The Great Hall was much changed from the last time Harry had sat under its enchanted ceiling as a student, nearly a year ago; indeed, it didn’t even look the same as it had an hour earlier.

Behind the barricades that had once been the long House tables huddled dishevelled, sleep-drunk students from all Houses. Most milled about in their sleepclothes, though some had had the forethought to throw on travelling cloaks or at least dressing gowns. The ghosts had joined them as well, and their translucent forms floated above the throngs of confused and frightened students below, wandering in meandering, pacing circles. The living and the dead co-mingled under a dark enchanted sky, scattered with a thousand twinkling stars, and every ear was turned toward McGonagall, who had mounted a dais at the head of the Hall and was now delivering instructions on the impending evacuation.

“…do so in an orderly fashion. Now, the evacuation will be overseen by Mr. Filch and Madam Pomfrey. Prefects will chaperon their Houses to the designated evacuation point, where capable students will Disapparate to their homes or a provided safehouse, while all others will be Side-alonged.”

The students looked understandably terrified—and not just the younger ones. Harry wondered why he hadn’t been petrified by fear himself, after all they’d been through and knowing full well—perhaps better than anyone else here—what was coming. Perhaps it was the adrenaline (it certainly had to be playing a part), or perhaps it was because of everything they’d been through. They’d infiltrated the Ministry of Magic and kidnapped a prisoner from the Department of Mysteries; they’d broken into Gringotts and stolen treasure from one of their most well-guarded vaults. Really, this Voldemort business ought to be a breeze by comparison, especially as they were only two Horcruxes down now.

“Have we got to evacuate?” someone called out from a crowd of Hufflepuffs—Ernie Macmillan, Harry saw, when his peers turned to regard him.

McGonagall sought him out visually, nodding. “There will be no room for bystanders, Mr. Macmillan.”

“Well, of course—I meant what if we wanted to fight, too? It’s our home that’s being threatened—I’m not inclined to run off and abandon it.”

There was a smattering of applause—loudest from Professor Sprout, who stood behind McGonagall with the rest of the staff, including the palomino centaur Firenze and the members of the Order who’d shown up to help defend the castle.

“If you are of age, then you may stay if you wish,” McGonagall said. “Though I must warn you, it will be at peril to your own life. I ask that you not stay behind without having given that decision its due consideration.”

“But—we haven’t had any time to pack!” said a Ravenclaw girl. “Our books and trunks are still up in our rooms!”

“And in your rooms I’m afraid they’ll have to stay for now,” said McGonagall. “We must make our evacuation as quickly as possible; once this…this business has been concluded, then of course we will arrange to have your belongings sent on to wherever you may be taking shelter in this our time of crisis.”

“Where’s Headmaster Snape?” shouted a Slytherin, and Draco snapped his head around, frowning as he tried to locate the student.

McGonagall cleared her throat softly. “He has…been called away—” she started, only to have Seamus pipe up with, “He’s done a bunk!”

A great whooping cheer erupted from the Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs, and Ravenclaws—with the Slytherins only huddling together more closely and glaring out at their classmates with mistrustful expressions. Harry felt his insides churn; he supposed he ought to have seen this coming. Indeed, he would’ve been cheering right alongside them under other circumstances. Now, though, he could see the muscles in Draco’s throat tensing, a little vein throbbing in his temple, and knew he was one slight away from lashing out.

He touched Draco’s wrist. “…Show, don’t tell.”

“What’s the point, when they don’t want to see?” he bit out.

“Make it so they can’t look away then. Worked with me.”

“In the past few hours, we have worked to place some degree of protections around the castle,” McGonagall continued, “but they are unlikely to hold for very long, so I ask that you use what precious little time we’ve been able to buy for all of you to quickly but calmly now follow your Prefects to—”

“Brave defenders of Hogwarts.”

A new voice, high and cold and clear, echoed throughout the Hall. It seemed to seep from the very walls themselves, like the stone and mortar were speaking, and Harry felt the tiny fine hairs on his arm stand up on end.

Several in the crowd sent up a chorus of shrieks, only to be swiftly quelled by shushes. The students looked around, eyes wide with terror as they searched for the source of the voice, as if convinced Voldemort was in the very room.

“I speak to you now from within the castle boundaries. I know that you are preparing to fight—shoring up defences, laying traps, taking up siege positions. Trust that your efforts are futile. You cannot hope to delay me from my prize. However, I have no desire to kill you. I have great respect for the teachers of Hogwarts and an abiding love for the talent nurtured therein. It would pain me to spill magical blood unnecessarily.”

A hush fell over the Great Hall—a pressing, painful quietude that bent every ear, as if by spellwork. You listened, whether you wanted to or not, and you didn’t make a sound as you did so.

“Give me Harry Potter,” said Voldemort, slow and instructive, as if to a child, “and none shall be harmed. Give me Harry Potter, and I shall take my leave immediately. Give me Harry Potter…and you will be greatly rewarded. Lord Voldemort is merciful. Lord Voldemort is understanding.”

The silence now was like a boot on the neck, crushing.

“But Lord Voldemort is not patient. You have until midnight to decide if you would prefer to live to see the sun rise…or die like dogs.”

