The first thump rattled the windows in the Great Hall, interrupting the Leaving Feast. The students all fell silent and frowned through the Entrance Hall at the huge oak double doors.
"No," whispered Harry Potter, dropping his knife and fork.
Who's there, Ron Weasley wanted to say, but the joke lodged somewhere between his witty brain and his lips. His mouth had gone very dry.
That's no giant fist, Hermione Granger thought. It was, in actuality, a mighty barrage of Reductor Cruses all lashing at once at the great front doors of Hogwarts.
"Not now," Harry whispered. "Not yet!" But he had known this was coming, the inevitable final strike. He had had inexplicable urges to smile at the most random moments for the past week, had indulged in thrills that were not his own.
Headmaster Albus Dumbledore stood and drew his wand. "Do not be alarmed," he said to the school. "Everything is under control."
With one long flourish of his wand, nine hundred and eighty-nine students disappeared and found themselves in their common rooms. A second swish conjured twenty-five bewildered Aurors into existence at the vacated Hufflepuff table. They were in varying dinnertime poses, though Arthur Weasley had a sheaf of Ministry paperwork and Kingsley Shacklebolt was holding a handful of thumbtacks and a map. Nymphadora Tonks had a toothbrush clamped between her lips.
The Aurors' confusion vanished. They dropped their cutlery, paperwork and toothbrushes and got up to join the teachers, who were hurrying down between the long tables. The small army drew their wands and moved out into the Entrance Hall.
Dumbledore crossed the Great Hall to the Gryffindor table, where three figures had remained after his spell. Harry had his arms tightly wrapped round his friends.
"It's- it's too soon," Ron croaked, squinting. An observer may have thought he was having trouble seeing, but the truth was that Ron was trying very hard to hold back tears.
"Harry, we're staying with you," Hermione said, her face buried in Harry's shoulder. "We've got to help you."
"No," Harry said firmly, releasing them to glower at them directly. "Don't be stupid. It won't help to have you both dead."
Ron let out a strangled noise.
"The magic won't hold much longer!" Minerva McGonagall shouted from the Entrance Hall.
"Harry," chided Dumbledore, gently.
"I know," Harry muttered. To his friends he said slowly, "I guess this is good-bye."
"Good-bye," Ron repeated in a hollow voice.
"It's so strange," Hermione murmured, biting her lip. "There were so many things I'd like to have said, but I've forgotten them all."
"I wish- I wish-" Ron began haltingly. He sighed. "I wish we had more time."
Hermione wordlessly kissed Harry on the cheek.
"Harry," Ron said just as Dumbledore raised his wand, "don't die, all right?"
They vanished. Harry looked up into Dumbledore's sombre blue eyes. "I'm not ready," he said hoarsely.
Dumbledore smiled sadly. "If you had a hundred years to train for this, at the end you would still say you were not ready. You are as ready as you will ever be. Gather up that Gryffindor courage, Harry, that famous Potter pluck, and think about everything that depends on this."
One door splintered with a loud crack.
"Won't be long now," Arthur Weasley said tensely.
"Why is it that the most brilliant ideas always come too late?" Remus Lupin wondered aloud. "I've just realized we should have used Munitus Charms as well as the Soliditas Charms- that combination is more resistant to Reductor Curses." There were murmurs of agreement.
"Focus!" warned Severus Snape, his black eyes glittering. Everyone noticed that he was rubbing his left forearm, but no one dared to mention it.
But Snape's mind was wandering, too, back to last year, when Harry Potter had been captured by Bellatrix Lestrange. Forsaking the help of the qualified Aurors who wanted to execute a full-scale rescue but who did not know where to begin searching, Snape had gone in alone to retrieve him. He and Harry had returned intact, but Bellatrix had been killed. Snape had stood trial before the Wizengamot for her murder, which had been determined an act of self-defence. The obtuse Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, had voiced only one feeble qualm, that they had not managed to arrest her for a proper trial. No one had paid Fudge any attention.
