xxx

One Step at a Time

A Message to the World

"Well, that was pointless," Harry said, rubbing at his now throbbing head.

"We did learn that your mind can't be accessed while you're knocked unconscious," Blaise pointed out. "That's useful."

"So you're offering to smash me over the head with a book every evening? "

"I said I was sorry!"

The two had been with Snape for the past few hours trying to figure out a way to keep Voldemort from intruding. They had been tossing out theories, but given the fact that neither Snape or Blaise were willing to go so fair to try and used tainted love, although Snape did offer to give it a try with a rather dark smile, Harry knew it would not be enough.

Snape may relish the idea of getting back at some select members of the Death Eaters (Harry almost felt sorry for Pettigrew and Lucius) even that paled in comparison to anything Voldemort had. Snape had tried to see if he could push through with that, and he had managed to hold on for a few seconds before he'd removed himself, a real-life burn on his hand. Harry had apologized profusely for it and Snape had waved it off.

Their only bit of success had come when, accidentally, Blaise had crashed into Harry following an extended foray into his mind, and sent him to the floor where he'd smashed his head on the stone. He'd been completely knocked out and Blaise took the opportunity to try to access his mind.

Unlike when he was sleeping, since he was completely out cold he had no conscious thought. So there had been no way to get in or do any damage. Snape surmised that it would be similar to the effects of a dreamless sleep potion, but even more effective since Harry was not technically awake at all.

For now they'd decided the safest course of action, short of isolating Harry, was to have him take a dreamless sleep potion (again, Harry griped) and charm him to the area of his bed, which they would teach Ron to do, and remove his wand. While Harry's dream had warned him of the original intrusion, given the success of what being completely unconscious had obtained for now it seemed like the safest theory to try.

The biggest concern now was that Voldemort would try to pull something like this when they weren't expecting it; say in the middle of class or during a meal.

So Harry was not allowed to go anywhere by himself. Walking to class, using the loo, nothing. He had to have someone within feet of him at all times and that person must always have their wand on him or her. That way they could stun him and keep him that way until Harry either gained control or they knocked him out and (likely) completely forced Voldemort out.

Harry didn't like it, but he understood. He would do whatever was needed to keep his friends safe. And at least with Dumbledore in charge he had such options. Had someone like Umbridge been at the school and caught wind of it he would have likely been locked up under Ministry control until they could be certain he wouldn't be possessed.

Blaise had suggested they try to use Voldemort's strategies on him and have Harry try to access the Dark Lord's mind.

Snape had shot the idea down immediately though. "He was on equal footing if not more in your own mind," he had said. "What do you think will happen if you go into his? He would absolutely have the upper hand and we don't actually know what happens should you be 'hurt' in another's mind. It's too much of a risk into uncharted territories." He'd gestured at the burn on his hand. "This could be just a sample of what awaits."

"Hopefully Mione and the others have had more luck than we have," Harry said. "She seemed pretty determined this morning."

"I bet she's solved it by now."

"You think?" Harry had great faith in Hermione, but a few hours ago she hadn't had the foggiest idea what the actual prophecy was supposed to be foretell.

"Maybe," Blaise said. "I'm sure she's found out something new, at least. It all seems to be coming together rather quickly now."

"It sure does," Harry said with a grimace. "Still not sure if that's good or bad."

"Why would it be bad?"

"Because then I have to kill Voldemort," Harry said quietly. "And as much as I want him gone from this world…" He glanced down at his hands, already seeing red on them. "I've never killed someone before. And I really hope when the time comes I'm able to do it."

Blaise's resounding clap on the back nearly sent Harry stumbling into the wall. "Sorry," the Slytherin said sheepishly. "That was supposed to be an, "I believe in you" pat, not a "give Harry another concussion" pat.

"Sentiment's appreciated," Harry said, the tight feeling in his chest disappearing at the unintentional humor.

Blaise was right. When it came down to it Harry knew he would summon up the courage to do what needed to be done. But maybe, if he was lucky, whatever it was he was supposed to do didn't have to be some type of bloody battle. Even though Voldemort was the embodiment of pure evil, Harry did not want to have to resort to dark magic and pain to beat him, if at all possible. Unless of course Voldemort transfigured into something like a Basilisk and he could just stab it with a sword. He did it when he was twelve, he could most definitely do it now.

