Convinced that The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore might yet hold clues that Rita Skeeter was unwittingly peddling, Hermione had the four of them reading through the entire book, chapter by chapter, each night, like some demented book club. It quickly became clear, though, that the most interesting—if hardly relevant—information had been the text on Dumbledore’s boyhood relationship with Grindelwald, and in short order they were back to their nightly rounds of piecing through Hermione’s dwindling library.
The storm that had been building all day crested at twilight, and evening brought steadily piling snowdrifts building around their camp. Hermione had set up a series of Warming Charms to go off at regular intervals throughout the night so that they wouldn’t be snowed in come morning, but they would need to find somewhere a bit dryer to camp the next day, or the ground would be nothing but slush and mud. After a filling roast with potatoes and carrots for dinner—Harry’s contribution, and even Malfoy had had nothing bad to say about the dish—they retired to the sitting room.
Harry was halfway through Blood, Body, and Soul: Human Rites, with Malfoy curled up next to him, head resting against Harry’s shoulder, as he flipped idly though Hermione’s copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard (“What? It’s more entertaining than any of this rubbish, and Dumbledore must have left it to Granger for some reason, right?”). Ron sat in the corner, fiddling with the dials on the Wireless; he’d sworn he caught snatches of some underground broadcast once or twice by chance and was determined to find it again if it was the last thing he did.
The night dragged, though, and Harry failed to turn up anything of note in his text beyond more than he would ever want to know about the different spells that used human sacrifice in some form or another. Magic was equal parts fascinating and disturbing at times. Malfoy had nodded off at some point and was quietly snoring, face buried against Harry’s shoulder, when Harry roused him with a jostle.
They all agreed to call it a night and returned to their rooms in strange spirits. The day felt wasted, with too many downs and not enough ups, and Harry worried that they were stagnating now that their only lead in Godric’s Hollow had proven a bust.
His dreams were confused and disturbing: Nagini wove in and out of them, first through the setting of a locket, forming a living chain, and then through a wreath of Christmas roses that burst into brilliant red flame, leaving behind choking ash.
He woke abruptly in the still of night, when everything was so calm and so quiet, he knew it must be very late indeed (or else very early). He wasn’t sure what had roused him, but he was wide awake. Had he had a nightmare? He didn’t think so—he could recall bits and pieces, but he did not feel troubled or upset. His bad dreams of late had all been the usual sort, not the prophetic sort.
He could hear Malfoy’s deep, even breathing from the other side of the room, and he envied him his undisturbed sleep. He strained to hear beyond the room, listening for sounds from the forest outside the tent’s four walls. He was probably just being paranoid; Hermione was a wiz with her protective enchantments. There was no reason to think they’d suddenly stop working after months of holding strong.
Still, something felt…off. He couldn’t tell if there was anything sinister to it, but there was still something different about tonight.
He lay back down, forcing his eyes closed, and tried to go back to sleep. But the silence was too loud, and he couldn’t force his mind to settle, a prickle of some curious mixture of unease and curiosity thrumming through his head.
With an aggravated huff, he threw off his blankets and pulled on a pair of thick wool slippers and his jumper, zipping it all the way up to his chin.
“Potter?” Malfoy’s voice was groggy and sleep-drunk. “The fuck are you doing up at—” He softly muttered Tempus, “Merlin—it’s not even half-three…”
Harry considered; he could say he needed to use the loo, but something told him that Malfoy would stay up, waiting for Harry to return. He was weird like that these days, like he needed to know where Harry was at all times. Even now, Harry could feel his eyes on him in the dark, and each passing moment would only exacerbate his alarmed suspicion.
“Thought I heard something outside,” Harry said. It wasn’t entirely a lie; he did feel like they weren’t alone in the forest this evening. Granted, they were in the Forest of Dean, where Hermione had said she’d camped with her parents when she was younger, so it could just be Muggle campers. But who would be camping here this time of year, so close to Christmas and with snow piling in great white heaps outside?
Malfoy was already shrugging into a long, plush robe he’d Transfigured from something decidedly less luxurious before Harry could tell him to stay put, so he waited for him to put himself together, and then they slowly crept toward the entrance, careful not to make a sound. There was no need to wake Hermione and Ron and worry them over what was probably just a forest creature on the prowl or a snowdrift plopping to the ground from the overburdened boughs above.
