Obligatory Disclaimer: Yada yada, you know the drill.
A/N: I know this has been a very long time coming. If you've still stuck with me this far, thank you. My thanks also go to Lady Whitehart and the members of her Harry Potter Refugees list (on YahooGroups) for helping me think through some of the problems I had to solve to make this work, and to cecelle for her keen-eyed proofreading.
When I originally planned this part of the epilogue, I was going to do the same thing I did in part 1—make reference to events in the book, with some AU twists. Unfortunately, DH turned out to be utterly unmanageable that way. What was required was a complete rethinking of the plot of DH. Since there were so many things I strongly disliked about DH, I was quite happy with the idea of "fixing" the plot. But I was also rather daunted at the prospect of, essentially, rewriting DH.
What I finally settled on was to outline the plot of my Hallow-less AU version of book 7 as a series of double-drabbles (because it quickly became clear that 100-word sections were not enough to give all the necessary details of Harry's story). The adventures of Sarah and Severus during book 7 are interspersed among Harry's double-drabbles in 100-word drabble form. I wrote the final battle without word limitations, because there was no other way of managing it.
The problem for my readers, as I see it, is that this chapter is mainly about Harry. But I hope you'll enjoy the changes to DH as much as I enjoyed making them.
Epilogue 2: The Second Apprentice Year
June 30, 1997
"I don't like this," Arthur scowled. "If Harry plans, even for a moment, not to return to his aunt's," he looked ruefully at the sullen young man standing near the fireplace with his own youngest son, "the protection will disintegrate a month early."
"We've got to know who's become the Secret-Keeper," Moody snapped. "Merlin forbid it was that—traitor," he snarled, "but that's the last Order member we know he was a-thinkin' of. If he didn't have anybody else in mind...."
"Let's just get it over with," Minerva said. She laid a piece of parchment and a quill on the Weasleys' kitchen table. Quickly, she wrote:
Dear Professor Flitwick,
The Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix is located at
The quill trembled in her hand; she could write no further. "Well, it isn't me."
One at a time, the gathered members of the Order took up the quill. None of them managed to touch it to the paper.
"Harry," Moody said.
The youth stepped up. Frowning, he wrote, Number Twelve Grimmauld Place.
The collective sigh of relief spread in ripples around the room.
"It is my house, you know," Harry said sharply. "Sirius left it to me."
July 1, 1997
"Are you ready?"
Sarah took a deep breath. Her last fateful attempt to Apparate, the summer after her sixth year, had landed her in hospital for two days. "Distelic Mis-Apparition," they said, but didn't bother to take away her license—for all the good it did her when she couldn't Apparate more than ten miles without Splinching.
Severus's proposed solution—intermediate Apparition points—was reasonable...and clunky. And still terrifying. But when the Dark Lord's impatient anger compelled the attempt....
"All in one piece?"
He brushed away her tears of fear and relief.
July 8, 1997
"I hate being kept prisoner here. I've got to get to Godric's Hollow."
"I know, mate," said Ron, hovering on his broom in the dark outside Harry's window. "But the protection...."
"Don't you think Voldemort'll think of that? He'll have a dozen Death Eaters waiting to attack on my birthday. If the Order had any brains they'd have sent me straight from the Burrow to Headquarters. I mean, how would Voldemort know that the protection was gone?"
"I...don't know," Ron admitted.
"Right, he wouldn't. He'll think I'm staying here until my birthday, which is exactly what I shouldn't do." Harry clenched his teeth. "Look, Ron, I'm leaving. Tonight. Are you going to help me, or do I have to keep you from stopping me, too?" He drew his wand.
"Whoa, I'm with you!" Ron rocked backed. "But what's the plan?"
Harry let Hedwig out of her cage. He pulled a silvery bundle from his trunk. "You take my trunk and my Firebolt under the Invisibility Cloak, fly to Grimmauld Place, and hide them there. I'll take a walk down to the playground at dawn. You Apparate there; then we'll Apparate to Godric's Hollow together."
Ron sighed. "I hope this works."
July 9, 1997
"What a stupid thing to do!" Hermione railed.
"It's too late to worry about it now," Harry said. "Let's do what we came for, before anyone else shows up."
The ruins of the house sat in a glade, back from the road, just outside the village proper. The wind and rain of sixteen years had reduced the remaining walls to skeletons; drifts of leaf-mould hinted at buried debris.
"It's hard to believe I lived here," Harry said. "That my parents lived here."
"What, exactly, are we looking for?" asked Ron, trying to shake the uncomfortable silence.
"I've been thinking," Harry said. "If Voldemort planned to make a Horcrux when he killed me, wouldn't he have brought whatever artifact he planned to use with him?"
"Of course!" Then Hermione's face fell. "But, Harry, wouldn't Dumbledore have thought of that?"
"Maybe, but I don't know where else to begin looking. If nothing else, maybe I'll find something that...belonged to my parents."
Under the leaf-mould was a layer of ash. Hermione found bits of broken china. Harry found a children's storybook, charred and more than half burned away.
"What's this?" Ron said.
Pop! Pop! Dark-robed figures appeared in the woods around them.
July 9, 1997, later
"You were very lucky you weren't killed," Lupin said. "If Moody hadn't chanced checking there, when you Disapparated...."
"But how did the Death Eaters know we were there?" asked Hermione.
Lupin shook his head. "Until we know, you're going to have to stay put, Harry."
"Like Sirius." Harry frowned.
"We did find something worthwhile," Ron said. He held out a shield-shaped pin, crusted with dirt and ash. "It must have been Harry's dad's Head Boy badge."
Lupin took it and examined it closely. He scraped it with a fingernail. His brow furrowed. "I'm not sure this was James's."
"How could it not be?"
"It doesn't look quite right, for one thing."
"It's been a long time since you saw it." Harry snatched it and studied it himself.
"Yes, but when we were at school, the Head Boy badge was plain silver, just as it is now. That one seems to be inlaid with enamel."
"I don't see how you can tell, it's so dirty." Harry scraped at it himself. A glint of green caught the light.
"It must have belonged to someone else. A visitor or family member...."
"Yeah," Harry agreed, "it must." Voldemort's. And probably a Horcrux.
July 11, 1997
Chester tickled Severian, who shrieked with delight. Severus only watched, feeling vaguely guilty over being so little at ease with his own child. Then Niniane came in; Chester looked up, Severian forgotten.
Niniane, beaming, laid her tiny son in Sarah's arms. The noises they made over the new baby were typically female, and Severus felt no alarm until Sarah looked up at him unexpectedly.
There was a curious hunger in her eyes.
We have a child, he thought crossly.
But not a child Sarah had been permitted to raise for herself.
Recognizing his expression of displeasure, Sarah looked uncomfortably away.
July 14, 1997
"That's it!" Hermione pointed at the tapestry. "How could I have been so stupid?"
"What?" Ron followed her upstairs.
"Harry, which was Regulus's room?"
"I...don't know," Harry said, emerging from his own as they hurried past.
"I don't want to ask any of the others unless we have to." She opened and shut door after door, not satisfied with what she found. "Oh, dear. I wonder if Sirius cleared it out? Then we'd.... Ah!"
On the top floor, where none of them had ever gone, a hand-lettered sign on a door read:
by order of
Regulus Arcturus Black
"R.A.B.!" Ron exclaimed.
"Okay," Harry breathed harshly, "it makes sense. Sirius said Regulus had defected from Voldemort. But I bet he never imagined...."
"Does this mean the real locket has already been destroyed?" Ron looked hopeful.
"Maybe. But how did he manage to get it?" Harry thought back to the cave. "If he went by himself, the Horcrux is probably still in there, down with the Inferi. We'll never get it!"
"I wonder...." Hermione started downstairs. "Where's Kreacher?"
"Why would...? OH!" Harry gaped. "A house-elf wouldn't affect the boat."
Ron grimaced. "We always wondered why Kreacher was so cracked."
July 15, 1997
Kreacher had not wanted to tell them anything. Master Regulus had forbidden it.
"But Mistress Walburga pleaded, cried. So Kreacher told her: Dark Lord poisoned Master Regulus."
That had satisfied Mrs. Black's curiosity, but it did not satisfy Harry's.
"I know about the cave. But how did Regulus know? How did he know about the locket?"
A dreadful tale unfolded. Voldemort had required Regulus to supply the services of a house-elf. Undoubtedly, Voldemort had expected Kreacher to die after testing the potion, securing his secret.
"Kreacher was sick...very, very sick when he came home. But the poison didn't kill Kreacher. Not an elf poison. But poor Master Regulus!"
Regulus had studied books, had decided what to do. The Dark Lord was too dangerous, too terrible. He would see Regulus's disloyalty and kill him. So Regulus had taken Kreacher to the cave.
"Kreacher begged not to drink the potion again. Foolish, foolish Kreacher!" Harry had to prevent him from hurting himself. "Master Regulus drank it. But the potion was poison for wizards. Kreacher took him home, but he died." Kreacher wept.