"His head, Harry, will be clouded with dazzling visions of victory," said Dumbledore softly. "But don't let anything confuse you. Your hate is gone, your thirst for vengeance is gone, your rage is gone... Let it all leak away."
"Drip drip," Harry said with a weak smile. But despite the wisecrack he could feel himself calming down.
"Let go of every emotion," murmured Dumbledore. "Keep only the skill and the knowledge. Remember, Harry, good intentions can be found in the most evil deeds.
"Are you calm?"
"Albus!" came Kingsley Shacklebolt's holler.
"Yes," Harry said softly.
Dumbledore smiled. "I trust you, Harry. You can win. I know you can."
Suddenly he leaned across the table and embraced Harry. Then he was walking out quickly, carefully shutting the doors behind himself.
Harry made his way to the head table and sat at the Headmaster's place of honour.
"This is it," he said aloud to the empty room, with its still-full plates and the floating, flickering candles. The sky above his head was dark and foreboding. Not a star in sight. He knew he must keep a level head, he must stay in the moment, but he could not help beginning to slip away in shock...
Voldemort had found Hogwarts: he had breached the last stronghold of the magical community, and here in this supposed safe haven the Dark Lord and Harry would have a duel to the death. It was all very surreal.
The tremendous smashing of the front doors brought him back to earth.
The sounds of the battle were somewhat muffled by the double doors of the Great Hall, but screams, of triumph and of pain, reached his ears. He half-rose, but sank down again, remembering his preordained role in the conflict: to defeat Lord Voldemort.
The double doors were suddenly thrown open, and Harry tensed, his fingers curled tightly around his wand. The silhouette of a single figure framed in white light spilled starkly onto the floor, a long and daunting shadow. He advanced in a billow of black robes to the centre of the wall and turned, his red slitted eyes quickly locking on Harry's green ones. The doors slammed behind him, shutting out the noise of the fray.
"Good evening, Mr. Potter," drawled Lord Voldemort. "Did I interrupt the Leaving Feast?"
"Yes, actually," Harry answered with professed composure. "Just before the desserts. We've missed the chocolate eclairs- I could destroy you for that alone."
"That is no way to treat a guest to your fine school, Mr. Potter. And such a distinguished and courteous guest, too. I was even polite enough to knock before entering."
"Breaking down the door wasn't a very courteous thing to do- Mr. Riddle." It was all Harry could do to keep a tremor out of his voice.
Voldemort scowled. "I was in a bit of a hurry. It was no easy task, pinpointing Hogwarts' location. In the end I had to resort to commandeering the Hogwarts Express- and that presented its own difficulties. Dumbledore, it must be admitted, has some skill in hiding things... But the hunt is over, Mr. Potter. I've won."
"Well, you seem fair at hide-and-seek," Harry said with a practised annoying leer, learned from seven years of being teased by the master of all buffoons, Peeves the poltergeist. "Will we play ring around the rosy next? Or hopscotch?"
"I prefer tag," Voldemort said coldly. "I'll be 'it.' "
He darted forward and all the candles suddenly extinguished themselves. Harry started, but he soon recovered and began to feel his way blindly towards the left, making as little noise as possible.
"Not afraid of the dark, are you Potter?" came Voldemort's voice from somewhere behind him.
Harry kept moving, unimpressed by the apparent proximity of the taunt. Even he knew the spell to throw one's voice across the room- it came in handy when trying to whisper to Ron during class. He used it now, saying, "I'm seventeen, not seven."
He heard the loud crash of a house table being flung at the wall and he shuddered. "I've always wondered," he called, "can you see in the dark with those nasty red eyes?"
"Wouldn't you like to know now?" Harry frowned at the evasive answer and ducked under the head table.
