The echoing booms and shouts of a battle in full bloom faded away the moment they stepped through into the Room proper; Ron and Hermione had left the door open for them, and once it was closed, the distant furore dissipated, leaving behind only an eerie silence. The Room of Hidden Things, for this was certainly no longer the Room of Requirement, was as massive as Harry recalled, its arched ceiling stretching up impossibly high with a length the size of a Quidditch pitch—at least as far as Harry could see. The thousands—or more likely millions—of objects tossed carelessly inside by students over the centuries had built up into walls along maze-like pathways, towering storeys high in some places and making the dimensions of the room difficult to pin down.

Ron and Hermione hadn’t made it very far in starting their search of the Room; Harry couldn’t blame them, it seemed a daunting task. They nodded to him and Draco when they entered, thankfully not making much of a fuss concerning Draco’s brief departure—or how long it had taken for them to return.

“Far cry from the usual Room of Requirement, innit?” Ron said, his voice echoing in the silence.

“It’s kind of amazing, really,” Hermione said. “So many people needed to hide things over the years that the Room created a special version of itself that it recapitulates perfectly every time it’s summoned…” She scanned the room. “I wonder how the magic manages it? Where do you think all of these objects go when this place isn’t being used as the Room of Hidden Things? It would have to be a tiny pocket dimension, I think. It can’t produce so much junk whole-cloth every time someone finds their way inside. Or I suppose it could, but that would require infinitely more magical energy than just—”

“There’s no teachers around to give you any points, Granger,” Draco groused, rubbing his temples. “But if it’ll shut you up: ten million points to Gryffindor for inane curiosity.” He looked to Harry. “Are we going to faff about with our pricks in our hands, or are we going to find a Horcrux?”

“Pricks in our hands sounds more fun,” said Ron morosely. He kicked at an old, deflated Quaffle, sending it whomping down one of the half a dozen different ‘trails’ leading away from the entrance. “Geez, would you look at the state of this place? Merlin, it looks like most everyone who’s ever been to Hogwarts has hidden something in here! Didn’t he notice there was a whole stadium’s worth of junk in here when he hid the diadem and think, ‘You know, maybe this isn’t the best place to hide a little bit of my soul if I don’t want just anyone stumbling across it’?”

“Perhaps that’s the point,” Hermione said. “I mean, do you have any idea where to start looking? It’s a total needle-haystack situation in here…” She raised her wand. “Accio diadem!”

As expected, nothing happened. Like the cup and the locket, it seemed there was no choice but to lay hands on the diadem if they wanted to claim it.

“Guess there’s nothing for it but to search the old-fashioned way,” Harry said. “Shall we split up?”

“Looks like we’ll have to,” Hermione said. “Send up sparks if you find anything, all right? We don’t really know what the diadem looks like specifically, but given the locket and the cup were your traditional pieces of fine metalwork, and Gryffindor’s sword too, we can probably assume the diadem will be of a similar fashion, as it would have been crafted around the same time.”

“Right,” Draco said dismissively, throwing back a wave and striding down one of the rows. Harry watched him go until he’d disappeared around a corner, feeling particularly helpless.

“…Is he all right?” Hermione asked. “I mean…I’m sure you spoke to him, but—”

“He’s not gonna take our heads off, is he?” Ron cut in with a low hiss. “I don’t wanna think about the nasty shit he could get up to with the Elder Wand; I’d be lucky to get off with just having the chair pulled out from under me.”

Harry didn’t remind him that Draco had already been in possession of the Wand when he’d pulled that trick. “…He gave it up.”

“Gave it up?” Hermione echoed. “Wh—the wand? But how did he…” Harry waved his holly wand, giving a weak smile. “…Oh. My.” Then she narrowed her eyes, still a bit dubious. “…How can you be sure though?”

“I don’t suppose I can. Short of duelling Voldemort…” He really didn’t want to test it out just yet, though.

“Well, one step at a time,” she said, squeezing his shoulder comfortingly. “Now! The Horcrux!”

“The Horcrux,” Harry said, nodding to the rightmost path. “I’ll head down this way, then.”

“Remember: sparks if you see anything!” Hermione called after him in reminder.

He jogged down the path, only haphazardly scanning the stacks, until he’d gone far enough he could only hear their puttering around as a distant echo. He appreciated they were concerned, but he had far too many things bouncing around in his mind right now, jockeying for a place at the forefront of his thoughts when he couldn’t afford to be distracted. Talking about them just made it worse. He didn’t want to discuss what he was doing with Draco, or how Draco felt about having been for a time the master of the most powerful wand in existence, or the fact Harry was master of it now and would likely have to bring it to bear against the madman who’d murdered his family and been responsible for the deaths of so many of his loved ones.

There he went, getting distracted again. Diadem, he reminded, repeating it to himself like a mantra. He let his eyes drift over the teetering towers of rubbish, seeking out anything of note, but nothing remarkable caught his eye: a few old bottles of Butterbeer, empty Owl order crates, books with covers so faded he couldn’t make out the titles, broken quills and empty ink bottles, old broomsticks, Beaters’ bats—total utter junk. How were they possibly going to find the diadem amidst all this rubbish? Harry might have already passed it, even, if it were buried deep in any of these heaps of clutter.

He tried to think like Voldemort—where might he have hid it? Would he have just wound his arm and chucked it with all his might? No, not likely—it was a piece of his soul after all, which meant he’d probably placed it somewhere deliberately. But he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to stumble across it, so it stood to reason he’d have hidden it pretty deep in the room, or else carefully buried it at the heart of one of the stacks.

Harry sighed, finding himself back at square one. Well they couldn’t Summon it, but maybe they could cheat a bit? He opened his mouth, the words Accio bit of crap next to Ravenclaw’s diadem on his lips—when he caught himself.

“Hello there…” he said to himself with a ghost of a smile. He was certain the blistered old cupboard there just at the fork ahead was the same one into which he had tossed his old Potions book—the one belonging to Snape, he recalled with a grimace. He tugged the creaking door open, showering the dusty flagstones with old paint chips, and saw it was still there: Libatius Borage’s Advanced Potion-Making. The last time he’d come here, he’d been in a panic. He’d just flayed Draco alive and left him bleeding out in the second-floor girl’s lavatory. The half-blood Prince had brought him nothing but trouble and Draco nothing but pain. He slammed the cabinet shut with a vicious finality. Good riddance.

The force of the blow, though, knocked over a stone bust of a pock-marked warlock—or perhaps it was just chipped in many places?—wearing a dusty old wig. The bust hit the ground with a sharp crack, losing its wig in the process, and went rolling. Harry made a desperate lunge after it and nearly slipped on the wig, narrowly avoiding face-planting. With an irritated grumble, he snatched up the wig and made to toss it back on top of the cupboard—when something clattered to the ground.

It was a tiara of some sort, not so different from Muriel’s. The mottled discolouration suggested it was rather old, and Harry thought he could make out words engraved around the edge, though he could not read them through the layer of grime and dust that had worked its way into the tiny crevices.

He frowned. It…it couldn’t be that easy—could it?

He reached for the tiara—then thought better of touching it, remembering with a phantom echo of pain the Gemino and Flagrante curses on the cup. He tugged out a handkerchief and carefully wrapped the diadem—no, the tiara, he reminded himself; no sense in getting excited over what was probably just a piece of costume jewellery. He pulled his Mokeskin pouch from where it lay tucked under his shirt and carefully slipped the tiara inside.

“Don’t you fucking move,” someone said from just behind him, and Harry froze, mind racing as he tried to place the voice. “Turn around—slow. No funny business, Potter. Reach for your wand and you’ll lose that arm.”

