- CHAPTER THIRTY -
News From Outside
Harry's confinement to the hospital wing had kept him rather isolated from the gossip flying around the school, so it was only several days later that he got to hear everyone's reactions to the dying of the hedges outside. The members of the DA appeared to be the only ones to realise there had ever been a danger of being trapped - most people seemed to happily assume that the gradual destruction of the hedge maze was a sign that the teachers had planned it that way all along.
Dumbledore's banishment of the Thaumentors had been witnessed by most of the school, although no one - Harry included - was entirely sure exactly what he'd done with them. They had taken the blame for any odd events people might have noticed while the Curse was in effect, and for once, Harry's own contribution went wholly unremarked. As it happened, he was really rather glad.
"It makes you realise, though," said Ron. "We could have all been killed, or worse, and hardly anybody even noticed!"
"I think most people are like that," Harry observed. "Even when they know there's something dangerous to look out for - like Voldemort - they just panic a bit and then get on with ordinary life as if nothing's changed." He wasn't sure if he envied or pitied the wizarding public its obliviousness. Event though there were days when he would have given anything to bury his head in the sand and just not be involved, he couldn't imagine just pretending nothing was happening when he knew what Voldemort was capable of.
"Yeah." Ron looked sad for a moment. "It still catches up with them, though. Even if they're not ready for it." Harry knew he was thinking of Percy.
"I don't know if you can ever be ready for it," he said. "All we can do is try to guess what we might end up facing, and hope we'll do the right thing when it comes."
Ron nodded, and managed a smile at that. Percy had been a true Gryffindor at heart, when it came right down to it. Whatever else he might have said or thought or done during the dark and confusing times, when the final moment had come he'd done what he had to without hesitation.
Harry could only hope that the rest of them would be strong enough to do the same.
The hedges finally crumbled to dust on Midsummer's Day, at exactly noon. Hermione was the only one to be put out by the news, largely because she'd been telling everyone it would happen at midnight based on the pattern behind the appearance of the clues. Everyone else cheered enthusiastically, and afternoon lessons were cancelled as owls were sent out and concerned families descended on the school en masse.
Harry felt awkward about intruding on the Weasleys' reunion, relieved though he was to see them. Mrs. Weasley was very red around the eyes and sobbed as she hugged Ron and Ginny, and Mr. Weasley looked ashen and tired. Bill and Charlie hadn't been able to get to the school, but the twins were there. Harry had never seen them so sombre, and somehow that was even worse than the most visible outpouring of grief.
He spent most of the afternoon sitting with Hermione, who was still being monitored in the hospital wing, and of course had no one to go outside and greet since her parents were Muggles.
"My parents don't even know there's a war on," she said, fiddling with the blankets. "I mean, they know, but they don't really understand what it's like. They don't realise how small the wizarding world is - or that Hogwarts is just as mixed up in it as everywhere else."
"They probably wouldn't like it if they knew what being friends with me meant," Harry pointed out darkly. Hermione smiled, and gave his hand a squeeze.
"I'd be in the middle of it whatever happened, Harry. And at least this way I'm in it with friends I can trust."
Footsteps in the doorway made Harry look up, and then he bounded out of his seat. "Remus!" The name tripped surprisingly easily off his tongue.
"Hello, Harry. Hermione." Remus smiled, but he looked even older and greyer than he had at the beginning of the year. It occurred to Harry that with Snape trapped inside the castle with the rest of them, Remus might not have had a way to get any Wolfsbane potion.
"Professor Lupin!" Hermione sat up straighter and hastily pulled the blankets a little closer.
"I came as soon as I heard the magical barrier was lifted," he said warmly.
"You know about the Curse?" Harry asked.
"Indeed - and about your part in ending it." He smiled. "It took a lot of thought and ingenuity to solve those clues. I'm very proud of you."
"I had a lot of people helping me," said Harry rather uncomfortably.
"So you did - and that's a good thing. Professor McGonagall says you showed remarkable skill as a leader during the crisis at Christmas, too. It's good to see that the time you spent teaching the Defence Association last year has helped you as well as your students."
"I suppose," he said, blinking. It had never occurred to him to think of it that way before. He wasn't used to leading anything. People sometimes followed what he did just because he was Harry Potter, but that wasn't quite the same thing.
"You were great, Harry," said Hermione, beaming. He flushed a little.
They all turned as Madam Pomfrey entered the room. Harry felt both his embarrassment and the celebratory mood drop away as he registered her expression. She looked far too grave for it to be anything so simple as her usual habit of sternly chasing out lingering visitors.
