Something nudged his shoulder, and Harry frowned, burrowing into his pillow with a soft grumble.
“Harry! Wake up.”
He shrugged one shoulder to draw the covers up over his head—only to find himself rudely cuffed on the crown, and he scrambled awake. He blinked blearily, squinting through blurred vision. “What the—Hermione?”
He didn’t have his glasses on, but he could see she was resolutely looking away, keeping her gaze fixed on one of the low-lit lamps bolted to the wall.
Quickly recalling himself, he curled into a foetal position and pulled the covers close to hide his nudity. Not that there was much point in it, given their clothes scattered around the room, the bed they were pointedly sharing, and the fact that Harry had claimed most of the blankets in his scrabbling, leaving Draco’s pasty white arse exposed for all and sundry to view.
“Wh—what are you doing in here?” he hissed, all too aware of Draco slowly rousing beside him. He hoped he could chivvy Hermione off before Draco decided to make a scene. This was awkward enough as it was.
“Coming to fetch you, obviously.” He could see her cheeks were flushed a furious pink, and her jaw was tight-set. “Make yourselves presentable and get out here quickly.”
Before Harry could protest—or ask her not to speak of what she’d just seen to Ron—she marched out of the room with a muttered Thank god I didn’t have Ron come check… and slammed the door behind her.
The door closed just in time for Draco to roll over onto his back, exposing his frontside—pockmarked with errant lovebites that formed a veritable treasure map to his dusky pink cock hanging limp between his thighs.
“Didn’t you put the do-not-disturb sign on the door?” he mumbled, voice thick with sleep. “Merlin…” He rubbed his eyes. “How long were we out? I feel like I’ve been run over by an Erumpent in heat…”
Harry cast a quick Tempus charm and winced. “Fuck, it’s gone eight.” He’d thought they might only take a quick nap, but clearly Draco had been more drained than he’d let on. He glared balefully at the door. “…I think she’s got the wrong idea.”
“Mm, I think she’s gotten the right one, rather.” When Harry didn’t respond, he shifted up onto his elbows, frowning. “The Dark Lord’s probably on our doorstep now, and you’re fussed Granger thinks we’ve been indecent with each other? Someone needs to sort out his priorities.”
Harry sighed, rolling out of bed and gathering up the articles of clothing strewn about the room, sorting his from Draco’s as he went. “It’s not that—just…I’d have rather they found out a different way.”
He could feel Draco’s eyes tracking him with a hunted wariness, and Harry somehow knew he was about to be tested. “…You wanted them to find out?”
Harry heard the implication inherent in the question—and shrugged, trying to affect an unconcerned air. “I mean, if they had to…is all.”
They quickly dressed and spelled away any remnant marks sure to rouse questions before shuffling out into the sitting room, still a bit dazed from their rude awakening. Hermione and Ron appeared to have been in a heated conversation of whispers, for they straightened abruptly when Harry cleared his throat to announce their arrival.
Hoping to avoid any awkward explanations or excuses, Harry quickly dove right into it. “So how’d the library go? Any leads?” He ribbed Draco with one elbow, prompting him to contribute as well.
“You didn’t waste the afternoon sucking face in the Muggle Studies stacks, did you?” he drawled, leaning against the door jamb.
“What? Everyone knows that’s what that section’s for.”
“Of course not,” Hermione huffed, still unable to meet their eye. “And no luck, unfortunately.” She passed back the Invisibility Cloak, neatly folded. “I’d already gone through most of the volumes having anything to do with Horcruxes back in Sixth Year, so I suppose it was a long shot to begin with.”
Harry’s shoulders dropped. It was sounding more and more like they were going to have to pay Griphook a visit before this mess could be ended, as they’d come up with no other means of damaging these Horcruxes beyond repair in their months of trying.
“Buck up, mate,” Ron offered, giving him a boyish slug to the shoulder. Harry tried to ignore that it felt a bit forced, like Ron was working very hard to keep things casual. God, Hermione had definitely told him. “We come bearing a bit of good news, at least!”
“Good news? Well we could certainly use it.”
“I wouldn’t say good,” Hermione said. “We still don’t know why it’s happened.”
“You wouldn’t call Snape abandoning the school good?” Ron shook his head, turning to Harry. “Scarpered off like he had hellhounds on his heels! Reckon he got called away by You-Know-Who? Maybe he’s gathering his forces?”
Draco drew his sleeve up, staring down at the Dark Mark on his arm, and frowned at it. “…Mine hasn’t burned. If Snape was called away by the Dark Lord, it wasn’t in response to a general summons.” Harry marvelled at the way he casually bared his Mark around them now, no longer showing half the guilt and self-reprobation as in their earlier days.
“D’you think he’s done checking on the Horcruxes yet?” Ron asked.
Harry shook his head. “I haven’t had another vision, and I know as soon as he’s seen the locket and ring are gone, he’s going to be rightly pissed off.” He rubbed his forehead in response to a phantom twinge. “I’m not looking forward to it…”
“Well, whatever the reason, he is gone.” Hermione was looking at Harry now, either having forgotten what she’d seen or moved past it for the time being. “Harry, we should start moving everyone out of the Room of Requirement now.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I guess there’s no sense in pretending everything’s normal any longer, huh?”
“Indeed. I’ve spoken with Neville, explained that Hogwarts might soon be expecting company, and he’s agreed that we should focus on getting the castle secured as quickly as possible and see that the students who won’t be fighting are evacuated—”
“Wait, fighting?” Harry goggled. “Wha—who’s fighting?”
“Well the older students and staff, of course!” She gave him a bemused look. “We’ve got several dozen more-than-capable witches and wizards right here, many of whom seem bound and determined to defend their home—”
“They’re our peers, Harry. They’ve got as much right to fight as we do.”
Harry groped for an excuse; the last thing he wanted was to see his friends forming a human barrier between Voldemort and himself, falling like a house of cards before the Death Eaters’ curses. “But—they’re hardly prepared to face an army—”
“They took the same classes we did, mate,” Ron reminded, and Harry wondered if he and Hermione had discussed this matter already—including how to handle any objections Harry was likely to have. “Neville says they’ve been practising all year in secret, those that could be trusted. It’s not just Dumbledore’s Army, either. They can defend themselves—and more so, they want to.”
“I don’t think it’s our place to tell them they can or can’t help defend the castle,” Hermione said, and when Harry’s expression showed he remained unconvinced, she added, “…Let them make their case, at least?” She jerked a thumb toward the tent entrance.
“Let them—? They’re out there now?”
“And then some. There’s been quite a few more arrivals through Aberforth’s pub since we popped down to the library. Evidently he’s none too pleased with the traffic, but I’m sure he’ll get over it.”
Harry clenched his jaw. He’d never been particularly enamoured of the idea of Ron and Hermione being involved in the Horcrux search to begin with, but he’d accepted it in part because he was only human and didn’t think he could handle the weight of such responsibility alone—though also because they probably would have tagged along whether Harry wanted them to or not. Draco joining them, too, he’d not had much choice in, so he’d necessarily accepted his presence as well.
But he was decidedly less than thrilled to know that his classmates, beloved professors, and staunch allies wanted to stand against Voldemort and his Death Eaters when this was really a fight for Harry and Harry alone.
Neither can live while the other survives—that had been the prophecy. Nothing in there implied anyone else had to die in Harry’s place, and he meant to be the only one taken down, if it came to it.
“Respect how they’d like to die, Potter,” Draco said, bumping Harry’s shoulder with his own. “It’s none of your business besides.”
