A/N: Finally, this chapter is complete! The part with Harry behind the veil has taken far longer than I expected, so the fic will probably end up being thirty-five chapters, not thirty-four (and certainly not my originally-planned thirty-three!) I hope you enjoy it!
Chapter Thirty-One: Debts Repaid
The journey with Remus on the S.S. Phoenix was tense. Remus sat stooped on the edge of Dumbledore's lawn chair, focusing a suspicious look on Harry; Harry stood on deck, trying and failing to ignore Remus, twirling the tiny wheel this way and that with his fingertips, but finding nothing.
'It feels like it should be here,' he said, frowning in confusion as he glanced across the landscape but seeing nothing except barren earth. His heart palpitated wildly with an unusual, visceral dread; he wondered why, but then remembered Dumbledore's warning that he would become more affected by the pain of Voldemort's soul as he gathered its pieces.
'It's not here, though, is it?' stated Remus bluntly, gazing off dully into space.
Harry didn't answer. He knew it was there. 'Which ones are left?' he asked aloud. 'There's the locket, the cup, and the snake…the locket was in a cave, but I don't see any caves around here…the cup was underground…'
The crystal buzzed against his thigh from within his pocket as if to confirm that his thoughts were tending in the right direction. 'I think I've got it.'
'Smashing,' muttered Remus, tapping on his knee impatiently.
Harry wasn't sure at first how to command the Phoenix to do what he wanted. He stared at the wheel and then, inspired, pushed it down the stick it was attached to.
The Phoenix banged like a backfiring engine, and then it slowly moved forward – and downward. Soon Harry couldn't see the sky unless he looked straight up. A canopy flew over the boat, covering them, and everything was dark as it kept drilling.
'We're almost there!' shouted Harry, covering his ears to block out the noise. He could no longer see Remus, nor could he hear his own words.
The journey ceased suddenly; after his ears stopped ringing, Harry heard several large rocks smash against the canopy.
'Are you all right?' yelled Remus.
'Yeah,' said Harry. It was hard to remain standing; the Phoenix was leaning steeply. Its badly bent starboard rails were pressed up against a crack large enough to walk into.
As he looked into the crack, an abrupt shudder of pain brought Harry to his knees.
Remus stood over him, looking concerned – looking like Remus instead of a bitter, distrusting copy. 'Let me help you,' he said gently; he grabbed Harry by the shoulders and helped to keep him steady as they walked over the rails.
They moved through the path hewn in the rock until they reached the centre. The cup sat in the middle of a circular chamber. A liquid – thick blood of such deep red that it was nearly black – bubbled up and dripped down the sides of the cup onto the ground; it was gulped into the cracks.
'What now?' asked Remus. He turned to Harry with a scrutinizing expression, as though trying to discern whether or not he truly was who he claimed to be. Harry smiled, and that seemed to convince him. 'I'm dead.' His eyes widened in alarm. 'And you, you're –'
'I'm not,' he promised. He clutched his chest as a blot of agony spread through it. 'I need to get the cup.'
'I thought you already destroyed it.' Remus manoeuvred Harry into a sitting position on the ground; soon the pain had passed again.
'This place is different. That's not a Horcrux; it's his soul. I need it.'
'How can you be here with me if I'm dead and you're not? And why do you look like…'
Harry frowned and looked down at himself. He didn't see what Remus meant; he looked exactly like himself. 'I have to get it. Please, Remus, trust me.' He snapped back against the wall, clutching his chest. 'I…can't…'
Remus squeezed his shoulder in sympathy, and the pain receded to a manageable level. 'I'll get it.'
'No!' Harry grabbed Remus's arm, terrified of what would happen if Remus touched the cup. 'You don't understand…it'll hurt you…I can't let anyone else get hurt because of me.'
'Hurt me?' For the first time since Harry had found him in this place, Remus smiled peacefully; with his face so young and unmarred by years of lycanthropy, he could even have been called handsome. 'You said I'm dead, didn't you?'
'I've been through a lot,' said Remus decisively, talking over him, 'and I would do it all over again to help the Order – and you. Nothing I suffer in death will change that.' His brow furrowed, and he glanced away as he added, 'I have many regrets about how I lived my life, things I did and didn't do, but perhaps I did enough right…'
'You did!' Harry assured him, and when Remus looked into his eyes and saw truth, a great weight shifted from his shoulders, completing his transformation into a happy young man.
He stood up and stared at the cup, then turned back to Harry. 'Say goodbye to Tonks for me. Tell her I truly love her. I never said it enough.'
He picked up the cup and held it out to Harry. As Harry pressed himself up and closed his fingers around the cup's other handle, he couldn't help but feel that he'd done something really right.
Then Remus's face drained of colour rapidly; Harry looked down to see blood soaking through his pant legs. His face was sunken and lined by the time the cup's handle slipped through his fingers, and then he disappeared.