"The Headmaster is calling everyone to the Great Hall," she said in a terse voice. "Under the circumstances, Miss Granger, I think I can let you out of the hospital wing early."
They hurried through the anxious crowds of milling students and parents. Hermione had only stopped to pull on a dressing gown over her pyjamas instead of taking the time to get dressed, but nobody gave her so much as a second glance. Harry could feel the tension building in the air: a sickening feeling of "What now?"
"Harry!" Neville found them in the crowd. "Professor Lupin," he greeted the teacher with a shy smile. Remus returned it warmly.
"What's going on?" Harry asked.
"Nobody knows," said Dean Thomas. The members of the DA were collecting around him, as they had after the delivery of Voldemort's nasty surprise at Christmas. "McGonagall just called for everybody to go to the Great Hall."
Several more voices greeted Professor Lupin, sounding pleased to see him. He'd been extremely popular as a teacher before Snape let slip to the school that he was a werewolf, and Harry was glad to see that some people, at least, were smart enough to still like him just as much afterwards.
"Harry." Ron came to join them, voice sounding suspiciously hoarse; Harry knew the Weasleys' reunion must have been a tearful affair. "Hey, Hermione, you're up."
"Madam Pomfrey said I ought to come." She still looked very pale, but she was making her way through the crowds determinedly enough, with Remus's guiding hand on her shoulder.
"Any idea what's happening?" Harry asked again.
"I don't know, but I think it's bad," Ron said grimly. "My dad got an owl at the same time Dumbledore did, and so did some other Ministry people."
"Did he tell you what it said?" Hermione asked, but he shook his head.
"He said we should go to the Hall with everybody else and they'd tell us there. He and a couple of other people who got owls have left already - they've gone off towards Hogsmeade to Apparate." He bit his lip. "Fred and George went with them. I think it must be something really desperate if dad didn't try to get them to stay behind."
Harry was beginning to get a very bad feeling about the timing of this. The families who had all rushed to the school when the barrier was lifted had to form a fair-sized chunk of the country's adult witches and wizards. Could this whole year of trouble have been nothing but a convenient distraction?
As urgency increased his pace to a faster jog than Hermione could keep up with, he felt a tingle in his forehead that blossomed quickly into a full-blown throb. His curse scar. Voldemort was up to something...
He threw together everything he could remember from last year's disastrous Occlumency lessons to ward off the pain before it became too great. Just before it faded out, he felt a dark curl of triumph that he knew wasn't his own.
Despite the pressure of his instincts Harry forced himself not to break into a run; the way tension was crackling through the corridors right now, he'd probably start a stampede. Even so, he put on enough speed to reach the Great Hall well ahead of the others. The staff were all gathered at the front of the room; Dumbledore was the only one to look completely calm, but even he had his gravest of expressions in place. McGonagall's lips were compressed in a thin line, and Snape was glowering even more than usual. His black eyes tracked Harry as he charged into the room, and Harry felt another twinge through his scar. He wondered if Voldemort was even now communicating with his Death Eaters through the Dark Mark.
Dumbledore raised his hands in an appeal for quiet that was less successful than it usually was with just the students in attendance. "Friends; children; I am afraid I have matters of some seriousness to address." The room gradually settled down.
He spoke without further preamble. "Voldemort has attacked Diagon Alley."
The same gasp of shock arose from many throats at once. Harry remained silent, hands balled into fists. He'd known to expect something like this as soon as the summons was announced, and he should have been expecting it earlier. Voldemort had been far too quiet this year - even the attack on the Ministry that had killed Percy had been a peculiarly isolated attempt. He should have known...
But even if he had known, what could he have done? Harry had frequently resented the way Voldemort always seemed to find a new way to come after him, but now he was finding that he felt even more helpless when the enemy ignored him entirely and struck at other targets.
There was panic in the Great Hall, and it was slowly quelled by Dumbledore's raised hands, Snape's piercing glares, and several calls for quiet from McGonagall.
"A group of Death Eaters, led by Voldemort himself, appeared in the centre of Diagon Alley via an unregistered Portkey," the Headmaster continued. "An Anti-Apparation Field appears to have been set up over the entire area, and Death Eaters have taken up stations preventing entry and exit on foot. Ministry forces are attempting to break through even as we speak; in the meantime, Aurors on the scene have reported that the main target appears to be Gringotts Bank. The goblins have closed the main doors, but it is uncertain how long they can remain standing under a concerted attack."
"Bill says goblin magic can hold off any number of human curse breakers indefinitely," Ron said from behind Harry.