Harry glared at him—but recognised that he was outnumbered on the issue and nodded toward the flaps. “Fine. Let’s go see what’s what.”
Hermione’s comment that there’d been ‘a few more’ arrivals had been quite the understatement. The number of people crammed into the Room had more than doubled since Harry and Draco had retired to the tent, and try though he might to remain resolute that these friends and family not become cannon fodder for his own sake, Harry couldn’t deny it felt damn good to see so many familiar faces, some he hadn’t seen in a year or more.
Ginny, Fred, and George along with their parents and even Percy had shown up, and they folded Ron into a tight hug when he stepped out of the tent, letting out a cry of Harry! when Ron directed their attention his way.
Lee Jordan had arrived with the twins, it seemed, and Kingsley, Remus, and a leering Tonks were there representing the Order. Tonks waved at Harry, and he caught the glint of a ring on her finger, and Remus was sharing some pictures with the others around them. They’d certainly been busy—he would have to get the full story later. Cho was huddled in conversation with fellow Ravenclaws Luna and Michael Corner, and she gave Harry a weak wave when their eyes met. Dean appeared to have escaped Muriel’s along with Luna, and he and Seamus were once more inseparable. Oliver Wood, Angelina Johnson, Alicia Spinnet, and Katie Bell were clustered together in what might look to a casual onlooker like the beginnings of a game of pick-up Quidditch. Draco stiffened at Harry’s side when Katie caught sight of him, sidling around just behind him. Convincing this group not to curse Draco outright was likely going to prove—understandably—more difficult than earlier.
Bill and Fleur stood near the mob of Weasleys speaking with Charlie, whose hair had returned to a length sure to disappoint his mother, and Bill was giving Harry an unreadable look that said he still wasn’t ready to trust Draco any further than he could throw him. Even Aberforth was here, suggesting there would be no more late arrivals via the Hog’s Head.
The chorus of warm greetings that had been lobbed Harry’s way when he stepped out of the tent fell silent once he stood aside to reveal Draco—though the thrum of whispers that ran through the crowd suggested they’d already been informed of the mysterious fourth member of the Horcurx hunting party.
Suddenly it was time for another round of awkward introductions, and Harry cleared his throat, which sounded loud in the uncomfortable quiet that had settled over the Room. “Er, Draco, this is…everyone. I’m sure you know most of them in some fashion—” And sure enough, Katie Bell did not look happy; they were definitely going to need to do some damage control after this. “I suppose you haven’t really formally met Ron’s folks—” Outside of a run-in in Diagon Alley where he’d soundly insulted their entire family. “Um, Remus taught us Third Year, you might remember—” Ah yes, when Draco had jeered his shabby clothing and state of low means every class. “And Kingsley…oh, I guess he’ll be a new face to you.” He’d been around when Draco had first transformed, though seeing as Draco had been unconscious for most of the duration, he wouldn’t remember him.
“And…everyone else, you probably know Draco already, but…try to get to know him again, maybe? We’re none of us the same people we were a year ago, or even six months ago—and if you think I’ve been off raising hell for You-Know-Who and his band of merry wizards, know that it’s only thanks to Draco I survived it. He’s helped us out, more than any of you can know, and….and he’s my friend. Some of you have got some problems with him, that I can understand, and I’ll leave that to you and him to sort out, but I ask that you just…put it off maybe, for just a little while, because as I’m sure you’ve heard, we’re in something of a pickle.”
“Order of Understatement, First Class, to Mr. Harry James Potter!” George crowed, and the discomfiting tension of the room shattered as a wave of chuckles rippled outward.
“…Right, what he said. Now, er, I understand that a lot of you want to stay and help defend the castle—”
“Not a lot of us, all of us!” Seamus cried, thrusting his wand into the air. A murmur of assent and light applause followed, and Seamus looked very pleased with himself.
“Yeah, the thing is—guys, this isn’t lessons. This isn’t a DA training session or duelling practice. This is life or death—and I’m not being dramatic. I mean You-Know-Who and his Death Eaters are coming, they are coming—and when they get here, they’ll kill whoever gets in the way of what they’re after.” Harry swallowed. “They’ll kill you to get to me. And I don’t want that to happen.”
“Sure, but if they want to kill us, they’ve got to kill us first,” Fred reminded, tapping his temple. “Pretty sure that’s how it works. I say we just don’t give them the chance.”
Harry faltered; the good humour in the room told him they just didn’t get it, and how many ways was he going to have to outline how they were going to die excruciating and wholly unnecessary deaths if they didn’t get out while the getting was good?
But Hermione placed a hand on his arm, gave him a comforting smile, then directed her attention to the rest of the room, though Harry thought her words might have been meant for him. “None of us here thinks we’re immortal, or that we’ve got Harry’s knack for surviving Killing Curses—I think we just…care more about standing for something than running away. There’ll be no hiding from You-Know-Who. Not if he wins—not if Harry doesn’t beat him. So I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I’d rather put my life on the line helping to end this now than run away and pray he doesn’t smite my Muggleborn arse where I stand.”
“Can Harry beat him?” someone else asked—a Hufflepuff who looked far too young to be standing here debating making a last stand.
“Of course he can!” Ron said, lying through his teeth as far as Harry was concerned. He had a slim chance, sure, but this lot didn’t know that there were still three Horcruxes and Voldemort himself left to destroy, with no means of doing so.
Draco had urged him to respect how his friends wanted to die, but the thing was, he didn’t want his friends to die. He didn’t want anyone to die, really—except Voldemort, of course, and he would certainly lose no sleep over Bellatrix’s death either, should it come to pass.
But that wasn’t going to happen. Someone was going to die—probably several someones. Probably people he knew, probably people he loved. Probably people in this room right now. He didn’t get to tell people they couldn’t fight for what they believed in—not when he hated so much how coddled and cosseted he’d been all these years by those who supposedly loved him very much keeping him from greater truths.
He wiped a hand over his face, sighing. “…Well, let’s at least be organised about this, yeah? First thing’s first, we need to get this room emptied as quickly as possible. Where’s Neville?” He glanced around the crowd, frowning. “Wait—where is Neville?”
Neither Hermione nor Ron seemed to know, but Seamus shouldered his way to the front of the group. “He took a few DA members with him after word came Snape had run off. He didn’t want the Carrows trying to slip out once they saw the Big Rat was abandoning the sinking ship.”
He supposed they would have to get started without Neville. If he understood the Room as well as he claimed, he’d be able to get it to reappear if they needed it later. “Right, well let’s make this quick then. Could I get everyone out into the hall? We need to empty the room.” Slowly, as a syrupy mass of humanity, people began to make their way to the door, crowding dangerously until there was next to no movement save for at the bottleneck. “Er, you should head for your Common Rooms for the time being and await further instructions.”
“And those of us without Common Rooms?” Kingsley drawled in his thick baritone. He had his arms crossed over his chest, and the expression on his face said he would’ve much rather been leading this show than following Harry’s instructions—well he was welcome to it, if it stuck so badly in his craw.
“Oh, right, um—” And who had died and made Harry leader of the Resistance movement? Dumbledore, he supposed. Somehow all situations wherein Harry had to lead a group of scrappy rebels led back to their Headmaster. “Fine, let’s all head to the Great Hall, shall we? But be on your guard—there might still be mischief-makers about.”
There was a general murmur of assent from the group, with no further quips or protests. Harry didn’t know if he liked that or not; surely the Order members, who’d been fighting this war longer than Harry had been alive, would speak up if he was out of his depth, right?