The echoes of the high, cold voice faded away, and Harry felt as if a spotlight had been turned on him as what seemed like every head swivelled his way, every eye in the place finding him in the crowd. All but Hermione, Ron, and Draco backed swiftly away, giving Harry a wide berth. What had seemed a frightened but steady pack before now felt dangerous: a herd of prey animals cowering under the stare of an apex predator and given the chance to save themselves by throwing one of their own into his waiting jaws.

“But—but he’s right there!”

One of the Slytherins had broken from the group—Pansy Parkinson, just as snub-nosed and pinched-faced as Harry remembered. Her black bob was mussed and askew, and she had a silk dressing gown with an empire waist tied tight about her. One of the other Slytherins—a younger one, Harry supposed, given he didn’t recognise her—tried to reach out to Pansy, hissing Don’t! but was rudely shrugged off.

“Potter’s right there!” she went on, and when her eye found Draco, her tone waxed pleading. “Draco, do something!”

Draco only hardened his gaze, drawing himself up. “I am.” He moved in front of Harry, flanked by Hermione and Ron.

A meagre handful of Slytherins followed his lead, flocking to Draco with wide, terrified eyes belying the determined set to their jaws. They looked far too young to be taking any manner of stand, but Harry supposed Draco had that sort of effect on people. He’d always managed to draw a crowd, a leader even the worst sorts wanted to follow. Make it so they can’t look away, Harry had told him, and fuck if he hadn’t taken it to heart. Harry was mesmerised.

Hermione pinched him, giving him a meaningful look, and Harry ducked his head.

The Slytherins’ gesture spurred the rest of the students into action, and Harry quickly found himself hemmed in on all sides now by every Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw in sight. Pansy looked mortified and incensed, an expression Harry had seen all too often etched on Draco’s features, and he felt a pang of sympathy for her. She only didn’t want to die; how could Harry blame her? He rather felt the same.

McGonagall cleared her throat. “Thank you for your insight, Miss Parkinson.” She held out one hand, gesturing toward the door. “I invite you and any other members of your House not staying on to leave the Hall first with Mr. Filch.”

The better portion of the Slytherins joined Pansy, trooping from the Hall with a dark cloud hanging over all their heads. The younger ones among the few who’d stood with Draco had to be chivvied off as well, but four other Seventh-years ultimately stayed behind, staid and proud and wands clenched tight in their fists.

“…Perhaps we should have kept some behind,” Draco said as the last of the Slytherins disappeared through the doors of the Great Hall. “More than a few have parents waiting out there in the darkness—parents who’d probably do whatever they were asked if their children’s lives hung in the balance.”

“It wouldn’t stop him,” Harry said. “And besides, that’s not how we do things.”

Draco’s lips formed a thin line. “Perhaps it should be.”

Harry glanced back to McGonagall, who nodded to him before calling out, “Ravenclaws, follow on!”

A fair few of the Seventh-year Ravenclaws remained behind while their fellows filed out, and even more Hufflepuffs stuck around. When nearly half of Gryffindor tried to hang back, many far too young to be allowed to do so, McGonagall was forced to bodily shoo them along their way.

Ginny tried very hard to fight being sent off, breaking out into a row with Mrs. Weasley. “Everyone else is staying, though! You’re letting the boys stay!”

“Because the boys are of-age! You’re only sixteen, and you’re going home!” Mrs. Weasley huffed. “I let you come to see Ron was safe, and now you have, so back to your great aunt’s you go!”

“I’m in Dumbledore’s Army—”

“You’re in no one’s army—!”

“C’mon, Gin,” said Bill gently. “You know you can’t stay… Look, even Luna’s evacuating, see?” He extended an arm; Luna was hanging in the doorway, looking expectantly over at Ginny. A part of Harry wished the both of them would stay—they were damn fine witches, and every wand-wielder of any worth was needed tonight—but that part of him was very stupid and selfish and blessedly easy to ignore when lives were on the line.

“I can’t!” Ginny cried, angry tears sparkling in her eyes. “My whole family’s here! Even Charlie—even Percy! You can’t tell me to j-just sit there, waiting all alone, not knowing, and—” She started hyperventilating, and Mrs. Weasley wrapped her in a hug, burying her face in the top of Ginny’s hair.

Harry felt ashamed; this was his fault. He was the reason families were being torn apart, some to never find their way back together.

“…Molly, why doesn’t Ginny stay in the Gryffindor Common Room?” Remus suggested. “Then at least she’ll be on the scene and know what’s going on, but she won’t be in the middle of the fighting?”

Ginny gasped. “Yes! I’ll stay there! I swear it, Mum! Luna and I can stay there, a-and if anyone needs healing or anything like that, you can send them our way, and we’ll tend to them!”

Mrs. Weasley pursed her lips, looking torn, then nodded reluctantly, and with a last hug from her parents and a wave farewell that Harry was certain was directed mostly to himself, Ron, and Hermione and not so much to Draco, she darted over to join Luna, disappearing through the doors.

Kingsley stepped onto the raised platform vacated by Professor McGonagall now to address those who had stayed behind to fight—a lonelier bunch, but with a hardened glint in their eyes that said they would not let Hogwarts fall without a fight.

