End Of The World
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is set towards the end of HBP, in the weeks following the infamous Chapter Twenty-Four. It is also marginally AU, thanks to the minor twist of adding Astronomy classes to poor Harry's already hectic schedule. Well, it was either that or have Ginny make The Big Discovery…
It had all started in the Astronomy Tower. After a particularly tiring day with Snape, followed by Trelawney's usual prophecies of impending doom and a four-hour Quidditch practice, all Harry wanted to do was curl up in a corner and go to sleep. And that, by and large, is what he was doing, although he was hunched around a telescope rather than in a corner. He was gazing at the Moon, gleaming and shiny and highly reminiscent of a particularly pleasant evening walk round the lake with Ginny a few days earlier.
Adjusting the telescope, his eyes shifted to Mars. His eyelids were drooping, making it look rather fuzzy, but he wasn't really looking at it. The reddish circle gazed back at him, glowing brighter as he started to drift off.
It blinked. There were now two planets, both glowing red and with ugly black pupils slashed, cat-like, down the centre. He twitched as the planets blinked again, and the silvery light from the moon shimmered and formed a glittering hand hovering before him. He whimpered.
Shadows started appearing in the blackness, and the void started taking the shape of a face. A pale, serpentine face with burning red eyes, veiled in a cloak of stars and swept in darkness. He recognised it, his sleeping mind thought, while a few insistent neurones at the back of his brain tried to attract his attention.
"Potter…" The sibilant voice crooned gently. "…tell me…"
He frowned. He couldn't quit recognise the face, but the voice was wrong.
"Potter…" There it was again, and once again the rebellious neurones were kicking up a fuss. One by one, they threw up their hands and retreated, muttering.
The dream shattered, its shrapnel cascading around him. His head slipped from the telescope, and the desk seemed to rise up to meet him. A loud thump ensued, and his glasses fell off.
He blinked, quickly found and donned his glasses, and looked around.
"Potter, if you've finished holidaying in the Land Of Nod," Professor Sinistra said, a corner of her mouth twitching slightly, "you might like to tell me what is particularly interesting about the atmosphere of Venus."
"Um." Harry turned back to his telescope and looked through it to line it up on Venus. "It's full of sulphuric acid… um…" Mars was still fuzzy. He blinked a few more times and looked again, but there was no change. "Um… Professor, should Mars be looking like this?"
There was something in his tone that wiped the almost-smile from Sinistra's face. She strode to her own telescope and peered through, staring down the eyepiece for several long moments.
"Potter," she announced, not lifting her eyes, "you stay here. The rest of you are dismissed. We will continue at next week's lesson."
The class started muttering in confusion, but eventually everyone had packed up and filed out – except Harry, Ron and Hermione, who stood together. Harry stood in a daze, remembering what Trelawney had predicted earlier.
Doom will come from above, she had said, having sunk into the unusual state that sometimes suggested she might be partly correct. As the eighth month dawns, the warrior will bring death to the earth, and all shall cease.
"What's the matter?" Harry asked tremulously, shaking off a chill running up his spine.
"Mars," Sinistra started cautiously, "certainly should not be looking like that. That wasn't Mars you saw, it was part of the asteroid belt. Where no asteroids should be."
"I don't know why, but with an asteroid swarm that size out of its orbit, we could have some trouble." She suddenly seemed to notice Ron and Hermione. "What are you two, his moral support?"
"Pretty much," mumbled Ron.
"Well, then. All three of you, up here, tomorrow evening. All right? And if anyone asks, Potter, it's a detention for falling asleep in class. Now hurry along, I need to speak to the Headmaster about this."
It all went quite quickly from there. Dumbledore had investigated and come to the same conclusion, and in consultation with Professor Vector they had calculated that the Earth's orbit would take it straight through the asteroid swarm – around the beginning of August.
Then the Muggle authorities had got wind of it, and Hermione had reported television programmes hypothesising about 'extinction-level events' and presenting elaborate scenarios of what would happen if the Earth were to be hit by a comet.