Hermione began to break down the tent, and though this was easily a one-person job, Ron decided he needed to lend a hand. While they worked, Draco sidled up beside Harry, lips twisted into a sour frown.
“I’m really getting tired of you having to reassure people I’m not going to cast Unforgivables at them at every turn…”
“It does get a bit old, doesn’t it?” Harry mused, brows lifting. “We could have shirts printed up—or those badges you were so skilled at Charming back in Fourth Year.” He grinned and lowered his voice. “I’ll wear one that says ‘Draco is my mate’,” he said, singing to the tune of Weasley is Our King.
Draco rolled his eyes. “Somehow I doubt that would endear me to this homely mob any further.”
“You’re going to have a hard time winning over the ones you nearly killed, I’m not going to lie. Apologies can only go so far.”
“Weasley’s all right with me now,” Draco sniffed, as if Ron were the metric by which all others’ grudges ought to be measured—and Harry supposed he had something of a point.
“True, but you know he’s only letting bygones be bygones to try and impress Hermione, being the bigger man and all that.”
Draco’s frown somehow soured even further. “So we’re back to square one as soon as he mucks up that.”
Eventually the crowd dispersed as everyone trickled out of the Room and made their way toward the Great Hall. Hermione slipped the tent back into her beaded bag, and after a final sweep of the Room to ensure no stragglers remained behind to keep it open, they exited as well.
“Are you sure you shouldn’t put on your Cloak, Harry?” Hermione asked once they’d stepped into the corridor; the doorway behind them disappeared with a soft pop! as the Room of Requirement vanished until students had need of it again. “You’re who You-Know-Who and the Death Eaters will be looking for if they mount an offensive on the school, after all.”
Harry shrugged. “It’s not as if they won’t figure out where I am soon enough—assuming he hasn’t already Crucio’d it out of one of his followers.” Snape had always had a preternatural ability to know when Harry was up to mischief; if he’d been summoned to his master’s side now, Harry was pretty much counting on Snape to out him. “I think we’re at the point where there’s really no use in secrets anymore. He’s got the Elder Wand and he knows we’re after his Horcruxes. Whether he knows I’m inside the castle or not, he’s already got a pretty stacked deck.” He looked to Draco, who’d always shown himself to be eager to point out when Harry was being atrociously naïve or exercising an undue lack of self-preservation. “All in, right?”
Draco only sighed, defeated. “Merlin help us; all in.”
Harry reached up to clap him on the shoulder, the words Don’t sound too eager forming on his lips—
—when another vision rocked him, jerking Harry from the warm protection of Hogwarts’ sturdy stone walls and shoving him into the cold darkness of Voldemort’s mind. His scar burned with a blinding, white-hot anger, and inside and out and all around, someone was screaming.
His diary had been destroyed—his cup stolen. And now his ring, passed down from Slytherin himself and further back still, bearing that proud Pureblood coat of arms—gone! Destroyed perhaps, even! His precious Nagini was safe at his side, her weight about his neck a comforting reminder of his still vibrant immortality, but as for the remaining two pieces…
He would check the locket first—it was the closer of the two, after all, and he imagined he heard a great clock somewhere ticking down to some finality, some ending—but there was to be no ending, not so long as he drew breath, not so long as his Nagini was yet curled about him and his remaining Horcruxes tucked safely away where meddlesome children could not stumble across them.
He flew through the air with all speed, the gloaming darkness shielding his journey from the goggling eyes of the oafish Muggles below. He was confident he had so thoroughly enchanted the locket’s hiding place that his haste was wholly unnecessary, and he would feel foolish looking back on learning all was as it was meant to be. But still, he would check, if only for his peace of mind.
He reached the secluded shore and slipped as shadowy smoke into the tunnel, crawling along the craggy walls and whispering the incantations to let him pass without the need for a blood sacrifice. He sailed fast over the dark lake in the ghostly green boat, heedless of the grasping, gasping Inferi lurking just below the surface, and lit on the small island, racing for the stone basin standing at its centre.
Fury ripped through him, setting his nerves alight and boiling the very blood in his veins—he looked down, through eyes that were not his own, and saw what he had most feared: a basin full of clear, toothless water and nothing more.
“Fuck!” Harry screamed—in shock and anger and pain and a dozen different emotions that all boiled down to pure fury that he could not tell was his own or Voldemort’s.
“Harry? Harry!” Hermione’s voice sounded strained and tense—understandable, given the circumstances, but it grated and scraped over his already raw nerve endings, and he winced and turned away. He was lying on his back, he thought, propped up in someone’s very bony lap—that would be Draco, then. He tried to blink, and the swaying chandelier overhead blipped into sight, times three until Ron got Harry’s glasses properly settled on his nose again. “Thanks…” he rasped, realising he’d probably been shouting and hoping the others were already well on their way to the Great Hall and so hadn’t witnessed his fit.
“Another one?” Ron asked, quite unnecessarily, and Harry nodded. “Anything useful at least?”
“He’s coming. Now. Right now. He checked where he’d hid the ring and locket, and he’s right pissed off to see they’re gone—and terrified too.”
“Somehow the thought of him scared is more worrying than the thought of him angry,” Hermione said, and Harry agreed.
This was it—Voldemort was coming to Hogwarts, to find and secure his final Horcrux and to kill Harry in the doing, along with anyone who got in his way. There was no more running, no more hiding. No more Invisibility Cloaks or Marauder’s Maps. Just wands and spells and sheer will to live; whichever surpassed the other in those respects would be the victor. And Harry really wanted to live—but Voldemort wanted to live so badly, he’d murdered six times over. Eight if you counted Harry’s parents, and a hell of a lot more if you counted everyone who’d met their end at the tip of that yew wand over the years.
So Harry couldn’t do this alone. He couldn’t afford to—there was too much at stake to not ask others to put their lives at risk alongside Harry. The decision, it seemed, had been made for him.
They had precious little time left, and the castle desperately needed defending. Harry scrambled to his feet, wobbling unsteadily as he gathered his bearings.
Draco braced a hand on his shoulder, gripping tight. “Trying to get me to cart you around on my back again, Potter? Most underhanded of you.”
Harry snorted softly. “Didn’t almost get Sorted Slytherin for nothing.”
“I still don’t believe that, just so we’re clear.”
“It’s true,” Hermione said, looking a bit superior. “He just asked the Hat not to put him there.”
“Got a problem with Slytherin, Granger?”
“Me? Oh, no. But as I recall, Harry had just had a most unpleasant encounter with a Slytherin student right before getting Sorted and so had a bad impression of the House.”
“Fucked yourself over good on that one, eh, Malfoy?” Ron snickered, and Draco’s steely gaze snapped to him. This close, Harry could see there was a bit of pink high in his cheeks.
“The fuck would I care if Potter got Sorted Slytherin or not?” he sniffed testily. “Good riddance and all that.”
“Why d’you think I’m making it up, then, if it’s no big deal?” Harry asked.
“Because—” Draco started, then seemed to rethink his protest, turning to Hermione with a huff. “Aren’t we in something of a hurry?”
She rolled her eyes. “Ten points to Slytherin for joining the party once more; yes we’re in a terrible hurry now apparently!”
With Harry back on his feet, they booked it down the corridor, making a beeline for the stairwell to head to the Great Hall—but were quickly drawn into a detour by the flash of spellfire on the third floor. Hermione and Ron ducked out of the way, but Harry had to be bodily thrown to the floor by Draco to avoid getting hit square in the face by a vicious Reducto thrown in what looked to be the midst of Neville’s rout of the Carrows.
