Their luck ran out in late October. Maybe the relative silence from the DMLE had made them lax about security. Maybe they had grown too confident in their own skills. Maybe it was just plain, simple recklessness and stupidity.
Molly Weasley's birthday fell on a Monday. As such she decided to invite the whole lot of the Weasleys and extended family for a birthday party on the 28th, the closest Saturday to the actual day.
Harry declined. Very politely and regretfully, but no amount of convincing could change his mind. He trusted the family but refused to be the cause of tension and awkwardness on her birthday, absolutely refused to put them at risk, and while Molly wasn't happy about it, she understood.
Hermione and Ron took longer to decide. They had visited often enough without a problem, and maybe that was why none of them thought twice about it.
Hermione wavered between the massive piles of books in Grimmauld that they still hadn't managed to go through and an evening of extremely loud Weasleys. Then again, put that way, it was no wonder Hermione elected to stay at home as well.
"Besides," she told Ron, "do you really trust Harry on his own all evening? With those books?"
Considering that one of those books included a heavy tome on demolition spells, she did have a point.
Ron stared at Harry. "Right. I'll go. I'll tell mum you send the best."
Decision made, they sent Ron off with a gift, lots of well-wishes and urgings to be careful, and then buried themselves in research. Hermione did have a point with those books, and Harry intended to practice quite a few of those spells on their Hideaway. He still preferred Fiendfyre but it wasn't always practical when you didn't want everything reduced to less than ashes, and several of those spells looked like they would make for some pretty spectacular effects.
It was shortly after noon when the bond with Ron flared to life.
Someone just raised wards around the Burrow. Strong enough to glow. Apparition and Portkeys are blocked, and the Floo connection is gone.
The response from the bond was instant and overwhelming. Harry felt the floor fall out beneath him, his heartbeat became a thunderous drum in his ears, and above it all was the immediate, frantic urgency to follow the pull of the bond to Ron.
Hermione gripped Harry's hand a moment before he would have Apparated, wards be damned, and forced him to stop and think instead. Brooms? House-elves?
Not with those wards. Harry could feel the stillness in Ron through the bond, the abrupt shifts from surprise to anger to worry before it settled as quiet resignation. Well, we always joked that Hermione would find a way to break us out of Azkaban.
How many attackers? Harry's mind scrambled to keep up, to find a way out of it, and all he could think of was utter devastation. If they wanted Ron – Ron or Hermione or George or any of the others – he would make them pay for that in blood. The strong urge to Apparate was still there, and only the fact that he knew what it was now made him able to fight it.
Hermione's pale expression and tight grip on his hand left little doubt she was fighting the same.
They should be there. They should be there, and everything in him screamed to do something about it.
Ron's resignation flickered into determination for a few seconds. I'm counting six Aurors from the window. Dad says twenty according to the wards. I won't let you two get caught up in this, too. I need you to get me out of Azkaban, remember?
He didn't mention the rest of the family. He didn't need to. None of them were about to risk them, especially since they knew very well the Weasleys were willing to fight viciously for one of their own.
What about the bond? Ron asked when neither of them spoke. I'm not getting the same itch to Apparate, not like with Harry. I think it's because I'm the one in trouble this time.
It's as bad as Harry's case. Even Hermione's mental voice sounded grim. I think it's the distance. George got Harry back almost instantly. You're not one botched spell from death, but we have distance working against us. It won't let me block it, either. I tried.
If this was what they had dealt with when he had been unconscious, no wonder they had looked so bad when he finally woke up. No wonder soul magic was banned. Not when Harry could feel those harmless, helpful tendrils of the bond dig in deep and pull until it felt like they were trying to tear his magic out of him in their attempt to make him Apparate.
Bloody hell, Ron said, unconscious echoing Harry's thoughts. I need to talk to dad.
The bond fell silent. Neither of them spoke. Hermione's grip on Harry's hand was almost crushing, though Harry didn't mind. He squeezed back, and they sat there in silence and waited for news, one way or another.
Eventually they felt Ron's presence again.
George is still in Diagon. He wasn't due for another hour. I just warned him and gave the earring to Luna. Even if they search the house, it looks a little like something she might own.
They didn't ask if he was surrendering. It wasn't like he had much choice.
Dad isn't too happy, and mum is furious at them. I – it seems like it was just dumb luck. It was mum's birthday and they decided it was worth a try. Everyone here looked as surprised as we were. I don't think anyone sold us out. We were just stupid. Or unlucky.
We'll get you out of there. Whatever it takes, Harry promised.
I know. Ron sounded a lot calmer than Harry felt – or Hermione looked, for that matter. Even a Gryffindor knew when they faced a battle there was no point in fighting. Ron's unwavering faith in them was parts reassuring, parts intimidating, but right now it was exactly what Harry needed.
He would find a way to get Ron out of there. Whatever it took. He still wanted to Apparate there immediately, to burn down the wards in a storm of Fiendfyre, and to pick apart every last worthless Auror he saw, and only Ron's bullheaded faith in him and Hermione's grip on his hand kept him marginally grounded.
Huh. They brought the Head Auror out for this. I think they were hoping to get all three of us.
Hermione swallowed. Probably. I – be careful, Ron.
Harry felt a flicker of wry resignation from Ron. I think that's about to be out of my hands.
There was a brief impression of a Stunner, and the bond fell abruptly silent.
And in Grimmauld Place the cold fireplace exploded in a furious roar of magic as the Dark Lord Potter lost the last tenuous hold on his self-restraint.
"What do we know?"
Harry's emotions had run the gauntlet from fury to worry and back again repeatedly before it had settled – for now – on hard determination. The bookcases and lights at Grimmauld had stopped trembling, at least.
He still paced the room like a caged nundu, bleeding off restless energy the only way he could. Ron's unconsciousness had done nothing to help. It had only made it worse by taking away what should have been a possible stabilising influence on himself and Hermione both. The fireplace, now a partially melted mess of soot and cracked stone, had borne the brunt of it. Even now the remnants of Harry's magic still seethed deep in the stones.
Ernie had learned the Secret to Grimmauld when Harry had been injured. George had let the rest of them in on the Fidelius shortly after. Harry was grateful for that now. Grimmauld was the closest thing they had to a fortress, and right now he wanted a secure, easily-defended place to meet and to serve as a bolt-hole if any of them should need it. Only Susan, George, and Dean were there with them for now. They didn't want to risk drawing unwanted suspicions if too many 'former' friends of Harry Potter all had urgent business right after Ron's arrest.
"Increased Auror activity," Susan reported. "My schedule just got shuffled. I'm due to report tomorrow morning at six. No orders beyond that, but I talked to a couple of the other trainees. We've all been called in. Different shifts, but they're calling in everything they have."
"They're preparing for an attack," Dean said and glanced at Susan. "They haven't contacted me, but remember Wyght? My junior mentor? He kept in touch after I dropped out."
"He dropped out in June, too, didn't he? Family reasons?"
"His father got sick with Dragon Pox. He survived, but they don't expect him to ever recover. Wyght was pretty much ordered to drop that Auror silliness and take over as heir." Dean's eyes flickered to Harry. "He Floo'd me right before you called us. The DMLE had just contacted him with an offer to return to Auror training, effective immediately. He wanted to know if I'd heard anything."
"He was only a few months from graduating," Susan said, doing the mental calculations. "But it's still been half a year with no training. Forever in Auror terms. They're not just calling in everything they have, they're actively trying to boost the ranks again. Have you heard anything from Ron?"
"He's still unconscious." Hermione looked pale but surprisingly calm. It belied the roiling emotions Harry could feel right beneath the surface of the bond. "The Aurors brought everyone at the Burrow in for questioning, but Ron's the only one under arrest. George left the shop the moment Ron warned him. They didn't have enough to pin on anyone else. Luna saw him briefly. He looked unharmed, at least."
"They'll want defences in place before they wake him up, then," Susan concluded. "They don't know what you'll be able to do once he's conscious again, but they won't take any chances." She hesitated. "There haven't been any emergency Wizengamot summons, but that doesn't mean anything. They'll want to interrogate him to find out what he knows and what he's done before they arrange a trial. No unpleasant surprises that way."