"What about the locket? What happened to it?"
"The dirty wizard stole it! Stole so many things!"
Harry grimaced. "Mundungus."
July 19, 1997
Scrimgeour studied the letter for perhaps the hundredth time.
I have information vital to your own and the Ministry's security. However, if the wrong person were to become aware, even of the fact that I have contacted you, I will be dead before I can convey this information. Therefore, I request a secret conference. I have included one of a pair of communication mirrors. Should you agree, contact me at 10 o'clock in the morning on the soonest day possible.
The clock on the bedside table read ten minutes to 10.
It was risky to give the man a hearing. And risky not to.
Damn it, he was the son of a known Death Eater! It could be a ruse, putting the Minister's life at hazard or compromising his reputation.
And yet, if one of the Dark Lord's own had actually turned against him....
Dumbledore had believed that of Severus Snape—it had cost him his life.
Still, it was better to know.
He picked up the mirror, called Nott by name.
"My information is this: the names of certain of the Dark Lord's supporters within the Ministry who intend to put an Imperius'd puppet in your place."
August 2, 1997
Excerpts from The Daily Prophet
ARREST AT MINISTRY
Linnaeus Yaxley, 47, Undersecretary in the Department of Unintended Consequences, was arrested today on suspicion of being a Death Eater. Like the recently convicted Death Eaters Lucius Malfoy and Franklin Nott, Yaxley was acquitted of similar charges 15 years ago. Auror Wilfric Savage hinted at a possible connection to the collapse of Pius Thicknesse (see Thicknesse Ill, column 4), leading some to speculate an attempted poisoning. Suspected Death Eater Severus Snape, who was the Potions master at Hogwarts for many years, until he was implicated in the murder of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, remains at large. Ministry officials urge particular caution in eating or drinking anything you have not prepared yourself.
We have received reports that Pius Thicknesse, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, is being treated at St. Mungo's Hospital for an unspecified malady. Apparently he collapsed during a private meeting with Minister Rufus Scrimgeour at the Ministry yesterday, but no other details have yet been forthcoming.
William Arthur Weasley, 27, of London married Fleur Isabelle Delacour, 20, formerly of Le Cateau, France, on August 1 at the home of his parents at Ottery St. Catchpole.
A/N: The Department of Unintended Consequences was invented by Arsinoe de Blassenville in her story "The Golden Age"--I highly recommend it.
August 10, 1997
"You really mustn't go out, Harry," Molly Weasley insisted. "We'll get the things you need for school."
Harry gritted his teeth. The pretense that he was returning to Hogwarts in September was only an excuse to persuade the Order to allow him to go with Ron and Hermione to Diagon Alley. Mundungus had not dared to show his face at Headquarters this summer. When Harry had denounced the man's thievery, the older members merely looked uncomfortable.
"I don't like it any better than you do," Tonks had told him privately afterward. "But we need the information he provides. Now more than ever, since Snape...."
"I haven't noticed that you've done much about him either. After what he's done—"
"Harry, all of us are just as upset as you! But he's gone to ground. Even Dung—"
"You can't stop me from going out. I could...I could tell the Prophet that the Order is keeping me prisoner. That'll give Scrimgeour a boost, won't it?"
"Harry, wait!" Tonks took a deep breath. "Right...I could get you some Polyjuice Potion. I'll nip some from work. You can pretend to be Remus. But if you get into trouble, so help me...."
August 12, 1997
Sarah was usually—and usefully—ignored in Diagon Alley. Now she turned, surprised, to see Angelina Johnson.
"How are you?" Angelina's expression faltered slightly. "Where's your..." she lowered her voice, "baby?"
"At home." His home, for now.
"You're not still with...?" Angelina's eyes widened.
Sarah pondered—if Angelina informed on her, she would have to go into hiding altogether. "You don't really want me to answer that question, do you, Angelina?" she asked, her voice laden with menace, coated with ice. "Some things are safer left unspoken. Do you understand?"
It hurt to see the fear in Angelina's eyes.
August 12, 1997, later
Remus Lupin—or someone who looked like him—slipped away from Flourish and Blotts. Ron and Hermione had protested, but Molly would never forgive Remus for taking them into Knockturn Alley.
Remus was not Mr. Borgin's only customer. A young woman a few years older than Harry, but whom he didn't recognize, was examining the items that Borgin had spread out on the counter.
"Belonged to Salazar himself," Borgin was saying.
"Unlikely," she said. "Still, it is a pretty piece." Her finger traced the edge of a large locket with the letter 'S' picked out in green gems.
Harry's breath caught. It would look odd to interrupt. But if she bought the locket....
"Three hundred Galleons?" she offered.
"I couldn't let it go for that," Borgin said. "I couldn't part with it for less than a thousand."
She frowned. "Five hundred?"
"I'll pay a thousand," Harry blurted out.
The young woman turned, meeting his eyes with an expression that was first surprised, then curious, then unfathomable.
"I have a very particular client," Harry said, relying desperately on Remus's recent reputation.
Borgin looked at the young woman, who hesitated, then shook her head.
"I'll wrap it up for you then, sir."
August 26, 1997
"Should we not plan to capture Harry Potter as he returns to Hogwarts, my lord?" Bellatrix asked. She had finally been readmitted to his presence, but her enforced absence from the attack on Hogwarts rankled.
"No, I think not," he snapped; he had not stopped frowning in weeks. "The protections the Ministry has placed around the students will surely be stronger than ever, since that fool, Yaxley, failed in his task."
"But when, my lord?" asked Amycus.
"The Taboo spell remains in place. When he dares again to speak my name outside of wards, I shall go to him myself."
August 30, 1997
"I'm not going back to school! I thought you weren't either."
Hermione frowned. "I know. But I've been thinking. There's only one more Horcrux left to find: the Hufflepuff cup. The diary and the ring have been destroyed, and we still need to find a safe way to destroy the locket and the badge. We can't get at Nagini yet."
"So we have to find the cup!"
"Have you got any idea…the slightest…where to start? Did Professor Dumbledore give you any clues?"
"No. But that's all the more reason we need to begin looking for it now!"
"That doesn't make any sense. We'd just be wandering around. Besides, if we do survive all this…" Hermione hesitated. "Not all of us can live on an inheritance, Harry. And I, for one, would like to have a worthwhile job—the kind you need N.E.W.T.s for."
"She does have a bit of a point, mate," Ron said reluctantly.
"But what about the cup?"
"I think we're going to have to tell the rest of the Order what we're looking for. Not that it's a Horcrux. But that Dumbledore believed it was important."
"So, we just call a meeting?" Harry said dubiously.
August 31, 1997
Harry stared out the windows of the Hogwarts Express, displeased with his change of plans. But the Order—particular Mrs. Weasley—were more than happy to agree, in exchange for Harry continuing at Hogwarts, to search for a Hufflepuff artifact to which Dumbledore had reportedly attached considerable importance.
"They won't find it," he said aloud.
"You never know." Ron shrugged. "Anyway, we couldn't do much good just going around trying to keep out of the way of Death Eaters."
"I don't want to keep out of their way. At least, not out of Snape's way." Harry's face twisted into a mask of hatred.
"You know," Hermione said, "he could have killed you, and he didn't."
"Just saving me for his master."
"Then why not stun you and carry you back to You-Know-Who?" They had finally been told, after the incident at Godric's Hollow, why no one but Dumbledore dared to say Voldemort's name. "Anyway, if you plan to go after him, the question is, could you kill him?"
"You think I'd show him mercy!"
"I meant, are you a better duelist than he is?"
Harry furrowed his brows blackly. One good reason to go back to Hogwarts. "I will be."
September 9, 1997
Walking the razor's edge between enough success to please the Dark Lord and enough failure to prevent ruin was a bitter task. He demanded a demonstration of their latest efforts at an Imperius Potion, for poisoning the water supply.
Severus forced the prisoner to drink. The man toppled, turning blue.
"Get up," Severus ordered.
Horribly, he tried.
He drew a shuddering breath, but sank again, lifeless. Severus examined him.
"The heart stopped. The potion apparently affects all functions in human subjects, not merely the voluntary. I apologize, Master."
Sarah felt the hand lifted from her hair. "Continue your work."
September 13, 1997
"We need to get the DA going again," Harry said. "Defense Against the Dark Arts is useless."
"As usual," added Ron.
McGonagall had come up with a novel solution to the annual problem. Most classes now included students from all four houses—the drastic shrinking of the student body, with so many parents refusing to allow their children to return to Hogwarts, had made this a logical decision. And most of the professors were teaching a Defense class, in addition to their own subjects. The professor who had taken the seventh years was Slughorn.
"It's not completely useless," said Hermione. "We do need to improve our defensive magic."
"But we need to practice dueling spells, offensive magic! We need to practice now, not whenever Slughorn decides we're ready."
"Okay, Harry, I'll get some coins set up again. I don't trust the old ones. We don't know whose hands they might have fallen into."
"Wait, you don't think McGonagall will let us be a regular club?" asked Ron.