But none of them had mentioned the possibility of being hit by dozens of kilometre-sized rocks.
Things came to a head towards the end of May, in the middle of revision season. As the owls began their customary deliveries over breakfast, a loud gasp came from the end of the Hufflepuff table. It drew a few raised eyebrows, until it was echoed by students all around the room. The gaspers had one thing in common:
They were all reading the Daily Prophet.
Harry's copy dropped onto the table beside him, and he glanced at it to see what the fuss was about.
Armageddon From The Skies
The piece went on to explain – with surprising accuracy, Harry thought – about the asteroid swarm, and concluded with a startlingly blunt comment that the impact 'would most likely result in the total extinction of all life on Earth.'
It came as no surprise to Harry, of course, but he was shocked by the bluntness of the article.
"They'll stop them," Hermione said confidently. "The Times said that there's a committee of over two hundred of the world's smartest scientists working on it. Practically unlimited resources." Though her tone was firm and hopeful, her eyes held a despairing expression, almost pleading.
Harry shook his head, knowing that the swarm was simply too dense to divert. But before he could reply, there was a ping as Dumbledore tapped his goblet and stood.
"I take it that most of you have by now read the article." He looked particularly tired today, Harry thought. "Yes, we are heading straight into a vast swarm of asteroids. They will start falling all around us by August. It is most unlikely that anyone on this planet will survive." He smiled ruefully, and continued.
"As I have said to one or two of you, it may be comforting to think of death as… well, nothing but the next great adventure. But to most of you, I suspect, probably not. Not at your age. Yesterday you had your whole lives before you, today all any of us can do is prepare to go in as dignified a way as possible.
"You will not panic. You will not despair. This is a time to reflect and prioritise, to decide what is important and what is not. Take whatever time you need; I think we can safely consider classes optional for the rest of term. Return to your dormitories if you wish, attend class if you wish, walk in the grounds if you wish. But I ask you this: Think. Decide now how you wish to go – with dignity, meeting the cataclysm eye to eye, or in ignominy and disorder.
"I will arrange for the Hogwarts Express to be at the station on Friday, so those of you who wish may travel home. Those who wish to stay may do so, and Hogwarts will be open over the summer; certainly, I would appreciate the company. I will go down with my ship, and I will do so standing at the very top of the Astronomy Tower.
"I must have sounded very pessimistic. However, it would not be fair to you all to raise false hopes. We must be realistic; the greatest minds in the world are working to avert the catastrophe, but with a swarm of this size there is nothing to be done. We may divert a few of the asteroids, but there would still be several dozen left. No, far better to realise the truth and accept it, and use your remaining time for good. Rekindle old friendships, make new ones, reconcile with estranged friends and family. But do not let your time go to waste.
"I will take any questions you may have now, and I encourage you to talk amongst yourselves. If you wish to talk to any of us –" he indicated the teaching staff "– we will all be available at any time of day or night for you to discuss anything and everything with. Life. The universe.
"Now, eat up."
The hall fell silent. The Prophet had been wrong before – and had, indeed, been forced to publish several retractions following their Ministry-induced denial of Voldemort's return – but to have the disastrous news so bluntly confirmed by Dumbledore had shaken the students. (In an interesting twist, Dumbledore's words were quoted in full in the Thursday edition of the Prophet, but it was considered wise not to speculate on how they got there.) Some returned, ponderously, to their breakfasts, but most stood and, deep in thought, left the Great Hall.
Hermione had been silent through the speech, growing more and more ashen. Now she stood, her face white as a sheet, and rushed out. Ron followed her, looking worried. Harry had known about it all already, of course, but like for so many of the others the gravity of the situation had not quite sunk in until Dumbledore had spoken. His head whirling, he tucked into his bacon – and found a small hand hooked around his elbow. He continued eating with his free hand as Ginny's head came to rest on his shoulder.
When they had both finished they stood and silently set off up the stairs, arm in arm. The school was quiet, though occasionally they heard muffled sobs from behind closed doors. Even the ghosts seemed subdued; the news had spread fast.
As they approached the Fat Lady, Ron scuttled up to them.