Harry strained against Draco’s tight grip, which kept him from getting an (admittedly necessary) haircut courtesy of someone’s Scalping Hex. “We’ve got to help them!”
“No, we’ve got to get to the fucking Great Hall. I rather think your little army can handle a couple of third-rate Death Eaters here on babysitting duty!” He tugged at Harry’s arm, dragging him to his feet, but Harry shoved him off.
“Whether they can handle themselves or not isn’t the point! I’m not going to just—”
They were interrupted by the sharp, rapid clacking of heels on the flagstones. “I say, what is the meaning of—Potter?!” Minerva McGonagall goggled at the sight that greeted her when she rounded the corner of the third-floor corridor. Her tartan dressing gown was tied tight at the waist, and her hand flew to her breast as she took a stumble and steadied herself against the wall, wand still brandished at the ready. “What in—goodness, are you really here?”
A jet of red came streaking down the hallway, but Ron batted it back with a swiftly erected Protego. He jerked a thumb down the hallway with a scoff. “Rude of them, don’t you think? We’re stood here trying to have a nice conversation…”
McGonagall seemed utterly floored, eyes goggling and jaw just slightly agape. ‘Dumbfounded’ was not a good look on their Transfiguration professor; it robbed her of all dignity.
Harry stepped forward, drawing her attention from the skirmish down the hall. “I’m afraid I am really here, Professor. I think I’ve missed a few lessons this year, but I hope you won’t dock too many points for it?”
She seemed to gather herself at last, lips thinning as she took in their curious little group, and she smoothed down several flyaways attempting a bold escape from her steel-wool bun. “Well. I don’t know that Gryffindor has all that many points left to dock, considering the circumstances.” Her eye fell on Draco, one brow lifting. “…I think Slytherin can spare a few, though. I must say I’m rather shocked to see you in such company, Mr. Malfoy. For more reasons than one.”
Harry opened his mouth to rattle off another of his now-rote ‘Draco’s not so terribly evil these days, so please hold your Hexes, as we’ve grown rather fond of him’ speeches, but Draco seemed to have it covered himself: “The accommodations at the Ministry were not quite as amenable as advertised, and I’m sure you understand Potter just can’t help himself when he sees injustice being wrought.”
McGonagall frowned at Harry in bald accusation, the lines on her face deepening. “You’re responsible for this?”
He hoped he was only imagining the unspoken You brought Dumbledore’s murderer back into our midst? “Er—in a way, I guess.” He squirmed uncomfortably under her quelling gaze. “It’s a long story, Professor, but please trust that I know what I’m doing.”
She threw her hands into the air. “Yes, it would take certain doom hanging over all our heads to drag an ounce of House unity from the likes of you two.”
“Think they’ve pitched in more than an ounce,” Hermione bit out in a carrying whisper, though McGonagall didn’t seem to have caught it, thankfully, and Ron was still distracted fending off wayward spells spiralling down the corridor.
“Well, pleasantries out of the way, can any of you explain what’s going on down there? And what you lot are doing here?” McGonagall pointed her wand at a statue that had been reduced to rubble by a Reducto, restoring it to its former glory with a practised swish. “You haven’t brought trouble to our doorstep, have you? Your absence for the better part of the school year suggests you’re not entirely ignorant of the bounty sitting atop your head, Potter, but if it’s sanctuary you’ve come seeking, then I’m not sure we can offer much. You must flee, this very moment! If the Carrows or Snape find out you’re here—”
“Er…” Harry started, and Hermione swooped in to save him.
“I think it’s a bit late for that, ma’am. Professor Snape’s abandoned the school.” She pointed down the corridor, just as a rousing chorus of cheers came echoing down the hall, bouncing off the walls. “And it sounds like the Carrows will be packing their trunks soon, too.”
“We think he was summoned by You-Know-Who. We think…” Hermione swallowed, looking to Harry, and he nodded for her to continue. “He’s coming, Professor. You-Know-Who is coming here. To Hogwarts. Right now.”
The colour drained from McGonagall’s face, distress standing stark on her features. “He wouldn’t—he can’t.” She brought her hand to her breast and shook her head, refusing to accept what she was hearing. “Why would he—?”
“He’s looking for something,” Harry said; he’d been so happy to see McGonagall’s familiar face, albeit more lined and strained than he recalled, he’d nearly forgotten the urgency of the situation. “There’s an object he hid inside the castle, long ago, and he wants it back now. But we can’t let him—we have to find it first.”
“We need to stall him, Professor!” Hermione said. “At least long enough to evacuate the school and give us time to search for the object You-Know-Who’s coming for.”
“Stall? Evacuate—?” She sputtered inelegantly, and Harry felt a pang of regret. She’d clearly been about to turn in for the night, and now they were telling her the Dark Lord was marching on her home, abject domination on his mind.
Harry stepped close, placing a hand on her arm and looking into her wildly dancing eyes. He needed his stern, prim Head of House right about now, not a dotty old lady in a nightrobe. “Professor. He’s coming—he’s going to blow through Hogwarts, and everyone here, until he’s found what he’s looking for or else killed me, whichever comes first. Now, you’ve got the beginnings of a nice little resistance gathered, waiting for you downstairs in the Great Hall—” McGonagall’s eyes narrowed, as if offended by his having the audacity to mount a rebellion under her very nose. “I’m sorry I haven’t popped in for a pleasant chat. We just could really use some help right about now. And we’re distressingly short on time for discussion.”
She studied him over the rims of her glasses, expression tight and drawn. “It’s always something with you, isn’t it, Potter?”
Harry thinned his lips. “I haven’t made things easy for you over the years, have I?” She lifted her brows and gave a subtle jerk of her head. “If it makes any difference, you can blame Professor Dumbledore for this. It was all his idea.”
McGonagall’s countenance darkened, and she drew herself up, all sense of confusion and befuddlement whisked away in a flash. “This is on Dumbledore’s orders? He brought you back here?” Harry nodded; for better or worse, this was all in some way part of Dumbledore’s machinations, the rest of them mere cogs in his grand scheme. “…Very well. Speak no more and be off with you.” She took a bracing breath. “I shall assess this ‘resistance’ gathering and then see to securing the school against He Who Must Not Be Named while you and your companions search for whatever this ‘object’ is you need. Hogwarts has been through a siege or three in her time and should be quite up to the challenge.”
“A siege? No—no, we need to get everyone out—”
“I’m afraid evacuation is an impossibility,” McGonagall said. “With the Floo Network under observation and Apparition impossible within the grounds—”
“There’s a way,” Harry said quickly. “If you ask it to, the Room of Requirement can create a passageway leading into the Hog’s Head down in Hogsmeade.” They needed the room for their own devices, but Harry refused to put their hunt for the remaining Horcrux over ensuring the safety of the students, who had never asked to be drawn into the middle of a war not of their own making. They could always find their way into the Room of Hidden Things once the evacuation had been completed, and it wasn’t as if Voldemort could get inside himself while it was in use either.
“Surely you must be joking, Potter. Even if such a way out of the school exists, there will be no disguising the fleeing of hundreds of students all at once—”
“I know, I know, but You-Know-Who and the Death Eaters will be concentrating on the school and its immediate boundaries. They won’t notice people Disapparating out of the Hog’s Head.” Harry was certain that Voldemort would draw his forces out from the village now that he knew he needn’t monitor it for Harry, making it the safe haven the students would need. Aberforth had spoken of Anti-Apparition wards, but with the Death Eaters gone, dismantling them shouldn’t be too difficult.