Harry strained to hear the others, but he’d evidently strayed too far away; they were out of immediate earshot now, and if he raised his voice, his ambusher was liable to make good on the ‘lose that arm’ bit.

He shifted in place, turning slowly as instructed, and came face to face with Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle. It was Crabbe who had his wand levelled at Harry, with Goyle hulking behind him, his own wand clutched in a ham-fisted grip. They had to have snuck inside while Hermione and Ron had held the door, waiting for Harry and Draco to return. He wondered silently if Draco might still have some pull with them and hoped he was prepared for what was looking to be a rather unhappy reunion.

“…Fancy running into you two,” Harry said, holding his hands well out from his sides. He had to stall long enough for the others to wonder where he was and come looking for him. “How come you aren’t hanging around with the other Death Eaters outside?” Crabbe had his sleeves rolled up just enough Harry could see the skin on his left arm was unmarked, though. “Oh, sorry. My mistake. Guess even Voldemort’s got standards.”

“You’ll make a pretty present for the Dark Lord,” said Goyle, either ignoring the slight or not realising he’d been insulted. He was grinning, like a child who’d been promised a bag of sweets if he was a very good boy and behaved himself. It reminded Harry sickeningly of Dudley. “We knew ‘e was lookin’ for you, so we thought we’d sniff around, see if we couldn’t find you first. Now we can bring you to ‘im an’ get rewarded.”

“Well that is a very good plan indeed,” not bothering to disguise the patronising tone in his voice—any effort would be wasted on these two. “Only—have you worked out how to get me out of the castle? All the entrances and exits are rather heavily guarded, you see.”

“Oh, don’t tease them, Potter; you know they haven’t. I was always the brains behind their brawn.”

Draco stepped around from behind the pair, already in a duelling stance as he stared down his long, patrician nose at his former lackeys. “Vince. Greg. I’d think very hard about what you’re trying to do here. And then I’d have another think about it, just for shits.”

“Thought we was the brawn to your brains, Malfoy?” Crabbe sneered, his beady black eyes narrowing. “You don’t look half bad for a dead bloke.”

“I’m also a rather good shot for a dead bloke. Have you had that second thought yet? Or shall we give the Time-turner another spin?” Draco’s eyes flashed in threat. “Stand down. I’d hate to have to gut you like a pair of overfed fish.”

Crabbe just jutted his thick chin out defiantly. “We’re done takin’ orders from the likes of you. ‘Specially now you’ve turned traitor it seems.”

Draco shrugged. “I’m a Slytherin; you know we’re all about saving our own skin—and seeing as Potter’s going to win, I’d rather not be on the losing side. I’m sure you can understand.”

“You ought’ve stayed dead,” Crabbe snarled, and with a shockingly swift reaction, he slashed his wand around, bringing a towering stack of old school trunks and cabinetry and even, curiously, a Muggle stand mixer down with a bellowed, “Descendo!

The whole thing collapsed in on itself, the base spilling out into the aisle in an avalanche of bric-a-brac and nearly burying Draco, who only barely managed to throw up a Shield Charm to keep from being overwhelmed. Harry used the distraction to dive out of the way, quickly palming his wand as he scrambled to hide behind a tall wardrobe.

The commotion had drawn Hermione and Ron’s attention, though, and they came jogging down the path, calling his name frantically.

“Run!” Harry warned them, narrowly missing the Crucio that Crabbe threw at him when he poked his head out from around the wardrobe. He returned fire with a Stunning Spell, and Crabbe went flying into Goyle, sending the both of them down in a heap.

“D-don’t kill ‘im!” Goyle protested, voice strained by Crabbe’s bulk pressing down on his chest. “We’ve gotta—bring ‘im in—alive!”

“Bah, he’s gonna wind up dead either way!” snapped Crabbe as he struggled back to his feet. “Dark Lord’ll probably reward us for saving him the troub—OOF!” He found himself abruptly tackled to the ground by Goyle, whose uncharacteristically quick thinking caused the Stunning Spell that had been aimed square for the centre of Crabbe’s head to instead slam into the stack of junk—largely a pile of old broomsticks and mouldy Quidditch uniforms from seasons past—Crabbe had been standing before. Harry whipped around to see who their saviour had been and found Hermione, wand brandished and breathing hard; she must have run around the stacks through a back path.

Crabbe shoved Goyle off with a snarl, wincing as he worked his wand-arm free. “The Mudblood! I’ll fucking murder you—Avada Kedavra!”

Hermione dove out of the way of the bolt of acid-green spellfire, which obliterated the stack behind her. A rush of red-hot fury raced through Harry—Crabbe had been aiming to kill. Not to disarm, not to stun, to kill. He whirled around, aiming for Crabbe, and shouted, “Reducto!” but his spell missed its mark and hit Goyle instead.

Goyle was thrown backwards into the heap behind him, and the junk teetering at the top of the pile came tumbling down around him, burying him under a mountain of chaos.

Avada Kedavra!” Crabbe cried again, leaping out from behind the old, busted wardrobe he’d been using for cover. The spell arced out from his wand—but Draco seemed to have dug himself out from the rubbish and fired back a Stupefy; he couldn’t block the curse, but the added magical energy was enough to shift its course, and it obliterated another stack of junk.

He huffed in accomplishment, swiping his hair back from his face with one hand, and lifted a brow at Harry. “Not that I’m sure you couldn’t handle a measly little Killing Curse on your own.”

“You have to admit, I have a better track record of it than most.”

Petrificus totalus!” someone shouted; Goyle had managed to dig himself free from the bulwark. Harry and Draco ducked, and the spell slammed into the stack behind them.

Draco grabbed Harry’s collar, jerking him along. “Let’s check another aisle, shall we? The riff-raff are moving in all along here and it’s no fit place for the Chosen One.”

Harry dug his heels in, though, head snapping to and fro. “Wait—Hermione and Ron—”

“—have already made themselves scarce, now get moving, Potter!” They beat a hasty retreat down the aisle, heading back for the exit; Harry supposed they would have to hope that the tiara he’d stumbled upon was indeed the Horcrux, for if it wasn’t, they would have to regroup and try again after taking care of Crabbe and Goyle. That would be precious minutes more they could not spare, but what else could they do?

He hoped Draco knew where they were going, because Harry had taken a couple of detours in his wandering through the maze that was the Room of Hidden Things, and he couldn’t rightly recall which way the entrance lay.

He was just about to ask if Draco remembered the way he’d come, when a booming roar erupted from behind them, and Harry whipped around, wide-eyed and horrified.

“Time to see Mummy and Daddy again, Potter! Let’s see if you can stand the heat!” Crabbe sneered, racing down the aisle towards them, and Harry’s eye rose to the towering wall of dark fire rising up from the stacks like a tidal wave. Everything the flames touched with their lashing black tendrils crumbled to soot—and the air shortly became filled with choking ash.

Oh, this was not good, he could tell already.

The wave crested and began to plow forward, racing after Harry and Draco and Crabbe. Goyle was nowhere to be seen—had he gone after Ron and Hermione, or had he already succumbed to the devastating wave?

Harry skidded to a halt, raising his wand and crying, “Aguamenti!” A jet of water spurt forth in a violent spray—but faded into hissing mist before it got within ten feet of the rising tide of flame.