"What about Voldemort?" he asked, not taking his eyes off Dumbledore.
"Who knows?" If there was one thing that Voldemort wasn't, it was an ordinary human wizard.
"It is believed that Voldemort has committed most of his forces to the assault on Diagon Alley, and the risks of coordinated attacks across the country are considered small. Nonetheless, the Ministry of Magic has requested that all witches and wizards on any other than official Ministry business return to their homes or designated safe areas for the duration of the crisis, and avoid public gatherings."
Dumbledore's words were starting to sound like something out of a disaster movie, or news reports from some war-torn country half the world away - not something that should be happening here, now, in real life. Harry saw that Mrs. Weasley was tightly clutching the shoulders of Ron and Ginny, and all around other people were similarly holding on to their loved ones as if afraid they might be ripped away at any second. He found himself standing alone in a widening circle of space, as if Harry Potter might be the lightning rod that drew down a deadly strike, and nobody wanted to be standing too close to him. Then Hermione broke ranks to stand beside him and take his arm, and he smiled at her in silent gratitude. They continued to listen.
"Hogwarts, naturally, is one of the designated safe areas, and accommodation will be arranged for any who wish to remain here. The Ministry of Magic has declared this an official state of emergency: the remainder of the years' lessons will be cancelled, and, for security reasons, the normal Hogwarts Express service will not be running this year. Those parents who wish to remove their children from the school now instead of waiting for the end of term may do so. Emergency transport will be arranged for those pupils whose parents are unable to collect them from the school directly."
A stunned silence punctured by bemused murmurs greeted these final comments, the students too shocked even to be pleased by the early reprieve from their lessons. McGonagall took charge, clapping her hands above her head. "All those families taking students home today, please register their names with Professor Flitwick. Those who wish to arrange for accomodation within the castle, report to Professor Sprout at the end of the Hall..."
Harry stood on the sidelines while the chaos swirled around him. Even those who had Muggle parents who couldn't be at the school had things to worry about and arrangements to make. He alone had nobody that was his to think about, and nobody to think about him. Oh, there were plenty of people to whom he mattered - he wasn't so far gone to self-pity to stop believing that - but it wasn't the same thing. Hermione, the Weasleys, Remus, even Dumbledore, he supposed: they all cared about him, but he didn't belong to any of them, and none of them belonged to him. The only person he'd ever truly had that kind of relationship with had been Sirius.
His godfather might not have been perfect, but he'd been Harry's. It took standing in a crowd of people like this to make him realise exactly how alone he was. If he half closed his eyes, Harry could imagine coloured threads connecting everybody to the people they belonged to: linking Weasley to Weasley, Neville to his gran, even Hermione to her dentist parents far away. He was the only student in the room who didn't have at least one thread.
Except he did, didn't he? A different kind of link, the complete opposite of the ones that tied together all the families around him. Instead of somebody to belong to, he had somebody to oppose.
Voldemort. It all came back to him, in the end. The words of the prophecy that Sirius had died needlessly to protect came drifting back into Harry's head. Neither can live while the other survives. Maybe the truest words Professor Trelawney had ever spoken. Harry might be existing, but he didn't really have a life, couldn't ever hope to have one until that invisible thread was snapped, one way or another...
He blinked in surprise, and turned towards Remus. "Professor?" It was hard to remember to call him by his first name in this setting, even though he'd requested it.
"Professor Dumbledore thinks it's probably best that you leave the school as soon as enough members of the Order are available to guarantee your safety. Despite all precautions taken to keep track of the families staying at the school, you could be in danger while you remain here." Some of those family members were probably Death Eaters, after all. Remus hesitated. "I'm afraid you'll have to return to our old headquarters, at least for the time being."
That meant Grimmauld Place, the house that had belonged to Sirius, and practically been his godfather's prison for the year up to his death. Harry would have been happy if he'd never had to see the nightmarish old place again. "Couldn't I-?"
"We can't discount the possibility of a double feint, Harry," Remus warned. "Voldemort could be watching any of the alternative places we might take you, and we can't take the risk that your aunt and uncle might not be available." Not that Harry was exactly eager to return to the Dursleys early, or indeed at all. Whatever protection they supposedly provided was more than offset by the 'joy' of their presence.
"I'll go with you, Harry," Hermione offered. She was looking rather pale, and he couldn't help but think that the only place she should be going was back to the hospital wing. "My parents won't be ready for me to come home early, and I expect Ron will be going home."
"Actually, mum says we're going with you," Ron corrected gravely, coming over to join them. "Dad's a big target in the Ministry, and the Burrow's too exposed. All of us there together is asking for trouble."
