When Harry came to, he was lying face-down again—though no longer on fresh white limbo linoleum. Instead, his senses were filled with the forest—the scent of mouldering leaf litter, the scraping crunch of sticks and gravel, the chill of cold, hard ground. He was back—and right where he’d fallen what must have been only moments before. Indeed, he could feel where the Killing Curse had struck him, square in the chest, and he knew if he lifted his shirt to look, he’d see an ugly purpling bruise forming just in his solar plexus.
But he could not check just now—he didn’t dare stir, because beyond the sounds of the forest, he could hear the movements of the rousing Death Eaters, hurried footsteps as they swarmed their master with fawning words of, curiously, concern. Harry lay where he’d fallen, glasses mangled and mashed against his face and left arm contorted awkwardly, and though every inch of him screamed in pain—par for the course, Harry suspected, for bouncing back from near-death—he knew that he had to hold, had to wait.
Because something was happening.
Even barely conscious as he was, still marshalling his wits about him, he could sense the tension in the camp. Had they noticed him rouse? He panicked, convinced for a moment that they knew he yet lived and Voldemort would shortly redouble his efforts to kill him. There were far messier ways to go than the Killing Curse—ways that would make it very difficult for Harry to come back to this body, tethered to life through Voldemort or no.
He kind of regretted not taking just a little bit longer to decide on coming back and buying time to strategise his return. Wouldn’t it be just like him to bounce back from death only to promptly be launched once more into its waiting arms? The Boy Who Lived, Died, Lived For A Moment, But Then Died Again.
“My Lord…my Lord…!” came the soft, beseeching hiss of Bellatrix. Her oily words slithered into Harry’s ear, and he fought not to squirm. He had precious few moments to get his bearings, and so he stretched out his other senses—checking first his body for any injury. The pain in his chest had remitted to a dull throb, no longer borderline unbearable, so he figured he was still in one piece with nothing broken. Fantastic if he decided to make a dash for it.
Something was jabbing into his stomach, though, and what he had initially dismissed as a stick he now realised was more likely his wand—and relief thrilled through him. He must not have been out for too long, as they hadn’t rifled through his things yet. Or maybe they just figured a dead bloke wasn’t going to be casting anything any time soon—though history alone should have told them this wasn’t a very smart assumption to make when dealing with Harry Potter.
If his wand was still on him, his Cloak probably was too—which gave him two excellent options for escape, so now all he had to do was find the right timing.
“My Lord…” Bellatrix continued, insistent. “My Lo—”
“Enough, woman,” Voldemort grunted, just this side of strained and with no small degree of irritation. “Back, all of you.” Immediately there came the sound leaves and twigs crunching beneath feet as several people scrambled back from a singular point—Voldemort himself, it sounded like. The urge to open his eyes, to see what was going on, was overwhelming, and Harry summoned up his Gryffindor bravery (which had been replenished in full) and stupidity (which had never been in short supply) and opened his eyes a fraction.
From the awkward angle, he could just make out Voldemort, staggering to his feet from where he’d evidently fallen to the ground. His Death Eaters were giving him a generous berth, with Bellatrix alone brave enough to remain by her master’s side, kneeling with panicked worry scrawled across her pasty features.
Voldemort had fallen—but why? Had there been an attack in however long had passed since he’d struck Harry down? No doubt by now his friends were starting to notice his absence, may well even have deduced what he meant to do. Perhaps they had charged into the Forbidden Forest, come upon the camp, and…
But no, he saw no other bodies, no signs of a battle waged. The fire was still crackling merrily, and what little of the sky peeked through the canopy was still washed in that grey-blue haze of early, early morning. Barely any time at all had passed—certainly not enough time for there to have been a fight the likes his friends would have put on to get him back from Voldemort’s clutches.
Had the Killing Curse rebounded once more, taking the both of them down with it? Or had it simply been that, tethered as they were, Harry had dragged Voldemort to the cliff’s edge of death and then back again? If this was the case, then it was a blessed thing indeed that Voldemort seemed, for the moment, unaware of his erstwhile tag-along.
Bellatrix continued her solicitous fawning in hushed tones, “My Lord, let me—”
But Voldemort viciously batted away the hand she’d extended to him, snarling, “I said enough. Now…” A chill air settled over Harry, and he let his eyes slide shut again, certain that Voldemort had recovered himself and was turning his terrible gaze in Harry’s direction. The bat of a lash, the twitch of a finger—Voldemort would miss none of it, and then the game would be up. “…Does he live yet?”
No one answered; it was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. Perhaps none wanted to be the one to check Harry’s pulse and have to tell their master that no, for the third time Voldemort had failed at the simple task of killing a child.
“You,” called Voldemort, impatient, and Harry held his breath. “…The lady Malfoy, Narcissa, recently rejoining our company. Check him. See if Potter’s managed to survive that Killing Curse, too.”
Fuck. Draco’s mother. She would know—she would see. From a distance, he could feign death—but close examination would reveal his warm breath, the rise and fall of his chest, and his wildly thumping heart. But there was nothing to be done; it was too early yet to give himself away—he needed time, time to think, time to plan. So all he could do was lie there, and wait, and hope.
Narcissa’s tread was soft and light, practically gliding over the leaf litter as she approached. Harry silently willed his heart to calm its racing, futile though he knew it to be. He heard the whispered rustle of her dress as she sank to her knees at his side, and then there were hands on him—soft and cold, not unlike Draco’s. She rolled him over, onto his back, and cupped his cheeks, felt for a pulse at the neck, tossed aside his glasses to check his pupils—and though he knew she must have realised by now, she still slipped a hand under his shirt to splay over the nasty bruise where the Curse had hit him.
He could feel her lean close, her body heat seeping into him, until she could not have been more than a nose-width away from Harry. From this distance, he could smell the hair potion she used—something floral and feminine and decidedly not matronly. Of course Draco’s mother would be unerringly vain.
“Is Draco alive?” she asked in a low, frightened whisper. Her question was barely audible, the words nearly lost in the sound of the crackling fire. The breath from her lips tickled his ear, and he felt the soft curtain of her hair falling down around them, the barest semblance of privacy.
And now his heart began thundering in his chest with renewed vigour, certain to be audible to onlookers—how had she thought to ask that? Or were Draco’s Obliviation skills not quite as phenomenal as his bravado might have others believe? He had, after all, mucked up the Obliviation job on Travers at the Ministry.
What was he meant to say? What could he say—except: “…Yes…”
He confirmed her hopes with a breathy exhalation—though he did not do so with any conviction. He didn’t know how long he’d been laid out here, but there was no telling what might have happened to Draco in the interim. Had Voldemort given his forces leave to rejoin the battle once Harry had presented himself for slaughter?
She had told him to keep her son safe, though, so he hoped that he had managed it—even if it cost him his life.
And then she was gone, leaves rustling and crunching as she rose to her feet.
“His is vanquished, my Lord,” she called, and Harry’s heart leapt, relief coursing through his veins. “Dead!” This seemed to finally trigger the collective exhalation of the bated breath of the camp as all present erupted into shouts of triumph, firing off rainbows of spells into the canopy and clapping their hands and stamping their feet. There were even a few yips and howls from the werewolves prowling the perimeter, and he could hear the trees shaking as the giants laid into the thick trunks.
“There you have it!” a high, cruel voice echoed over the cheers of milling crowd, almost giddy with glee. “Now that wasn’t so difficult was it? Not so special after all—by sheer dumb luck has their Boy Saviour made it this far, and by my unmitigated, irrefutable power has he now been laid low.” Harry steeled himself, knowing Voldemort wasn’t quite finished with him yet, and sure enough: “Let’s have him join the celebration, shall we? Crucio!”
Even knowing it was coming, expecting it—even having experienced it before, at the hands of this same wizard—did little to prepare Harry for the rank torture of the spell. His body was flung into the air as unimaginable pain flooded through him, his very nerves on fire. He imagined this was how Draco had felt, when the dragon had ripped through him, tearing him apart from the inside out as it struggled for freedom. Harry bit down on his tongue to keep from screaming and tasted blood, bitter and iron-rich.
It was Voldemort’s arrogant pride that saved him in the end, though: Harry’s seizures of agony were disguised by his bonelessly flailing limbs as his body was tossed about like a rag doll, and the cheers and bellows of the Death Eaters rejoicing in his defeat drowned out his grunts and whimpering cries. Had Voldemort been content to torture him on the ground, the game would have been up, but when the Curse was released and Harry hit the ground again and lay still, none seemed the wiser. His wand, still stuffed in his robes, had landed at such an angle beneath him that it was now stabbing him in the side, and it was only the agony of the Cruciatus Curse that distracted him from what was quite an uncomfortable position. He prayed the power of the Elder Wand would not allow his little Holly twig to be snapped so easily. Belatedly, he wished he had thought to secure it more tightly instead of haphazardly stuffing it in his robes, but then he had not expected to need to use it again, what with being dead and all.
“And with that, my dear friends, I believe it is time to march—come, we will take the castle shortly and quash what remains of this toothless rebellion.” Another cry of triumph filled the air. “But oh, we mustn’t let Mr. Potter miss the grand parade—after all, I’m sure his friends and compatriots are just beside themselves with worry, so let’s give them the reunion they deserve…” Voldemort snapped his finger. “You. Yes, yes, let’s have you do the honours. Unshackle him.” Who? Who had Voldemort tapped? It didn’t sound like one of the Death Eaters, not if they’d been shackled. But who would be out here…
Oh. Oh no.
“There’s a good fellow—now don’t worry about being too gentle with him, Hagrid. He’s good and dead, can’t feel a thing anymore. But—oh my, he seems to have lost his glasses. Well we can’t have that, can we? The Boy Who Lived must be recognisable. Glasses, scar. Everything in its place. Travers—find his glasses.”
There was a brief scuffle in the leaf litter, and someone muttered Accio Potter’s glasses. Harry held very still, praying Travers wasn’t half as perceptive as Mrs. Malfoy had been—and from experience, he wasn’t—and grit his teeth as his glasses were mashed roughly onto his face, one lens audibly cracking in the doing.
“Excellent, excellent—now, if you wouldn’t mind, Hagrid? And be sure to hold him up high; we want everyone to be able to see him as we march.”
He felt the ground tremble with each dragging step as Hagrid approached, breath hitching with whining little grunts. When he bent down to slip his arms under Harry’s limp form, fat teardrops splashed across his dirty forehead and cheeks. Hagrid held him close, cradling him against his wide barrel chest like an infant, and began to rock him, whispering words under his breath that Harry couldn’t quite catch but sounded like a soft, steady mantra of No, no no.
