order were facing Dementors out on the grounds!"
"You should sit down," Neville said. "We'll go get 'em."
Harry hunted around for his wand one handed, the other wiping blood away from his eyes. "I should be out there."
"You should be back at hospital," Hermione said, pulling his wand away and sticking it back in his pocket. She looked desperately worried, and it was the only thing that sank into his sunned perception.
Harry nodded. "Alright, I'll stay. But be careful Neville. You don't know what's still out there."
Neville shrugged. "Can't be that bad. C'mon!"
After Ginny and Goyle followed Neville out, Crabbe helped Seamus limp after them. The short Irishman looked up at the Slytherin, looking indignant. "Oy, this is peachy, this is! Let's have the lamed one go walking abou', eh? Nice!"
"Yes," Crabbe answered placidly. "You're suffering terribly. Shut up."
There was a lot of groaning, and Harry and Hermione turned to see Luna helping Ron to his feet. Ron rubbed the back of head. "I think Luna an' me are going to go make sure that lot doesn't get into trouble."
Harry waved distractedly as his friends left, watching them hobble out of view. He rubbed at his eyes with the back of his good hand. Thoughts kept racing about in his head. Voldemort wasn't ever going to threaten him or anyone else ever again. The war was going to be over. Everyone was safe. Nothing in his life was ever going to be the same again. Around and around these thoughts went, and he teetered between giddy euphoria and a desire to sit down and sob uncontrollably. He was interrupted by the feel of Hermione's hand clutching his shirt tight before releasing it, and then trying to smooth out the creases.
Harry looked down into Hermione's face intently, feeling like at that moment he had to memorize every crease of her lips, every freckle. It seemed the most important thing he could ever do.
Hermione worried her lower lip. "I need to get you out of here! Merlin knows if there's any Death Eaters left in the castle."
"Manour," Harry answered slowly. "And I don't really care."
He leaned in swiftly to capture her lips, and she froze. A little voice in the back of his mind told him that his best friend probably didn't appreciate being kissed out of the blue like that. Then she shifted slightly, and returned the kiss.
With a shake of her head, Hermione took a half step back from him. "Oh, Harry, no! You're bound to be in shock after everything that's happened tonight. That's all this-"
Harry sagged at this, seeming to get ever so much smaller as the light in his green eyes faded. "Sorry," he muttered.
Hermione's brow knitted, and she touched his face softly. "Let's get you to hospital, and we can talk later, alright?"
He nodded morosely. She seemed to sense his mood, and impulsively leaned in to hug him tight. It was another of Hermione's famous rib-breaking hugs, bestowed upon friends and family alike, and for the first time ever, Harry was stiff and unyielding in the face of it. Then he realized she was stroking his back slightly, and he smiled just a little bit. Maybe, he thought, she didn't hate me kissing her. Harry returned her hug bit by bit. They stood together for a time, content to just be hugging. Oddly, Harry thought it felt the most natural thing in all the world.
Harry looked over Hermione's shoulder, and his brow furrowed. He thought for a moment he'd seen... Lucius Malfoy pushing himself upright, wand already pointed at Hermione's back, a snarl on his face. "Avada-"
Hermione gasped as she saw Lord Voldemort sit bolt upright, his bony frame creaking as he moved. The last half of his spell was dying on his lips. "-Kedavra!"
As one, Harry and Hermione spun each other counter-clockwise, each trying to turn the other away from an unseen danger. Their eyes widened as they saw the sickly green light accelerating toward their loved one's back despite their efforts. Harry closed his eyes, Hermione stared into his face, shocked and angered that it should end like this. There was no time for tears.
The Killing Curses caught them both from behind, enveloping each of them in burning green fire. Just as quickly as they had been struck, the curses rebounded away. Behind Harry, there was a thud as Lucius Malfoy's body collapsed sightless to the ground.
But Voldemort did not fall dead as the sickly green light coursed through him. Rather, the blast of corpselight lifted him full to his feet, smoldering robes briefly whipped away from his skeletal body. His wand caught fire like a roman candle before guttering and dying. Then the greenish light died away, and Voldemort remained, the stench of burning flesh sharp in the air. His pale white face could not be seen for the depths of his cloak's hood, but the fingers gripping the remains of his wand were blackened and dry.
Voldemort's voice, when he spoke, sounded like burnt paper and dying leaves. "You thought this was the end? That I could ever be killed, like some squalling mortal muggle? I cannot."
Harry let out his breath in something near to a laugh. He tried to push Hermione behind him, but she wasn't budging.
Voldemort summoned Bellatrix Lestrange to his side with a wave. "This isn't over, Harry Potter. This will never be over. Eram Sumero!"
With that simple spell, Voldemort and his Petrified minion Apparated away.
Harry and Hermione sagged against one another. He shook his head. "It's still not over, is it?"
Hermione stroked his hair and shook her head sadly. Harry looked around the shattered and broken room, the empty gaze of what was once Lucius Malfoy staring back at him. Harry collapsed to the floor shaking, and Hermione went with him. They were still there holding each other when the Order finally arrived.