It was one of those things you didn't really expect until it was already going on, but there was an enormous amount of sorting out that had to be done after a dramatic sort of event like the one that had just happened.
Quite apart from how many people had been hurt, some seriously (though fortunately Madam Pomfrey had escaped injury, so she was able to get to work sorting out problems) and a quite staggering amount of arrests, there were also more specific and intractable questions.
One of them was what, exactly, to do with the dragon that Voldemort had been possessing. The dragon was clearly not responsible for what had happened, being as near as feasible to an Imperius Victim without actually having had the Imperius Curse placed on him, but at the same time there was a lot of leeriness among the members of the various groups present about who had jurisdiction.
Nora said at first that the dragon was a very naughty dragon, until Harry explained to her what had happened, and then she clapped her paws over her muzzle and said that it was terrible and that they'd better not be planning on punishing him because he was innocent.
Meanwhile, the Department of Magical Law Enforcement representatives had been talking about the dragon being a witness, and the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures were asking whether he fell under the remit of the Being Division and the Beast Division, and Charlie Weasley had just turned up and asked everyone whether he qualified as an immigrant when Dumbledore asked Harry if it would be possible to have a word.
Ten minutes later, there was a meeting in an office which – by the things on the walls, and the ground floor location, and a few other clues like the fact he'd been there once – Harry knew was the one assigned to Firenze.
"Were we having this meeting in my office, I would offer you all tea," Dumbledore said. "Or at least, as many of you as are present. Harry, would you be able to offer my apologies to Empress that I cannot offer to her the tea we are not having?"
Harry mumbled that to himself for a moment to make sure he followed, then looked at a copy of Dragonsong he'd made for Firenze a month or so ago and repeated what Dumbledore had said.
"That's quite all right," Empress said. "Though I will look forward to a chance to try it in the future."
"I wonder what Firenze has for drinks, then," Sirius said, looking around. "He must have something."
"As it happens, Black, my colleague prefers watered wine," Professor Snape told him. "His taste in vintages is a little different from mine, however."
"I did not know you were a wine snob," Sirius declared, sounding delighted. "Maybe I should come around your house some time with some of the wine from the Black family cellar. Some of it's six hundred years old, it'd drive my mother up the ceiling to know I was doing that."
Professor Snape chuckled slightly. "I think it all depends how you present it, Black. If you said you were visiting the head of Slytherin House after the Dark Lord's return she might actually be confused enough to approve."
"I must confess, I'm not following most of what they're saying," Empress said. "Should I be?"
"I think it's just banter or something," Harry replied.
"As I was saying," Dumbledore said. "Since we are unable to use my office, I cannot offer tea."
He sat back. "In fact, I dare say that nobody will ever be able to use that office again, at least until so much has been reinstalled that we cannot truly say it is the same office. At the moment it has approximately one wall and a quarter of the ceiling, and the furnishings are a little bit exploded; a number of portraits will need to be repainted, though fortunately all of their inhabitants appear to have successfully escaped, and I dare say that the Sorting Hat needs the attention of a milliner."
"What does that mean for the Alchemy course work, Professor?" Harry asked. "Has that been marked yet?"
"You've been spending too much time with Hermione," Sirius told him.
Professor Snape sneered, quite impressively. Harry wondered if he was a natural or if that had been something he'd worked on deliberately. "It's a work ethic, Black."
"Oh, one of those," Sirius said, wonderingly. "I never knew what it was like to see one of those."
"More banter?" Empress checked, sounding amused.
Harry thought there was an underlay of worry, there, but decided not to bring it up.
"Ah, to see young men at play," Dumbledore said, with a reminiscent sigh, and both Sirius and Professor Snape looked deeply disturbed at the prospect. "I believe, however, that we should discuss the matter of Voldemort."
He indicated Professor Snape. "If you would be so kind, Severus?"
Professor Snape rolled up his arm with what seemed to be somewhere between neutral grace and bad grace, revealing a patch of slightly discoloured skin. "It's fainter now than it was even fifteen minutes ago."
"That's the Dark Mark, right?" Sirius checked. "...hah! Severus has got a Dark Mark! Someone owes me three Sickles."
"Who does?" Harry asked.
"Can't remember, but there must be someone…"
"Around a minute before the attack took place, Severus happened to notice that his Dark Mark had become particularly dark and well defined," Dumbledore informed them, and Harry started quietly translating for Empress. "There had been slight increases over the last year, but they had been slow enough that he and I simply thought it was Voldemort recovering his strength enough to try and return again – and that it would take him as long this time as it took last time."
He shook his head. "I believe it would be redundant to say it, but as it transpires that was not correct."
"So what happened then, Professor?" Harry asked.
"Severus was aware that I was alone in my office, and so he sent me a Patronus with the information," Dumbledore said. "I would say that it helped quite a lot in letting me know what was happening, though I must confess that I was a little startled when everything exploded around me, and once I had picked myself out of the rubble I decided the best way I would be able to help was to gain the assistance of our friend Empress."
He paused. "Harry, I fear I must beg your forgiveness. You see, while I did not have time to ask you for the loan of your Invisibility Cloak, I nevertheless did take something from your hoard and I know that that is tremendously impolite."
Harry thought about that.
There was a sort of no-that's-wrong reaction which came first, but really it was quite obvious to see that Dumbledore had had the best of intentions.
And, far more importantly, he'd done it to save all of Harry's friends. Who were much more valuable than anything he owned, even an Invisibility Cloak.
Dumbledore went on for a bit longer, explaining how he had fortunately known enough Dragonish to send a message asking for help to Empress via Patronus, and then had been able to fasten the Invisibility Cloak in place with spellwork and the assistance of Fawkes.
Harry supposed that it made some sense that if anything would be immune to the deadly gaze of a Basilisk it would be Fawkes.
"Here, however, my path diverged from our serpentine friend," Dumbledore went on. "I believe Empress should be able to give some more of an explanation?"
Harry translated that, and the Basilisk agreed.
"It was the first time I'd been out in decades in daylight," she told Harry, and by extension the others, with the occasional pause so Harry could translate properly. "The Headmaster hadn't told me much, but between what he had said and what Harry had told me I was able to work out who the school students were – and that obviously made it a lot easier to tell who I should be defending the school from."
There was a sort of slithering sound. "Though I did not exactly get very involved in the fighting at first. The largest confrontation I was involved in was when someone was fighting a small snake."
"How small is small?" Harry asked, wanting to make sure he knew to relay it.
"Around one rod long, and a span around," Empress told him, and Harry relayed that.
"A rod is about fifteen feet," Dumbledore supplied. "And a span…"
He spread his own long fingers. "About from my little finger's tip to the tip of my thumb, I think."
That didn't seem like a small snake to Harry, but he supposed that next to Empress every other snake was small.
"What happened to the snake?" Professor Snape asked, and Harry translated that back as well.
"The boy it was fighting sent it flying," Empress answered. "I could see he was in danger, as it had nearly bitten him. So I ate it."
Dumbledore was looking thoughtful, but shook his head when Harry glanced up at him.
"A thought for another time, perhaps, or not at all," Dumbledore explained. "And then you went straight to the front of the school?"
Empress confirmed that, and Dumbledore sat back and nodded.
"Thank you, Empress," he told her. "As for myself, a little of the time after we parted company was taken up with explaining to Mr. Creevey what he had found, and then a little more of the time with lending my own – I would humbly say – not inconsiderable talents to the defeat of Rabastan Lestrange, though Mr. Creevey was quite important."