Harry ran his wand over the laces at the tent’s entrance, then stepped over the threshold and glanced around. He could see nothing out of place in the immediate vicinity of their campsite, at least, and their wards didn’t seem to have been breached—
“Potter!” Malfoy hissed, and Harry turned back to see Malfoy hovering at the entrance, glaring at him.
“I can’t leave.”
Oh. He’d forgotten to have Hermione remove the Shackling Spell, evidently. “Sorry. Finite incantatem.”
It was only belatedly that Harry realised releasing the spell meant that, now with his wand back, Malfoy could freely Apparate away, running off to his parents or returning to Voldemort’s side or just disappearing altogether.
But as soon as the spell was broken, Malfoy simply strode out into the clearing and inhaled deeply, showing no signs of wanting to bolt. “Good to breathe the free air again.”
Harry couldn’t help but roll his eyes; Malfoy’s dramatics seemed to be an all-hours affair. He took another glance around the camp, searching for anything of note—when a glint through the trees caught his eyes.
He squinted, and the glint shifted—a bright silver light, moving soundlessly through the trees with no crunching of snow or rustling of leaves and twigs. It seemed to glide with an ethereal grace, drifting closer and closer and growing brighter all the while.
He reached out, without looking, and tugged on Malfoy’s sleeve. “Malfoy…Malfoy, look.”
He could hear the dead shock in Malfoy’s voice and imagined his expression had gone slack. “Is that…?”
Harry’s wand was out and at the ready, reflexively, but he was frozen in place from some amalgamation of fear and awe. The light became blinding as the thing approached, casting the trees between it and Harry and Malfoy in pitch-black silhouette. Closer and closer it crept, and Harry raised his free hand to shield his eyes.
And then the source of the light stepped daintily out from behind an oak: a dazzling silver-white doe, bright as the fat moon above, delicately picking her way over the frozen, snow-covered ground with a quiet grace. She left no hoofprints behind her, made no sound as she stepped lightly, and she seemed to be staring straight at Harry through long-lashed, soulful eyes.
Harry gaped—not at her strangeness, but at how inexplicably familiar she seemed. He had seen this doe before, he must have—for in his heart kindled a warm recognition, a comfort and relief of Oh, there you are! She had come to him, he knew—had sought Harry out, called to him without a voice to come and see her.
They gazed at each other for several long moments, and then she turned and began walking away.
“No…” he called, his voice cracking from the cold, dry air. He licked his lips. “Come back!” His legs suddenly worked again, and he stumbled over his own feet as he moved after her.
Malfoy grabbed at his shoulder, jerking him back. “Are you insane, Potter? That’s a Patronus!”
Harry watched helplessly as the doe continued to step deliberately through the trees, her brilliance soon muted by the forest of thick, black trunks. “Yeah—yeah, I know. Let me go; I need to follow her!”
“Yes, fantastic idea!” Malfoy hissed. “Follow some unknown someone’s Patronus into the dark winter woods while you’re a wanted man!”
Harry shrugged him off and stomped away. A part of him reminded in a devious threat that this could be a trap—but some manner of bone-deep instinct told him that no, this was not Dark magic. Nothing so bright and pure could come from a place of darkness.
Harry sighed, looking back over his shoulder. “Come with if you’re so worried. I think she wants me to follow her.”
“Oh, does she now?” Malfoy mocked, but he still tightened the belt of his robe and marched through the deepening snow after Harry, muttering crossly, “How you made it past the age of three, I’ll never know. You’re every child-murdering lunatic’s dream.”
They wove through the trees with tromping steps that seemed to echo in the night, but the doe made no noise, for she was nothing but light and magic. Harry walked with a quick, sure step, following her deeper and deeper into the woods, wholly confident that he would be allowed to approach her—to touch her, to speak with her—once they’d reached journey’s end. He hadn’t a clue where that might be, but they would get there soon enough. And then he would ask his questions…and she would give him answers. She would tell him what he needed to know.
After what felt like only a few minutes but could have been an hour or more—time seemed to flow differently in the company of the doe—she came to a halt in a small clearing, turning back to check he had kept up. Now was his chance, he knew, and he broke into a run, questions burning on his lips, but when he reached out to touch her, to ask her all those questions that had lain waiting on his lips, she vanished.