It started to hit Harry, then, exactly how big this was. This wasn't the occasional plot that could be put down by the right people at the right time - this was real, all out war, and nowhere and no one was safe. Voldemort wasn't going to sit around and wait for Harry to come and confront him. The Death Eaters were out there now, killing and terrorizing and seizing what they wanted.
And there wasn't a single thing he could do about it.
"Okay," he said. "When do we leave?"
The journey to Grimmauld Place was a blur, a high-speed hustle with no time for the more elaborate safety precautions Moody had concocted for Harry's trip to Hogwarts the beginning of the year. Moody himself was not around, and neither were Tonks or Kingsley Shacklebolt; everyone with Auror training was badly needed at Diagon Alley in the hope that they could turn the tide of the siege. Harry and his friends were hastily escorted by Remus and Mundungus Fletcher, and then left to sit around with no information in the care of Molly Weasley and an agitated Mrs. Figg.
"Why don't they tell us anything?" Harry demanded as he paced, too caught up in anxiety to even care much about his hatred of the house.
"Sit down, Harry," Ginny ordered, firmly but not unkindly. "You know they've got more important things to worry about than talking to us."
Mrs. Weasley bustled about preparing them entirely too much food, with a kind of brittle hyperactivity that suggested she might snap and burst into tears if anybody stood in her way long enough to stop her moving. The food was probably as wonderful as ever, but Harry couldn't taste a thing.
Hermione was clearly still exhausted, but she refused to retreat to the bedrooms to sleep. Eventually she simply slid down in her seat and started faintly snoring; Ron covered her with a blanket, but they made no move to remove her to somewhere more comfortable. They would wait this out together.
Tense silence ruled the day, with all of them too agitated even to read or manage a game of Exploding Snap or chess. Harry sat staring into the flickering fire, which Mrs. Weasley had lit because Grimmauld Place was freezing even though outside it was the sticky, sweaty height of summer. His scar was throbbing, a constant, regular pulse like the beeping of a heart monitor. He was afraid that if he dozed off like Hermione, he would find himself seeing through Voldemort's eyes, forced to witness and take part in the atrocities he was doubtless even now committing.
Fred arrived in the early hours of the morning, with soot smudged all over his robes and a bleeding cut on his cheek. "Where's George?" was the question Ginny blurted before anybody could think of anything more sensible, for the sight of a solitary Weasley twin was so unusual it was frightening.
"He got knocked on the head when one of the Death Eaters blew up part of the cobblestones with a hex," he reported tiredly. Mrs. Weasley gave a stifled sob of alarm and brought a hand up to cover her mouth. "He's fine, mum," Fred added hastily, "but he can't see a Healer for a while yet since they're too bogged down with the critical cases." He rubbed a hand across his forehead, only succeeding in redistributing the grime. "I can't stay, I'm to report to Hogwarts in a moment. They're asking everyone who's still on their feet and isn't an Auror or a Mediwizard to carry messages, since they don't think it's safe to trust the Owl Post."
"Did you see dad?" Ron asked urgently.
"Not for a while," Fred said, shaking his head. "I think he went back to the Ministry, though, so he should be well out of it." That was a relief, at least, but there were still too many people they cared about bound to be in the thick of things, and who knew if they were alive or dead? Harry felt helpless and totally frustrated at how cut off they were from everything.
"Who's winning?" he blurted, and felt stupid and childish for only being able to think of the sort of question you might ask of a Quidditch match.
Fred considered it for a long, weary moment. "Nobody," he said, with atypical grimness, and left to Apparate back to Hogsmeade.
News trickled in gradually over the next few days as members of the Order came and went, usually without staying long. Voldemort's assault on Gringotts had failed when the goblins triggered some emergency mechanism that caused the entire building to sink below ground, but the battle for control of Diagon Alley had gone on long into the next day. A disastrous collision of a Flaming Fist Hex and a Rubber Shield Charm had set part of Flourish and Blotts ablaze, and it was believed that Death Eaters had made off with a number of highly restricted tomes on the Dark Arts in the ensuing panic.
When the Aurors had finally succeeded in breaking through the defences put in place to keep them out, the battle had moved to Knockturn Alley. Ministry forces managed to start evacuating the civilians, but the skirmish grew even more bloody as the Aurors ran into some nasty surprises the Death Eaters had prepared for their eventual breakthrough. Somewhere in the midst of the confusion, Voldemort escaped. Not all of his followers were so lucky, but Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange were not amongst those killed or captured. Nor was Wormtail: no one but the members of the Order of the Phoenix would have known to look out for him, of course, but his silver hand should have made him distinctive enough to identify if he'd been there.