"They're not shipping him straight to Azkaban, then? That's an improvement. Better than what Snuffles got. Must be Shacklebolt's sparkling influence." George had been every bit as furious as Harry, but the bright fury had eventually settled into smouldering anger.
Susan glanced at George but didn't rise to the bait. "Several of the off-duty Aurors like to spend the evenings at the Leaky Cauldron. Hannah will get what intel she can out of them. She knows which ones get a little too chatty when they're drunk. Ernie will drop by the Cauldron as well and visit Hannah. Most Hufflepuffs stay in touch after Hogwarts, it won't be suspicious. Now, Ministry blueprints ... they don't exist. Not that we've found. If they're there, they're outdated, hidden away somewhere obscure and forgotten, or very likely both. Anthony and Neville are working on some based on what they know, and Dean and I will join them later."
They had little information for now, then, but with some luck they could have a lot more come morning. Harry reined in his impatience and nodded sharply. "Right, then. We'll meet up tomorrow. I'll let the others know, too. If Ron -"
Harry paused as Mute appeared, wide-eyed and obviously worried. She handed a folded paper to Harry and was gone an instant later.
Harry understood why the moment he unfolded the paper.
War-Hero Weasley Arrested! Follower of the Dark Lord!
There was no picture of Ron himself, but the Head Auror featured prominently on the front page, in the middle of what looked like a press conference.
He had clamped down tightly on his emotions, but not fast enough to stop the groan of crushed wood as the solid door behind him imploded in a ball of splinters. Not fast enough stop his cup shattering with a sharp crack. He placed the paper on the table, the headline so big that all of them could read it easily.
"The story just broke."
He had hoped the Aurors would keep it a secret, so they would at least only be up against the DMLE. He should have known better.
With everyone in the wizarding world aware of it ... everyone would be waiting for his move. Everyone would be watching for anything out of the ordinary.
Hannah and Ernie brought news early Sunday morning, none of it any better than the Prophet had been.
Ron was still unconscious. True to Hermione's word, it had taken Dreamless Sleep for them to get any rest at all, and Harry's patience was rapidly flaying. Hermione was little better.
"Tom says the atmosphere in the Cauldron felt like during the first Rise of Voldemort." Hannah, with her hard, grim expression, was a world away from the cheerful, tolerant, and occasionally bull-headed girl who was learning the pub-craft from her great-uncle Tom. "Oh, gossiping like a bunch of old biddies like always, but they startled every time the door slammed open a little harder than usual."
"Indecisive old biddies," Ernie added. "Bloody hell, I heard them change their minds more often than Fudge did. They agreed with whoever argued the loudest at any given time."
"Nobody wanted to be the odd wizard out." Hannah's expression tightened. "Wouldn't want the wrong opinion to get back to the wrong person. As far as I could tell, they were more worried that the off-duty Aurors would think they sided with a Dark Lord than they were that you might take offence."
Harry didn't particularly like the thought of a world where people were more worried about the Aurors' reaction than that of a Dark Lord. On the other hand, he didn't particularly like the thought of being the sort of person feared like Voldemort had been, either. Lose-lose either way.
"Honestly, it was less about the offence and more about what you might do after Ron's arrest." Ernie sighed and leaned back in the couch, sinking deep into the cushions. "Genuinely worried that the Aurors might decide they'd be wizards of interests if they said the wrong thing, sure. But everyone knows the Ministry has Ron. Everyone knows you're going to get him back or wreck the place trying. Nobody wants to get caught up in that. People haven't forgot about the name the Prophet gave you, and nobody wants to be anywhere near the 'Fiendfyre Lord' when he decides to retaliate. You've proven you're powerful enough to be a threat. Nobody's likely to forget that any time soon."
"The off-duty Aurors kept an eye on everything," Hannah added. "More so than usual. Everyone will be watching. Every Auror, every Hit-wizard, every guard at Gringotts. Everyone."
His mug was trembling again. Harry took a slow breath. Let it out again. Forced the roiling magic back under control, for all that everything in him demanded he let it run wild and free and make them pay for targeting Ron. Company helped, they had found. Made it a little easier to resist constant, gnawing sense of wrong. Harry had not been left alone for a moment since Ron's arrest. If it wasn't Hermione, it was Neville or George, never more than an arm's length away.
"When did they decide backing me into a corner was the smart thing to do?" he muttered, just a little bitter.
"They didn't," Hannah said bluntly. "But nobody ever accused the common witch or wizard of common sense."
Because that was just the way to deal with a Fiendfyre-happy Dark Lord. Arrest his friend and back him into a corner with no way out but fighting, because that was just brilliant planning.
Harry didn't expect to hear from Susan until sometime that evening after her shift was over, but she did send him one sharp, crystal-clear thought shortly after Hannah and Ernie left.
They found out about the Mark. They expect you to attack. Ministry will be a fortress.
It wasn't a surprise. That still didn't make the news any less unwanted.
Do not expect to need a solicitor. They may allow him a trial to satisfy the word of the law but the outcome is given.
Brookstanton's letter arrived in the mid-morning and did not mention the word 'Azkaban'. It did not need to. That piece of news was no surprise, either, though Harry appreciated the warning.
What I've come to expect from the Ministry at its finest.
Harry's response was short and to the point and did not warn Brookstanton to stay away from the Ministry for the foreseeable future. That, too, did not need mentioned.
Shortly before noon Ron was pulled abruptly out of unconsciousness and straight into the haze of Veritaserum.
With less practice, there would have been nothing they could do. Harry, with his miserable skills at Occlumency, would have had a problem. Ron, though ... with a far better organised mind and with significantly better skills than Harry according to Hermione, he slipped easily from unconsciousness, past the haze of Veritaserum, and into the clear sharpness of Occlumency instead.
Harry felt the brief, relieved presence of his best male friend. Then the feeling faded as Ron focused on his own mind and the connection with Hermione.
Harry was not the person to rely on for that sort of thing. Repeated practice had taught them that.
Hermione stilled in her chair, eyes closed and expression blank, and Harry settled in for a long wait.
It was close to two hours before Hermione stirred again. Harry had watched over her the entire time. Grimmauld was safe, but he didn't want to risk anything that might break her focus. A brief thought through the bond with their friends warned them not to contact her, and a few softly spoken words kept Mute out of the room.
He wanted to pace, he wanted to fight, he wanted to burn off the magic right beneath his skin, he wanted to hit something and not stop until his knuckles were raw and bloody, but in the end he merely stayed on the couch. Restless, silent, and very careful not to break Hermione's focus.
His hands had started shaking after the first hour of enforced stillness. Half an hour past that, and endless, vivid visions of the Ministry ablaze had started to pass before his eyes. The Fountain as a bubbling pool of molten metal, the Wizengamot chambers filled with chairs burned to cinders, so delicate that a breath would turn them into dust, a line of faceless Aurors that fell one after the other to a Fiendfyre snake the size of a Basilisk -
He would see those visions come to life. One way or another, the Ministry would burn.
Eventually Hermione stirred and took a deep, unsteady breath. Harry reached out to hold her hand and he felt the tremor in her muscles from two hours of perfect stillness.
"Physically he's fine. They just returned him to his cell. They noticed the Mark and know it's Dark magic but they have not attempted to use it yet as far as he knows." She swallowed. "No bruises, no – no accidents on the way back, no attempts to get even so far for the Aurors that died at Nott Manor and at Potter Cottage."
All of whom had died at Harry's hands, but he doubted that would have mattered much if someone wanted revenge.
"We decided there was no point in lying," Hermione continued. "We would slip up eventually and they might even have learned something from his answers. We decided it was best not to answer at all. He didn't speak, not once."
Her hand tightened around his own. "I – we don't think they will get permission to use Unforgivables, not yet at least, not when all they can really pin on him is the Dark magic from the Mark, but we – we should be able to withstand that as well, and it's not trusted with prisoners who are immune to Veritaserum, and certainly not if they used the Cru- the Cruciatus, too -"
Hermione's breath hitched and Harry was at her side in a heartbeat. Then his world narrowed down to the bundle of bushy hair and trembling figure in his arms as Hermione broke down into quiet sobs.
