Chapter 16

"I don't want to go back to Hogwarts." Neville was staring blankly into the middle distance, water dripping from his hair.

Hermione came in from the kitchen carrying a towel and a tray of tea. Harry and Hermione exchanged worried glances over Neville's head.

"What happened Neville? We weren't expecting you for a few more days?" Hermione leaned forward in her chair, concerned.

Neville took the towel and the tea, giving Hermione a vague smile in thanks. "I flooed home and told my family I had somethings to do that couldn't wait. They looked kind of scared but let me go well enough…"

Neville rubbed the towel through his hair, his expression distant.

Harry licked his lips, wanting to ask but afraid of the answer. "W-What happened at Hogwarts?"

Neville stared down at the towel now resting in his lap. "They tortured us."

Harry felt his fist clenching involuntarily. Hermione gasped.

Neville haltingly continued. "No-Not all of us, just some of us. The Ministry, since Moody's attack, has been worse, if possible. I'm not popular at school, to say the least, but even I've been hearing people muttering, talking about Moody, getting sick and tired of only a few of the students being considered 'pure.' The Ministry has been writing more and more things about how magic is passed through pure-blood, how important it is to preserve it. People have started to post things up at school, saying different things, questioning things. Someone, a couple of days ago, spelled together all the different articles about pure-bloods into giant letters that said, 'Whose blood is muddy?' across the ceiling of the Great Hall."

Neville looked up at them, looking a little more focused. "I wish I had thought of something like that. All the students cheered. It was amazing. Everything felt strangely lighter than they ever have. Students were talking loudly together, pointing at the ceiling, laughing. People forgot to sit at their house tables, instead standing and eating, just watching while the professors tried to take it down."

As Neville spoke a sort of half smile formed on his face, but after a beat of silence his stare once again became distant. "Then the aurors and officials came the next day. They made a speech about how we were all losing our way, forgetting our places, that they were doing a service for the Wizarding World in general by reminding us…"

Neville shivered, taking a sip of his tea with shaking hands. "They started grabbing students at random, making them say their status, making them say they supported that status. They made spoiled-bloods crawl on the ground. They made half-bloods serve the pure-bloods their dinners like house elves. When a half-blood came up to me with soup, I took it from him...I don't know what I was thinking, I was just so sick of it all. I started serving people too. An auror stopped me, asked what I was doing. I told him 'I'm not any better than anyone else here, so I'm going to serve people too.'

Neville took a deep breath, his hands clenching his tea cup. Hermione watched him, her eyes wide and gleaming.

"The auror slapped the soup from my hands and said 'Know your place.' Then he called over a spoiled-blood and made him start cleaning up the soup with a rag. But I reached down, I reached down and started helping too, and Hannah, another pure-blood, starting helping me. All across the hall people started to do that. That's when the officials lost it, they yelled out, 'correct them.'"

Neville put his cup down, his face pale. "Then the aurors, they started using the Cruciatus curse on anyone who wasn't sitting or doing what they were suppose to…"

Neville looked up at them, tears in his eyes. "Th-the Cruciatus really hurts, you have to understand, it really…" Neville took a deep shuddering breath.

"It felt like forever, but I think it had only been a minute. I went back to my seat. Everyone went silent. Everyone went back to their seats, or went back to cleaning or serving. I didn't...I didn't want to feel it again…" Neville blinked rapidly, tears dripping down his face. "So I just let a half-blood serve me, I just let a spoiled-blood clean up the soup, I'm sorry, I couldn't…"

Hermione moved next to Neville, grabbing his arm with her hands and putting her head on his shoulder, her lips shaky. "You were so brave, Neville, so incredibly brave."

Neville looked up at Harry, his eyes ashamed, but Harry shook his head, frowning. "No, you were amazing Neville...I don't think I could have done the same. No one blames for not continuing when they cursed you…"

Neville gave a grave, small smile, and patted Hermione's hand. "Th-that's nice of you both to say… At any rate, the Ministry said they would be back once break ended, just to make sure that the message stuck."