Harry’s heart ached, wishing he could offer some manner of reassurance, but loyal friend though Hagrid was, he had no talent for subterfuge and would unwittingly betray Harry before he was ready. It was a cruel necessity, but only for a bit longer, Hagrid and the others needed to be convinced that Harry was well and truly dead.
They trudged on through the Forest, Hagrid stumbling at times but holding Harry close, protecting him from both the whipping branches his large form could not avoid hitting and any further assault by the Death Eaters or Voldemort himself. No effort was made at stealth by the procession—and why should there have been? After all, they’d just felled Harry Potter, champion of the Hogwarts resistance. There was little else to fear and certainly nothing else to threaten.
Cradled against Hagrid’s chest, Harry remained still and quiet, eyes shut, passively taking in the sounds around him as they tromped through the underbrush. A number of Death Eaters were boasting now of targets they intended to go after first once they breached the castle (“McGonagall made me waste a whole Saturday afternoon polishing the Trophy Case one time just for Jinxing the toilets to flush upward—think I’ll see if her sense of humour’s improved since then.”), and animalistic grunts, howls, and thundering, lumbering footsteps were reminder that Voldemort’s dark forces were following them to what would be, Harry was confident, the last stand.
After a while—so much longer, it seemed, than it had taken Harry to reach the camp—they finally exited the Forest, the stench of loam and mould and decaying growth replaced by a fresh late-spring breeze and, strangely, a hint of sulphur. Hagrid’s colony of Blast-ended Skrewts would be corralled nearby.
But then the breeze died abruptly, and all warmth began to seep away as it felt to Harry like a column of stormclouds was rolling in. No—no, not clouds. These would be the Dementors guarding the edge of the Forest, milling close and waiting expectantly for new orders from their master. He strained his ears, and he could hear it now: their gasping cries and rasping moans, and Hagrid shuddered, clutching Harry even closer.
Would they realise Harry wasn’t dead and swarm him, as they had so often before? Would Voldemort see, would he know? Or would he assume their interest was not so much in Hagrid’s charge as in Hagrid himself? God, he couldn’t cast anything here—even if he could manage a wandless (and wordless) Patronus, everyone would know it was his the moment the stag manifested and shook its glowing antlers in the Dementors’ general direction. He would have to grit his teeth and bear their presence, praying Voldemort had instructed them to keep their distance and not go gobbling up the souls of anyone in his immediate vicinity.
“Stop,” Voldemort said, suddenly and without warning, and though the command was not directed at Harry, he imagined he could still hear the magical compulsion in it, for Hagrid lurched jerkily in midstride before seizing up. “It’s rude to show up unannounced. Sonorus.”
There was a quiet beat, and then:
“Harry Potter is dead.”
Voldemort’s voice, now magically amplified, echoed across the Hogwarts grounds, clear and strong and confident. In his mind’s eye, Harry could see the castle occupants, in the midst of barricading doors and tending to the wounded, pause and lend an ear to the madman banging at the gates.
“Your Saviour, you’ll be disappointed to hear, did not fall valiantly in battle—instead, he took the coward’s path, fleeing in the night while you were all distracted by battle…right into my Death Eater’s waiting clutches. You have my sympathies, brave warriors—your faith, strong and sure as it may have been, was poorly placed, heaped upon the head of a stupid, stubborn child, who to the bitter end thought only of saving his own sad skin while so many of your compatriots laid down their lives.
“But the battle is finished. The Boy Who Lived lives no more, and my own bloodlust is at last sated. I have no quarrel with the rest of you, as I have said. Spilling magical blood, especially the blood of so many with bright, promising futures ahead of them, has always been anathema to me. So I will join you at the castle, I will let you see with your own eyes that the boy you called ‘hero’ and ‘Saviour’ is no more. And then…I will accept your surrender.”
He let a beat past, and then added, “…I will only accept surrender. There will be no more resistance; should any of you find this unacceptable…you will be struck down and shown no quarter. You are outnumbered, you are outmatched. Pray don’t be stupid and waste any more of our time. We have a new world to build together.”
With a swipe of his wand, Voldemort then cancelled the spell and turned to face Hagrid. “Come, we make for the castle. You’ll march at the front—and stop coddling his corpse, you ignorant oaf. He’s dead, and I want everyone to see it.”
Hagrid shifted his grip on Harry, still holding him gently but now angling him forward, so anyone looking would have full view of his face. Harry prayed Voldemort moved on quickly and didn’t catch a hint of flaring nostrils or flickering eyelids. Perhaps the scuffed and cracked lenses of his glasses would grant him some cover in that respect.
The procession continued forward once more, the loud snaps and cracks of leaves and twigs being trod underfoot slowly giving way to the soft rustle of robes brushing over the grassy lawn leading up to the castle. They were travelling at a faster clip now—not jogging, but walking with purpose. Voldemort was growing impatient, probably eager to claim his victory proper and tuck in for breakfast in the Great Hall. Harry’s head bounced with each jostling jolt of Hagrid’s heavy step, and he gave himself permission to peek again and get his bearings amidst all the flopping about.
Voldemort was walking just ahead, leading them all with Hagrid hot on his heels. Nagini was coiled around his shoulders like a fat, scaly shawl—and why shouldn’t he let his treasured pet free, now that Harry was dead? With his greatest enemy defeated, his remaining Horcruxes were safe. Perhaps he was already contemplating making more. Harry doubted he’d stop at six this time.
Hagrid was still sniffling as they walked. He’d stopped outright sobbing, tear ducts perhaps having run dry, but every now and then, he’d murmur Oh, Harry… and I’m sorry… as if it were somehow his fault. Harry shored up his restraint and kept his lids shut tight, though he could feel hot tears of sympathy knocking at the backs of his eyes. He tried to direct soothing mental waves Hagrid’s way, but he didn’t think it was working. The only time he’d ever managed Legilimency decently had been with the help of a potion, after all.
Again, as if magically compelled to do so, Hagrid jerked to a halt, and from the sudden hush that followed, so had the rest of the Death Eaters and their companions. Harry mentally calculated the distance and pace they’d walked—they’d be just at the main courtyard now, probably outside the entrance. The doors would be closed, bolted tight against any intruders—but they would open, soon, and everyone would see him, seemingly dead, in Hagrid’s arms.
A beat, and then the soft rattle of locks being disengaged and the creak of heavy doors drawing back. In the gloaming, Harry felt a bright stripe of warm light streaming from the entrance fall across his dirty, battered face.
See, the only nice part about dying…was that he had known he wouldn’t have to watch as people mourned him. Wouldn’t have to witness their sorrow, their wrath, their despair. He had known returning would involve ever so much more pain and sadness than simply travelling on would, but knowledge had done nothing to temper the sound of Minerva McGonagall’s terrible scream.
Her cry cut the still darkness, strangled in her throat around a sob of such despair, her throat laid open raw and wailing. Hagrid’s sorrow had been difficult enough to deal with; to hear such a staid woman who was undoubtedly no stranger to sadness make that sort of sound…
From her master’s side, Bellatrix cackled cruelly, jeering, “Gonna have to find yourself a new Seeker, won’t you, Minny?”
Harry used the distraction of McGongall’s display to chance a squinting glance, glimpsing wide, frightened faces willing the doorway behind McGonagall as more survivors crowded the entrance. They were all curious, and he couldn’t blame them, but he wished they’d taken the opportunity to hide, instead of insisting on seeing for themselves whether or not Harry had truly fallen.
Three familiar figures shoved their way to the front of the crowd, and Harry closed his eyes again—wishing he could close his ears, too.
Hermione, Ron, and Draco’s voices rang out sharp and strident, and his heart leapt for them, everything in him—all his magic, everything—reaching out in silent reassurance, longing to ease their worries and rally their convictions. Their cries acted as permission for the others to start up as well, and dozens of voices began hurling abuse—and not a few obscenities—at the Death Eaters gathered on the front lawn. It was a glorious cacophony, and Harry could have listened to it for ages—
There was a flash and a sharp bang that nearly blinded Harry behind his still-closed eyes, and a hush settled across the entrance so suddenly it could only have been magically imposed.
“…Now,” Voldemort said, voice once more cool and calm and full of deadly threat. “Hagrid, you will place him on the ground now—at my feet, where he belongs.”
Hagrid shuffled to comply, and Harry felt himself being gently, so gently, lowered. “I’m so sorry, Harry…” Hagrid warbled in apology, touching his head before he withdrew.
There was a brief, considering pause, and then: “…Draco, my boy. How very good to see you—though I confess I am a bit surprised to see you looking so…alive.” Voldemort chuckled softly. “Take care not to stray too far; you and I need to have a little chat, once I have settled my business with your…companions. Plus I am sure your parents will be thrilled to see their son is safe and sound.”
Harry could practically feel Draco straining at the Silencing Charm Voldemort had slapped on the crowd, his rage and fear palpable in the air like a coming storm. He silently prayed for Draco to melt back into the crowd, disappear into the maze of Hogwarts halls and hide, or else transform and fly away as far and fast as he could. Voldemort thought he still had the Elder Wand and would stop at nothing to wrest it from him. Once he realised Draco no longer held claim to it, Voldemort would likely kill him.
Voldemort clapped his hands once. “You see?” he said, and Harry could feel him striding back and forth right beside where Harry lay. “Your Saviour is mortal! Oh, I know many a tale was spun of the intrepid ‘Boy Who Lived’, that some might have even deemed him indestructible. But perhaps now, we can all see and agree that he was only ever a boy, who lived for a time, riding on sheer dumb luck before meeting his inevitable and ignominious end at the hands of his betters.”
“The fuck you’re his better!” Ron roared, and the Charm frayed and snapped once more as the defenders of Hogwarts rallied. None, it seemed, dared rush the Death Eaters—but they had no compunctions about shouting them down, and it was only another bright sharp BANG from a fresh Silencing Charm that brought quiet to the courtyard once more. Voldemort’s feigned patience was thinning, and Harry felt certain that the next spell cast to bring his friends’ unruliness back in line would not be something so tame as a Charm.
“Ronald Weasley—Harry Potter’s best mate.” He sneered the title, and Harry could hear the curl of his lip in his voice. Didn’t he know they didn’t use the M word these days? “Some of you may be wondering why, if Mr. Weasley and Harry Potter here were so very close, he was found alone in the Forbidden Forest. I’ll spare you the suspense: because Harry Potter was trying to sneak away, to abandon you in this your greatest hour of need—”
“Bullshit!” someone shouted, and evidently harbouring a fierce suicide wish, they broke free from the crowd with a grunt, followed by the soft rustle of grass being trod upon as they charged Voldemort in plain view of everyone. Voldemort let them come, a few beats of silence passing with no reaction—and then there was a brilliant flash, followed by the sound of something hard and heavy slamming into the ground, wheezing in pain.