Seven floors above the battle, the Gryffindors were safely trapped in their high tower. They sat or stood perfectly motionless, a tableau of anxiety and terror. Ginny Weasley was crying quietly into a handkerchief. Ron was sitting by his sister, but he wasn't comforting her. He sat ramrod straight with his arms stuck rigidly to his sides. His face was entirely drained of colour. Hermione was the only one in the room moving at all: she was banging furiously on the back of the portrait of the Fat Lady, shouting, "Let us out! Let us out!"
She didn't know that the Fat Lady was hiding in another part of the castle, for security purposes. But none of the Gryffindors made a move to stop her. Indeed, they all seemed to have been Petrified. Hermione threw a Reductor Curse at the portrait hole, to no avail; then she collapsed in a heap, the sound of her dry, hopeless sobs mingling with Ginny's wretched weeping.
In the Entrance Hall, the Aurors and teachers were fighting off the attacking Death Eaters, with no small effort. The Death Eaters had secretly been training in wandless voluntary magic: even when a Death Eater lost his wand, he could fling a suit of armour or a long pillar of flame at his opponent.
After throwing off a pair of snarling Death Eaters, Kingsley Shacklebolt spied a chunk of debris flying at Nymphadora Tonks' head. "Tonks, duck!" Down went the bubble-gum-pink head, and just in time, too. Shacklebolt magically lobbed the lump of splintered wood back at the original caster, who reacted too slowly and was knocked out.
A second Death Eater, however, leaped over his fallen cohort and began duelling with Shacklebolt. His deflections were quick, his hexes quicker- he had the reflexes of a practiced Seeker. And whose pale eyes did Shacklebolt recognize glinting beneath the hood but young Draco Malfoy's, whose absence at the Leaving Feast had been noted- but evidently not given proper contemplation.
As these thoughts passed through the Auror's mind, he found himself thrown bodily against the far wall, and lost his wand. "Help!" he shouted. Malfoy grinned, wand aimed directly at Shacklebolt's heart.
But suddenly Severus Snape materialized behind Malfoy. Swiftly and without a word he jinxed his former favourite student into unconsciousness. Then he turned away with his bituminous black eyes glittering and his lips set in a thin, hard line, ignoring Shacklebolt's relieved thanks.
Briefly he wondered how Harry Potter was faring alone against the redoubtable Dark Lord.
Back in the Great Hall Harry was still fumbling quietly through the dark, trying to guess where Voldemort was standing at any particular moment. "Incidentally, was that Severus Snape I saw outside?" called Voldemort.
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Excellent! How convenient to have both you and he here together. Once I finish you off I shall kill him too, as slowly and excruciatingly as possible." His high voice was tinged with grief. "The brute, murdering my dear loyal Bellatrix!"
"She deserved it," Harry snarled. "She killed my godfather."
"He was begging to be killed," Voldemort replied coldly.
Harry did not answer. Voldemort was technically right; Sirius' last words in the duel against his cousin Bellatrix had been, "Is that the best you can do?" Harry did not like to think about that day.
"Now where have you gone?" The voice was near the ceiling. "Shall I turn up the house lights?"
Perhaps he really couldn't see in the dark- or perhaps Voldemort was teasing him. "Do as you please," Harry reponded. "You're the guest here."
He'd projected his voice along the far wall, and he heard a scuffling in that vicinity, the swish of long robes. He wished he could throw a jinx in that direction, but the risk of missing and being detected far outweighed the likelihood of striking his mark on his first try. He'd trained hard for this battle, but he wasn't omnipotent. Harry reflected again on his near-total unpreparedness and the sense of utter hopelessness that was taking hold of him as he crouched in the dark, being hunted by his powerful foe.
"Thank you, I think I will do just that."
One candle flared, and another, and Harry retreated under the head table; and as he watched, more candles lit up in a pattern of block letters. HARRY, it said crookedly. It changed, some candles dousing themselves and others bursting into flame: COME OUT.
"Ha!" Harry snapped, throwing his voice to the Slytherin table, which moments later went flying across the room to smash vertically into the far wall.