Harry raised his paw. "Is this Colin or Dennis?" he asked. "What happened?"
"Colin," Dumbledore clarified. "And, as it happens, Mr. Creevey had been taking a letter to the Owlery at the time and the Sorting Hat landed squarely upon his head, and to bring a long story to a short conclusion it seems that we have received confirmation on where the Sword of Gryffindor has been hiding all these years."
Harry straightened slightly, impressed, then remembered to translate for Empress.
"What are the Goblins going to think?" Sirius said.
"I believe that depends on who tells them," Dumbledore replied. "Since I am sure they would appreciate being told as soon as possible, it is next on my list of things to do right after this meeting. I am sure we will be able to work out an amicable solution."
"Speaking of which, Professor," Harry began, almost thinking out loud. "I know we had to talk about things which are mostly secret, like how Voldemort came back and about Horcruxes, but is there anything else to talk about in this meeting? I want to make sure because I haven't even had a chance to check on my friends yet."
"I do apologize for keeping you," Dumbledore said. "I am sure that much of the next few weeks will be taken up with the events of the last hour or so, and I do not want to keep you any more than would be necessary or at least highly useful."
He stroked down his beard. "On reflection, I think it likely that either Tom was carrying his final Horcrux on his person, or he was incarnated into the poor unfortunate dragon now on the Quidditch pitch before the destruction of Hufflepuff's Cup, or – quite possibly – he had somehow worked out how to make a living creature into his Horcrux, and selected a snake. Such a large specimen as Empress describes would appeal to his status as Slytherin's heir, after all."
"Really, you'd think if he was a true Slytherin's Heir, he'd have been more sensible about the whole thing," Sirius observed. "He could have just put one in a pebble and thrown it into the sea."
"I think the sensible thing to do would be to not have a Horcrux at all," Professor Snape retorted. "But, for your information, Black, the Dark Lord was never particularly sensible. It is quite possible to be very cunning indeed and yet not sensible at all, and I do not require it for those in my House."
Harry was having to talk quite quickly to keep up the translation, and speak quite loudly over an increasing amount of serpentine hissing coming down the mirror which was taking more and more of an air of snigger.
"Why not?" Sirius asked.
"I would prefer a House which is not bereft of members," Professor Snape replied. "Surely you remember being eleven years old, Black? Very few eleven year olds are in any meaning of the word sensible."
"I don't think Sirius has ever become sensible," Harry volunteered. "Or if he did, he'd be horrified."
"You are correct, Harry, that there is something else which I would like us to talk about," Dumbledore said, then. "It is the matter of Empress herself."
He gestured towards the mirror. "While I had hoped that Empress would not need to be revealed in any way until Wizarding Britain was ready, I believe the circumstances of her revelation make it possible we will be able to argue that she is quite safe. Quite apart from anything else the only things she has actually done that anyone has seen in the last several decades are to bite Voldemort very hard indeed and eat a small snake working for Voldemort."
"About that, Professor," Harry said. "I remember we were talking about finding ways to make sure people would be safe around her? Because in my Runes practical coursework I came up with a rune sequence which amplifies light, and if you reverse it then it blocks light. So we could use that to make sure she's safe, or… safer, at least."
The three older wizards, and the serpent on the other end of the connection, contemplated that.
"So… there would be just two black holes instead of eyes," Sirius said, then brightened. "Actually, that sounds like an excellent opportunity."
"Do tell," Professor Snape asked, in a way that made it clear he didn't want Sirius to do so.
"Giant googly eye glasses," Sirius explained. "Nobody can be horrified by googly eye glasses."
When Harry emerged from the office meeting, he was immediately accosted by a reporter from the Daily Prophet.
Harry thought it was a little hard to understand why, in an odd sort of way. So many people had descended on Hogwarts that it felt like there were more wizards here than wizards who weren't here, at least from Britain, and there were plenty of wizards who weren't even from Britain at all showing up.
He supposed that it was the sort of thing that went in newspapers, though, so it made sense in that way.
Harry did his best to explain the fighting that had happened, or as much of it as he could without either giving away the sort of thing it'd be best not to give away (like the existence of Horcruxes, which were so horrible that it was best not to give people ideas) or, just as importantly, bragging too much. He was well aware that he'd done some things which were really quite amazing, when you stepped back and looked at them – he'd had an enormous battle in the sky with Dragon Voldemort and won, after all, including beating Voldemort at least twice in head-on clashes of willpower and magic – but he didn't want to overdo it.
After about fifteen minutes, though, Ron came to get hold of him, and managed to rescue him quite effectively by saying that he'd heard that nobody had any idea what Mr. Nott Senior had been turned into, and it might be a new species.
"Nice one," Harry said, as he loped up the stairs towards the Gryffindor Common Room – it had apparently escaped, and right now Harry wanted nothing more than to talk with his friends and reassure himself they were all still there. "Where did you get that idea from?"
"Well, nobody has any idea what Theo Nott's dad got turned into," Ron explained, as they went past the third floor. "It's got magic resistance, too, and the eyes aren't the weak point, so until they can work out how to reverse it he's stuck that way. Apparently he tried to curse Luna and, well, Luna was Luna to him."
Harry had to admit that that produced a wince on behalf of Nott Senior. Luna was a good friend, and about as accepting a person as you could meet (and when you could meet Hagrid that said a lot) but he'd never been entirely sure whether the creatures she talked about were real, fictional, used-to-be-real (like Rocs) or if she was describing animals which hadn't come into existence yet but were going to at some point in the future.
It wasn't like there was no precedent for that last one.
"I know a lot of people got hurt," Harry said, then. "Who was worst?"
"We think someone in fifth year died," Ron told him, sounding much more solemn now – Harry had the feeling he'd been trying not to focus on it before. "One of the Gryffindors, anyway, first thing Hermione did was a head count and check with the hospital wing. We knew you were okay because everyone had seen you after the end of the fighting, but unless Tom Crivens shows up soon I think we're just going to have to assume."
Ron swallowed. "And – my griffin," he went on, then shook his head. "It's stupid, I know, because – someone I've been nodding at for years and occasionally talked Quidditch with might be dead, but I'm still more choked up about…"
Harry slowed, and stretched out a wing to rest on his friend's tall shoulders. Not in a proper embrace, but enough to let Ron know he was there. "Grief is a funny thing," he told his friend. "What happened with my parents didn't really hit me for years, not until I visited their graves, and then I needed to be alone for a while. And I think you shouldn't be guilty about how you feel, because that's your responsibility and for you to deal with and you can't control feelings. It's about what you say."
Ron stopped, nodded, and they stood there together for a minute until – by mutual agreement – they started climbing again.
When they reached the Gryffindor Common Room, everyone there gave both Harry and Ron three rousing cheers, which left Harry feeling a bit embarrassed.
It seemed like everyone who was in fifth, sixth or seventh year was being asked about what had happened, or talking about what had happened, except for Colin who was too busy telling his younger brother Dennis how reckless Dennis had been and how he could have been seriously hurt.
Apparently they'd both been in the Owlery, and Colin had told Dennis to get down to the dungeons, but Dennis had waited until Colin was out of sight and then Summoned his camera from Gryffindor tower. He'd been in the Owlery for the entire battle, and had got more than a dozen photos of the battle in the sky, and while he hadn't developed any yet Colin's scolding wasn't getting much traction compared to the much larger group of people who wanted to know exactly what Dennis had seen and what the photos were going to look like.