Neville put his head in his head, his fingers in his hair. "I don't want to go back."

Harry stared at Neville, feeling shaky. Hermione leaned back into the couch, her arms across her chest, her brows furrowed. After a few moments Hermione let out a short laugh, more like a loud burst of air than laughter. Harry and Neville exchanged glances, surprised. "They are so stupid, so, so stupid." Hermione had a vicious smile on her face.

Hermione leaned forward, her face intent, her voice passionate. "I'm so incredibly sorry that happened to you Neville, but they couldn't have helped us out more than if they had thrown themselves into jail."

Harry and Neville shared glances again, this time confused. Hermione spoke, her hands slashing, punctuating what she was saying. She looked like she could barely stay seated. "They have completely destroyed any sympathy they might have gained from the loss of life at the Ministry by making the aurors attack the students. Rather than try to reemphasize their propaganda by giving more to the people in power, by say, giving more benefits to people based on their ranks, they punished everybody in the Hogwarts with their terrorizing. By cursing even pure-bloods, like Neville and that girl Hannah you mentioned, they made it clear that they aren't even trying to protect pure-bloods, but themselves. I've never seen a government shoot themselves in the foot so thoroughly."

Harry felt like he knew what she was saying. The Ministry had painted themselves as everyone's enemy. He too leaned forward, his heart racing. "We have to act soon. As soon as possible."

Neville and Hermione nodded, their hands shaking, pale, but their eyes dancing.

"I know we need to do something, but I'm not sure what. Hermione and I, well, we're trying, but our magic isn't…"

Neville and Hermione both shook their heads at the same time, and started speaking at once. Hermione's voice was stern. "It's not a display of power we need, but of solidarity…" Neville's face was frightened. "I didn't tell you both this so that you would go off and try something stupid…"

Neville and Hermione both stopped speaking, smiling quickly at each other. "You go ahead, Hermione."

Hermione nodded, frowning, and looked consideringly at Neville. "What do you think of the Order of the Phoenix, Neville?"

Neville frowned at her, shrugging uncomfortably. "I...I never liked them. They never seemed to be helping anybody, they would just go around, blowing this and that up, scaring people… It felt like they hated the ministry more than they wanted to help muggleborns."

Hermione tilted her head, watching Neville with sharp eyes. "And what if I told you that they spent a lot of time watching maps, trying to find muggleborns before the ministry did in order to get them to safety?"

Neville looked at her, his eyebrows raised. "Really? That was good of them...But that doesn't change what they did otherwise, what McGonagall did to Hogwarts…"

Hermione nodded, her face focused. "So, people didn't hate the Order because they were helping muggleborns, they hated them because they seemed destructive?"

Neville looked thoughtful, nodding his head hesitantly. "Yes, I suppose. After the war, nobody wanted more violence."

Hermione made a noncommittal humming noise, then after a beat asked, "What do you think of Harry Potter?"

Neville looked at Harry, grinning a little. "Well, Harry's a really nice bloke, a lot more grounded than I was expecting…Mostly, I can't believe that he's alive."

Hermione leaned forward, her eyes shining, almost predatory, closing in on her point. "That's good Neville, I think Harry's a nice bloke, too, but, what I mean to ask is what do you think of Harry Potter?"

Neville looked confused for half a second, then his face cleared in understanding. "Legendary. I think he's legendary. Of course it is forbidden to talk of him, but everyone knows who he is. I think that there is an underlying feeling of, 'I wonder, if Harry Potter hadn't died…' or of 'Maybe someday there'll be another Harry Potter…' When I found out you were alive, I seriously couldn't believe it, you both don't know how happy I was."

Harry shifted uncomfortably, seeing where Hermione was arriving at finally. "So if Harry Potter showed up and did something defiant, something helpful, and showed himself to be a man of the people, at say, that rally you mention, then…"

Neville smiled at them. "It would turn the whole Wizarding World on its head."

Harry sighed, shaking his head. "I don't have a problem putting myself out there anymore, I hate this whole regime and what it does in general and everything it has done to Hermione and I's lives. But we have talked about this before. Sure, maybe my presence will shock the Wizarding world into revolution or something, which I think is a little too easy, but how am I supposed to show myself and you know, not die immediately? I can't duel."