There was no way this was normal fire—fire wasn’t black, for one, and the flames seemed almost sentient, conscious of where Harry and the others were and giving pursuit when they fled. When he dared a terrified backwards glance as he raced down a straightaway behind Draco, he thought he saw roiling, writhing shapes in the dark mass rushing upon them: gaping maws and raking claws and blazing eyes that seemed to stare right through him. It was hypnotic, he thought, mesmerising in its beautiful destruction, and he imagined in the midst of the horror, underneath the grasping, consuming tendrils of black fire, he could see a brilliant, beckoning light, a nova in the darkness—

“Move your feet, Potter!” Draco hissed, giving another yank on Harry’s collar. “Hardly the time for admiring the scenery!”

Harry stumbled after him, already feeling a stitch forming in his side from the effort. How much further to the entrance? They were quickly losing ground following the meandering paths carved through the Room, and Harry raised his wand again, ready to clear the way with a quick Reducto

Draco threw an arm out, nearly knocking Harry to the ground. They’d been outflanked by the lashing, fiery tendrils, which were now hemming them in on all sides, circling like sharks in a shrinking spiral as they drew closer and closer.

“Shit. Hurry, back behind me,” Draco snapped. “I’ll shield you, like at Gringotts—”

Don’t!” someone called from above their heads, and Harry looked up to see Hermione and Ron clinging to a broom. Hermione was waving her hands frantically. “Don’t transform! It’s Fiendfyre! You’ll never survive!”

“Catch, mate!” Ron lobbed something over his head—a long wooden stick with a bristled hilt. It was hardly the sleekest broom Harry had ever seen, and had Ron not been riding one just like it, he would have doubted it could fly, but desperate times were upon them.

Harry caught the broom and slung one leg over, jerking his head at Draco. “Get on!”

“Why do you get to be in front?” Draco grumbled, sliding in behind him and slipping his arms around Harry’s waist. “I’m faster on a straightaway.”

“As a dragon,” Harry reminded him, pushing off with a hard kick—and promptly ducking into a roll when one of the serpents in the flames lashed out. Harry felt the heat against his skin like a brand and caught the stench of burning hair.

Fuck!” Draco hissed, grip around Harry’s waist tightening. “Warn me before you do that again!”

Harry didn’t respond, only pushed the broom as hard as it would go. They were barely outstripping the flames, but the smoke and heat were quickly becoming overwhelming. Below, the Cursed fire churned and roiled, consuming the guilty outcomes of a thousand banned experiments, the detritus of countless souls who had sought refuge for their dirty secrets. Somewhere down there, the half-blood Prince’s book had been reduced to ash—lost forever, now, along with the gruesome Sectumsempra.

“Dammit…” Draco muttered as he surveyed the carnage. “Vince and Greg…”

Harry tried to remain detached. Crabbe and Goyle had just tried to kill them, after all. It did seem a horrid way to go, though: burned alive by a rabid, ravenous wall of living flame. His mind unhelpfully supplied memories of Draco, doubled over and belching lava as the dragon tried to claw its way out, boiling the very blood in his veins and driving him mad with agony.

He cursed under his breath, taking a dive and scouring the stacks.

“What the fuck, Potter—Harry, no.” Draco tried to reach around him, angling for a grip on the broom’s haft. “Leave it! It’s too late for them!”

“Maybe not,” Harry said. He swooped as low as he dared, dodging the swiping claws and snapping jaws of the monsters made of flame, but there was nothing. Nothing but heat and soot and ash.

Harry! We’ve got to get out of here!” bellowed Ron, though the smoke had grown so thick now Harry could no longer see him, leaving the exit’s location a mystery as well.

But then Harry heard a thin, piteous human scream rise up from the chaos below, piercing through the thunder of devouring flame.

Draco heard it too, his keen eye zeroing in on one of the stacks: there were Crabbe and Goyle, clinging to one another atop a teetering tower of old, charred school desks. Harry adjusted his grip, and Draco grabbed his wrist, still trying to put him off his decision. “We’ll perish along with them, Potter! We can’t!”

“Your objection is noted and dismissed,” Harry said, and he dove.

Goyle’s eye found him, widening with frantic hope, and he reached out both arms with stubby fingers spread wide as he reached for safety. Draco braced one hand against Harry’s shoulder, using him as leverage to lean to the side and clasp Goyle’s wrist tight as they made a pass. The broom lurched under the extra weight but held its altitude, with Goyle dangling precariously from Draco’s sweaty grip.

When Harry pushed the broom to start picking up speed again, they drew Goyle off of the stack. Crabbe made a feeble swipe, trying to grab Goyle’s shoe and nearly taking a tumble into the flames for his effort. He glared baldly up at them, rage and betrayal etched on his features. Harry felt his stomach give a guilty lurch, but there was nothing more they could do; Goyle was already slipping through Draco’s fingers, and the Fiendfyre was nearly upon them—

“I’LL HAUNT YOUR ARSE SO BAD IF WE DIE TRYING TO SAVE THEIR SORRY HIDES, HARRY!” Ron roared, streaking through the smoke, and as a great, flaming chimaera bore down upon Crabbe’s teetering stack, Hermione leaned to the side, reaching for his outstretched hand.

They connected—but evidently ill-content to let himself simply be carried off, Crabbe began attempting to climb up Hermione’s arm, clawing at her clothes and hair to try and mount the broom. “Let go of her!” Ron snarled as he manoeuvred the broom away from the lashing flames. “Just hang on, you idiot!”

“R-Ron!” Hermione gasped, eyes gone wide and white with terror. Harry watched, helpless, as she lost her steadying grip on Ron’s shoulder with Crabbe pulling her down and off the broom—she was going to fall, she was going to fall, into the flames, and—

Relashio!” Draco shouted over his shoulder, sending a jet of fiery purple sparks streaming from the tip of his awkwardly angled wand to hit Crabbe with incredible pinpoint accuracy.

Crabbe recoiled as the spell hit him, releasing his hold on Hermione, and tumbled into the leaping flames below. Harry looked away with a tight grimace, but Draco only clutched at him all the tighter, demanding in a rasping growl, “Get us the fuck out of here.”

Harry hardly needed to be told twice, and he pushed the broom as fast as it would go, Goyle still hanging on for dear life. He followed Ron and Hermione through the billowing black smoke, barely able to breathe, while around them the flames continued to feast upon the debris and detritus built up over the centuries.

A jet of spellfire streaked through the smoke, though he could not tell who had cast it, and it slammed into the quickly approaching wall, busting open what Harry now could see was the exit. Ron and Hermione dove for it, drawing in tight against the broom to be sure they weren’t clipped by the frame. Harry glanced over his shoulder to see Draco had helped Goyle climb up onto the broom, and with one hand he drew Draco closer. “Budge up,” he warned. “It’s going to be a tight fit!”

He kept the broom as on-course as possible, fighting the finicky old thing the whole time, but perhaps it too feared winding up a pile of kindling if it didn’t behave, for it flew true, and they streaked through the doorway and out into the seventh-floor corridor. Harry took in great gulps of fresh air as the door slammed behind them, but their momentum sent them straight into the opposite wall. He gave a sharp jerk on the broom’s handle, and it skidded to a halt in mid-air, sending its three passengers flying.

Harry hit the wall already curled into a protective ball. Though he was certain he had bruised something badly, he was able to stagger to his feet once the hall had stopped spinning. Draco was on all fours, gasping and retching to clear his lungs of the choking black ash, and Goyle appeared to have been knocked out, a streak of blood leaking from a gash just at his hairline.

Harry hobbled over to help Draco up. His face was streaked with grime and sweat, and he fixed Harry with a wretched glare. “I told you you should have let me do the flying. No finesse at all…”

“If you can whinge about my skill on a broom, I guess you must be all right.”

The remains of Ron’s broom lay in a pile of splinters on the flagstones, but he and Hermione seemed to be in one piece. Hermione was wiping her face with a dirty rag, and Ron was staring with a lost look at the empty stretch of hallway where the door had been.