"Even if she did, it's better if we keep it secret."
"We don't want anybody on Voldemort's side to know what we're doing," Harry said grimly. "To know that we're ready for him."
October 25, 1997
"Any luck finding the cup?"
Remus and Tonks exchanged glances. Moody snorted. "We've been rather busy with Death Eater attacks, Harry."
"This is important!"
"None of us really specialize in antiques," said Remus.
"Except Dung," added Tonks, grimacing.
"You can't trust him!"
"You're certain it's important?" asked Arthur.
"Professor Dumbledore thought so," Hermione broke in, before Harry could lose his temper. "You-Know-Who murdered somebody for it, nearly 50 years ago. Why would he do that if it weren't an important artifact?
"It wasn't in You-Know-Who's Gringotts vault," Moody said. "Cleared by special order after his disappearance. The goblins certainly didn't like that."
"What did they find?" asked Hermione.
"That's the thing: nothing but money."
"Could he have given this cup to one of his followers for safekeeping?" asked Remus.
"If so, how will we ever find it?" Tonks frowned. "The Aurors can't raid every suspected Death Eater's house, let alone their vaults."
"Perhaps it would help," Arthur said, "if you told us why Dumbledore believed it was so important. That might give us something more to go on."
Harry, Ron, and Hermione exchanged desperate looks. Hermione nodded, then Ron. Harry took a breath. "It's not good. Not good at all."
October 31, 1997
The couple arrived in the rainy dark, as heavily cloaked as any of his patrons. Aberforth Dumbledore showed them to a room upstairs.
"What news?" The man threw back his hood to reveal close-cropped hair, a sallow face shadowed by a beard.
"Aside from the fact that you're wanted for killing my brother?" Aberforth growled.
"You sent an owl," said the young woman.
"Would you know anything about a two-handled cup engraved with a badger? Small, gold?" Aberforth gestured an approximate size.
Severus shook his head.
"A Hufflepuff cup?" Sarah whispered.
"You know it?" asked Aberforth.
A/N: It's always bothered me that Mary GrandPre's illustrations of Snape show him with a beard, despite the lack of any basis for that in the text. But I think I've finally come to terms with the possibility of a bearded Snape. :~)
November 1, 1997
"Seven?" Sarah asked, aghast. The moral of all folklore about the fate of Horcrux-makers was that there really were worse things than death.
"Six. Possibly. I'm unsure how many he completed. Nor will you make the slightest attempt to learn!" Severus' eyes were fierce.
"Of course not!"
"Everyone in the inner circle knows there is at least one; that much is safe for you to know." He took a deep breath. "Two certain Horcruxes have been destroyed. Potter believes he has found two, although…." He shook his head. "Two possibilities are within our grasp."
"And, Albus thought, Nagini."
November 5, 1997
"I think I might have found a way to destroy the locket and the badge," Hermione whispered. The three of them were alone in the Room of Requirement, after a DA meeting, but she was taking no chances. "These books I found at Headquarters, on Horcruxes…it takes powerful magic to destroy one. You have to pierce the container, physically and magically, so the piece of soul will sort of leak out. The Basilisk fang did that to the diary."
"So we need something…poky?" Ron rubbed his chin.
"Or sharp. And magical. I was thinking about Godric Gryffindor's sword."
"Do you think McGonagall will let us use it?" asked Ron, turning to Harry.
"The problem is," said Hermione, "Horcrux containers are usually cursed. After all, if you'd made one, you wouldn't want someone to be able to destroy it without suffering the consequences."
Harry frowned. "Dumbledore's hand."
"Probably," she confirmed. "But we don't know how he destroyed the ring. And you were able to destroy the diary without being cursed."
"Your mother's protection?" Ron cocked an eyebrow.
"Remember, I don't have that anymore, not since…the night he came back."
"I'll keep working on it, Harry," Hermione promised.
November 8, 1997
"It occurs me," said the Dark Lord, "I have not seen a certain object I once gave your father. A small cup engraved with the symbol of Hufflepuff. I hope your mother did not foolishly cast it away." Sarah bowed her head, terrified that they were discovered, automatically transmuting the emotion into fear that she would be punished for her mother's disloyalty.
"No, Master. It was here until my mother brought me away. But after my father's death…so many of his possessions have disappeared. The Ministry…"
"Yes." Everyone around him still felt his anger at the failure of his coup.
November 10, 1997
"Chester, do you remember that little gold Hufflepuff cup?" Sarah asked. "Was it taken to Notting Chase?"
"Probably, if it was valuable. But why wouldn't your mother have kept a Hufflepuff artifact?"
"Because the Dark Lord gave it to my father."
"And Uncle Malcolm made no secret of where it came from?"
"Exactly." Sarah grimaced. "I haven't seen it here. Can you help me find it, if it survived the fire?"
"What was salvaged was boxed up…" Clearly he wanted to leave it so. "It's important?"
"The Dark Lord wants it." Despite her trust, any other answer was too dangerous.
December 13, 1997
"We've got to try," argued Harry. "And it needs to be me."
McGonagall frowned, looking down at the desk—she still had difficulty thinking of it as her desk—at the sword he had asked her to borrow.
"I agree," said the portrait of Professor Dumbledore.
"But if it damages him, as it damaged you…" she protested.
Harry touched his scar. "There's some kind of bond between us, because of this. The curses may not attack me. And if I'm destined to be the one to destroy him…."
"And what if you're wrong?" Her voice quavered.
"Hermione has charms and a boxful of potions to undo the damage."
McGonagall shook her head. "I don't like, Harry. I don't like it a bit."
Harry let his eyes rove the headmaster's office, wondering if any of the other portraits would back him up. He spied the Sorting Hat on its shelf.
"Professor, if I can draw the Sword of Gryffindor from the Sorting Hat, wouldn't that prove that I'm supposed to do this?"
That set all the portraits murmuring. "He has a point," said Phineas Nigellus.
"Let him try, Minerva," said Dumbledore's portrait.
"Oh, very well," she sighed.
Harry lifted the Hat.
December 14, 1997
They had decided to try destroying the Horcruxes in the Room of Requirement. If the castle's magic could possibly protect Harry, it would do so there. In spite of the danger of the curses seeking out some other nearby target, Ron and Hermione insisted on remaining with him.
"If the curses do strike you," Hermione reasoned, "you'll need someone to help you."
"We won't let you face this alone," said Ron.
Grateful for his friends at his back, Harry arranged the locket and the badge carefully on the large flat stone that the Room had provided.
"I'm going to try to take out both at once," he said. "In case I don't get a second chance."
He picked up the Sorting Hat. Closing his eyes, he reached inside. Please, he thought.
His hand closed on the Sword's hilt; he drew it out. He handed Ron the Hat, so he could wield the Sword. Wishing momentarily that he'd had some experience as a Beater, he lined up his blow.
He lifted the Sword; then, putting every ounce of his will behind it, he brought it down on the two Horcruxes.
The metal screamed, literally. Then there were only the shattered pieces.
December 24, 1997
"Help your Daddy pull the cracker!" Chester urged, while Severus longsufferingly held one end so that Severian could grab the other. The toddler, however, would not oblige. "Boom!" he said, running to pound on Chester's knees.
Sarah heard the flutter of an owl at the window, and rushed to open it, letting in a bedraggled bird and a blast of cold air.
Two down. No casualties. A.D.
She brought the letter to Severus.
"Bad news?" asked Niniane.
"No." Sarah smiled with such joy as she not known in many months, and slipped her arms around her husband. "Happy Christmas, everyone!"
January 7, 1998
"Still no sign of that cup!" Harry growled. The thrill of his success with the locket and badge had faded as the end of the holidays approached. The Order were having no luck in their quest, and little enough in the war, making their insistence that he remain safely at Hogwarts nearly unbearable. There had been no sightings of Snape, either. If there had been, nothing would have kept Harry from leaving Hogwarts to pursue his revenge. He itched for further action.
"You know," said Hermione, looking up from her book, "it isn't as if you have some deadline."
"You mean, Harry won't be dead by the end of the school year?" Ron grinned.
Harry scowled. "That's what he's always tried to do."
"Be serious," said Hermione. "The only time You-Know-Who actually set out to kill you at school was the Tri-Wizard Tournament."
"What about the diary?" asked Ron.
"My point," she went on, "is that it's silly to think that all of this has to be done before school is out."
"I can't fight him until all the Horcruxes are destroyed," said Harry. "We can't know when he might attack again."
"There's nothing we can do," said Hermione. "Study!"
January 16, 1997
"Accio Hufflepuff Cup!" Sarah stood among the cold, wet ashes of Notting Chase. Chester's searches had come to nothing. This was the only remaining hope.
A faint sound answered. She followed it, repeating the spell when it faded. It took more spells to lift the collapsed timbers that trapped the charred box in which it lay.
It was just as she remembered it, if a bit smaller to her adult eyes. She recognized, too, when she touched it, the taint of her Dark Master's presence in it, quiescent, like Nagini sleeping.