“You heard him—midnight is our deadline. Once it passes—and it will do so more quickly than we might like—He Who Must Not Be Named and his minions will attack, so that leaves us perhaps a half hour to prepare. The Hogwarts staff and members of the Order of the Phoenix have put their heads together to strategise on where we go from here, so listen up: Professors Flitwick, Sprout, and McGonagall will take groups of fighters to the three foremost towers—Ravenclaw, Astronomy, and West—they ought to have a good overview of the front lawn and be well-positioned to work offensive spells as well as to shore up defences. While they work from on high, Remus—” He indicated Remus, and Tonks gave a delighted squeal. “Arthur—” He pointed towards Mr. Weasley, comforting his wife. “And I will take groups onto the grounds. Points of ingress will be particularly weak, so we’ll need someone to organise defence of the entrances into the school—”

“Did someone order a jumbo pack of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes?” chorused Fred and George, and Kingsley rolled his eyes but gave a reluctant nod, only barely managing to stifle a smile.

“Your family is barmy, Weasley, have I mentioned?” Draco muttered under his breath.

“You didn’t have to grow up being their guinea pig,” Ron returned with a shudder.

“Right then, leaders up here!” Kingsley called. “Let’s get all the troops divided up.”

Harry did not very much like Kingsley referring to Hogwarts’ defenders as troops, as it too easily suggested that this was some hardened, trained army and not a group of students fresh from their studies and some staff and parents rallying together. How many here had ever cast an Unforgivable? Or even seen one cast up close? How many had had to cast a Shield Charm to save their life in the last six months? The last six years? How many—

“So are we sticking around for any particular reason?” Ron asked as students hurried past them, jostling for position to receive defence assignments. “Shouldn’t we be heading back to the Room ourselves so we can hop in as soon as the evacuation’s complete?”

Fuck; he’d been so preoccupied with the battle preparations he’d nearly forgotten what the battle was even for—why McGonagall wasn’t simply evacuating and letting Voldemort and his Death Eaters sweep in and do their worst, content to repair and rebuild later. “Right—yeah, let’s go.”

Leaving the defenders groups to their duties, they dashed from the Great Hall, spilling out into the Entrance Hall, which was still crowded with students heading up to the seventh-floor corridor. Were the Slytherins already on their way? How long would it take before the last of the Gryffindors made it through to the Hog’s Head and could be Apparated to safety? They had less than a half hour now before Voldemort began his assault on the castle, and the longer it took them to find the last of the hidden Horcruxes, the more lives might be lost in the doing.

Professor Sprout thundered past, followed by Neville and handful others. “Mind your earmuffs!” Sprout was shouting. “Make sure they’re good and tight, or you’ll wish the Death Eaters had Cursed you!” They were all of them carrying what looked at first glance to be large potted plants.

“Mandrakes!” Neville bellowed at Harry as he ran past, holding one up for show. “Look out below, if you’re around the Astronomy Tower! Gonna be a bad night for some Dark wizards, I reckon!”

“Er, have fun…” Harry called, but Neville had already disappeared into the throng.

It was another five agonising minutes before they finally made it to the foot of the marble staircase, allowing themselves to be swept up the steps, but when they’d barely made it to the second floor after ten minutes, Draco lost his patience and shoved them onto one of the landings and down a corridor. “We’ll Summon brooms from the Quidditch pitch and fly up! At this rate we’ll be lucky to get to the Room before the Dark Lord’s commandeered the whole castle!”

“It hardly matters how quickly we get there if the students are still evacuating!” Hermione huffed. “We need to stall long enough to allow them to—”

The window at the end of the hall shattered with a deafening crash, glass spilling onto the flagstones. Harry took a leap back as a gigantic bear of a body tumbled through the opening, rolling a few times before coming to a groaning rest.

“Hagrid?!” Harry gasped, quickly picking his way through the debris. “What the—are you all right?”

“Oh! Goodness, Harry! Yer back!” Hagrid scooped him up into a rib-cracking hug, nearly squeezing the life from him. “Gosh, yer a sight fer sore eyes! One mo, though!” He ran back to the shattered window, bellowing through the hole, “Ta, Grawpy! I’ll handle it from here—you jus’ wait for me ‘round the corner, there’s a good lad!”

An answering groan echoed back, and Hagrid nodded with a wide grin, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “We heard You-Know-Who yammerin’ on from up in our cave—came down to see what’s what. Guess it’s time, yeah? I see everyone’s gearin’ up fer a battle!”

“Er, yeah, I suppose…” Harry frowned. “How did you get here? Doesn’t he have this place surrounded?”

“Nah, we smashed our way through the boundary by the forest; pretty thin over that way, and with Grawpy carryin’ me, it wasn’t nothin’. Told him ter let me down at the castle—and well, this ain’t exac’ly what I meant, but—”

Hagrid cut himself off, expression going slack—and then thunderous, as he struggled to pull his little pink umbrella from his great coat. “Get back, Harry! It’s Malfoy—”

“Stop—STOP, Hagrid!” Harry held his hands up defensively, and Hermione and Ron quickly moved to flank him, shielding Draco from whatever spell Hagrid had been readying to fire. There was a fifty-fifty chance it would backfire, granted, but Harry didn’t want to press their luck any further than they were already leaning on it. “Relax, he’s with us!”

With you?” Hagrid snarled, more viciously than Harry had ever heard. “That murderin’ li’l bastard?”

Harry winced, though Hagrid’s reaction could hardly be blamed. “It…it’s more complicated than it seems, Hagrid. Just trust that he’s not here to do any harm. In fact, he’s helping us!”

“He is?” Hagrid frowned, stuffing the umbrella back into his coat. “A turncoat or somethin’?”