For a long time they remained that way, clinging to each other as Hermione sobbed and Harry tried to ignore the tightness in his chest and the blind compulsion to do something, to Apparate to the Ministry and tear every last one of them to pieces.
As Hermione fell silent, Harry risked a thought to Susan.
No luck with Veritaserum. What will next step be?
Susan took a moment too long to reply, and Harry knew it wouldn't be good.
Probably sleep deprivation. They have potion for it. Resistance takes focus. Time and no sleep breaks most methods. Hard to get permission for Unforgivables. Potion counts as medical. No laws against it.
One more thing on the long, long list of things wrong with the wizarding world.
How can they not have laws against that? he demanded.
No one believes they would use it, Susan responded quietly. Sleep deprivation used during witch hunts. Tainted by Muggle witch hunters. Obviously no proper pure-blood would use it.
Something must have shown – or his emotions had leaked, either way – because Hermione let go and looked closely at him, searching his expression.
"Is it safe to contact Ron?"
Hermione watched him for a moment longer. "Yes. He has a headache and he's tired, but he's ... safe for now."
Harry nodded and reached out for both of them. He didn't want to explain it twice, and he desperately missed the presence of the third of their trio. The bond had gone from unnervingly silent to a raw wound somewhere in his magic as the hours had inched on without word.
There was never a question of whether he should tell them. In Ron's place, he would have wanted to know. He knew Ron well enough to say that he would agree.
Hermione was there in an instant, warm and bright if a little subdued. Ron followed long seconds later, more tired and weary but with the same bit of relief that Harry felt when the bond settled properly again and eased the strain of distance a little.
I asked Susan what their next step was likely to be. With physical torture and Unforgivables out of the question for now, she expects them to try sleep deprivation. Time and sleep deprivation will crack most ways to resist Veritaserum.
Hermione's grip on his hand tightened again. That's legal?
Susan said that since it was used by Muggles during the witch hunts, it's considered tainted, so obviously there's no reason to make a law against it when no proper witch or wizard would use it.
Ron was strangely quiet. Harry did not need to look at Hermione to know that she was looking as worried as he felt.
Straight from unconscious to Veritaserum wasn't easy but we managed, Hermione and me, he finally said. Now I'm tired and I've got a Bludger-sized headache, and that was from ... what? Two hours? I can't manage Occlumency after a day of no sleep, never mind several.
I – Hermione began and cut herself off. Ron and Harry stayed silent. They both knew the signs of Hermione's mind hard at work, although Harry suspected Ron had already reached the conclusion Hermione had just arrived at.
... The bond takes focus, too, she said instead. Less than Occlumency, but -
- It'll fail, too. You can't get me through another round of Veritaserum if I can't even focus enough to reach you. Ron sounded calm and quiet, the voice of reason that he shouldn't have to be, not now.
Lie. You're a Gryffindor, you and Hermione followed me out of stubborn, stupid loyalty. Leave George and the others out of it, and let me take the blame. Most of it was me, anyway, and the rest doesn't matter. It's not like they can sentence me twice to the Veil.
They won't believe me, Ron told them bluntly. They know I can resist it now. They'll wait until they're absolutely sure I have no way to block it.
Two days, then? Three? Hermione asked grimly.
Hopefully. Ron fell silent. We could be wrong, you know.
Ron didn't sound like he particularly believed it. Neither did Harry and Hermione.
Yeah, Ron admitted at their silence. That's what I thought, too.
"These are the best plans we could make. As detailed and as accurate as possible."
Neville, Dean, and Anthony arrived with a stack of parchment some twenty sheets tall. Susan was still at work and Hermione was focused on Ron, but they could go over it together later. It would definitely take a while.
Each sheet covered most of the desk and the drawings were done in what Harry recognised as Dean's artistic hand. A slow flip through the stack revealed most of the floors covered – though some had parts missing – as well as a number of sheets with additional information. Warding, security, the cells ... between the four of them, Susan, Dean, Anthony, and Neville knew the layout to a lot of the Ministry and the parts they didn't know for the most part wouldn't matter all that much. The Department of Mysteries, for one, was little more than a sketch with huge patches missing, but Harry had no intentions of going anywhere near that place again.
The DMLE was drawn out in great detail, as was the Atrium and several other floors. Harry nodded slowly. "Excellent work, all of you. Thank you."
And it was. A work of art more than mere blueprints and Harry could appreciate it, for all that he had quickly realised something else as well. "Conclusions?"
The trio exchanged a look and seemed to silently elect Neville as spokesperson. "It can't be done."
"Voldemort managed." A little too bluntly put, maybe, but Harry's patience was strained already.
"Voldemort took the Ministry because he had enough inside support that security wasn't an issue. Not only do you not have the same, Shacklebolt upped security something vicious, first after the War and then after you killed three people in the Atrium. That's not mentioning the additional funding the DMLE got after the War to rebuild and recover." Neville fixed his attention on Harry, utterly unwavering. "It can't be done. The place is a fortress. The Atrium, yes. Some of the less secure levels, probably. But those holding cells are located on Level Two, past Auror Headquarters. Short of owning half the Ministry or having a minor army at your back, it can't be done."
Harry didn't respond, didn't even blink, and Neville sighed.
"I want Ron out of there as much as you do, but it's suicide. Even the lot of us? Not a chance. Maybe, with the element of surprise on our side, we could get in there. We'd have no chance of getting out again once the alarm sounded, not with those kinds of defences. Susan is the only one who might have been able to help, but she's just a trainee. She doesn't have that kind of clearance yet."
Harry watched him for long seconds. Then he backed down a little, conceding the point. "I have to. Somehow. He resisted Veritaserum, but Susan thinks they're going to start on sleep deprivation. Two, three days and he won't be able to lie. It won't be admissible in court, but that won't stop them from coming after the rest of you."
"Then I'll face down the Wizengamot and tell them proudly where my loyalty lies," Neville said quietly. "It can't be done, Harry. Even Voldemort on his own probably couldn't have managed, not with that level of security. We have blackmail on enough people he might not even get convicted. Even if he does, we have a much better chance of breaking him out of Azkaban than the Ministry cells. Most of the Dementors are gone, we'll have time to figure something out, a weak spot in the wards or some guards for sale to the highest bidder, but it can't be done. Not in the Ministry."
Not unless he owned half the Ministry. Not unless he had the Minister's ear.
The seed of a plan settled in his mind, as insidious as Devil's Snare though Harry doubted Neville would appreciate the comparison. Instead he simply nodded.
"All right. I'll look through this. Thank you again. All of you."
Anthony didn't have the experience with Harry's usual plans to recognise the fleeting look for what it was. Dean looked suspicious, and Neville ... Neville didn't speak out loud, his expression utterly blank, which told Harry everything he really needed.
It can't be done, Neville repeated silently in Harry's mind. You're facing the Veil if they catch you. It's suicide.
Harry didn't answer.
There was a potion with Ron's dinner that evening. Neither of them recognised it, and the Auror that handed it over said nothing, just checked that Ron had drunk every last drop of it, and vanished the bottle before Ron could chuck it at his head.
There were a number of potions it could have been based on the description Ron gave them. They knew for sure when two, three, and four in the morning rolled by and Ron, tired to the bone, still laid on his cot and stared at the ceiling in complete darkness.
Sleep-deprivation, then, he eventually said, a little annoyed but mostly resigned. Bloody hell.
Neither Harry nor Hermione had been willing to sleep until they had known what the potion was. Hermione's hand in his trembled. Harry didn't speak but he knew, as they all did, that there was a definite deadline for any plans they made now.
Two days, three at the most and Ron wouldn't be able to keep their secrets. Equally important was the fact that he wouldn't be worth a damn thing in a fight, either, by then. They wouldn't just need to get in and out of the Ministry somehow. They would have to do so with someone who was either probably hallucinating and very likely incoherent or flat-out unconscious.
That both of them would probably feel some the effects, too, went unsaid. They couldn't block the bond, and they could barely handle the effects of it as it was.
