A/N: What is this? An update? Apparently so.
Much gratitude to my beta Gwendolyn/agedsolarwhisk for all the hand-holding and cheerleading and double-checking of various things and taking time out of her very busy life to read over drafts and edits. My thanks also to Voice of the Nephilim for his very helpful advice. And honestly, to everyone who has left amazingly lovely comments over these years—your support and encouragement made all the difference to me!
And if you received an update notification and clicked it being like, I vaguely remember this fic… what was it again?.. then maybe this is the right time to remind you of some key plot developments: Slytherin Harry who has inter-House friendships and isn't close with Draco or Snape; Voldemort's piece of soul inside him is gone because Voldemort hit him with the Killing Curse at his resurrection in year 4; Cedric is alive, Arthur Weasley is dead; Harry has allied with Scrimgeour and has a fairly major public profile; big battle at the Ministry at the end of year 5 and the Lestranges attacking Neville's house at Christmas in year 6; Harry and Dumbledore are looking for Horcruxes, found the ring together; most recently, Dumbledore, Snape and Harry faked Slughorn's death.
Hogwarts' fragile peace mostly held for the next couple of weeks; academic concerns came to dominate conversation among Harry's friends as April drew to a close. The days grew warmer, the lovely weather in ironic counterpoint with the need to hole up and study. The fifth and seventh years started looking frazzled.
"Goddamn NEWTs, they're the worst," Eddie told Harry, sagging under the weight of what looked like half the library in his book bag.
Students in Harry's year didn't have wizarding qualifications to study for, which was a blessing, but the Apparition exam loomed on April 21, and Harry found himself explaining the process to an increasing number of people in his acquaintance, and being thankful that he already had his licence. Taking the test as a group appeared to have an unnerving effect on his friends' psyche.
"But what if I mess up the first time? Will they let me retake it?" Hermione fretted during a study session in the Hidden Room. Thankfully, the room had been reliably letting them in for the past two weeks; Harry wasn't sure his friends could take the added strain of fighting the others for space in the library.
"You won't mess up," Harry said. "None of you will."
"We've been doing fine in lessons," Anthony said, tone mild.
"Speak for yourself," Millicent muttered. Happily for her, she wasn't one of the people trying for a licence, as she wasn't yet seventeen.
"Does anyone actually need Magical Runes?" Blaise asked, pillowing his head on a book. "What have they ever done for anybody?"
"Actually—" Terry brightened up, a lecture ready on his lips.
"The question was rhetorical. But if you can explain that squiggle here, I'll help you with the Fifth Goblin Rebellion."
"Are you saying you won't help me otherwise?"
"The squiggle, Boot. Start explaining."
Harry chewed absently on the end of his sugar quill. He had his own demons, and their names were Transfiguration and Arithmancy. He'd let his studies fall to the wayside in favour of researching Horcruxes, and while he felt it was justified—no one would die if he failed Arithmancy, but the war could drag on a lot longer if the remaining pieces of Voldemort's soul remained elusive—his teachers didn't prove very understanding, given he couldn't explain his reasoning. They'd saddled him with extra homework to make up for his recent lacklustre efforts. He might've blown that off too, endangeringwhat others seemed to think was a promising academic career, if not for the fact that his Horcrux investigations had hit a dead end.
The cup, the locket, the snake, and one Horcrux completely unknown… When Harry dug into the relics of Ravenclaw and Gryffindor to identify that last, nothing new came up: Gryffindor had the hat and the sword, and Ravenclaw had passed down her diadem. Either Voldemort had given up on collecting the Founders' objects, or he'd somehow located the Diadem of Ravenclaw, which had been lost these many centuries and Harry didn't have any more luck finding. He'd tried questioning the Ravenclaw ghost, but she'd given him the cold shoulder and refused to engage, fading into a wall and avoiding him since; the library books didn't yield any reliable information, either.
Knowing where the snake was didn't help, because, as Dumbledore had said, she'd have to be left for last. The cup and the locket could be anywhere, and Harry knew Dumbledore was looking, but he must not have found anything yet. The locket particularly tortured Harry; he saw it on Salazar Slytherin's portrait in the common room often enough, but he could've sworn he'd seen it somewhere else, at some point. Then again, for all he knew, he was mixing up reality with dreams. His dreams nowadays frequently included visions of swirling cups and lockets, chased by a snake…
Between Harry and his friends, only Luna radiated serenity. She claimed not to need a study session at all, and now hummed a melody to herself, eyes closed, without even opening a book. Harry envied her peace of mind, but Hermione—looking frantic as she searched through her notes for something—clearly didn't share the sentiment.
"Why aren't you worried? You're taking your O.W.L.s," she demanded. "And stop singing! It's distracting."
Luna cracked open an eye and smiled. "Then maybe there's a lot on your mind."
"What, are you going to talk about Wrackspurts again?" Padma asked waspishly.
Padma's temper tended on the short side these days, as on top of everything else she'd also broken up with Justin Finch-Fletchley. By all accounts, it had been an ugly scene; Harry, while he didn't witness it, had been present in spirit, since apparently Justin had invoked his name a fair amount as accusations had flown back and forth. The little lie Padma had given to the Aurors didn't turn out so little after all, but Padma didn't seem to regret it.
("I'd wondered what the last drop would be, for Justin. He had such a hard time of it, me being friends with my famous ex. I'd care about you too much, or hug you for too long, or stay in your train compartment on the way to Hogwarts…")
As usual, the mention of Harry's name sent whispers swirling through the school: some said Padma had cheated on Justin, others that Harry and Padma were tragically in love and reunited again, with Justin nobly giving way. Some even speculated that Padma had been the reason for Harry and Susan's breakup.
Honestly, all this was partially why Harry didn't date anymore. One night's entertainment was one thing, and some encounters he remembered with fondness—Victoria Frobischer came to mind—but relationships weren't going to happen, not after the fiasco with Susan. Been there, done that, buried the aunt.
Luna, for her part, gave no indication of alarm at finding herself the subject of Padma's irate attention.
"No," she said calmly. "The Wrackspurts were a childish idea. I've put it behind me. They don't exist."
Several heads rose at that. Harry blinked, unsure he'd heard right.
"You… don't believe in Wrackspurts anymore?" he checked, just to be sure.
"Of course not," Luna said, still calm.
"What about Blibbering Humdingers?" Neville tried.
"I've learned better," Luna said firmly.
"Is that where you've been disappearing to for the past month or so? Reading up on this stuff and realizing it's not real?" Terry asked.
Luna just smiled and started humming again.
"For fuck's sake, shut up," Millicent growled. "This is hard enough already without you singing some medieval ballad crap."
"I don't need to be here. If I'm disturbing you so much, I'll go," Luna said, getting up and sounding cross enough to visibly startle everyone present.
Harry exchanged glances with Neville and closed his own books.
"I'll come with you," he told Luna. And then, once they were outside the Hidden Room: "Listen, don't take it hard, what Millie said. Everyone's just stressed about the exams. It was good to have you there. It's been a while."
It really had been. Between Hidden Room research and apparently studying enough that she'd let go of Wrackspurts and other Humdingers, Luna's presence at study sessions or even duelling club meetings had dwindled to rare and short appearances.
"Busy bees buzz all day," Luna said in sing-song, and smiled at him—that same sunny, slightly vacant smile he knew well. He relaxed at the sight.
"Well, speaking of busy, I've got to go. Catch you later, all right?"
Since studying proved to be a bust, Harry may as well go see a man about a Quaffle.
"Listen," Harry said to Arthur Vaisey, once he'd located him in the Slytherin common room, "you need to pull yourself together. We've got a match with Hufflepuff in a week, and just today, you mixed up Astoria with a Quaffle."
"Your own fault for making these practices so damn early," Vaisey said, squinting Astoria's way.
"It was six in the evening."
"Oh. Well, I didn't get much sleep last night."
"Clearly," Harry said. "And no, I don't want to know. Also, you can dislike Malfoy all you like, but I still need you to pass the Quaffle to him for the Havertz Formation."
Following their dust-up, Harry had almost expected Malfoy to drop Quidditch. He didn't know why he'd thought it possible; Malfoy had enough stubbornness to compete with a whole herd of mules, and he did love the sport. Nothing that had happened between him and Harry up to this point had forced him off the team, and clearly nothing was going to. Harry could relate to that, however reluctantly; he, too, had much bigger concerns than Quidditch in his life, and yet—
("You've got to start giving yourself breaks, Harry. Get some free time. Take up a bloody hobby that doesn't have you constantly on edge.")
Calling Quidditch stress-free would be a stretch, but Harry loved it, and that had to count for something.
Harry opened his mouth to advise Vaisey on a couple of other points—including a reminder that should they lose to Hufflepuff of all teams, they'd need to move to Argentina under new identities to escape the shame—when the common room door banged open.
"Harry, come quick!" Wendy Travers shouted, spilling into the room.
Harry found himself on his feet and clutching his wand before he'd made the decision to move. "What happened?"
"James Urquhart and some Gryffindor, they were fighting, and, Harry, there's so much blood—"
Harry's stomach dropped. More fighting.
The duelling club's pocket of sanity aside, Slughorn's supposed murder had reawakened last term's tensions within the school; accusations abounded that, if anyone had killed Slughorn, it had to be one of the scheming Slytherins or their sinister Head of House. It was true, that was the worst part, and in Slytherin itself tensions ran at an all-time high. Harry increasingly saw Slytherin's duelling club members drifting together, as if drawn in by the assurance of knowing where the others stood, while Nott, Malfoy and their ilk held themselves more aloof than ever—and even there, looking closely enough, one could see splinters. Malfoy no longer spent all his time at loggerheads with Nott; he was apart from the crowd, other, and walked as if surrounded by his own personal bubble of space that only Parkinson dared breach as if it wasn't there.
Looking at all of that, Harry had worried, because he didn't like living on a powder keg and not knowing who was holding the match.
More bloodshed in the corridors was just… not going to help any of this.
Wendy was still talking. "Kevin and I were just walking and the spells nearly hit us and I ducked and we ran but then he screamed and the—the blood and—and Kevin went to find a teacher—"
And Wendy went to find Harry. Right.
"Quickly, come on!" Wendy said, tugging on Harry's arm with surprising force.
On the way to the door, Harry threw a quick glance around the common room, at the alarmed expressions of students around him. But nobody seemed about to start a riot or go marching on the Gryffindor tower with pitchforks. Small blessings and all.
Harry ran after Wendy up a couple of floors to see two bloodied seventh-years, one of whom was Urquhart alright, and the other—huh, Cormac McLaggen, his handsome face torn up and bruised. The hallway looked like something out of a crime scene. Completing the picture were Madam Pomfrey, Professor McGonagall and third-year Hufflepuff Kevin Whitby, who stood to the side and was visibly trying not to faint.
"Oh, hi, Harry," Kevin said in a thready voice. Wendy immediately darted over to grasp his hand.
"Potter? Why are you here?" McGonagall asked, turning to them with a severe look.
Madam Pomfrey didn't even bother asking, apparently used to Harry popping up whenever someone lay around unconscious.
"I'm James's Quidditch Captain," Harry said, as if that entitled him to anything. In his time, Marcus Flint had stepped in to protect Harry, so maybe the rank did imbue him with responsibility for his team even off the pitch. "Will he be okay? What happened?"
Before McGonagall could talk again, Kevin launched into a tale of how he and Wendy had stumbled onto the duel. Nothing Harry couldn't have guessed, down to the insults about each other's moral character and parentage and tendencies to murder harmless professors.
"And he said that the other guy would pay, and there was an explosion—"
"McLaggen and Urquhart engaged in an altercation which endangered themselves and other students," McGonagall said, voice hard. "Once they have healed—and Madam Pomfrey assures me that they will, Miss Travers, don't worry—they will both have earned a month's worth of detentions, at least."
"I suppose there's no way James will be fine by Saturday," Harry said.
Not that Quidditch was more important than everything else that was going on here, but, well. The game against Hufflepuff was their last of the season, and Urquhart was kind of key to the whole thing, being the Keeper and all.
"Even if he was, don't think for a moment that I would encourage this behaviour by allowing him to play," McGonagall said. "Fighting will not be tolerated at this school, Mr Potter. You'll have to find yourself a replacement."
Harry acquiesced, reining in his annoyance. Slytherin's Keeper being out of commission provided some extra sour icing to this cake.
"Harry?" Kevin asked quietly. "They'll be okay, right?"
"Yeah, you heard Professor McGonagall," Harry said. And then, because Kevin still looked like this was another duelling club exercise and he was waiting for instructions, Harry added: "You did all the right things. You brought a teacher and now they're getting medical help and they will be fine."
He extended this to Wendy as well, glancing at her as he said it, and something in his gut stirred uncomfortably at the way both of them nodded and stood a little straighter.
("A fuckload of kids… used to answering to your commands. Chanting spells you have taught them.")
Clearly, something about the scene also gave Professor McGonagall pause.
"I didn't realise you were acquainted with Kevin Whitby, Mr Potter," she said in an undertone.
"He's friends with Wendy." Apparently. "She's in my house, one of her best friends is on my Quidditch team."
"Hm." McGonagall didn't look convinced, but there wasn't much time for further comment. Madam Pomfrey needed her help to levitate the unconscious McLaggen and Urquhart, and Harry ushered Wendy and Kevin away, steering them firmly around the mess of blood on the floor.
Half an hour into the Quidditch match, Harry had to acknowledge that a move to Argentina was looking likely. His team, still struggling with cohesion and feeling Urquhart's absence, flew like they were going through the motions. After an hour of play, Harry was just hoping to catch the snitch. Maybe then he'd end the game before the score got too disastrous.