"I wonder if we can convince them to take a break from studying," Blaise said as they neared the visible Room of Requirement door. "I am famished and lunch is going to wrap up within the hour."

"If they haven't gone already," Harry said. "Ron's stomach practically speaks for itself."

He turned the door knob, fully expecting the room to either be empty or everyone save Hermione lying on the ground. But instead he was greeted with the odd scene of Ginny crying softly and Pansy holding her in her arms, Hermione blinking back tears as she frantically tore her eyes across the parchment and Draco hovered at her side, his own eyes glassy. Ron and Neville weren't crying, but were blank-faced as they stared at Hermione and Neville's hands were clenched so tightly a tiny trickle of blood was making its way down his wrist and into his sweater cuff.

"Uh, not to sound morbid or anything, but did someone die?" Blaised asked as their presence went completely unnoticed.

Eyes snapped to them immediately and Ginny broke free of Pansy's embrace to launch herself at Harry.

"No," Hermione said, looking up and rubbing at her eyes. "No one has died."

"Then...?" Blaise trailed off, gesturing at them while Harry rubbed his hands through Ginny's hair and made shushing noises as he tried to figure out what was wrong.

"Hermione figured out the prophecy," Ron said, his voice steadier than he thought it would be.

"What?" Blaised asked at the same time Harry said, "But that's great news!"

"There's a small complication," Ron said, talking to Blaise as he was unable to look his best friend in the eye. Or he'd be crying just like Ginny.

"Nothing we can't figure out, I'm sure," Blaise said. "What is it?"

"Harry has to die," Hermione said softly before Ron could.

Harry froze, his emerald eyes widening in horror. "What?" he croaked. "That can't be right..."

"The entire prophecy is set up where there's a spell hidden inside of it," Hermione said, her eyes flicked back to the parchment. "We discovered it's the Etaonaf spell. A sacrifice spell that kills the user and all of the user's enemies."

Harry felt his legs give up and he slid to the floor, Ginny pulled even tighter to him.

He had given the idea that he would have to die some thought. After all, the prophecy had the line, "the sacrifice of a king," but he had hoped it was referring to something else. He also thought that maybe, since if he was a king than Voldemort was one too, that Voldemort would need to be sacrificed. But deep down he felt that this was the likely outcome. He'd already cheated death a few times; this time it was calling on him. And if this was what needed to happen to ensure the safety and future of his loved ones. Well, the answer was clear.

"I'm so sorry, Harry," Hermione said. "I didn't want... This wasn't..."

"It's not your fault," Harry heard himself say. "Good work, Mione."

"Good work?" she sputtered. "Harry!"

"What do you want me to say?" Harry asked quietly, the rage that would normally color his words not even present, but rather heavy with resignation. "Do you want me to be angry? Scream? What's the point?" His voice broke. "It won't change anything."

"There has to be another way," Ron said determinedly. "If we didn't even have this bloody prophecy we wouldn't even be thinking this!"

Heads began to nod around the room, a glimmer of hope returning, but Harry quashed it immediately. There was no point in giving false hope.

"I've gone up against him multiple times, Ron. I never thought an ordinary killing curse would work, especially when it didn't work against me. If the prophecy led to this answer then it must be because it is the one thing that will end him for good."

"But what about one of those muggle weapons?" Neville queried. "The gum?"

"Gun," Draco corrected, unfortunately more than familiar with the term.

"Why couldn't we just use one of those on him?" Neville continued. "There'd be no coming back from something like that, right?"

"All muggle weapons fire physical bullets," Hermione said. "I know without a shadow of doubt that Voldemort is not going into this battle defenseless. He'll have shields - be it magical or human - and defensive spells to block physical attacks. Nothing like that is going to touch him."

"There still has to be another spell," Ron insisted. "Something else that could take him out."

"There isn't!" Harry snapped, regretting it immediately as Ron's face fell. "I'm sorry, but that's the truth. If there was then this prophecy wouldn't exist."