A shock of panic thrilled through Harry, and he chanced opening his eyes, just a slit, to see who Voldemort had struck down—
“You see?” Voldemort crowed. “Lord Voldemort is merciful. As I said, I have no quarrel with any of you any longer—and I understand that emotions are running high right now, so I will forgive this attempted assault on my person just the once. Now, stand up, boy.” He seemed to be speaking to the wizard who’d just charged him. “Let’s get a good look at you. You who thought you could single-handedly fell the Dark Lord.” He turned back to his Death Eaters, adding with cruel amusement, “What has the world come to that so many children seem to be plagued by such delusions of grandeur?”
Chuckles rippled through the crowd around Harry, and Bellatrix tittered in delight, clapping excitedly. “Oh this is lovely, my Lord! It’s the Longbottom boy!” She gave Neville—poor Neville—a fluttering little flirtatious wave. “Tell your mum and dad I said ‘hullo’.”
“Ah…” Voldemort said, recollection dawning, “Yes, yes…the Aurors. Tell me, my dear, did they ever recover their faculties?” Bellatrix shook her head, wild curls bouncing. “A pity—I suppose that means you’ll have grown up without parents, then?”
By now, Neville had struggled back to his feet. His wand was nowhere to be seen, perhaps having been thrown wide by the force of Voldemort’s spell hitting, and he was left standing alone between the Hogwarts defenders on one side and Voldemort’s army on the other. He seemed so small to Harry, so easily picked off, but Neville gave no sign he was cowed in the least. He had his empty hands curled into fists, as if he were about to just haul off and slug Voldemort. For his part, Voldemort only looked mildly amused.
“My Gran raised me. Just the way they would’ve liked—to stand up to bullying arseholes.”
Voldemort nodded solemnly, feigning sympathy. “Still, it just isn’t the same. I, too, was raised without the love of a mother or father.” He shrugged. “But I like to think I’ve done quite well for myself, despite my humble beginnings.” He cocked his head, sizing Neville up. “You could do well for yourself, too, with the right sorts at your side. You’ll be a Pureblood, won’t you, brave boy?”
“I’m not a boy, Snake-face—and yeah, I’m a Pureblood. Unlike some of us in this conversation.”
Harry didn’t even see Voldemort’s hand move—there was only another flash, and a bright red line blossomed on Neville’s cheek. Neville instinctively winced, bringing his hand up to touch his cheek and drawing it away, frowning at the blood he found. Voldemort cocked his head to the side. “A cheek…for your cheek. Though given the atrocious House colours of that tie, I can’t say I’m surprised to see you have your fair share of unabashed stupidity as well.” He extended a white, skeletal hand to Neville. “What say you, Longbottom? I’m willing to look past the unfortunate choices made in your youth for the promise of your undying loyalty going forward. Will it be the Death Eaters…or just death?”
“Thought you were supposed to be smart or something,” Neville spat, then he raised a fist. “It’s no great secret who I’ve thrown my lot in with—Dumbledore’s Army, to the bitter fucking end.”
The Silencing Charm sundered again with the force of his proclamation, and a great cheer went up from the crowd behind him. Try as he might, Voldemort could not keep these men and women quiet—not without killing them.
And it seemed he was preparing to do just that. He let his outstretched hand fall away, bringing up his wand, and when he spoke, it was with a deadly calm. “A tragic choice—with tragic consequences.” He pointed his wand at Neville, and without a word, Neville seized in place, straight and stiff, as if he’d just had a Body Bind placed on him. “I think it’s time to establish what will be the new order going forward. Some of you seem to think that because I have chosen the path of mercy, of forbearance, that you can speak to me like you might your peers. I am not your peer. I am—” He raised his wand high, circling it over his head to bring it slashing down. “—Your master.”
With a grunt, Neville collapse to one knee, back bending in an arc as his head was forced down. Neville fought it, hard, his every muscle trembling, but he’d never been able to break out of Harry’s Body Binds, so there was little hope of him being able to break out of Voldemort’s.
“You wear your House colours with such pride…” Voldemort murmured. “I’ve never understood the fascination, myself. Ravenclaw, perhaps—at least they can claim ‘a ready mind’. Hufflepuff…well, they’re dullards but unremarkable. A celebration of mediocrity. Gryffindors, though… What is there to take pride in? A ham-fisted approach to problem-solving and general disregard for authority? Now, don’t mistake me, I can appreciate a good display of power. Really puts your lessers in their place, teaches them you’re not one to be trifled with. But if that’s all there is to you…? Brains enough to know how to get yourself into trouble but not how to get out? Brawn enough to start fights but not finish them? Why on earth would you want anyone knowing that was the stock you came from?” Voldemort shook his head, tutting under his breath. “No more of that, I think. For your own good.”
He raised his wand, pointing at the Headmaster’s Tower, and gave a little flick of his wrist. There was a brief beat of silence—and then the distant sound of shattering glass as something shot through a window. Between the distance and the low light of pre-dawn, Harry could not make out what it was, only a dark blur closing in fast on their position—but when Voldemort snatched it from the air as it drew close, holding it by its pointy tip for all to see, Harry realised it was, of all things, the Sorting Hat.
“The Sorting Hat,” Voldemort said. “Here since the school’s founding, it has sat upon the heads of countless witches and wizards as they passed through these hallowed halls. It even sat upon my own head, once upon a time, and whispered to me that I could be great, that I had ambition and ability to spare—but that if I didn’t rein in my darker urges and learn compassion, learn to follow as well as lead, then only ruin awaited me.” He spread his arms wide. “Clearly, sage words indeed!” Another wave of chuckles rippled through the crowd of Death Eaters, and Voldemort held his hand up for silence. “Henceforth, students will learn to be ambitious, they will learn to be proud, they will learn to take and claim and demand what is their due. They will learn those values prized by my noble ancestor, Salazar Slytherin.”
He stepped forward, gently placing the hat onto Neville’s head, where it sat, unmoving, as if it were any old, mouldering heirloom. “There will be no more Houses—and no more Sorting Hat. Young Neville here, ambitious though he might be, I fear has been too tainted by meatheaded Gryffindor values and must, alas, serve as an example. An example of what fate awaits anyone else foolish enough to dare oppose me.”
He snapped his wrist, wand arcing, and the Sorting Hat exploded into flame. The fireball flared bright, spooking the onlookers into strident screams of shock as Neville just sat there, immobile, unable to flee or toss aside the flaming hat on his head as the flames licked their way down. Harry imagined he could smell the stench of burning flesh and fabric all over again, just like with Draco, and he could not bear it; it was time, he had to act now—
“HAGGER!” something roared, and every head whipped around, momentarily distracted from the hellish immolation unfolding before them to see, of all things, Grawp lumbering around from behind the still-not-quite-whole Gryffindor Tower.
“Remove that,” Voldemort snarled at his own giants, and off they galloped, the earth quaking beneath their boots as they rushed Grawp—until one of them took a javelin thick as a sapling to the back of the skull and went down.
Shouting voices a hundred or more strong bellowed a rallying cry as a crowd springing up seemingly from out of nowhere began making their way at breakneck speed to the castle in a pincer movement, sandwiching the Death Eaters between themselves and the Hogwarts defenders. Joining them, racing along on thundering hooves, came the Centaurs, pelting away from their home in the Forbidden Forest, with arrows nocked and bows readied. One of them sent another javelin sailing overhead at the giants, though this one flew wide. At his signal, the others began raining down a hail of arrows on the Death Eaters, who were now conveniently gathered into a scrum and ripe for the picking. Several had sense enough to throw up Shield Charms, but most scattered in a panic, self-preservation instincts overriding the recognition that desertion would mean certain death.
Harry didn’t have a damn clue what was going on, but he wasn’t about to let his moment slip by, and in a flourish he’d been preparing for since the march from the Forbidden Forest, he stuffed his hand into his robes, pulled out his Invisibility Cloak with one hand and wand with the other, and scrambled under cover. The scene around him was chaos incarnate, and recognising that there was a very real chance of being trampled if he didn’t move, Harry sprang to his feet.
Right, first things first. He whirled on poor Neville, wand brandished, and prepared to cast—
But Neville wasn’t there. Harry’s head snapped around, searching—god, had he been snatched by one of the giants, or had Bellatrix gotten to him?—and found him already on his feet, several body lengths away, halfway back to the line of Hogwarts defenders. He’d not only shaken the Body Bind, to Harry’s amazement, he’d doused the flames as well and doffed the hat, which he now held in one hand. Marvellously, he didn’t seem to have a scratch on him—no burns, no scars, nothing. Even the hat seemed in decent shape—well, as decent as it had ever been.
Neville looked equally astonished at his hale and whole state, patting his arms with a frown—and then he slowly turned to regard the Sorting Hat clutched in his grip. Harry watched as he flipped it over, exposing the bowl, and reached inside with a determined set to his chin. His whole arm disappeared into the hat, groping, searching—and when he withdrew it once more, he held clutched in his grip now a gleaming silver handle, encrusted with rubies, followed by a long, tapered blade.
He tossed aside the hat, studying the true sword of Gryffindor in his hand for but a heartbeat—then turned to Voldemort and charged.
It was curious that, even with so many distractions on the field at the moment—the Centaur herd bearing down on the castle, the cavalry racing up from Hogsmeade, the Death Eaters scrambling for safety and meeting the defenders in the process—every eye present was still somehow drawn, unerringly, to Neville. Death Eaters, Hogwarts defenders—and Harry himself, standing there mute and frozen under the Invisibility Cloak.
Nagini uncoiled from Voldemort’s shoulders and snapped out to meet the onrushing threat, great fangs bared, glistening with deadly poison.
But Neville only cocked his arm. The sword flashed—and down it cleaved, slicing Nagini’s head clean from her body and sending it whistling through the air where it landed a few feet away, rolling once or twice before coming to a stop, maw still agape but bright eyes now dead and cold.
The rest of her body slid from Voldemort’s shoulders like an old rubbery hose, collapsing at his feet, and he shrieked in fury as he beheld the ruin of his precious pet, visibly shaking.
His final Horcrux had been destroyed—which meant at long-fucking-last, Tom Marvolo Riddle was mortal.
Voldemort’s eyes burned with rage as he slowly shifted his gaze from Nagini’s corpse to Neville, who stood proud, the sword still clutched in his hand. “That was a favour Harry asked of me. Just thought you ought to know.”