Two days, three at the most, and Ron would be useless in a fight. Past that, and Hermione and Harry himself might very well be, too.
They slept in shifts by silent agreement. Ron would not be alone.
Harry slept miserably. Hermione by the looks of it had as well. Neither had dared to risk Dreamless Sleep two nights in a row. Her bloodshot eyes looked much like Harry's own had in the mirror that morning, and the deep, dark circles under them did nothing to help the haggard look.
A short night of restless sleep had also given that seed of a plan ample opportunity to grow and even flourish, and Hermione knew him well enough to tell when something was up. She did have the decency to wait until after a rushed lunch followed by two bottles of Invigoration Draught to confront him about it.
"You have a plan. I won't like it."
Harry just held out his hand. Hermione accepted it and with a sharp crack he Apparated them to the Hideaway, taking great care not to splinch them in the process. Even then he felt the sharp jerk the moment he Apparated, the increasing strain on the bond that refused to let up for even a second. A moment of inattention, he knew, and he would have ended up splinched in the Ministry instead.
Hermione didn't as much as stumble. They were both used to Side-Along Apparition by now. Harry let go of her and took a few steps forwards. Then he brought his wand up sharply and cast a wordless spell.
Fiendfyre flared to life, from spark to inferno in the space of a heartbeat. It rose high above them in the shape of a monstrous Basilisk, far larger than the creature Harry had faced in the Chamber of Secrets so long ago. The spell took its chance and lashed out, but Harry brutally crushed the attempt. For a moment they were locked like that, Harry's will against malevolent magic. Then the Basilisk bared its fangs in a soundless, furious snarl and lowered its head to the ground.
He might have slept miserably but if anything, his command of the spell was all the more brutal for it. An outlet for every last bit of restless magic he had barely managed to keep leashed since Ron was arrested.
Hermione watched, wide-eyed and silent. Harry realised quite abruptly that this was the first time she had really seen first-hand just how skilled he had become with the spell.
"With the Elder Wand – if I hadn't destroyed it, maybe that could have been enough to tip the odds in our favour. It was supposed to be unbeatable, for all that it didn't help Grindelwald or Voldemort or even Dumbledore in the end. It was a malevolent, insidious thing, but the one spell I used it for – even my holly wand couldn't have matched it. I could have taken on the world with that thing at my command. It did a very good job trying to convince of that, at least."
Hermione turned to look at him, about to speak. Then she glanced back at the Fiendfyre Basilisk and stayed silent.
"I suppose it comes down to how intelligent the Vow is. Will it understand my intentions and kill me before I can cast the spell?" Harry continued when Hermione did not speak. "We can't fight our way to Ron, you all agree on that. The only way to take the Ministry is if you own most of it or have the Minister's ear. Shacklebolt can't be bribed, but he can be made to listen to reason. Ron, safe and unharmed, or the utter destruction of the Ministry and everyone in it. I intend to make that spell powerful enough that it would gut the Ministry even without being continually fed by my magic. If I lose control of it at that stage it would kill all of us. The two of us would be too close to have time to escape. Ron would be trapped in his cell. Once cast, nothing will stop it until it's forcibly contained or runs out of magic. Not my death. Not my loss of magic. If there is a genuine possibility that my spell would kill you or Ron, and that it would be too late to stop it once I've cast it, would it stop me from casting it in the first place?"
"Not if I allowed you to." Hermione did not even have to think about the answer. Then again, they had spent a long time getting that Vow just right. She wouldn't be Hermione if she hadn't considered every possibility. "The Ministry has exceptionally strong wards. I - even with the amount of magic you feed into it, it would break itself on the wards, I think. It would burn the Ministry to ashes, but it would drain itself before it got through the wards. I think."
The Basilisk snarled at Harry again, malicious intelligence burning bright in its eyes. An equally sharp, vicious command brought it to the ground again. A second of inattention would be enough to lose control, a second of less than perfect focus ... Harry understood why Fiendfyre had such a horrific reputation. He understood exactly why it killed its wielder more often than not. The force behind the spell was overwhelming, a wall of sheer, raw fury that bore down mercilessly on his mind. Only his experiences with Voldemort's possession and Imperius had seen him survive his first attempt at the spell.
"You'll start another Great Fire of London if you get this wrong. If the wards can't contain it - with Fiendfyre rather than ordinary fire ..." she didn't finish the sentence.
A hundred thousand dead if everything failed. Probably more. Every last one of them by his magic. Far more than Voldemort had caused, even during two reigns. Less, perhaps, than Grindelwald, but that man had the backing of a World War. Less than Grindelwald wasn't much of a comparison.
Hermione stared at the Basilisk for a long time. Whatever went through her mind, she didn't share. "You intend to blackmail the Ministry. It's a gamble that no one will attack you on sight. Most of the Aurors might be intelligent enough not to, but not everyone will." She swallowed. "You will need your full focus on the spell. You know what happened at Nott Manor when you split your attention between Fiendfyre and your shield. I can't hold a Protego horribilis to protect myself, much less one big enough to protect both of us."
"I'd ask you to stay home if I thought you would listen," Harry admitted.
"You would." Hermione sighed. "I can manage a physical shield to cover us both. Long enough, hopefully, that someone sees sense and ceases the attacks. Does Ron know?"
"I haven't mentioned it yet. I wanted to see what you thought first."
Hermione nodded. "The others?"
"No." Harry had already considered it. "It's not a straight-out assault. We just need to hold our ground long enough to get the Aurors' and Shacklebolt's attention. More people means more distractions." More people to defend each other, but more people to get hurt or killed, too. More people to die if he got it wrong. "We're all walking out of there, or none of us are. I can't stop you, but I can order the others to stay away. If they expect me to act the part of a Lord, they better be willing to accept those orders, too."
Hermione fell silent again.
"I'll talk with Ron. We need to make sure everyone we care about is out of there. We need to warn Mr. Weasley. Anthony and Susan, too. And Percy. We need to consider every angle."
"I wasn't about to charge off right now," Harry objected half-heartedly and got a pointed look for his efforts.
"Yes, you were." Hermione took a steadying breath. "I'm just as affected by the bond as you are, Harry. We need to make sure we have everything covered. I know we're on a deadline. It's – today is too fast, we'll die if we rush in like that."
"Tomorrow, then." It was not a question, not really. Ron was running out of time, and Harry could feel the same strain on himself. The temper and the recklessness and the visions of fire and vengeance that never went away. Harry was stubborn, but he had known the moment he felt the full force of the bond for the first time that it would wear him down, slowly and relentlessly. It was just a matter of how deranged he would be by the time he broke.
Hallowe'en. For better or for worse, everything seemed to come back to that day. And if he failed, it seemed appropriate that it should end on the same day it started. The day of his parents' death, the day of the troll that forged their friendship, and the day of his Vow.
"We don't have much choice, do we?" Hermione agreed quietly. "I – I need to think about this. But ... "
She trailed off, but Harry understood just fine. Even the thought would have been abhorrent to her three days ago. Now, though, with Ron in Ministry hands, with the bond gnawing on them their every waking moment ... the world looked very different and far, far bleaker than before.
Hallowe'en, mate? Ron asked later that afternoon. Harry could almost feel the grimace through the bond, though the predominant feeling was bone-deep tiredness and the muted echoes of a dull headache.
When else? You know my luck, Harry responded wryly.
Tired amusement from Ron. Darker, heavier threads of exhaustion sneaked in through those few moments of inattention before Harry felt Ron brutally cut them off.
Never thought I'd miss sleep this much. A heartbeat. Then two. It's a crap plan, but it's the best we've got. Worst case, we'll gut the Ministry and they won't get the satisfaction of a sham trial. I can live with that.
Unfortunate choice of words, maybe, but neither of them mentioned it. Harry just nodded though Ron couldn't see it and felt the weight on his shoulders ease just a little.
"You need to not be on duty tomorrow," Harry told Susan bluntly when she appeared in the early evening. Hermione had spoken to Anthony through their bond and Arthur Weasley by way of George already. Harry wanted to talk to Susan in person. She was the one most likely to object to his plan.