"Your power to hurt anyone will end," she whispered.
January 16, 1997, later
"If we give it to him, he may place it beyond our reach."
"I don't dare to keep it. If he sees it in my thoughts…"
"Then we destroy it, tonight."
"I won't lose you to a curse!"
"Albus was incautious. He cracked the ring with a spell."
"Then how…?" Sarah frowned. "I suppose we could send it to Potter…"
"No!" Severus snarled. "Mithric Acid. Unfortunately…." His brows furrowed. "Thus far, he has been unaware of the Horcruxes' destruction. But thus far, they have all been destroyed within the wards of Hogwarts. The dungeon would be—"
January 16, 1997, later still
The headmistress lifted the wards on the Floo, fearful she was making a mistake. Severus's Patronus message had taken her aback, in more ways than one.
He stepped out of the fireplace. "Minerva."
"Aberforth told me, and Albus's portrait, but I…"
"I need one hour in my old quarters. If I haven't returned, do whatever you feel is necessary."
His rooms were bare of all but what might prove useful to some future Potions master. That was all he needed. He set up a cauldron in the workroom, and began compounding the acid.
When it was ready, he suspended the cup above it with a string. From the doorway, he cut it with a spell, slamming the wall closed as the cup dropped. Even through the wall, he heard the echo of the scream.
Minerva paced, her uncertainty growing. What was his business here? If Aberforth was wrong, Severus might do anything. Even attack Harry.
She stepped through the Floo into the Gryffindor Common Room. Late as it was, Harry and his friends were talking there. "Thank goodness!"
"What's wrong?" Harry rose, gripping his wand.
Minerva paused. "Severus Snape is here. But Harry…"
Harry did not stay for an explanation.
January 17, 1997, very early
Snape, meagerly disguised by a beard, emerged from the dungeon stairwell, just as Harry stormed into the entrance hall.
"How dare you come here? Expelliarmus!"
Snape dodged the spell. "Still a fool, Potter? Strike before you speak!"
Crucio! Harry drove the thought at his enemy.
Snape, waving off the spell a fraction of a second late, bent double. "Better, Potter," he gasped.
Before Harry could react, before Ron or Hermione, coming up behind him, could do more than begin their spells, the traitor's wand slashed the air. Harry discovered he could not move. But Snape remained where he was, breathing hard.
"Coward!" Harry forced between his teeth. "Murderer!" Suddenly he found himself suspended by the ankle, his wand clattering to the floor, movement slowly returning to his limbs.
"Think, Potter!" The hated face, both strange and familiar at once, hovered under his own. "For once in your life, consider why I do what I do!"
At the sound of many approaching footsteps, Snape turned and fled to the main door. It closed behind him. He was gone.
"No!" Harry shouted. "Stop him!" Freed, he seized his wand, rushing for the door.
"No, Harry!" McGonagall called. But it was too late.
January 17, 1997, later
Ron and Hermione found Harry at the Hog's Head, brooding over a table near the fireplace, ignoring the tavern's disturbing array of late-night denizens.
"He must have gone through the Floo, but no one will admit seeing him, or hearing where he was going. I sent a Patronus message to Shacklebolt."
"They'll never catch up with him," said Hermione.
"I don't think we should stay here, Harry," said Ron, looking around.
"Your friend's right," said the barkeeper, looming over the table. Suddenly Harry realized why he had always seemed familiar. "You're Aberforth Dumbledore. Why did you let him go!"
"Not everything's what it seems, Harry Potter. Especially not here. Which is why I advise you to get back inside the wards of Hogwarts."
"He's right, Harry," said Hermione. "You-Know-Who wants you lured out in the open."
"That's probably why Snape was here," growled Ron.
Hermione frowned. "Except that…. Look, we'd just better leave."
"I'll go to Headquarters," Harry said stubbornly.
"And do what? Running around hunting for Snape is going to do nothing but get you killed. Are you going throw away everything, everyone's sacrifices, for that?"
"Go," said Aberforth. "Now."
"Come on, Harry." Ron pulled him to his feet.
January 17, 1998, later still
Letting go was hard, but he was clearly exhausted. Sarah urged him into a chair.
Severus shut his eyes. "He's getting better at dueling."
"Does that matter now? If we act at the right moment, we can kill Nagini and—"
"I thought you didn't believe—"
"Do you really want to take the risk, Sarah?" he snarled. "Nagini may or may not be cursed in the same manner as other Horcruxes. It may require a magical weapon to kill her. Until Potter faces the Dark Lord—"
"Will he, not knowing about the cup?"
January 18, 1998
"Why did you let him in! Why did Aberforth let him go!" Harry glared from McGonagall to the other assembled Order members.
"Harry," Remus said quietly. "Some of us believe…well, that Snape may not be a traitor."
Moody snorted. "Once a Death Eater, always—"
"He hasn't tried to breach the wards at Headquarters. Not once," Tonks interrupted.
"HE MURDERED PROFESSOR DUMBLEDORE!"
"Perhaps no one told you this," McGonagall said hesitantly. "Albus was already dying. His cursed injury—"
"What has that got to do with ANYTHING!" Harry felt his chest tighten. It troubled him, in dark moments, that even without the attack that night, Dumbledore might still have died from the potion Harry had forced him to drink. Only if Snape had failed him! I didn't know, Harry fought the idea down as usual. He made me promise!
"Have you never considered," asked Arthur, "that Snape might have done what Albus asked him to do?"
"No one asks to be murdered! He BEGGED Snape up on the tower!"
"Begged him to do what?"
"Just begged him!" Harry said stubbornly. "To save him, obviously!"
"How?" Remus frowned. "With all those other Death Eaters up on the tower?"
January 19, 1998
"Harry, there's nothing you can do about it right now." Ginny touched his shoulder.
"We've missed something." Aurors and Order both had scoured Hogwarts, finding no evidence of harm, magical or otherwise. "Voldemort came and put a curse on the Dark Arts position. I'll bet Snape's done something like that. Something that'll show up when we least expect it."
Ginny didn't answer. Finally she said, "Harry, I keep thinking…. I don't care about the danger—"
"No, Ginny. We just can't."
A spectral shape darted through the wall, too small for a ghost. A small silver badger peered at him; it was a Patronus.
"Harry Potter." An unfamiliar female voice emerged from the mouth of the badger. "Listen and think."
"What—?" It vanished. "Who—? I don't know anyone with a badger Patronus."
"I thought only Order members knew how to send Patronus messages?"
"Yes, Dumbledore invented that part of the spell."
They were still staring at the wall when another silvery form emerged. Harry's heart leapt, even as his mind screamed, Dumbledore's dead! It was a phoenix.
"The cup has been destroyed." It, too, vanished. But the hated voice echoed in Harry's ears.
"THAT'S NOT POSSIBLE!"
January 20, 1998
The Dark Lord was angry. "Why did you lure Potter out without my permission?"
"My lord, forgive me. It was a whim. I wished to retrieve a small object I was forced to flee Hogwarts without. I sought to test the wards. Encountering Potter was merely fortuitous—but his willingness to pursue me demonstrates how easy it will be to bring him to you at the right time and place."
"And you think he will be as easily fooled now?"
Sarah had never before watched him Crucio her husband.
Serves you right, she thought, to hide her silent, unsheddable tears.
January 24, 1998
"Professor Slughorn?" Harry had lagged behind at the Slug Club meeting.
"Yes? What is it, Harry?" He smiled, a rarer expression than the year before.
"Is it possible to fake a Patronus?"
Only Ron and Hermione knew about the messages. Harry had only told them because Ginny threatened to tell them herself. Hermione's pensive expression was maddening, as was the dearth of information from her research.
"Fake a Patronus?" Slughorn was puzzled. "I'm not sure why anyone would want to. It would have nothing of the protective properties—"
"I know. But if, for some reason, someone wanted to make an illusion of a Patronus, could they?"
"Well, you see the problem is that illusion spells almost always need to be tied physically in some way to the object you're concealing. And a Patronus… it's a projection of something in one's soul. There's really nothing to work with in terms of illusions."
Harry frowned at the answer.
"And there's no way to purposely change the form of your Patronus? Make it look like what you want it to look like?"
"Not consciously, no." Slughorn was also frowning now. "Is there a particular situation you're thinking of?"
"No. Thanks anyway, Professor."
January 31, 1998
"What if Potter didn't believe you?" What if he did? So much had gone wrong…so much might yet go wrong. If the Dark Lord glimpsed any part of the truth in her mind, or Severus's, or—worst of all—Potter's….
Dumbledore had believed that the Dark Lord would avoid Potter's mind in future. It was a gamble she wouldn't have taken—not with the information the boy carried about Horcruxes in his all-too-unprotected head. At least Harry's prejudice had always protected Severus. But now….
Severus grimaced. "The Dark Lord will confront him, whether Potter thinks himself prepared or not."