The darkness poured back in, and even the moon, sitting bright and fat in the heavens, could not penetrate the skeletal net of the bare tree branches above. The faint, fading image of the doe was stamped on the backs of Harry’s eyes, and when he closed them, he could still see her shimmering in the darkness.
But with her disappearance came a new entity creeping at Harry’s consciousness: fear. He’d felt safe in her presence, protected, as Patronuses were meant to make you feel—but now he and Malfoy were out here, exposed.
“Well that’s us fucked,” Malfoy said, quickly casting Lumos and sweeping the clearing with a suspicious gaze. Harry placed his back to Malfoy’s, wand at the ready, and listened to the sounds of the forest around them—the distant crackles of twigs, soft swishes of snow, faint far-off cries of forest creatures.
Was Malfoy right? Were they about to be attacked? The world beyond the edge of Malfoy’s Lumos was so dark, it may as well not have existed, and Voldemort himself could have been lurking ten feet away, ready to cast at them, and they wouldn’t have known. Had the doe simply been a beautiful lure drawing them into an ambush?
But nothing happened. No trap was sprung, no spells were cast, and when Harry cast Homenum revelio, admittedly a bit nervous to see the results, the spell came back empty save for Malfoy. Not even Ron or Hermione had shown up, indicating that they had strayed far enough from the campsite that the tent was outside of the spell’s range.
They were alone, it seemed. So why had the doe led them here?
Something gleamed in the light of Malfoy’s wand, catching the corner of Harry’s eye, and Harry spun around, but all he saw was a small, frozen forest pond. A thin sheet of ice coated its surface, dusted with a fine layer of fresh snow that glittered beneath the Lumos, and Harry stepped closer with a wary caution.
The ice reflected Harry’s distorted shadow in the beam of Malfoy’s wandlight, and he dropped into a squat at the pond’s edge, swiping a hand over the surface to brush away the fresh snow. Through the thin crusting of ice, he thought he could see something glinting, just below the surface.
A great silver cross…
“Bloody hell…” Malfoy whispered. “Is that… It’s not, right? I mean—you don’t wander into the forest for a midnight stroll and stumble across…”
“The sword of Gryffindor? No…no that doesn’t usually happen.” Harry cast Lumos himself for more light, angling his wand to direct as much light as possible on the object lying in the pool. He caught a flash of deep red—a cluster of rubies spangling the hilt of a broadsword.
His breath caught in his chest, which cramped tight and painful, but he couldn’t be bothered to exhale, not when the sword was right there.
How was this even possible? How had the sword—which Harry knew instinctively was the real thing—found its way to a forest pond, this close to their well-protected, unplottable campsite? There was no way this was a coincidence, and Harry wracked his mind for every conceivable possibility.
Hermione said she’d chosen this spot because she’d camped here with her parents before, but had she in fact been drawn here by some unknown magic? Or was it the other way around: had the sword been placed here because they were camping nearby? Had the Patronus’s caster been responsible, tracking their movements and leaving the sword within easy reach for them to stumble across? He held his wand up high, searching the snow for signs of disturbance, human tracks, but there was nothing. They seemed to be all alone out here now.
He turned back to the frozen pool and the sword lying at its bottom, just waiting to be retrieved. An echo of the same excitement he’d felt in Godric’s Hollow, convinced the sword was near at hand, rippled through him. Except this time, he could see it with his own eyes. They just had to grab it.
Malfoy pointed his wand at the silvery shape and murmured, “Accio sword,” but it didn’t stir. He shrugged, unconcerned. “Was worth a shot, I suppose.”
He didn’t sound like he’d expected it to work, and Harry shared his feeling; if all they’d had to do was pick up the sword, it would have been lying there on the ground and not at the bottom of a frozen pool. He began to pace the edge of the pond, trying to remember how the sword had delivered itself to him the last time he’d held it. He hadn’t Summoned it to kill the Basilisk either—what had Dumbledore said? Only a true Gryffindor could have pulled it out of the hat?
Harry pointed his wand at the sword and said, “Accio sword.”
Again, nothing happened, and Malfoy frowned at him. “I just tried that.”
“Yeah, I know, but it’s the sword of Gryffindor, and Dumbledore mentioned that only a true Gryffindor could claim it. I thought maybe…” But evidently not.