Hermione nodded at him, biting her lip. "Yes, the logistics you brought up before."

Harry gave a small smile. "Yes, that pesky thing."

Neville shook his head. "No, no, I think that it might be possible. The rallies are always terrible. They're, well, boring, they just make a lot of speeches and make everybody come when they don't want to. They always have dementors show up at some point, just to make everybody feel extra miserable, then some Ministry higher up drives them away to prove that they can…"

"I thought that you said that most witches and wizards can drive them away?"

Neville shook his head, sighing. "First, most can't. Only one person in a family, usually. Everybody just tries to learn it now. Second, they don't drive it away with the a Patronus, but with the 'Might of the Ministry.'"

Harry and Hermione traded incredulous looks. Neville gave a humorless laugh. "The Ministry doesn't really control the dementors, but they do have a deal with them. So the dementors help them out at this rally. They show up because of the crowd, some puffed up official yells at them to leave or face the wrath of the Ministry, the dementors act scared and leave, and then Ministry leaves them alone, mostly. That way we can see that the Ministry is frightening even to dementors, meaning that we should be too. At the same time it shows that they are the only thing keeping dementors from feeding on us all the time. It's all a big show, and truly stupid, but it seems to work. Everyone feels down for a long time after the rally…"

"Why doesn't someone at the rally just send the dementors away before the Ministry does then, if some people can do it?"

Neville shook his head. "You never want to draw attention to yourself that way. Nobody has ever done it, but we all know that if you stood up to the Ministry like that at the rally, then you would later find yourself surrounded by a whole bunch of dementors, or dead from a potions accident, or whatever else."

Harry nodded, giving a grim smile. "Well, I do want to draw attention to myself. And at least I do know how to use a patronus against actual dementors, so, that's it then. But that still leaves the question how to do that without immediately dying."

Neville smiled, "I think you are imagining there being a lot more security than there usually is. Usually there's a speaker, some Ministry snobs, and a lot staff like stagehands. I've never noticed any aurors. I think because it would take from the idea of the bureaucratic Ministry itself being important. Like, we all know if someone tried something at the rally, then even if there aren't any aurors there, they will still eventually be punished. I think it adds to the ever-present feeling the Ministry tries to give off. But well, I've never really been looking for aurors before either, so I'm not certain...But you know, I'm fairly certain that I know who put up the sign at school, and I think can convince her to help out… We could stun the employee and the speaker...I doubt the stagehands would fight, why would they..." Eventually Neville started to mumble to himself more than anything.

Harry sighed and leaned back into his chair. "So, our plan is that we should go to this rally, I should wait until the dementors show up and you and this mystery person will stun the Ministry reps, and I'll step in, drive away the dementors, and announce who I am, to what, rally the troops?"

Neville blinked a few times, looking at Harry, then shrugged and said, "I guess so."

Hermione leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. Her earlier enthusiasm drained entirely from her face. "You two can't be serious."

Harry scoffed, his eyebrows raised. "You were the one that suggested this!"

Hermione opened and closed her mouth a few times. "I-I did suggest that Harry be used for a sort of anti-ministry symbol, something to unify everybody against them, but perhaps the rally might be too soon, we can think of a different plan, something less dangerous…"

Harry shook his head, feeling faintly frustrated. "No, it has to be soon, now, while people are still thinking of the horrible things the Ministry did at Hogwarts. The rally would be a perfect place for it. A lot of people will be physically there and we won't have to depend on media, which would probably distort things…"

"Yes, but it just doesn't seem likely that we will be able to fight Ministry employees, drive off dementors, and then have you make a speech and just leave, does it? It doesn't seem like it will work at all."