Then again, the fact that Colin was sort of awkwardly holding the jewel-encrusted Sword of Gryffindor in one hand – and had apparently used it to fight a Dementor at one point, after a Patronus Charm had hit it or something – was also making Colin's argument a bit weaker.
"It sounds like a lot happened," Harry said. "It felt like I was doing a lot of things at once, so I suppose everyone was doing a lot of things at once."
"It did not feel like however long it was," Ron agreed. "I'm surprised it's not tomorrow with how much has happened."
He snapped his fingers. "Oh, yeah, what was it… right, Professor McGonagall said that what happened in the fighting is going to be considered for the Defence NEWT, and if they still need to examine anyone they'll give at least a week's warning. So we don't need to go downstairs and wait until that curse making it so Professor Tofty only speaks Ikung wears off, or whatever."
Harry caught sight of Neville and the others, then, waving from their table, and went over to sit down. It turned into more of a slump onto his sofa, because Harry was a bit more mentally tired than he'd thought.
"...so, who's going to go first?" Dean asked, after a few seconds of slightly awkward silence.
"You," Harry said promptly, thinking of a recurring joke from a book series he'd read once.
Dean sniggered slightly, holding up his hand. "Okay, yeah, that's fair, I walked into that… well, I actually didn't do all that much."
"I propose we all take it as read that we're saying how we didn't do much," Neville suggested. "Or otherwise all of us are going to be talking down what we did."
"Right," Dean said. "Good point. Anyway, um, for the first half of it – I think it was the first half of it – I was casting some shielding spells, and then throwing some curses."
He paused. "You know, it's kind of helpful that they attacked when I'd been memorizing all of those shield spells and stuff."
"It probably didn't help Hermione, though," Harry guessed. "I have real difficulty imagining her not knowing all of the spells she's ever run into."
Hermione shook her head. "No, I'm pretty sure I've forgotten spells in the past."
"Like what?" Harry challenged.
"...well, obviously I don't remember," Hermione said, frowning, then rolled her eyes. "Prat."
"Should I get my Remembrall?" Neville asked.
"Nah, I kind of want to hear this," Ron said. "I'm pretty sure I saw your Patronus at one point?"
"Yeah, I cast it a couple of times," Dean answered. "First after Harry did that thing with his Patronus, then again later… um, I got into a duel with someone at one point. Really posh sounding guy, kept saying I wasn't meant to be English and wasn't meant to be a wizard, but I didn't actually know him."
Ron clicked his tongue. "Did he still think you weren't meant to be a wizard by the end of the battle?"
"Not sure," Dean admitted. "I eventually caught him with a Stunning spell and that got him out of the fight."
"There is that spell that lets you revive people who are stunned," Harry said. "Any idea why the other Death Eaters didn't wake him up?"
"I think I saw them try at one point," Dean answered, thinking. "I might have stunned him a bit hard though, because it didn't work the first time. Or maybe it was that he went flying backwards into a troll, that could have knocked him out in the normal way… but after that is when Ollie got hurt, and I went over to keep him and the other dragons as safe as I could."
He snapped his fingers. "Hang on. Did anyone see that thing Nora did?"
"What, breathe fire at Voldemort?" Ron checked.
"No, I mean, the other thing," Dean answered – not that that helped much.
Harry had an idea though. "She shouted at someone to get away from Sally, after Sally got hurt, and then he went flying."
"So that's what she was saying," Dean nodded.
"Do you realize what that means?" Hermione asked. "That's Accidental Magic, or, it's almost certainly Accidental Magic. That's amazing."
She paused. "Or. Actually, a lot of that sort of thing happened today. It's one of those days."
"It's one of those years," Harry corrected her. "Ron walked on the moon earlier this year."
"...bloody hell, I'd actually forgotten that," Ron said. "Exam stress or just general stress, you decide…"
"We're all mad," Dean summarized. "Though Luna, she's extra mad."
Hermione giggled. "You don't want to go among sane people."
Harry got asked a few questions about the battle in the sky, and he explained as much as he could – some of the things that happened had been things which he just had to say had made sense at the time, or he'd just reacted to them when they happened without properly understanding it, like the golden wand link which was probably because of the shared wand cores but Harry didn't actually know for certain.
When he got to the bit where Empress had appeared, Harry paused.
"I'm not sure if I need to tell you about her appearing," he said. "It was sort of obvious."
"What I want to know is why, um, she didn't instantly kill anyone," Ron pointed out. "How do you know the basilisk is a she?"
"She could obviously talk," Hermione replied. "I think Dragonish must be related to Parseltongue, it sounds the same. Even normal snakes are supposed to be able to talk, and I heard her say no before she bit Volderagon."
She frowned. "Dragonmort? The Dark Dragon? I'm not sure what name is best."
"Well, the dragon's probably going to have a name of its own," Harry said. "But that's different to Tom Riddle, or Voldemort, which was the person possessing it."
"Anyway, male basilisks have a big red crest, and she didn't," Hermione resumed. "I know that's in Fantastic Beasts."
"Which I haven't touched in years," Ron retaliated. "Except to look up how you fight a Nundu in case it came up in Defence… which it didn't, but that's a good thing, because I'm not sure what the answer is."
"Don't," Dean supplied. "Or, preferably, do it from the back of a dragon. Or be a dragon if you can manage it, which a surprisingly large number of wizards actually can."
Harry supposed two was surprising enough.
"I actually did miss that bit," Neville volunteered. "I got kind of separated from everyone else, and I got in a fight with Bellatrix Lestrange."
"How did it go?" Dean asked. "I mean, um, obviously you didn't die or anything, and probably won, but…?"
"Well, I think she wanted to fight me," Neville supplied. "She kept talking about my parents. She sounded kind of crazy, actually… but she wasn't ready for me to know counterspells for a lot of her best spells, and she wasn't ready for Lapcat, and she really wasn't ready for Panthera."
He turned his attention to Harry. "Seriously, she tried some nasty curses, but if I managed to get Panthera in the way it would just… stop the curse. Straight away. Even something I think was a rusting curse and one which threw a lightning bolt at me. And I was able to cut her wand in half, then stun her, and that's about when I got attacked by a giant snake."
"You got attacked by the basilisk?" Ron demanded. "And you're still alive?"
"No, a smaller giant snake, the basilisk ate the giant snake," Neville said. "Um… okay, yeah, that was really confusing of me to say. Sorry."
"Normally this sort of thing just doesn't come up," Harry reassured him. "I don't think most people are used to it."
Neville said about how he'd been fighting the small giant snake, and he'd had Panthera knocked out of his hand early in the fight. The small giant snake – Harry decided that the medium snake would be the best way to think of it – had been a lot smarter than Neville had been expecting, and had kept trying to bite him but also trying to trip him up, and had been paying enough attention to where his wand was pointing to get out of the way of a lot of the spells he'd tried.
Then Neville had used an off-handed Blasting Curse to knock the medium snake away as he dove towards Panthera, and that was the moment when Empress had eaten it in two bites.
As Neville was talking, though, Harry thought a lot about why it was that he'd been keeping Empress secret.
It had always been because they were worried that Voldemort might find out, and also about the public reaction until they could reassure everyone that she was safe. But now…
"I want to admit something," he said, once Neville had finished saying how he'd used a Tongue-Tying Curse on Bellatrix and then the Body-Bind Curse as well so that she couldn't get away, and she couldn't cause problems. (He said that if she could escape with no wand, no ability to say a spell and her hands firmly fixed to her side, then she almost deserved it.)