"And another ten points for Hufflepuff!" Zachariah Smith announced with gusto. "The Slytherins are in bad form today, their replacement Keeper doesn't seem to remember why he's on the field, and maybe they're getting tired at the end of the season…"
Harry gritted his teeth. He'd show them tired.
He saw the Snitch glittering just off the edge of the pitch, sunlight reflecting off the golden surface. He pivoted and sped off at once. Smith shouted something in an excited voice, but Harry didn't hear it past the whooshing of air in his ears. He just needed to get to the Snitch, grab it and end this miserable goddamn game.
He hadn't even noticed it before it hit him, spotting the black shape only when it got too close for him to avoid. The force of the incoming Bludger very nearly knocked him off the broom and set his world spinning.
For a couple of moments, pain drowned out everything else, flaring up in his ribs and flooding his whole system with shock. When Harry could breathe again—tentatively—the first thing he registered was Vaisey's angry voice by his ear.
"—trying to kill him?"
"It was an accident!"
"An accident that you tried to take out our Seeker, really?"
Harry blinked past the involuntary tears, took stock of the situation and immediately felt like he'd ended up in some alternate reality.
Crabbe and Goyle were hovering on their brooms in front of him, holding Beater bats with unmistakeable menace and blocking Harry from several members of the Hufflepuff team. They, in turn, alternated between peering at him with concern and denying accusations of having meant to hit him. Vaisey was gripping Harry's left arm, making sure he stayed on the broom. Astoria was on his other side, glaring at the Hufflepuffs.
"I'm fine," Harry croaked. Well, tried to. His ribs really didn't like the idea.
He guessed that Madam Hooch had called another time-out at some point, because nobody was playing anymore.
This was turning out to be a really swell match.
"Potter!" Madam Hooch demanded, flying up to them. "Are you actually dying? Do you need to go to the infirmary or are you going to play?"
"I can play," Harry said, earning a doubtful glance from Astoria, who could see from up close what was it was taking him to just stay on the broom.
But, hey, an injured Seeker was better than no Seeker, and also this game needed to be over as soon as possible.
From there, Harry didn't really process the match all that well. He circled above the players, as usual, but he paid no actual attention to what they were doing; his team would just have to figure this shit out for themselves. The uniforms were blurs at the corners of his vision, and all his concentration went towards spotting the Snitch. Staying in the air, too, was quite a feat, given that Harry felt almost certain he'd broken something during that unfortunate rendezvous with a Bludger.
Finally, when Harry's perception of the Quidditch pitch muted into something resembling a surrealist painting with swirls of bright colours, he saw a particularly bright golden spot on the canvas, and dove for it with all the determination of a person knowing they're about to exhaust their second wind.
The pain and the extra ringing in Harry's head were worth it for the moment his hand closed around the fluttering ball. The blackness that followed immediately after didn't seem like such a bad thing, considering.
"Oh my god, never scare me like that again," Padma said, when he next opened his eyes.
Turned out, falling off his broom was an unnecessarily dramatic exit from a game according to most people.
"Not like I did it for the giggles," Harry pointed out. He found this a fair point to make.
"How're you feeling?" Anthony asked.
He and Harry's other friends had been allowed into Harry's ward on the promise of good behaviour, which presumably entailed being quiet and not agitating the patient.
"I'm fine," Harry said, leaning back on his pillow.
"You should know that this would sound much more convincing if you hadn't said the exact same thing during the actual game," Blaise told him.
"At which point you ended up passing out sixty feet in the air," Terry supplied helpfully. As if anyone could've forgotten.
Harry rolled his eyes. "No, honestly, Madam Pomfrey says I'll live."
What she said exactly was that the Bludger had broken his ribs and caused a fair amount of internal damage. She'd done her best to treat it, but she was still waiting on a potions delivery from St. Mungo's after using up much of the necessary supplies on Urquhart and McLaggen and other students fighting in the corridors. She invited him to go to St. Mungo's if he wanted, but frankly hospitals weren't his favourite places to be; besides, he felt she underestimated the work she'd done, because he felt almost as good as new—his ribs just twinged from time to time. Madam Pomfrey had grumbled but admitted that would go away if he took it easy for a couple of weeks.
"I'm okay," he repeated, this time for Neville's benefit. He was looking particularly concerned.
"I know Luna would've wanted to see you, but I couldn't find her," Neville said.
"We'll tell her he's allowed visitors now," Terry promised.
"What we need is a good, fun thing to do together," Padma said decisively. "Anybody's got plans for the Hogsmeade Saturday? No? Excellent. We're all getting out of the castle, and we're having a good time, and nobody's falling off brooms, or studying for Apparition, or getting stress lines from all of the above."
All these people worrying about Harry were making him feel off-balance. Normally, he'd only be this injured after some Voldemort-related thing, at which point his next concern would be sorting out the resulting clusterfuck with Dumbledore. Instead, it was all Quidditch talk and anxious friends and actual Chocolate Frogs from well-wishers.
A dissonant experience, to put it mildly.
The morning of the Hogsmeade Saturday, it rained so hard that Harry figured the Niagara Falls must have moved over to Scotland and spilled from above. However, the deluge dried up quickly enough—May showers and all that—and the skies promised a beautiful sunny day as Harry and the others walked to Hogsmeade amid a crowd of students. The village welcomed them with the hustle and bustle of a wizarding town on a market day. An old lady pushed past them, muttering about the price of bat livers these days, while the ice cream vendor in a lopsided cap invited them over to taste the spring flavours, and the central clock chimed midday.
"You know, somehow, Hogsmeade just doesn't get old," Harry said, looking around with a smile.
"It might shock you that it is in fact very old," Blaise told him.
"Oh, very funny."
For all their intentions of a group trip, they split up naturally according to their interests. Hermione and Terry wanted to swing by the bookshop, so they wandered off hand in hand. Anthony went to meet up with Michael Corner and their other Ravenclaw buddies, Blaise had a date, and Padma desired an urgent appointment with a dress in Gladrags.
Harry had no particular destination in mind. Just getting out of the castle already made for a nice change. Since the Quidditch season had wrapped, he'd spent most of his time indoors in the library trying to balance out studying and Horcrux research, and avoiding missives from Scrimgeour, who still wanted his presence at the Ministry more often than was reasonable to expect. He'd tried to convince Harry to come over to the Ministry this very weekend, in fact, but Harry had refused, because Padma was right: it was high time he and his friends spent time together just enjoying each other's company and not stressing out over anything.
"What do you want to do?" Harry asked Neville and Millicent. Having convinced Neville to come out and properly socialize felt like a victory; Harry had tried to convince Luna, as well, but she now claimed the need to study. At least he'd succeeded with one out of two.
Neville squinted against the sun. "We could just go to The Three Broomsticks?"
"How about we walk around a bit, and then head over there?"
It ended up rather a silent walk, Millicent not being a bubbly conversationalist at the best of times, and Neville having lost his tendency to easy chatter since the battle at Christmas. Still, Harry found the quiet more peaceful than oppressive; it was nice to just share a moment with people without any sort of expectations or potential word traps to fall into. By unspoken agreement, they turned their steps to The Three Broomsticks after an hour or so, and found it jam-packed with locals and students both.
"Weird thing," Millicent said, taking a sip of her butterbeer. The foam formed a moustache above her lip. "Haven't seen Malfoy anywhere."
Malfoy choosing not to partake in a jolly school outing didn't exactly shock Harry, considering the circumstances. Still, he frowned, casting his mind back. "Nott wasn't anywhere, either."
Millicent swept the room with a glance. "Crabbe and Goyle must've stayed at school, too."
"Is this a Slytherin thing? Do you always do a roll call of who's there?" Neville asked, blinking between them. "Should I count the Gryffindors?"
"Only if you think any of them are out for Harry's blood. We do try to keep an eye out for those." Millicent's entire bearing communicated her low opinion of Neville's mental faculties.
"You think there's some junior snake club thing happening?" Harry tried to think of anything unusual in the behaviour of the Death Eater clique in Slytherin lately, but since Slughorn's fake death everything had been unusual, so it was hard to judge.
"We could go back and check."
"I wouldn't have survived a day in your House," Neville said, shaking his head. "The amount of plotting and looking over your shoulders you guys have to do on a daily basis…"
"You'd get used to it," Harry said.
"Used to what?" Terry asked, popping up at their table. "Also, more butterbeer?"
"If you're buying," Millie grunted.
Hermione, who had arrived with Terry, settled down next to Harry, and Padma found them not five minutes later, swiping Terry's mug and sending him off to get another, "since you're up."
"Look at us, it's like a triple date," Padma said, weaving her arm through Harry's. "The most dysfunctional triple date, but there we are. Justin will have a conniption."
Neville and Millicent stared at each other and then at Parma in horror. Terry choked on his drink.
"You aren't even dating Harry," Hermione said.
"No, but let Justin wonder."
Harry was very, very glad that he and Padma had broken up on better terms than these.
"Is Justin going to try to kill me at the next duelling club meeting?" he asked in a resigned tone.
He liked Justin. Well, he had liked Justin before this, insofar as he'd known him, which was not very well, though Padma had dated the guy for over a year.
Maybe that should have been a sign. Honestly, Harry could see how it might have put a strain on their relationship to have Padma's loyalties divided between Justin and the many secrets of Harry's group of friends, secrets that weren't hers to tell and that it might not have occurred to her to share. It was probably far easier for Hermione and Terry, both fully in on everything, but…
Harry shook his head and reached for his butterbeer.
"Of course he won't try to have a go at you," Padma said. "We're not in a classical tragedy."
Outside, someone shouted something incomprehensible.
"I've always wondered why Hogwarts' drama club is so small," Hermione said.
"Probably because there's enough real-life drama around," Terry said, snorting.
Several voices joined in the commotion outside.
"Someone's having fun," Padma huffed.
Neville's eyes flew suddenly wide and fixed on something behind Harry.
"No," he said. "Not fun, it's—Harry!"
Harry turned around just in time to see the pub's door swinging open and several people falling in. Instead of fresh outside air, they brought with them a stink of rot, and the sense of oily darkness grasping at the edges of Harry's mind. His limbs grew heavy, as if he was drowning and had no hope of keeping his head above water. But this—he'd only known such a feeling to be caused by—
"Dementors!" panted a young woman Harry didn't know. "You-Know-Who, he's here, he's—"
Shouts from the street mixed with the din inside the pub, and suddenly everyone was jumping up in panicking, talking in loud voices. Several people tried to Apparate away and found that they couldn't, which prompted another spike in hysteria. Harry pushed his way through the crowd to the entrance, head spinning and his friends close at his heels. If—if this was actually true, then—he had to see. He had to know what was out there.
The moment he stepped outside, he almost wished he hadn't.
The skies, which had recently beamed azure and clear, had darkened, casting Hogsmeade into eerie half-twilight. Shadows grew on the walls, distorted in the unnatural dusk, familiar shapes dissolving into something grotesque. And in the middle of the gathering storm, surrounded by a guard of countless Dementors, walked Voldemort. Behind him, several paces away, a dozen masked Death Eaters completed the procession.
They advanced through the cobbled main street of the village, neither attacking nor paying heed to the people who scattered, panicked, out of their way. Voldemort entered the village like a conqueror, expecting his subjects to bow before him.
Harry clasped his wand tightly in his hand and took a step back, shook his head against the screams echoing in his mind.
Rodolphus Lestrange screamed as fire consumed him, Kingsley Shacklebolt screamed as invisible forces tore him apart, and Harry's mother screamed and screamed and screamed—
"Harry." A hand gripped his arm, and someone's voice spoke in his ear, high and terrified. "Harry, what do we do?"
"Expec…" Harry tried, clinging to reality with all his might. "Expecto…"
Silvery smoke swam before his eyes, and he knew it wasn't his; someone else had cast it. Even such a meagre defence did something to clear his mind, and he realized that his friends had clustered around him, barely an inch of space between them. His friends. Oh god, his friends.
"We have to find the others," Harry said, as soon as he'd managed to draw a breath. "Expecto—"
He never finished, because just then a voice rung out over Hogsmeade, loud enough to drown out all others, to cover up the thundering of Harry's heart.
"Albus Dumbledore," Voldemort said, and the very sound of him speaking sent a shiver of revulsion down Harry's spine. "You have spent long enough hiding in the school behind the backs of children. It is time you faced me yourself. I have not come here to battle the residents of Hogsmeade. Every drop of magical blood spilled is a loss and a waste. But if you do not come out and face me, Dumbledore, you will leave me no choice but to fight my way towards you while you let others suffer in your stead. I will await you in Hogsmeade. You have a quarter of an hour before I lose my patience."
The words echoed in Harry's ears once Voldemort had stopped speaking.
Thoughts tripped over each other in his head in incoherent protest. Voldemort was supposed to have a plan, but not this plan. He couldn't want to duel Dumbledore, the only wizard he'd ever feared. This couldn't be happening.
Terry's eyes were tightly shut and he was leaning heavily on the wall. Neville looked even worse; Padma and Hermione kept a tight grip on him to keep him upright.
And all around them, as Dementors floated down the street ahead of Voldemort, people dashed in all directions, eyes wide open against some unseen terrors.
"No! Not my son!"
"Make it stop! Make it stop!'
"Help! Help! No, please!"
People surged all around Harry; some ran inside homes, others wobbled into side alleys, and others still collapsed, screaming. Adding to the noise of the crowd, owls hooted as they fled the post office. Several wizards tried to escape on brooms, only to collapse mid-air. Someone pushed past Harry, jostling his recently injured ribs; the pain of it brought him sharply back to himself and out of his daze.