"I can't," Susan answered just as bluntly. "If you attack and I'm mysteriously sick that day, it will be too suspicious. I'm already on shaky grounds, being a former student of the DA that was run by the Dark Lord Potter. I won't be of much use to anyone if that happens."
Harry's patience, somewhat unpredictable at the best of times and worn paper-thin by Ron's capture, took that moment to snap. Something behind them shattered with the sharp crack of splintered glass.
"I'm going to negotiate Ron's release by the use of live Fiendfyre! Forgive me if I don't care in the slightest how suspicious your absence will look!"
Susan's jaw clenched in a familiar sign of stubborn determination. Arguing with a Hufflepuff was like trying to break down the doors in the Great Hall with a Merlin-damned Lumos.
Harry took a breath. Reined in his impatience. Tried again.
"You're the last Bones. Hermione and I – we're walking out of there with Ron, all three of us, or no one is."
"You included." The stubborn determination did not go away. "I'm the last Bones, sure. You're the last Potter. If I want to risk ending my family line, then that's my bloody right!"
Harry wanted to argue that it was different but couldn't quite find a way to phrase it that wouldn't come back to bite him. The moments of pause were enough for Susan to carry right on.
"You know I'm right."
"That doesn't mean I have to like it." If he sounded a little petulant, she was nice enough not to mention it.
Susan smiled, a little sad but mostly tired. "And that's why we follow you."
"So," Neville murmured when they sat in the living room later that evening, just the two of them. "No Ministry Six this time."
Neville had a glass of Firewhisky. Harry stuck with tea. They couldn't afford to take any more risks than they absolutely had to, not now, and while the bond with Ron was mostly silent, Harry wanted his mind as clear as it could be. Even if he could do nothing else now, he could do that much.
The tremor in his hand was back, from the tension in his muscles and the strain from the bond. The face that stared back from the mirror reminded him uncomfortably of Bellatrix Lestrange at her most deranged. His hair, unruly at the best of times, looked like a rat's nest and while his eyes didn't match Voldemort's unnatural red, the bloodshot look was getting there.
Neville, polite man that he was, had not commented on it.
"No. Ginny isn't part of this, and I'm not getting Luna involved, not now. I can't take her from Ginny, too."
Neville, who had been there through it all. Neville, who had settled down that afternoon with a bottle of Firewhisky and several bottles of Invigoration Draughts and calmly let them know that he would keep watch with them that night as they slept in turn under the effects of Dreamless Sleep.
Neville, who had knowingly gone with him to face down Death Eaters and Voldemort himself at the Department of Mysteries at the age of fifteen.
Harry stayed silent for a long time as he tried to find a way to explain it right. Thinking straight took an uncomfortable amount of effort.
"The three of us – we're leaving together, all of us, or nobody is. I'd go alone if I thought Hermione would let me." He paused again and tried to find the words to make it make sense to Neville. "I couldn't stop Susan, it's her job and her right, but I can stop you. You have nothing to do in the Ministry, and you're the only future of the Longbottom blood. I've ended enough family lines."
Neville's expression hardened. "That wouldn't stop me."
Harry met his eyes – stubborn, determined, proud, and so very Gryffindor – and didn't yield an inch. "I'll order you to stay."
Neville didn't speak, didn't even move. Then he smiled a little ruefully. "Should have expected that, shouldn't I?" A heartbeat. Then his stance eased slightly and he lowered his head briefly, deliberately. "By your will, my Lord."
Something settled heavily in Harry's chest, relief and fear and the crushing weight of responsibility. For the first time he didn't object to the title. "Thank you."
Silence settled. Neville refilled his glass and Harry took the opportunity to pour another mug of tea as well. Long minutes later, when the tea had cooled a little, Harry brought out a sealed scroll from one of the pockets in his robe and handed it to Neville.
"If our luck runs out ... the Office of Augustus Brookstanton here in London is the executioner of my will. They have a copy, and there's one in my vault in Constantinople as well. This is my copy."
Neville's eyes had drifted to the scroll but snapped back to Harry at the explanation. "George -"
"- isn't going, but he will want revenge if everything goes to hell. For Ron, if nothing else."
Neville sighed, but he accepted the scroll. "He would. Don't make me have to open this, Potter."
"I'll try not to." Another long stretch of silence. Harry finished most of his tea before he spoke again. "It was updated in May. Fleur made me the godfather of Victoire, and I wanted to add a trust vault for her. We kept it secret. The only people who know are her parents and Gabrielle, her godmother."
"And, of course, Ron and Hermione." Harry shrugged. That went without saying. "I'm not nearly drunk enough if this is going to be some weepy heart-to-heart talk. You owe me at least another bottle."
That got a genuine laugh from Harry. "No weepy heart-to-heart. But you can have the bottle. I think I still owe you for Nagini."
Neville refilled his glass again before he raised it. "Kill the snake?"
It was a toast Harry could get behind. He raised his mug in return. "Kill the snake."
Hermione reappeared at one that night, bright and awake from seven hours of potion-induced sleep. She still didn't look much better than Harry did. He accepted the bottle of purple potion from her hand and retired to bed himself, leaving Hermione to Neville's quiet company.
Seven hours later, far more clear-headed and rested than he had any right to be, Harry shrunk Dorea Potter's portrait and Apparated to the Tonks residence.
Andromeda met him in the entrance hall. It was impolite to just Apparate inside, but they both knew Harry couldn't exactly just appear out in public without a disguise these days.
"Harry?" A little surprised, a little wary, probably more due to his physical appearances than his actual visit.
Harry handed over the portrait. "For Teddy. There aren't that many of the Black blood around, and even less we'd want anywhere near him, but if you agree, I want him to have the chance to get to know her when he's older."
Andromeda accepted the portrait but didn't look away from him. "You are about to do something incredibly reckless to get Ron back."
"Yes." There was no point in lying.
"You don't expect to survive."
Harry hesitated. "I know I'm taking a risk. I expect it to be a possibility."
Andromeda was silent. Then, slowly, she nodded. "Try to remain alive. I would like my grandson to keep his godfather."
It was all he could promise. Andromeda understood.
They had agreed to meet in Longbottom Manor, which – unlike Grimmauld and the safe-houses – was hooked up to the Floo. Neville and Hermione were already waiting when he arrived – and so, to his mild surprise, was George.
Neville looked a little tired and a little less alert than usual. There was only so much Invigoration Draughts could do, which was why Harry and Hermione hadn't wanted to risk them. Neville would be perfectly safe well away from the Ministry, though.
George clasped his arm and held it tightly.
"Make them pay."
They hadn't shared any details about Ron's treatment, nothing but the bare basics, but George wasn't stupid. He had seen the effects on them and could vividly imagine how Ron was doing in turn.
Harry did not ask why he wasn't at the store. There was a time to keep up appearances and a point where it no longer mattered. He doubted George would have been able to pass for even remotely his normal self. Harry certainly wouldn't have, in his place. Neville planned to return to Grimmauld and George obviously planned to stay with him.
'To wait for news' went unsaid. One way or the other.
George let go and clasped Hermione's arm just as tightly. Neville moved closer in his place.
For a moment they stood there, neither entirely sure what to say. Finally Neville moved, gripped him in a tight, fierce hug and had let go again before Harry could respond.
"George has the right idea." Neville voice sounded a little gravelly and utterly unyielding. "Make them pay."
Then he moved on to Hermione and a slightly longer, less ferocious hug.
Finally he stepped away from the fireplace along with George, and Hermione took a steadying breath. "All right, then?"
All he felt from her was fiery, proud, stubborn determination, and Harry loved her for it. He sent a brief flare of love and trust and reassurance to her and Ron both, and then he cut off both bonds as completely as he could with circumstances as they were.
He trusted Hermione with his back and the bond with Ron. They could afford no distractions, nothing to break his focus once the spell was cast. The chaos of the Atrium alone would be enough to deal with.
Harry wrapped his mind in memories of their time in the Hideaway, of Teddy, of their bond and the sheer wonder of having family. Then he raised his wand and cast his Patronus.