Everything seemed so much quieter out here, shielded from the roar of the deadly Fiendfyre inferno, but Harry could still hear shouts and bangs from floors below—and no sooner had he remarked the relative calm, than a number of huge bangs shook the castle, and a stampede of transparent figures riding atop equally transparent steeds galloped past. The riders were all headless, and their heads bayed their bloodlust from where they sat tucked under their arms.

“The Headless Hunt…” Draco marvelled. “What exactly do they intend to do?”

“Spook a few Death Eaters?” Ron suggested, but Harry felt a flash of panic flare within him. How long had they been inside the Room? How many of their friends and family had been injured—or worse—while they rooted around searching for the diadem?

“Well, the good news is,” Hermione said, “if the diadem was in there…the Fiendfyre, definitely destroyed it.”

If it was in there…” Harry said, tugging out his Mokeskin pouch. “I grabbed this off a bust, right before Crabbe and Goyle jumped me.” Careful to be sure he didn’t touch it directly, he extracted the old tiara from the pouch and held it up for the others to see.

Hermione’s expression brightened. “Look at the inscription, Harry!”

He squinted, rubbing the etching with the cloth to clean it up a bit, and was at last able to make out the tiny inscription: Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure.

He grinned at Ron. “Still got that fang?” Ron patted his pocket, and Harry passed him the diadem. “Go wild.”

Ron sank to his knees, laying the diadem out on the stones and pulling the fang from his pocket. Keeping a steady grip on it, he frowned down at the Horcrux. Harry wondered if it would try to defend itself in some manner, as the locket and diary had, or if it would go quietly, like the cup. Ron didn’t seem inclined to give it a chance to fight back, and he brought the fang slashing down, hitting the diadem square in the middle of its pithy inscription.

With an ear-splitting tinny ring, the diadem began vibrating rapidly, seeping a thick, tarry black liquid from the point at which the fang had penetrated the veneer. When the vibrations reached a fever pitch, the diadem gave a final violent shudder and then broke apart, smashed to smithereens. The ringing echoed long after the diadem had shattered, fading to a soft, distant scream that Harry told himself was just the muffled shouts and yells from the fighters engaged in battle outside the castle walls.

“…That wasn’t creepy at all,” Ron muttered, complexion gone pale, and he tossed the fang aside with a relieved huff. And then he started laughing. “That’s five! That’s five!”

“All that’s left is the snake!” Hermione added, taming her bushy brown hair with a tight band. It looked more than a little singed in places, and Harry wondered how badly off he seemed himself. “Oh my god, we might just pull this off!”

Harry didn’t know if he was ready to entertain that possibility, but the idea of only one more Horcrux lying between them and Voldemort’s downfall did ease the weight hanging around his neck. He glanced over to Draco, half-expecting another lecture along the lines of Excellent! One step closer to our untimely demise! but was disappointed to find Draco leaning against the wall, staring down at the still-unconscious Goyle with a rather lost expression on his face.

“…Where did Crabbe learn to cast that…?” he mumbled, so softly Harry wondered if he was expected to answer.

“Maybe…maybe from the Carrows? Sounds like they were pretty sadistic; they might’ve thought it’d be a lark—teach some poor student a deadly spell without explaining how to control it…”

Draco snorted. “He was hardly ‘some poor student’. He tried to kill you.”

“He tried to kill you, too. And you still wanted to save him.”

Draco rubbed at his eyes, and his hands came away caked in soot and sweat. “Must be your Saviour complex rubbing off on me.”

A violent explosion rocked the corridor, erupting in a shower of dust and debris at the end of the hallway. They all scrambled to their feet, wands at the ready and hearts in their throats. The battle had finally worked its way inside the castle proper, it seemed.

From the cloud of mortar dust stumbled Fred and Percy, barely ducking twin jets of yellow that probably would have taken their heads off. They whirled in place, wands flashing frantically, as a pair of Death Eaters emerged from the cloud just on their heels, rejoining their respective duels in earnest.

“I think the fuck not!” roared Ron, and he charged down the hallway, with Harry, Hermione, and Draco hot on his heels. Spellfire flew over their heads in violent jets, and they dodged and wove their way to Fred and Percy’s aid. Ron fired a Reducto at the ceiling just above the Death Eater who had been harassing Percy, and the wizard hopped back, fast, to avoid being crushed by the cascading stone and mortar. The movement knocked back his hood, and Harry found he was not so very surprised to see Pius Thicknesse’s high forehead and black hair streaked with grey.

“Goodness, Minister—fancy seeing you here,” Percy said, smiling brightly as he zinged Thicknesse with a Jinx. Harry didn’t know what it was, but from the way Thicknesse dropped his wand and began seizing violently, he suspected it was some variation on a Tempest Jinx. “It’s always awkward when you skive off work and then run into your boss outside the office, I think.”

Fred released a sharp bark of laughter. “Our big brother’s joking, Ron! Percy Weasley, joking!”

Thicknesse collapsed to the ground, tiny bolts of lightning arcing over his body, and the Death Eater nearest Fred was knocked back into the wall under the force of no less than three separate Stunners.

“No kidding!” Ron huffed, grin wide. “I don’t think we’ve heard Percy joke since he was—”

A flash of blood-red—and Harry hadn’t even heard the incantation, but he saw the spell arcing for Fred, whose back had been turned on the downed Death Eaters. Time slowed to a syrupy crawl, and though Harry witnessed it all unfold in what he felt was half-time, he was helpless to stop it. Immobile, he could only watch as the raw red whip of deadly spellfire leapt from the tip of the wand of a third Death Eater who’d lain in ambush. His hood was thrown back, as if he didn’t care who saw him: Amycus Carrow.

I should have killed him. I should have killed him when we had the chance. He’s a Death Eater. I should have gone with Neville and killed—

PROTEGO!” Draco shouted, shoving Fred roughly aside and thrusting his wand forward with a two-handed grip. Carrow’s curse slammed into Draco’s shield with real, physical force, but Draco managed to stay standing, the white of his hair lit up like a dying star. Fred plastered himself against the side of the corridor with a wide-eyed yelp.

Carrow roared in rage, winding up to throw another spell—and Harry doubted he would let this next one be blocked.

I think the fuck not, indeed.

He brandished his wand with a snarled, “Incarcerous!” and Carrow went down as several lengths of rope whipped around him. His chin clipped the flagstones when he hit the ground, knocking him out cold.

The world seemed to resolve itself then, time picking up again and continuing apace. Fred gaped at his would-be murderer, struck dumb for once in his life, and Percy had his hands in his hair, a look of horror plastered on his face. “He almost…you almost…” he stuttered, swallowing thickly. “That was—”

Harry gave a sharp oof as he was rudely shouldered aside by Ron rushing Draco. He had a wild look in his eyes, and Harry worried for a heartbeat that Ron meant to slug Draco, perhaps thinking he had cast the curse at Fred.

But then Ron tackled Draco in a bone-crushing embrace, arms coming up tight and fierce around Draco’s neck as he hugged the life out of him. “Thank you! Oh fuck, thank you!” he cried into Draco’s shoulder, then shoved away, keeping him at arm’s length. Harry could see his eyes were shining, and his cheeks were flushed. “You—Merlin’s balls, I could kiss you!” Draco boggled, mute and confused, and Ron quickly whipped his head around to find Harry, adding in a rush, “But, I mean, I won’t. I won’t—just, you know. That’s how grateful I am!”

Draco looked like he’d just been struck with a Confundus. “Er…right. Well if you wouldn’t mind unhanding me, then…? It was only a Shield Charm. Your average Fourth-year could have done the same.”