"Crude display of pyrotechnics," he went on boldly. The Ravenclaw table froze over, fingers of ice crawling fast alone the golden plates and fat icicles dropping off on either side; then it shattered like glass, into a million little pieces.
LIKE A MAN.
"Me, maybe, but you're no man," Harry countered. "You're an abomination of nature."
The candles shimmered briefly and formed an obscene word. Harry sent a mocking laugh rolling along the Hufflepuff table, the only one still left standing, and in the dim light he saw the legs fold up and the whole tabletop collapse in the wreckage of the disrupted Leaving Feast.
"I've cleared a duelling space," Voldemort called.
"Need some help with the debris? Scourgify!" With a fast whip of his wand Harry cleared an aisle straight down the middle of the Great Hall. The thousand floating candles flared up quite suddenly, throwing the room momentarily into sharp relief: Voldemort, scowling and slightly hunched by the double doors, Harry crouched beneath the head table and blinking in surprise. Then Voldemort slowly walked to the other end, and Harry came out from under the head table and faced him.
They took a moment to appraise each other. Harry was nearly six feet tall by now. His jet-black fringe stuck up above his forehead, exposing the livid red lightning-bolt scar. His green eyes were narrowed behind the round black glasses, and his expression was grim.
Voldemort looked the same as ever, imperious and still taller than Harry. He had red eyes with vertical cat-like pupils, set in a wide, skull-white face. He was perfectly impassive. Had it not been for the excited sensation in Harry's midriff that certainly did not belong to him, he might have thought that Voldemort didn't care very much about the outcome of the duel.
"You're feeling sure of yourself," Harry remarked. "I can feel it."
A woman's scream rent the air. Professor McGonagall, Harry thought, but neither of them flinched.
"Your stomach is roiling madly," Voldemort said lazily. "I feel that too."
Harry did not answer.
"What are you thinking, Potter?" Voldemort asked, his high-pitched voice soft and honeyed- a definite danger sign. Sure enough, Harry began to feel cold fingers prying at his mind, a seeking, snooping, alien presence.
At Dumbledore's quite firm insistence, Harry and Snape had resumed the Occlumency lessons in sixth year. Snape's rescuing Harry from Bellatrix's custody had partly mended the breach between them, and Harry, deciding he hated Voldemort more than Snape, had done his best to pay close attention during the lessons. Snape, for his part, halfheartedly tried to treat Harry with more clemency.
He had taught him two techniques. The first, which was less effective but easier for beginners to understand, was to temporarily forget all thoughts and feelings, thus simply depriving the Legilimens of reading material. The easiest approach, Snape explained, was to pretend one was a victim of the Dementor's Kiss- repellent, but a fairly effective simile, considering that those Kissed became soulless shells of men, devoid of emotion or independent thought. This technique, however, proved difficult in times of stress, and was meant only as a practice exercise.
The second was to simply barricade one's thoughts and emotions against snooping foreign forces. Snape, a visual learner, liked to imagine attacks on his mind as the long white fingers of Voldemort picking and prying at his thoughts, and those fingers being unceremoniously chopped off by a guillotine of Snape's Occlumens powers.
Harry also grew to like this imagery, privately adding a shriek of pain from the Dark wizard as the blade fell. He did not grow to like Snape, but at least developed something of a grudging respect for the wizard; Snape, too, had suffered the repulsive feeling of Voldemort reaching into his mind, and, Harry had to concede, coming to save him from Bellatrix Lestrange had been quite a courageous- and stupid- deed.
Eventually Harry mastered enough of the art of Occlumency to work out his own method of defence, a combination of the two techniques Snape had taught him. Presently he put his method into practice.
There is nothing in here, Harry told himself. I am an empty box. I am a machine. He imagined a siren shrieking in his head: Intruder! Intruder! and a bulkhead falling: a giant metal door slamming down on those horrid questing fingers. Across the room he sensed Voldemort recoiling.