Warmth that even Voldemort’s fury could not chill filled Harry’s chest, and he raised his wand, preparing to cast a Shield Charm on Neville, who was probably about to catch hell for what he’d just dared—
“HARRY!” Hagrid bellowed, audible even over the din of battle. “WHERE’S HARRY! WHERE’D HE GO?!” But few paid him heed—Harry was dead, and there were rather more important matters to attend to just now than rescuing a corpse—and he was left scrambling, shouldering aside any who dared get in his way as he scoured the field in vain search of Harry’s body.
Harry turned back to Neville, conscious he too had more important matters to attend to—but Neville was gone again, and so was Voldemort now. He caught a glimpse of Neville having now joined the fray, which had turned into outright chaos. The Centaurs had abandoned their bows and pulled out short swords and clubs, taking walloping shots against anyone in a black cloak and hood, punctuated by the odd bucking kick with their sharp hooves. The Hogsmeade Army, for Harry had deduced this was what it must be, had finally breached the low wall ringing the courtyard and were meeting the first wave of Death Eaters and assorted followers of Voldemort with raised wands and furious war cries. Even the skies were filled now with swooping Thestrals—not a few bearing riders on their backs—and Hippogriffs, including one who looked suspiciously like Buckbeak. Harry searched for Draco among their number, but he had either heard Harry’s silent plea to make himself scarce or else was too entrenched in battle to spare a moment to slip into something a little less likely to be felled by a stray curse.
The incoming charge up from Hogwarts was pushing the Death Eaters closer to the castle as they fled the trampling feet of the giants and the Centaurs’ rain of arrows, in turn pushing the Hogwarts defenders back inside, until there was a steady stream of humanity (and not-quite-humanity) shoving their way through the front door.
Harry rushed around what was now an outright battlefield, dodging Hexes and Curses where he could and firing back as good as he got, still hidden safely under the Invisibility Cloak but falling further and further back from the scrum of action. Voldemort was nowhere to be found, though, and Harry was realising now that he had in all likelihood made his way into the castle, intent on taking it and holding it one way or another.
Fuck—this was never going to end, not while Voldemort survived. Voldemort would fight so long as his Death Eaters remained, but the Death Eaters might fall back if their master was defeated.
The recognition he now had a clear-cut mission fired Harry’s blood, and he threw himself into the crowd, shoving his way through as best he could—a difficult task, given he was not exactly beefy in size and also still invisible. He made it just through the front doors and into the Entrance Hall before he met a blockage, crushed between a Death Eater whose wide, terrified eyes said this was more than he’d signed up for, and Lee Jordan, who seemed to be trying to free his wand arm to take a shot at said Death Eater. Together, they were all buffeted through the Entrance Hall to be spat out into the Great Hall as the bottleneck finally cleared.
After shoving Lee Jordan towards the Death Eater he’d been so concerned with, Harry collected himself. The bodies had been moved by now, along with the makeshift barricades, and the battle was already in full swing.
He wasted no time in scanning the Hall, searching for the point of greatest tumult, for that would be where Voldemort would make his stand—and it was with no great difficulty that Harry found him. The Hogwarts forces had evidently come to the same conclusion as Harry and were making efforts to crowd around Voldemort, blocking him off from his own forces still working their way inside. He continued to spout threats and oaths between slinging Dark Curses, but distracted as he was by a battle he had clearly not expected to be so intimately involved in, his spells were easily deflected by the Shield Charms Harry cast to protect his friends and fellow fighters as he made his way through the Hall.
A great cheering roar sounded from just behind Harry, and he turned to see a wave of new fighters finally make their way through the gummed-up Entry Hall and into the Great Hall proper—this had been the oncoming army: sorely needed fresh reinforcements, ready to defend the castle.
“Well all right, now!” Slughorn huffed, cheeks ruddy, in stark contrast to the emerald-green silk pajamas he was still wearing—and were those bunny slippers? “Let’s, eh, let’s make this a fair fight, shall we?” His tone belied the reluctant hesitation writ across his features, but he still began gingerly picking his way through the rubble and over the already felled bodies of both friend and foe while those at his back gave an answering cry and streamed in around him. Madam Rosmerta clapped him firmly on one shoulder and gave him a loud smack on his cheek before brandishing her wand and lifting her skirts to charge ahead. Other shopkeepers and owners of Hogsmeade had joined her, but the bulk of the new bodies seemed to be friends and families of Harry’s fellow students. He even thought he spotted Neville’s grandmother tossing Jinxes left and right.
So caught up was Harry in marvelling at the welcome sight of the new wave of fighters, he was nearly knocked onto his arse with fright when the door that led to the Kitchens was blasted off its hinges, sailing clear across the Hall as out swarmed the house-elves of Hogwarts, whooping and waving all manner of disturbing kitchen implements—and at their head, riding a Diricawl and clad in armour that looked to have been fashioned from a cheese grater, was Dobby. He thrust his meat tenderiser into the air, shouting, “FOR HARRY POTTER!”, and then he and his mount disappeared in a sharp CRACK of magic. Harry would have thought that the strangest sight he might see today had not Kreacher, the fake Horcrux locket bouncing merrily on his chest, come scurrying out after Dobby, bellowing in his raspy croaking baritone, “Make them pay! Fight for brave Master Regulus, defender of house-elves! Tear out the hearts of his murderers! INTO THE FRAY!”
A chorus of resounding squeaks and yips followed him as he and a horde of other house-elves charged into the Hall, hacking and stabbing whatever they could reach (generally the ankles and shins and knees of unfortunate Death Eaters) with their cleavers and potato peelers and paring knives and zesters. Harry’s heart swelled to such great proportions. He was strongly considering becoming a paying member of S.P.E.W.
And then overhead, swooping and swerving as gracefully as Harry had ever seen, was Draco, finally having transformed so that the spells he was effortlessly dodging would barely scratch his hide, even if they connected. He glided over the scrum of witches and wizards doing battle below, pelting groups of Death Eaters and their minions with globs of blood-red lava or grabbing the odd straggler and dropping them from a height. The giants had knocked down a section of the wall and forced their way inside, and Draco released a bone-jolting roar of victory when he managed to blind one about to stomp Lucius Malfoy flat.
They were doing it. They were winning. This was no longer a siege; it was a rout. Witches and wizards and all manner of magical creatures great and small were working together, giving their all to beat back what had seemed an unbeatable army. His friends, his family, schoolmates and professors, people he had never seen before let alone spoken to—they were all putting their lives on the line, fighting with all they could muster, paying for their efforts in flesh and blood.
And Harry was just standing around gawking. When he was the only one who could end it all.
He let the warmth that came with returning hope fill him, shook his head to clear his thoughts, and sprang into action. The Cloak still wrapped tight about his shoulders, he began dodging wayward spells and weaving through duelling parties to make his way across the Hall to where Voldemort would be waiting for him.
The Hall was growing more and more crowded by the minute as those who’d been trapped outside by the bottleneck in the Entrance Hall swarmed inside through the massive hole made by the giants, and Harry didn’t think the Great Hall had seen so many occupants since the Triwizard Tournament. Everywhere he looked, he saw friendly faces slamming unfriendly ones to the ground—Professor Sinistra and Angelina Johnson had teamed up to take on Yaxley, Flitwick was acquainting Dolohov with his best Bombarda, Hagrid had finally given up trying to find Harry’s body and had channelled his rage into a walloping right hook, laying into a sneering Macnair, and Ron and Luna whipped twin Body Binds at Travers, sending him to the ground with a sharp CRACK as his head hit stone.
Rookwood raced past Harry with Seamus and Dean hot on his heels, the both of them slinging Stupendos like they were going out of style, and Arthur and Percy were resigning their Ministry posts in a rather ostentatious fashion via a series of colourful Hexes aimed at Thicknesse, who had found his way back to the battle. Fred and George seemed to be charming the fireballs Draco belched to zoom about the hall at their command, incinerating errant Death Eaters with pinpoint precision.
Harry finally found Voldemort in the midst of battle with not one, not two, but three opponents: Kingsley, McGonagall, and astonishingly Slughorn. Perhaps he’d taken that slight against Slytherin earlier in the evening personally and was now hellbent on proving that they could be just as brave as any Gryffindor when push came to shove. Harry would take it.
Still, skilful though they were and outnumbered though Voldemort was, the duel seemed to be dragging, neither side quite able to land a finishing blow.
But Voldemort was not the only one who’d perhaps bitten off more than they could chew; at the other end of the hall, Bellatrix was engaged in a duel of her own, facing off against Hermione, Ginny, and Hannah Abbott.
Harry dithered, torn as to which group he ought to go help—Voldemort was the end goal, but the Bellatrix fight seemed in more pressing need of support. He was decided when Bellatrix whipped her wand and sent an acid-green Killing Curse straight for Hannah. Had poor Hannah not stumbled on a piece of rubble blasted free from one of the plinths lining the Hall, she would have surely been dead.
Harry’s stomach gave a nauseating jolt; two Professors and an Auror could hold their own against the Dark Lord, but these were students battling a powerful witch bent on their murder, and though he’d trained all three of said students himself through the D.A. and knew they were more than capable, this was Voldemort’s right hand, and Bellatrix was unafraid to use Unforgivables. Draco had told him to respect how others wanted to die, but that didn’t mean he had to accept them dying at all.
He changed course, breaking into a flat-out run for Bellatrix—but before he’d gotten even halfway there, he was knocked sideways as someone slammed into his invisible form.
Neville raced past, the sword of Gryffindor raised high over his head as he took a running leap off an overturned bench.
Bellatrix never saw him coming. She saw Hannah Abbott, cowering on the ground, one hand raised in warding; she saw Ginny’s and Hermione’s gazes shifting to just over her right shoulder; she saw a shadow falling over their faces.
She didn’t see Neville. But she did hear him.
“Frank and Alice Longbottom send their regards.”
The sword flashed, and Bellatrix’s demented grin froze in place, her eyes bulging a tick—and it seemed as if there was a heartbeat where it dawned on her just what had happened. Who had just struck her a mortal blow. But then the heartbeat passed, and she toppled, her body hitting the cold flagstones with a heavy thud while her head went spinning off elsewhere, disappearing into the fray. Neville was getting rather good at lopping off heads; perhaps Harry would suggest he look into a professional turn once the dust had settled.
It was an anticlimactic end—and few were more deserving. Hardly anyone noticed the fall of the terror Lestrange—no one really but Hermione, Ginny, and an awestruck Hannah Abbott. Well, them—and Voldemort, whose head snapped around at the snickersnack of the sword slashing down a second time to snatch a favoured companion from him.