“…I suppose you make a point,” she agreed. “It will be quite a lot of Side-Alonging, but perhaps…” She raised her wand, and from the tip burst three sleek-coated silver cats with spectacle markings around their eyes. Two waited patiently at McGonagall’s feet, joined by the third after it wound itself between Draco’s legs. “All staff members are summoned to the Great Hall—the threat has crested,” she spoke, and off they ran, filling the corridor with gleaming light that dazzled the eye.
Heavy footfalls called their attention to the other end of the hall, and Neville crowed excitedly at the head of a half-dozen others as they rounded the corner. “You’d think we’d struck ‘em with a Hot-foot Hex the way they took off, Harry! You should’ve seen it!” He waved the Marauder’s Map over his head like a victory banner before passing it back to Harry.
“Oh that felt wonderful!” Hannah Abbott chortled, rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed. “I only wish we could’ve gotten away with it sooner!” She drew up short when she caught McGonagall’s judging eye, though. “Oh! Professor. Um.”
McGonagall gave all parties present a once over before turning to Neville, the clear ring-leader of this erstwhile band of miscreants. “I take it your evening duelling practice session with the Professors Carrow went well, Longbottom?”
“Duelling practice—?” he started, then seemed to realise he was being gently teased, and he broke into a nervous smile. “Er, yeah. Smashing success, really. Think they might’ve been so impressed, they ran off to tell their friends…”
“Did they, now? Ten points to Gryffindor, in that case.” McGonagall turned on her heel in a flourish of tartan. “Come along then, students. We reconvene in the Great Hall for a practical demonstration.”
McGonagall did another double-take once they reached the Great Hall and she recognised the size of the ‘resistance’ Harry had spoken of. “I take it this is your doing as well, Potter?” she asked, and Harry jerked a thumb at Neville.
“Afraid I can’t be the scapegoat this time, Professor. Someone else has been fomenting rebellion under your very nose.”
Neville flushed and ducked his head, and McGonagall offered Gryffindor another ten points.
Kingsley swept over with Mr. Weasley, Remus, and Tonks in tow to greet McGonagall, but before they could so much as trade niceties, the doors to the Great Hall were flung open by a veritable stampede of Hogwarts staff. In they flowed—Flitwick and Sprout and Hooch and Trelawney, even Professor Binns drifted in, offering the crowd a decrepit little wave. Professors Vector and Sinistra came in arm-in-arm with their wands held high, and Madam Pomfrey had a crate—likely stuffed full of medicinal herbs and potions—floating along behind her. Madam Pince and Filch guarded the doorway like twin gargoyles, glaring at Professor Slughorn bringing up the rear with pronounced huffing and puffing.
Slughorn bustled to the front, shouldering red-faced past his fellows. He massaged his immense chest, which heaved beneath his emerald-green silk pyjamas, and rumbled, “What on earth is going on here, Miner—oh! Oh, my gracious!” Slughorn nearly crushed poor Flitwick with a start when he realised they were decidedly not alone in the Great Hall. He scanned the room, blinking rapidly at all the new faces, and then gave a gurgling squawk once his eye fell on Harry standing just at McGonagall’s elbow. “And Mr. Potter! What an unexpected surprise…!”
“Evening, professor,” Harry said.
“Yes, quite…” Slughorn trailed off, tossing a bland, forced smile at Hermione and Ron—but his expression fell when he saw Draco. “…Mr. Malfoy, my word, aren’t you supposed to be—”
McGonagall cut him off with a sharp clap of her hands that echoed through the hall like a boom of thunder, drawing cries of surprise from those gathered. She climbed onto one of the tables, and in a magically magnified voice, addressed the crowd. “Welcome, friends and loved ones, though I fear it is under a dire flag we gather this evening. I have been informed that our erstwhile headmaster Professor Snape has been summoned to join his fellow Death Eaters, and that He Who Must Not Be Named rides for our destruction this very night.” Slughorn groaned, and a chorus of gasps erupted but were swiftly trampled underfoot as McGonagall pressed on. “It is our duty to ensure he desperately regrets that decision.” She drew herself up. “I therefore ask my staff and any other of-age witches and wizards who wish to do so to help in placing whatever protections we can upon the castle—”
“Protections are all well and good, Minerva, but you know there’ll be no stopping You-Know-Who in the end! If he means to breach the castle, he will!” Flitwick quailed under the withering stare McGonagall shot his way.
“Maybe, but I’ll bet we can slow him down!” said Sprout.
“Indeed. But I ask that the Heads of Houses first return to their dormitories post-haste and rouse your students. Have them gather here, where an evacuation plan will be set into motion. Let any students who are of age know that they are welcome to stay and fight if they wish, though they are by no means obligated. Please do everything you can to impress upon them the mortal danger they will face, taking a stand here, before they make any decisions.”
Flitwick and Sprout gave firm nods, but Slughorn just looked queasy.
“Expect Hufflepuff house back within twenty minutes, with bells on!” Sprout had a spark in her eye that suggested she might actually be looking forward to the coming battle, already plotting her own brand of horticultural horrors to inflict upon unsuspecting Death Eaters. She turned on her heel and shuffled through the crowd for the door, ticking off items on her fingers. Harry thought he caught her muttering names of terrifying plant species under her breath and did not envy the Death Eaters liable to soon storm the castle and trod right through a nest of Devil’s Snare.
McGonagall turned back to Flitwick. “I trust I will see you and your Ravenclaws back here in a similar time-frame, Filius?”
“Indeed! And I’m sure I can track down a few of my more enterprising N.E.W.T. students keen to test their Charm skills in the protection of our fine castle!”
“I look forward to it,” she said, shooing him off, and the crowd parted to let him pass.
Slughorn watched his fellow teachers depart to gather their Houses with a bewildered expression, mopping his forehead with a handkerchief. “Gracious, Minerva,” he huffed, rosy-cheeked and glistening. He was glancing about the hall, looking quite lost. “I—I’m afraid I must agree with Filius: not only will these efforts prove futile, He Who Must Not Be Named will surely rain down swift and cruel judgement on anyone who’s attempted to keep him from his quarry—”
“His ‘quarry’ is one of your students! And unfortunately, we haven’t time to discuss the matter any further, as time is rather of the essence. I trust you and your Slytherins will join us in the Great Hall in another twenty minutes as well?” said McGonagall. When Slughorn still seemed to dither, worrying the tie of his robe, McGonagall’s lips thinned into a tight, severe line. “…I won’t force you to stay, Horace. If you feel it’s more prudent to leave alongside your students, then I shall not attempt to stop you. Provided you do leave, rather than go crawling to He Who Must Not Be Named begging for sanctuary. This is quite the hour of our greatest need and our most devastating vulnerability, and should you or your students do anything to jeopardise the safety and lives of those brave souls who have vowed to stay on and fight to defend this school, then Horace: you will be struck down. With prejudice.”
Slughorn paled under her forbidding expression, gasping, “Minerva!” in so scandalised a tone Harry had to bite back a laugh. “You dare to suggest—?”
“I dare to notice that many of the children under your wing have relations marching upon us at this very moment—nothing further. Long has Slytherin House sat on the sidelines or straddled the fence, feeding into the darker side of its ideals and turning a blind eye to the suffering of those within and without. No more: decide with whose lot you choose to throw your own, or get out of my sight.” She pointed to the door. “Gather your students, Horace, and take the time to consider where Slytherin’s loyalties lie.”