“Or something, yeah…”

Hagrid nodded, seemingly satisfied, then firmed his lips, giving Draco a weak little salute. “Right, then. Sorry ‘bout that, Malfoy. No hard feelin’s.”

“…Of course not,” Draco said, looking very much like he had several choice words he wanted to deliver and was fighting to swallow them down. He cleared his throat pointedly and said to Harry, “If we’re done chatting?”

“Oh—right, sorry Hagrid, but we’ve got to—”

“Course you do! Midnight’s nippin’ at our heels! Where d’you reckon I ought to offer my services?”

Draco already had his arm looped through Harry’s, though, and was dragging him bodily back towards the stairwell, which was much less crowded now than it had been just five minutes ago. “Try the Great Hall! They’re giving out defence assignments there!” he called out, and Hagrid bellowed a shout of thanks, taking off for the other end of the corridor.

“How much longer do we have?” he asked as they hit the stairs at a run, huffing and puffing past the third-floor landing.

“Less than ten minutes now!” Hermione gasped. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a few Death Eaters jumped the gun, though, and—”

“Hold up!” said Ron, drawing up sharply. “Aren’t we forgetting someone?”

Who?” Hermione asked with an irritated huff.

His eyes bugged. “Well, the house-elves, of course!” Ron glanced over the railing. “They’ll all be down in the Kitchens, won’t they? Dobby and whats-her-face—Blinky? And the others.”

“Wha—you want them fighting?” House-elves did have their own particular brand of magic, but Harry didn’t much fancy the idea of them in the thick of things, especially when they’d mostly only be obeying orders given by their masters and not fighting because they felt like it.

“Of course not!” said Ron, suddenly earnest. “We can’t order them to die for us! I mean we should tell them to get out! Can you imagine what You-Know-Who and his lot would do to a bunch of defenceless—”

Hermione gave a sharp yip of strangled delight and launched herself at Ron, knocking him back against the railing as she flung her arms around his neck and kissed him like there was no tomorrow. If Ron was shocked, he sure didn’t show it, promptly bringing his arms up around her, locking her against him and responding with such vivid enthusiasm that he lifted her well off her feet, spinning in place.

Draco made a poor attempt at stifling a rude retch, and Harry jabbed him in the side. He turned back to Ron and Hermione. “Really? Now of all times” When they only gripped each other more fiercely, swaying on the spot with smitten smiles on their faces, he raised his voice. “Oi! There’s a war going on here, in case you didn’t notice!”

“I rather think that’s the point,” Draco said, adding under his breath. “Now or never, and all that. Surely you can sympathise.”

Harry felt his ears go pink. “It’s not that I can’t… It’s just…”

Ron and Hermione broke apart at last, though they were still embracing, looking very much on the verge of starting up again, and Harry huffed in irritation, “If you’re both done?” He didn’t need any further reminders of the spectacular fool he’d made of himself with Draco earlier.

“Y-yeah—right—sorry—” Ron said, quickly stepping back and fighting to keep the smile on his lips from tending too goofy, and Hermione patted herself down, clearing her throat and mouthing an apology of her own.

“Would you like us to roll out the tent?” Draco offered, lounging against the railing. “We’ve got a few minutes to spare; should be more than enough time for you, Weasley.”

“Shove off,” Ron snapped, though he was still smiling as he said it, and he shooed them all back up the stairs, as if they hadn’t been waiting on him. “Come on! Tick tock!”

They scaled the stairs, which seemed to understand their urgency and helpfully lifted them along when their stamina began to flag. They had just passed the sixth floor when a keening whine followed by a loud CRACK shook the shaft. Through the nearest window, Harry could see rainbow bursts of light beginning to flash across the sky—the opening salvos of the battle.

It was midnight.

“No time for sight-seeing, Potter! Get moving,” Draco snarled, shoving Harry hard across the shoulders and nearly sending him stumbling over his own feet. Dust showered down from the ceiling, and the very walls felt like they were trembling around them—no, they were trembling. The castle seemed to groan in pain as it came under attack, McGonagall’s hard-wrought protections already failing, putting their rag-tag team of rebels on the offensive far too early for Harry’s comfort.

They hit the seventh floor and tore down the corridor. Harry spared a glance through one of the windows and caught sight of Grawp wandering through the central court, swinging a massive club and batting back what Harry hoped were unfriendlies.

“Maybe if he survives,” huffed Ron, so red-faced his freckles almost disappeared into his ruddy complexion, “we can recruit him as a Beater for Gryffindor.”

A scream echoed up from the floors below, and Harry froze, heart in his throat. It had sounded young—like a student. Somewhere, a student was hurt, or dying, and—

And it was going to be all for nothing if they didn’t get this Horcrux. Joining the fray right now would do nothing but drag out the inevitable, he reminded himself. This was what he was meant to be doing, much as he would have rather been down there fighting and dying alongside his friends instead of using them as so much cannon fodder.

They came to the stretch of corridor that had housed the Room of Requirement and found it empty, the doorway gone. Had the evacuation been completed before the deadline had passed? Were the students stranded in Hogsmeade, at the mercy of any Death Eaters or Dementors who’d hung behind in case Harry tried to escape? They had no way of knowing—and as ever, they couldn’t afford to be distracted. Whether the students had all been safely evacuated or not had no bearing on how important it was they find their way into the Room of Hidden Things and start searching for Ravenclaw’s diadem. God, they didn’t even know what it looked like—several of the books they’d used for research had included illustrations, but they’d all differed. It could be as marvellous as Ron’s Aunt Muriel’s Goblin-crafted tiara, or else nothing more than a glorified thinking cap. He sorely regretted not asking Flitwick for any advice, especially given he was probably raising hell from atop Ravenclaw Tower at this very moment.