February 5, 1998
"Harry, please tell us," Ginny begged. She looked to Neville and Luna for support. "We can't help if—"
"Half the Order knows, and it hasn't helped! If somebody's captured—"
"They've kept in hiding," Hermione reminded him.
"Even if that lets the Death Eaters do as they please," Ron growled. The day's news had been worse than usual.
"Ginny's right, though," said Neville. "We'll stand by you through anything, Harry. But it would help to know… whatever the truth is."
"If Harry thinks we really shouldn't know—" said Luna.
"I think we should tell them," said Hermione. "It isn't as if they're in any more danger than Ron and I are."
"Finally, someone with sense!" said Ginny. "I've been trying to tell him all year, if You-Know-Who is going to target anyone, it'll be his known best friends, not the girl he's just started dating."
Hermione whispered, "Dumbledore said your power was your ability to love. When you shut people out… don't trust people who love you… I don't think that's what he would have wanted. Actually, it worries me."
Harry's instinctive protest died unspoken, choked by a sudden, impossible possibility of truth. "Give me… time to think."
February 7, 1998
Harry had not come up the Astronomy Tower since Dumbledore's death. Now he leaned on the rampart as his tears dried, the revived pain of his memories easing slightly, leaving confused anger.
Ginny. He wanted to shout "leave!" but somehow couldn't. She slipped up and linked her hand in his.
"You… don't think Hermione's right about me, do you?" He had not spoken to Hermione in two days. That had happened before, he realized, and would probably happen again.
It was a long time before Ginny spoke, distantly. "When our parents were our age, it was the same as it is now—You-Know-Who, Death Eaters. And they didn't let that stop them from loving… marrying… having us."
"It is different—Voldemort's determined to kill me."
Ginny shrugged. "And you're determined to kill him." She took a slow breath. "Harry, you've been… different the last few weeks. Even since last year. Hermione's right—you're holding onto hate and rejecting love. That can't be good."
Tears came anew. He tried to focus on Snape, on Voldemort, but instead his mind conjured his parents, the Weasleys, Remus and Tonks.
Without quite realizing how, he was kissing Ginny, his heart surprisingly, powerfully alive.
February 20, 1998
"I've been thinking this through logically," said Hermione. "The first question is, has the Hufflepuff Cup been destroyed or not?"
"You think—" Harry began heatedly.
"Listen, Harry!" said Ginny.
"If so, the only Horcrux left—"
"—is Nagini," put in Neville.
Hermione nodded. "But if Snape lied, the next question is, why?"
"Obviously, to trick—"
"Harry, if Snape knows about the Horcruxes—"
"He must," said Luna, "or he wouldn't have mentioned destroying the cup."
"Exactly. So… either he's told You-Know-Who, which means there'll be more Horcruxes or something, and nothing you do is going to matter. Or," Hermione went on, as Harry frowned deeply, "if Snape hasn't told him, that means Snape, regardless of what he's done or how much you hate him, may still be on our side. Either way, we have to decide how to proceed. If we assume that You-Know-Who knows about the Horcruxes, how can we even begin to find out what other precautions he's taken?
"I don't know." Harry looked defeated.
"But if we assume You-Know-Who doesn't know, then logically we also have to assume that Snape wasn't lying about the cup."
"So," said Neville, "just Nagini."
Harry sighed. "And Voldemort."
March 4, 1998
When Harry and Ginny arrived early for the DA meeting, Harry was surprised to see Ron and Hermione emerging from inside the Room of Requirement. Hermione was frowning.
Harry shot Ron an embarrassed, questioning glance, not sure he wanted to know, but Ron merely shrugged.
"It's not there," said Hermione.
"What's not where?" Harry asked.
"Snape's Potions book."
"Wait a minute," Harry began, "you're the one who didn't want me using it!"
"Bit of a hypocrite?" added Ginny, sneering.
"That's before I knew it was Snape's. Look," Hermione said, "I don't suppose you ever noticed that he always wrote our instructions on the board. Our Potions books in the lower years were all theory."
"She wants an 'O' on her Potions N.E.W.T. is all," explained Ron. Earlier in the week, Slughorn had assigned student labs for beginning their exam preparations. Harry had been trying not to think too hard about Slughorn's puzzled disappointment with his skills this year, or how he was going to pass his exam without recourse to the book he had refused to retrieve, knowing the identity of its owner.
"I wasn't going to keep it to myself!" Hermione protested. "But it doesn't matter, because it's gone!"
March 6, 1998
It was nearly midnight when Harry slipped into the seventh-floor corridor alone. In spite of Hermione's insistence that she'd given the room the right instructions, Harry couldn't believe that the book wasn't still where he had hidden it. Maybe Snape had taken it when he'd come back, as Ron had suggested. But he had to know for sure.
"Oh, it's you," a distressed voice said from beyond his wand's light. As he stepped forward, one of the last people he wanted to see came into view. Professor Trelawney had her hands behind her back, but Harry could hear the clinking of bottles.
"It's all right," Harry said, making the best of it. "I'm going in as well."
He started to work the entrance, but there was a bell-like, crashing clatter.
"Beware!" said a harsh voice.
"Oh, no," muttered Harry, turning. Trelawney's eyes were rolling, her body stiffening.
"Beware the Dark Lord's mark upon the champion. So long as he bears it, the Dark Lord cannot die. But if the Dark Lord's protectors are destroyed, his hatred shall make his blood burn. Then he shall fall, he shall perish."
Harry's mind reeled.
"Oh, dear." Trelawney blinked, looking around. "I'm dreadfully clumsy."
March 7, 1998
"Let me get this straight," said Ron. "We've got to kill all the Death Eaters, especially Snape, before you can kill You-Know-Who?"
"I'm not sure that's what the prophecy means at all," said Luna. "I mean, Snape isn't really anyone's champion, is he?"
"It's got to be someone with the Dark Mark," said Harry, grimacing. "And Snape was certainly Voldemort's champion against Dumbledore."
Luna pondered. "It sounds more as if you've got to cut it off Snape's arm, you know?"
"Oh, that's silly," said Ginny.
"Do you really think that 'protectors' means the Death Eaters?" asked Hermione doubtfully.
"It could mean the… you-know, Horcruxes," said Neville. "We already know that's what protects him from dying."
"Could a Dark Mark be used as a Horcrux?" Luna was still lost in thought. "I mean, if a snake could be a Horcrux, maybe a person—"
"Snape's a Horcrux?"
"But that would mean that Snape is controlled by You-Know-Who," said Hermione, "which leaves us with the problem of You-Know-Who knowing that we're trying to destroy his Horcruxes. Which means the game is up."
"But if the cup was a ruse—" Harry protested.
"Harry, this new prophecy didn't say anything about the cup."
March 16, 1998
"Something bothers me," Severus said. "This badge Potter found. It's small enough for the Dark Lord to have concealed it from me that night. However, his body was destroyed before completing the Horcrux spell using Harry's death. Albus dismissed a possible Horcrux there partly for that reason, along with the missing wand."
"Maybe he hasn't made all six? Maybe he's waiting to kill Potter absolutely."
"Possibly. But Albus once told me that Harry would likely have to die to defeat the Dark Lord. I believed he was making a gruesome joke, trying to jolly me along. Now I'm not certain…."
April 2, 1998
"I've been thinking," Harry said. He pulled Ginny closer. "Don't tell anyone yet. I'm thinking I should confront Voldemort during the holiday."
"I can't put it off forever. If Hermione's right, and the cup's been destroyed, then what is there to wait for?"
"We're still not sure what the prophecy means!"
"One thing's certain, I can't fulfill it here."
"I thought you were going to wait until after exams…."
"I can't stand doing nothing any longer, Ginny! If I live to sit N.E.W.T.s, I'd rather do it knowing that I have a future, that Voldemort's dead."
Ginny was silent for a long time, her head buried against his chest. Finally she looked up. "So, what's the plan?"
"You're not coming!"
"You think you can stop me? We're all coming, actually. Do you think any of your friends would let you do this alone?"
Harry's frown deepened, and he looked away. "I'll need the Sword of Gryffindor, to kill Nagini."
"You'll need to find Nagini."
"I have an idea."
"Trying to contact Snape?"
"No! But we know another Death Eater. One who'd probably like to hand me over to Voldemort himself. And his friends are still here at Hogwarts."
April 3, 1998
The tall, burly young man turned, already scowling. "What do you want, Potter?"
"You still talk to Draco Malfoy?"
"You think we'd admit that?" He glanced over at Goyle, who sneered appreciatively.
"I don't care what you admit. I want to talk to him."
"And just how are we supposed to arrange that? Assuming we could?"
"Sounds like some ruddy trap," Goyle put in.
Harry tossed a gold coin at Crabbe, who grabbed at it, but failed to catch it.
"You think you can bribe me, Potter?" Crabbe said, but he bent to scrabble on the floor for it all the same. "Hey, this isn't a real Galleon."
"I never said it was. It's got a Protean Charm. If Draco wants to talk to me, he can set up a time for a Floo Call with that."
"You still haven't said anything about why he'd want to."