"Expecto Patronum," he managed, concentrating past the murky fog already re-invading his mind.
A silver stag burst from his wand, bathing his little group in its radiance. Which, shit, maybe wasn't the best thing in some respects, because it was the only Patronus in the street, and they'd be noticed in a second.
"Run," Harry said, tugging on Hermione's sleeve, and staggered behind the corner, hoping his friends were following.
The little alley behind The Three Broomsticks looked nothing like the charming passage it had been just some hours ago. Now, it felt like stepping into a catacomb, the walls of surrounding buildings pressing down on them from both sides. Harry's Patronus stag cast gentle light where it stopped at the centre of the alley; it was strong enough to keep the Dementor influence at bay, but not to dispel the darkness seemingly enveloping every stone and sinking into every crevice.
Harry ignored the shivers this gave him, like he was trying to ignore his growing panic, and turned to face his friends.
"That's—that's Voldemort," Neville exhaled.
"Don't say the name," Millicent hissed. "Not now."
"He's here," Neville continued, not seeming to have heard. "Here, in the village. Right now. What do—how—Harry, what's happening?"
"We need to find the others," Harry said. "Anthony, Blaise, everyone—we need to get them out of here."
"How?" Padma demanded, swaying slightly. Her eyes were very wide.
"I can't Apparate," Hermione said in a panicked voice. "We should be able to Apparate in Hogsmeade, but—"
"Apparition is blocked, they do that," Harry said. He goddamn wished the Death Eaters weren't in this habit, but blocking Apparition was a tried and true Death Eater tactic. "We'll have to find another way."
"Like what?" Terry asked.
I don't know. But Harry couldn't say that, because he had a feeling that everyone desperately needed someone with a plan. Hell, he needed someone with a plan.
Visions of the last battle he'd taken part in surfaced in his memory: the snow-covered Longbottom Manor, soon consumed by flames; Bellatrix Lestrange's excited laugh, Neville's panic; Harry's own all-consuming murderous rage.
("You say you cast a lot of Unforgivables. You say they felt satisfying.")
He had to do better this time.
"We have to contact whoever of the Order is in Hogsmeade right now," he said, aiming for a decisive voice. "And whoever among the Aurors." Because there had to be someone. "And we need as many people as possible with the Patronus." He looked at each of his friends. "Do yours now, while you're here, it's easier that way. And—the duelling club, they've learnt the Patronus. Let's use them."
Even as he said it, he tasted bile. Harry had trained his friends, sure, but he'd never intended to send them into battle. He shouldn't be sending them anywhere, he should be trying to keep them safe, but in this whole damn village there were probably under forty people who could do the Patronus, and most of them would be the duelling club members. They were the only ones with something resembling a shot against the Dementors, so it fell to them to help out others.
("We're not building up an army. That's just stupid. They're kids.")
The Patronus stag circled their little group and came to nudge at Harry's shoulder. If maintaining the spell hadn't been taking a large chunk of Harry's concentration, the gesture would have been comforting.
"I saw an Auror earlier," Millicent said. "Same man who interviewed everyone about Slughorn's death."
"Bill Weasley's here too," Neville said. He was leaning against a wall, a bead of sweat running down his temple. Harry wondered if Neville was having flashbacks of their last battle, too. "I noticed him when I was by Honeydukes—when everything still was—"
"Honeydukes!" Harry said. "It has a secret passage to Hogwarts. There are several, wait." He rummaged in his pockets and drew out the Marauder's Map, quickly saying the required words to activate it. "I've never used them, but Fred and George told me they're there, so maybe they could work?"
"How do we know they aren't all blocked?" Padma asked. "Dumbledore has to know about them, and you know how they've tightened security—"
"I don't know if they're blocked or not," Harry admitted. "If they are, we can walk to Hogwarts, whatever, just as long as we get people the hell away."
It was the only clear idea Harry had. Even discounting the Dementor trauma factor, a battle against Voldemort in a village filled with civilians would be a strategic nightmare. The good guys would be fighting at a massive disadvantage, because they'd be trying to protect people, and that was something Voldemort was surely counting on. It was hardly a coincidence that he'd attacked on a Hogsmeade weekend.
"So you want to do—what?" Millicent asked.
"I want to get people as far from the main streets as possible," Harry said. "Come on, we don't have much time. Do your Patronuses, now."
"Not much of a Patronus!" Neville said, wrapping his arms around himself. "Even in lessons, I could hardly make some smoke!"
"You're going to be fine," Harry said, trying to sound like he believed it. "Do it now, while my stag's protecting us. Quickly!"
Everyone took several botched attempts, and Neville and Millicent never managed anything beyond smoke, but finally Hermione's otter, Terry's wolf and Padma's mink joined the stag. The alley immediately felt easier to breathe in. It made a difference. Everyone who stood against Dementors would make a difference in this battle.
"Okay, Mills, Nev, you're with me," Harry said. "The rest of you, have the map, check out all exits that look doable. Take the back streets, don't engage in any fighting. Let me know as soon as you know something, and be careful."
"Right back at you," Terry said weakly. "Oh Merlin. This is really happening. We're doing this."
There were so many things Harry would rather be doing.
Terry, Padma and Hermione left further down the alley and Harry forced down a spike of fear on their behalf.
"Alright, lead the way, Harry," Neville said. He was breathing heavily and not taking his eye off his wand, but he stood straighter than earlier.
("I want to do whatever I can, even if it isn't a lot. I want to help you, and I want to fight.")
Harry wondered how long Neville could hold his Patronus—how long any of them could. He quickly chased the thought from his mind.
The main street was chaos, and it stank of rotten flesh.
A ring of Dementors still circled Voldemort, but they'd also spread out along the street, gliding inexorably towards their victims. Too many people lay slumped on the cobblestones, their heads in their hands, seemingly overcome by the despair poisoning the air. Several bright flashes told Harry that someone, at least, was fighting back, but—
Just ahead of Harry, Graham Pritchard, a third-year Slytherin, hung from a Dementor's grasp.
"Get to him!" Harry ordered the stag, and whirled around to help Neville and Millie pull a group of other kids, ones Harry didn't know, to their feet. When Graham made it over, herded by the Patronus, his skin was almost translucent, and he was shivering. Harry wished he had chocolate to give him.
"Harry!" Katie Bell cried, darting over. Tears streamed down her face, the effect of the Dementors or just general shock, Harry didn't know. "Oh Merlin, Harry, so glad I found you. I tried to fly and hit a—a barrier, I don't know where Eddie is—"
"It's okay," Harry said, because he'd got really good at saying this under absolutely all circumstances. "We've got a plan, come on, can you do the Patr—"
But then Harry trailed off, because Dumbledore was walking towards Voldemort, long midnight-blue robes sweeping the ground and a phoenix Patronus perched on his shoulder. From this distance, Harry couldn't judge the expression on his face, but he could guess the banked fury there. Harry got hit with momentary relief and then another flash of fear, because this, then, was the time; whatever the outcome of this duel, the wizarding world would not be the same after.
"Dumbledore," Voldemort said, and his voice rung out loudly again, triumphant malice unmistakeable in his tone. "I see you've found the opening in the wards I left for you."
"Your work wasn't subtle, Tom," Dumbledore replied. "You truly do have a flair for the dramatic. If you wanted to fight me, a much less ostentatious invitation would have sufficed."
"You've grown complacent if you believe you can dictate the terms, Dumbledore," Voldemort replied.
Harry tore his attention away from them with some effort. Now, with Voldemort distracted, was the perfect time to get as many people away from the battlefield as possible.
"Can anyone else here do the Patronus Charm?" Harry demanded.
"Ye kidding?" snorted a wizard with a grizzly beard, only to choke when Katie succeeded at last and a silvery duck burst out of her wand.
"Good." Harry tried for a smile in her direction. "We're getting people away from the fighting, to the backstreets or the secret passages. Hermione has the map. Help if you can, spread the word, get people out. If you see any Aurors or Ord- other capable adults, let them know what we're doing."
Surrounded by Patronuses in the middle of the street, Harry stuck out like a sore thumb and he knew it. A prickle at the back of his neck told him of enemy's eyes watching, and clearly it was time to move, spread out thinner. He nodded at Katie as she took off to find more people.
"It does distinctly look to me, Tom, as if you are attempting to use my love for my students as a shield in battle," Dumbledore was saying in the meanwhile.
"You do always insist on the importance of love," Voldemort replied in a cold, high voice. "I thought you might appreciate the gesture."
Harry threw a glance around and saw a girl's body crumpled a few feet away. He started towards her immediately. "Is that—"
"Ginny?" Neville exclaimed, overtaking Harry in his rush. "Ginny, oh Merlin!"
Her face looked completely drained of colour, pupils dilated, and she didn't respond when Neville shook her except to twitch in his arms. Harry suddenly remembered that she'd once been possessed by Voldemort. There'd be plenty of horrors for Dementors to plumb in her mind.
"She's unconscious, she can't walk," Neville panted, panicked.
"So levitate her," Millie snapped, pushing everyone along. She looked equal amounts scared and angry, impatient with everyone moving too slow.
They had to cross the main street to get to the side where Honeydukes was, and Harry steeled himself as they approached a veritable swarm of Dementors. They parted before the luminous stag, but Harry felt their icy breath glide over his skin—an illusion, it had to be an illusion, they were too far from him. But he'd been holding the Patronus for what felt like hours already, and there were moments when he slipped, when the echo of distant screams in his head got louder.
Their group swelled as they walked. For once, Harry fame was useful: he didn't have to persuade people to follow him—they drifted towards him anyway, a whisper of Harry Potter, Harry Potter is here on their lips. They didn't even ask why or where they were going, just stumbled along after him.
Finally at the backdoor to Honeydukes, Harry felt like he'd reached an oasis.
Inside the shop, he promptly let go of his Patronus and put up a Shield Charm as several terrified patrons tried to curse him at once, obviously taking him for a Death Eater.
"Hey, it's fine, it's me," Harry said, which, in turn, provoked a wave of entirely unwarranted relief.
"Harry!" Demelza Robins cried out, pushing her way towards him even as Harry turned to let in Millie, Neville with Ginny levitated in front of him, and everyone else.
"Have any of the others been here?" Harry asked. "Terry, Hermione—any teachers?"
"No, it's been—Harry, it's chaos, nobody knows what to do, we hid in here, we—here, have some chocolate, it helps!"
"Thanks," Harry said, grabbing a bite without delay. Warmth spread through him immediately, making it a bit easier to breathe. He saw Demelza handing bits of chocolate out to the others, aided by what looked like the shop's proprietor. Good. "This place has a passage to Hogwarts in the cellar. I don't know if it's open or not, but it's worth checking out. If it's working, I want everyone to—"
"You want everyone to run?" Colin Creevey asked. His eyes were wide, feverish. "It's You-Know-Who! It's—we have to fight, we have to—"
Oh god. Harry didn't have time for this.
"Can you do the Patronus?" he cut in, knowing perfectly well the answer was no.
"But nothing. If you can't do the Patronus, you need to get out."
"I'm ready to stay and fight!"
Some people were nodding, visibly disappointed with Harry Potter's cowardly suggestions. Before he could snap back, Millicent did it for him.
"Fight who? The Dementors? You just said you couldn't, Creevey." She glared at him. "Or do you want to fight You-Know-Who? You'll make him laugh."
Harry drew a deep breath.
"We're hostages," he said, looking over the small sea of faces before him. "Voldemort wants us here, because then it's harder for Dumbledore to fight. Half the school might get caught in the crossfire. We don't want that. We need to get you, and everyone else who cannot contribute to the fight, as far from here as possible. Now. Where's the cellar?" He rounded on the shop's owner when asking this, and the man jumped at being addressed directly.
"Through h-here," he said, pointing to the door off to the side.
The crowd followed as Harry descended the stairs.
He looked around in the dusty room, muttering a Lumos, and beckoned the others over to help him move some crates, looking for the trapdoor he knew had to be there. Neville refused to let Ginny out of his hold, but it was still he who found the exit, announcing the fact with a breathy, "Here!"
"Great." Harry wiped his forehead.
Once the trapdoor was open, the passageway yawned dark under their feet.
"At least one of you needs to go with them," Harry told Neville and Millicent, gesturing at the gathering behind them. "Make sure they get to the other side, see if you can get out. You may have to say Dissendium when you get there, or maybe push a lever or something? If that doesn't work and there's no way out… well, you come back and let me know. If it works, bring help."
"I'll do it," Neville said. "Leave it to me, Harry."
For a moment, Harry hesitated, because this plan involved the possibility of Neville fighting back toward him through all the Dementors with nothing but a wispy Patronus for protection. On the other hand, it was him or Millie, because they were the only other ones here even vaguely capable of doing the spell, and Neville definitely looked like he preferred staying here and making sure Ginny Weasley was all right.
Besides, Neville had told him repeatedly that he wanted to help. This, here, might be good for him.
"Okay," Harry said. "But please, no heroics. Stay safe, whatever else you do."
Neville gave him a wan smile. "Survived everything so far, haven't I?"
"Make sure it stays that way," Harry said firmly, and clapped Neville on the shoulder. "That goes for all of you guys, as well."
"You're not coming with us?" Demelza asked Harry. "You're staying in Hogsmeade?"
"Yeah, of course I'm staying. There's still a lot to do. Mills, you staying or going?" The least he could do was give her the choice.
Millicent glowered at him. "I'm not staying with all these idiots."