"Maybe I solved it incorrectly," Hermione murmured. "I could have put the cart before the horse because I thought I figured it out." But the more she read over it, the more the Etaonaf spell made sense. The prophecy called for a trial, which was a judgement, and it suggested that a king had to sacrifice himself to result in life, which was the sacrificial part of the spell. Given that it was armies clashing, it made sense that the life referenced was all of the lives of the other wizards and witches fighting. However...

"There is one small thing," she said quietly, although her voice seemed louder in the dead silent room (Neville had wisely turned off the radio when it had begun to play the song "Only the Good Die Young" by the Gooble Brothers). "That I think might allude to the fact that Harry won't die. Not really, anyway."

All eyes turned to her expectantly and even Ginny managed to pull her tear-stained face from Harry's sweater and Harry felt the tiniest flutter of hope that he was stubbornly pushing back. He had to be strong in this. It was his destiny and he needed to accept it. But if Hermione thought there was something else he could indulge in the idea. If he trusted anyone's insight it was hers.

"The last two lines," Hermione said, pointing at the parchment. "The sacrifice of a king, results in life. What if that life is Harry's?"

"That makes no sense," Neville said. "I know I haven't gotten terribly far in my research, but this is a spell that requires the user's own life force. There's not a loophole around that. Not with all of the blood magic involved."

"Maybe Harry has to die in order to live," Hermione said, warming up to her idea the more she thought about it. "Like when a doctor has to stop a patient's heart to then restart it. Or, or maybe it's something even beyond that. Something like Jesus Christ rising from the dead because he died for all of our sins."

"I don't really think you can compare me to Jesus," Harry said.

"Why not?" Hermione asked.

"Because it's blasphemy?" Pansy muttered, but only halfheartedly.

"He was the savior, you're the chosen one," Hermione said, loudly over Pansy. "He died for everyone, you have to die to save everyone."

"I think there was something about a magical lion that did that too," Blaise said, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "And he came back to life."

"That's a fictional novel, but it was based on Christianity," Hermione said excitedly. "And written by a wizard, no less. So the elements of religion can still most definitely be a part of wizard culture."

She was right. Despite the fact that most wizarding families often used Merlin in prayers for patience or swears, and there were plenty of Wiccan elements to their beliefs, many were Christians to a degree - they celebrated holidays, held baptisms and funerals and generally subscribed to the teachings of Jesus and the concepts of Heaven and Hell.

"I'd love for that to be true," Harry said, desperately wishing it was. "But I can't go into this assuming that. What if it really isn't talking about me? What if I really do have to die?" The last word came out hesitantly, as he may have somewhat accepted his fate but saying it aloud made it more real.

He knew that his friends would be devastated if he cast this self-sacrificial spell and didn't come back as they were all hoping. Prophecies had so many different meanings and interpretations. The life could just as easily be those saved at the battle, or even those who would have died later by Voldemort's hand than his own. It could even be a reference to the original version of the spell and those that had likely survived because of it.

"That's true," Hermione admitted. "We don't know. And we shouldn't assume," she said quieter. "I don't want false hope to cloud our decisions."

"Not our decision," Harry said gently. "In the end, it's really my decision. I have to decide what happens."

"That's the stupidest thing I've heard all day," Ginny retorted, clenching her fist in his sweater. "It's all of our decisions, you idiot. We can lock you up and stuff you in a broom closet during this entire battle if we really wanted to and... and that way you'd be safe," she trailed off, tears choking her words.

"Oh, Gin," Harry said, placing a kiss to her curls as his heart clenched.

"This is on all of us, mate," Ron said, dropping to sit next to his best friend. "You may have to be the one to cast the spell, yeah, but we're all in on this. You're not doing any part of this alone."

"Whatever you decide, we'll follow," Draco said, locking eyes with Harry. "No matter what."

"What is it you want to do, Harry?" Hermione asked. "We all of course get a say in the matter, but you are ultimately the one that has to make the final call."

"I think there's really only one answer," Harry said, hugging Ginny tighter as she stiffened in his arms, knowing what he was going to say. "I have to cast the spell. If that's the only way to defeat Voldemort, to really kill him, then I have to. No matter what happens to me. If I come back to life, that'd be amazing. But if I don't..." Because I don't think I will. He hugged Ginny again, tears making his words thick. "Well, there's no one I'd rather go down protecting than all of you."