Draco stood stiff and ramrod straight at Harry’s side, a statuesque vision of rage and frustration and humiliation on behalf of his peers. Harry saw, in his mind’s eye, the Room of Requirement, cheery in blues and reds and yellows; he saw Malfoy, cherub-cheeked and sneering with an outstretched hand, waiting in vain for Harry to take it only to be told I can tell who the wrong sort are for myself; he saw Draco, earnest and desperate with I’m here, aren’t I?
Harry touched Draco’s elbow. “…Go with him.”
Draco blinked. “What?”
Harry nodded to Slughorn, who was making for the doors to the Great Hall as one marching for his own execution. “It’s their home that’s being threatened too; Slytherin should be given every opportunity to defend it. And we both know Slughorn’s got one foot out the door—he leans heavy on the ‘self-preservation’ bits of your House. He’s not going to try very hard to convince any of them to stay and fight.”
Draco hesitated—but only for a moment, nodding. “…I’ll be back in twenty.” He looked to Ron and Hermione. “I’m sure he’ll make every effort to undo you, but try to keep him alive until then.”
“Go,” Hermione said, shooing him away.
“Stay safe,” Harry said, and Draco snorted.
“I’m not a Gryffindor; you don’t have to tell me twice.”
He was soon lost in the milling crowd as he hustled after Slughorn, and McGonagall cleared her throat for attention once more. “Septima, might I presume upon you to rouse Gryffindor House and see that the students join us here in the Great Hall at their earliest convenience?” Professor Vector gave McGonagall a polite little curtsy and departed promptly. “Now then—for our castle-wide defences, I ask that you cast from the North Tower, Ravenclaw Tower, the Astronomy Tower, and the West Tower, to ensure we have a nice tight shield! If you can cast a Patronus, please spare one or two to guard against the Dementors He Who Must Not Be Named has at his command.” She ended her Sonorus and hopped down from the table, marching for the entrance. “Mr. Filch!”
Filch made a grab for the door jamb, nearly stumbling over his own two feet as he made to straighten smartly. “Yes’m?”
“Go and fetch Peeves, won’t you?”
“Eh? Whatchu want Peeves for?” Filch sputtered.
“Why do you think, man? It’s all hands on deck, and he’s one of the few able bodies we have that can’t be killed!”
Filch goggled at her for a beat, then bobbed his head, evidently convinced, and shuffled away to do as instructed, muttering under his breath the whole while with Mrs. Norris winding about his feet.
The crowd began to disperse, a tinny din rising up as groups formed and headed off to the four towers. Harry didn’t want to leave until Draco had returned, but nor did he want to stand around twiddling his thumbs while they waited for the evacuation to be completed. McGonagall disappeared into the entrance hall, and Harry jerked his head for Hermione and Ron to follow.
McGonagall was stood in the middle of the hall, wand raised as she cried out, “Piertotum locomotor!” With a great rumble, the statues and suits of armour lining the corridor shivered to life atop their plinths as a pulse of magical energy washed over them. As a single unit, they leapt down from their posts, hitting the flagstones with an ear-splitting crash. Similar crashes echoed down from the floors above, suggesting that their fellows throughout the castle had sprung to action as well, a veritable stone and metal army in fighting form.
“You know your duties!” McGonagall boomed to her ‘troops’, pacing like a field marshal preparing to make battle. “Hogwarts is threatened! Make ready to defend it with every ounce of magic coursing through you!”
With the groaning scrape of metal against metal and stone against stone, the horde turned as one and began charging down the hallway and out into the main courtyard, throwing up a cloud of choking dust in their wake. Some were shaped like people, others like animals, still others like creatures Harry had never encountered before—and hoped he never had the displeasure. Suits of armour clanked past, brandishing longswords and spiked balls on chains and wicked glaives.
Evidently satisfied with her work, McGonagall turned—then barked at them, “What on earth are you doing still lurking about, Potter? Don’t you have some object you’re meant to be searching for? Quit gawping and be on your way!”
“Oh—er, well, we can’t actually do that until the evacuation’s been complete,” he said, knowing he sounded rather stupid. There was no telling how long it would take them to search the Room of Hidden Things for the diadem, and the other professors would return with their respective Houses in tow in short order. Better to wait a few minutes now to see everyone safely evacuated than to risk not being able to get the students out at all because they couldn’t find their needle-shaped Horcrux in what would undoubtedly be the world’s largest haystack. “I was only wondering if you might know of Ravenclaw’s diadem? And if it’s here at Hogwarts?” They had resolved to search for it in the Room of Hidden Things, but if McGonagall had a better suggestion, they ought to at least hear her out. “Or should we be asking Professor Flitwick, as he’s Ravenclaw’s Head of House, maybe?”
“Wha—Ravenclaw’s diadem? That’s what you’re after? Why on—” She caught herself, though, apparently deciding she didn’t really need or want to know. “I’m certain I have no idea where it could be! To my knowledge, it’s been lost to the ages.”
“Oh, I reckon someone found it…” Ron muttered under his breath.
Harry felt his last shred of faint hope shrivel up and die. Of course Voldemort wouldn’t have made things that easy. “Thanks anyway, Professor. I suppose we’ll have to search for it the old-fashioned way.”
“If you’ve nothing better to do at the moment—” McGonagall sighed, “At least help your peers secure the castle! No place for idle hands this eve!”
Feeling very much like the Seventh Years they were, earning a sound lecture from their professor, Harry, Hermione, and Ron scurried back into the Great Hall. “Shall we join up with Ginny’s group?” Ron suggested. “They’re going to take the Astronomy Tower, seeing as it’s nearest.”
“While I’m as keen to help defend Hogwarts as the next student, I really think we ought to be focusing on finding a way to destroy these final Horcruxes once we’ve got them in hand,” Hermione said. “Come on, let’s put our heads together! We only need to damage them beyond repair!” She began ticking options off on her fingers. “I think we have to discount Fiendfyre altogether; it’s just too dangerous to handle. It’s almost sapient and can turn on the caster as easily as seek its target. A mere brush with its flame will reduce a victim to ash—it’d do the trick to destroy a Horcrux for certain, but we’d probably all perish with it.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’d like to try and get out of this alive, if at all possible.”
“Yeah, that does sound like a good idea,” Harry said. “Fine, no Fiendfyre. And we know most standard spells won’t work, having tried literally every trick in our books on the locket.” A thought struck him then. “What about…what about Unforgivables?”
Ron frowned. “You want to—Imperius a cup, mate?”
Hermione rapped him across the back of the head. “Of course not; you mean the Killing Curse?” Harry nodded. “Well—I mean, it’s the Killing Curse. Killing. As in, making something alive…dead. The cup isn’t alive—”
“Yeah, but it’s got a soul shard in it, right? That’s…that’s kind of alive.” He was reminded of the way the sliver of Voldemort’s soul trapped in the diary had behaved—so human, so real. “The piece of Tom Riddle that was embedded in the diary certainly seemed alive.”
“Perhaps, but the Hogwarts ghosts can seem alive in their mannerisms and speech as well, and the Killing Curse still wouldn’t—”
Ron grabbed them both by the shoulder, squeezing painfully tight as he squeaked out, “Basilisk!” He shoved them away, turning in place and looking about wildly. “There’s a—in the—! We’ve got a—!”
“BASILISK!” Hermione gasped, clapping her hands. “We’re in Hogwarts! And down in the Chamber of Secrets there’s a—”
“HUGE FUCKING BASILISK!” Ron shouted, earning sharp glares from Remus and Kingsley, who were conversing in low tones with Bill and Charlie Weasley while Fleur and Tonks cast Charms on the high windows lining the Great Hall, transforming their glass to thick stone. “With a mess of Horcrux killers in its mouth!”