Harry didn’t think it was the spell’s degree of difficulty that had inspired such suffuse affection from Ron, but he took a mental snapshot all the same, regretting how lax he’d been in filling out the little scrapbook of his mind.

Another bone-rattling explosion sounded, further down, and Harry slipped over to the window, half its glass lying shattered on the floor, to peek outside. The castle grounds were utter chaos—bodies, some human and some not, littered the courtyard, though it was impossible to tell from this height if they were Death Eaters or Hogwarts defenders. He knew that, statistically, at least a few of them had to belong to people on their side—were probably even people he knew—but he didn’t dare start down that path. If he did, he might never find his way back, and there was still so much they needed to do.

“What’re we gonna do with them?” Ron asked, nodding to the Death Eaters and Goyle. He’d released his death-grip on Draco—who was now enduring a round of handshakes and back-slaps from Percy and Fred—and put himself back in order.

Harry mulled it over. “Take their wands and lock them in one of the rooms up here—under a Stasis Spell.”

“You know they wouldn’t have given you the same courtesy,” Draco reminded darkly, wincing from the attentions.

“Yeah, they wouldn’t—haven’t, even. But we aren’t murderers.”

Draco glanced out the window, frowning at the carnage below. “We might have to be, by the end of the night.”

“Well we don’t have to be right now,” Hermione said, helping levitate the bodies into the nearest room—an empty classroom that did not appear to have been used in some time, given the layer of dust on the desks.

“How are things downstairs?” Harry asked Percy and Fred. “We’ve been—er, busy up here.”

Fred grimaced. “Not good, mate; the protective measures we set up held for a bit, but after fifteen minutes or so, the first line of You-Know-Who’s forces started forcing their way in. It’s not just Death Eaters, either. He’s got Werewolves and Acromantulas, not to mention a whole horde of Dementors—”

“Though at least they’re keeping back from the ruckus for now,” Percy said. “They’re prowling the Hogwarts boundaries. It might be they can’t cross over; some of the staff’s protections may yet be holding.”

“Small blessings,” Hermione muttered, chewing on her thumb.

“We should take what blessings we can get,” Percy continued darkly. “I’m not sure what’s happened in the time since we left the Entrance Hall, but…we’d already taken fatalities when we got cut off from Dad and the others by the Death Eaters you saw us fighting just now.”

“Fatalities,” Harry repeated flatly. “Who?”

Fred grimaced. “Feels crass to say so, but no one we knew. Could’ve been some former Order members, or other warm bodies Kingsley recruited for the battle, I can’t say.”

The thought did little to soothe Harry’s tension. His head was throbbing in time with the explosions and crashes he could still hear echoing from down below. He wanted to race down the stairs right now and join them—his mind was still whirling from the narrow escape from the Room of Hidden Things, and the near-miss with Fred just now had him spoiling for a fight.

Hermione must have seen the cogs in his head turning, for she drew in close, lowering her voice. She locked eyes with Harry. “You said you saw that…that Voldemort isn’t fighting, right? He was hanging back and letting his army do his dirty work?” Harry nodded.

“Saw—what?” Percy asked, voice tight with fear. “You saw him? Where?”

Hermione ignored him, though, placing her hands on Harry’s shoulders. “Harry, we need to find the snake. That’s all that matters now.”

“All that matters now?” Harry laughed, dry and devoid of mirth. “Dunno if you just heard, but people are dead—”

“And a hell of a lot more are going to die if we don’t kill that snake. You have one job here, Harry—and it certainly isn’t to rush into the fray.” She gave his shoulders a hard shake. “We’re the only ones who can end this!”

He knew she was right, which made it all the more frustrating.

She sighed in frustration, looking to Draco, of all people. “Speak sense to him!”

“Potter doesn’t operate on sense,” he returned blandly, tapping his temple with his wand to cast a Charm that wiped the muck and grime from his face and rearranged his hair into a neat coif. Even in the midst of a battle, the pompous arse had to make sure he looked immaculate. “One must be firm with him.” He locked eyes with Harry. “Where is the snake?”

Harry blinked, thrown by the question. “What?” How was he meant to know?

Draco rapped him on the crown. “Where is the snake? If you’re intent on pissing about playing hero, then let that be on your head. I’m going to kill the snake and end this madness.”

“I’m not pissing about—there’s good we can do here! Defences we can shore up, wounded we can help tend to! He’s not going anywhere, in case you haven’t noticed—”

“Right: he’s not going anywhere. He’s going to come, and he’s going to keep coming until he’s slaughtered every last living being standing between himself and you. Barging in there wand waving will do nothing more than delay the inevitable. So either piss off or get your head on straight.”

Harry clenched his jaw, looking to Ron for aid but finding no quarter. “…He’s right, mate,” Ron said, shaking his head. “I’m fucking terrified we’re gonna get back down there and it’s gonna be Bill or Charlie or my mum or someone laid out on the ground—but there’s nothing we can do but what we came here to do. We have to finish what we started.”

“Look into his mind,” Hermione urged. “Look—and find where he is! Wherever he is, he’ll have the snake with him too. You’ve insisted all this time you wanted to use this connection you share.” She squared her shoulders. “So use it. It’s time to finish this, Harry.”

And that, he supposed, he could get behind. He was just so tired—tired of terror and pain and anger and worry. Tired of waking up each day and having to be Harry Potter, instead of just a boy, just a student, just a wizard who wanted to deal with normal wizarding problems. Like passing his N.E.W.T.s and teaching his house-elf some manners and dealing with the peculiarities of being mated to a spoilt-rotten dragon Animagus.

He closed his eyes, frightened by how easy he found the task of slipping through Voldemort’s feeble mental defences now, to peek into his mind. Had it always been this easy? Could he have opened the connection like this whenever he wanted? Would Voldemort have known, as Harry had? Would he realise now?

It didn’t matter, though, these ifs and woulds and maybes, and as he let himself drift loose from his own mental moorings, the cacophonous sounds of a battle in its full throes faded, growing distant and weak, as if beyond a veil…

There was nothing but darkness, and Harry feared at first that he’d only fallen into a trance, or perhaps napped there on his feet, more exhausted than he’d realised, but then the darkness thinned to mere shadow, mottled with movement.

He tested his other senses as well—he could smell moss and dirt and decay, as if this body were his own, with Harry no longer a mere passenger. The bangs and cries were still there, only removed even further, as if he were distant from the battle. This was not the Shrieking Shack, but Voldemort was still not fighting.

He didn’t need to, after all.

It was better that he didn’t, in fact; if he charged in now, wand ready to strike down these pathetic fools thinking they could stand against him, it might prove a fatal error. And Lord Voldemort was not prone to error. No, if he engaged the boy in direct combat now, he might yet lose. He would not die, no, but there were some fates worse than death, and he had worked too hard to find his way back here, to the pinnacle of his power, only to stumble because he was overeager.

He would have to play this carefully, so very carefully. He would not be defeated, not so long as his Horcruxes yet survived. Nagini was curled tight around his neck, her weight a warm, comforting reminder of his immortality. The boy was picking off his precious tethers to this plane, one by one, but he would soon meet a block. Already his Death Eaters swarmed the castle, and the Room—that most secret of Rooms that not even Dumbledore had stumbled upon with his mighty intellect—would remain Lord Voldemort’s secret alone. The Potter boy had been lucky, true, but that was all that drove him—luck and the support of his betters. He was not clever enough, not cunning enough to suss out the Room—you had to have thirst, drive, raw ambition to seek out rare Hogwarts secrets like the Room and the Chamber, not sated in your knowledge, lazy and languishing. Content.