Days later, the dead and injured were still being sorted out. The stories in the Daily Prophet were dire enough, but it was from the brief snatches of first-hand reports that the true horror really struck home. In some cases the Ministry had been forced to resort to Identity Badge Charms to identify those bodies that weren't so easily recognisable. Harry didn't think he'd ever again be able to think of the cheerful second-year Charms lesson where they'd gone around tagging everybody and sniggering at the more unfortunate middle names without shuddering.
There were far too many names he recognised on the dead list, not all of them people who should have had business in a war zone. Dedalus Diggle and Sturgis Podmore from the Order. Professor Kettleburn, the old Care of Magical Creatures who'd retired because his job was too dangerous. Florean Fortesque from the ice-cream parlour. Borgin, the Knockturn Alley shopkeeper that Harry hadn't even liked. Other people whose names he'd only heard spoken about by friends or in the Daily Prophet, but still felt incredibly shaken to suddenly realise were dead. Harry felt selfishly relieved that all his schoolmates and most of their families had been safe at Hogwarts when the attack was launched.
Not everyone he knew was so lucky, and the injury list was high. Mr. Weasley eventually returned home grey-faced and obviously in pain, although he wouldn't say where or how he'd been injured. Tonks had been caught under a falling building and would be in St. Mungo's for weeks. Mad-Eye Moody had gone down under the combined curses of half a dozen Death Eaters, and now had two and a half missing fingers and some alarming scars to add to his extensive collection of war wounds.
"It was a massacre," said Bill Weasley, shaking his head. "For us and for them. The difference is that Voldemort doesn't care what happens to his followers."
"But what were the Death Eaters after in Diagon Alley in the first place?" Hermione asked again. She had driven them all to distraction during the days they were cooped up in Grimmauld Place, combing through the news reports and interrogating visitors with a single-minded determination to somehow find the secret key that would make it all make sense. "What did they want?"
"To cause terror." Professor Lupin appeared in the doorway, looking tireder and older than ever. "And that, they have certainly achieved. Certainly there may have been other objectives - the Death Eaters that escaped seized a number of rare books and artefacts, and the chaos caused by Gringotts closing its doors may be immeasurable - but there can be no other reason to attack in broad daylight, when the street was at its fullest."
"I should have been there," Harry said grimly. He was the one prophesied to face Voldemort. No one else stood a chance. And the longer he waited to fight, the more people would be killed in the crossfire.
"You couldn't have done anything, Harry," Ron said, shaking his head.
"It's me Voldemort wants!"
Professor Lupin shook his head. "No, Harry. In fact, it is you most of all that Voldemort does not want. He failed in his attempt to uncover the truth of the prophecy, and he remains afraid of it. No doubt that's exactly why he arranged for the school to be utterly cut off from the rest of the world. He has tried to kill you many times already, and failed in all of them. Now, like all those who are terrified of facing death, he would rather find ways to avoid the confrontation than meet it head on and risk losing everything."
"But the prophecy doesn't even say I'll win!" Harry said. "Only that one of us will."
Ron's hand landed heavily on his shoulder. "It'll be you, Harry."
"It's got to be," said Hermione.
Lupin seemed to understand his anguish, and gave him a soft smile. "Sometimes waiting while others fight for us is the hardest thing we have to do," he said gently.
"How long am I supposed to keep waiting?" he wondered.
"Until the time is right."
Harry couldn't hold back a bitter snort. "How will we even know?"
Lupin squeezed his arm gently. "We can only have faith that we will. Now, come on, Harry. It's time to take you back."
Harry stood up. Time to go back to the Dursleys, for another summer of waiting, and lingering uselessly in a world he no longer belonged to while the people he loved and cared about fought life-and-death battles he could take no part in.
But he had a feeling, deep inside, that the waiting wouldn't last much longer. Sooner or later, Voldemort would make his move. And when he did, the future of the entire wizarding world would be in Harry's hands alone.
For better or worse, the world was pinning all its hopes on Harry Potter.
From the Real Mythology Files: the stations of the year, moonstones and blue moons, Cobra Stones, properties of those Potions ingredients not cribbed from the books. From the Nomad Making Stuff Up Files: Fluctuating Flaxweed, Muscomens, curse balls and energy absorption webs, the Window of Opportunity, Thaumentors, the Rainbow Harponica, and any unfamiliar spells. Almost everything else, of course, from the fertile imagination of J.K. Rowling.