“What makes someone a ‘true Gryffindor’ in that case? Being extra impetuous and impulsive?”
Harry looked at him, a wry grin spreading on his lips. “Well, you know what the Sorting Hat said: ‘their daring, nerve, and chivalry set Gryffindors apart.’” He nodded to the sword, and Malfoy saw what he meant to do, shaking his head before Harry had even got his shirt off.
“You mean their foolhardiness, lunacy, and disregard for personal safety? You can’t just go diving in! That water has to be freezing!”
“Your concern is touching, but we need that sword. If I’ve got to freeze my bollocks off to get it, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. Besides, it won’t be more than a quick dip, and then back out again.”
“Freeze your bol—come here.” Malfoy snapped his fingers angrily, pointing to the ground before him. “It’s like you don’t even know you’re a wizard some days! The thought of what you might do if I weren’t out here to slap some sense into you is enough to make me go grey.” Harry shuffled over as directed. “Arms out. Stand still.” He raised his wand, and Harry closed his eyes—but after a long beat, nothing happened. When Harry slowly blinked his eyes open again, he found Malfoy staring at him with an unreadable expression. “…Awfully trusting, isn’t our Saviour?”
It felt like a rather dangerous question to ask, here in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night, and Harry only belatedly realised that this would have been a perfect setup for an ambush. He chose his words very, very carefully—and kept a Stunning Spell ready on his lips. “Not really. I just think if you were going to turn on me, you would’ve done it from the warmth and comfort of the tent, instead of letting me drag you out here when it’s below freezing.”
“Had to get dragged out here to get that damn Shackling Spell off, though.”
“So you just traipsed through the woods with me in the middle of the night because you fancied a brisk jog?” He took a step forward, so that Malfoy’s wand tip landed just between his brows. Maybe extra impetuous and impulsive was right, after all. “Cast, if you’re going to.” Didn’t they say you had to give a bit of trust to get it? If so, he deserved a boat load.
Malfoy swallowed, jaw tensing—and then he raised his wand and rapped the top of Harry’s head, muttering, “Ebublio.” It felt like he’d cracked an egg on Harry’s crown, and the magic trickled down his temples and neck and back, all the way to his toes, enveloping him in an airtight bubble. Malfoy then pierced the bubble with his wand and cast a Warming Charm, and Harry had to bite back a moan of relief. It felt like he’d just stepped into a hot tub, except he was perfectly dry. With another mumbled spell that Harry didn’t catch, the bubble shrank to conform to Harry’s body, leaving him encased in something not unlike a warm wetsuit.
Malfoy jerked his head. “Go and get your bloody sword, Chosen One. Bollocks intact.”
Harry glanced down at himself, patting his jumper and pyjama bottoms. Malfoy’s spells kept him toasty warm, and kitted out like this, Harry was almost tempted to go for a swim. It might be relaxing, floating in the dark and quiet while safely cocooned in a warm onesie. Maybe later, if he could convince Malfoy not to go tattling to Ron and Hermione about their little excursion.
He delivered a salute of gratitude and then pointed his wand at the icy pool.
The ice cracked, the sound ringing like a bullet shot in the still silence, and the surface of the pool broke into chunks that bobbed and dipped in the dark, roiling water. Without the distortion of the ice, Harry could see that the pool was relatively shallow—only perhaps waist-deep—but he would still have to go under if he wanted to reach the sword.
“Can I breathe underwater with this?”
“Did you see me cast a Bubble-head Charm?”
Harry did not want to admit he didn’t know the incantation for that particular spell; he’d wondered if that was what Ebublio had been for.
Malfoy sighed, raising his wand again. “Shall I?”
Harry shook his head. “No, no, it’s fine. I was just curious.” He would only be down for a few seconds at best, just long enough to grab the sword and pop back up.
He took a deep breath, ready to test Malfoy’s spellwork, and dipped one toe gingerly into the water at the pond’s edge. Not bad at all; the Charms were holding up admirably, and he waded in up to his knees. By the time he reached the middle of the pond where the sword lay, just at his toes, the water had come up to his waist. He gave Malfoy another little wave and received a dismissive flick of the fingers in return. Gathering up his courage and praying Malfoy’s spells held, because Gryffindor or not, he really didn’t want to go swimming in the middle of December, he took a deep breath and slipped under the water’s surface.