Prongs leapt into being and danced a few steps across the floor on shimmering hooves before he turned to look at Harry. "Kingsley Shacklebolt," he instructed it. "Minister Shacklebolt, I have just arrived in the Atrium. Consider it in the best interest of the imminent survival of your Ministry to meet me there."
Prongs tossed his head and vanished in a blur through the wall. Harry picked up a pinch of Floo Powder and threw it in the fireplace.
"Ministry of Magic, the Atrium!"
The flames turned green with a surge of magic, and he turned to Hermione and held out his hand.
"Together?" he asked.
"Together," she said, and took it.
It took several long seconds before anyone recognised them. Someone arriving by Floo in the middle of the morning was common, after all, and hardly worth a second look.
They hadn't bothered with disguises, which meant no glamours to alert the Aurors, either.
Harry spent those precious few seconds to cross the Atrium to near the Fountain of Magical Brethren, Hermione at his side, and to get a good look at the people around him.
Security to one side, the golden gates – wide open – up ahead, and Aurors lingering right inside those doors. Fireplaces to each side, the Fountain behind them, and the visitor's entrance at the far back. There were people, enough to be a crowd but not quite enough to be called crowded, and there was a reporter lurking around near the golden doors. Harry didn't recognise the man, but he had a photographer with him and paper and quill sticking out of one large pocket. Hoping for a scoop, perhaps. The Ministry had Ron, and that made the place a likely target when Harry acted. It was a stupid place to be, but no one had accused the Prophet's reporters of being overly cautious people.
If the whole place didn't go up in Fiendfyre, Harry supposed the man would in fact get the story he was looking for and probably even more valuable, the first photos of Harry after he became a Dark Lord. After two days of merciless pressure from the bond, he even looked the part.
One of the Aurors caught their eye and several things happened at once. Fire sparked to life above Harry's hand just as recognition made the the man's eyes widen. Then a solid bronze shield slammed into place in front of them courtesy of Hermione, and Harry breathed life into his Fiendfyre spell. Life, magic, and two long days worth of fury, fear, and relentless stress from their bond.
A Horntail rose behind them as a wall of fire with the roar of Dark, infernal magic, and the Atrium was thrown into chaos.
A swipe of its tail cut clean across the fireplaces on one side to cut off departures. A ferocious blast of fire incinerated the fireplaces on the other side and stopped any arrivals. Two wizards who had been waiting there died instantly. A third managed a few steps before he screamed and was caught up in the inferno, too. Then, with almost calculated spite, the dragon rested one massive paw on the Fountain and reduced the statues to less than ashes.
The whole thing had taken less than ten seconds.
Someone screamed. The first barrage of spells slammed into Hermione's shield with a viciousness that left no doubt that someone was playing for keeps and did not understand the mechanics of Fiendfyre.
The dragon roared and drowned out the sounds of screams and running, of spells and destruction, and its neck stretched unnaturally long to reach the closest of the fleeing crowd. Harry felt more than saw the death of the first witch it engulfed, but the moment before it could give chase to the rest, a vicious reminder from Harry's magic kept it leashed.
Another several spells impacted the shield, and this time Harry could see the damage on it as well as the strain on Hermione. The Aurors weren't going to stop, not now, not when they were too far into fight-and-flight to see reason, not when they had real life Fiendfyre bearing down on them, but that was why Harry had sent his Patronus.
Before the third barrage could hit, his gamble paid off.
Kingsley Shacklebolt's voice cut through the Atrium, backed by powerful magic and even stronger wards. The room stilled. No one moved. Shields raised, spells cut off mid-way as the battle ground to a halt – only the sharp, malevolent hiss of Harry's Fiendfyre remained, towering behind him in the roiling shape of the monstrous Horntail and one breath away from freedom.
The spell knew it. Harry knew it. Shacklebolt most definitely knew it, too, even if Harry wasn't sure if the Aurors did.
It said a lot about the sheer, dominating power of the Ministry wards under Shacklebolt's command that the panicking crowds had stilled, too. Shifting uneasily, clearly afraid, but no longer moving. No longer trying to flee. Harry could feel those same wards bearing down on him as well, noticeable even through the overwhelming presence of his Fiendfyre spell.
A glance at Hermione saw her dispel the shield, too damaged to have stood up for much longer. She remained ready to cast a new one in an instant.
Shacklebolt held out his empty hands slowly and made very sure that Harry wouldn't take it as an attack. The man had never been easy to read, but the wariness was plain now. Not fear, not entirely, but more caution than Harry had ever seen in him before.
The first time, perhaps, that the man had ever really given serious thought to the Prophecy, beyond Harry must kill Voldemort.
The Dark Lord's equal.
He kept most of his attention on the Fiendfyre behind him, but his control was strong enough that he could focus some of his attention on other things. Things like the Minister for Magic and the minor army at his side.
The infernal Horntail rose behind him, wings stretched wide, and Harry straightened with it. A few of the Aurors shifted uneasily, but Shacklebolt's command held.
For a long time they simply watched each other, Harry getting an impression of the power behind the wards and Shacklebolt getting the measure of the creature his Aurors had inadvertently brought to his doorstep.
The Minister broke the silence first.
"Lord Potter. I was surprised to receive your message." Not Harry, it hadn't been just Harry for a long time, but he knew it meant something that he wasn't just Potter, either.
"Minister Shacklebolt." Harry kept his voice neutral. "You have one of our friends. We want him back."
To Shacklebolt's credit, he did not immediately cave. Fudge would have. Shacklebolt just didn't have that special sort of spinelessness that was an identifying feature in most Ministry officials Harry had met.
"The Ministry does not negotiate with Dark Lords."
"Must be a new policy since Voldemort, then."
The flinches and muted gasps from the crowd at the name were obvious. A few of the Aurors flinched with them. Harry barely kept his disgust from showing, though he didn't doubt that Shacklebolt's disappointed look at those Aurors hammered home the point quite well.
Slight movement to one side caught his eye. One of the Aurors was slowly moving towards the wall, almost hidden among the anxious crowd. The Horntail turned its head sharply and bared its massive fangs in his direction and the man stopped immediately. There were a number of carvings along the Atrium walls and throughout the Ministry. Some were decorations. Some were part of the defences. Some, as Harry knew from Susan, would trigger a Ministry-wide alarm if activated just the right way.
Harry turned his attention back to Shacklebolt, trusting Hermione to keep his back safe while he dealt with the Auror. "I don't recommend sounding the alarm. An evacuation ... well, someone might panic and fire at me."
His mild tone joined by looks of someone who had barely rested in two days got the point across better than anger possibly could have.
Shacklebolt watched him with unreadable eyes. He glanced at the man that was still the focus of the Fiendfyre spell, then made a small gesture. The Auror was still for a moment before he seemed to deflate just a little and took several steps back towards the centre of the Atrium. Harry didn't doubt that there were other ways to evacuate the building, but he honestly didn't care all that much about the people there. The loss of the Ministry building alone would be incomprehensibly big to the wizarding world. Centuries of history. Centuries of records and information. It would take decades to rebuild and far longer to recreate what was lost.
"It's risky, playing with Fiendfyre."
Harry's lips curled slightly. It was not a pleasant expression. "Maybe. I suppose we all better hope I don't get distracted, then. I know you've found out about the Mark on Ron's shoulder. I'm sure you can imagine how depriving it's been to be forcibly separated like this. We're barely slept for two days."
The Horntail curled a claw partially around Harry in mock possessiveness, so close that he could feel the blistering heat against his skin. He heard the wings shift and saw them appear in the corner of his eyes, curving around himself and Hermione in a blazing half-dome.
The spell tugged on his magic for more power. Harry readily gave it.
The Horntail burned brighter and taller, the malevolent hiss of fire turned into a deep, low rumble, and this time even the slowest of the Aurors seemed to understand the importance of that carefully-controlled Fiendfyre. Several took a step back, most with their wands raised, for all the good that would do if Harry's control slipped. No one seemed to even consider casting the next spell against them, not anymore.