That led all four of the others to look at him.
"I've known about the basilisk for years," he explained. "I found out about her by accident, but Professor Dumbledore and I kept her secret so that Voldemort wouldn't know that we knew about her."
"So that's how you knew she was female," Dean said, frowning. It didn't look like he was angry, though, just thinking hard.
"You could have told us, mate," Ron said, sounding a bit hurt.
"It was because… well, it's hard to keep a secret," Harry replied, thinking about the ones he still had. "And I trust you all, but the more that people know about it the more people are likely to talk about it. And… well, I didn't want to worry you, either."
"The map," Dean said, snapping his fingers. "That's how you found out, isn't it?"
Harry nodded. "That's right. I saw her name on the map, and I didn't work it out then, but I saw that she kept going near that room where the dragons sleep. Back then it was just Nora sleeping there, and I left a mirror there, and I found out that she was teaching Nora how to speak Dragonish in her sleep."
"Professor Dumbledore knew about her, right?" Hermione asked. "How did you know she wasn't, well… doing what You Know Who wanted?"
"It's a bit complicated," Harry admitted. "A lot of this happened years ago. But a big part of it is that she was just… teaching the dragons to speak."
He shook his head. "What I'm wondering about, though, is what you and Ron were doing."
"They were pretty amazing," Dean said. "I thought so, anyway."
"Well, it wasn't…" Hermione began, her ears turning a bit pink.
"Remember what I said," Neville warned.
"Um, right," Hermione frowned. "So… we were in the middle of the fighting for a lot of it, and Ron was really good at getting spells into the right place to keep people safe. And if someone aimed at him he would just turn into Nutkin and back, and because he's so small like that it was just about inevitable that there'd be somewhere where the spell wouldn't hit him…"
Ron shook his head. "You're missing the good bits," he said. "You knocked that Amycus Carrow over with your tail, and then there was that spell you hit… whatsisname, with, the one where everything he said came out backwards."
"It's one I found when I was researching Arithmancy," Hermione defended herself. "It's not that impressive, it just meant that when he was trying to communicate it put the words backwards. It's a tricky one because there isn't a proper countercurse except doing it again, and without that it's really tricky to undo."
She shrugged, a little awkwardly. "It was so that he couldn't just undo the spell, because I knew he was quite good at obscure magic after he nearly hit me with a Blood-Freezing Curse. But with that spell on trying to cast any spell gets messed up."
Harry tilted his head. "That must make it really difficult, then, because otherwise it would turn up all over the place. It might even be better than the Stunning Spell… except that if you just need to cast it again to reverse it then if it was easy it'd be useless."
"It is a bit difficult," Hermione said, frowning. "But I don't think it's much harder than that thing Ron did to Rudolphus Lestrange."
"That?" Ron asked. "That was just like Aguamenti, you know, the water conjuring spell. Just… a bit of a different chemical."
"I didn't actually hear about this yet," Neville said. "What chemical was it?"
"Liquid oxygen," Ron answered. "I know peroxide would have been more like water, but I panicked a bit and it was liquid oxygen I thought of when I wanted rocket fuel. It scared him though, it was kind of like a jet of exploding air or something."
Harry decided he was with Hermione on that one. That did sound impressive.
"I think we got sidetracked a bit," Ron realized. "So we all saw what happened when the basilisk appeared – actually, Harry, you know her name, what's her name?"
"Empress," he said. "But it's in Greek, so that's a translation."
"Who named her?" she asked. "That's quite a good pun."
Harry explained that it had been Salazar Slytherin, which left everyone a bit nonplussed about whether it was okay to have laughed at a joke told by a famously not-very-pleasant wizard. Then Ron coughed loudly, pointing out that they still hadn't got to what had happened with Harry in the sky after Empress had shown up, and especially that they hadn't got to the bit right at the end.
It seemed terribly easy to get distracted talking about something like this.
It felt to Harry like he spent the next few days either explaining things or listening to other people explaining things, or sometimes both at just about the same time. Hogwarts as a whole was a little bit in shock about what had happened, both about what people had done and the injuries that had happened as well as the – thankfully few, but tragically many – who had died in the fighting.
The centaur Bane had died, knocked aside by a troll and killed instantly, and Harry had never particularly agreed with the centaur but he had to admit that maybe Bane had been a better person than he'd thought. June's youngest uncle had died as well, the victim of a particularly nasty curse, and two of the younger Slytherins had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and hit by the rubble from one of the blasting curses bringing down a wall.
Hearing about that made Harry feel a complicated mix of emotions, mostly because he'd heard that Tyler and Anne had survived (and he hadn't had a chance to talk to them yet, or even see them, but it was what he'd been told) and while he felt glad about that there was that little part which was grateful that it had turned out that the Slytherins who'd died hadn't been people he knew well.
He did his best to remember the advice he'd given Ron.
Hufflepuff had escaped without more than injuries, some of them serious, but everyone who had an idea what had happened said that it could easily have been a lot worse – some of the Death Eaters had known where the Hufflepuff dorms were, and three of them plus a Dementor had tried to force their way in, but June, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail had turned at bay and kept them all safe.
One of the Death Eaters was being treated for an extremely nasty bite on his hand where he'd been convinced to let go of his wand.
For the part of the defenders, June was limping when Harry saw her next, and Cottontail had a livid scar on the side of her muzzle, but they both just said that what mattered was that they'd been successful.
"Besides," June added, holding up her paw a little gingerly. "Madam Pomfrey says that she can sort this out in half an hour, once she works out how to remove the curse. The problem is that the normal cure for something like this is silver, and I'm a warg."
Harry tilted his head. "Is silver painful for you?"
"That's something none of us have ever found out before," June answered, tongue lolling out for a moment. "I'd rather be careful how I find out."
Put that way, Harry couldn't disagree.
There still wasn't a really solid sense of whether things were going as normal at Hogwarts, that afternoon, and one reason for that was the identity of the final casualty.
Harry wasn't sure if it counted as someone being killed as part of the battle, or if there was a different word for it, but Professor Binns had been set upon by two Dementors and had not survived the experience. That meant that there was nobody actually teaching History, and since Binns had had the job for so many decades it was a bit hard to find a qualified History of Magic teacher in the British Isles.
Harry suspected that it'd be someone from the Ministry who'd take it over, and was vaguely wondering about Mr. Doge doing it or whether it would be a good thing for Aberforth to handle (as Aberforth seemed like the sort of person who'd explain what had actually happened in historical events, or even when they didn't really know) when he almost bumped into Sirius.
"There you are," said Fred, who Harry had actually bumped into. "Fancy meeting you here."
"Well, we did fancy meeting him here, George," said George. "That's why we were going down this corridor instead of the other one."
"You do know I can tell which of you is which, right?" Harry asked. "I know it's been a while since you tried that trick."
Fred tutted. "Animals," he said, in a tone of great annoyance. "It's terrible when you get people who don't have the decency to stick to normal human senses."
"You realize the Maps were made by Animagi and a werewolf, right?" Sirius asked. "And that you two are Animagi as well?"
"That's different," George asserted.
Sirius chuckled, then sobered a little.
"Bad news, Harry," he said. "Pettigrew's gone missing. He wasn't in Azkaban, and he wasn't one of the people who got captured during the battle."
"We were checking all the places which aren't on the Map," George added. "Padfoot knows all of them now, except for the ones that none of us know about. No sign of him in there either."