“Harry?” Hermione prodded, and he forced himself back into the moment. There was nothing to be done for it now—and Hufflepuff’s cup and Slytherin’s locket as well as the Gaunt ring had been fine pieces of craftsmanship. Voldemort would not have made a Horcrux out of anything less than something he deemed a worthy Founder’s artefact.

“Right.” He looked to Draco. “Want to do the honours? You said you’ve spent your fair share of time in there; might open more easily for you.”

Tight-lipped, Draco shook his head. “…I don’t exactly have the best memories of this place. I’d rather just get this over with as quickly as possible and be quit of it, if it’s all the same to you three.”

“Not sure I feel the same,” Ron said, “seeing as once we’re done here, then we’ve got to face that bloody snake.”

“And You-Know-Who himself,” Hermione added.

“You think his name’s still Taboo’d?” Harry asked absently. “What protections are there left to break, if they’ve already made it over the perimeter defences?”

Voldemort Voldemort Voldemort,” Draco snapped, rapping his wand against the stone wall. “Seems all right to me! Let’s go!”

Harry ducked his head and began pacing away, marching past the wall where the Room of Requirement would usually appear and keeping his mind clear of everything except a single, focused thought: I need the place where things are hidden. I need a good hiding place, a place no one would ever think to look.

He tried every iteration of the plea he could think of—and on his third run past, the door materialised.

Hermione gave a cry of relief, reaching for the knob and yanking it open to reveal not the Room of Requirement but instead a much larger space of tall towers of junk and refuse from hundreds of students over the past centuries. “…Oh dear.”

“That’s a lot less colourful than what I was gonna say…” Ron muttered, poking his head inside and giving a low whistle. “…You reckon they can hold things down until we find the Horcrux?”

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Harry said, “and we’ve wasted enough time already. Let’s—”

A bolt of pain speared his head, hitting like a truck to cleave him wholly in two. He felt his knees give and thought he might have smacked his head against the wall, but he was numb to all pain but the throbbing, angry white-hot agony that preceded a vision.

He blinked the shower of sparkling stars from his eyes—and now it was dark, so dark. He didn’t recognise where he was, some dilapidated house—so old and mouldy he could almost smell it. But no, it wasn’t a house. It was too small—just a room. Just—a shack. The Shrieking Shack, he could see, now that his vision wasn’t a blurred mess. It hit him, for the first time, how close Voldemort was—and yet how very far away. He was a stone’s throw from Hogwarts—but a rather hefty one still. He wasn’t fighting, he was—

He was talking to someone. Talking to Snape.

Snape was down on one knee in the centre of the room, his long, greasy black hair hanging in his face. Voldemort stalked him, pacing around him in a slow, lazy circle like a shark, with Nagini floating coiled in a protective magical bubble just over his shoulder. Harry could hear, beyond the thin, termite-infested walls of the shack, the screeches and bangs of spellfire.

I heard a most curious thing while being apprised of the break-in at Gringotts by Potter and his lackeys, Severus,” Voldemort hissed, fingering the long, tapered shaft of the Elder Wand—Dumbledore’s wand. Harry ached to reach out, to take it back—but he had resolved already to see this quest through without the aid of any other Hallows. If Dumbledore had wanted Harry to have the Wand, he would have willed it to him at the very least. That he hadn’t done so meant this battle was still winnable, even without the Unbeatable Wand.

Snape did not quail or quiver under Voldemort’s raw, heavy gaze, only kept his eyes downturned and shoulders square. Had he been anyone else, Harry might have attributed it to courage—or even audacious stupidity, the kind Gryffindors prized. Instead, he saw only the cool, calm collection of one convinced of his place in the world and seeing no need to fear the beast whose favour he had courted.

“Curious, you say?”

“Yes, most curious indeed. I had been heretofore convinced that Potter would be travelling with but two companions: the Mudblood Granger and the Blood Traitor Weasley the Youngest.” Voldemort tapped his chin in thought and rubbed his chest. “It seems, however, that this assumption was…flawed.”

Snape did not raise his head, though Harry thought his breath might have caught in his throat for a beat. “…Flawed, my Lord?” he said. “But—those are Potter’s dearest—”

“There was a fourth party aiding them in their mission,” Voldemort said, tone gone suddenly breathy—a sign, Harry realised, he was furious. “A party I had been assured was quite dead. A party you assured me was quite dead.” He drew to a stop, turning to face Snape head-on, and he stared down at the greasy black head with cold, bright eyes. “Tell me how it is, Severus, that Draco Malfoy is alive.”

Snape looked up into his master’s eyes, brows knit in confusion but still somehow managing not to tremble. “That—that cannot be possible, my Lord. I saw him—”

“Saw him put down yourself, was it? Destroyed, reduced to so much ash by Ministry wands. Yes, that is what you said. That is…” Voldemort cocked his head to the side, a knowing grin curling at his lips. His red, slit-like eyes flicked to Snape’s forehead. “…What I saw. And yet he somehow escaped Death’s cold, clammy grasp—ah!” He clapped in mock delight. “Perhaps we have another Boy Who Lived on our hands!” Then, in a flash, moving so quickly Harry’s eyes couldn’t clock him, he was nose-to-nose with Snape, fury alight in his eyes. “That is the only plausible answer, really. Certainly you would not have lied to me, correct?”