It took more focus and willpower now but nothing Harry did not have. It was different to keep it so tightly controlled, without the destruction of wards or a manor or enemies as an outlet for its fury. It took the same kind of stubborn will and determination that casting off Voldemort's Imperius did, and Harry had that in spades.
Shacklebolt did not flinch. Harry would have been disappointed if he had.
"If you lose control of that spell, you'll burn with us. All three of you."
Harry shrugged. "Better than a Dementor or the Veil, I suppose. I'll get the satisfaction of taking all of the Ministry with me, too."
"Arthur Weasley -"
"- Was warned to stay home from work today, and Percy with him," Harry finished. Calmness settled, that strange union of the adrenaline and anticipation of battle joined with unnatural calm clarity. "There are only two people I care about in the Ministry today and both face Azkaban for siding with me."
Shacklebolt's attention turned to Hermione, shielded by one immense, burning wing. She answered before he could even ask.
"Until the end, Minister." Grim and grave and determined, and Harry did not deserve friends like them, not in a hundred years.
"If he loses control, he'll burn down half of London before they can get it contained."
Harry didn't need to look to know she wore that familiar part-stubborn, part-resigned expression, the one that made it clear she didn't agree with Harry but would still back him no matter what.
"Most likely just the Ministry," she corrected. "With the wards on this place, the spell would in all likelihood burn itself out before it got through to the Muggle side."
"And if you're wrong?"
"The Ministry has hardly cared about Muggles before." Dark, bitter; smouldering anger that made it clear that she gave very little thought to that particular argument. They had already had that discussion, not that anyone else could have known that.
Shacklebolt seemed to agree that it was a lost cause. He looked back to Harry and the barely-restrained spell. "How do we know you won't simply let that spell run wild the moment you have Mr. Weasley back?"
"You don't." Harry didn't take pleasure in the flat words and the reactions they caused – not much, at least. "You'll just have to hope that the repeal of the creature restrictions is enough to stay my hand."
Shacklebolt watched him, probably looking for any sign that Harry was less than deathly serious. Then he made a slight gesture towards two of his Auror guards. "Get Ronald Weasley here. Alive, safe, unharmed. Go."
The men obeyed immediately. No one else dared move.
He trusted Hermione to keep Ron up to date with everything that happened. Neither of them wanted to risk splitting his attention more than it already was.
Uncomfortable silence settled in the Atrium. Shacklebolt looked remarkably calm about facing down a likely unhinged Dark Lord with barely-restrained Fiendfyre at his back. Calm enough that Harry barely reined in the urge to feed the spell a little more power, just in case.
"I'm surprised to see you willing to risk this many innocent lives."
"I suppose I'd be less inclined to do so if more than just a token few had fought with us and not left it to schoolchildren to stand up to Voldemort."
The slight flinch from the crowd at the name was expected this time. Harry ignored it.
"Might makes right, Minister. I'm simply using the Ministry tactics I learned at Hogwarts."
"Under Albus Dumbledore? I find that hard to believe." Shacklebolt's voice could be mistaken for idle curiosity. Knowing how much the Minister admired the former Headmaster, Harry was genuinely impressed. The man was smart enough to know that disapproval would do nothing, too.
They just reached Ron.
Harry gave no indication that he had heard Hermione's message, and every bit of tension and unnatural calm remained in his body. He did not even allow himself to hope, to let down his guard and fall to his own Fiendfyre or an Auror's spell.
"Under Umbridge," Harry corrected. "I still have the scars from her delightful Blood Quill as a reminder of that lesson. Under the Wizengamot, which has proven frequently that there is no problem that the right amount of influence and gold cannot solve, be it missing trials, convenient pardons, or customised laws. Don't get me started on Fudge's campaign against me, either."
Dark eyes watched him unflinchingly. "You would condemn the many on the crimes of a few? Most of which are no longer even in government?"
"Half of which are no longer in government because I killed them!" Harry's temper flared and the Horntail responded with a roar of flames.
Wands snapped back up. The crowd moved back, barely kept in check by the wards and Shacklebolt's control.
Anger gone as fast as it had arrived, Harry stared defiantly at Shacklebolt. "You're wondering if the Ministry wards can end my spell before it ends you."
"The thought crossed my mind," the man readily admitted. "I decided the consequences of failure were too big to risk."
"For now," Shacklebolt agreed. It remained unspoken that should Harry prove a little too mercurial, that choice might very well change.
Harry nodded, accepting that. "I don't have any wizarding sentimentalities, Minister. I will end as many bloodlines as it takes. This is what I will do for Ron. I would do the same for Hermione, or Teddy, or anyone else I call family. I don't want to be Voldemort's successor, but I will if I have to."
The crowd shuffled aside to create a path before Shacklebolt could answer. The two Aurors appeared with Ron between them. Harry didn't dare look away from the Minister, but he heard the small sound of distress from Hermione and saw Ron stumble twice out of the corner of his eye.
A small gesture from Shacklebolt stopped the two Aurors when they reached the halfway point. Hermione, by unspoken agreement, crossed the rest of the distance to Ron and clung to him, briefly and fiercely with no care for their audience. A string of magic some half a dozen spells long followed to spot and remove any attempt to track, control, or otherwise influence their friend.
Then she stepped back again, wand ready and a shield on her lips.
"You'll want to lower the Apparition restrictions," Harry commented when Shacklebolt remained silent.
The silence stretched on. Then, finally, the man nodded and Harry felt the wards ease fractionally.
A glance at Hermione and Ron and they were gone, Hermione Apparating both of them to Grimmauld.
Harry remained. For all that he wanted the Ministry to burn, he wasn't about to Apparate and leave the Fiendfyre to reign free. Not with Susan somewhere in the building. Maybe that had been an attempt to keep her colleagues safe. Maybe one day he would ask her.
He saw several of the Aurors shift; in unease or sudden impulse now that there was only him to deal with, he wasn't sure. Definitely time to leave, though.
He gripped the spell even as he held the image of Grimmauld in his mind. He would need to destroy the spell fast enough that he could Apparate before anyone could stop him, but the Horntail would fight him every step of the way.
He nodded once to Shacklebolt, grabbed the full force of the spell, and brought down every last bit of willpower he had.
The Horntail screeched, an inhuman sound of churning brimstone, and lashed out at Harry. It crumbled into cinders and was gone before it ever touched him.
He heard the Aurors move, heard shouts and the first syllables of spells, and then he was gone in a crack of Apparition. He reappeared in Grimmauld and stumbled like he always did when he was tired or distracted, and then he felt the presence of home and looked up to find Ron and Hermione clinging tightly to each other.
Hermione looked tired but unharmed, with tears trailing dark lines in the dust down her cheeks. Ron looked like he had gone three rounds with a Boggart and lost. They were still the best damn sight Harry had seen all year.
Harry had joined in on their hug before he was even aware of it, swept up in the tight, clinging embrace of raw desperation.
"I can't believe that worked," Hermione breathed. "Merlin, I can't believe that worked."
Ron's grip on them tightened fractionally. "Never doubted it for a second." If his words were a little gravelly and his voice a little unsteady, well, no one had to mention it.
Harry just remained silent and enjoyed the presence of the two of them there with him, of both of the bonds where they were supposed to be and the strain that had finally, finally eased.
His gamble had worked, but he doubted it would be as effective if he had to use it again.
To change the wizarding world he needed the Ministry to yield. To command the Ministry he needed to own a good section of it and have the Minister's ear.
The Ministry would burn. Not today. Not tomorrow. But soon. They would burn, every last one of them, because if that was the only way to keep them from ever going after Ron and Hermione again, then that was what he would do.
Burn it all, scour it to the very bedrock, and rebuild it from scratch in the ashes. If the Minister could not command the Wizengamot, then the Wizengamot would yield. By Fiendfyre, blackmail, or loyalty, he did not particularly care which.
His left hand rested by Hermione's neck, tangled in her hair. His right had a tight grip on Ron's shoulder, silent reassurance that he was there, that they had him back for good.
"They will burn," he vowed quietly. "Every single last one of them will burn for this."