Harry winced. "That's… probably not great, but he's not going to be as much of a problem by himself. I hope."
"Don't we all," Sirius agreed, then muttered something under his breath.
Harry didn't quite catch it, but from what he picked up he guessed it was something to do with formally changing Peter's Marauder name from 'Wormtail' to 'Rat bastard'. Or possibly 'Cheesethief'.
"I didn't know you were reading my Redwall books," he said, to test that, and got a vaguely guilty look in reply.
"That's not the only reason we're here, though," George said. "We thought we'd mix two things into one, and come and see how the Smiths are doing."
It sounded like a good idea to Harry to accompany them, so he shrugged his wings and went ahead.
"So," Tyler began, leaning up in bed. "Funny story."
"I know a few of those," Fred said. "Is this one the one about the spotted snake?"
Harry groaned, partly because he knew the story – someone in The Wolf Worlds had told it (in a book which had surprisingly few wolves, but several worlds, so one out of two wasn't bad) but mostly just on general principle.
"No, nothing like that," Tyler replied, and raised his hand to tick things off. "Firstly, we never should have shown Madam Pomfrey how good our glamours are now."
"Yeah, tell me about it," Anne agreed, groaning. "Now she's not letting us go until we've been here a week."
"Why's that?" Harry asked, not immediately sure of the connection.
"Because after that time in third year where a firework went wrong and Anne tried to sneak out before Madam Pomfrey let her out-"
"It wasn't that bad," Anne interjected. "The fur all grew back."
"-right," Tyler agreed.
"Never should have tried the hair loss bomb under those circumstances," George reminisced. "Or any, really."
"-but now she just assumes we're trying to sneak out," Tyler resumed. "And now that our glamours are really good, she won't believe her own medical exams. It's really annoying."
"Could she get through them before?" Sirius asked. "They're impressive magic, but I didn't know it was that good."
"It didn't used to be," Anne said. "It's just, um…"
She rolled over onto her front, then blurred into her fox form.
A fox with four tails.
"Turns out standing on the Astronomy tower and shooting fireworks at a giant evil dragon counts for a lot of personal development, or something," Tyler supplied. "I'm up to five, now, which is insane, none of our grandparents have got that many…"
Anne shifted back to her full-human form in a split second. "I still think it's when you made sure I landed on you instead of the stone which got you the fifth one. That was stupid."
"Yeah, but if you're right, it wasn't stupid, and if I'm right then I got it for coming up with the idea in the first place," Tyler retorted.
It was well into the evening, around half past seven, and Harry was half-drowsing on his sofa and listening to Ron and Ginny arguing about when they should start Quidditch training – partly because they weren't sure if Quidditch was going to go ahead yet.
Hermione had the Daily Prophet open, and frowned at it before turning to Neville. "Any idea if they're likely to call witnesses for this?"
"Depends," Neville replied, taking the paper and reading through the article. "I don't think I've ever seen the Daily Prophet be this emphatic about people needing to go to prison, which is saying something."
"It's not like it could be any more of an open-and-shut case, is it?" Dean said. "Azkaban escapees who immediately join in a massive attack on Hogwarts, for most of them. And Umbridge, well, anyone who'd ever met her would want her in there too."
Harry was about to say that he couldn't dispute that when there was a loud thump at the window.
"What was that?" Neville asked, his wand appearing in his hand as if by… well, magic, which made it all the more impressive that it probably hadn't been.
Harry got up as well, ears twitching, and thought for a moment before looking in the direction he thought the sound had come from.
Vicky was hovering just outside the window, managing to look sort of awkward. She brightened a bit when Harry looked at her, and he opened the window to see what she wanted.
"Nora wants talk," she explained, then looked disappointed. "Nora wants… a talk."
"Oh, sure," Harry agreed, then glanced back. "It looks like I might be needed for something. I'm not sure if this is a dragon thing or a head boy thing, but it's for me either way."
"Go ahead," Ron agreed. "I don't think we'll be needing you unless Ginny abruptly resigns from being Seeker."
Ginny sniggered. "Now I'm half tempted to do it just to see the look on your face."
"That wouldn't make you Quidditch Captain material, though," Ron pointed out.
The quickest way for Harry to head out was to go to the nearest large window that would admit him, and once he was on the other side he took the time to close the window again before following Vicky.
She looked back a couple of times to make sure he was still following, but led him fairly directly to the Quidditch Pitch. That was still occupied by several dragons at this point, one of them the massive green-and-silver one that had been unconscious since fighting off Voldemort's possession, along with Hagrid and Charlie Weasley and a team of half-a-dozen other dragon handlers.
And Mr. Thicknesse, who was present to handle legal matters. They were all living out of tents at the moment, but as Harry could attest living out of a tent was much more pleasant for a wizard.
As he got closer, though, Harry could see that his knowledge was slightly out of date. The green-and-silver dragon was still there, but now he was awake, sitting on his haunches with his wings carefully furled and his tail wrapped around his legs.
Tangled in his legs, actually.
Harry backwinged to slow down as he got closer, and flared before landing next to Nora and Charlie and Mr. Thicknesse.
"Harry!" Nora said, brightly, then looked between him and the dragon. "He woke up about, um… five minutes ago? I think? Maybe ten. But he asked to talk to someone important, and this person over here is important but I don't really speak English and Hagrid didn't really understand. And I don't really understand. So I thought I'd send Vicky to get you!"
"That sounds like a good idea," Harry agreed, then turned to the man from the DMLE. "Mr. Thicknesse, I'm here to translate."
"That, Mr. Potter, will be an excellent help," Mr. Thicknesse said. "Mr. Weasley, if I could prevail on you to take notes?"
"I'll do my best, sir," Charlie agreed, flicking his wand towards his tent, and a spiral-bound notebook flew out to land in his hand. There was a pencil with it, and Charlie flipped the notebook open before licking the pencil tip and starting to write.
"What's his name?" he asked.
"That is an excellent question," the big dragon replied.
"Oh, you understand English?" Harry asked, making sure not to look at the dragon. "I assume you don't speak it or I'd have been a bit redundant."
"Yes," the dragon agreed. "I've lived my entire life up to this point with an extremely intelligent and terrible person in my head and ruling my body, and he spoke both English and Parseltongue."
"Dragonish," Harry replied, then looked directly at him this time. "Empress has to obey commands in Parseltongue. Therefore, we're speaking Dragonish."
That made the dragon's eyes flash, though with what Harry thought was amusement rather than annoyance.
"I almost wish he'd known that was the trick," he said. "But… well."
His wings flared, and Mr. Thicknesse looked like he wanted to take a step back.
"What are you talking about?" he asked.
"Mostly how he learned to understand English, and things like that," Harry answered. "It sounds horrible, it was because Voldemort was in his head the whole time."
"And he thought of himself as Lord Voldemort… or Tom," the dragon continued. "I have had thoughts in my head for most of my life which mean that if you said the name Tom I would probably think you meant me. But I refuse to go by one of his names."
Harry summarized that, then thought to send off a Patronus to Dumbledore to let him know what was going on.
He made sure to stress that the situation was under control, but that Dumbledore should only turn up if he felt it was needed. Then the dragon said that Dumbledore probably would be needed, and Harry added that before finally sending Ruth off.
"Richard," Charlie said, looking up from taking notes. "It's got to be Richard. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can be a dragon these days."
The dragon contemplated that for a long moment.
"He would have hated anything that suggested he was remotely common," he decided. "I like the sound of it. Richard it is."