For the first time, Snape betrayed a hint of concern, swallowing a lump in his throat: “I beg you consider the source of such testimony, my Lord. A Goblin’s word? One wizard looks like another to them, these menial beings! It could even have been Polyjuice or a strong Glamour—”

Voldemort lashed out, grabbing Snape by the throat and squeezing until he stopped speaking. Snape’s fingers spasmed wildly, but his arms remained at his side, as if he understood the futility of attempting to claw his way free.

“I know you are lying to me, Severus. I should never have relied on Legilimency to begin with—it is fallible.” He released his grip on Snape’s throat, drawing himself up tall and regal as he examined Snape with a detached curiosity. “I am only left to wonder why. Why would you lie to me about this matter, this of all things? Such a trivial thing, the life of a stupid, incompetent boy, and yet you have risked your own in protecting his. Now, I considered, initially, that perhaps you had developed a fondness for the boy, or felt indebted to Lucius. A rare display of sympathy, even, for a charge you hoped to spare the task of killing. A dragon would have been an impressive addition to my arsenal, of that there can be no doubt.” He lifted the Elder Wand, tracing runes absently in the air. “But all of these possibilities seemed ultimately unlikely. You have courted death to feed this lie into the ear of Lord Voldemort, and I know you, Severus Snape. You’re nearly as perfect a reflection of Salazar himself as I am; your blood runs green and your bile silver.” He sank to one knee before Snape, mirroring his pose, and dropped his voice. “You have a reason for keeping this boy a secret from me.”

Snape said nothing, perhaps working double-time to keep his Occlumency shields up. Narcissa Malfoy had been convinced that Snape had lied about Draco’s death to keep Voldemort from tracking him down, and it seemed she had been right. Why, though? Had he known Draco was travelling with Harry and the others? If Voldemort knew Draco was alive and sought him out, perhaps he would have found Harry as well—

But no; it seemed Snape had spun the lie long before Harry had dragged Malfoy from his dank cell in the Department of Mysteries.

Voldemort extended a hand, reaching into the lining of Snape’s robe and withdrawing his wand. He studied the length of wood for a moment, then gave it a test swipe, shooting off a harmless shower of sparks. “I have a need for a wand, Severus. I think I’ll keep yours.”

Harry saw a protest form on Snape’s lips, only to be beaten back. It was the same protest any witch or wizard would have mounted on being stripped of their wand, threatened in such a bold way. He gave a soft cough, straining to keep his voice steady. “But—why would you want my wand, my Lord? You have already claimed the Elder Wand—the Deathstick! The most powerful wand in existence!”

“Have I?” Voldemort studied the Elder Wand. “Or do I only have the echo of some feeble old fool’s useless twig?” He tossed Snape’s wand aside, sending it clattering across the rotting floorboards, and stood. “Do I have the Elder Wand, am I holding it now—” He brandished it in a flash, pointing the tip squarely between Snape’s eyes. “Or does it perhaps, as I suspect—as you know—lie in the hands of the wizard who actually defeated Albus Dumbledore?” His lip curled as he seethed, “Do I have it…or does Draco Malfoy?”

Despair flashed bright in Snape’s eyes, utter defeat flickering across his features—only to be eclipsed by a brilliant flash of green. He was dead before he could even open his mouth.

Harry came back to himself with gasping breaths, heart thudding a loud tattoo in his chest.

“Harry? Harry—mate, snap out of it!” Ron was jabbering, and Harry reached out, groping for something to hold on to.

Cold fingers slid through his, gripping. “Pull yourself together,” Draco bit out with a soft sort of desperation, clasping his other hand on top of Harry’s.

“Are you all right, Harry?” Hermione asked. “Would you like some water—?”

Harry just shook his head, thoughts still spinning. “He’s—he just—Snape…Snape’s dead.” He rubbed his eyes with his free hand, still breathing hard. “He killed Snape. He killed Snape.” A dozen different emotions flooded through his system—anger, relief, confusion, and for some reason, guilt.

Draco’s grip tightened about Harry’s own, and he was glad that the angle meant he couldn’t see Draco’s face right now.

“Killed Snape?” Ron repeated. “Why would he do that, though? Snape’s his man, isn’t he? He held Hogwarts for him all this time…”

“Wrong time, wrong place?” Hermione suggested. “It wouldn’t be the first time someone’s met the bad end of his lashing out.”

“No…” Harry said, tongue heavy in his mouth as it began to sink in what he’d just witnessed. What it meant. “No, he found out Snape lied to him. About Draco being dead.” His mind was still reeling, flush with knowledge with no time to sort through it all. “He lied to Voldemort, right to his face… And Voldemort killed him for it.”

Draco released his hand, shifting to his feet and leaning to brace himself against the wall. Harry didn’t try to stop him.

Ron was bemused, and Hermione was outright frowning. “I still don’t get why on earth he lied about that, though,” Ron said. “I mean, no offence, but one little dragon’s not likely to turn the tide of a war. Dumbledore…well Dumbledore was mostly bad luck, wasn’t he? You said he was already really weak, that if he’d been…” Ron shook his head when his tone started to grow thick with emotion. “Sure, maybe if he was one of those massive ones, like the one we rode up out of Gringotts…”

Harry just shook his head. “It…it wasn’t Draco he wanted. It’s his wand.”