While Potter had surprised him—frightened him, he would admit only in his heart of hearts—with how far he’d managed to come, further than he should have by all rights been allowed, he would not find the diadem. Not even if he somehow found the Room and searched from now to kingdom come.

The end drew nigh, he could feel it in his very bones, in his blood: a heady thrum resonating with each pump of his heart: Soon. Soon. Soon. But not yet—no, not quite yet. He would have to practise all of his Slytherin cunning in these final breaths, and patience as well. He’d been denied the Wand; that had been an oversight—or rather a betrayal. But then, every misstep so far had been incurred due to some betrayal or another. Lucius, Bellatrix, Snape: he had learned his lesson. He’d suffered greatly for it, but it had been well learned. He would rely on none other than himself going forward—it was the Slytherin way, the way of his ancestors.

He would refute this prophecy and see his enemies thrown down not through brute strength and sheer power like some foolhardy Gryffindor but through the blood that ran in his veins. His ambition had brought him thus far, and his cunning would see him home. Wand or no. The Elder Wand was an impressive weapon, to be sure, but the Malfoy whelp was easily managed. He already had several of his more faithful Death Eaters scouring the battlefield for the wayward Malfoys elder; they would not abandon the school, not without their progeny, so he would simply bide his time, and in due course, Draco Malfoy would reveal himself, and the Wand would be his at last, ready to wreak havoc as the Deathstick.

He would have all that he required—soon, if not now. And until then…well, he really didn’t need a wand at all.

With a gasp, Harry pulled back into himself, eyes fluttering open. In that instant, his ears were assaulted with the screeches and cries of a battle in full fury. He was being dragged, bodily, along the hallway. “Oi, he’s awake again!” Fred was saying, one shoulder under Harry’s arm to help him along. “Wotcher, Harry.”

“Where’re we going?” he asked muzzily; he’d lost his glasses somewhere, and his mind and vision were both a blur.

“Some uninvited guests came looking for their friends,” Percy said. “We decided retreat might be the better part of valour, in this case.”

“My glasses…” Harry muttered, and someone pushed them into his hands, long fingers giving his own a squeeze.

“They make Tracking Charms for clumsy spectacled gits like you, you know,” Draco said. “Or you could save yourself the trouble and get your vision corrected.”

“But they’re my trademark,” Harry protested weakly, suddenly defensive of his glasses. He pushed them up on his nose when they slid down, his face still greased with sweat.

“Oh yes, my mistake, no one would recognise you without them.”

Fred got him set up in an alcove in the stairwell; the echoes of the battles being waged on floors below rang around them, rattling Harry’s ears.

“Did it work?” Hermione asked, suddenly beside him and very earnest. “Did you see where he was? Where the snake was?”

“He’s in the Forbidden Forest,” Harry said; he hadn’t recognised it in the moment, but his mind was beginning to clear again, and he could still smell the mouldering scent of wet and decay, moss and loam and mud. “He’s still not fighting—he’s not going to. He thinks…he thinks he doesn’t need the Elder Wand.”

“Doesn’t need it?” Ron parroted with a derisive chuff. “After all he’s gone through to try and get it?”

“Yeah, I don’t get it either…” Harry glanced to Draco, who was standing off to the side, away from the group, with his arms crossed over his chest. “…He’s looking for your parents. I assume he’s planning to use them to get to you, try and force you to hand over the wand.”

“…Looking for them,” Draco said, turning the words over in his mouth, and Harry nodded.

“Meaning he hasn’t found them. Small comfort, I’m sure, but better than the alternative, yeah?”

The line of tension strung tight across Draco’s shoulders eased a hair; it wasn’t much, but it was the best Harry could offer at the moment. A niggling kernel of guilt took root in the back of his mind, reminding Harry that he could just as easily get word to Voldemort that he’d relieved Draco of the Wand, rendering his pursuit of the Malfoys moot. Still, he couldn’t shake the thought that there might come a moment when such an element of surprise would be to his advantage, and cruel though it might seem, it was the cunning thing to do. With every moment he spent in Draco’s presence, Harry felt himself growing more and more Slytherin.

Harry wiped his face, then slapped his cheeks lightly. “Right, let’s get moving.”

“Traipsing into the Forbidden Forest in the dead of night with Harry Potter?” Draco mused as they bustled down the stairs. “Merlin and Morgana, it’s First Year all over again.”

Harry threw him a shrewd look over his shoulder, a quip ready on his lips concerning the absence of Hagrid’s comforting presence and the way Draco had turned tail and run at the first sign of danger, when the air grew close and charged, like right before a lightning strike, and a high, cold voice spoke in booming tones that seemed to resonate inside Harry’s skull.

The very walls and floors vibrated with sound, as had happened in the Great Hall earlier—and Harry realised that this was another of Voldemort’s ‘announcements’, made to everyone in Hogwarts and the surrounding grounds and village of Hogsmeade.

“Such impressive displays of magic you’ve shown me this day,” Voldemort said, his voice sounding so clear and close, as if he stood right behind Harry’s shoulder. Harry imagined he could feel his cold, foetid breath on the back of his neck, and it took everything in him not to whip around and shove a hearty Crucio right down his throat. He’d never cast it before—but he was feeling lucky. “Valiant, if ill-advised—and so brave to stand against my armies. Lord Voldemort appreciates the mettle it takes to stand tall against insurmountable odds.”

“I’ll bet he does…” Fred muttered, scanning the ceiling high above, as if he expected to see Voldemort peering down through the enchanted ceiling.

“But such heart must be tempered with logic, lest it transform into stupidity, stubbornness, and hubris. I know you have sustained casualties—most unfortunate. It is always a tragedy when magical blood must be spilled, and would it were possible, I would see the battle ended here and now. I therefore propose a ceasefire.

“I command my Death Eaters and our allies to retreat immediately. No more curses, no more Hexes. No knives in the dark; you shall not cast so much as a Tripping Jinx.

To those defending Hogwarts, I give you one hour of my grace. Tend to your wounded, gather your dead, and mourn your losses.

“…And to Harry Potter: I ask you to look around yourself. Whether you stand in the Courtyard, or in the Great Hall—whether you are cowering now in your Common Room, or if you stand atop one of the towers of the castle, you will see what you have wrought. You will see what your cowardice has begotten: death, destruction, despair as your friends and companions fight for you…and die for you. All because you would not come and face me yourself.

“Should you come to your senses, should you realise how unconscionable it is to ask others to die in your stead, you may find me in the Forbidden Forest, where I shall be waiting for you, in this hour of my mercy. However, should you insist on using these brave Hogwarts defenders to shield you from your fate, should you not give yourself over to my forces freely by the time the hour tolls, then I will bid my forces re-engage, and neither you nor your companions will receive any further quarter from me.

“And this time, I shall come for you myself, Harry Potter. I will tear through every last warm body in the castle to reach you, and I will relish doing so. You will die, to be sure, but only after you have borne witness to the senseless, needless deaths your reluctance to face your fate wrought.

One hour, Potter. Either you will come to me, or I will come to you.

The last strains of his voice echoed away, and the air came back with a rush. Hermione and Ron were suddenly on him, shaking his shoulders with panic writ large on their features.

“Fuck his ‘grace’, Harry! You can’t believe he’s doing anything but blowing smoke!”

“It’s obvious he’s desperate,” Hermione said, a bit breathless. “He knows he can’t possibly beat you, man to man, so he’s trying to draw you into a trap!” She nodded to herself. “Yes, we’ll have to use the hour’s respite to plan; we can’t go barging into this like—like—”

“Like Gryffindors,” Draco helpfully supplied, though his tone was flat, and he was fixing Harry with an unreadable look.