He beheld Neville, Bellatrix’s corpse, and the blood-stained sword slung over his shoulder.
Neville glanced his way, almost as an afterthought, and locked eyes with Voldemort’s, now blazing red with rage. He cocked a crooked, tired grin, panting heavily with exertion, before he called out, “Now Harry had nothing to do with that one. She was all my idea.”
And Voldemort screamed.
His cry echoed through the Hall, deafening all in earshot, and McGonagall, Slughorn, and Kingsley were blasted back by an explosion of force centred around Voldemort. Their bodies were flung like rag dolls by the shockwave of Voldemort’s fury and frustration made manifest.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl all around Harry. He had almost forgotten that ominous clock that had taken up residence inside his heart, and the din of battle had drowned out its steady tick tick tick thus far, but now it pounded loudly in his ears with a slow, measured step. He could no longer observe—that time had passed.
Voldemort raised his wand—and took careful, considerate aim at Neville, who stood his ground with a proud jut of his chin, defiant to the bitter end.
“Protego!” Harry roared, and a Shield Charm such as he had never produced before expanded to fill nearly half the Hall, clearing a circle around Harry and Voldemort and shoving any onlookers back to safety.
Voldemort’s head whipped around, searching for the caster, and knowing it was now or never, that the time had come to make his stand and end this, Harry drew off the Invisibility Cloak, letting it pool on the ground at his feet.
His abrupt appearance in the middle of the Great Hall, seemingly out of thin air, sent sharp yelps of shock rippling through the crowd, followed closely by shouts and cheers. He heard his name whispered and wept in equal parts, in chorus with He’s alive!s and See? I knew its and Fuck, can anything kill him?s.
But Harry held up a hand, and the crowd fell quiet. The sounds of battle elsewhere in the hall faded as well, as fighters on both sides seemed to sense something of great import was about to happen. A temporary truce seemed to be called, allowing all to come and gawk, drinking in the sight of Voldemort and Harry, alone on a field of stone and rubble and beginning to track circles around each other. A hush fell over the Hall, fuelled by fear and wonder.
“Not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment,” Harry said, voice raised to be heard from one end of the Hall to the other, “but I don’t want anyone trying to help me.” It was quiet as a tomb, and his words echoed uncomfortably loud. He swallowed the lump that was forming in his throat, suddenly conscious of just how dry his mouth felt. He’d always hated public speaking. “It’s got to be me and him—no one else.”
Voldemort’s lips curled into a gruesome grin, and he chuckled deviously. “Now you and I both know you don’t mean that. After all, that’s what you do. Cower under cover while others do your dirty work. Now…” He tapped his chin with one long, white finger. “Who will we use as a shield today, Potter? Hagrid has sheer bulk on his side, but young Draco can evidently take a curse or three and keep on ticking…”
“We won’t have any ‘shields’. We won’t have any ‘lieutenants’. And we certainly won’t have any Horcruxes.” Voldemort’s red eyes narrowed a tick, and Harry thought he could just see a little vein throbbing at his temple as it finally dawned on him just how many of his last remaining threads had been snipped. “It’s just you and me. You remember that prophecy? How neither can live while the other survives?” Harry raised his wand, adopting the ready stance even as he continued to pace. “I think we’re about to test it.”
“Are we, then?” Voldemort cocked his head to the side, studying Harry carefully. His gaze travelled from the still leaf-littered birds’ nest hair on Harry’s head down to the tips of his dirty trainers and then back up again. Harry knew what he saw: just a boy, a boy who refused to die. He was thinking now, wracking his mind, wondering how Harry had survived. Wondering if yet another Killing Curse might do the trick this time. Wondering why the answer wasn’t of course. “And I suppose you think today will be yet another for the history books, another subheading in the chapter of Harry Potter. The Dark Lord, defeated by the Boy Who Lived Through Sheer Dumb Luck?”
“Oh,” Harry said. “I see the flaw in your thinking—you seem convinced that I’ve survived thus far…because I’m just lucky that way. Now, that’s just a little bit sad, that you haven’t put all the pieces together. I’ve gotten to know a poster-child Slytherin over the past few months, and I’ve learned you lot are generally very sharp, so I must say I’m surprised. And I think I owe it to you—you know, for all the good turns you’ve done me—to help you figure it out.”
They were still circling one another, like sharks, slow and deliberate. For Harry no one existed outside of the circle—it was only himself and Voldemort, just as it was meant to be here at the bitter end.
“You think it was dumb luck,” Harry said, “when my mother sacrificed herself to save me—when you dismissed the power of her love and paid the price for it?” He kicked aside the shattered remains of one of the House tables, clearing the area. “Dumb luck when I fought you in that graveyard, standing over the body of my fallen friend?” He raised his voice. “Dumb luck that I didn’t even try to defend myself tonight, that I went to you willingly, to try and stop this, and somehow still survived and returned to face you here? You think three times I faced death at your hands and three times I lived through it still counts as ‘dumb luck’?”
“Dumb luck!” Voldemort raged, though he still kept to his side of the field, wand clutched in one bony hand but not yet daring to cast. He still feared Harry’s faithful Holly wand, for all his supposed power and experience. And Harry was going to give him something to be afraid of. He knew, somehow, that his wand was still the Elder Wand, that it had not thrown its allegiance to Voldemort with the casting of that Curse. It recognised him, it wanted him. And he would finally reward it for its loyalty.
“Well, I’m willing to bet on ‘dumb luck’ seeing me through one more encounter with you.” Harry nodded to the fighters crowding their circle; here and there, he even caught a few Death Eaters who had shouldered their way through the crowd to watch how their master fared, an almost comical juxtaposition alongside the faces of his compatriots. He cocked his head, regarding Voldemort. “…Even now, you still don’t get it, do you? You don’t see what’s happened—why none of your spells have quite stuck. Not Silencing Charms, not Body Binds, and even your Unforgivables have flown a bit wide, haven’t they?” He shrugged. “They’re protected from you. Protected by me, by what I sacrificed—just like how my mum protected me all those years ago.” The realisation had only just come to Harry, and he certainly didn’t want to test what was admittedly only a theory. Still, he could think of no other explanation for Neville’s miraculous survival of the violent conflagration Voldemort had set upon him, or why so many of the Death Eaters’ spells were coming up impotent. “You never learn from your mistakes, Tom, do you? Rich coming from me, I know. But, well.”
“Yes, I do dare,” said Harry, holding his wand up. “And I dare with this.”
Voldemort laughed, high and hollow. “Your wand? Going to duel me, then? A proper wizard’s duel?”
“Not just my wand,” Harry corrected. “The wand.” He fixed him with a meaningful look, and Voldemort’s face went slack, all trace of a smile washing from his features. He slid his red, snake-like eyes up to Draco, who was now perched elegantly on one of the stone plinths overlooking the Great Hall. Draco hissed at him in threat, wicked fangs bared and eyes gone pitch-black.
“That brat gave you—”
“He didn’t give it,” Harry said. “I won it, fair and square. The wand chooses the wizard. It recognises me—and it’s hungry for a fight.” Harry raked him with a judging look. “Are you?”
Voldemort said nothing for a moment, only prowling in a circle, and Harry knew that he had never been more dangerous than he was right now. An animal, backed into a corner—who knew how he might lash out?
But then he stopped and drew himself up—and slid into a duelling stance. “I had already resigned myself to taking my due once this…scuffle was finished. It will be no trouble to wrest it from you instead of Lucius’s brat. In fact—” He smiled, showing teeth. “We’ll make this fair, shall we? I’ll win it from its previous master in a proper duel, on superior skill.”
Harry nodded along. “It’s possible, you could do that. It certainly has precedent…” He squared himself across from Voldemort, wand raised. “Except you and I both know what’s going to happen. Yew wand, borrowed wand, Dumbledore’s wand—it really doesn’t matter which one you use. It’s mine that makes a difference. Elder or no, it’s still mine.” He took a breath. “This is your last chance, Tom. Lay down your wand, tell your army to stand down and surrender, and it doesn’t have to end like this.”
The eastern wall of the Great Hall was crumbling, half a gaping hole of ruined stone and mortar, half pockmarked with the jagged scars of spells that missed their mark. Only a few windows still had glass in their frosted panes, and what stone eagles had not yet fled their posts lay shattered into a thousand pieces across the flagstones.
But the enchantment across the ceiling still held, and dawn was breaking, spangling the Conjured clouds in a dazzling array of red and gold as the rising sun began to creep up over the horizon. The morning glow spilled through and into the Hall, racing like Fiendfyre, hitting both their faces at the same time and bathing them in glory.
Now, he heard a voice in his head say—and he recognised it as his own, full of conviction and certainty. He raised his wand, shouting out the only spell he really could, because he was Harry-Fucking-Potter, just as Voldemort roared his own counter:
Green spellfire arced, colliding with scarlet and sending a wave of golden flame out in both directions. Harry could feel the heat of the reaction searing his knuckles, and at the centre of the circle they’d been treading, a ball of vibrant light began to coalesce, pulsing and growing just where their spells met. Harry’s wand-arm gave a violent jerk, and the Elder Wand began to tremble in his grip. He held on tight with both hands, squinting as the jet of spellfire brightened, blotting out the rays of sunlight creeping in—and then went supernova.
There was a violent flash—and then a more violent CRACK, and when Harry blinked the stars from his eyes, Voldemort was laid out, dead on the pockmarked flagstones, still clutching a wand that had been cracked down the middle into clean quarters. The Phoenix feather that had formed the core had been reduced to ash, and a gentle breeze swept through, scattering the dust to the four corners. The Elder Wand had snapped the impudent upstart—and laid waste to its unworthy master to boot.
Time held still for a single, long beat, as if the whole world were waiting to see if it might be allowed to continue turning without this terror among its ranks—but then turn it did, and the silence shattered, tumbling around Harry in wave after wave of deafening screams and cheers and roars of victory. Under a new dawn, the crowd surged towards him. Ron and Hermione were quickest on the draw and enveloped him in bone-breaking embraces, but hot on their heels were Ginny and Neville and Luna, and then it was everyone mobbing him—maybe even a few Death Eaters, Harry couldn’t have honestly told you—as they crushed in around him. Flitwick was waving down Hagrid, seemingly trying to get him to hoist Harry up on his shoulders so they could all get a glimpse of him, but there was just too much humanity, too much life. Harry could make sense of none of what anyone was saying, they were all shouting at once in a glorious cacophony, but he gathered from their beaming faces, dirt-streaked and stained with blood, that they were all of them overwhelmed with gratitude.