“His wand?” Hermione asked, and in his peripheral vision, Harry could see Draco take a measured step backwards. He still didn’t try to stop him.

“Dumbledore didn’t die,” Harry said. “He didn’t die—he was killed.” He lifted his eyes—and met Draco’s panicked, confused gaze, tiny little embers flickering wildly. “Dumbledore was killed,” he repeated. “So the power of the Elder Wand passed…to the one who did the killing.”

Draco stared down helplessly at the wand in his hand, mute and frozen.

No one spoke, no one made a move—they didn’t dare. Because now Draco had the Elder Wand, the wand that could not be beaten, the wand above all wands, and there was only one thing he’d wanted, truly wanted, in all the time he’d been travelling with them. He finally had the power—and no more obligations otherwise—to save his parents.

Harry reached out his hand. “Draco—”

But Draco recoiled, his wand clutched tight to his chest. He glanced between the three of them, expression hunted, then seemed to come to some manner of decision and quickly turned on his heel, dashing down the corridor and turning a corner once he reached the end.

They let him go—they had to.

Hermione gaped openly, and Ron had an unreadable, torn look on his face, staring at the spot where Draco had been standing in bald accusation, as if he might be compelled to return simply by Ron’s disapproval.

Hermione swallowed, then fixed Harry with a long look. “…Harry, we have to—”

“I know,” he said shortly, easing to his feet and palming his wand. “I know…and I know what you’re thinking. But…he needs us. And we need him.” I need him, went unspoken, as did He needs me. He looked at them both in turn, firming his jaw. “Please.”

Hermione took a breath—then grabbed Ron’s hand, tugging him into the Room of Hidden Things. “We’ll start looking for the diadem. Just don’t take too long, all right? If…if he’s gone, then we have to focus on what needs to be—”

“Thank you!” Harry said, already jogging down the corridor with a haphazard wave. He reached into the collar of his shirt, tugging out the Mokeskin pouch. The school was almost empty, save for those involved in the battle that Harry could feel, from the way the walls were shaking, had begun to work its way into the castle. It would be a simple enough task to pick Draco out from the few dots wandering around—

He skidded to a halt as he rounded the corner at the end of the hall—then tucked the pouch back into his shirt, as he would not be needing the Marauder’s Map after all. There Draco sat, hunched over on a stone bench tucked into an alcove on one of the landings. He hadn’t been trying to escape to find his parents after all; he’d just…needed a moment, evidently.

The lantern hanging above Draco’s head was swaying gently back and forth in time with the booming echoes of spellwork being cast from the floors below. It threw a soft, golden sheen over his white-blond hair, and he seemed to give off an unearthly glow that reminded Harry of the dragon’s moonlit scales.

Harry approached slowly, still wary of spooking him. If he’d wanted to be alone, he might bolt on seeing Harry had come after him. Harry was realising, he noted with a heaviness in his midsection, that he didn’t know Draco at all, despite his claims otherwise. Oh, he knew what he’d been shown, what Draco had felt comfortable sharing, but that was about where his confidence ended and conjecture began. He could probably have sooner predicted how Luna or Neville would react at a moment like this than Draco, who seemed to pride himself on being thoroughly unpredictable.

He stopped two paces shy when he saw Draco’s hands were still white-knuckled about his wand, which he had laid across his lap. Draco knew he was there of course—Harry hadn’t made any attempt to muffle his approach, for one, and for another, Draco seemed to always know where he was.

He tried to gather his thoughts, not entirely sure what he was meant to say—only that he needed Draco to come back to the Room of Hidden Things and help them put a stop to this madness. He swallowed. “Draco—”

“Disarm me. Please.”

Draco’s shoulders hunched as he bit out his words in a thick, hissed rush.

“Do it now, before—” A shudder rippled down Draco’s spine, and he shook his head. “Before I change my mind.”

Harry stood there, and just stared. Draco didn’t want the Wand. Or—he wanted it, but he didn’t want to want it. He’d been so adamant that Harry not go chasing after it, all that I won’t help you corrupt yourself, when he was terrified of it too.

So terrified, he was begging Harry to take this burden from him.

Harry stepped around and slid onto the bench beside Draco, settling one hand on his knee. “…You could have mastered it. I’m sure you could’ve.”

“I couldn’t,” Draco bit out. “I couldn’t, and all the better. I don’t deserve it.”

“…I’m sure it’s not about deserving—”

“It’s about being worthy. And I’m not. I’m—not strong or brave or—”

“Bullshit. You turned against the most powerful Dark wizard of our age, risked your own life to save your parents, and taught yourself some of the most difficult magic out there. You are strong. And plenty brave, too.” He leaned into Draco, bumping their shoulders. “I’m a Gryffindor. I know brave.”

Draco cut him a look out of the corner of his eye. “…You know stupid.”

Harry shrugged. “Well, six of one.” He fixed Draco with an insistent gaze, holding him so he had to hear this. “Either way, I respect the fuck out of you, you realise that? You…” Harry nodded. “You’re a good person. I get that I don’t really know…a whole lot about you, but I don’t need to. I know enough for now. I know the important things—the things that are important to me.”