"But I don't want you to die for us," Ginny said, her voice small. "I want you to live for us. With us. With me."

"I do too, Gin," Harry said. "More than anything."

"Then-"

"I can't do that," Harry said. "Not to everyone who is counting on me to end this fight. So many people have been hurt or killed already. If I can stop it, then I have to do it."

The room was silent then as everyone dabbed at their wet eyes and tried to regain their composure after Harry's heartfelt declaration.

"Here's a question," Blaise said, interrupting the quiet that was starting to feel much too heavy. "If this spell exists, why hasn't someone else used it before? Surely someone in the Order, even before we were born, could have cast this and killed Him."

"I don't think it's a well known spell," Hermione said. "I actually never heard about it until Neville was doing research and even then it took extensive digging."

"I've never heard of it either," Draco said. "And I've read a good portion of the Malfoy library."

"It's also very complicated," Neville said. "There's a whole list of ingredients and requirements that need to be met before the user can cast it. I'm going to keep looking until I find another time it was used. There has to be a precedent somewhere about why it isn't used more. I'm sure there were more than enough people, especially during the Goblin Wars, who would have gladly used something like this even if it meant their own life."

"Martyrs were widely respected and even turned into saints and worshiped," Hermione mused. "It is odd that there's not more cases of it being used. Even if it were considered illegal dark magic, I imagine whatever authority had the instructions at their disposal would have done away with the rule book if it would have ensured their victory. And many likely would have volunteered."

"So more research?" Neville sighed.

"Every book in the library if we must," Hermione declared.

"I'm going to go tell Dumbledore," Harry said, lunch all but forgotten now. His stomach rolled at the thought of it. "He needs to know. And maybe he's even heard of this spell."

"We'll all go," Ginny said, as Harry made to get up.

"No," he said gently, pulling his sweater from her grip. "I need to tell him by myself."

"I'm coming too," Hermione said. Harry looked ready to protest again, but Hermione barreled on. "You don't even know how we solved the prophecy. He'll need to know that too." She challenged him with her eyes to stop her and Harry shrugged and gestured for her to join him.

"Let's get out of this room for now too," Hermione said. "Grab something to eat, go for a walk. Harry and I will find you all when we're finished."

Quiet goodbyes followed them out the door and then the room descended into a melancholy silence.

"This is my fault," Draco muttered once they'd gone.

"Your fault?" Pansy repeated. "How on earth can you think that?"

"If I hadn't recited that bloody prophecy this never would have happened," Draco all but growled, having the desperate urge to punch something and having to settle for smashing his fists together. "Ron's right. We should have been able to find a different way."

"Then I guess I'm to blame for recording the bloody thing?" Blaise fired back heatedly. "None of us knew this would happen. None of us wanted it to!"

"Fate has a funny way of working," Ron said, one arm wrapped about Ginny's shoulders, interrupting what could have been a blame match. "If we hadn't stumbled upon Fluffy our first year and befriended Hagrid we would have never stopped Voldemort from getting the Philosopher's Stone. If Ginny hadn't been the one to get that diary and actually written in it, and Harry hadn't found out he could speak parsletongue we would have never stopped Voldemort from coming back to life.

"If Pettigrew, that bloody rat, hadn't been adopted by my family and we got our photograph in the paper, then Harry would have never had the chance to meet Sirius, and Sirius would never had been able to share what really happened with Harry's parents.

"And if we never had Parenting Class... well, we would have never even had a chance to hear the prophecy in the first place and you'd probably be bloody miserable still trying to live up to your family name," Ron said to Draco. "And Harry might have been dead already given the fact that Voldemort seems to be able to possess him at will. And if we hadn't had that assignment for Defense and Neville got a topic that would so neatly lead us right here, then we'd still have no idea at all what the prophecy was trying to tell us.

"So much of what we've accomplished is through sheer dumb luck. You can't say it's all coincidence. So yeah, this sucks. This prophecy is bollocks. But something is pushing us towards it and all of us together and that has to be for a reason. I refuse to believe it's all been for nothing and that this, all of this, has to mean something.