"I have unfinished business with...." Harry stared hard at Crabbe, as if daring him to guess. "You know. His master." Harry made the word sound like something he'd found in a rubbish bin. "If Draco wants a chance to benefit from it, he'll contact me. Soon," he added. "The sooner the better."
April 4, 1998
"Professor McGonagall, it's...." Harry paused. "It's time."
"What do you mean, Harry?" But her expression suggested she understood all too well.
"I've got to face Voldemort."
"But your studies—" she broke off. "What's happened? Why now?"
He described the Patronus message and Trelawney's third prophecy.
"I wish you'd told me before," McGonagall fretted. "The phoenix Patronus was certainly Snape's. But—"
"You're certain?" Harry frowned.
Harry's curiosity overwhelmed him. "Do you know whose Patronus the badger was?"
McGonagall pursed her lips, her eyes hardening. "That's not important for you to know." Before he could protest, she went on, "Do you want me to contact the Order?"
He didn't, but he knew he couldn't prevent them from becoming involved. "Tell them to stand by for my instructions." The words seemed to settle on him like a mantle, and Harry felt that, without having intended it, he had become their leader. "What I need now is access to your Floo. I'm expecting a call soon. I'm not sure just when."
McGonagall nodded. "Very well."
"I'm also going to need the Sword of Gryffindor again. For the last Horcrux."
"You do realize what a precious artifact—"
"Okay, the Sorting Hat?"
April 8, 1998
A blond head emerged from the flames.
"What you do want, Potter?" Draco sneered, but his eyes were wide.
"I'm a little surprised to see you alive," Harry said. "I thought you'd have been punished after Snape had to do your job for you."
"You were there! Why didn't you—"
"You're not in your master's favor, are you?" Harry interrupted. When Draco scowled, he went on, "Would you like to be?"
"Why should you care?"
"I don't," Harry said. "But I want to meet with him, and I thought you might be interested in helping to arrange that."
"Meet with him? What does that mean?" Draco asked suspiciously.
"I have something of his. Dumbledore took me to find it the night he died. It was in a cave by the sea."
Draco looked at him blankly.
"He'll know what it means. Tell him.…" Harry braced himself, noticeably. "Tell him that I've been trying ever since to destroy it, and I've realized that I can't. Tell him that.…" Harry took another deep breath. "That I've finally realized that I can't defeat him. That I'm prepared to bow before him. Tell him I'll return the object in exchange for my life."
April 9, 1998
"This is an insane idea!" said Ron.
"He won't walk into a trap like that," added Hermione.
"I think he will," said Harry. "He'll check the cave first, but when he finds the locket gone, he'll realize that to get the Horcrux back, he'll have to talk on my terms."
"Why should he care about one Horcrux?"
"He's already lost the diary. And the locket is more than just a Horcrux. It's proof of his link to Salazar Slytherin."
"But really," said Neville, "won't he take precautions? I mean, won't the Death Eaters be lying in wait to take you prisoner?"
"You can't believe he won't kill you on sight!" asked Hermione.
"I've arranged it so he'll have to come to me. The Order will be there, some hidden, some visible."
"And all of us!" said Luna.
"Of course." Ginny smiled dangerously.
"It'll probably turn into a battle," Harry warned. "I don't like it, but I don't see how else to manage it. But I think he'll want to gloat over me first. And to get the locket back."
"Problem, Harry," said Ron. "The real locket is gone."
"I have Regulus's decoy. And I know an expert in creating illusions."
April 11, 1998
After an unsuccessful attempt by Crabbe and Goyle to steal the locket, which was safely in Dobby's possession, the message came from Draco. Harry had waited for it before he told the Order about his plan.
Their reaction was no better than Harry's friends' had initially been. But now there was no choice. If Harry did not meet with Voldemort as agreed, there was no telling how far the Dark Lord might go. Even if Hogwarts remained unassailable, there were other ways of punishing Harry for his insolence, through the suffering of others who were not so fortunate as to live behind warded walls. And Harry could not remain inside Hogwarts forever.
Harry felt a twinge of guilt for persuading Slughorn to work the illusion spell on the locket without being told its purpose. But he wasn't sure, watching his professor ponder the drawings Hermione had made, that Slughorn didn't have his suspicions. Regardless of what the man inferred, the results of his spell were flawless and, he assured Harry, guaranteed to last for at least a week.
It only needs to last through tomorrow, thought Harry. It only needs to fool Voldemort long enough for the plan to work.
April 12, 1998
The kiss was long ... possibly final.
The Death Eaters had been summoned to the Dark Lord's meeting with Harry Potter. Each side would assuredly try to double-cross the other. A man caught between them would have no friends, only foes.
Sarah pressed a vial of golden liquid into his hand. "I've been making this, secretly. I had a feeling...." Her voice trembled. "Don't die."
Startled approval was mingled with disquiet in his dark eyes. She'd acted without his authorization. A perfect potion. Even with it, he might never see her again. "I will do what I must."
"You always do."
The Final Battle
Harry stepped into the clearing he had chosen in the Forbidden Forest, far enough from all the known dangers to hope that nothing would interfere with the outcome except wizards and fate.
Kingsley Shacklebolt, Arthur Weasley, and Hagrid stood openly on this side of the clearing. Moody, Remus, and Bill Weasley were hidden under Invisibility Cloaks; they would choose whatever positions seemed best to them at any given moment, both protected and endangered by the fact that they could not be seen. Tonks, too heavily pregnant, had been ordered to remain inside Hogwarts. But most of the other Order members, as well as Hermione, Luna, and Ginny, were in place among the trees nearby. And walking close beside Harry, concealed by his own Invisibility Cloak, were Neville and Ron, with the Sword of Gryffindor; they planned to flip a coin for the chance to use it.
"Are you ready?" Harry whispered. He was not certain that he was ready himself. But the longer he waited, the more likely it was that spying Death Eaters would report their position and movements, giving the enemy time to plan their own counterattack.
"As we're going to get," mumbled Ron.
"Let's do this, Harry," said Neville.
Harry took a deep breath. It felt like the deepest he had ever taken in his life. It might be very nearly his last.
"Voldemort!" he shouted, and again, "Voldemort!"
The syllables echoed across the clearing, and across whatever powerful, far-ranging spell Voldemort had managed to cast, long ago, to make everyone in Britain afraid to speak his name.
One by one, in quick succession, Death Eaters appeared in the clearing. Their wands were raised to strike instantly, if need be, and their movements were furtive. Under the broad light of day, their masks and hoods appeared more grotesque than terrifying. Harry wondered which was Snape.
"Put your wands away!" shouted one. Harry could not mistake her voice; it had haunted him in dreams. Bellatrix Lestrange.
"They are away," Harry shouted in return. "Where is your master?"
"Here I am, Harry Potter," said a high, sinuous voice behind him, as Harry's scar began to throb.
Harry whipped around, taking a step back, trying to adjust his plans to the unexpected alteration in position. He was caught between Voldemort and the Death Eaters; the fact that Voldemort was now between Harry and his concealed friends did very little to make him feel better. But his heart leapt when he saw that Nagini was draped around Voldemort's shoulders, like some vast muffler.
"You've brought your friends as well, I see," Voldemort said.
Harry forced his eyes down, away from those blood-red orbs. Snape had warned him about the danger of allowing Voldemort to see his emotions, but his fear—for his friends, for himself—was his only possible shield now.
Voldemort began to pace around Harry and his friends (circling them on the side away from Hagrid, Harry noted). "Really, I'm surprised that you would want them to witness your utter defeat."
"The defeat is shared," Shacklebolt spoke up. "Does Harry's surrender alone satisfy you? His capitulation necessitates the surrender of the entire wizarding world."
"You speak for the Ministry, then?" Voldemort asked, clearly surprised.
"I speak for the Order of the Phoenix," said Shacklebolt. "But the Ministry will not last long when both Harry and the Order have bowed to your might."
"So," Voldemort continued pacing, studying Harry and his friends coldly, until he stood with his Death Eaters behind him, "you have come to recognize the futility of your resistance?"
"Albus Dumbledore gave me an impossible task," Harry said hoarsely, focusing on the pain in his scar. "He told me that you had a Horcrux. He told me what that meant. He thought you'd probably made more than one. He found one and destroyed it—the ring." He saw Voldemort flinch slightly at this. "We found another one the night he was murdered."
"How amusing. You realize, of course, that the potion protecting the locket would have killed him regardless. It would appear, Draco," Voldemort raised his voice slightly, as if to make it carry to those behind him, "that Dumbledore was fated to die by Severus' efforts, one way or the other. It seems I must forgive you."
"Thank you, master," gasped a mask-muffled voice near the back; the youth sounded more terrified than grateful.
Harry, on the other hand, felt as if the words had placed his heart in a vise, which was wringing forth guilt and fury in equal measure. Snape made that terrible, torturous potion! I should have guessed! But it was Harry who had guaranteed Dumbledore's death by following his orders, by making him drink again and again….