But the moment was interrupted by a viciously snarled, “POTTER!” that rang up over the din.
The whole of the Hall was immediately on guard, heads snapping to and fro to see who their new enemy was, and a series of soft, scandalised gasps went up, the crowd parting like water before a boat prow, when Draco came stalking forward. Fury radiated off of him in palpable waves, and once he’d drawn within an arm’s length, he wound up his fist and slammed it into Harry’s face, sending him reeling.
Someone screamed, and Draco brought his wand slashing down, spitting out Episkey! before smashing his fist once more into Harry’s newly mended nose, breaking it again. Before Harry’s mind could catch up, Draco had snarled out another Episkey! and had his arm drawn back to take a third swing.
“That’s—enough of that—” Ron grunted, lunging for Draco’s arms to jerk him back. Draco struggled violently, and it took Dean and Neville helping Ron before they had him under control. Even then, he still fought their grip, and it was only Hermione’s soft, “Not here…” of warning that stilled him. He was panting hard, glaring at Harry with a wild, manic rage he’d generally only shown before uncontrolled shifts, when fear and anger and raw ineffable emotion overcame him. It was disturbingly close to hatred, and Harry stared in bald shock.
He had certainly expected Draco to have…well, opinions on Harry’s decision to give himself over to Voldemort, but he hadn’t thought he’d express them quite so physically. Or at least not in such open confrontation, like keeping it inside any longer might burn him alive, his passion as roiling an inferno as the lava pooling in the dragon’s belly.
Harry opened his mouth, an apology on his lips—though he wasn’t sure what to say beyond I’m sorry, which seemed far too pithy—but Draco angrily shrugged off the hands holding him back and turned on his heel sharply, putting his back to Harry and marching away. The crowd gave him a wide berth, tracking his retreat with their eyes, until his mother shoved her way through the onlookers with a choked cry of Draco! and wrapped him in a bone-crushing hug, his father standing tall and stiff just to the side. Draco mutely accepted Narcissa’s embrace, shoulders tight.
Harry’s gut wrenched with the urge to follow after Draco, to explain why he’d done what he had, but Hermione stepped into his line of sight. She warned him off with a look, and he reluctantly relented, shoulders slumping.
Once the crowd realised there was to be no more excitement, they abruptly lost interest, and the Malfoys were swallowed up in the milling scrum. Harry quickly found himself swarmed by the crowd again as well-wishers pounded his back with wide grins, and his arm was nearly wrenched from its socket by so many wanting to shake his hand.
He only managed to beg off after a good fifteen minutes, when everyone tired of congratulating or thanking him and began the arduous process of reuniting with friends and loved ones—as well as tallying up the dead. As the Great Hall began to empty, Harry found himself once more scanning for Draco, but the Malfoys seemed to have done what they did best and made themselves scarce. Harry tried not to be too very disappointed—Draco had been worried sick over his folks for eight months now, after all—but he sensed that if he left this for too long, there would be no mending this broken trust. Ron and Hermione had known him long enough he felt confident they would not press him to explain himself until later, after casualties had been assessed and straggling Death Eaters had been rounded up and any remaining Dark creatures driven off Hogwarts lands. Draco had known him—really known him—for but a heartbeat and could not be so casually dealt with.
He excused himself from Madame Pomfrey’s care after being assured that he was fit as a fiddle, considering what he’d just been through. The nasty bruise on his chest from the Killing Curse would fade in time, she had said—though the fingerling lightning scar settled just between his pectorals would be with him until he finally died and stayed dead. He thanked her with a shy duck of his head, wondering if this would be the last time she had to tend to his bumps and bruises, and then scanned the Hall until he saw a gaggle of redheads huddled together
He jogged over to join the Weasleys. “Have you seen—?” he started to ask Ron, who just jerked his head towards the Entrance Hall.
“Said he needed some space,” Ron explained. “I think his folks got waylaid by Kingsley.”
Harry stared at the open doors, through which he could see others helping wounded fighters in from the courtyard for Healers to treat. McGonagall was directing one of the Centaurs, who had a nasty gash over his hindquarters, over to a straw pallet in a corner.
“…He’s pissed off with me.”
“Did you think he wouldn’t be?” asked Hermione, sidling up to offer her two Knuts. “That we all wouldn’t be?” she added pointedly, as if he needed reminding that she and Ron were just as angry with him as Draco was.
“You scared the shit out of us,” Ron said, keeping his voice low as he ushered them away from the rest of his family. He was scratching the back of his neck, staring down at his toes. “We thought you’d died, mate.”
“I did,” Harry said, in a small voice. “Kind of.”
Hermione’s hand went to Ron’s wrist, squeezing hard, and Harry didn’t miss the way she leaned into him a bit, as if without him there, she might just collapse onto her knees. Ron was still resolutely not looking at him, but his hands clenched into furious fists, white-knuckled. Harry hoped he held it together; his nose had already been broken twice today, he didn’t want to risk a third. Episkey hurt like a bitch.
There was going to be a conversation later, he’d accepted that—it would be a long one, there would probably be tears backed by a half-dozen different emotions, and it would not be pretty, but it needed to happen. Dying had not helped him avoid this uncomfortable confrontation quite as he’d hoped it might.
“I…I knew you’d be pissed off—I did. You can’t know how much—” Harry took a breath. He couldn’t get into this right now; if he started, he wouldn’t be able to stop until he’d cleansed himself of this weight. “…It was—it was something I had to do. My final job.”
Ron nodded, too quickly. “Well, I reckon he just did what he had to, too.” He sniffed and looked up. His eyes looked a little bloodshot. “And maybe now what’s done is done, you should go do what you ought to instead.”
What he ought to. Harry didn’t really see how that was all that different from doing what he had to, but his hands went to his Mokeskin pouch all the same. He loosened the cinch and drew out the Marauder’s Map, solemnly swearing that he was up to no good. Which was as true now as it had ever been; he felt guilty, using the Map, as Draco clearly wanted to be left alone, but a dark voice whispered in silky warning that it would be unwise to leave things as they were now, without at least trying to explain himself. He wasn’t quite ready to apologise yet, he didn’t think, but Draco needed to know he hadn’t just gone off half-cocked on a literal suicide mission.
Despite the evacuation, there were as many people crawling the halls of Hogwarts now as ever, between the Hogwarts fighters, reinforcements, and remnants of Voldemort’s army still skulking about. But the vast majority were congregated in the Great Hall and first couple of floors. Draco’s little dot stuck out like a sore thumb, holed up in the Prefect’s Bath on the fifth floor.
He sighed, stowing the Map. “…If anyone asks where I’ve gone—”
“To rescue your lizard boyfriend, wasn’t it?” Ron jibed, though it seemed a forced effort, as if he was trying very hard to make himself seem comfortable with the idea of Harry and Draco being anything more than mortal enemies. Not as oblivious as Harry might have hoped, indeed.
“Er, yeah, something like that.”
“Here, this should help,” Hermione said, tugging the Invisibility Cloak from where she’d stowed it in her robes after retrieving it for him and tossing it over his head. “Now go, off with you.”
Under cover of the Cloak, Harry managed to avoid any further well-wishers, escaping the Great Hall easily and beating a hasty path to the stairwell. It seemed someone had already started work on castle repairs, as the moving staircases looked in much better condition than they’d been when he’d scaled them to visit the Headmaster’s Office.
The door to the bathroom stood open when he stepped into the fifth-floor corridor, passing the empty plinth that had once held Boris the Bewildered. He paused before entering, taking a bracing breath to steel himself, then poked his head inside. He and Draco didn’t have a good track record with bathrooms, he was reminded, so he had to hope history wasn’t about to repeat itself. It would be a very poor ending to his biography to have defeated Voldemort in a duel to the death only to wind up flayed open on the bath tile twenty minutes later because his ‘lizard boyfriend’ was narked off at him.
Draco was hunched over one of the sinks in a distressingly familiar pose, and Harry had not taken two steps inside when, without looking up, he said, “Take another step closer, and I’ll Crucio you again. Don’t think for a second I won’t.”
Harry did not, in fact, think he wouldn’t. His nose was still aching.
He tried for a bit of levity to ease the tension; jokes didn’t tend to go over well with Draco when he was angry—especially with Harry—but self-deprecating humour at Harry’s expense was a perennial favourite. “…Is this your way of inviting that duel? I’ve only just come back from the dead, but I reckon I could—”
Draco rounded on him with whiplike speed, wand raised in threat, and Harry lunged for one of the columns to use it for cover. Right, so clearly humour had no place in this conversation. Harry swallowed, running a hand through his hair. “…Look, I know you probably don’t want to talk to me right now, and I honestly can’t blame you, but—at least hear me out? You don’t have to say anything in return, and you can…” He grimaced. “…You can hit me again, if it’ll make you feel better. But at least let me say my piece?”
Draco continued to stare at him with a stony expression, diamond-like in its harsh beauty, but his wand arm began to tremble, and with a bright, hearty Fuck, Draco shoved his wand into his pocket and turned to pace out his anger. He punted a washing basket across the room, slamming a fist onto one of the sinks with such force Harry winced, certain he must have cracked one of the fine bones of his hand.
“It wouldn’t,” he spat miserably, then took several shuddering breaths. He brought his hands up to rub at his eyes with the heels of his fists. “It wouldn’t make me feel better. Nothing has.”
Harry didn’t quite know what to say in response, so he said nothing. That Draco had said more than five words to him, and that none had been curse words, was already more than he could have hoped for. He didn’t dare open his mouth and ruin things now.
Draco let his hands drop back to his sides, raising his eyes to look himself over in one of the mirrors. He clearly didn’t like what he saw, for he grimaced and hung his head, back to Harry. As if Harry hadn’t seen him in far meaner estate than he was now. At length, though, he seemed to have pulled himself together to his satisfaction, and spoke again:
“Granger says I died, you know.”
Harry’s breath caught in his throat, an immovable lump, and he leaned a little harder against the column.
“She said that—that when you—” His voice hitched, and he swallowed, shifting around just far enough to mark Harry out of the corner of one eye. “That when you died, something up here…” He tapped his temple. “Snapped. Or—shut down, I suppose.” His lips drew back into a terrible sneer. “So ta for that.”
Harry just blinked stupidly; perhaps his brains had been rattled by his recent near-death experience, because nothing Draco was saying made an ounce of damn sense. “You—wait, you…you died?” He opened and closed his mouth several times in succession. “I—someone…someone killed you? In the battle?”