It was darker and quieter under the water, and the bubbles he stirred glittered like diamonds in the light cast by Malfoy’s Lumos. Harry wished he’d had the time to admire, but Malfoy was already anxious enough as it was; they were unprotected out here, beyond the bounds of Hermione’s security spells, so they ought to get the sword and head back to the tent as quickly as possible.
He pushed through the dark water, twisting himself around and reaching out so that he could grope along the pond’s bottom for the hilt of the sword. All he found at first were rocks and mud, but then his fingers brushed against something that felt like a handle, and with a surge of excitement, he gripped it tight and gave an upwards yank.
The sword came free, and Harry twisted back around to plant his feet—but something snaked up from the gloom and wrapped around his neck, tugging him downward.
Had he stumbled unwittingly into a nest of water weeds? The pond floor had seemed only silty, without much in the way of plant life, but perhaps he’d missed them in the dark. He brought his free hand up to bat away whatever it was that he’d run into.
It was not a weed, he quickly realised, but his Mokeskin pouch, dragging him down into the dark water and away from the surface and its precious, breathable air. He thought of the Horcrux locket, tucked safely inside. It was trying to drown him in its last desperate bid not to be destroyed.
His lungs were starting to burn from the lack of fresh oxygen, and he kicked out wildly, praying he might strike the bottom and launch himself up, but the Horcrux was relentless, dragging him down like a heavy iron anchor. He tried to work his fingers under the leather band holding it around his neck—he could drop it, go up for air, and then come back down to grab it again with a fresh breath. But he was starting to lose feeling in his fingers as the cold began to seep through; of course the Horcrux’s magic would be stronger than school-grade Charms. In another few heartbeats, the spells would break, and Harry would drown in this freezing, crushing darkness.
Violent flashes began to dot his vision, and he pinched his nose shut to keep from taking a breath, still lashing out with feeble kicks that were growing steadily weaker with each passing moment, and yet the Horcrux dragged him deeper and deeper… There was nothing left, nothing he could do… Nothing…
He choked, retching violently as someone dragged him out of the water and tossed him roughly aside. He landed face-down in the snow, soaked through and colder than he’d ever been in his life, but breathing, blessedly. He took in great gulps of air, heaving with each exhalation and coughing raggedly.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?!” Malfoy shrieked, his voice at least an entire octave higher than usual. “Here I thought I’d Saviour-proofed those charms and yet you’ve managed to undo me! Leave it to you to nearly drown in a puddle!”
Everything hurt, but especially his chest, and Harry brought a hand up, placing it over his heart—and panicked. Where was the pouch? He slapped his neck, and he could feel where the leather strap had cut tightly into his flesh, but the pouch itself had either been cut away or fallen into the pond. Fuck, he’d have to go back into the pond and find it now. He struggled to his feet, panting. “The—the pouch, with the Horcrux—”
Malfoy stopped him with a touch to his shoulder, pressing something into his hand: Harry’s Mokeskin pouch. “Don’t have a fit. I had to cut it off you; looked like it had gotten caught on something.” Malfoy cast something Harry couldn’t hear but realised was a Warming Charm, and he could have kissed him right about then.
Harry luxuriated in the warmth, shaking his head. “No—no, it was the Horcrux. I think…maybe it knew what we’d found. What we were going to do with the sword. It was pulling me down, felt like I had a thousand-pound boulder weighing on me…” He swallowed thickly, meeting Malfoy’s gaze. “…You were right; definitely shouldn’t have worn that thing around my neck.”
Malfoy pursed his lips. “If you think I’ll forget what an irresponsible arse you’ve been tonight just because you’ve told me I was right again…”
They both stared down at the ornate silver sword lying in the snow next to Harry, its ruby-encrusted hilt glinting in the light from Malfoy’s wand.
“…What if it’s the copy?” Malfoy asked.
Harry was going to blow something up if he’d gone through all of that for a copy. “Only one way to find out,” he said instead, and he roughly tugged open the cinch to the pouch and thrust his hand inside to grab the locket.