Hermione continued on, words coming in a rush as she began formulating some undoubtedly convoluted plan, and Harry let her voice wash over him. Everything grew faint and distant, and in his ears rang still the clanging accusation of Voldemort.

…death, destruction, despair as your friends and companions fight for you…and die for you. All because you would not come and face me yourself.

One hour. He would wait for Harry to go to him…for one hour.

This assault on the castle…this hadn’t been a battle. Only a demonstration, a chance for Harry to see what might happen. What would happen, if he didn’t give himself up. No wonder Voldemort hadn’t bothered to engage; he knew he could press just so and make Harry come to him. Guilt was more compelling a spell than even the strongest of Imperius Curses.

The Elder Wand was powerful…but it would not protect him from Voldemort and however many dozens of Death Eaters surrounded him out there in the forest. Voldemort wasn’t stupid; he wasn’t goading Harry out for a fair fight. He expected a saviour, he expected a sacrifice—he expected suicide.

“…We should go see how everyone’s doing,” Harry mumbled, chillingly aware of how feeble the suggestion sounded. He needed to just…not think about this. He needed to not hear that clock in his head, louder now than it had ever been before, ticking down the moments until…until something happened. Something he hadn’t been able to name before. Something he thought he could probably name now.

“Then let’s go,” Draco said, grabbing him roughly by the meat of his upper arm and practically shoving him down the steps.

The silence of the castle halls seemed somehow ear-splittingly loud just now; around about the fourth floor, they began to see evidence of battles that had spread from the halls and corridors into the stairwell itself, the odd baluster missing and railings blown off. One of the staircases had lost its top three risers entirely, requiring they make a precarious jump across the gap onto the fourth, which was itself crumbling to pieces.

There were no flashes of light now, no bangs or screams or shouts. They made it to the ground floor of the castle without meeting another soul, friend or foe. They picked their way gingerly over the bloodstained flagstones in the Entrance Hall, careful not to slip in the pools of gore or trod on the scattered rainbow of gemstones—emeralds, rubies, sapphires, diamonds—spilled from the shattered House point hourglasses.

It felt like they were the only ones in the entire castle, and Harry shared Hermione’s trepidation when she whispered, “…Where is everyone?” glancing fearfully around. It was downright eerie—the lamps burned low in their sconces, throwing weak shadows in the darkness, and the iron-rich stench of blood mixed with the ozone-burn of spellfire seemed to seep from the very walls.

The doors to the Great Hall were shut; Harry half didn’t want to see what lay beyond. Ron stepped forward, though, and pushed through, spilling a shaft of bright, warm light into the Entrance Hall.

Here, it seemed, was where everyone had congregated after Voldemort had issued his ultimatum, a sanctuary of sorts for the beleaguered defenders of Hogwarts. The barricades that had been crafted from the House tables were still holding, though they now bore clear signs of having fended off an assault, spackled here and there with the sooty residue of Curses and splintered badly in places.

Fred and Percy broke away, arrowing for a group of redheads with cries of relief. Ron followed them with his eyes but kept his feet planted, one arm around Hermione’s waist and the other still clutching his wand in a white-knuckled grip.

Groups of survivors stood huddled together around the Great Hall, friends and family alike communing during this brief respite. There were no more brave faces, no expressions of haughty bravado ready to ‘give ‘em hell’ as there had been but a few hours earlier—only drawn, grave soldiers who already showed scars from the battles they’d been engaged in thus far.

The raised platform at the far end of the hall, from which McGonagall had addressed them all only a short while ago, had been turned over to Madam Pomfrey, who was now tending a long line of injured with the aid of one of the Patil twins and Romilda Vane. They worked with a quick, practised clip, triaging any who approached with ruthless efficiency to make the most of the time they had before the battle was rejoined.

And then there were the dead.

They lay in a neat line down the middle of the hall—there were enough of them that, side by side, they spanned half the length of the hall. Harry tried not to look, thinking he ought to at least prepare himself for whatever he was about to see, but his eye was drawn to each and every face like a magnet. Look, an insidious little voice inside of him jeered. Look at what you’ve done.

He saw Lavender Brown, almost unrecognisable under the ragged claw marks raked across her face, her blouse stained a violent mud-red; he saw Michael Corner, not a scratch on him, with Ginny and Cho hovering over him with faces puffy and streaked with tears, fastidiously smoothing out his robes; he saw elegant, dark-skinned Blaise Zabini, one of the few Slytherins from their year Draco had somehow managed to convince to stay behind to defend a school that would have been glad to see the backside of him; and—

“Oh—oh no…” Ron rasped, bringing his hand to his mouth; he bit his palm, staring at a huddled group of several Order members, crowded around two bodies laid out near the end. Hermione seized his arm, a gasp lodging in her throat, and her knees buckled.

It was Remus—and Tonks. Lying there together, the both of them pale and still and peaceful-looking, as if merely asleep beneath the dark, enchanted ceiling. Their arms had fallen in such a way that it looked as if they’d fallen holding hands. Remus looked so old, and Tonks looked so young, and god, that ring was still on her finger, still glinting in the lamplight—

Ron and Hermione moved as one into the crowd of mourners—Ron at last finding himself swept up into the arms of his family and Hermione trailing mutely behind, letting Mrs. Weasley cry into her shoulder.

There was a low, constant din humming in the Hall, and Harry distantly recognised it as sobbing—that kind of whining moan people let out when they just didn’t have the energy anymore for weeping. He thought back to Dumbledore’s funeral; there’d been sadness, there’d been grief…but it had been so far removed. Harry recalled his own sadness, how it had taken months for it to really manifest—and then had done so in anger.

This, though…this felt so raw, so immediate. It was right here, all this death and sorrow and friends and family, people he loved, people he’d barely even known, lives just begun to really live, cut short all because of him.

Draco stood beside him, tall and stiff and straight, like a statue. Harry wished he could be as cold and unfeeling as Draco seemed, though the illusion was shattered by the sheer number of times Harry had seen him broken and bleeding. There were no ice princes, no stone faces—just cheap façades that could be undone with the crack of a spell.

His vision swam, and the Great Hall was swept away as darkness closed in around him, heavy and choking. Mind reeling, he shoved himself back from the doorway, stumbling into the Entrance Hall, and forced his eyes away. He couldn’t look at them, he couldn’t. He couldn’t stand among their ranks and mourn the fallen, when if he’d given himself up in the first place, strode out into the Courtyard with arms wide open, then Lavender might have earned that O in Divination and Michael might have gotten back together with Ginny—or hell, even Cho—and Zabini might have helped Draco show everyone Slytherins were just as proud to defend this school as any other House.

Remus and Tonks might have had a formal ceremony, so Harry could’ve congratulated them properly—they might have had a kid. Harry would’ve liked to have been someone’s godfather this time.

Every single one of the bodies laid out on the flagstones weighed on him, hanging heavy around his neck like an albatross.

Breathe, damn you; this is no time to have a fit.”

Draco’s voice was soft and sharp and commanding, and he laid a hand on Harry’s nape, jerking him forward until he was leaning into Draco’s chest, face buried in the gentle swell where neck blended into shoulder.

Harry quite disagreed—it seemed the perfect time for a fit—but he did as told and took in deep, laboured breaths. They came slow and stuttered, and his chest ached with each one, but still he forced it. He had to stay here, here right now, and bear witness. He couldn’t look away, he couldn’t run into one of the bathrooms and sick up his grief; he would look and look and look until it was burned into his vision, until even when he closed his eyes he’d see them all laid out, pretty as you please, in silent, eternal reminder.