The cup dissolved. Sunlight shone on the spot where the cup had been, and Harry looked up to see a hole wide enough for him to fit through – if he could only reach it. After a few test jumps, he knew it was impossible to go through it on his own.
As he was about to leave, a muscular arm shot down from the hole. 'Grab hold!' a man called down to him, his voice muffled by the rock.
Harry jumped, and the hand closed firmly around his arm. He felt light as a child as he was pulled up into the bright light; he heard birds chirping, and even that unobtrusive sign of life was a relief.
He sat with his legs dangling in the hole, and he turned to see his rescuer. The face that greeted him rendered him speechless.
'Hello Harry,' said James tenderly, kneeling beside him. He put his hand on Harry's face, rubbing his son's cheek with his thumb. 'It's very good to see you.'
They were surrounded by greenery. The mountains were so close that Harry could no longer see their peaks. He smiled tentatively at his father, wishing that he could experience the full force of the happiness he knew he ought to feel.
'I'm glad to see you too,' Harry managed to say, and that much was certainly true.
James clapped him on the back. 'Thank you for what you did for Remus. He couldn't have crossed over without you. He was too overcome with pain and regrets, but you helped him to see past it and remember all the worthwhile parts of his life. I'm proud of you, son.'
Harry had never thought, in his wildest dreams, that he would ever hear those words from his dad. He was once again silent. James reached back and produced a shining silvery sword.
'That was Gryffindor's,' said Harry immediately. He frowned when he saw a glint of a strange reflection in the blade, but James immediately pulled it away.
'We have a snake to slay,' said James with a grin, and Harry forgot all about the reflection. 'I hear you're the expert, so lead on.'
Harry and his father walked into a dark patch of woods nearby; Harry simply led them in the direction that was most painful for him to follow. Within minutes, he needed James's help to support himself; when he finally saw the end of the snake's body whip by, Harry grunted out, 'Stop.'
James sat him down on the ground, and Harry slumped up against the tree trunk. His vision was blurred, but he could still make out the sight of a long stretch of nearly transparent snakeskin hanging on a high tree branch.
The snake itself, a perfect copy of Nagini, was circling the tree; its eyes caught Harry's, and it hissed.
The sword swung back and forth casually in James's hand like a pendulum. He saw the strange reflection again and tried to look at it more closely each time it came into view, wondering what it could be. His father must have noticed, for he stopped swinging the sword and kept it out of Harry's view.
'Any pointers?' James asked jokingly, indicating the snake.
'Don't…let it…bite you…' said Harry, his chest knotted by pain. The smile disappeared from James's face, and he nodded grimly.
The snake seemed to be waiting for him; as soon as James walked into the clearing, it abandoned its circling of the tree and snapped toward him.
The pair danced in a circle around each other. When the snake reared its head to strike, James moved aside at the last instant. As the snake repositioned its shifting coils, he jumped to grasp the snakeskin, but it was too far out of reach.
The snake was dangerously close. Instead of using the sword to defend himself, he used it to reach up into the tree branch and prod the snakeskin until it fell.
As the snakeskin descended, the snake struck.
Harry cried out at the same moment James did; James brought the sword down and cut the snake in two, then clutched the bleeding wound in his thigh. With his other hand, he took hold of the nearly transparent snakeskin, and he hobbled back over to Harry.
As soon as Harry's fingers touched it, it dissolved, and the crystal warmed. Harry could breathe properly again, and he immediately moved to examine his father's injury – but James waved him away.
'It's all right,' said James with a laugh. 'My job's done. See you not too soon.'
Harry held on tightly to his father's hand, not wanting him to go, but it slipped from his grasp as James disappeared.
He leant back against the tree, suddenly too tired inside to move. He knew there was only one fragment of Voldemort's soul remaining, aside from the one within Harry himself, but the thought suddenly struck him that there were still two people he wanted to see: his mum and Ginny.
Which would come? Perhaps his mother couldn't help him any more than she already had; perhaps Ginny was too angry with him for failing her to come to his aid now.
He stood up again because he knew he had to. He was so close, and he remembered that the Order was waiting for him.
Gryffindor's sword lay upon the ground; Harry picked it up and decided to go back to the clearing where he'd met his father. But the forest seemed to be closing in around him; as the branches tugged at his clothes and scraped at his skin, he used the sword to cut himself a new path. He tried to keep going straight, sure that he'd eventually get out one way or the other, but not sure where he'd end up.
Finally he saw light peeking through the branches, and he tore toward it.
The new clearing was nothing like the one in which he'd found his father, but it was exactly like a place he'd visited before with Dumbledore: the cave. He was standing on a tall cliff, and water was crashing loudly below him. The familiar landmark of the mountains was farther away than they'd been since he started his journey, and Harry had the firm feeling that he'd come full-circle.
Not too far off sat a small person wearing black robes. Her long brown hair fell below her shoulders; her legs dangled over the jagged rocks. Who was she?