In Millie-speak, that was as close to I'm not leaving you alone as she would come, and Harry had to swallow past a momentary obstruction in his throat. He nodded. They were safer in numbers. If his own Patronus faltered at any point…
Upstairs, in front of the Honeydukes door, it took Harry several tries to come up with a happy enough memory for the Patronus in question to materialize again. His hands were shaking once he'd finally succeeded.
The moment Harry and Millicent stepped back out onto the main street, a massive explosion rocked the ground under their feet.
One wild glance around informed Harry that Dumbledore's duel with Voldemort had begun.
Voldemort struck, and it was like a wall of energy flying out of him, frying everything on its way; Harry felt it reverberate down to his bones, but Dumbledore only slashed with his wand and the spell dissolved in a shower of sparks, not unlike fireworks. Except when those fireworks converged into one sizzling meteorite that flew at Voldemort almost faster than Harry's eyes could track. Not Voldemort's though; he deflected the missile, and it was Dumbledore who then had to prevent it from hitting the bystanders, while Voldemort readied another curse, and—
Air itself hummed, charged with the force of their spells, or so it seemed to Harry. Even closed off as they were in a circle of Dementors, it didn't look all that safe to be near them.
"Come on, people!" Harry said, corralling several just wandering numbly past, heads in their hands. "Move, you need to get out of here—"
He needed to get out of here too, before Voldemort or one of the Death Eaters noticed him.
"Harry!" Ernie Macmillan surfaced out of the crowd, wild about the eyes. "We're all looking for you!"
"Good, you've found me," Harry said, not paying him a lot of attention as he ushered the others into a side alley, aided by Millicent.
"Listen," Ernie said, grabbing Harry's arm. "The town is surrounded. We can't get out."
Way to phrase it in the most alarming manner possible. Harry stared at him. "What?"
"There's a ring of Dementors all around the village," Ernie said, and, yep, Harry definitely hadn't needed that spike in panic all around him. "People tried to leave and instead there were Dementors—and if you try to fly out, you just—can't move—"
"Okay," Harry said, breathing out slowly. "That's…" Fine was not the word. Not by a long shot. No time to freak out about it, though. "Come on, let's go."
"Go?" Ernie repeated. "Go where?"
"We're getting people off the battlefield, are you going to help us or not?"
Ernie straightened up. "Yes, if you need me."
"Good. Since you've got your Patronus, you can lead this group off."
For a while, Harry lost himself in herding the civilians and sending them away from the action. This didn't feel like any battle he'd fought in before: instead of offensive spells, he had to rely on his Patronus, and he spent more time giving orders than anything else—directing duelling club members, distributing the chocolate they got from Honeydukes, making terrified people listen to him. Any time his temper slipped, any time his fingers tightened on his wand, he forced himself to remember that others needed him to be calm; that he needed himself to be calm if he wanted his Patronus intact, if he wanted to survive this sea of Dementors.
He still hadn't heard anything from Terry, Hermione or Padma; he hoped they'd found the other passages, that there was a way through. He hoped that his friends hadn't got lost in the melee, hadn't been hit by stray spells, hadn't fallen to Dementors…
"Take that, you scumbag!" That sounded like—
Harry turned to see Bill Weasley and Tonks up ahead, the latter identifiable by her purple hair. They were duelling three Death Eaters, and clearly feeling the effect of the Dementors, judging by how Bill was only keeping up the Patronus, while Tonks did the actual fighting. Harry should be keeping away from the main street and its skirmishes, not embroiling himself in them, but if he could get to the Order remembers, he could see what plan, if any, they had.
Before he could move towards them, Millie hissed: "Harry! Look out!" and then a spell came sizzling Harry's way.
Harry dodged it, and found a hooded figure in a mask standing a few feet away.
Shit. Never mind Bill and Tonks; the Death Eaters had found him, too.
Looking into eyes glittering behind the slits of a mask, Harry remembered acutely why he hadn't fought this battle on the offensive so far. He wasn't like Dumbledore, who could keep a silvery phoenix floating above his head even as he deflected Voldemort's strikes. To fight, Harry would have to let his Patronus go, and without it, he'd be on the ground in seconds, convulsing in the grip of his worst memories. And it didn't look like he'd be walking out of this situation without a fight.
"Harry," a familiar voice said from beyond the mask. "Fancy meeting you here."
Of all the people in this goddamn world—
"Miles," Harry said, stalling for time. Miles Bletchley, one of his former Quidditch teammates and tutors. Of course they'd find themselves at this pass. Harry saw another Death Eater converging on him, sending civilians scurrying out of his way. "Let me guess. That's Ed, and this is a reunion."
"You always were smart," said Edward Montague.
"Thanks, I guess."
Not just Death Eaters, but ones for whom this battle was personal. After all, according to them, Harry had betrayed them once.
The only way Harry might survive this was if he could rely on Millicent's Patronus; it was wispy, but better than none. Slanting a glance to the side and hoping to communicate this to Millicent, Harry couldn't see her at all. She'd vanished somewhere beyond the ring of empty space that materialized around Harry and the Death Eaters. His stomach dropped.
"Too bad you're on the wrong side of this fight, huh?" Montague was still talking. "Bet you're regretting some of your choices."
"Not really," Harry said. "But the Dark Lord should be regretting his. Look what he's done to Hogsmeade."
Just this morning, this had been a charming village filled with sunlight and students' excited chatter. Now—
"He does what has to be done," Bletchley snarled. "And it's not up to you to judge."
The Dementors didn't seem to be affecting either of Harry's opponents. They had no Patronuses, nothing. They just glowed with some inner strength that seemed rooted entirely in the darkness permeating everything.
("Dark magic is dangerous business… The things you can learn, the things you can feel… But you can lose sight of yourself so thoroughly you will never make it back again.")
Harry wondered if Bletchley and Montague enjoyed killing people, now. If they laughed as their victims screamed.
"I guess we shouldn't draw out the chat, should we?" Montague said. "I always think actions speak louder than words. Crucio!"
Harry dove to the side, ignoring the twinge in his ribs as he twisted, and stumbled when another rumble from Voldemort's duel with Dumbledore rocked the street. Bletchley fired a Cruciatus at him as well, and Montague followed with another, and—
And then Millicent was rushing up to him, and, bless her, she'd brought Anthony with her. Anthony, who was alive and unharmed, if significantly dishevelled, and, what's most important, who had a vibrant hawk Patronus flying next to him.
"Oh, thank Merlin." Harry instantly dropped his own spell, now he was shielded by Anthony's, and fired a volley of curses at the two Death Eaters.
"If you're expecting these kids to save you, Harry, you've sunk lower than we thought," Montague sneered. "Crucio! Explodere caputem! The Dark Lord may think you're some wizard no one can touch, but we know you—we know exactly what you're capable of—and you've never been a match for us! Crucio!"
Harry hadn't been a match for them, once. He'd killed three grown Death Eaters since, and found a well of darkness inside himself that gave him nightmares sometimes.
He summoned a piece of debris to absorb Montague's Unforgivable, then sent a wordless blast of sand at him and fire at Bletchley. While they were deflecting, he aimed again.
Montague tried to block, but he didn't know the counter-curse, and he cried out in agony when Harry's spell hit and split his tongue in two. Blood gushed out of his mouth, pouring down his chin. Down his throat too, if his choking sounds were to go by. Serve him goddamn right.
("You have to control yourself… yes, you have to exercise great control not to let yourself slip. Dark magic is dangerous business, Harry…")
Harry was still in control. He was.
Just to prove it, he resisted responding with another Dark curse when Bletchley roared in anger and threw one more Cruciatus at him. Instead, Harry hit him with the strongest Blasting Curse he could muster, and watched with satisfaction as Bletchley scrambled to block. He readied another hex—
But just then the ground shook again under their feet, throwing them all off-balance. A deafening explosion hit from somewhere behind them, and the shockwave sent Harry to the ground. The pain in his ribs hit first, shocking and sharp and like the Bludger all over again; then Harry felt the moment Anthony lost control of his Patronus. Misery slammed into him, leaving him gasping for breath, images playing out in mind…
Donatus Goyle staring at him with sightless eyes, Voldemort rising from his cauldron, Avada Kedavra—
"Tony," Harry rasped out in a brief moment of lucidity, grasping onto the present with all his might. "Pat-patronus!"
Someone's hands got Harry standing, and when he blinked and saw the real world again, Anthony was again maintaining a Patronus with grim-faced determination. Millicent was holding Harry up, and Montague lay unconscious. Cho Chang and Arthur Vaisey—and where had they come from? how long had Harry been out?—were fighting Bletchley, and behind them…
The explosion had apparently come from a spell in the Voldemort-Dumbledore duel. It wrecked half the street, cobbles uprooted and buildings reduced to rubble and a haze of dust adding to the general gloom. Dementors glided past the bodies littering the street, and Voldemort—Voldemort was levitating above the battlefield, raining curse after curse upon Dumbledore, their spells and the few Patronuses the only bright points in the murky air. It looked like—like a warzone. Too many people still here, too many civilians, and—
"Harry!" Millicent shook his arm.
Harry tore his eyes away from the devastation in the street. "What?"
But it took him only a moment to work out what.
Because Luna was making her way through the battlefield in halting steps, and on her head she wore the diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw.
Harry's heart might actually have stopped for a second.
His mind, too, buzzed nothing but static. Because, surely, he couldn't be expected to process all of this? He needed to, maybe, sit on the ground for a while and breathe into the wizarding equivalent of a paper bag. Whatever that was.
Not like he'd get the chance, though, because nobody else around them even knew what was happening. Nobody knew that Luna wasmarching towards Voldemort, wearing what had to be his Horcrux.
Maybe it wasn't. Maybe Luna had just found the long-lost Ravenclaw heirloom and came out here to—
He didn't know why she'd do that, why she was here if this wasn't a Horcrux. Either way, he had to intercept her.
"Tony, Mills, with me," Harry said, breaking into a run. Every step hurt, now, his ribs newly cracked, or—he didn't know, and couldn't care at this moment.
"What the fuck is going on?" Millicent asked, panting.
"I'll tell you later. Luna!" Harry darted forward. He stood in front of her, blocking her path to Voldemort. "Wait."
She just looked through him, and her eyes had never seemed huger or more vacant. And here, up close, there could be no doubt of what the diadem was; he could feel it pulsing with Dark magic, sending shivers down his arms.
"What's that on her head?" Millicent demanded. Because maybe she didn't know what it was, but she could tell something was terribly, terribly wrong.
"Is that—" Anthony boggled, obviously recognizing the Ravenclaw heirloom.
"Luna?" Harry said. "Talk to me. Why are you here?"
There was still a battle raging around Harry, but his view of it had narrowed down to this small stretch of pavement, Luna in front of him and Millicent and Anthony by his sides. Luna wore a garish yellow dress and bright rainbow knee-socks and a necklace made of flowers. She looked so very much like herself, like it might have been any other day of Luna being Luna, except that here she was, in front of Harry, a Horcrux on her head and not a stir of the girl Harry knew behind her eyes.
"I have to be here," Luna said dreamily. "He is here. I have to be with him."
The Horcrux, drawn to its creator. Harry forced his voice to sound calm when he said: "I don't think this is a good idea. How about you give me this…" He reached out to her, but Luna stepped back at once, lifting her wand against him.
"No," she said.
"Harry, what's going on?" Anthony hissed.
"Keep up the Patronus!" Harry said, without looking at him. "Luna, please, don't do this. You're not yourself. You're stronger than this. Fight it, you can do it, you—"
Luna's face didn't change at all. She raised her wand and let the first curse fly.
Harry didn't know what it was, didn't recognize it; he responded with the strongest shield he knew, and let it absorb the next two curses as well. "Luna," he repeated, his heart a giant weight in his chest. He didn't want to even think of doing it, but—
But this was bigger than him, bigger than her.
"I'm sorry," he said, both because he'd let it get this far and because he couldn't let it go any further.
He fired his own spells, straight at Luna, but even when the Stunner connected, she didn't fall. And it got worse when one of his hexes twisted her wand hand, but she didn't notice and didn't drop the weapon, because she didn't feel the pain.
Because this wasn't Luna. It was her body, moving, fighting, but she wasn't conscious at all, and the real enemy didn't care how well that body survived the duel.
The diadem sat, ornate and beautiful, on Luna's head.
("The girl had found me somehow and poured her soul out to me… she didn't realize, of course, that the more she confided in me, the stronger I got.")
Luna let loose a new barrage of curses Harry had never heard of before, and she targeted all of them now, Anthony and Millicent too.
"Harry, I can't—" Anthony rasped, still holding up the Patronus.
"I know," Harry said, and shielded him, and then tried to dart out of the way of the next spell. But this proved one jolt too many for his newly aggravated chest injury: pain flooded him, stealing his breath and whiting out his surroundings. He found himself stumbling, falling on one knee and tasting blood in his mouth.
Harry thought someone was shouting his name, from very far away. He looked up, and saw Luna smiling down at him.
"You know, this could stop if you just let me go to him." She said. And then: "Avada Keda—"
She never got to finish, because right at that moment Millicent sneaked up behind her, holding a jagged piece of rubble, and hit her on the back of the skull with a sickening crunch.
Time seemed to slow, suspend itself for a few precious seconds. Harry could see Luna waver, her wide, terrified eyes grow glassy; the gentle curve of her body as it fell to the ground. The diadem fell off her head and rolled a couple of feet away. It left an angry red mark on Luna's forehead, like a brand.
"No," Harry whispered, his mind struggling to catch up.
"What did you do?" Anthony shouted, voice hoarse and exhausted. His Patronus flickered, thinned out to a mist.
"She was about to kill him!" Millicent screamed back, but her own face was contorted in an anguished expression Harry had never seen there before.