It was warm in his hand, and twitching a bit with a nervous energy. The fragment of Voldemort’s soul inside was agitated again, as it had been in Bathilda’s home—but this time, he was confident it was only panicking. It could sense the sword was near—and had tried to kill him for it. That alone was proof enough for him the sword was the real deal.
They’d waited long enough; he was tired of dead ends and disappointment. He wanted this thing destroyed, once and for all, to finally feel like they weren’t spinning their wheels in this quest. With the sword in one hand and the locket in the other, he searched the clearing until he found a broad, flat rock lying in the shadow of a sycamore tree. That would have to do; he wasn’t going to take the locket back to camp until they’d driven out whatever evil lay inside it—especially not now, knowing the lengths to which it could go to try and protect itself.
“Over here,” he said.
He brushed the snow from the rock’s surface and placed the Horcrux in a little divot the elements had carved into the face.
Malfoy drew up beside him. “So now what? You just stab it?”
Harry considered—then shook his head, holding out the sword for Malfoy to take. “No, you should do it.”
“Me?” Malfoy recoiled a bit. “Why me?”
Why indeed? Harry shrugged. “Because—I dunno. It just feels like it should be you.”
Malfoy’s expression went tight. “A test, then?” he asked coolly.
“No—no, I mean…” Harry’s thoughts were scattered, his heart still pounding from the near-miss in the pond, but he needed to explain this, as best he could. “You and this locket kind of go together. We stole you both from the Ministry, have kept you with us all this time not knowing what to do with you. And now…now I think we know.” He nodded to himself. “So it should be you.”
He wasn’t being generous, or trying to prove anything. This was just how it had to be, something deep inside of Harry told him. As certainly as he had known that they ought to follow the doe and that she’d bring them answers, he knew that Malfoy had to be the one to wield the sword and smite this Horcrux. He was still very angry with Dumbledore, but through him Harry had learned that not all magics could be studied in school books and lectures. Sometimes, there was power in a simple act. Intent could be a great and terrible thing.
And while Harry had assured Malfoy this was not a test—and it wasn’t—a thrill of excitement rippled through him at the thought that, after this, Malfoy would well and truly be part of this quest, as responsible for Voldemort’s downfall as any of them. There was something to that, though Harry didn’t really know how to frame it. He just liked the idea was all.
He dropped to his knees in front of the locket, one hand holding down the chain in case it somehow tried to escape. “I’m going to open it, and you stab it.” He looked up at Malfoy, making sure to catch his eye to impress upon him the gravity of what they were about to do. “Straight away, okay? No hesitation, because whatever’s in there is bound to struggle. You just saw it try to drown me. The bit of Riddle in the diary tried to kill me, too, and the ring Dumbledore destroyed hit him with a fatal curse before it went down. These are pieces of his soul and just as reluctant to shuffle off this mortal coil as him. Don’t give it a chance to fight back, right?”
Malfoy swallowed, nodding. “How are you going to open it?”
The answer had come to him only just now. All of Kreacher’s magic and Regulus’s spells had failed to force the locket to reveal its secrets, so clearly it would not be bent by traditional magic. But this had been Slytherin’s locket…and Slytherin had had one particular ability that none but his descendants—and Harry—could claim. “I’m going to ask it to open, using Parseltongue.”
Malfoy shuddered, and Harry doubted it was from the cold. “Must you?”
Harry rolled his eyes. “Plug your ears if you hate the sound so much. It’s the only way I haven’t tried getting this thing to open.”
“It’s not that—” Malfoy started hotly, ears gone red in the chill. He shook his head. “Just—get it over with.”
He was such a strange nut. “…Sure,” Harry said dismissively. He turned back to the face of the locket, focusing on the jewelled serpentine ‘S’. The inlaid emeralds glittered in the moonlight, and he told himself they were smooth, beautiful scales, coiled and curled, ready to strike.
“Right, on three…” said Harry, concentrating with everything he had on the ‘S’. The locket gave a little shudder, rattling nervously. Harry might have pitied it, but his lungs still ached from nearly being drowned. “One…two…three! Open!”
He punctuated the command with a hissed snarl, and the locket at last swung open with a soft snick, baring its secrets for all to see.
Harry didn’t know what he’d expected to find within the locket, but it certainly wasn’t a pair of eyes—Tom Riddle’s own, dark and handsome and mischievous, before he’d mutated into the pasty white monstrosity he was now—peering out from behind the glass windows. His stomach churned, revolting.