"Guys, you have to come in. Hermione's in a bad way. She's gone round the bend, I think."
Concerned, they hurried in after him.
The common room was empty, apart from Hermione. She sat cross-legged in front of the fireplace, staring into the flames.
"Hermione?" Ginny breathed. She got no reply.
They gathered around Hermione. She was staring blankly into the flames, tears streaming silently down her face. Glancing at the fire, Harry noticed something odd. He picked up the poker and jabbed at the logs, and found that they were not logs.
They were textbooks.
Gaping, Harry turned.
"She's burning her books?"
"And my scrolls, homework and essays," she added in a small voice. "There's no point." She had not moved, but she seemed at least vaguely conscious of them now.
"Well, why are you burning them all?"
"No point." Her voice sounded slow and dreamy, so unlike her usual brisk tone that Ron shot Harry a worried glance. "All I ever cared about was academia, but now… I'll never get my NEWTs, I'll never need any qualifications. None of it matters any more. None of it ever mattered." She sank back into a heap.
"Hermione," Ron began, resting a hand gently on her shoulder. She never gave him a chance to continue; before he could react, she had spun round and, wrapping her arms around him, thrown him to the floor.
"Ron, I love you." Sprawling over him, the words tumbled out of her, her usual composure forgotten. "All those years, I could never tell you, and then you went out with Lavender, and you kept ignoring me, and now I don't care because in three months it'll never matter anyway, but I love you."
"Hermione…" Ron extricated himself as she paused to draw breath. "Bloody hell, Hermione…" He looked as if he had been clubbed over the head with a trout.
She cringed and shrank back as if he had hit her. "Oh… I… I'm sorry…"
"No!" Ron rolled back onto his haunches and held her. "That's not what I mean. I mean, I wish you'd said something earlier… I mean… oh, bollocks."
And he kissed her.
They pulled apart a moment later, embarrassed.
"Um… we'll just… um…" Hermione spluttered, pulling Ron towards the staircase. "We'll… er… catch up with you two later. Um. Leave you alone for a while." Ron, dragged along, barely managed a shrug, and then they were gone.
"About time," Harry muttered, finding a seat in the sofa by the fire.
"They always were a bit slow," Ginny agreed with a wan smile, curling up beside him.
And there they sat for the rest of the day, watching Hermione's books turn to ashes.
"I think," Harry said slowly as the embers died down, "that I'll forget about Voldemort. I don't care. It's not worth it. It's two months. I've finally got you; I'm not risking that to save the world for two months. I'll tell Dumbledore tomorrow."
And he did. And to his surprise, Dumbledore agreed with him. "There are more important things now," he had said.
Most of the students returned home later that week. Even before then, however, three students had died. All three had been Slytherins from pureblood families and imbued with a warped sense of 'nobility' from birth; two had walked into the lake and drowned themselves – the first having killed three merpeople as they tried to save her. The third and last Hogwarts student to commit suicide was Draco Malfoy, who had appropriated a sword from one of the suits of armour, plunged it into his stomach and thrown himself off the West Tower. Dumbledore had described the deaths as "tragic ends for three unfortunate children"; Snape, much to everyone's surprise, had instead sneered with more than a hint of disappointment that the three had taken "the coward's way out".
In the meantime, Voldemort's attacks had decreased in frequency, but those that occurred were spectacular and vicious. Two hundred Muggles were killed in a Death Eater raid on London, and several smaller raids also inflicted heavy casualties on both magical and Muggle communities. As wizarding families were wiped out, more and more students decided to spend the summer at Hogwarts; several unharmed families elected to spend their holidays there as well, and it was soon as full as during term.
But Harry and his friends returned to the Burrow. Mr Weasley set up a comfortably-furnished wizarding tent in the garden for Hermione's parents, and the weeks passed quickly. On the whole, everyone carefully avoided mentioning the asteroids, but otherwise they seemed to have taken Dumbledore's advice to heart. In a twist that none had foreseen, Remus Lupin had married Nymphadora Tonks, and Harry had spent a good chunk of his inherited money on their wedding, as well as that of Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour. After all, another month and it would all be vaporised. What difference did it make?