“It’s—not fucking fair,” he growled into Draco’s shoulder, clubbing him feebly with his balled-up fist.

“Life’s not fair,” Draco said, and Harry felt the bob of his throat as he swallowed thickly. “Turns out death isn’t either.”

He relaxed his fist and brought his hand up around Draco’s side to lie flat against his back—then clawed at his shirt to pull him closer. “I’m sorry… You convinced Zabini to stay, and I—I got him ki—”

“Blaise got himself killed, Potter. If he’d wanted to live that badly, he’d have run when given the chance. He could’ve been sipping a hot toddy by a roaring fire in a ski lodge in wizarding Davos by now, and it’s no one’s fault but his own that he’s not. Perhaps he ought to have paid closer attention in Defence Against the Dark Arts instead of Charming his textbook into a mirror. Save your martyr complex for someone who might appreciate it.”

It was utter tripe, classic Malfoy spinning stories and sharpening his tongue because crude, snide remarks kept well at bay anyone who might sneak in close enough to see any real vulnerability—and take advantage of it.

Except Harry was already here, inside Draco’s defences, close enough to see every fine crack and unchinked crevice, so all he heard was Yeah—I convinced him to stay; and look what happened.

“I’m sorry…” he said again, weak and lost, unsure of what else to say. Draco only squeezed him tighter and released a ragged breath, no sharp rejoinder for once.

They stayed that way for some time, just holding one another in the dark, empty Entrance Hall, and they might have gone on longer had Harry’s head not been turned by a new sound: a strange, mournful song—haunting and mesmerising at once. It reminded him of the Merfolk singing, that haunting melody that could only be heard in the dark stillness of the Great Lake, but this was brighter and cleared and sharper and—

“Is—that an owl?” Draco said, squinting into the darkness. He pointed, and Harry drew back from their embrace, following his eye to see a bird, plumage red as a setting sun and shining with a light that seemed to bloom from within, bearing sorrow on its wings. It spiralled down from the highest towers with lazy beats of wings aflame, and from its jewelled throat issued a song that so painfully encapsulated the bone-deep, heart-sick guilt weighing on Harry right then, it brought hot tears beating at the backs of Harry’s eyes.

“Fawkes…” Harry marvelled, wiping furiously at his eyes and giving a snotty sniff. “I thought he’d left, after Dumbledore…”

Had the phoenix been living here at Hogwarts all this time, then? Or had he only returned briefly, in this Hogwarts’s darkest hour? But there were no more Basilisks to fight, and Fawkes’s tears could not bring back the dead—so why?

The phoenix drew closer, the light from his body throwing into sharp relief the carnage of the Entrance Hall—then he flared, as if meaning to rake Harry across the face with his talons. Harry threw up an arm to shield himself, and Fawkes daintily alighted on his arm, taking care not to gouge or burn him. The long, golden tail feathers brushed the floor, reminding Harry with a curious ache of the fussy white peacock Harry had found wandering about Draco’s lonely mental moor.

Fawkes drew up tall, balancing on one leg as he held out the other for Harry’s assessment; there was a tiny scroll attached. Harry gently removed the scroll, unrolling it and frowning as he read aloud: “‘To be delivered to Mr. H.J. Potter…in the event of the Headmaster’s untimely demise.’” His heart skipped a beat, a rush of excitement flooding his system—but no, this was not the familiar looping script of Dumbledore. Fawkes had not come bearing any last-minute advice or secrets from beyond the grave.

He let his eyes drop to the next line—the only other words on the scroll: “‘Please proceed to the Headmaster’s office; password—with all my hart.’” He furrowed his brow, passing the scroll to Draco. “It’s misspelt.”

“This is—from Dumbledore?”

Harry shook his head. “I don’t think so. If it is, he didn’t write it. You saw those letters in Rita’s book.” He knew he had seen the handwriting somewhere before, though—he just couldn’t place it. Had McGonagall sent Fawkes to him? But she could have just as easily sent a Patronus if she’d needed to summon him. He took the scroll back from Draco—then crumpled it in his fist. Fawkes leapt from his perch on Harry’s arm, sweeping away towards the stairwell and taking his warm, comforting light with him.

Draco frowned, watching the phoenix go with a wistful sort of look. “You’re not going to—?”

“No, no I am—” The words were out of his mouth before he’d even properly thought about it—but what else could he do? He couldn’t go back into the Hall, that was for certain. He’d glanced away from the tragic sight, distracted for only a moment, and now he couldn’t bring himself to look back. It wasn’t running away, he told himself; Fawkes had sought him out for a reason. He was meant to be in the Headmaster’s Office right now—so that was where he would go.

“…Fine, let’s go,” Draco said, shouldering past Harry—and Harry grabbed his arm, holding him fast.

“No, I—” He swallowed, searching feebly for an excuse. He needed to be alone, he needed to not be around people, especially people he cared about. Just for a moment, just to catch his breath before he had to face it all again. He needed to have his fit—and at least he might have some privacy in which to do it. “I think this is something…I’m meant to do alone.”

Draco’s jaw tightened, expression gone murderous. “The fuck it is—”

“He gave us an hour, didn’t he? No one’s going to hurt me, and I really can keep out of trouble without you hovering over me at all hours of the day.” There would be no more Crabbes and Goyles, not with Voldemort convinced Harry would walk out the front doors and hand himself over willingly.

“I’ve yet to see proof of that,” Draco bit out.

Harry relaxed his hold on Draco’s arm, squeezing gently. “I’ll only be a moment, all right? Just—” He nodded back toward the Great Hall. “Watch over them for me?”

Draco’s pursed lips said he clearly did not like the notion, but he gave a stiff, curt nod, and Harry felt his grey eyes boring holes into his back the whole way as he marched for the stairs, following Fawkes’s lead.

He climbed, and climbed, and climbed until he reached the Headmaster’s Tower, and when faced with the gargoyle guarding the entrance, he spoke the cryptic password. The statue slid aside, revealing the short spiral stair up into the office proper, and Harry mounted with trepidation. Now that he was here, he was beginning to feel he’d been foolish to push Draco away; someone had summoned him here purposefully, and it wasn’t so he could have a crying jag in private.

But when he stepped into the circular office, Fawkes sweeping past him to alight on the desk, he found it was bright and quiet and very empty. No Death Eaters lying in wait, no fellow students trying to turn him in for a reward. Even the portraits hanging on the walls that had once hosted every headmaster and headmistress to have ever called this office their own stood empty, their inhabitants having either fled to other portraits of their own in far-flung sanctuaries or slipped down to paintings in lower levels of the castle to see what was going on.

Harry glanced hopelessly at what would have, he was certain, been Dumbledore’s frame, hanging directly behind the Headmaster’s chair. It, too, was empty.

He turned away from it and looked instead down at the Headmaster’s desk, atop which next to Fawkes sat the stone Pensieve into which he had once journeyed at Dumbledore’s side. Had it only been a year since then? It felt like so much longer—just this night felt interminable.

The Pensieve seemed to be waiting for him, filled already with a soup of memory threads swirling silver-white and strange. Oh. Oh yes, that might be nice. Harry thought he’d quite like that right now—to live, for only a brief respite, in someone else’s head. To be someone else. To shoulder their bad memories and happy thoughts and be shielded from his own. Coward, he thought, and he did not care.

With a rushing sensation of reckless abandonment, as though this would assuage his torturing grief, Harry closed his eyes, took a bracing breath, and tipped forward into anonymous recollection.


Men Who Love Dragons Too Much Copyright © 2018 by fencer_x. All Rights Reserved.

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