"And maybe it's naive of me, but I'm going to hope that whatever happens at the end of this that we all cross that finish line together. Because no matter what some bloody spell says, there's no way in hell I'm going to just give up on believing that we all make it through this. And that's my final world on the matter."

"I actually feel better now," Ginny said. "Thanks, Ron."

"Anytime."

"I am surprised," Pansy said. "That was quite the speech. And," she lightly touched her heart. "I feel better too. Like we really are all going to get through this."

"I agree," Draco said with a warm smile at Ron. "Thank you for that."

Ron was blushing now and waved away the praise.

"Don't be so modest, Mr. Knight," Blaise teased, trying to lighten the mood. "You're going to have to give impassioned speeches like that all the time now."

"I am?"

"You have to rally your troops," Pansy grinned.

"Troops?"

"You didn't think we'd have an army of nifflers or something, did you?" Blaise said. "Us, mate. You're going to have to get us all ready for battle and stuff."

"I am?"

"Oh, Ronald," Ginny laughed, kissing his cheek. "You can be so awkward it's adorable."

"Thanks?"

"Let's do what Hermione said," Draco said, rising to his feet. "Get some food and go outside for some fresh air. We need a break from all of this. And I know I'm actually feeling hungry, when a few minutes ago you couldn't have forced chocolate pudding down my throat."

Everyone started getting to their feet, a sense of calm taking the place of the despair and panic. Only Neville remained, paging through one of his many books.

"Ah hem," Draco said, nudging Neville with his foot. "I meant everyone."

"I think I might have almost found something," Neville muttered, his tongue clenched between his teeth.

"And I think I still recall a certain someone who thought it was a good idea to dump a glass of water on me this morning," Draco said. Neville stilled his page turning at that. "And if I so wanted I would gladly exact my revenge for that egregious crime, but I am willing to forgo it if you are as willing to listen to this suggestion of Hermione's as you were her previous one."

"You won't get back at me later?" Neville asked, voice tinged with suspicion even as he reached for a bookmark.

"Cross my heart," Draco smirked.

"Against my better judgment I am trusting you," Neville said, putting the book aside and accepting Draco's offered hand. "I will tell Hermione though if you go back on it."

"And face her wrath?" Draco asked with a mock shudder. "No thank you. Now come on. Lunch is almost over at this point."

"Hurry up," Ron called, already down the hall. "I'm starving!"

And laughing softly, something Draco hadn't thought would be possible an hour ago, they joined their friends.

xxx

"Harry, slow down," Hermione panted, having to nearly jog to keep up with the furious pace Harry was setting to get to Dumbledore's office, which was clear across the castle.

He faltered slightly, as if not realizing how fast he had been walking, and measured his steps so Hermione could fall in line next to him. They walked quietly together and Hermione took the moment to study Harry, who kept his eyes resolutely forward.

His jaw was set and his hands clenched into swinging fists at his sides. His shoulders were hunched and if anyone were to come across him they'd describe him as incredibly angry. But Hermione could see what Harry was trying to hide from the rest of the world. His posture may scream to stay out of his way, but Hermione had seen it several times before now and knew as well as Harry did that it was just a front.

"Harry, stop," she said, reaching out and lightly holding onto his arm. "We can't see Dumbledore like this."

"Like what?" Harry asked, voice hard.

"I know you're scared—"

"I'm not scared!"

"Being brave doesn't mean you can't be scared," Hermione said softly. "You know that better than most."

Harry looked away, jaw still clenched.

After a moment he said, "It doesn't matter how I feel. I have to do this no matter what."

"I know," she murmured. "But Harry, you don't have to put up this front. Not with me. I know you. I know how scared you are – not just of dying but of letting everyone down."

"Well it's a pretty valid fear," Harry snapped. "Look at what's happened because of Voldemort! My parents and Neville's parents and Cedric and Draco and… and Sirius," he faltered. "If I don't kill him, all of that was for nothing. They all suffered and died for nothing."

"No," Hermione retorted. "They didn't. They didn't do those things for you, Harry."

"Wow, thanks Hermione. You know how to make me feel so much better."