By mid-July the asteroids could be seen with the naked eye. At night they reflected the sun's light, much like the moon, and formed new, ever-changing constellations of glowing rock in the night sky. Dumbledore's words had resonated within the wizarding community, but similar appeals had little effect on the Muggles. The world was plagued by civil unrest, and many larger cities had become almost completely lawless. There was looting and panic, and destruction and misery had become commonplace. Muggle society was imploding, so wizarding homes were increasingly being made unplottable. The violence of the outside world would not disturb them as they waited for the end.
On the day of the impact, the atmosphere at breakfast was subdued. Percy had returned to the family with profuse apologies, and even Ron had grudgingly accepted them. Mrs Weasley seemed to have run out of tears, and had not cried for several weeks now, a fact that worried Harry more than the knowledge of his impending death.
He had little time to ponder this, however. A loud knock at the door heralded the arrival of the Lovegoods, and Mr Weasley went to let them in.
"Monty, Luna. Come on in."
Luna breezed in, smiling serenely. Even Mrs Weasley managed a faint smile in return; Luna's constant conviction that she would see her mother had been a considerable source of comfort for all of them, much as it had been for Harry after Sirius' death. Hers was the kind of mind, Harry reflected, that really did see death as the next great adventure.
They spent the rest of the day together, talking and playing Quidditch. As evening drew near, they gathered in the kitchen for a final toast, after which Ron and Hermione snuck away up the stairs. The others were very careful not to notice.
A few minutes later, Harry and Ginny walked down the path from the Burrow towards the bench overlooking the stream. They walked hand in hand, occasionally glancing up at the glowing asteroids, growing visibly in the dark sky. They felt no regrets about leaving the Burrow now; they had said their goodbyes, and the few hundred yards from the house made it easier to not think of what Ron and Hermione were up to.
"We'll be dead in a few hours," Ginny said conversationally.
That seemed to pretty much cover it, and they walked in silence the rest of the way. Ginny squeezed Harry's hand in hers, and allowed herself a moment's surprise at the silence.
"There's usually more noise than this at this time of night. Bats and things."
"I suppose they know what's coming."
"I always… I always knew I'd net you," she smiled, almost sadly. "I had expected to have a bit more of a life with you, though. Thought we'd get married, get rid of Voldemort, have kids, retire together…"
Harry put an arm around her shoulder and held her close as they walked.
"Didn't work out, really, did it? Here, hang on…" He leaned down and picked up a dandelion. Splitting the stalk, he formed it into a rough ring, the bright yellow flower almost glowing in the unnaturally bright moonlight. He put the ring on her finger and gave her a lopsided grin. "Do you? It's not official, of course, but under the circumstances…"
She giggled, and kissed him. "Yes."
"Well then," he grinned back at her, "Mrs Potter, perhaps we should take a seat."
Wrapped around each other, they meandered to the bench and sat down. Ginny curled up against Harry's chest.
"Nice night for it," she smiled ruefully.
"Could be worse." He held her tightly, and they watched the glowing blotches in the sky growing ever closer. They waited, just enjoying each other's company. They had three hours together, with no distractions.
And there they sat, peaceful and content, as the rocks began to fall.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: While at first glance this may feel grim, I had in fact intended it as an optimistic look at the end of the world. I still think it is, in a sense. It's the end of the war, for Harry; he no longer needs to worry about Voldemort, exams, Quidditch or anything, and can just concentrate on the things that he's missed out on all these years. To some degree I suppose it's influenced by the Japanese Bushido philosophy with its idea of accepting inevitable death and not wasting time on worrying. After all, if you're going to die and nothing you can do will change it, it must be better to accept it and spend the interim doing the things you've missed out on in the past, much as Dumbledore explains above. Besides, being hit by a million tons of flying rock… there are far worse ways to go.
Blimey, I certainly started waxing philosophical there, didn't I? Ah well – my next fic will be back to my regular scheduled parodies…