“Stab it!” Harry choked out, holding the locket in place. He hoped he wasn’t about to lose a finger to Malfoy’s unsteady hand.
Malfoy lifted the sword high over his head, point angled down. The blade dangled over the eyes, which swivelled back and forth between them frantically, and Harry had the unsettling sensation that Voldemort himself could see what they were doing. But no, he recalled, the bits of Voldemort that lived in these objects were only shades—powerful shades, but with no connection to their master. Voldemort had not known when Harry had destroyed the diary, and he had not known when Dumbledore had destroyed the ring. He would not know now, when Malfoy destroyed the locket.
Harry braced himself, the locket’s chain tight in his grip. He could already imagine blood pouring from the empty windows, a visible sign of its destruction as with the previous Horcruxes.
But then, a voice hissed from the Horcrux, worming its way into their ears like a snake.
“I have seen your heart, and it is mine.”
“No! Don’t listen to it!” Harry snapped. He had seen firsthand how Voldemort’s silver tongue could tempt a susceptible mind. “Just stab it!”
“I have seen your dreams, Draco Malfoy, and I have seen your fears. All that you desire is possible, but all that you dread is also possible…”
“Malfoy, stab it!” he shouted, his voice echoing off the surrounding trees. A nightbird took to the sky with a startled squawk, and Malfoy gazed down into Riddle’s eyes, hypnotised, just standing there holding the sword over the locket like Damocles’s blade.
“Overshadowed, bested in every respect. Shunted, spurned, downtrodden and forgotten. Yet drawn, inexorably, to your own doom, defeat incarnate. A moth to dragonflame.”
“Don’t listen, dammit! Just kill the damn thing!” Harry bellowed; the locket was quaking fiercely, ready to pop from Harry’s grasp the moment he was distracted. Its desperation was mounting, and Harry feared what it might try next. Malfoy lifted the sword higher still, and Riddle’s eyes began to glow scarlet, boring into Malfoy’s own frightened stare. Fuck, he was frozen; the locket had him in some kind of trance now.
Then, from the locket’s windows bubbled the grotesque, misshapen heads of Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Malfoy gave a cry of shock, the spell broken, and he backed away with one arm raised to shield himself and the sword in the other. The figures continued to grow, their distorted forms coalescing first into chests, then waists, then legs, all blooming from the locket like branches with a single horrifying root. The ghostly images of Harry, Ron, and Hermione swayed over the real Harry, who snatched his fingers from the locket when it suddenly burned white-hot in his grasp.
He turned to look at Malfoy, frantic. “Malfoy!” he shouted, but he didn’t seem to hear Harry, only gazing, mesmerised, at the visions the locket had produced for him.
Not-Harry locked eyes with Malfoy, fixing him with a hooded, judging gaze, before leaning in and gently kissing Not-Hermione, smiling against her lips. Harry gaped, and that would have been shocking enough a sight, had Not-Harry not then turned towards the vision of Ron and planted another soft kiss on his lips as well. Not-Harry trailed a finger down Not-Ron’s cheek, nuzzling noses, and then flicked his eyes back to Malfoy with a cruel, cold smile.
“Outsider. Interloper. You don’t belong here. You’ve never been good enough for me, and you never will be. I can’t wait to be rid of you, this ball and chain.”
Not-Hermione laughed at him with a high, haughty jeer. “Honestly, your presumption! You’ve dragged us down, dogged our steps. We can’t be quit of you soon enough. It’s pathetic, really, the way you cling to him. To this notion that maybe eventually somehow some way…”
Not-Ron had somewhere along the way laid a possessive hand against Not-Harry’s neck, and he sneered down at Malfoy. “Scum’s scum, all right? Harry doesn’t consort with Death Eaters; who’d want to shake a hand branded with the Dark Lord’s mark? You’ve shown who you’ve thrown your lot in with, and thank Merlin it’s not us.”
Fuck, this was going pear-shaped in so many ways, and Malfoy was well and truly caught in the thrall of this sick sideshow the locket had dreamed up. He scrambled to his feet, slipping in the snow as he rushed over to Malfoy and grabbed him by the shoulders, giving him a rough shake. “Malfoy—Malfoy, snap out of it. It’s not real! It’s just the locket, spinning lies!” Malfoy only continued to gape in horror as Not-Harry curled a hand around Not-Hermione’s waist to draw her close, with Not-Ron sidling up behind him and nosing at his neck with a wicked grin.