Harry’s heart leapt—finally, a bit of good luck! “Well—excellent! Brilliant, yes! Shall we—?”
Hermione grabbed his wrist, tugging him towards the door. “Yes, let’s—Ronald, wait for us here?”
“Huh?” Harry and Ron chorused.
“We’ll be back in a flash, really!” Hermione said, nodding towards the others; Tonks and Fleur had finished with the windows, and the group seemed to now be Transfiguring the tables and chairs into barricades, stacked high with tiny slits through which they could cast spells should a siege of the Hall become necessary. “Lend Remus and the others a hand! You’re great at Transfiguration!”
“I’m terrible at Transfiguration…” Ron mumbled helplessly, and Harry mutely let himself be dragged away from the hall by Hermione as she made for the second-floor girls’ lavatory.
“Er, I really think we ought to have stuck together…” Harry began, though he could hear how feeble his own protests sounded. “Don’t you think—”
“Yes, I do think. I think rather a lot. Which is more than can be said for some of us!” Hermione huffed, and oh. Oh, he was about to get a lecture. She drew up short and dropped her hold on his wrist, hands on her hips. “Have you completely taken leave of your senses, Harry Potter?” She rapped him on the head sharply. “This is hardly what I meant when I told you to be a gentleman with him! Is this—oh god, is this to do with the mate business?” Her face went ashen, and she brought one hand up to her mouth. “Shit, be honest with me Harry: did he force…is this—did you want to—”
“Yes!” he sputtered, voice gone a bit high, because the last thing he needed right now was Hermione Granger defending his honour and clocking Draco Malfoy like it was Third Year all over again. He dragged her into a small alcove and snapped out a Muffliato. “I mean, he didn’t force me to do anything. It’s nothing to do with the dragon or—or the M word stuff or whatever.” He frowned to himself, then amended, “Well, I suppose it’s a little to do with the dragon and M word stuff—but not like you think!” Hermione was still studying him with a dubious stare, and he ran his fingers through his hair with a sigh. “Listen, do we really have to talk about this? Right now?” Perhaps Voldemort would kill him in the next hour or so and save him the trouble of having to pick up this conversation again later.
“Well—no, I suppose not, but…” She pursed her lips. “Oh what are you doing, Harry?”
There was worry writ clear on her face, and he groaned inwardly. This was the last thing he needed right now: his friends meddling in matters he himself was still struggling to come to grips with.
“Believe me, if I had any clue…” He wiped his face and leaned back against the cold stone wall.
“…Is it serious?” She cleared her throat softly. “I mean, if it’s just physical, then—”
“Hermione…” Harry groaned, burying his face in his hands. “You said we didn’t have to talk about it right now…”
“No—I mean, you don’t have to say…” she trailed off, colouring. “It’s only—Harry, it could be really dangerous if you and he—”
And no, this was worse: Hermione thinking he was going to go and get his heart broken, wind up hurt because he’d gotten involved with…well, someone like Draco. “Seriously, Hermione—it’s fine! I know you mean well, but I told you I really don’t want to talk about it right now. We’ve kind of got more important things to deal with at the moment, don’t you think?”
She opened her mouth again, protests perched on her lips—but she held off, sighing. She was looking at him funnily, searching his face with those big brown eyes of hers, and it unsettled. “I—I only want to…to know you’re being careful.”
“You say that like I’m not always careful.”
She gave him a wry little smile. “Of course, of course. How could I have forgotten? Harry Potter, paragon of thinking ahead and foremost authority on due consideration.” She bit her lip. “…Fine, I won’t press you about it any more for now, except this: Is it serious? That is, do you think…do you think you might have feelings for him?”
He frowned, not liking the leading tack of her question one bit. “…He’s my friend,” was all he said.
“Harry, you know that’s not what I meant.” She swallowed thickly. “It’s important—”
“It’s—complicated,” he settled on, seeing she wasn’t going to let this go, for whatever reason. “I’m not saying I don’t want to talk about it just to be contrary. I really don’t, because I can’t right now, all right? I can’t get distracted—or is that it? You think he’s distracting me? Because he’s not.” Perfect; now she thought he was being led about by his cock. “We’ve got our heads on straight, we really do.”
“I didn’t think you were distracted…” Hermione said, voice small. “I only wanted to make sure—”
“Listen.” Harry ran a hand through his hair, sighing, then pinched the bridge of his nose. “I appreciate you’re worried, I do, but—can we just, for now, pretend you didn’t…you know, see anything? Just forget about it? Until maybe after I’ve killed Voldemort?” The longer they dithered on about Harry’s and Draco’s ‘predicament’ (if Draco wasn’t going to call it a relationship, then he wouldn’t either), the less time they had to search for Ravenclaw’s Horcrux, and that amounted to lives lost. How could she be so worked up over something as inconsequential as Harry’s hypothetical love life at a time like this?
Hermione made a face. “If I didn’t think it’d land me in the Janus Thickey Ward next to Lockhart, I’d try to self-Obliviate, so…” She swallowed. “…But if you wanted to talk about it, you know you could with me, right? I promise…I promise not to freak out—any more than I already have, at least—and I won’t make any judgements—or well, I’ll try not to, I swear—and…and, oh, just know you could talk to me!” She bit her lip. “I know it’s none of my or Ron’s business, but I’d hate for you to think you had to hide—”
“I wasn’t hiding anything,” Harry said, which wasn’t a lie, though he doubted Hermione would see it that way. He tried to turn the tables. “Just—well you and Ron haven’t said anything about you two either!”
Hermione went beet-red, colour darkening her cheeks. “What about me and Ron? There’s nothing to say!”
Harry’s lips thinned into a hard line; so that was how she wanted to play it? “Well, then right. Same goes for…for me and Draco. There’s nothing to say. And if there were, then maybe I’d say something, but…but just, for right now…” He shook his head. “Not yet. I mean it: it’s complicated, really really complicated.”
“That I can believe,” she said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear and shunting her gaze to the side.
“…Yeah. So you can understand why I kind of want to…to play this one close to the chest? And just…see?”
“…See what?” she asked, and he tried not to think about Draco, curled in close to him and asking that same question, pregnant with hope and fear and desperation.
“…I’ll let you know when I find out.”
She was looking at him now with a curious mixture of confusion and wonder, and he could tell she really didn’t want to drop the matter, but then she firmed her lips and nodded. “Please do.” She flicked her wand, dispelling the Muffliato, and flashed a nervous smile. “Right! Talk over, let’s grab a Basilisk fang or three now, shall we?” She moved to slip back out of the alcove, but Harry stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Harry?”
He rubbed at the back of his neck, wondering if he really wanted to know the answer to this question, then asked, “Did you…that is, have you told…er, does—does Ron know…?” He had his suspicions, of course, but they were just that: suspicions. He dreaded having to have this same conversation with Ron at some point in the near future, but forewarned would at least be forearmed.
She sighed. “…I haven’t told him anything, no. But he’s not as oblivious as you might hope.” Harry winced, and she smiled wryly. “And if you’re so worried about how he’ll take it, you might consider being more subtle about it.”
“Be more—I have been!” he sputtered. “It took you walking in on us to realise what we’d been up to!” A simple locking charm and he might have been spared this headache.
Hermione gave him a shrewd look that said she disagreed with that read of the situation. “And what have you been up to, in this ‘complicated’ relationship of yours?”