Harry reached out and touched Luna's hand. Fluttering under his hand was a pulse—weak, but there. "She's alive," he said. "You didn't—she's alive." Alive, but losing blood. "We need to help her, quickly."
Anthony dropped to his knees beside Harry. "Let me try," he said, unconsciously dropping the Patronus as he raised his wand to Luna's head. Millicent was clearly in no state for happy memories; she paced away, turning from the scene. Harry cast his own Patronus with effort, focusing on Luna's continued survival.
They were still alive. They could do this.
The diadem glistened at him from the corner of his eye. The moment he picked it up, it hummed in his hand, sending shivers up and down his arm. A Horcrux. One which was currently within a stone's throw of Voldemort.
The thought had made him nauseous with fear earlier. Now, he just knew he had to get it away from here, and find Luna help. As soon as possible.
"That's all I can do," Anthony reported shakily. "She's out of it, and the blood is still—I put her in stasis, I hope it holds. We need to get her to the infirmary."
"What happened?" Millicent demanded viciously. "What the fuck is that tiara? Start talking, or I'll—"
"You'll what? Break Harry's head, too?" Anthony cut in, and this wasn't helping.
"I swear I'll tell you, but not now," Harry said, shrugging off his jacket and wrapping it around the diadem. He couldn't contain a wince, his ribs still hating him and everything that involved movement, and Anthony turned to him sharply, wand raised.
He muttered a few spells, and something in Harry's chest eased; breathing became easier, no longer sending sharp stabs of pain through him. He felt… not fine, but better.
"There," Anthony said, mouth twisted. "That's… all the medical spells I know. I… I wish I knew more."
Anthony had done more than enough, and Harry was about to thank him, but then a violent crack of thunder split the air, made Harry's teeth rattle. He hardly kept hold of the Horcrux as the ground convulsed. His ears rang, and a fresh cloud of stone dust rose in the air.
Whatever had happened in Dumbledore's duel with Voldemort, it had to be—
Bad. It was bad. An explosion had torn into the Three Broomsticks, punching through the building and sending it on top of people, the rubble burying some, hitting others, someone's hair pouring out from under a slab of stone and oh god.
That was Dumbledore, lying on top of the debris. And he looked broken.
His limbs looked twisted, there was blood in his hair, and his wand—
He didn't have his wand.
Harry froze. He wasn't the only one. The entirety of the village—or those who were still conscious, and capable of paying attention—turned towards where Voldemort advanced on Dumbledore, with Dementors and Death Eaters flanking him on both sides.
"And so it ends," the Dark Lord said, voice amplified, triumph in every syllable. "Look here now, people of Hogsmeade. Look if you want to see Dumbledore draw his last breath."
"Maybe… you speak… too soon, Tom." Dumbledore rose, but the smile he attempted to affix to his face couldn't hide the pain. His robes hung dirty and burnt in places, his beard stuck out in disarray, and one of his arms was bent at an unnatural angle. Harry had never seen him so pale, so exhausted.
Harry's heart thundered in his chest. Surely, surely there would be something, some trick Dumbledore would pull, some miracle he would perform. Dumbledore, with all his power, couldn't end here. He couldn't die at Voldemort's hand.
"And yet here we are." Voldemort twirled a wand in his fingers. Harry sickly recognized it as Dumbledore's. "You weren't as much of a challenge as I'd expected, Dumbledore… but then maybe I'd expected too much. After all, you've grown weak. One of my faithful Death Eaters has been making sure of it…"
"Ah. My hand…" Dumbledore lifted the limb that had been bothering him all year, withered now to the bone.
"Yes, your hand," Voldemort said. "You were told it was a disease, weren't you? An ailment your ever-loyal Severus Snape was treating."
"I take it that it was not."
"No," Voldemort crowed. "But you were weak, and made blind by your affection, so you didn't look far enough for the truth. Come forward, Severus."
One of the Death Eaters standing next to Voldemort dropped his hood and took off his mask. Severus Snape's jaundiced visage came into view. He looked as forbidding as ever—more so, clad in Death Eater garb.
"Oh, Severus," Dumbledore said, extending a hand to him, face devastated. "My boy. No."
"I was never your boy, Dumbledore," Snape said, voice full of disdain. "I only serve one master."
"And he will richly reward you," Voldemort promised. He laughed. "For you have helped—oh yes, you've helped. More than most others. Before you die, Dumbledore, know this: what you thought yours was mine. My reach extends further than you dreamed, and it will go further than you fear. A new era will come to the wizarding world, and it will start with your death!"
"No," Anthony whispered. "No! No, how can it—I can't believe it—Snape—"
Harry couldn't tear his eyes away from the spectacle unfolding in front of him. This was—it dawned on Harry that he was the only person here to realize that he was watching a macabre piece of theatre. That Dumbledore had planned for this, in a way.
("Lord Voldemort has presented Professor Snape with the task of poisoning me… it seems that, knowing the difficulty of taking me on in a duel, he has chosen to ensure my infirmity…")
One evening many months ago, in Dumbledore's office, Harry had been told of Voldemort's plan to have Snape poison Dumbledore, and of the deception required to carry Snape's part in it. Snape would not, naturally, administer any poison, but they'd use the fact that Dumbledore had cursed himself, injuring his hand in the process of retrieving the ring Horcrux.
("It is most fortunate that my hand is in such a condition. We can conceal it for now and then reveal it gradually, to lend credence to Severus's claims of administering poison…")
("Voldemort will expect results of you, Severus. You cannot fail to provide them lest you fail yourself—and that would be a blow to our side much larger than my death, should this be the outcome.")
Dumbledore had said, very clearly, that he would rather die than compromise Snape's cover, which he deemed to be very nearly their biggest advantage in the war. They couldn't have known it would come to this, to Dumbledore looking bloody and beaten in front of the entire Hogsmeade. But even now, at a time so bleak, in what might be his literal last moments, Dumbledore chose to carry the ruse. He was dying, and he found the strength to focus on the bigger picture—to play Voldemort till the end.
And that meant everyone else who knew of the plan had to play their parts too.
Snape was doing it. Snape stood next to Voldemort like he wanted to be there, like he didn't care that he would be assumed a traitor by all of Dumbledore's supporters. There would be no coming back from this for him.
("I have not taken anyone as far into my confidence as you. You alone hold the same keys to defeating Voldemort that I do, and, believe me, I recognize exactly how much responsibility that entails.")
With a calm, deadly cold clarity, Harry saw that his part in this wasn't to rush in and try to fight, to defend Dumbledore. Holding Voldemort's diadem Horcrux tightly in his hands, Harry knew that his part was to grit his teeth, and let Dumbledore die if that was his fate, and to inherit his secrets. His part would be to carry on, to be the only person who knew whose side Snape was really on and continue getting information from him, to search out the rest of the Horcruxes, to live on so he could eventually defeat Voldemort.
Right at this moment, Voldemort looked like nothing in the world would ever defeat him. He was about to triumph over the only wizard he'd ever truly feared.
Dumbledore looked incredibly alone as he faced off Voldemort and his black-cloaked army. And then he raised his head and seemed to look straight at Harry.
"Above all, do not lose hope. For that is what sustains us and gives us strength even in the darkest hour. I feel no sorrow for myself, but I wish you all could've been spared this."
"Yes, very touching," Voldemort sneered. And then, with no warning, and no more words of prelude: "Deripere viscus!"
Blood and guts exploded out of Dumbledore's abdomen, and he gave a mangled scream. Then he collapsed in an ever-expanding pool of red, and didn't move again.
Harry squeezed his eyes shut, swaying on his feet. This wasn't even a clean, dignified death. This was—painful, horrible, and Dumbledore didn't deserve to die like this. Nobody had to see this.
"Remember this," Voldemort said, and Harry wished he could drown out his voice, make it a language he couldn't understand, anything not to hear the words. "Remember this, all of you. This is what happens to those who oppose me. Today, Dumbledore is dead." Voldemort nudged the corpse with his foot, his face a picture of malice and joy. "Tomorrow, it might be the precious Boy-Who-Lived. There is no hope for those who attempt to defy me. None of your idols can protect you. The only future you have lies in joining me. And when you wake up to find the wizarding world in my hands, remember this day, and make the right choice."
The tableau held for a few moments: Voldemort at the height of his victory, with Dumbledore lying defeated by his feet, Hogsmeade a ravaged wasteland around them and Voldemort's troops crowding the place as far as the eye could see.
Nobody who witnessed this could ever forget it. That was, presumably, the point.
Then, Voldemort waved a hand, and a barely-there tension in the air suddenly gave way. The wards were gone.
The same instant, as if they'd just been waiting for that to happen, countless wizards rushed in—Aurors, Order members, mediwizards, some other people Harry didn't know. Shouts filled the place, and several bright curses streaked Voldemort's way—but the newcomers only managed to get a glimpse of Voldemort with his foot on Dumbledore's head before he Disapparated, his Death Eaters in tow. Only the Dementors remained, and Dumbledore's body, and countless victims of today's carnage. Bodies buried under the rubble, people Kissed by Dementors or tortured inside their minds, Luna—
Harry turned back to his friends. Millicent looked washed-out, a horrible greenish-green, like she was on the verge of being sick. Tears and dust mixed on Anthony's face, leaving dirty tracks. They looked like everything Harry never wanted his friends to look like.
"I just—" Anthony took a deep, gulping breath. "How can it—how can it end like this?"
"This isn't the end," Harry said. He had to believe it. "This is—"
"Mr Potter! Thank Merlin! Are you all right?"
Gawain Roberts, the wiry Head of Aurors, ran up to Harry, a dolphin Patronus floating alongside him. The man's intelligent black eyes took in Harry's surroundings at a glance.
"I'm fine," Harry said, "but my friend—"
"Who's this? I'll take her," Roberts declared quickly, seizing up Luna with a glance. "We have to get you out of here. We're evacuating everyone."
"How many others are—do we have—the casualties?" Anthony stumbled over the question.
Roberts shook his head grimly. "No idea yet. We've got to get people to out first, sort through the rubble, then we'll know. Mr Potter, we must go. We must get you and your friends to safety."
"If— if we can Apparate now, I can do it by myself," Anthony volunteered weakly.
Harry hesitated, glancing around the field where a guard of hit wizards was making a stand against the remaining Dementors. He could see Professor Flitwick comforting a sobbing student, several Aurors digging into the debris to get people out, and that there was Tonks, supporting a limping Bill Weasley… Harry could stay and help. He wanted to go out there, to find out what happened to the rest of his friends, if they were okay. But—
He felt the lump under his arm, the diadem Horcrux wrapped in his jacket. He couldn't leave it here. The most important thing he could do, right now, was to secure it inside the castle.
"I'll Apparate to Hogwarts gates with Millicent. Mr Roberts, please take Luna."
With that, Harry took Millie's arm and Disapparated, leaving Roberts no chance to protest.
Auror Roberts popped out of the air, carrying Luna, just moments after Harry and Millicent landed outside Hogwarts gates. Anthony popped in a couple of seconds later, looking shaky. In truth, Harry hadn't found the Apparition easy either, especially not carrying another person along; his magic came almost sluggishly, like the exhaustion of the battle was catching up to him now. Harry tuned out the Roberts' chastisements about how Harry should've waited for him, and how it wasn't protocol, and how Roberts should've Side-Alonged Harry for his own safety. Harry nodded to everything and marched forward. He knew what he had to do next: get his friends to the infirmary, hide the Horcrux somewhere until he could deal with it. He oriented himself by those steps as a sailor might by a guiding star, fixing a point in the storm.
Harry's group must've been one of the first to return from Hogsmeade, because there was no stream of injured and traumatized students stumbling alongside them. Anthony trailed behind Harry; Millicent completed the procession at the very end. Whenever Harry turned around to look at them, words died in his mouth before he could even think of what to say. Too many things had happened, in too quick a succession, each hitting before they could recover from the first. And there was still a lot they didn't know; the full list of casualties, for one. Were any of their other friends still alive? How many duelling club students would be walking of their own power? How many people lost their minds to Dementors, how many to flying rubble, how many to deadly spells?
Harry forced himself to take even breaths. He had to concentrate on actions, not thoughts. Thoughts were treacherous, insidious things; thoughts made his steps stagger and his hands shake. He didn't have time for that, and that was another clear, obvious direction. Keep yourself steady. Walk on.
McGonagall greeted them at the school's entrance, every inch a grim Scottish chieftain expecting bad news from the war. Those tidings Harry had, in spades, but he let Auror Roberts do the talking. McGonagall physically rocked back at the word of Dumbledore's death; Harry could see shock settle into the heavy knowledge that it was on her now, that Hogwarts was hers to steer through this crisis. Harry could relate.
From what she said, they'd heard Voldemort's summons for Dumbledore all the way here; a number of teachers went to Hogsmeade with Dumbledore, but only the headmaster made it through the wards. The others, rallying, attempted to get through the secret passages, unblocking them on this end, but at a certain point they seemed to hit an impenetrable barrier — the same one, presumably, as the people who'd tried to fly out of Hogsmeade on brooms. Whatever defence Voldemort had created, it had completely sealed Hogsmeade off from the world.
"So none of the others got through," Harry said, heart sinking, and at McGonagall's confused glance had to explain about people hiding in Hogsmeade passages.
"No, but it means they'll be coming in now. Sir Nicholas!" McGonagall called out to the Gryffindor ghost. "Please alert Pomona to expect students from the passages!" Apparently, most of the teachers had departed to Hogsmeade to help out, but McGonagall and Sprout numbered among those who stayed to coordinate at Hogwarts. Very necessary, as it turned out.