“Did you listen to a fucking word I just said? Yeah, someone killed me.” He jabbed a finger in Harry’s direction. “You. You, you sanctimonious, knob-headed, bilge-for-brains! You fucking killed me. I died because of you.” His shoulders slumped in exhaustion, and he crossed his arms over his chest, eyes closed. “…Or so Granger says.”
Harry’s strength returned to him in a flood, and he stumbled down the steps into the bathroom proper, though making sure to give Draco ample space in case he decided to whip out his wand again.
“I…I don’t understand,” Harry said, his voice weak with shock. He couldn’t help but be plaintively honest—how had Harry killed him? Draco certainly didn’t sound like he meant it figuratively—yet here he was, standing before Harry as if nothing were amiss. But then, Harry was meant to have died as well and had still somehow managed to scrape his way back to life. Death was evidently not the certainty for wizarding folk that it was for Muggles—though it did not make the near-misses any less harrowing.
Draco rubbed at his eyes again, then ruffled his hair. He looked exhausted, shadows lurking under his eyes like dark bruises and veins standing out at his temples and neck. Their nap in the tent felt like it had happened a lifetime ago. Draco put his back to one of the sinks, settling against it for support.
“I remember…we were searching for you. I gave you a half hour to do whatever it was you’d been summoned for, and then when you didn’t come back, I went looking for Granger and Weasley. Didn’t take long, between the three of us, to figure out you’d probably buggered off to do something phenomenally fucking stupid, so we decided we’d find you before that and drag you back. Maybe head the Dark Lord off at the pass and kill you ourselves. We started for the Forest, but—something…something happened.”
He brought a hand up to his chest, fingers clenching in the fabric over his heart. “It felt like—nothing. Or, nothingness. Just this dark, heavy quiet, pulling me down. This—Merlin—this overwhelming sense that I had lost something. Something irreplaceable, some—part of me. It felt like nothing mattered anymore, like I’d never ever be whole again, and it was worse, so much worse than that first time I transformed.” He was staring off into the middle distance, and his eyes were dancing with a manic energy. “Because at least then, I could feel that you were out there, somewhere, and if I just searched hard enough, I could find you…” He released a deep, shuddering breath. “But this was just…just nothing. Like I’d had this—thread, connecting me to you, and then someone snipped it.” He swallowed hard, then turned to look at Harry. His grey eyes had gone dark, almost to black. “…Is that what it was like? For you?”
It was such an innocent question, phrased like that. Like he wanted nothing more than for Harry to at least tell him yes. Yes he felt the same strange connection to Draco that Draco felt for him. But he couldn’t—because he didn’t. He wasn’t a dragon, or an Animagus masquerading as one, and so he’d felt nothing when he’d marched into the Forest, nothing when he’d taken that Curse, and nothing when he’d gone to that strange place beyond.
Harry’s throat was dry, and he had to remind himself to breathe at regular intervals. “I—I’m sorry. I didn’t know—I just thought…”
“You thought it would just be you…” The innocence was gone now, iced over, and Draco slicked his hair back away from his face with sweaty palms. “You thought that only you’d suffer. That only you’d have to be the one to die, and then this might all be over. That we could all carry on with our merry fucking lives.” He stepped away from the sink, shoving his hands into his pockets, and began to pace again. “Well, there’s a funny little detail they really just gloss right over in Men Who Love Dragons Too Much, see!” He laughed, a rumbling, rueful chuckle. “Apparently dragons die from that sort of thing! Losing—losing those.” He paused and grimaced, then bit out, “Losing their mates.” The bitter, angry tone was back in full force, as he shook a finger in Harry’s face. “It wasn’t just your own fucking life you were throwing away!”
“I…seriously, I didn’t know…” Harry repeated in a lame attempt at justification, before his pride flared and he came back on the defensive. “And I wasn’t throwing it away. I had to! It was…just, there was magic we hadn’t anticipated, and I…I had to, okay? I had to.” Draco seemed to think he’d just waltzed into the Forest on a lark, or that he’d done it just for a quick and easy end to this whole mess and not because it was something he’d been raised to do, manipulated into through every experience and interaction he’d ever enjoyed.
“You had to. You had to abandon us—couldn’t even summon the balls to tell us what you were doing?” Harry tried not to wince, as Draco’s accusations hit home. He’d been a coward, that he would not deny, but he never would’ve been able to go through with it otherwise. He knew himself well enough to understand that, if he’d confided in his friends, they wouldn’t have let him go, and he wouldn’t have wanted to either.
“I couldn’t tell you! It had to be done, and if I’d told any of you—”
“And what was I supposed to do, once you were gone? Granger and Weasley, they might’ve had themselves a sobfest, thrown a pity party or three, but they would’ve gotten over you! But just fuck me, I guess? Enjoy never feeling right in my own skin again?” He kicked angrily at the piping to one of the sinks, spitting out another vicious oath, and Harry was finally frustrated enough with how Draco wasn’t hearing him that he thought What a spoilt fucking brat.
Because that was how Draco was acting right now: childish, irrational, like he couldn’t think beyond himself to the—well, to the greater good. He didn’t understand—and maybe that was a bit of Harry’s fault too, not explaining himself well enough—that this had never been something Harry had intended nor could have possibly known about and it wasn’t his fault. Everything about this was shit, but it was shit they’d stumbled into, not dumped themselves.
Harry wiped his face, trying to organise his thoughts. “…You were meant…to be pissed off with me, maybe to burn down a few cottages in Hogsmeade like some dread wyrm out of a fairy tale, and then to move on with your life, just like Ron and Hermione. I did think about it, you know—” Draco opened his mouth, probably to deliver some scathing opinion on Harry’s brand of thinking, so he quickly pressed on so as not to get distracted, “I just…I thought you were strong enough. Strong enough that you didn’t really need me anymore. I mean…” Harry scratched his neck nervously, coughing to clear his throat when his voice hitched. “I don’t feel like…we’ve really needed-needed to do…y’know, half the stuff we’ve been…”
Draco just gaped at him, limbs slack. The expression on his face was hard to read: a little bit shocked, a little bit confused, a hell of a lot incensed. When he spoke, there was a dangerous tremor in his voice. “…You are, without a doubt, the most frustrating fucking knob I have ever met.” He licked his lips and tilted his head back to look up at the ceiling. “…I feel a glorious kinship with Voldemort now.”
Harry didn’t quite know what that meant, and when Draco shook his head and started for the door, Harry made a grab for him—only to be rudely rebuffed.
“Touch me, and I’ll rip your arm off—Elder Wand and all.”
Harry didn’t try to stop him again, arms raised in an expression of surrender, and he could but watch as Draco marched out the door, slamming it behind him, and wonder what he was supposed to do now.
Harry gave Draco a few minutes’ head-start before he stepped out of the bathroom as well, not wanting to look like he was chasing him down yet again; he’d been lucky to come out of that confrontation with all his bits intact, he suspected, and didn’t want to push his luck.
Ron and Hermione were waiting for him when he exited the Prefects’ bathroom, lurking just far enough away that they wouldn’t appear to have been eavesdropping—but Harry knew Hermione had several sets of Extendable Ears tucked into that beaded bag of hers and wasn’t discounting anything.
“…As happy as you hoped he’d be to see you still puttering around?” Ron asked, tactful as ever.
Harry just stared down at the flagstones, mind still reeling—everything was hot and cold right now. He was overcome with remorse, horrified that he’d unwittingly dragged Draco down that dark, morbid path with him when he’d gone to meet his death—but equally so he was irritated that Draco couldn’t grasp he’d had a damn good reason to act as he had, and that of course he hadn’t done so to deliberately hurt anyone. Perhaps if he’d been given more time to explain himself properly, instead of Draco storming out on him, he could have made him see that.
He lifted his eyes to Hermione, unsurprised to find she’d either been crying some more, or was on the verge of a new jag now. “…He said he died. That…that I killed him…”
She brought her hand to her throat. “Oh—Harry, no, no that’s not—”
“Except it is, isn’t it?” His breath was coming quicker now, and he found he was relieved to be able to direct this irritation, this anger, at someone else. Someone who wasn’t going to run away, or threaten him with bodily harm. “Why didn’t you tell me? Because you knew, didn’t you? That if one of us died, we’d drag the other down too?”
Her eyes were shining, and her breathing was stuttered as she began to hyperventilate. Ron’s hands were on her shoulders immediately, and he whispered soothing sweet nothings into her ear, cutting Harry a dark frown. “Cut her some slack, mate. She wasn’t keeping secrets—”
“She was! If she knew about this, that Draco and I might kill each other, then—”
“I didn’t realise it was that serious!” Hermione snapped, fat tears rolling down her cheeks. “I—I didn’t know—that it—m-mattered!” She scrubbed at her eyes with her sleeves, breath still coming in stuttering starts. “It—it’s not s-supposed to happen un—unless it’s a—a mated pair.”
Harry’s cheeks were flushed with both mortification and rage now. “But that’s what this whole fucking mess has been about! You knew—”
“No it’s not!” She stamped her foot angrily, then forced herself to take several deep, rhythmic inhalations, breathing out slowly between each as she struggled for calm. “A mated pair. There’s a world of difference between one creature pursuing another because it wants a mate and actually being accepted as one. I th-thought your and Draco’s situation was the former—”
“Wh—” Harry sputtered, and now the flush was mostly mortification. “What does that have to do with anything?!”
Hermione slumped, shaking her head. “Only everything!” She rubbed at her eyes again, and Ron meekly offered her a dirty handkerchief. She didn’t bother to Scourgify it this time, just blew her nose. She sniffed to clear her stuffy airways, and when she spoke again, her voice was less watery with no more stutters and hitches. “When it was just Draco, just his Animagus form following its instincts and searching for a mate, that’s all it was. Looking for a mate—looking for someone like you. You didn’t have to accept it—”
“The hell I didn’t!” Harry huffed. “You told me that I had to—”
“Because we didn’t exactly have any choice! Dragons will go through three or four potential mates sometimes before they settle! Just because you were his first choice didn’t mean you had to be his last. Established colonies have ways of handling eager juveniles out of their depth, and there are potions out there used in dragon husbandry to encourage a young drake to lose interest in a potential mate he’s marked. But we were trying to lie low; we couldn’t just turn him over to the Dragon Research and Restraint Bureau or remand him to a state sanctuary for management—someplace where his…his urges could be dealt with by professionals.” She swallowed, wringing her hands. “So I told you to make the best of a bad situation. I thought…I thought if you just went along with it, did just enough to get by, then it would be fine.” She thinned her lips, suddenly defiant. “And it might have been, if you’d stopped there.”