Dumbledore arrived a minute or so later, and was introduced to the newly-named Richard, and what followed were some long and slightly complicated conversations about Richard's history and origin and what was to be done with him now.
It seemed that Harry's guess had been exactly correct. Umbridge had diverted the Horntail egg, managing to hide her involvement deeply enough that nobody who'd looked into it had been able to discover it (something which made Mr. Thicknesse extremely interested, and it took about twenty minutes just to go over how that had been done to the limits of Richard's knowledge). Then he'd been possessed by Tom's shade as soon as he hatched at the old family house of the Riddles, and Tom had used some peculiar and dark-sounding magic to force Richard to grow much faster than any dragon normally did… and to get larger, as well as shaping him to fit what the self-styled Dark Lord wanted in his body.
Every time Richard mentioned Tom's name, he made very sure to use that name Tom, and sounded quite gleeful about using the most mundane name possible. Harry supposed that the dragon had entirely understandable reasons for it.
Then they got onto what Richard was going to do. He was less than one year old, after all, even if he was quite possibly the largest dragon in the world and at least in the running for the smartest of them all. (Harry wasn't sure where he was compared to Richard, but while Nora was a precocious six-year-old at this point and more mature than her raw age would suggest it was Richard who was an outright adult as far as any conversation with him could tell.) He did make it quite emphatically clear that after being effectively worse-than-enslaved for almost the entirety of his life he was inclined to do as many things as possible that Tom would not appreciate, and that he'd be quite willing to try out being a productive member of society to see how it worked out.
Or a co-operative one, at least.
Mr. Thicknesse seemed a little nervous about that, and Harry could understand the principle behind being nervous about the future prospects of a very large dragon, but after a while it seemed as though they'd got an agreement that Richard would be staying at Hogwarts at least for now and that they'd be trying to integrate him into society in future… in some way.
It would also probably take a while for Richard to work out what he was interested in in the first place.
Then, while Mr. Thicknesse went over to compare notes about it with Charlie (and with Percy, who'd shown up about halfway through in case there was a DIMC perspective required, though how he'd found out Harry wasn't quite sure) Richard asked for a word with Dumbledore as privately as possible.
For obvious reasons, 'as privately as possible' meant that Harry was there as well, but that was about it.
"There's some bad news," Richard told them. "I didn't want to mention it because that Ministry man might be disturbed about it, and it can probably be handled quietly, but Tom had some disgusting magic which will let him come back to life. He's already done it twice."
"Oh, you mean the Horcruxes," Harry said.
Richard did a double-take, which was quite impressive given how big he was.
"If I might ask what you just said, Harry?" Dumbledore said, with a pleasant smile. "It sounds as though it was quite the surprise."
"Richard was telling me about how Tom has some dark magic that means he can come back to life after dying," Harry explained, and Dumbledore nodded – probably already understanding the whole conversation so far just from that.
"And you know all of these pieces of dark magic?" Dumbledore asked, which led to a slightly dumbfounded nod from Richard. "Let me see, now… there will be the diary, which Harry found in a collection of books he purchased in Diagon Alley and handed in to me in his second year. Then there will be the locket, which was stolen by Regulus Black at the sad cost of his own life; both were destroyed by Harry some years ago."
Richard started coughing and sputtering and laughing all at once, obviously trying to get control of himself and just as obviously having such difficulty that it was outright impossible.
"Then there was… I believe the next one may have been the ring," Dumbledore mused. "Yes, it must have been. That one, I confess, nearly had me, but fortunately Harry was able to advise me that putting on a ring carrying the soul of a dark lord is never a good idea."
"Actually, did Tom ever read those books?" Harry asked.
"What books?" Richard replied, after spending several seconds getting his amusement under control, and Harry decided the answer was probably not.
Smiling slightly, Dumbledore continued, ticking off the fourth finger on his hand. "The next one, I think, was the diadem. It seems that the House-Elves knew where that was all along. Both that one and the Ring were destroyed shortly after we found them. Then the final one we found was the Cup, which was discovered in the vault of Bellatrix Lestrange during scheduled maintenance… I believe that would have been a week or two after Tom confronted Harry in a library car park and came off decidedly second best."
Richard swallowed convulsively. "That… would have been quite possibly as little as a day or two after I was born."
A faint rumble echoed through his chest, and a massive front paw clenched on the turf of the Quidditch Pitch. "I don't blame you, but… part of me wishes you'd found it a little earlier. But I wouldn't even really be here if you had, so… I don't know what to think."
His muzzle curled in a smirk. "Except to say that Tom was very sour about you beating him, and especially that all his Death Eaters put together couldn't kill you either. He eventually decided that it was all their fault."
"I'm sorry," Harry told him, which seemed to help, then went on. "That's all the Horcruxes we knew about, but were there any others?"
"One other," Richard told him. "He found the mansion's caretaker shortly after possessing me, and that was the first test of whether he could cast magic in my body. He killed the caretaker and used him to turn his snake Nagini into a Horcrux."
"Nagini?" Dumbledore repeated, once Harry had translated that. "My word. Well, Richard, I can tell you that Nagini too was destroyed – Empress slew her on the way past to join the fighting outside and confront Tom."
"Then he is gone," Richard said, and an indefinable tension bled out of his limbs. "I was… worried. I didn't know if he could come back and take me again, after holding me for so long."
He gave both wizards a weary nod. "And… thank you."
"You did more than you know," Dumbledore assured him. "Tom Riddle was a brilliant student with an intense and dedicated mind, and I have never doubted his strength of will – to fight him off is a mighty thing to manage."
"You didn't bend, and you didn't break," Harry added. "And that means there's only one option – you were strong enough."
With Richard more-or-less decided on staying at Hogwarts until things were properly worked out, life at the school started to really return to normalcy.
That was a relative term, of course. It was still Hogwarts (and a Hogwarts where astronomy lessons had been cancelled on account of the entire Astronomy tower missing, among other things) and news was coming in from the outside world all the time.
Some of it wasn't exactly surprising, like how it was almost certain that everyone involved in the attack was going to Azkaban, and that the role of the Dementors itself was being urgently reconsidered because it obviously hadn't quite worked as intended. But then there were other things that were a bit more unexpected, to Harry at least.
One of them was that Dennis Creevey's photos had essentially all been sold to the Daily Prophet, and about a week after the attack itself they published a special edition which was stuffed full of photos and tried to explain what was going on in each one.
"Well, Potter," Draco said, dropping the edition in question in front of Harry at breakfast. "I suppose you'll be pleased to hear you're famous again."
"I am?" Harry replied, frowning. "I didn't realize I'd stopped. It's not the sort of thing you have much control over after a certain point, I think, and that point got passed before I was two years old."
Draco considered that. "Well, I'd have thought you'd be trying to do something about it. Either cultivating it, or if you're modest doing the opposite."
"I think he'd have to have paid attention to our first second year Defence teacher," Neville said. "And I don't know if you were paying attention, but I know I wasn't."
"Oh, him," Draco said, pouring an ocean of scorn into a single word. "If it wasn't for him I'd have said Umbridge was by far our worst Defence teacher, but he means there's an actual difficult choice…"
While he was talking, Ron picked up the Daily Prophet copy.
"Merlin's duodenum," he said. "What's that?"
Harry looked over, and saw that the picture Ron was looking at was one with a shimmering cage of light forming around Harry and Voldemort.