"There should be students at least in the Honeydukes one," Harry said, as the ghost floated off on his errand. "I don't know if the others made it, or—I don't know."
In truth, he didn't even know if the Honeydukes people made it. He didn't know anything. Tightening his hold on the Horcrux under his arm, he once again forced his mind off that thought. It wasn't productive, and right now he couldn't afford to be anything but productive. On that note:
"We really must get to the infirmary."
"Yes, of course. Miss Lovegood looks in—Merlin, rather bad shape."
On the way to the hospital wing, Harry noticed portraits tracking his group's progress, discussing it in hushed whispers; out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a group of ghosts congregating, their gestures communicating their concern. The halls were devoid of students; presumably, those who hadn't been allowed to go to Hogsmeade were now confined to their common rooms so they wouldn't be underfoot, and the people in the secret passages, if any, hadn't yet crowded the halls.
Auror Roberts kept darting glances at Harry on the way, but Harry didn't have anything to say to him, any more than to anyone else. The silence must've got oppressive, because the man breathed an audible sigh of relief when the door to the infirmary came into sight. He handed Harry and the others over to Madam Pomfrey and bowed out with some haste, probably much preferring to go back to the action of battle cleanup.
"Mr Potter—Mr Goldstein—oh sweet Morgana." Madam Pomfrey urged Harry and his friends to sit, as she focused on levitating Luna's body to a hospital bed. Her body landed awkwardly, a hand sliding off and dragging the whole arm with it, hanging limp and helpless. Harry took her wrist, to put it back. Luna's skin was too cold.
"Tell me what happened," Madam Pomfrey demanded, taking out several potion vials.
Luna's empty eyes—the surprise on Millicent's face—Dumbledore's torso exploding in a shower of blood. The Horcrux. Hogsmeade in ashes. Voldemort's smile, triumphant.
"She got hit on the head," Harry said. He didn't specify by whom.
Millicent kept quiet. She sat on a hospital bed a bit away from them, hunched in on herself.
Madam Pomfrey muttered diagnostic spells. A strange mist rose over Luna's forehead. The matron removed the stasis spell, murmuring approval of whoever had put it there; Anthony sat a bit straighter. As the spell lifted, blood started oozing from Luna's wound again. Madam Pomfrey muttered harder, and the mist dissipated. Finally she stepped back, a frown on her brow. "This is more than a simple injury. Her mind is—something is resisting me. What else do you know of her condition?"
"It was—" And then Harry realized, with a sick feeling in his stomach, that he'd have to keep lying. He couldn't tell Madam Pomfrey about the Horcrux.
He couldn't hand the thing over, because then tons of people would examine it and try to work out what it was, and nobody would be able to destroy it even if they dared to. But there was a good chance Luna wouldn't get better till the Horcrux was destroyed. Harry had the means to deal with it. So he'd deal with it.
He forced himself to say:
"Luna came across a cursed object. It seemed to be possessing her. She didn't say anything specific, but it seemed very much like—very much like what happened to Ginny Weasley that time, in her first year." That's as close as Harry dared come to a compromise. Give them a concrete direction to work in, without confessing the whole.
"I see. I'll have to look up those files. I don't suppose you have got the cursed thing, or have any idea what it is?"
"No." The diadem seemed to vibrate next to Harry's leg. Harry gripped the edge of the hospital bed in his hands. "I really wish I could help."
Harry felt Millicent's gaze boring into him. Sure enough, when he dared glance around, Millicent was glaring at him from red-rimmed eyes. "I want answers," she growled.
"We all do." He gave a minute shake of the head, and for a moment he thought Millicent would demand answers right here and right now regardless, but another look at Luna had her flinching and looking away.
Then Anthony opened his mouth, expression lost, and Harry held his breath. It'd be so easy for Anthony to call Harry out on his lie. Like, Millicent, Anthony didn't know why Harry was lying; everything in the last couple of hours had to be a senseless tragedy to them, Luna losing her mind and Snape betraying everyone and Dumbledore's corpse on the ground. And Harry was hiding something, something that, for all Anthony knew, could help fix at least one of those terrible things.
Anthony's attention dropped, momentarily, to Harry's fingers, clenched tight around the edge of the bed. He closed his eyes and didn't say anything at all.
"I fear what the possession and the injury have done to Miss Lovegood's mind," Madam Pomfrey muttered, all of her focus still fixed on her patient. "The injury is also deep, and—"
This proved to be the last drop for Millicent. She got up, fists clenched. "I'm out of here." And with that, she marched decisively out the door.
"No—wait—where do you think you're going?" Madam Pomfrey demanded, but she couldn't stop Millicent leaving, not while she was busy saving Luna.
Millicent should probably not be alone. On the other hand… Harry looked at Luna, at the Horcrux next to him. He had something urgent to do, too, and it didn't matter how much he just wanted to collapse instead.
"We must send her to St Mungo's," Madam Pomfrey said decisively, at the same time as Harry got up and said:
"I need to go."
"Not you, too!" Madam Pomfrey bristled.
"Ma'am, you don't want us here," Harry said. "Soon, the place will be—We'll need a lot help from St Mungo's. There were… many injured in Hogsmeade. They'll be arriving soon." He was surprised none were there yet. Maybe less time had passed than he'd thought. Or maybe mediwizards were taking them from Hogsmeade to St Mungo's directly; that would make sense.
He suddenly wondered if Madam Pomfrey even knew that Dumbledore was dead. He wondered—a lot of things.
"If you're in such a hurry to leave, let me at least have a quick scan. If nothing really is wrong with you, you'll be free to go."
Harry seriously doubted nothing was wrong, given the way his chest still twinged, and sure enough Madam Pomfrey exclaimed over his ribs. He downed four potions in all—apparently, she'd got fresh stock from St. Mungo's—and sat through some spellwork; he had to admit that, physically, this made him feel immediately better. Not that his physical condition was his top concern at the moment. The nurse also muttered darkly over his energy levels—apparently he'd overdone it with all the magic, at least in part because of holding the Patronus for longer than he'd ever had to in his life. He got potions for that, too, and the tiredness nipping at the edges of his mind retreated a little. Still, Madam Pomfrey warned him not to expect to perform feats of magical magnificence in the near future. Harry dearly hoped he wouldn't have to. The only thing he absolutely needed to do was destroy the Horcrux, and that involved a sword, not a wand, which he hoped would make a difference.
He took the wrapped up diadem with him as he turned to go.
"Harry—" Anthony reached out and gripped his arm, halting him. His eyes were on the bundle.
"I'll find you," Harry promised. "Or you find me. Or—"
"I'll find Millicent," Anthony supplied bleakly.
"Not before I check you over too, young man," Madam Pomfrey said, voice brisk. "You've performed excellent first aid on your friends—you seem to have something of a knack—but you're exhausted too, so drink this while I make the Floo call, and then—"
Harry escaped the infirmary, leaving Anthony in the matron's able hands.
Dumbledore's office. Harry had to get the Horcrux to Dumbledore's office. Once the idea surfaced in his mind, he latched onto it half-instinctually; that was where all prior Horcrux climaxes had played out, that was where Dumbledore had told him of their existence.
Dumbledore was gone. Harry was left, and Harry had to go to Dumbledore's office and do the things both of them had planned on.
("A new era will come to the wizarding world, and it will start with your death!")
The moment Harry entered Dumbledore's office, he stopped on the threshold, caught. Outside this room, a battle had raged, with many students as its casualties, and the owner of this room lay dead. But unheeding of the great change that had swept over the wizarding world in a few short hours, this office welcomed him with merry ticking of the instruments whose function he might now never learn, the quiet murmuring of portraits, and the scent of books and sweets and well-ordered life. Fading light streamed gently through the windows, and it seemed a moment suspended in time, a snapshot of a reality that no longer existed.
Harry let out a deep breath, and walked over to what used to be Dumbledore's desk. There, he unloaded the diadem, and collapsed in what used to be Dumbledore's chair, holding his head in his hands.
He just needed a moment. Or two. Then he'd pull himself together and start doing things again.
He was still attempting to glue the fraying threads of his composure together when a soft crooning reached his ears, and a weight landed on his shoulder. He twisted up to see Fawkes the phoenix looking at him from up close with tears in his eyes. His magnificent plumage drooped, spilling over the table and over Harry's arm. Harry tried to find his voice, and finally managed: "I thought we weren't on speaking terms, Fawkes."
Barely a year ago, Fawkes had refused to touch Harry long enough to transport him to safety. Now, he apparently sought to give him comfort—or maybe he saw in Harry a companion in his grief. Perhaps, in this situation, Harry was better than nothing.
Fawkes only crooned again, lightly headbutting Harry's cheek. Then, a familiar voice spoke up.
"The trouble was never you, my boy. It was the road you chose to walk. There was a time when you reached for Darkness and did not question your path. Fawkes shied away from you then. It lightens my heart to know that you've found your way, and whatever you choose to do, you will not easily let Darkness claim you."
Harry raised his head. For a moment, he'd thought he was dreaming to be hearing Dumbledore again. But then his eyes found the latest addition to the portrait gallery on the office's walls. From his new frame, Dumbledore smiled gently at him. He looked as he had in life, the same genial air, the same silly pattern on his midnight-blue robes. Some future student, passing this portrait by, would think that Hogwarts had once been ruled by a dotty, harmless old man.
"Headmaster." Harry fixed his eyes on the portrait and willed himself to remember the man in this cheerful guise, and not as a broken body lying by Voldemort's feet. The effort must've shown on his face, because Dumbledore's expression softened.
"This day was always going to come. But I have every faith in your ability to carry our work onward."
Harry's eyes fell on the diadem, still lying in front of him on the desk. "I won't be like you," he said, without looking at Dumbledore. "I won't make the decisions you would've made."
"Indeed. We've had our share of disagreements, you and I, but it's been quite some time since I've stopped expecting you to be anyone but yourself. That said, I'm sure you will do admirably."
Harry closed his eyes. He'd have to do… if not admirably, then well enough to win the war, somehow. It didn't matter if he felt capable or not. The war wouldn't wait.
And on that note, he had work to do.
He turned back to the portrait. "I need to destroy this Horcrux. Where is the sword?"
It turned out, Dumbledore kept the basilisk venom-enriched Sword of Gryffindor in the same cupboard as the Sorting Hat. Disregarding the talking garment, Harry grasped the hilt of the weapon in his hand.
For a moment, standing over the diadem, he hesitated. Millicent and Anthony's faces swam up in his mind, and it'd be so much easier to give the required explanations if he could also produce a visual aid, destroy the Horcrux in front of the audience of those he needed to inform. But Luna's life might be hanging in the balance. He couldn't afford to wait.
Steeling himself, Harry brought the blade down upon the diadem with all the force he could muster.
The impact reverberated up his arm, and jolted his shoulder. At the same instant, a high-pitched scream rent the air, piercing Harry's eardrums. Fawkes flapped away from the table, squawking in agitation. Harry dropped the sword and clapped his hands over his ears, watching as the diadem writhed and hissed, the metal melting where it had come in contact with the blade.
Then, all was quiet. The relic of Ravenclaw lay disfigured upon the desk. Harry felt oddly drained from this single act of combat against the Horcrux, but also lighter for knowing it was done.
"Very good, my boy," Dumbledore said quietly. Harry didn't turn to look at him.
One more Horcrux down. All it cost was Luna's health. Had Dumbledore done things differently, could it have been prevented? Had Harry not agreed with his methods, would things be better today? Could they avoid paying equally high a price for the remaining three pieces of Voldemort's soul?
First things first. "I need a place to hide this," Harry said. "Where did you put the diary?"
Relying on Dumbledore's directions, Harry unlocked a secret cabinet, which contained also the ring that had cursed Dumbledore's hand. He stashed the diadem with the other two defunct Horcruxes, and replaced the Sword of Gryffindor where he'd found it.
"So it is done," Dumbledore said. "At least all that passed today has not been in vain. And now, my boy, you'll forgive me, but sleep calls me. I'm sure you can handle the rest marvellously on your own." So saying, the portrait seemed to settle more comfortably into the frame, and closed his eyes.
Fawkes trilled sadly. Harry came over to the window, and through the glass saw throngs of dazed and injured people staggering towards the castle, mediwizards levitating stretchers, Aurors and Order members helping out where they could. The great exodus from Hogsmeade seemed to be reaching its swelling point. Harry would be needed downstairs, as would be every pair of able hands.
He stood motionless for a few moments. Then, he turned away to rejoin the reality waiting for him outside the office's door.
Harry's footsteps echoed in the corridors, and he was so lost in thought that he hadn't immediately registered that the sound had multiplied, that many other footfalls had joined his. So it came as a surprise when he rounded a corner and ran straight into Neville, Demelza Robbins, Colin Creevey and what seemed like a whole crowd of others.
"Harry!" went up the cry, Neville's voice the loudest in the midst. Next to him, a very pale Ginny Weasley was now walking of her own power, supported by Neville's hand under her elbow. She nodded at Harry weakly, even as the others continued firing fearful exclamations and questions at him.
"What happened to everyone?"
"We couldn't get through from Honeydukes to Hogwarts, but we stayed in the passage, like you said!"
"Some other people got sent over, they said you told them to come, so we hid them too!"
"Yeah, and then the barrier suddenly fell, so we could actually walk through!"
"Harry, Dumbledore—were you there? Is it true Voldemort killed him?"
Blinking out dazedly at small crowd, Harry realized that they were reporting to him, and expecting some reassuring response.