Hermione's breath hitched. Then her grip tightened and she looked up to meet his gaze, stubborn and furious and defiant through bloodshot eyes and ash-grey skin.
"They will burn," she agreed.
"... Every single last one of them," Ron finished, low and hoarse. "Every single last one."
Neville was somewhere behind them, and so was the sense of George's magic, but for now all that mattered was Ron and Hermione and the bond that had finally eased.
A Dark Lord needed gold, and magic, and followers.
Maybe it was time to take up some of those thinly veiled requests to swear allegiance to him.
Epilogue: 8 years later
Minerva McGonagall leaned back in her chair in her private office with a tired sigh. The Hogwarts letters for the returning years had long since been delegated to Filius Flitwick as Deputy Headmaster. The first year letters Minerva still insisted on overseeing herself. Alone, in the quiet of her office, without the constant commentary of the many portraits in the Headmistress' office.
She liked to have an idea of her new students, to feel that little delight at every Muggle-born name – another child to introduce to the magnificence of magic, another child to see grow into their own and take on the world beyond – and to have the chance to see the addresses. Potter's case had taught them that, at least.
Now the Hogwarts letters had gone out, all but one.
Edward R. Lupin
The Guestroom by the Library
Delacour Summer Residence
She had been a little displeased at the address – what eleven-year-old child in their world would not be home on the day of their Hogwarts letter? That simply wasn't done, not on such an important day - but that was not why she had put it aside.
She had known this day would come, and even now she still wavered. It was not his werewolf father that was an issue. They had four werewolf students as well as two part-vampires and several others of mixed blood, and all of them were a delight to teach and hardly more trouble than any other student.
His godfather, though ...
Someone knocked once, sharply. The ancient door opened and Filius Flitwick stepped inside without waiting for a reply. He seemed to know exactly what he would find as he glanced at the letter on her desk, then gave her a pointed look.
"You would be a fool to deny him a place," Flitwick told her bluntly. He didn't bother to even mention Lupin's name, which removed any doubts she might have had that his visit was a coincidence. "Beauxbatons already sent him a letter. With Fleur Weasley's oldest due to start there in two years, he won't think twice about accepting."
Minerva's lips thinned. "I am surprised to hear that our esteemed French colleagues have begun to recruit their students in England."
Flitwick snorted. "Just the one. Think like a Slytherin, Minerva. He's a valuable commodity."
"He is a future student! Not a commodity!"
Flitwick made a small, dismissive gesture, clearly not caring all that much. "Student, then. A student under the protection of a Dark Lord. Lupin's presence buys you seven years of insurance. It matters less for Beauxbatons, perhaps, as Potter has no designs on anything abroad so far, but the fact remains. Potter knows it, I know it – depending on how much of a Black the boy was raised, even Lupin probably knows it."
The reminder made the words settle all the more bitterly in Minerva. She had always been proud to call Remus Lupin a Gryffindor. Nymphadora Tonks had been a Hufflepuff, but her courage and devotion had been unquestionable. A Gryffindor at heart, Minerva liked to think. In a proper world, their son should have gone to Gryffindor. Perhaps even Hufflepuff, like his mother. Instead, young Teddy Lupin was more likely to be a candidate for Slytherin ... or Ravenclaw. Her Charms Professor made no secret of his more distasteful political sympathies, after all. "Hogwarts stood against Voldemort. It shall stand against Potter, too."
"That it did," Flitwick agreed, "and Hogwarts fell, and Potter knows it. He wants Lupin to have the choice; he would have gone after Hogwarts already if he didn't. Send the letter. Hope he accepts. And if you are very fortunate, and the boy has a far, far better experience here than Potter himself did – perhaps Potter will decide in seven years that he has more pressing issues demanding his attention."
Minerva's lips curled in distaste. "And if not? Shall we bow to the whims of another Dark Lord? Would you care to take over the place as Headmaster as one of his faithful? Return the Dark Arts to the curriculum? Bring the Unforgivables back as a punishment? See those he does not approve of reduced to lesser students – those whose family lines do not already lie dead by his hand?"
Flitwick snorted. "Should we start referring to him as He-Who-Must-Also-Not-Be-Named, too? Don't make yourself the fool. He hardly wants Hogwarts as a breeding ground for a new generation of Death Eaters. He wants to see the school as grand as it is supposed to be. The school he was promised at eleven and that we failed so resoundingly to deliver."
Minerva's inner cat hissed in the back of her mind, furious with the insult to her school. Her more rational self levelled a cool look at her Deputy Headmaster.
"Hardly the fool for not trusting the word of a Dark Lord. Cursed creatures, half-mad from Dark Arts. It shall be his downfall, as with any other of their kind. Voldemort fell. Grindelwald fell. So, too, shall Potter."
"Indeed they did. To Potter and Dumbledore respectively. Who shall challenge him, then? There were two children of the Prophecy, Minerva. One reigns now as the Dark Lord of Britain. The other is his voice and will in the Wizengamot and one of his most trusted. Longbottom would swear allegiance to Voldemort's memory before he ever turned on Potter. Granger? Bones? Thomas? Weasley – any one of the family?"
Minerva did not answer. She did not need to. Potter's closest were as devoted as Voldemort's first followers had been, beyond all sense or reason. The rest – no one present that day had forgotten the sight of a wizard stripped of his magic in Diagon Alley for the attempted betrayal of Potter. The screams still appeared in Minerva's nightmares sometimes.
Potter killed, as easily and carelessly as Voldemort had done. The worst among his victims, though – those, he seemed to prefer to keep alive, subject to a number of horrifying spells that could only be a product of a Black mind. Even then, Flitwick was sympathetic to his cause. It had felt like betrayal when she had first found out. It still felt like it most days.
Flitwick's expression softened just a little, looked just a little more tired, a little more weary."We sent children to fight our wars. We expected a boy to defeat Voldemort. This is our just payment."
Too many memories of death still haunted Minerva's nightmares that she could argue too harshly against it. Not when a number of those memories were of murdered students, struck down without remorse, some of them far too young to have been fighting at all.
"The Order fought. We tried, Filius!"
"We did," he agreed, "and in the end it wasn't enough. A number of the former students two years above and below him make no secret of their loyalties. A far greater number is at least sympathetic to his cause, for any number of reasons. And, as insidious as Voldemort at his most compelling, those convictions spread. Ten years at the most, and you will see the first of his faithful apply as a teacher here. The Wizengamot is either loyal, bought, terrorized into obedience, or simply dead. Only Shacklebolt's decision to purge the Ministry of unsavoury elements himself before Potter could take steps to do so has kept it from falling as deeply under his control as the Wizengamot has. Susan Bones is in line to become Head Auror eventually – the same Susan Bones who proclaimed her loyalty to Potter in the Wizengamot – and no one is foolish enough to argue, because she is an excellent Auror, and her presence might very well bring them under Potter's protection, too. Only Hogwarts remains untouched. Ten years, and the first of the Longbottom brood will reach Hogwarts age. If Potter doesn't act, Longbottom might very well do so himself, and with his Lord's blessings."
Another letter like Lupin's, Minerva knew. Another decision to make a decade down the line – far closer than it sounded, that – and for a number of the years that would follow. Alice Longbottom would simply be the first in a long line of problematic students and unlike Lupin, Beauxbatons was unlikely to be an acceptable alternative to her or her family.
Some days she was thankful Albus had not lived to see it. Some days she wondered how different it would have been, if Potter had not been the strongest of their kind left standing. If he had not survived his second Killing Curse.
Flitwick hesitated. "He's more Grindelwald than Voldemort. That is all we can ask for. Send the letter. Hope the boy accepts."
Minerva looked at the address one last time. Then she summoned the post owl that had been waiting on the top of a bookcase and gave it the letter.
"Edward Lupin," she told it. "He is in France. Rest before you return."
A bob of the head and a powerful stroke of wings and the owl was gone, through the open window and into the bright sky beyond.
Perhaps in seven years the world would be different. Until then she would treat Lupin like any other student. Not as Potter's godson, not as the son of one of her favourite students, but simply another student.
If he was anything like his godfather, he would probably appreciate that kindness.