Neville leaned forward, a determined expression on his face. "I'm serious, I think I can get someone else, the person who made the newspaper sign, to help take out the Ministry employees. I really don't think there will be aurors around, I mean, they will show up pretty quickly, I think, so we would have to move quickly, but then Harry can fight off the dementors, you can be there for backup, and so will I, and then he can announce who he is, and what he's about. As for escaping… I have a portkey, illegally, one my family gave to me awhile ago, in case of an emergency. We can all meet up on the stage and portkey away…"

Hermione shook her head, looking flushed around the neck. "There are so many holes in this plan, Neville, I can't even begin to count them…"

"I'm in," Harry said softly.

Hermione swung looked at him, scowling. "Harry…"

"Hermione, there is no such thing as a risk free plan. I'm sick of this, I'm sick of hiding, of being on the run, of being hunted, with no way to fight back. We need to take action."

"We shouldn't be taking action for action's sake, Harry, we can do better than this…"

"Can we? Do you have a better plan? And I think we do need to take action for action's sake, Hermione. I think passivity is what got the Wizarding world in this mess in the first place…"

"Oh, that's good. I would mention that in the speech for sure." Neville added, exchanging quick smiles with Harry.

Hermione looked between them, frowning. "I don't think this is a time for jokes, Harry could die…"

Harry shrugged and reached over, lightly taking Hermione's hand in his own. "I think it's time, Hermione, that we admit this might be bigger than the two of us."

Hermione never hated herself more than she did at this moment. She had gotten excited, her mind reeling with the strategic improvement the Ministry had given them. Her analytical mind jumped quickly through different scenarios, deciding what would be the best action to take the fight that monster and his little dystopia.

Looking at what she knew and what Neville had told her, Hermione figured that Harry really would be the best person for the job. The best person to get the Wizarding world to care enough, to believe in itself enough, to cut into Voldemort's dictatorship.

The Wizarding world knew that Harry had defeated Voldemort before, as a baby. He could easily become the symbol to fight against him, now that the Wizarding world was well and truly sick of the way things had gone and were going. Even as Neville was talking about how they might be able to pull off taking over the rally, Hermione had started writing short, succinct speeches that might make the most impact for their pro-muggleborn, anti-Ministry, anti-Voldemort cause.

But as Neville talked more and as Hermione started to revise the speech again, it occurred fully that that would mean putting Harry directly, entirely, in danger. Somewhere along the way, in her hatred of the Ministry, in all the strategizing, Hermione started to think of Harry as Harry Potter.

But he wasn't Harry Potter, he was Harry, her boyfriend Harry. And like so many people before her, she sacrificed him for her ideas, for her purposes.

But Harry didn't care about sacrificing himself, he never had. She knew that she was too late to change his mind, too late to take it back, when he said it was bigger than them. She knew it was bigger than them, but she was the only person, the first person, to care if Harry sacrificed himself. Until she didn't, until she sacrificed him for the Wizarding world.

Hermione had failed where she promised never to. She forgot that Harry, as a person, deserved to be fought for as well.

So as she stared at his determined face across the crowd, as she raised her wand to fight off the disgusting monsters holding the innocent man on stage, she promised herself that she would, with the same grace, with the same small smile on her face that he had had on his when he stepped between her and that green light, come between him and whatever death might be striking towards him. With all her power, she would be his shield this time. It was only right.

From the crowd, then from the distance, as though from a high angle, two red lights raced towards the left side of the stage, hitting Charlie square in the chest, making him slump to the ground. The other one missed, making a puff of dirt a few inches to left of the woman in pink. She immediately put up a shimmering shield, her wide face a furious red. Hermione aimed her wand at her instead, yelling out a stunning spell just as another red light from the high angle made its way to her. Together the two spells broke through her shield and the toad like woman fell back with a thud.

Harry raised his wand and yelled with authority, "Expecto Patronum!" The beautiful stag burst out, flinging the dementors, who were inches away from the man's face, back with force. The man slumped forward. Harry ran up the stage steps and pulled the man up right. Hermione, from below, aimed the counter courses at him. He immediately became sick, leaving a mess in front of the stage. Shaking badly he stared up at Harry with wide eyes.

"Are you okay?" Harry asked, his voice carrying over the shocked silent people.

The man nodded, still shaking. "Wh-who...Who are you?"