"I'm glad you guys are okay," he said, and this was true. Okay was, probably, severely understating the matter—everyone had to be different degrees of traumatized, even if they'd escaped the worst of the Dementors and didn't see Dumbledore get murdered—but at least they were physically unharmed.
"Thanks for saving me from Dementors," said Graham Pritchard, his voice small. Several other people echoed the sentiment, but Harry waved it away.
"Dumbledore—is it true?" Neville asked, eyes wide. "He's… he's dead?"
At that, Harry straightened. "He didn't win," he said with all the firmness he could muster. "He killed Dumbledore, and it was bloody awful and we're all going to need to— It's not gonna be easy, but we're still here, aren't we? We're still fighting. He hasn't won."
This cut through the panicked murmurs, and maybe Harry did need to be here, right now, maybe people did need to hear this from him. No matter what happened, none of them could afford to give up.
"You guys should go to the infirmary to get checked out," he said.
"Yeah, Sprout… sent us there." Demelza wiped tears from under her eyes, but more just sprung up in their place. "We'll see you later, Harry?" He got the feeling that this last was meant to be a statement, but it came out as a question, and so he nodded:
"Sure, of course. I think we'll meet up in the Great Hall, where McGonagall is organizing everything."
With that, they parted ways. At least they are alive and okay, Harry told himself. At least Neville is fine.
Immediately, a little voice in his head spoke up: Neville doesn't yet know what happened to Luna. He doesn't—
He would. There would be conversations to have, later. Difficult conversations, and explanations to give, and Harry would deal with them when the time came. For now, he had things to do.
The doors to the Great Hall stood wide open, and walking through them Harry realized that the place had been transformed into a hospital. Rows of beds replaced the House tables, St Mungo's nurses rushing between them and tending to patients who were taking up all available room, and more kept coming in. Not all of them students, either; Harry saw a large number of adults, presumably Hogsmeade residents injured in the battle. Professor McGonagall, back ramrod straight, oversaw the operation, and her eyes zeroed on Harry immediately, and he made his way towards her.
"Professor. Can I help?"
McGonagall gave him a long look. "I'd tell you to rest, but I doubt you'd listen."
Harry shook his head, looking around. The hospital noise wasn't like the roar of battle, but here, too, pained cries kept coming from all sides. They seemed to hammer at every exposed nerve of his, and he couldn't—he couldn't walk away from this.
"My friends, are they—"
"I've seen Miss Granger," McGonagall said, her voice softer. "She and Mr Boot led a contingent of students who hid in the underground passage from the Hogsmeade train station."
"What about Blaise, or—"
"I'm afraid I don't know. Potter, are you sure you're up for—"
McGonagall nodded. "In that case, I might ask you to do some rounds. There are a lot of people who are scared, and the events in Hogsmeade, with Albus's death, were… traumatizing. People wondered about you. Seeing you might help."
Seeing him had apparently helped Neville and the others just now. It helped people when he did his public appearances and his press conferences. It had helped people in Hogsmeade.
So he went around the hall, talking to people, some of whom he knew and some he'd never met before. He asked their names, and told them that it would be all right. He told the duelling club members that they'd done more than could've been expected of them, and that he was proud. He listened to Ron Weasley rail bitterly against Snape. He found Padma, alive and furious with it as she sobbed over Justin Finch-Fletchley's body.
"He—he pushed me out of the way. He died for me." Padma's fists were curled in Justin's robes, her knuckles white under the scrapes and the blood. Harry had never seen her so dishevelled, so out of control. "He—he played the hero, and he saved me, and I hate him."
"No, you don't," Harry said.
"No," Padma whispered. "I don't."
If Justin hadn't died, Padma would've. And if she had died—
Harry hugged her and kept his mind from turning to even more catastrophic scenarios.
Harry didn't know how long he'd stayed in the Great Hall. Hours passed, enough that the ceiling reflected a starry sky by the time Harry slumped against a wall, utterly exhausted. He probably shouldn't be letting people see him like this—a dispirited saviour of the wizarding world didn't do anyone favours—but there was a limit to how much even he could pretend.
He turned his head, blinking, only to see Hermione and Blaise approaching his corner. Both bore the signs of battle in their rumpled and dirty clothing, but neither looked injured, for which Harry was infinitely grateful. Hermione ran up to him, bushy hair an even bigger mess than normal, and unexpectedly launched herself into his arms. His spine connected painfully with the wall, but he didn't mind.
"Oh, Harry, it's been—it's been so terrible."
"We drank the Felix Felicis, we gave a sip to everyone we could—"
"Oh, that's smart," Harry said in relief. That explained why so many of his friends go away relatively unscathed. "Why did you even have it on you?"
Hermione's arms tightened around Harry. "I've had it since the day we won it in Potions. In case… you never know. I'm sorry I didn't think of it earlier."
Blaise watched them, eyes careful.
"We just ran into Anthony. He said—Luna attacked you, and you had to stop her, and now she's at St Mungo's."
Hermione's arms tightened around Harry.
"You should find Millicent," Harry told Blaise. "She… could use it."
"What happened exactly?" It was unusual for Blaise to display signs of concern so openly, but then he didn't normally walk around covered in dust or blood, either.
"There's… a lot to explain." And Harry would explain, would tell them the truth. Look where hiding it got them. If Luna had been warned about the diadem—
("I won't be like you. I won't make the decisions you would've made.")
It would be up to Harry to make certain decisions, now.
It took several days for the chaos to settle—for the injured to be triaged and moved to the hospital wing or St. Mungo's, for the Great Hall to be cleaned up, for the casualties to be counted. The newspapers screamed of dozens dead, and several hundred injured; devastated Hogsmeade would require extensive rebuilding, and now there was no hiding the fact that all the Dementors had joined Voldemort. Their desertion of Azkaban, and the fact that the prison now stood empty, spilled over the papers. But Dumbledore's death struck a morale blow that eclipsed everything else. No matter how you looked at the situation, the Battle of Hogsmeade ended in Voldemort's decisive—and horrifying—victory. Every eulogy for Dumbledore, and there were many, came tinged with a thread of fear; what would happen now? Could the wizarding world stand against Voldemort if its staunchest defender had fallen?
Unsurprisingly, Scrimgeour came to see Harry the morning after the attack.
"It's bad, Harry, I won't put a good face on it. We're getting desperate containing the panic. We'll need you to make a statement, you understand."
Harry understood, of course, and consented to speak at Dumbledore's funeral. In Scrimgeour's words, his mission was to reassure everyone that while things were dire and one anti-Voldemort icon was gone, another was still very much present. Harry strongly suspected that, for the same reason, the Ministry was behind the spate of articles quoting one person or another on how, in Hogsmeade, they only survived thanks to Harry Potter. Everything felt like it had changed, but the PR machine still churned, bearing Harry along on its wheels.
"The king is dead, long live the king," Blaise said thoughtfully, when Harry told him.
McGonagall—now Acting Headmistress—sought him out as well, the day after the battle.
"Multiple people have told me you ushered them out of the way of fighting, or got word to them to hide in the passages. And I understand I have you to thank for a surprising number of students knowing the Patronus. We owe you a debt."
Harry shook his head. "It wasn't just me." Eddie Carmichael had been his co-leader of the duelling club, and now lay among the dead.
"How did you teach all those students?"
"It was a… study group." That was underselling the duelling club a bit, but it covered the salient points. "We formed it while Umbridge was here. You know, ma'am, she wasn't teaching us anything, so… And then we kept going."
"Looks like it was a very large, inter-House study group." McGonagall measured him with her gaze. "A lot of things make sense, in retrospect. Like why third-year students would rush to get you in a crisis." Ah yeah, that thing with Urquhart and McLaggen. Felt like a memory from a different life. "Many students listen to you." McGonagall sighed. "It was for the best, as it happens. Whether you want to hear it or not, you've got my thanks, Mr Potter."
She repeated that gratitude at the first school assembly after the battle. Students still looked shell-shocked and the worse for wear as they listened to her sum up the events of the past couple of days. And these were the students who chose to remain behind; a large number had left the night of the battle, collected home by their horrified parents.
"There is no denying that we have faced a terrible tragedy," McGonagall said, voice heavy. "I wish I did not have to stand before you today, addressing you from the seat that should belong to the best Headmaster this school has ever known. But we can only move forward."
Dumbledore was not, of course, the only glaring absence at the staff table. Snape's empty seat loomed mockingly at the room—a fact of which the Slytherin table was very aware.
The Slytherins had borne their share of casualties, as a large contingent had been present in Hogsmeade. Junior Death Eaters had been the only ones absent, as far as Harry could tell, and he'd pressed that point with Malfoy—quite literally, pressed him into a wall and his wand into Malfoy's neck and demanded what Malfoy had known. Malfoy had sworn that he hadn't heard about the attack in advance, hadn't planned to go to Hogsmeade regardless, but admitted that, at some point in the afternoon, the others had started wondering what was going on. According to Malfoy, several Junior Death Eaters had been warned by their parents that morning not to venture out; they hadn't known the details of the attack, but knew that Hogsmeade wouldn't be safe.
"And what, your father didn't send you the same warning?" Harry had sneered, and Malfoy had turned away, fists clenching. Apparently, it was a no. If so, the Malfoy family really was in deep shit with the Dark Lord, despite Draco's ostensible success with Slughorn, but that was neither here nor there.
McGonagall inevitably had to address Snape's defection.
"Severus Snape has betrayed us grievously, and I am certain he will face a reckoning for his actions." Her face communicated that she'd very much like to be the one dealing out the reckoning in question. "Professor Sinistra will take over as the Head of Slytherin House."
"Well, that will be interesting," Blaise muttered, and reflexively threw a glance at Millicent, except she just glowered at her plate and kept silent. That had been her response to all overtures so far.
The rest of the hall broke up in whispers. Apart from the few Junior Death Eaters present and oozing smugness, everyone reeled from Snape's betrayal. For one of their teachers, even so disagreeable and widely hated, to join Voldemort—it must've been him, they decided, who had murdered Slughorn; it was the only thing that made sense. Harry listened, forcing his face to keep impassive. Slughorn wasn't dead, Snape wasn't really a traitor, and these were things nobody could know.
"Classes will be cancelled for the next week," McGonagall continued. "We will… keep you updated about the dates of the O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. exams." Exams were, presumably, the least of everyone's problems at the moment, but they too served as a reminder that, cataclysmic events or no, life marched on.
"Fuck exams." Millicent stabbed a potato with a fork. "When are we going to meet up and talk?"
"Tonight," Harry said. "Sorry it took so long. Cedric can come tonight, and—yeah, there's things I need to tell you."
Cedric was the last to arrive in the Hidden Room, coming straight from the Ministry. Dark circles under his eyes hinted that he hadn't slept the night before.
Harry looked from face to face, taking note of what his friends looked like before they knew the truth: frightened, grim, exhausted. Millicent still sported a thunderous frown. Anthony watched Harry closely, as if suspecting him of ulterior motives.
"Hey." Harry nodded to Cedric and motioned him into a seat. "We were just about to—"
Cedric didn't let him finish. Cedric marched straight up to him, and enveloped him in a hug. "I'm glad you're alright."
Harry froze, arms still by his sides. "Luna isn't. We… need to talk about that."
The look Cedric gave him—Harry didn't know how to interpret it, only that Cedric didn't approve of his response. Then Cedric released him, and proceeded to make rounds of the room, saying muted greetings to everyone, squeezing shoulders and, in Padma's case, dispensing another hug.
It… helped. Harry even saw a couple of weak smiles exchanged between his friends. Maybe there was still hope going forward. A lot depended on how they'd take the upcoming revelations.
"What I'm about to tell you," Harry began, standing in front of them, leaning against the desk at his back, "Dumbledore didn't want me to tell anyone."
All attention in the room focused on him, as if Harry held them at wandpoint and could fire at any moment. In a way of speaking, this was true.
"I don't know what the right decision is," he continued. "I think if I'd have ignored Dumbledore, and told you, then Luna might be here with us right now." Millicent's glare intensified; Hermione gasped. "But Dumbledore had his reasons, and they were… they were good reasons. I'll be putting you in danger by telling you, too. I won't just be risking your lives here, I'll be putting the whole of the war effort at risk. What I'm about to tell you—this is the reason Voldemort went after Slughorn. It's… Maybe there are no good choices at this point. Dumbledore is dead, and Luna is hurt, and I'm—I'll tell you, if you want to know. But you need to be sure. And you need to be confident that you'll keep the secret, no matter what it takes. Because it cannot leave this room."
"So Lovegood went loopy because of Dumbledore's secrets? War secrets?" Millicent demanded. Harry saw a spark of violence in her eyes, something deep ready to explode outwards.
"Slughorn knew something," Harry said, choosing his words carefully. "Something about the Diadem of Ravenclaw, which Luna found without any of us realizing. What he knew explains what happened, why it affected her the way it did. Why it—why she wasn't in control when she—why she attacked us."
"Where's the diadem now?" Anthony demanded.
"Here." Harry lifted up the charred remains of the Horcrux.
"You broke it?"
"I had to. I told you, I'll explain everything. But it won't be—you need to be really sure you want this. And you'll need to protect yourselves afterwards. Study Occlumency, and—"
"I don't care," Millicent snapped. "I want to know what happened."
"Me too." Anthony, normally so cautious, didn't seem to need any time to think this one over.
Terry looked nervously between them and Harry. Cedric frowned in evident concern.
"This information—is it immediately dangerous?" Cedric asked. "Will Voldemort know we have it?"
"No. But if you'll end up helping me deal with what it entails, he might notice. And… you know what that means."
Hermione sat resolutely straight. "I have to know. And I'm going to help you with whatever it is. If it's that important to the war, I need to help."