It was always a bit interesting to see how a wizarding photo would come out. In this case, it was showing the process of the spells colliding and the cage forming, weaving together until it hid them entirely, then flaring and vanishing only for the two dragons to come closer together again.
"That's the weird wand effect thing I told you about," Harry supplied, then pointed. "And that's the one where Tanisis managed to use her wings to block a really nasty curse."
"I suppose it's a good thing that Creevey Junior was too busy taking photos of what was going on in the sky to show what was going on on the ground," Blaise said, insinuating himself into the conversation with a smirk. "Otherwise there might be photos of Draco fighting against Death Eaters, and what would his relatives say?"
"My father isn't involved in that sort of politics," Draco said. "I can't speak for my aunt, but as it happens my parents were in a Gringotts meeting during the attack."
"Oh, I've heard about that," Blaise agreed. "That's one of those special retroactive meetings Gringotts set up if you pay them enough, isn't it?"
"Please," Draco drawled. "Not in front of the Gryffindors. They might notice."
Harry spent quite a lot of his time working on an extremely large pair of modified swimming goggles, which were going to have an enchantment on them (to reduce the brightness of light going through them) and also to be made as Unbreakable as possible, and finally to attach themselves at a single word (in Dragonish) and stick on as firmly as possible such that they could only be removed when Empress was about to shed and would necessarily have to remove them.
That was all the Charms work, which Professors Dumbledore and Flitwick were collaborating on and which Harry was mostly involved in because he needed to know about it. The Runes work was what Harry was working on, and he was doing the runic sequence he'd determined during his coursework – arranged so that Empress would be able to see, but that nobody else would be able to see Empress' eyes.
Really, making sure everything was properly lined up like that was terribly complicated.
While that was going on, the newspapers were absolutely full of the fallout from the Hogwarts attack and the impact it was having – mostly politically, but in other ways as well. More than one person who'd previously been quite vocally dubious about the expanded Hogwarts attendance in recent years had completely changed their tune – or, as Dean put it, had 'shut the hell up' – and Madam Bones was reportedly sweeping through the DMLE and the DRCMC with the full backing of Minister Fudge, who wanted anyone involved in the shocking attack to be found and removed from their position of responsibility as soon as possible.
At the same time, there were rumours that the first thing Madam Bones had asked once the dust began to settle was whether Aberforth Dumbledore was all right, which might just have been rumours but also had Harry wondering if she'd been Transfigured into a goat at some point.
"Oh, wow, didn't expect that," Neville said. "Apparently Dumbledore and the head goblin at Gringotts worked out a deal with the Sword of Gryffindor."
He held up the latest Prophet for the others to see.
"What's a peppercorn payment?" Ron asked. "Is someone getting paid in spices?"
"I think I've heard of it," Harry said, frowning. "It's something about paying a very small amount, isn't it?"
He glanced at Hermione, who had the largest vocabulary of them all, and the witch nodded.
"So to keep up with goblin law, they're paying the goblins so Hogwarts can keep the sword, but it's not much," Neville summarized. "And it seems like it's rotating to Gringotts for a few months a year."
That sounded like a reasonable compromise to Harry, though he supposed it was Dumbledore and Wickraw whose opinions actually mattered.
The return of Quidditch – not that it had ever really gone away – was quite an event during the Summer Term, and the first game of the finals saw Slytherin beat Hufflepuff by more than two hundred points.
For a lot of the afternoon it had been a nice close game, with the score swinging back and forth, and Slytherin had just started to pull away when Malfoy had to take the Snitch to prevent Summerby getting it – they'd almost certainly have preferred to score more points before taking the Snitch, to make their lead as strong as possible, but that was the tactical side of going for the Snitch for you.
Then the final game of the year was Ravenclaw against Gryffindor, hotly anticipated – depending on the results of the game Slytherin, Ravenclaw or Gryffindor could take the cup – and looking at the crowd Harry didn't think there was a single person left in Hogwarts.
Except for Mr. Filch, the caretaker, but then again Mr. Filch hadn't been to a Quidditch game ever before and he didn't seem like starting now.
Harry might have been slightly biased, but he thought that Gryffindor played a blinder of a game. They didn't have it all their own way, but they scored at least three goals for every two of Ravenclaw, and while there was bright sunlight in the air Melody didn't seem to care at all – at times it seemed as though the Ravenclaw Chasers could barely move without being hit by a Bludger.
Ginny capped the game off with one of her trademark screaming dives, and this time it worked out perfectly – she snagged the Snitch out of the air at just the right time, scoring a hundred and fifty points to give Gryffindor the win in both the game and the cup as a whole.
Dean unrolled a banner as everyone began celebrating, something he'd been working on for days, and seven lions gambolled across a grassy field to grab the trophy – with the leading lioness taking it first, then throwing it into the air for the big lion in the centre of the pride to catch.
There were probably other bits of symbolism as well, but Harry wasn't quite bothered enough to spot them… at least, not when there were other perfectly good ways to celebrate.
Right near the end of the strange, liminal period where their lessons at school were over but their time at school wasn't – which was even stranger than usual this year, of course – a letter arrived for Harry at lunch, in a thick envelope carried by a sleek black owl.
Other sleek black owls and thick envelopes were arriving all over the hall, as well as similar envelopes carried by browner owls, and a quite annoyed Hedwig who gave the owl that had delivered to Harry a sharp glare.
The other owl was determinedly unruffled, and took off before rising with a stately spiral.
"Wonder what these are," Dean said, taking his and contemplating it for a moment. "Alohomora."
The envelope opened with a twik and a flash of blue light, and Dean unfolded the parchment inside.
"…bloody buggering hell," he said, faintly.
"Dean!" Hermione hissed, halfway through opening her own letter. "Not in front of the First-Years!"
"You haven't seen what's in this envelope," Dean countered.
Harry quickly ripped his own envelope open, very curious now, and unfolded the parchment.
It had a date on it, and a calm formal announcement that he (Harry James Potter) was cordially requested to attend a presentation by the Minister of Magic to be held on Monday the Sixth of July, to receive his Order of Merlin, First Class.
A second piece of parchment added that his Order of Merlin was for great feats of magic and bravery in the defence of Hogwarts Castle, and for the defeat of the Dark Lord.
"An Order of Merlin," Ron said, and Harry looked up to see that his friend had gone vaguely green. "I didn't think…"
"How many people just got them?" Neville asked, looking around the hall. "There were, what, three dozen owls? Are those all for Orders of Merlin?"
"Probably," Hermione answered.
She sounded a little bit distracted, as far as Harry could tell.
Then Luna leaned over Harry's wing shoulder, inspecting his parchment.
"You got a first class one," she said, lightly. "I got a third class one, but I think that's the best sort anyway."
"Why's that?" Harry replied.
Luna smiled. "It's like how they used to call ships first rate, second rate, third rate and so on, because second rate ships were actually a bit big to be useful sometimes. Third rates were the best all-round ones, and under the right circumstances a fifth rate was just what you'd need. But then again, it's exactly the sort of thing you need to keep in mind when you're calling someone first-rate."
Harry nodded. "That makes sense," he said. "So you'd need to avoid using it in case it offends someone?"
"Oh, no, that wouldn't be any fun at all," Luna assured him. "For example, I'd say we have a first-rate Minister for Magic right now."
"What I'm worried about is inflation," Dean commented, sounding like he'd recovered his aplomb slightly. "You know, it takes three Orders of Merlin to get a cup of tea, that kind of thing."
"I don't think that even begins to make sense," Ron protested.