Harry straightened a little, still holding the man up by his shoulder, but now addressing the crowd.

"I'm Harry Potter. I am here to save you. To save all of you." Harry's bright green eyes scanned the crowd, his voice echoed across the silent courtyard. Harry moved his bangs away from his face, showing the faint outline of his scar.

Hermione stared up at him, mesmerized. Suddenly a small blonde girl, her hair astoundingly long, stood shoulder to shoulder with her, staring up at the stage, too.

"The Ministry does not work for you, it works for itself. It does not protect magic but destroys it. It does not help you, it helps that Monster that can not be named. You all have been lied to, bullied, belittled, diminished, made to feel afraid. But I've come here to tell you enough is enough. I will put an end to it. But I will need your help."

On her other side Neville came up to her, his eyes watching Harry with intensity.

"First, watch out for each other. They only have power because they pick us off, one by one. If we all look out for each other, hold each other accountable, we will become unstoppable."

The crowd moved closer, still silent, but a different kind of silent, full of energy. Hermione glanced back at them, at their awed faces.

"Second, I want you all to do what is right, not what is easy. We have done easy for a long time now. It's easy to look away, easy to take what you can get, easy to hide. But look at what you have, nothing but fear. We can do better. We can be free. We can."

Harry took a step towards the edge of the stage. The crowd surged forward, pushing Hermione, the girl, and Neville into the wooden sides of the stage.

Harry's voice rang out stronger, furiously, his fist clenched, his face pure determination. "We can be free, not through pointless destruction, but through purposeful cooperation. We can be a society that allows people to be, to practice magic, to fulfill all their potential, regardless of their blood. We can do this together, with bravery, with good hearts. We can take back our lives from the dementors and death eaters dogging our steps disguised as the Ministry."

Hermione heard cracks from the back of the crowd, people apparating in, their voices loud. Harry's voice got quieter, as though he was speaking to each person in the crowd individually. "I'll take care of Voldemort. Again. You all take care of the Ministry. Together."

At the word Voldemort, many things happened at once. The crowd gasped in shock. There was even more cracks and yelling from the back of the crowd. Neville grabbed both the girl and Hermione, tapped a golden watch with his wand, reached out and touched Harry's foot, and Harry reached out and touched the innocent man, just as a wall of different colored spells arched from the back of the mass of people towards the stage, pulling them all away before the spells landed.

The girl, Hermione, Neville, and the wrongly accused man landed in the forest clearing, standing, taking a few staggering steps to correct their balance. Harry, who had travel foot first, landed on his back, his leg up in the air like a synchronized swimmer. His leg dropped with a thud, he groaned loudly, getting in a sitting position. He glared a Neville, standing up and grabbing him by the collar in one quick movement.

"We just left those people there, Neville. I literally just made an ass of myself telling them to work together and then I just abandoned them. We have to go back...We have to help…"

"So you are real." A soft, dreamy voice somehow cut through Harry's yelling. Everyone turned to look at the girl.

Neville pulled out of Harry's grip with a slight cough. He addressed the still shaking man from the stage first. "Errr, I...I think you should go."

The man nodded, looking around uncertainly. He stared at Harry for long moment. "Th-thank you." Harry nodded. The man turned with a crack and apparated away.

"Umm, this is Luna Lovegood. Luna, this is Hermione Granger and Harry Potter."

Luna inclined her head to Hermione then turned her eyes back to Harry. "You really are Harry Potter, a hero."

Harry blinked once, then twice at her, then shook his head. "Some hero I am. I left them there."

"You didn't make an ass of yourself, you know."

Harry looked at her for a long moment and let out a long hissing breath. He turned back to Neville. "I thought you said there weren't going to be any aurors!"

Neville flushed angrily. "There weren't any at first!"

"What if they hurt everyone in the crowd. What if people get hurt because of I thought I was important enough to talk to them about how they should act. What if…"

"So you should have just let that man have his soul eaten?" Neville asked, his voice gruff.

Harry sputtered for a second, frustrated. "No, but, what about all those people?"