It was Harry’s turn to go tomato red, and his ears burned. “That’s—well that’s none of your business is what it is.”
She pursed her lips. “…Of course.” She placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezing. “Just keep your wits about you, yeah?”
“I told you I wasn’t going to get distracted,” he grumbled.
“I didn’t mean—” She sighed fondly, then inclined her head. “Come on, we’ll be missed if we don’t hurry.” She then slipped out of the alcove, taking the stairs at a quick clip, with Harry trailing dutifully behind.
He tried to put the conversation out of his mind, a task that became easier once they found themselves in the bathroom housing the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets, when he was called upon to deliver the password in Parseltongue. Myrtle was nowhere to be seen, and he tried not to recall what had transpired the last time he’d been here.
They made quick work of harvesting the Basilisk’s fangs; the Chamber seemed to have been fitted with a hefty Preservation Spell, as the corpse had shown next to no decay, looking about as fresh as when Harry had shoved the sword of Gryffindor through its skull five years earlier.
“Should we test it before we head back?” Hermione asked. “To…to make sure they’ll do the trick?”
“You think they might not work?” The only reason they’d come down here in the first place had been because Hermione had been certain the fangs would still be full of the creature’s deadly venom, making them just as useful for destroying Horcruxes as the sword had been.
“Well, of course they should work,” Hermione said, biting her lip. “Only…I’d just like to see another one down as quickly as possible.”
She had a point; the cup was burning a hole—figuratively this time—in Harry’s pocket, and he would be glad to be rid of it. He fumbled it from his jacket, placing the swaddled cloth on the cool flagstones and unrolling it to reveal Hufflepuff’s cup, still glinting with its polished shine and begging to be handled. “Why don’t you do the honours?”
“Me?” she asked.
“Yeah. I let Draco have at the locket, and he did all right. I’ve destroyed a Horcrux already; I figure we should all get a chance to drive a nail into You-Know-Who’s coffin.”
Hermione eyed the cup with no small amount of wary distance, then nodded in a manner that suggested she was trying to work herself up to the task. She took a breath and withdrew a handkerchief from her own pocket, which she used to carefully grasp one of the Basilisk fangs by its base, handling it like a crude knife. “I should just—stab it, right?”
“Right; even just grazing it a bit should do the trick, I think.” He hoped the cup wasn’t going to try and fight back the way the locket had; it would feel entirely too invasive, being forced to bear witness to Hermione’s deepest, darkest fears. Draco’s had been bad enough, and they still haunted.
Harry braced the cup with a bit of cloth so it didn’t go clattering away, and Hermione lifted the fang into the air—then brought it stabbing down into the bowl of the cup, hitting it square in the embossed badger emblem at the bottom. The fang bit into the gold, releasing its venom, and the cup gave a violent rattle as it strained in Harry’s grip. From the point at which the fang had penetrated the gilding seeped a viscous black fluid, the warm light of the torchlight set into the wall sconces dancing over its shiny surface. It looked like blood, and Harry imagined he heard a high, tinny wail of fury echoing off the cold stone walls around them.
The cup abruptly crumpled in on itself, like a miniature black hole, viciously crushing itself down until it resembled a foil ball. Harry poked at it, using his wand like a billiards cue, but nothing happened, and Hermione cast several diagnostic charms over it to determine if it was now safe to handle. Alas, the Flagrante and Gemino Curses seemed to have been baked into the veneer, for they would not be removed by any spells she threw at it, to her visible consternation.
“It’ll have to be stripped if it’s ever to be touched by human hands again,” she said as they made their way back to the Great Hall. “I’m sure I saw an advertisement in the Prophet at one point for a white spirit meant to remove Curses from heirlooms.”
“Do you reckon we should return it to the Smith family, then?” Harry asked as they quickly made their way out of the Chamber, back into Myrtle’s bathroom. If he never had to step foot in there again, it would be too soon.
Hermione worried her lip. “Well, they probably have the legal claim on it, yes…but honestly, this sort of magical artefact really ought to be in a museum or something!”
They rounded the corner into the Entrance Corridor, finding the doors to the Great Hall already thrown open to reveal throngs of pyjama-clad Hogwarts students milling about in confusion—some huddled in conversation, some pacing nervously, and some just sat there on the floor in blank shock. “…Well, Zacharias Smith might still be around. You can always just take it straight up with him.”
“Harry!” came a chorus of greetings, and he quickly found himself being mobbed by classmates familiar and less-than.
“Let him breathe, you lot!” shouted Ron, shoving his way through the crowd to join them. “Took you long enough! Did you stop to take a piss with Myrtle while you were at it, or what?”
Harry waved the little ball that had once been Helga Hufflepuff’s chalice, wrapped up securely in the old robes once more. “Only took the fangs for a test-run.”
Ron immediately brightened, dropping his voice—most unnecessarily, given the din of the room. “It worked?”
“Like a dream,” Hermione said.
Harry shoved one of the spare fangs bundled up tight in Hermione’s handkerchief into Ron’s hand. “Next one’s on you, mate. Seeing as of course you knew it was the diadem all along.”
Ron ignored the jibe and marvelled at the fang, grinning ear to ear. “Wicked.”
“Salazar’s balls, they’ve let all the riff-raff in…” came a sneering drawl, and Harry whipped around, trying to fight back a relieved smile and failing miserably when he saw Draco striding in at the head of a line of Slytherins of all shapes and sizes.
“You’re late,” Harry said, certain it had been more than twenty minutes by now; the Slytherins looked to be the last to arrive.
“Fashionably so, as planned.” Draco scanned the crowded room with quick, wary eyes, no doubt making an accounting of each and every student he’d wronged in the past. “Did you have to give another of your ‘please don’t murder our pet Death Eater’ speeches?”
“We only just arrived back ourselves; haven’t had time.” He lifted a brow, teasing, “Want to borrow the Cloak?”
Draco ignored the offer, frowning. “Back? Back from where?” He directed his words to Hermione and Ron. “Twenty fucking minutes you couldn’t tie him down in one place?”
“He had a chaperone,” Hermione protested, letting a satisfied little smile curl at her lips. “Besides, it was for a worthy cause.”
Harry stepped close, pressing the wrapped remains of the cup into Draco’s hand. “Four down; two to go.”
Draco goggled. “But how did you—?”
“Basilisk!” Ron hissed, evidently still giddy on the high of his eureka moment, and even Draco had to marvel at this, a grin quirking his lips.
“Do the pipes in Gryffindor Tower carry Felix Felicis or something? I swear, you lot must be the luckiest little fucks—”
Harry’s scar seared, and the Great Hall blurred before his eyes—and then vanished. There was darkness all around, and before him stood the familiar tall, wrought-iron gates that guarded the castle’s boundaries. Through Voldemort’s eyes, he could see the long, dark stretch leading up to the castle itself and its glittering façade belying the late hour.
Nagini’s weight about his shoulders was a cool comfort, and he stroked her scaly head as he stared up at the castle with a heady rush of purpose thrilling through him.
“—ter! Potter!” someone was hissing in his ear. “Get your shoulder under his arm, Weasley! Budge up!”
“‘M fine…” Harry muttered, feeling his knees give out; all right, maybe not so very fine.
“Yes, yes, right as rain, clearly,” Draco sighed, an unmistakable quaver in his voice. “What tidings do you bear, O Chosen One? Glad ones, can we hope?”
Harry swallowed, then shook his head side to side with a slow deliberation. “…He’s here.”