"Well, then, making a cup of tea wins you three Orders of Merlin," Dean corrected himself. "I don't know, I'm the ideas crow. You figure it out."
"What about if they make new levels of the Order of Merlin?" Harry suggested. "New levels above First Class, I mean. And then they get very annoyed that they went three-two-one, because now they need to have the Order of Merlin, Zeroth Class."
Hermione brightened. "Oh, so the Order of Merlin, Third Class, is for keeping yourself safe, the Second Class is for doing what you're told, the First Class is for preserving human life and the Zeroth Class is for saving the human race?"
"...nobody else?" Hermione asked, sounding a bit put-out.
"I don't think they have the foundation to find it funny," Harry told her, which made her snort.
Then start pointing out how I, Robot was a different series to Foundation, but they were by the same author so Harry thought it was good enough.
Eventually, Harry's time as a Hogwarts student came to an end.
It had been the most productive and most interesting almost-seven-years of his life, and at the same time it seemed in a peculiar way to have taken much less time than it should have done. He could still remember being an eager young dragon on the train, first meeting his friends, and bonding with them over the trials and tribulations of finding an escaped toad.
Almost all of the last few days of school was taken up with saying hello goodbye or giving well-wishes to people all throughout the school, from First-Years who Harry had only met this year (and sometimes given detentions to) right up to people who he'd known well for years on end. In the case of Nora he'd known her almost literally for her entire life, and she extracted a promise to visit as often as he could, because dragons who could talk had to stick together; with everyone else Harry ended up with a whole book full of addresses, advising him to stay in touch or drop around if he got the chance, and wore out two rolls of film taking photos of categories of people. Gryffindor Seventh Years, Prefects, Unusually Shaped Students… the list went on, and it touched Harry's heart to see how many people clearly had nothing but good things to say about him.
It wasn't anything like that first day had been, either. Everyone who spoke to Harry knew him not as the Boy Who Lived And Was For Some Reason A Dragon, but as Harry – and that was a precious thing.
All too soon, though, everything was packed up. Some last minute rune work led to a pair of enormous swimming goggles being delivered to Dumbledore, so that Empress would get the chance to accept her Order of Merlin – though she'd likely have to do it at Hogwarts – and everyone from MMM combined to send up an enormous fireworks display, far more extensive than the sort of thing that normally celebrated the end of a School Year.
Harry couldn't say he disagreed with the sentiment, though.
Then it was the Leaving Feast, where Dumbledore told everyone that he hoped that those leaving remembered Hogwarts for the rest of their lives, and in as positive a way as possible.
"For those of you who will be coming back," he added, "I hope you will remember Hogwarts for long enough to get onto the right train at the end of the holidays."
Harry wasn't the only one who laughed at that, but then Dumbledore's expression changed slightly. Somehow, indefinably, a solemn air spread out to fill the room.
"It has been a sad year, at Hogwarts," Dumbledore told them all. "For over a decade, the sadness and pain that Tom Riddle and his followers brought to our world had faded, and I had hoped that none of you would have to deal with that loss – especially not as children, which you all still are. And I can only offer my deepest regrets, sympathies and apologies that you had to face what you did."
He bowed his head. "I would like a minute of silence, to remember the people who were lost to us. Tom Crivens. Bethany Forrester. Maxwell Chalks. Bane. Cuthbert Binns. And Lloyd Inkwood."
Harry bowed his head, as well, and the hall was so silent that he could hear nothing but breathing and the occasional faint catch in someone's breath – which he did his best to ignore, out of respect for their privacy if nothing else.
"Thank you," Dumbledore said, eventually. "Good night, everyone, and I hope that none of you will ever have to hear a speech like this again."
"Well, that's that," Ron said, the next day, as Hogwarts disappeared behind them. "It's going to be weird moving on from that."
"Have you got a job lined up?" Dean asked. "I just realized, we never actually did discuss that."
"I think it depends on the marks we get in our exams, doesn't it?" Neville replied. "I'm hoping to work with Selina Sapworthy on her next expedition, but that depends on my Defence and Herbology marks."
Harry considered that for a moment. "So your Defence marks, given what you're like at Herblogy."
Neville went a bit pink.
"I actually asked Ron," Dean pointed out. "So, Ron, anything?"
"I've had quite a lot of offers in the last month or so," Ron admitted. "Ever since the moon walk. I've been putting off going through them, a bit, but I think a lot of them are going to be about runes and stuff…"
Ginny giggled. "You wait, one of them's going to be from Percy," she said. "I think that counts as International Magical Co-Operation."
"Well, probably, but how would that involve him?" Ron asked. "I didn't know he had that much leeway."
"Oh, you must have missed the letter," Ginny realized. "...or, come to think of it, he might have just sent one to the two of us. Hold on… Accio!"
The Summoning Charm pulled the letter Ginny was looking for out of where she'd packed it, which turned out to be her pocket.
"...in my defence," she began, then shook her head. "Anyway, look."
She thrust the letter at Ron, who unfolded it.
"...head of department?" he asked. "How did that happen?"
"Issola strikes, et cetera," Harry suggested, which got a resigned shrug from Ron.
"What about you, Dean?" Neville prompted.
"Oh, actually, you remember that mad teacher we had in Fourth Year?" Dean asked. "Not Percy, the other one, he recommended me for an apprenticeship with…"
As he got home to Grimmauld Place, flaring his wings and landing neatly in the garden, Harry was thinking about that poem from The Lord of the Rings about the roads going ever on and on.
He'd be quite happy to go on his next journey, but right now a week or two to rest his weary feet (or wings) was just what he was after.
"There you are, Harry!" Sirius called, as the door opened. "An owl just arrived for you. Any idea what it's about?"
"Also, welcome back," Remus supplied. "Sirius sometimes forgets that bit."
"In his defence, I did speak to him yesterday afternoon," Harry said, stifling a chuckle. "And no, I'm not sure what the owl is for."
Sirius turned, shifted smoothly to Padfoot, and loped off into the house. He came back about twenty seconds later, as Harry was divesting himself of his backpack with his tent (and hoard) inside, still in dog form and with an envelope in his mouth.
"Really," Remus said, halfway between a laugh and a groan. "Stereotyping much, Sirius?"
Harry took the envelope, cast a Drying Charm on it, then opened it with a claw to see what it said.
"I hope it's not telling me about the Order of Merlin presentation again," he said, then tilted his head slightly as he saw what was actually inside.
It was his exam marks.
He'd got an O on Runes, Charms, Transfiguration and Alchemy, and for his Defence Against the Dark Arts there was an O but there was also an asterisk – which was explained at the bottom of the sheet, saying that he'd got the highest score that had ever been given on Defence Against the Dark Arts.
Apparently nobody had ever before defeated a Dark Lord during the exam.
"And well deserved," Sirius said, reading the results as well. "Congratulations, Harry! I think we need Kreacher to make us a celebratory meal!"
"It does feel like there's a lot to celebrate," Harry agreed, with a sort of fizzing happy feeling running through him.
He was home, and the rest of his life was just waiting for him. He had his friends, and his things, and there was a place for them and they were all happy there.
Harry was a dragon, and everything was okay.
This story is finished bar an epilogue, which will be written at some point in the near future if things go as planned.
Writing it has been an interesting experience. I've been adhering closely to the letter of canon on plenty of things, perhaps more than you might think, but at the same time I've tried to innovate (a hard thing to do in the Harry Potter fanfiction space…) and of course to take characters in interesting directions.
I hope you've enjoyed it.