“Wh—this is my fault?”
“Of course not, Harry,” Hermione sighed, exhausted. “It’s just—I tried to tell you, but you told me it was complicated, that you didn’t want to talk about it because you were still figuring things out.”
“Because I was! ‘Figuring things out’ means there’s something to figure out!” He hadn’t wanted to get into a roaring row with his best friends about fancying Draco Malfoy, but here they were, and Harry let loose. “I—I thought you were just being nosey! Trying to make sure I didn’t get my heart broken or some sophomoric shit like that!”
“Your heart broken, mate?” Ron groaned with a shudder. “You have to be so graphic about it?”
Hermione rushed forward, taking Harry’s hands in her own and fixing him with an entreating expression, deep brown eyes still shiny with unshed tears. “I swear, Harry. I swear I wasn’t keeping it from you. I thought…I just thought it wouldn’t be an issue. That it maybe wasn’t…quite so serious, and then…” She licked her lips and ducked her head. “And then by the time I realised it was that serious, it wouldn’t have done any good to say anything. I didn’t want to distract you, and there was nothing you could have done—”
“I might’ve—” Harry cut himself off, not entirely sure what he would have done differently. “I sure as hell would’ve wanted to at least know I might drop dead if Draco caught the bad end of a Curse! He wasn’t in the D.A.! He hasn’t trained like we have, I could’ve at least tutored him—”
Hermione was shaking her head, though. “…It doesn’t work like that. I mean—you were never in any danger. Draco’s the Animagus; he’s the one dealing with these instincts and urges, bits of his dragon bleeding over into him, making him feel things most humans aren’t aware of on any level…” She forced a weak smile. “It was just him. It was always just him.”
“…Is that what it was like? For you?” Draco had asked, wanting so badly to know that Harry had felt the same utter loss and devastation Draco had.
Harry closed his eyes and bit out a few silent oaths. “…Tell me what happened.”
He had to know. He had to hear every gruesome detail, and Draco could not oblige—nor should he have had to.
There was a pause—Hermione probably didn’t want to recount it, or thought they ought to save it for later, considering the night they’d just had. But Harry was exhausted, and he refused to buckle, to let himself get a moment’s rest, until he knew exactly what had happened. What he had wrought, in his fumbling efforts to do what was right. He was like the world’s most fucked-up Midas: everything he touched turned to ash.
Hermione took a breath. “Draco came to find us, when you didn’t come back from…wherever it was you’d run off to. We searched the castle for you at first, then realised there was a very good chance you’d gone into the Forest to give yourself over to Voldemort. We thought to go after you, but before we’d even made it out of the castle, Draco collapsed. I thought he’d just tripped, but we couldn’t get him back up, and he started seizing, and—” Harry opened his eyes to look at her, willing her to continue. Say it, he thought. “And then his heart stopped.”
You fucking killed me. I died because of you.
Draco’s words echoed like clanging gongs, and he fought the urge to plug his fingers in his ears.
Hermione rubbed at her nose again, using Ron’s handkerchief to dab at her eyes. “If I hadn’t performed a Resuscitation Charm and kept it pumping manually…I think we would have lost him.”
Harry felt a cold chill rush through him, because she was right—they probably would have lost him. Harry had been able to come back only because he’d still been tethered to Voldemort, retaining a link to the living world and granted the choice of returning or moving on. But Draco…Draco would have just died and stayed dead. Harry would have woken on that cold, forest floor—while Draco would have been laid out on the flagstones underneath the greying dawn in the Great Hall along with the others.
“I couldn’t find anything wrong with him, though; he hadn’t been hit by any spell as far as I could tell—I mean, Ron and I were with him the whole time! I thought…that maybe it wasn’t something Diagnostic Charms could tell me about—that maybe it was to do with the dragon—”
“That pair bond, then?” Harry asked flatly.
She was quiet for a moment. “…I didn’t want it to be that,” she said miserably. “…But that was what Charlie figured. He s-said—” She forced herself to take a deep breath when the hyperventilating stutter showed itself again. “That…that Draco’s body had shut down, because it couldn’t sense its mate anymore—probably because you had died too. He said it happens sometimes to bonded pairs—usually young ones who haven’t had time to settle into their arrangement and learn to live apart. Having one just ripped away, suddenly like that, drags the other down with it.”
Harry then recalled the Locket’s horrific prediction: drawn, inexorably, to your own doom, defeat incarnate. A moth to dragonflame.
Guilt swamped through him anew. That vision had terrified Draco—and then it had come true. Draco hated not being in control of his own destiny about as much as Harry did—no wonder he had been so shaken.
Harry had been carrying around a sort of fatalistic acceptance of his own mortality for months—years, really. But it was one thing to accept your own death was inevitable and another altogether to have to stomach others dying for you.
God, she’d been right not to tell him. He was glad she hadn’t, now he thought about it.
He couldn’t have gone through with it. Not if he’d known he’d be dragging Draco down with him. Not even if, for some daft reason, Draco had agreed with it and calmly walked into the Forest at his side to meet Death, as if they were the Peverells. It would have been an impossible choice, and maybe Hermione had seen that, somehow. Far more clearly than Harry.
He knew, logically, that refusing to do what had to be done, what Dumbledore had meant for him to do, just because of one person wouldn’t have been justified, but…it had been a hard enough task to complete when he’d thought it was a burden for him and him alone to bear. If he’d realised he would be sacrificing not only himself but Draco as well…he’d have needed a push. Or a shove.
“And…and then,” Hermione continued, frowning, “maybe…ten, fifteen minutes later? He roused—heart beating on its own and healthy as a hippogriff. It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen…” She looked to Harry, searching his face for answers. “Even Charlie was confused; he thought maybe he’d interpreted the diagnostics wrong, or that the bond hadn’t been as strong as we’d thought and he’d been able to shake it, even if you h-had—”
“He didn’t—” Harry started, then sighed, scrubbing at his face. There was no getting around it. And he needed to tell someone. He needed to tell them. “I…I did die. I died, in the Forest.” He made himself look them in the eye, then tugged down his shirt collar, just low enough to expose the nasty bruise and the inflamed lightning-bolt scar on his chest. “Voldemort killed me.”
It was Ron’s turn to look despondent, and Hermione slipped her arm around his waist, giving a gentle squeeze of support and hitting the handkerchief with a quiet Scourgify, in case he needed it.
“But I got to come back—he said…he said I could go on, if I wanted, or…I could come back and finish the fight.”
Ron frowned. “‘He’? He who?” He pulled away from Hermione, arms limp at his sides as he shook his head in disbelief. “Why’d you do it, mate? Why, after all we went through? How hard we worked to get this far? Why just—give in, like that?”
He opened him mouth to protest, as he had with Draco, that it hadn’t been giving in or giving up, that there’d been a need, greater than his own life was worth. But it had been the wrong thing to say to Draco, and it was the wrong thing to say now.
So instead, he told them about Snape, about his bowlful of Pensieve memories. How he’d seen through Snape’s eyes the revelation of Dumbledore’s master plan and that he had never been meant to live—only to survive, until the very last moment, and to die at the appointed time. He told them about his walk through the castle, he told them about meeting Neville, and he told them about the Resurrection Stone—and of his mother and father, and Sirius and Remus.
He told them about Voldemort, and he told them about dying. He told them about Dumbledore, too, and the strange, sad, dreadful creature wailing under the bench. He did not tell them about the peacock, because he still hadn’t quite figured that one out himself. He did tell them, though, about being offered a choice, and he told them—sheepish, guilty—about how he’d really, really considered doing as Dumbledore had proposed: taking a train and just…going on. He hoped they understood, how peaceful it had been, and how it made him realise how much life hurt. He also hoped they understood what it meant that he’d come back all the same. To them and Draco and Neville and Ginny and Luna, to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and McGonagall and Kingsley and Hogwarts and London and life.
“I just knew that I had to do it—had to—and I wouldn’t have been able to if I’d had to look you in the face and tell you what I meant to do. I knew you’d try to stop me, and I knew I’d want you to.” He swallowed thickly as his vision blurred. “I’m sorry. I really am.”
Hermione gave a sharp sob and rushed at him, drawing him into so tight a hug as she had never given him, and Ron descended on them with wide arms, wrapping the both of them in his embrace as he soaked Harry’s robes with snotty tears.
It took a shamefully long time for them to pull themselves back together this time, but they managed it, cheeks flushed and noses rubbed raw. “…I gotta admit,” Ron said, “That was probably for the best. I dunno if I could’ve let you go. And Draco—he’d have scooped you up and carried you off into the mountains probably.”
Harry laughed, and it came out watery. He could still feel Draco’s bitter rage at the back of his throat, eating through him like acid. He’d been a coward, and that was that; there would have been no length to their goodbyes that would have sufficed, and he hadn’t had the fortitude to face them. He had felt, walking through the Forest to die, that offering himself up freely to Voldemort would be the most difficult thing he ever did. But with the clarity of hindsight, he knew that no: dying had been the easy bit, just as Sirius had assured him.
Trying to tell his friends why he hadn’t had the courage to say goodbye was a hell of a lot harder.
God, now he wanted to cry again. He wanted to do quite a lot of things, actually. Sleep was particularly high up on the list, as he realised he hadn’t really slept in months—a deep, dreamless slumber without obligations or worries hanging over his head sounded about perfect right now.
They headed back down to the Great Hall in silent companionship, but once they reached the doors, Harry balked, reluctant to go back inside. He could see, through the open doors, everyone was having their moments—there was Neville, surrounded by new admirers, Ginny resting against Molly’s breast while her mother stroked her hair with a beatific smile, and even Draco, who’d been swept back into his parents’ arms and had his head bowed in quiet conversation with the both of them.
Harry felt apart from all of them, and from Ron and Hermione too. He found himself, guiltily, almost longing for the Kings Cross Station in his mind, with the comfortable weight of Dumbledore’s hand on his shoulder and the warmth of the peacock dozing in his lap.
He knew he wasn’t finished apologising to Draco—but he couldn’t do this right now. Every time he tried to do the right thing with Draco, to make things better, it just wound up fucking things up even worse.
They were alive, though. They had time—that damned clock had finally finally gone quiet. And all Harry really wanted right now was a nap.
Ron elbowed him, nodding to the Entrance Hall doors, which had been propped open to let the warm morning light flood inside. “…Go on. We’ll cover for you.”
Harry’s heart swelled in his chest, and he hugged the both of them again. Then, resolutely not looking at Draco, he slipped on the Invisibility Cloak and headed out onto the front lawn, bound for Hogsmeade.