Snape could have saved him! Harry thought desperately. But for the first time, he felt a cold assurance inside, answering that it was not so.
I can't afford to lose control, not now! That's what he wants. That's why he's telling me.
"It was all for nothing!" Harry let the tears creep into his voice. "I don't know how he destroyed the ring, but I haven't been able to destroy the locket."
"And so, you have realized at last that it is impossible to defeat me. And you wish to… 'bow before me,' was it?" There was a note of sarcasm in the words, an edge of disbelief that made Harry wonder if the ruse had somehow already been discovered. "In exchange for your life?"
"I can't vanquish you. The prophecy's failed. I don't want to die for nothing!"
"Of course, not," Voldemort said, scornfully soothing. "You've been a coward from the beginning, Harry. And who could blame you. A mere boy, coddled and protected by Albus Dumbledore, never permitted to act on your own."
Harry felt rage rising in his chest, words rising in his throat, don't call me— A jolt of memory shook him, and he took a shuddering breath, then forced his shoulders to bend further, forcing his mind back to the pain in his scar.
"I'm acting now. Choosing now. I'm giving you the locket in exchange for my life. I'll tell the Minister of Magic, the whole wizarding world, that you've won." Hoping it wasn't too soon, Harry dropped to knees, bowing deeply.
"No, Harry! Yeh can't!" Hagrid moaned. He had been told very little of the real plan, out of concern that Voldemort's Legilimency, in combination with Hagrid's open nature, might work better than other magic did against giants. He sounded convincingly distressed, Harry thought, half ruefully.
Unexpectedly, the sound of voices and a scuffle broke out in the forest behind him, and Harry looked up in alarm. Had someone misunderstood? It's not time yet!
"Why, Harry," Voldemort said, and with a note of mocking disappointment, "did you really need to bring quite so many friends?"
From the trees emerged Hermione, Luna, and—to Harry's horror—Ginny, held at wandpoint by Death Eaters.
"My dear young ladies," Voldemort greeted them. Harry noticed that Nagini was moving restlessly now around her master's shoulders. "Have you come to carry your young, foolish hero away to Avalon?"
"We came to see that you didn't double-cross Harry," Luna said matter-of-factly.
"Not, then, to double-cross me?" Voldemort laughed, a high, horrible sound. As if her rest had been disturbed, Nagini slid quietly to the ground. "But I need no promises of Harry's in order to obtain the locket."
The wand movement was so sudden that it took Harry a moment to realize that he was still alive, that the flurry against his chest was only the locket being jerked away from its place of concealment in his robes.
It was happening too suddenly. It wouldn't take long, Harry feared, for Voldemort to see through the illusion, once the locket was in his hands. Or to read the truth in Harry's thoughts, once his attention was focused again on his young enemy. Not now! Harry thought in despair. Not while Ginny stood there, so terribly, dangerously exposed. But there was no other choice. If not now, it would be too late.
"Sirius Black!" he shouted. He had chosen that name as the signal, in part to honor his godfather, in part to confuse any of the Death Eaters—particularly Bellatrix—who might momentarily believe that Sirius had not died after all.
He didn't have time to see whether it had confused anyone. The plan was in motion. In an instant, Ron had thrown the Invisibility Cloak over Harry.
"Avada Kedavra!" howled Voldemort, too late.
Harry rolled right, while Ron dodged left, as a flash of green light struck the ground between them. Before it had faded, Harry was whipping out his wand.
"Expelliarmus!" Ron got the spell off a moment before Harry did. Voldemort blocked Ron's attack, but was caught by Harry's. His wand—not the wand he had used before, Harry noticed, in the strange slow-down clarity of battle—flew up in an arc. Not quite ready to lose the protection of the cloak, especially with magical duels now raging all around the clearing, Harry let the wand fall on the ground in front of him.
Before it landed, there was a shrill scream. Neville had brought the Sword of Gryffindor down on Nagini. Or rather, through her. Her head lay on the ground at his feet, while her body writhed, and that terrible Horcrux death-cry split the air.
But Neville was writhing and screaming, too, clutching at his arm. The Sword fell from his grasp.
And another scream became part of the sound—a scream that felt as if it were splitting Harry's head—a wail of despair from Voldemort that quickly turned into a scream of rage.
"Sectumsempra!" Harry yelled, fighting back the pain, surging to his feet. Ron had turned to deal with an attacker behind him, but Harry's only thought was to kill Voldemort. All his friends were pursuing individual battles with Death Eaters. If no one had yet managed to identify Snape and do something about him, or at least his Dark Mark… well, that would have to wait. At this point, it couldn't matter in what order all the bits of Voldemort were destroyed.
To Harry's surprise and shock, the spell had no effect on Voldemort. He cast it again, and then Voldemort was laughing.
Suddenly, Harry felt the Invisibility Cloak pulled away from behind. He twisted around. It was Peter Pettigrew, looking pleased with his own cleverness. In an instant, he had Harry's wand, and Harry had been flung back to the ground, immobilized by a freezing hex. Peter's silver hand was, Harry realized, disturbingly covered with gore.
"Bring my wand to me!" ordered Voldemort, gesturing to the ground where it lay.
"Peter, no!" Harry begged. "I let you live!"
Peter looked down at him, suddenly frowning.
"Wormtail, now!" Voldemort demanded sharply.
Peter's frown became a scowl. He began to step over Harry, then suddenly stumbled and fell as one of the many spells flying around the clearing hit him.
Out of the corner of Harry's eye, he saw Ron in motion. The Sword of Gryffindor was in his hand. Just as Harry heard Hermione's shout of "Finite!" and felt the binding spell fall away, Ron plunged the Sword through Voldemort.
Again, horribly, Voldemort laughed. He snatched Ron's wand and, with a hiss, sent Ron and the Sword sprawling. There was only a trace of blood around what should have been a fatal wound.
Harry was trying once more to scramble to his feet, but as Voldemort turned, shrugging off Hermione's Stunner, the blood-red eyes fixed on Harry, and Harry knew that he was going to die. Damn Snape, he thought. Damn him to hell!
"Expelliarmus!" It was as if Harry's thought had conjured that hated voice. But that made as little sense as did Ron's stolen wand flying in an arc from Voldemort's hand into the hand of the Death Eater who had broken from the thick of battle and come up behind his dark master.
It clearly did not make sense to Voldemort, either, who whirled to see which of his servants had so drastically missed his aim. "Severus!"
Snape removed his mask. Whatever Voldemort saw there did not please him. He screamed again with rage, raising his hands, as if to throw some wandless blast of power at the man. But Snape moved faster. Thin cords streamed from Snape's wand, binding the Dark Lord, sharpening the pain in Harry's head.
Snape turned to look at Harry. Suddenly his wand slashed out. "Avada Kedavra!"
Harry could not understand why he was not dead, until he saw Peter—who had risen unseen to his feet, with the Invisibility Cloak pulled part way over his head and his wand raised—falling backward with a thump.
"We must hurry!" Snape rushed forward. Harry flinched backward automatically. "The binding won't hold him long."
"It's you!" Harry shouted, not quite sure what he meant, as the thought of Snape's Dark Mark swam in his mind. "Or was it him?" Harry looked around, confused, at the corpse of the little man who had broken faith with Harry's parents. "But then—"
"It is you!" Snape shouted, as if he understood exactly. Exactly wrong?
Snape turned abruptly, stunning a Death Eater who had noticed the Dark Lord's predicament. "Assuming," Snape breathed, returning his attention to Harry, "that some other Horcrux hasn't escaped our notice."
"Harry's not a Horcrux!" Hermione said, baffled. Her wand trembled, as if she could not decide whether she should use it against Snape or not.
"I suppose, Miss Know-it-all, you have deduced some other explanation for the Dark Lord's failure to die?"
"But the prophecy," stammered Harry, "'the Dark Lord's mark.' As long as the champion…." Abruptly, the pieces fell into place.
"It was not the Death Eaters alone the Dark Lord marked, Potter." Snape dodged suddenly as a curse flew at him from another of his masked companions who, in some pause of battle, had realized that things were going very wrong.
"My master!" wailed Bellatrix, rushing toward the prone form. "Traitor!" she screamed, raising her wand again to fire at Snape. But she was too late. Her wand was jerked from her hand, and she was thrown backward, as two colliding disarming spells hit her—Snape's and, unexpectedly, Luna's. She was, Harry noticed for the first time, kneeling beside Neville's body.
Hermione took out another Death Eater, distracted by the realization of the apparent fall of his leader, giving them another moment of breathing room. But Harry felt as if he could not move, as his mind worked desperately to find some other answer than the one Snape had offered.
Snape was speaking again. "He made preparations to create a Horcrux that night—"
"The badge—" Harry said, while the throbbing pain in his scar seemed to hammer the truth deeper with every blow.
"Was never used! It was your death with which he intended to create it as a Horcrux."
"But how could Harry have become—?" protested Hermione.
"Does it matter? Whatever will the Dark Lord possessed to create a Horcrux might well have been focused at the last thing at which he pointed his wand."