"They did it because they believed in a better future," she pressed on. "They did it for love and hope and faith that the world would turn out better than they left it. And yes, a good part of that hope lies in you. But you are not solely responsible for the fate of the wizarding world, Harry. We're all a part of this and we are all going to do what we can to save it."

"I still have to cast it though," Harry said. "I still have to be the one to make that decision."

"Yes," she agreed. "You do. And all of the wizards and witches choosing to fight and put their lives on the line are making a decision too. They might not get to see the future they're fighting for, but they're still going to do it. Because that's a future they chose to believe in. And in doing that they believe in you, Harry. I believe in you."

"And if this doesn't work?" Harry asked softly, voice breaking. "If the spell fails and everyone dies for nothing? What kind of future is that?"

Because at the root of it all, Harry was scared of dying but he was more terrified of losing anyone else. He would put himself in harm's way again and again just as he had done for years if it meant keeping his loved ones safe.

"Hey," she whispered, pulling him into a hug, which he reciprocated instantly, nearly crushing her against him. "Don't have so little faith yourself. If it wasn't for you, none of this would have even been possible. You've changed so many lives already, Harry. And I have zero doubts that you're going to help thousands more."

She gave him a tight squeeze. "And don't count us out either. We've been by your side through thick and thin and we're not leaving it for a second. Because Harry? I can't imagine my future without you, so I'm not going to. I'm going to do whatever I need to do to make sure you're with us at the end."

"You can't do that," Harry mumbled into her hair, damp spots already forming in her curls.

"Says who?" she demanded. "The spell? I'm the most brilliant witch Hogwarts has seen in years. I'm going to beat that bloody Etaonaf spell up and spit back out the Granger Judgment and make it listen to me."

Harry gave a half sob and laugh and hugged her tighter.

"You're not doing this alone," she said, voice soft again. "No matter what happens. And it's okay to be scared and upset and mad about how unfair all of this is. Because it isn't fair. Not to you. But you're you, Harry. And although we joke about that hero complex of yours, it's true. You want to save everyone and protect everyone and I know, at the end, you're going to do just that. So don't worry about letting us down. Because there's nothing you can do that would ever, ever make us think you did."

She continued to embrace him then, holding him tightly as his shoulders shook silently with the sobs he couldn't bear to let the others see. Eventually though they stilled and Harry released her from his near-bruising grip and wiped at his eyes underneath his glasses.

"I take it back," he said, offering her a slightly watery smile. "You know just what to say to make me feel better."

She mirrored his smile. "Ready to see Dumbledore now?"

"Yeah," Harry said. "Yeah, I am."

And they walked down the hall to deliver a message that would change the world.

Author's Notes:

I don't know about you guys, but I am such a sucker for Harry/Hermione brother/sister moments like these. I absolutely love their dynamic and whenever I'm feeling especially nostalgic I re-watch their dance seen from Deathly Hallows part 1. So sweet. Also, Ron is really stepping up! I can so see him, when he's being serious like that, to make such connections. Fate certainly is interesting, is it not? One little deviation from normal and you can save the world.

Thank you to all of the lovely readers who dropped a review last chapter! I really appreciate it! My goal was to respond to all logged in comments, but I've been so under the weather it did not happen. I will try for this week though :) Big hugs to: ItzelNox, LishaChan, diyararora, PrettiInPink, Guest, BlueBabyAquaGirl, XLyraMalfoyX867, Jessielou71605, YoukaiPriestess, Jewels74, Nutella101, Sherlock Harry Winchester, Dramionefan4ever, SazHearT, MissAnon, Guest, HP-Lover1015, Irshna, PaintedWings45, msrashaaessence, unfittingpuzzlepieces, KnowInsight, jillianthompson24, MeAFanficAddict and Kim.

That being said, given the rather... lukewarm... approach to last chapter OST looks to be going back to two-week updates on Sundays. I apologize for the delay, but despite how much I want it to be my heart is just not in it. I won't lie though and say Ron and Hermione this chapter didn't inspire me a bit.

If you have a moment I'd greatly appreciate your comments. Thanks everyone! And if you're down in Florida/lower east coast, please be safe. Thinking of you and all of those hit by Harvey.

Updated: September 10, 2017