Luna spoke again, looking at an pine cone closely. "They'll be fine. No one will get hurt because of you, right now at least. They will tell the crowd that you were insane, or some criminal. They will lie. But no one will believe them."

Luna pulled off one the pine cone scales and watched it fall to the ground.

"Why do you say that?" Harry asked almost desperately.

Luna smiled softly. "Because we all saw your sincerity. In all these dark years of lies and masks, your face was painfully honest."

Luna started rolling the pine cone in between her palms, making a strange sort of squeaky grunting sound as she tried to smoosh it between her hands. She giggled softly at the red indents the still intact pine cone made in her palm.

Harry glanced back and Neville, eyebrow raised. Neville just shrugged, and nodded his head as though to say, "What can you do?"

"Besides, you told us all to stand together and fight the Ministry, so we will."

Harry groaned, rubbing his hands through his hair. "They aren't going to do it just because I said so...I don't know what we were thinking, deciding I should give a speech like some politician."

Luna dropped the pine cone to the ground happily. Grinning, she looked up into Harry's face and causally traced his scar with her index finger. Harry tried to step back but she grabbed his shoulder, holding him there. "You are Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived. You would be surprised, I think, about what people will do just because you said so."

Luna stopped tracing his scar and went back down to her heels from her tippy toes. "Also, most importantly, we will stand together because we have wanted to for a long time now. Like friends who fought so long ago we can't remember what we have even fought over. Rather than worry about the crowd, Harry Potter, I would worry about the people who aimed spells at you."

Luna turned away from Harry and made her way over to Neville. She touched his arm as she looked at Hermione, while addressing Harry. "Will you really destroy you-know-who, Harry Potter?"

Harry looked over at Hermione's frozen face and answered Luna. "I'll do what I can."

Luna nodded while Hermione's back stiffened. "I'm very happy you're back Harry Potter, very happy indeed. Neville, I need to go tell my dad to run now. I'll be seeing you all."

With that, Luna pulled out a radish earring and tapped it with her wand before anyone could say anything, disappearing with a pop.

Hermione turned on her heel, looking at Harry with a sharp expression. "What did you mean by telling them all that you would take on you-know-who, Harry?"

"It was prophesied…" Harry started, but Hermione hissed and stomped her foot.

"You know what I think about that damn prophecy, Harry."

Harry sighed, stepping closer to her. "It doesn't matter what you think or what I think about it, Hermione. He believes it. He will hunt me down. He will continue to corrupt the Ministry. We can't live our lives with him around."

Neville glanced between them nervously, backing away a little.

"Someone else…" Hermione started, Harry shook his head.

"But we told the Order. You told the Order that you wouldn't…"

"No," Harry said softly, his expression gentle. "I said I couldn't. I still can't. But Hermione, there is no one else. I have to try. We need to start with the horcruxes."

Hermione opened her mouth furiously to argue. He had fought against the Order when they said this to him. He was willing to fight for himself then, why…

But she couldn't say those thoughts, looking at his resigned, determined face. The difference now, she understood, was that it wasn't the Order telling him this, it was him telling him this. Before it was the Order throwing him in front of a bus. Now it was him, willingly stepping into battle.

And Hermione could see, on every line of his face, that that made the difference.

Hermione felt her back straighten as she too understood something. If Harry wasn't going to fight for himself, then she would. If Harry was going to walk into this fight with his head held high, then she would join him, his equal, and would fight for justice and freedom. She would put those bigger causes in front of her own self.

And when Harry tried to sacrifice himself, Hermione would be at his side, ready to step in front of him as he had done for her.

Harry stared back at her, nodding. Hermione nodded back, knowing her face matched his own intensity.

From by the trees, Neville asked. "What' s a Horcrux?"

The End

A/N Thank you so much for reading all the way to the end! I have, after coming back to it and thinking about the sequel, decided not to do one. There is clearly a lot more story to cover here and a lot of things left incomplete, but in a lot of ways, this is the story i wanted to tell and the only story I wanted to tell, regardless of how much else there way left to say. Thank you again!