"Me," Harry said hollowly, hardly noticing that Ginny had come up beside him. "I was right all along. You were trying to kill me."
"Stupid boy—" Snape began, but a howl of rage from the previously silent Voldemort interrupted him. Fortunately, Kingsley Shacklebolt had become aware of the situation, and was standing guard over Voldemort's bound body.
Harry bent to pick up his wand, understanding at last what he had to do. It was not the ending he had envisioned to this meeting, but it was the only solution he could live with. Die with, he thought bitterly. Professor Dumbledore, why didn't you tell me? Harry raised his wand to the dueling salute. "I know I have to die," he said numbly, "but I can't let you kill me without a fight."
"Harry, no!" said Ginny, clutching at his arm, as he tried to push her out of the way.
"Fool!" snapped Snape. "Do you think that if the Horcrux inhabited your body, you could resist anything the Dark Lord ordered you to do?"
"The scar?" Hermione gasped.
Snape nodded curtly. But he seemed for the first time to hesitate. Then a look of terrible resolve hardened his face, and he strode toward an astonished Harry.
"No!" Ginny said. "I'll do it." Before anyone could react, she had placed her wand against Harry's forehead. "Sectumsempra!"
Harry, accustomed as he was to the usual pain in his scar, was stunned by the unexpected cessation of the familiar agony and its replacement with a new kind of pain, a pain that seemed strangely at odds with the shriek that rose through the air, a shriek that was, surprisingly, not coming from his own throat. Ginny's face, hovering before him, went white. Then fluid was running down his face, into his eyes, his mouth…it was his own blood, he realized.
"Ginny!" screamed Hermione, as the other girl crumpled to the ground with a moan.
Harry, struggling to wipe the blood from his eyes, dropped to his knees beside Ginny. "What's the matter?"
Snape was bending over her as well, unexpected, unwanted. His wand hovered over Ginny's right hand, from which her own wand had fallen, and he was murmuring low, sing-song words. Her hand was so white, Harry thought, it was almost grey.
"Voldemort," Hermione said urgently. Harry followed her gaze. It was not clear whether the Dark Lord had managed to work loose from his bonds on his own, or whether one of his Death Eaters had managed to free him in spite of Shacklebolt's efforts. But Shacklebolt had staggered backwards, and Voldemort had risen to his feet.
Harry felt sick, knowing that he had this one thing left to do. He tried to remember his desire for revenge for his parents' death. But he only felt cold and ill. It took the thought of Ginny, lying stricken before him, to force Harry to his feet.
"To me, Death Eaters!" Voldemort shouted, although the chaos around the clearing made it uncertain how many would hear him. He turned curious eyes upon Harry's bloodstained face, as if unsure whether to dare the boy to try to strike him down again. Harry raised his wand, the Killing Curse hovering like poison on his tongue, as he struggled to open his mouth.
But then the Dark Lord gasped, looking down at his own arms. "No, it cannot be!" He clutched at his chest, moaning. He began writhing, and the moan rose into a high-pitched scream. As the scream went on, far longer and far more human than the death-cry of a Horcrux, all eyes nearby, friend and foe, turned to see Voldemort's body blacken, as if consumed by invisible flames. When the scream ended, it seemed a dreadfully long time before the charred corpse toppled to the ground.
"Ginny!" Harry cried, coming back to her. The greyness in her hand had grown no worse, but Harry felt a stab of despair. "It was the Horcrux curse, wasn't it?" Then rage was surging through Harry again. "Why didn't you do it?" he demanded of Snape, wiping again at the blood running from his forehead.
Snape raised his eyes, still murmuring his spell, and Harry felt as if the man had struck him. I would have, those dark orbs seemed to say.
"It was worth it," Ginny whispered. "He's dead, isn't he?"
"Yes," Harry said firmly. "I don't understand how, but he's dead."
"The prophecy," Hermione said. "His hatred will make his blood burn. Your blood, Harry. He used it, thinking it would give him the power to kill you, but with your mother's protection from him in it, it could never have been compatible with his soul. I think," she glanced uneasily in the direction of the fallen Dark Lord, "I think that once there were no more Horcruxes to protect him from death—"
"It destroyed him," Harry finished.
Hermione's eyes roved over the field of battle. There were still shouted spells echoing within the forest, but on this side of the clearing, only a few of their friends remained looking on. The ground was littered with bodies, dead or stunned. "Ron!" Hermione whimpered, catching sight of him sprawled just beyond Luna and Neville.
"Go on," Harry told her, his eyes finally welling up with tears, hoping against hope that she would find Ron still alive.
He looked down again at Ginny. "What can I do?" he asked, although the words tried to stick in his throat.
Snape reached into a pocket of his robe and held out a vial of emerald green liquid. He paused momentarily in his spell. "Bathe her hand with it, and make her drink the rest."
Harry followed these instructions, although he was beginning to feel light-headed himself.
"You look awful, Harry," Ginny said, grinning weakly, when she finished the potion.
"What's going to happen to her?" Harry demanded of Snape. "Dumbledore's hand…."
"She may be lucky," Snape said, a look of grim disgust on his face, his eyes strangely unfocused. "The curse was counteracted quickly. Also, she was possessed at one time by the Dark Lord, was she not? That may have given her some protection. Only time will tell."
"If she—" Harry said vehemently, feeling his anger surge again.
"You'll what, Potter?" Snape sneered, his eyes focusing sharply again on Harry's face. His wand flicked suddenly, and Harry felt a tingling in the wound on his forehead. When he put up his hand, the bleeding had stopped.
"I should remove myself now," Snape said, rising to his feet. "Not everyone will have seen what occurred, and some who did…may not feel that I acted as I should have."
Before Harry could answer, Snape had Apparated away.
When the fight had ended, and the toll had been taken, the numbers were not as grim as Harry had feared, but still far too high. Ron had only been stunned, after all, although he was disgusted at having missed what he called "the best part." The Sword of Gryffindor had apparently protected Neville from any curse damage, but he had not struck quickly enough to prevent Nagini from sinking her fangs into his arm. He had lost a tremendous amount of blood by the time he was taken to St. Mungo's, but fortunately the treatment that had been developed to cure Arthur two years before had saved him.
Not everyone had fared so well. Moody was found dead, still under his Invisibility Cloak, which had shimmered back into visibility when the body beneath it was no longer alive. Remus must have shed his cloak early on; his heart had been torn out from behind. Dedalus Diggle, Sturgis Podmore, and George Weasley had fallen. So had Molly Weasley.
Many of the bodies on the field were Death Eaters. Draco Malfoy was among them, looking very young and very surprised to be dead. A handful of the Dark Lord's soldiers had been stunned or were too injured to escape. But among the dead or captured, neither Bellatrix Lestrange nor Severus Snape had been found.
Harry was still loath to admit that he had been wrong about Snape. But with Ginny, Hermione, and most of all Shacklebolt, aware of the truth, he couldn't deny it when Rita Skeeter, for her story on "The Dark Lord's Fiery Demise," asked him about the rumors that Snape had turned against Voldemort. He could only grit his teeth when, true to form, Rita inflated Snape's role.
The man himself, however, did not reappear, although Scrimgeour had issued a proclamation of amnesty. Unexpectedly, one of the captured Death Eaters from the Nott family was also pardoned, with the explanation that he, too, had been a Ministry spy.
N.E.W.T.s were held on schedule, although Harry had sufficient difficulty focusing on his studies in the final term that he did poorer than he dared to hope. It was only Shacklebolt's intervention that got him admitted to Auror training along with Ron. Hermione was hired as a trainee assistant in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office. Neville began working for Heriburt's Magical Landscaping.
Ginny's hand seemed to grow no worse. Harry asked her to marry him. It was only at Arthur's insistence that she returned to Hogwarts for her seventh year.
As Harry's forehead healed, his scar took on the appearance of a misshapen X. The original lightning bolt faded to white, and the slash that had freed them from Voldemort, though still faintly purple, was going the same way. There was no pain now; it was just a scar.
A/N: The way the Horcruxes work in this scene is based heavily on the Horcrux-analogue in Lloyd Alexander's Taran Wanderer (as well as other mythological Horcrux-analogues). That is, a Horcrux doesn't just keep you from dying if your body is destroyed; it also makes your body darn near impossible to kill. (The backlash of the failed spell against baby Harry was obviously, in so many ways, a special case.)
Oddly enough, I only recently read the Prydain Chronicles, although logically I should have read them years ago. If I had read them before, I think I could have predicted a lot of things in Harry Potter that took me by surprise. And not just the idea of a Horcrux. The similarities between Snape in DH and Achren in The High King are truly eerie!
The next section of the epilogue will, I hope, wind up the story for good. I've decided to follow the pattern of this chapter: a series of drabbles with a longer section at the end; in this case, the longer section will be the original epilogue that I conceived of way back when I was writing the main part of the story.
And no, it will not take as long between this chapter and the next as it did between the last chapter and this one. At least it better not!