Draco stared at him, enthralled by something ineffable, and when Harry leaned forward, head ticked just to the side to press his lips softly to Draco’s, he let it happen. He was still listening to Harry, still soaking in all the unspoken truths Harry struggled to impress upon him, straining to penetrate that thick layer of dragonhide and touch the flesh-and-blood human being beneath it all.

Harry held the kiss for a heartbeat, then whispered Expelliarmus against Draco’s lips.

Draco’s wand clattered to the ground, but he left it, instead bringing both hands up to thread his fingers through Harry’s messy hair. He drew Harry closer, and Harry obligingly deepened the kiss, pressing Draco against the arched wall of the alcove. Draco made a noise, but it was lost in their kiss, and he wasn’t—

“Harry—the…the diadem…” Draco rasped, turning his face to the side.

Reality drenched his ardour like a bucket of ice-water, and once the blood stopped humming in his ears, he could hear the shrieks and crashes of battle being waged stories below. Fuck—now was so very not the time to be necking in a dark, deserted corner of the castle. Hadn’t he just been saying as such to Ron and Hermione?

He pulled back and quickly brushed his hands down his shirt, trying to put himself back in order. There was no helping his hair, but then it always looked like someone had just run their fingers through it. Draco’s wand lay on the flagstones at their feet, and Harry reached to retrieve it for him—before thinking better of it.

“Er, you ought to pick it up, I think. I wouldn’t want it questioning its allegiance.”

Draco’s throat bobbed nervously, but he leaned down and took up his hawthorn wand once more, letting it slide through his fingers before he gave it a good, sharp swipe. Harry lifted a brow in question, and Draco nodded. “…Seems to be in order.”

“Good,” Harry said, and he meant it. Draco had dealt with enough unruly magic over the past year; he deserved to have something magical show him a bit of loyalty.

Harry stood, slipping his wand—his Elder Wand he tried not to think—into his sleeve and made to return to the Room to help Hermione and Ron look for the diadem, but Draco stayed put, staring ahead with a distant, lost expression.


Harry pursed his lips; what did you say when a man you’d hated as long as you’d known him finally got what he deserved? Perhaps he’d had decent intentions, trying to hide Draco and his Elder Wand from Voldemort’s gaze, but it hardly mitigated the years of misery he’d subjected Harry to. A gruesome death was a risk one ran when one became a Death Eater, and unless they had the good sense to get out while they could, as Draco had, it was really only a matter of time.

He tried to muster some decent words, though, for Draco’s sake. “…It was quick. He didn’t suffer.” It sounded like a rather Slytherin condolence, and worrying he’d come off cold, Harry added weakly, “He…he was a good professor.”

“He was a fucking horrid professor,” Draco huffed wryly.

“Well—but you always did well in his class.”

Draco rolled his eyes, sweeping his hair back away from his face. “Because I’m amazing at Potions, you dolt. Not because he was exceptionally gifted at moulding young minds.”

At last, he stood as well, taking a breath to centre himself and casting a few charms just to be certain his wand hadn’t been damaged in any way by the exchange. He twirled the shaft between his fingers, then deftly slipped it into his sleeve. “Fancy a duel after we destroy this bastard?” he asked, exiting the alcove at last.

Harry fell into step beside him as they returned to the Room. “I feel like I’ll have something of an edge…”

“Well then we’ll both know the only way you could ever best me in a duel was with an unbeatable wand.” Draco shrugged. “I don’t see that I’ve got anything to lose, personally.” With each step they took, he began to sound more and more like himself, and Harry felt the tension in his shoulders ease.

Harry palmed his wand, tracing the familiar whorls in the wood with a bitten-down nail. “…I promised you I wouldn’t seek it out.”

Draco sighed loudly, shaking his head. “And you didn’t, so there. It found you—all you did was accept it.” He swallowed, then added more softly, “Because I asked you to.”

“Thought you weren’t going to help me corrupt myself,” Harry said, one brow lifted.

Draco stopped walking, and Harry immediately regretted his words. He’d meant to tease—but it hadn’t come out that way.

“…I needed you to help me not corrupt myself more,” Draco said in a very small voice. “…I’m sorry.”

Harry didn’t know what to say to that; It’s fine sounded too pithy, and not entirely true. Instead, he grabbed his wand by the tip and inspected the hilt, frowning. “…It doesn’t feel any different.”

He could feel Draco watching him, grey eyes falling on him with real, physical heft. “It won’t for you, probably. But I’m willing to bet it will for him.” His gaze went distant, then, and he grimaced. “…He’ll kill them now. My parents. Or try to use them for leverage—torture them, to get me to show myself so he can take the Wand from me…”

Harry didn’t expect Draco wanted to be lied to, even on a matter as sensitive as this, so he simply said, “…Yeah, he’d probably do that.” He touched Draco’s hand, tracing the swell of his wrist and tapping each knuckle in sequence. “Which is why I imagine they’re keeping well out of his way.”

“He can’t kill them unless he kills them, then?” Draco said, with a hint of a wry smile.

“Exactly; they’ll just have to put every ounce of that vaunted Slytherin self-preservation within them to use.” He crooked his finger into one of Draco’s belt loops, giving a tug. “Come on; just a bit more, and then we can have that duel.”

Draco batted his hand away and started walking again, drawling dryly, “I fair tingle with anticipation.”


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

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