"So," breathed Voldemort, "you have learned to shut me out. How many nights of sleep did you lose over this particular battle, Potter? How many hours of concentrated study did it take to be able to exclude me from the memories of your Quidditch triumphs, your OWLs and NEWTs, your first kiss?"
As he mentioned them each vision leaped to Harry's mind: the Quidditch cup in third year, gleaming amidst the scarlet sea of the cheering Gryffindor team; the gratifying look of frustration on Draco Malfoy's face when he dropped a goblet during the Charms OWL; the teardrops clinging to Cho Chang's eyelashes as she leaned towards him under the mistletoe. Then Snape's earlier command, the bark that was always on his lips at the Occlumency lessons, broke into his head: Focus! Harry returned to the matter at hand. Voldemort was gazing at him with interest.
"You are quickly distracted. Killing you will be easier than I imagined."
"I don't think either of us has thought this through very well," Harry said. "Don't you remember what happened the last time we tried to duel? If we attack each other our wands might break- and I fully intend to keep using mine after you are dead."
"How confident you are, Potter. Some might say, overconfident? I suppose you are right. You have probably been preparing for this fight for a long time, training up your reflexes, practicing your defensive spells... I have no doubt that you could defend yourself quite ably against anything I threw at you. However, we have no choice. There is nothing we can do to each other without direct curses. We shall have to try to duel."
"It won't work, unless one of us has switched wand since the last time we tried," said Harry.
"I have not, have you?" and again Harry felt the cold probing fingers in his head.
"I haven't, and stop that," he snapped. Voldemort's Legilimens spell withdrew. They glared at each other across the Great Hall, the screams and explosions outside hardly penetrating the tension within.
"Take your position," Lord Voldemort said. They both assumed proper duelling stances. Harry's pulse was racing.
This is it! he thought wildly. If I can't think of something quick I'll have to share Moaning Myrtle's toilet for all eternity!
"On three," Voldemort drawled.
They raised their wands.
"One," said Harry. "Two," said Voldemort.
They both fired on two.
It is impossible to tell whether they both had the intention of hexing early, or whether the one, detecting a sudden move or suspicious excitement from the other, cast his spell at once. But it doesn't matter very much.
The scene played out very much like their last duel. Harry screamed a Disarming Spell and Voldemort, a Killing Curse, and the two spells fused in a single brilliant beam of light.
And as before, the beam splintered into a thousand more threads that criss-crossed above their heads into a web-like dome, effectively closing them off from the rest of the world. Little golden beads began to glide along the length of the dazzling ray connecting the two wands.
Harry wished there was a phoenix-song lilting on the air, or a friend's whisper in his ear, to fortify him now. He suddenly felt frightened and helplessly alone- ruinous feelings at a time like this, when his wand was vibrating like mad and Voldemort's red eyes were gleaming at him in the golden wand-light.
The radiant beads were sliding in Harry's direction. His hand shook. Voldemort smiled.
Harry narrowed his eyes and concentrated on forcing the beads in the opposite direction. He grunted through clenched teeth, "You- won't- win!"
Voldemort's triumphant smirk faded quickly as the incandescent droplets began to shift towards him, and his white hand trembled. One bead of light entered the tip, and instantly the wand began to shriek and howl.
They watched as a wisp of smoke blossomed from the end of the wand, taking the shape of the Auror Dedalus Diggle- complete with violet top hat. Diggle had disappeared only a few months ago. At least Harry need no longer wonder where Diggle had gone. The spectre rushed towards Harry like a frightened rabbit, then paused and gazed back at Voldemort in surprise.
"Merlin's beard!" he exclaimed. "So he did beat me that time. I could have sworn I was winning."
The next apparition was Remus Lupin. Harry nearly lost control of his wand when he saw his old friend and adviser, whom he had personally witnessed marching out of the Great Hall with the rest of the Order of the Phoenix, step from the tip of Voldemort's wand. He had apparently been murdered during Voldemort's crossing of the Entrance Hall.