Reassurance, something reminded Harry, and he heard Malfoy’s voice echoing in his mind: “It needs to be reminded that you won’t try and leave it, that you won’t abandon it, or reject it. It just wants to feel special.”
He grabbed one of Malfoy’s hands, wresting it from its grip on the sword, and pressed the palm to his chest, covering it with both hands and locking eyes with Malfoy. “See? A heartbeat. Real, warm—flesh and blood. It’s me, Potter. Harry? Here with you, right here. Not there.” He squeezed Malfoy’s hand, begging him to hear. “You want me to say the M word? I’ll say the M word. It’s not presumption, all right? I’m the one who went in there after you—me. Because I wanted to. You’re not a drag. You’re not a Death Eater, and you’re not pathetic. You’re my—” He stumbled over the word and bit his tongue, cursing himself silently. “You’re my mate, right? You chose me, and—and I’m all right with that.” He then pulled Malfoy’s hand away and placed it back on the grip of the sword. “And you’re gonna kill a Horcrux right fucking now.”
A sudden clarity filled Malfoy’s grey eyes, and he tightened his jaw—then lurched away from Harry, raising the sword high again. His arms were shaking, and his face twisted.
“Do it, Malfoy!” Harry yelled, heart leaping.
The sword flashed in the false Lumos light, then plunged: Harry threw himself out of the way, and there came a clang of metal against stone and a long, drawn-out scream that seemed to echo interminably.
Harry instinctively whirled around, wand at the ready to defend against whatever the locket tried to throw out next—but there was nothing to fight.
The demented visions of himself, Hermione, and Ron were gone, leaving only Malfoy, standing there with the sword held slackly in one hand, staring down at the shattered remains of the locket on the flat rock. He still looked lost, breathing heavily, and when he squeezed his eyes shut, Harry quickly glanced away, feeling strangely as if he were intruding on something private. He wondered if there were glowing embers hiding behind his lids.
Pretending he had not been staring, Harry moved to gather up the pieces of the broken Horcrux. Malfoy’s stroke had shattered the glass in both windows, and Riddle’s eyes were gone, leaving behind only a faint curl of smoke. The thing, the shard of soul that had lived in the Horcrux, had vanished; torturing Malfoy had been its final act, punishment for a Death Eater turned traitor.
The sword clanged brightly as Malfoy dropped it, and he sank to his knees, hugging his chest and head bowed low. His breath was coming in slow, great pants, and he was shaking—though not, Harry suspected, from the cold. The visions were gone, but not forgotten.
Harry stuffed the broken pieces of the locket into the Mokeskin pouch, then placed a hand, cautiously, on Malfoy’s shoulder. He took it as a good sign that Malfoy did not shrug it off, as he usually did, though he supposed that could be a bad sign as well, all things considered.
He felt like he ought to say something—or ask something. A dozen questions vied for a place on his lips, like why the hell Malfoy would see Harry kissing his friends in a vision. It was a gross misinterpretation of his relationship with either of them, and a cold, sinking suspicion that had nothing to do with the winter chill began to dig its claws into Harry’s mind, burrowing into the dark furrows too deep to extract.
At length, they gathered themselves and began the trek back to the tent. Though the walk through the dark forest with the doe had felt short, the journey back seemed to take forever, and Harry was shocked it was not yet daybreak by the time they climbed through the tent flaps. They didn’t speak another word—not on the way back, not on returning to their room, and not when they crawled under the covers of their respective beds again.
When Harry closed his eyes, he could still see himself kissing Hermione and Ron with that biting cruelty, a gesture meant only to punish and taunt; could still see Malfoy’s expression—distraught and yearning. Broken and betrayed.
He stuffed the sword of Gryffindor under the mattress of his bed, where it lay as a warm, solid comfort. They had destroyed their third Horcrux, were halfway to their goal now—Harry knew he should be dancing on the roof of the tent and trying to get drunk on fermented pumpkin juice.
But all he felt was a guilt whose source he could not place, and part of him—a part of which he was quite ashamed—wished they hadn’t found the sword at all.