"Agreed," Padma said. That was all she'd said, since the meeting began. Her face was set in hard, determined lines.
"I want to help you too," Neville said, leaning forward. "You know I can keep secrets."
"I've read about Occlumency," Terry said. "I'm sure we can learn it."
"I, for one, was meaning to do it anyway," Blaise said.
"Then I guess it's a yes from all of us." Cedric gave Harry a smile, but it fell a little flat this time. "What exactly is going on here?"
"Long story short," Harry said, "Luna got possessed by a piece of Voldemort's soul. And the same thing happened to Ginny Weasley, too, several years ago. And the only way to kill Voldemort is to find these soul pieces and destroy them."
He told them, going back to the beginning: the seven soul fragments, the diary he'd inadvertently neutralized in his second year, the search for the remaining Horcruxes that would still need to happen.
"Horcruxes," Cedric said. "Horcruxes. And you've known all this time. And Dumbledore told you—why?"
"Because we have to destroy them. If we want to kill Voldemort."
"And he told you," Cedric repeated, still in a strange voice. "And no one else?"
"He didn't think to tell—maybe the Order of the Phoenix?"
"No. It's—I told you, this is something as few people as possible need to know."
"And he expected you to destroy them—alone? With him?"
"I… guess so."
"You said the diadem was a Horcrux." Anthony jumped up from his seat, and paced back and forth. "Where did Luna get it? She never left the school grounds since Christmas!"
"The Hidden Room," Hermione said, pale. "It had to be the Hidden Room." She turned to Padma. "Remember all the research? We got her to go into the version of the room where we found all those things—your book, and everything else. It had to be because of us."
"Not because of you," Harry interjected quickly, but—it was a good thought. It made sense, that Luna found the diadem there. Except, wait. "Why would Voldemort leave a Horcrux among all that other junk you described?"
"Maybe he didn't," Padma said, slowly. "We theorized it, remember? Luna theorized it. That the room just… collects all real objects left behind in various versions of the Hidden Room."
"So Voldemort used the Hidden Room and left the diadem there." Hermione was clutching her head in her hands. "And he thought it would stay in his own version of the room—the one he imagined. He thought no one else could access it. But he didn't fully know how it worked, he didn't realize the real diadem he brought in would be stored with everything else…"
That sounded like Voldemort. Dumbledore said Voldemort had always loved Hogwarts, he'd wanted to teach here. He left the Horcrux, maybe to laugh at everyone, maybe to keep it safe… He would've thought he was so clever, that he'd figured out a Hogwarts secret nobody else knew. He would've believed he'd found the perfect hiding place—easier to access than the Slytherin chamber, concealed in plain sight. And he didn't realize its pitfalls, because hadn't bothered to look deep enough…
"So when Luna found it—the diadem controlled her?" Neville asked. "Like the diary with Ginny?"
"Luna must've recognized the Diadem of Ravenclaw," Terry said. "Every Ravenclaw would've. Why didn't she tell us about it?"
Harry shook his head. "Horcruxes can latch onto people, influence them, like Neville said. And maybe it's slow at first—maybe it was enough that the Horcrux convinced Luna to keep the discovery to herself, to keep it hidden…"
"We didn't believe her at first, about her discoveries," Hermione said, voice wracked with guilt. "We didn't take her seriously, and maybe she—maybe she didn't want to tell us until she was sure, because she thought we would reject her."
"Hey," Terry muttered, and took her hand. "Don't blame yourself."
"I should've known something was wrong when she said Wrackspurts didn't exist," Padma said. "Was the diadem—was it controlling her then?"
"I don't know," Harry said. "But it was definitely controlling her when she came out during the battle."
"What was it doing?" Anthony asked. "Why was she out there?"
"My best guess is, Voldemort's Horcrux sensed the rest of his soul nearby and was calling out to it. Wanted to reunite with it, or… something. I don't know."
"We should've noticed earlier," Anthony said, quietly. "We're her Housemates. We see her all the time. But with Slughorn, the exams, the Apparition—we didn't think. We didn't think anything dangerous was going on. If we'd only noticed…"
It was hard to argue against an idea Harry agreed with, shared the guilt over. But he couldn't let his friends think this. "If it's anyone's fault, it's mine," he said heavily. "I knew about Horcruxes, and I didn't tell anyone. If Luna had known what the diadem was…"
"You can't do this," Cedric said. He got up and glanced between Hermione and Anthony and Harry. "This isn't helpful, and this isn't—this isn't your fault. Any of you. You didn't give her the Horcrux on purpose, you didn't possess her, you didn't make the Horcrux in the first place."
"I hit her over her damn head. And I'm not sorry," Millicent said, raising her had and balling up her fists.
"You should be!" Anthony flared up. "There had to be another way to stop her! We would've found another way—"
"When?" Millicent demanded. "She was about to kill Harry! Kill you next!"
"You didn't have to hit her that hard! You broke her skull, they're saying there's so much damage, there were shards in her brain—"
Madam Pomfrey told Harry the head injury was now the main problem Luna was battling. Whatever hold possession had still had on her—whatever remnants of it Madam Pomfrey had detected—those had "mysteriously" disappeared at a point which coincided with Harry destroying the Horcrux. That psychic trauma, compounded with the physical damage, however… Madam Pomfrey said grimly that it would take a miracle for Luna to pull through unchanged by the experience.
"Lay off," Blaise told Anthony, flinty-eyed. "Millie did what she had to."
"Is that what you'll say to Luna when she wakes up? If she does?"
"Look, it's done," Harry said. "Millie did her best to save us, and—I honestly don't know if I could've done better. Of course I'm upset Luna's hurt, this is all just—I want none of this to have happened. But it has, and sometimes, in a situation, there are no good solutions. Only different bad ones. This was one of those."
"So you don't blame me," Millie said, looking him in the eyes with challenge, and that was the moment when Harry realized just how much she did blame herself.
He'd never imagined what guilt might look like, on Millicent. That it would come out as aggression he could've predicted; that she'd feel it quite so deeply, over a situation that had indeed been largely outside of her control, did give him a jolt. Not that he'd thought her unfeeling, but she'd perfected such an unflappable front, so ruthlessly practical—and, in a moment of crisis, had acted so decisively—that it came as a shock to see the cracks in the facade.
Then again, she was only sixteen. They were all teenagers, dealing with things way over their head.
"I don't blame anyone," Harry said firmly. Well, he lied, because he did blame himself, but: "Not you, not Luna, not Hermione, not—anyone. I wish this wouldn't have happened," he repeated, "but we'll just have to—go from here." Story of his life.
"So what now?" Cedric asked. "We have these Horcruxes to find, you said."
That we warmed him. "Yeah, but first—I'm not kidding about this, you have to learn Occlumency. I'll give you the books I used—yeah, yeah, I've learned it in secret, I had my reasons, okay—but that has to be the first step. Voldemort is a Legilimens, remember. Probably a number of his followers are."
"What about Snape?" Neville asked, drawing frowns from several others.
Harry took a deep breath, blew it out.
("Professor Snape's cover as a spy is the single most effective advantage in this war that our side possesses. I would be extremely reluctant to take any action that might cast suspicion onto his role, and I will ask you to do the same.")
Harry had told Dumbledore he wouldn't do things his way. He'd already made good on that decision by telling his friends about the Horcruxes. He was taking a giant risk there, but he couldn't not do it, after everything. Snape's cover, however…
At least not until after they've learned Occlumency, Harry told himself. That seemed like a fair compromise. He could disclose Slughorn's continued survival, too, at a later date—but not now, not yet. Those secrets would keep.
"The less said about Snape, the better," he said, in the end. Which wasn't even a lie, except by omission.
Now, looking around, he saw his friends looking determined. Scared, too, no question, but clearly it did them good to have a goal to work towards.
Maybe they would make it through this.
Dumbledore's funeral fell on an unseasonably warm day. Harry shifted in his formal robes as he watched the crowd gather and take their seats for the lakeside ceremony: his friends, other Hogwarts students, their parents, Ministry employees, Order members. Madam Maxime, the Beauxbatons Headmistress, arrived in a magnificent carriage and promptly sought Hagrid for comfort; a number of shopkeepers from the Diagon Alley made it, too, and there was Viktor Krum… Still, he couldn't help thinking that the number of mourners would've been higher at a different time, when people weren't so afraid of congregating in one place… If people weren't afraid that Voldemort might surface again at any moment.
"Looking smart, Harrykins," said a familiar voice from behind Harry.
He turned, only to see Fred and George smiling at him crookedly. They'd grown somehow even taller in the year he hadn't seen them, and their hair got shaggier; they'd filled out, too. Their dress robes fit them well, a far cry from the shabby outfits they'd worn to the Yule Ball.
"You're back," Harry said, needlessly pointing out the obvious. "It's good to see you."
"I'd have preferred to return for a better reason." George grimaced, glancing over the assembly. "Were you there when Dumbledore—"
"Yeah. Most of Hogsmeade was."
"Fucking Voldemort." Fred's face twisted. "But don't worry. We haven't been twiddling our thumbs while we were away. We've got quite a few things to show you."
"I look forward to it," Harry said, very sincerely.
"I guess we'd better go find Mum," George said, clapping Harry on the shoulder. And then, to Fred: "And, oh, there's Percy. Definitely time to scramble, brother mine."
Percy had indeed just arrived, accompanying Rufus Scrimgeour. The latter wore auburn-coloured robes that accentuated his resemblance to a grizzled lion—maybe even more grizzled, lately, than was his usual wont. Upon arrival, Scrimgeour zeroed in on Harry immediately; he dispatched Percy on some errand with a few words, and made his way to Harry's side.
"Got your speech memorized?" he asked, jumping straight to business. At Harry's nod, he marginally relaxed, and looked around. "Not your first funeral, is it, Harry?"
Startled, Harry realized that it was. He'd killed people, seen them die, but never yet had he attended a memorial service. "You wouldn't think so, but… yes."
"You'll do fine," Scrimgeour reassured him. "Think of it as just another press conference." Then he caught himself: "Not that I mean to sound callous, but—you know what I mean."
Harry did know it, but the remark rankled—that Scrimgeour didn't stop to wonder if Harry might have any feelings about the funeral he was attending. Not that he and Dumbledore had advertised their association, but for Scrimgeour to assume that, unlike the other people in the audience, Harry would remain untouched by sentiment, and was only here to do a job…
He straightened his shoulders and reminded himself that he did have a job to do. And that did come first, before anything else he might or might not feel.
"Yes, Minister," he said, and allowed Scrimgeour to steer him towards the front, just off to the side of a large table made of the whitest marble.
As they walked, eerie singing filled the air; Harry realized it came from the lake, that the merpeople were weaving a lament of Dumbledore's passing. The song made him shiver. Then came the thumping of hooves, and centaurs emerged at the tree line of the Forbidden Forest—not joining the humans, but paying their respects all the same.
"So let it begin," Scrimgeour said.
Hagrid came down the aisle, carrying Dumbledore's body wrapped in a thick, midnight-blue shroud. Tears streamed down his face as he walked; for a moment or two, Harry feared that he'd stumble, unable to see where he was going, but he arrived at the head of the congregation and put Dumbledore's body gently down upon the marble table. Then, he staggered away, leaving Scrimgeour, Harry, and a short tufty-haired man who immediately stepped forward and began the first speech.
"We are gathered here today to mourn the death of Albus Dumbledore. He was more than just a man; he was a visionary whose strength of mind and nobility of spirit enabled him to advance our knowledge of magic, safeguard our peace, and guide generations of Hogwarts students. Fifty years ago, he liberated the wizarding world by defeating Dark Lord Grindelwald; it is perhaps fitting that he died in battle, protecting countless innocents…"
Harry let the words wash over him, looking out at the lake. The official listed Dumbledore's many feats and accomplishments, pontificated on his sterling qualities, acknowledged the depth of the loss the wizarding world had suffered in his passing.
Harry remembered long evenings in Dumbledore's office, spent poring over plots. He remembered disorienting debriefs at Harry's hospital bedside. He remembered the kindly old man he met when he arrived at Hogwarts, and the word games he'd played to avoid the man's judgement after. He remembered Dumbledore's last look at him, over the battlefield, just as he was about to die.
("Above all, do not lose hope.")
This anticipation of battles to come—battles he'd have to fight without Dumbledore's formidable intelligence and skill on his side—didn't feel like hope.
All eyes turned to Harry when he stepped forward to speak, reciting lines that Scrimgeour's people had composed for him. He made himself meet those gazes head-on. He saw people sit up straighter when his attention turned on them; he saw hope kindle in their eyes, replacing grief. That may not have been what Dumbledore had meant, but Harry suddenly thought his most powerful weapon against Voldemort would be the masses of people who would refuse to lie down and accept the Dark Lord's demands; who'd refuse to give into fear because they had hope instead.
"Dumbledore's sacrifice won't be in vain," Harry said firmly, deviating from the pre-written speech. "Dark Lord Voldemort will be defeated. And I won't rest until that's done."
Harry looked out at his friends, and saw them nodding back—Cedric solemn, Neville pale, Hermione wiping away tears.
Dumbledore's body burst into flames, Fawkes the phoenix completing his final burning at his beloved master's side. The marble table turned into a tomb, the centaurs sent a salute of arrows, and the congregation leapt to their feet.
Dumbledore was dead. And inside Harry burned the knowledge that he had no choice but to keep on the road he and Dumbledore had laid out together. Harry had, as Dumbledore had intended, inherited all the threads that Dumbledore had left dangling, and lived to fight another day. Now it was up to him to take that fight till the very end.
-End of year six-