Remus examined Voldemort, then strode up the beam of light to Harry and said encouragingly in his ear, "That's it, Harry! You're doing fine!"
"Oh dear!" cried Dedalus. The Priori Incantatem-induced appearance of the spectres of his victims seemed to have bolstered Voldemort's strength instead of subverting it, and the beads of light had begun to creep towards Harry.
Harry strove desperately to push them back, but Voldemort's red gaze caught his with its gleam of jubilation, and the few seconds their eyes were locked was all it took for a bead to reach Harry's wand.
It screamed horribly, and Remus and Dedalus winced. Harry's hand was shaking violently- it was all he could do to hang on to his wand.
Remus and Dedalus were retreating. Before he slid back into Voldemort's wand, Remus warned, "You must keep calm, Harry!"
Harry couldn't help but feel some excitement- this was a rare treat, for him to know what was coming next.
For Voldemort it was completely unexpected. At the sight of his beloved servant Bellatrix Black Lestrange erupted in a fiery rage from Harry's wand, the Dark Lord nearly keeled over.
"Bella!" he choked.
"He killed me!" screeched Bellatrix, fixing Harry with blazing eyes. "It wasn't Snape, it was never Snape! The half-breed killed me!"
Voldemort's gaze fell back upon Harry, who was smiling as widely as the effort of holding his wand would allow. "You?" he gasped. "You used the Killing Curse?"
Harry nodded and slowly smiled. "It's easy when you mean it," he hissed.
And he had. Last year when Bellatrix Lestrange had wanted to duel him alone, he had performed the Killing Curse and meant it. He had channelled the memories of Sirius Black- the weight of his hand on Harry's shoulder- the dark-circled eyes and the slow, mischievous grins- the love and reassurance in every glance he gave his godson- all of these had gone into the spell that had lit Bellatrix Lestrange's features eerily green and frozen them forever into an expression of shock.
Even with the strengthening powers of his godfather's memory, and the knowledge that he was avenging Sirius, cold-blooded murder had not been easy. When Snape had arrived on the scene twenty minutes later, he had found Bellatrix's still-warm body in the middle of the floor and Harry crouched in a corner, his face ashen and his knees drawn up to his chin. His green eyes were immovably fixed on the horror resulting from his vindictive actions. Harry had vowed never to use the Killing Curse again...
And if Harry could only bring himself to do what he now knew he must... if he could recall his happiest, most beautiful memories... if he could only break his vow this once... it would never need breaking again. This would be a Patronus Charm to vanquish the most foul and vile of Dementors.
Remember, Harry, good intentions can be found in the most evil deeds...
He wrenched his wand away and the beam of light shattered.
In the next second he bellowed, "Avada Kedavra!"
A green jet of light rocketed straight at Voldemort, who, caught utterly by surprise, could not deflect it.
At the instant that the Dark Lord's eyes widened in surprise, the candles went out and the whole room went black.
Harry sank to his knees in the pitch-blackness. The crashes and yells had ceased outside. The double doors were flung open with a bang and in strode Dumbledore in a flood of white light. He halted suddenly as his shadow darkened the still form of Lord Voldemort on the floor.
The remnants of the Order of the Phoenix hurried up behind him. "Dumbledore, what's-" The question was cut off as a collective gasp rose from the little group at the sight of the fallen Dark Lord.
Across the Great Hall Harry was still on his knees, gazing at his defeated enemy. Dead, he thought to himself, he's dead, I killed him, I can live now. I have a future.
Dumbledore's blue eyes flickered from Lord Voldemort's body to Harry. A slow, quiet smile spread across his face. "Thank Merlin," he said.
"Thank Potter!" roared someone at the back, and they all broke into cheers and thunderous applause, which Harry didn't hear because he had fainted.
But the next morning he woke fresh and healthy, and continued to live his life- his own life, the life he had fought for and earned; and he had no one's feelings in his heart and thoughts in his head but his very own.
And he never did use the Killing Curse again, so long as he lived.