'Hello?' he called to her. His voice was nearly engulfed by the smashing water.
The woman did not turn, but she did stand up. Seemingly without a moment's hesitation, she jumped off the cliffs, aiming head-first for the rocky waters below.
Harry was sure that he was meant to follow, but he looked down the tall cliffs warily. Wait, he realized, this isn't real, is it? I can't actually die here!
Harry took a few steps back and ran to the edge of the cliff. His jump was not as elegant as the woman's, but it did the trick; soon whatever gravity existed took effect, and he plunged downward like a stone.
He would have been lying if he said it wasn't terrifying.
His body hit the water without the slightest hint of pain, even though his arm smacked a rock on the way down. Then Harry swam toward the dark fissure leading to the cave; breathing didn't seem necessary, but his clothes were still waterlogged. He emerged soaking wet into a very familiar tunnel – and there was the woman, seemingly dry as a bone, her back facing him.
'Hello?' he tried again.
Harry was hoping that she would turn to face him – no such luck. She took the familiar path through the cave, and he felt compelled to follow her. It was pitch-black, but Harry followed the sound of her footsteps; the lack of light did not seem to slow her down. When they arrived at the place where Dumbledore had found a doorway, she touched her hand to the rock, and the door appeared. Barely missing a beat, she continued on her way, Harry trailing closely behind.
He was faced with the eerily still waters that he knew held Inferi in the real world, but something was different about the small island in the centre. As soon as his eyes fell upon it to examine the difference, the pain that had gripped him when he saw the snake was doubled. He keeled over and backed away, only barely stopping himself from falling into the dark depths below.
It was then, his eyes wide open as the pain shocked him with its new intensity, that he saw a horribly disfigured, decaying, corpse-like face in the water. Inferi, he thought mutedly, his head pounding, but then he looked closer. He could see something in its eyes – a glint of sentience that Inferi lacked. Furthermore, its face was contorted in agony.
The strange image he had seen in Gryffindor's sword flashed through his mind – and then he recalled Remus's expression of disgusted horror.
It was not an Inferius he saw in the water.
It was Harry's reflection. This place behind the veil did not show people as they were in life – it showed them as they were in death. Voldemort had marred Harry's soul, had taken part of it for his own, and he saw now how much of himself he had lost.
He sobbed loudly in both physical and emotional distress. Something grabbed his hand, and he wished it was an Inferius dragging him underneath the water into oblivion, but the skin was soft and smooth, and the touch alleviated enough of his pain to allow him to think clearly again.
He looked up into the face of the woman, who gazed at him with pity. Everyone but Harry seemed to be beautiful or handsome here; though the woman did not have classic looks – her face was heavy, almost masculine – there was a gentle expression in her eyes that made her lovely.
But Harry was still confused; he still didn't know her. Weren't people who loved him supposed to be helping him? How could someone he didn't know be here?
The woman's very soft voice quivered as she said, 'My name is Merope.'
He took in her identity and tried to match her face to the woman he'd seen in the Pensieve. Yes, there was some resemblance, but her eyes were not crossed here, and she was not dirty and defeated. Still, she appeared anxious, even fearful.
Harry noticed that the miniature boat had been dragged up from the water. He stared at Merope, who was looking down at their joined hands shyly.
She bit her lip. 'I need to borrow something from you.'
Her eyes fell on Gryffindor's sword. Harry blinked. What did she need it for?
He looked around and reluctantly faced the centre island again. This time, with Merope's presence blocking out the pain enough for him to see it without feeling ill, he noticed that there were long, heavy chains extending from the water. They joined in the centre of the island and wound up in a large ball.
Harry would have bet his soul – and he was – that the chains were enclosing the locket. His heart started to feel the cruel squeeze of the chains against it, and he looked away again.
'Sure,' he told her, and he reached around with the hand she wasn't holding to find where he'd dropped the sword. His fingers found the hilt, and he dragged it forward.
Merope stared at the sword as if terrified to go near it. 'I'm not very brave,' she blurted out. She gazed pleadingly into Harry's eyes. 'I-I've never been very brave, that's why…'
She didn't say anything more, but she didn't need to. Her shoulders sagged in guilt; the homeliness about her returned, and her eyes crossed.
'She wouldn't even stay alive for her son?' Harry remembered asking of Dumbledore during his single moment of pity for Tom Riddle. Here was Merope Gaunt, who had given up instead of raising her child, and it seemed as though now she felt sorry.
His first instinct was to not care – to not forgive her. She'd made her choice, she'd taken the coward's way out, and others had suffered for it.
'Do not judge her too harshly,' Dumbledore had told him. 'She was greatly weakened by long suffering, and she never had your mother's courage…'
He realized that Dumbledore was right. If she was willing to do whatever she could to help her son now, even belatedly, surely that was worth something. Besides, what choice did he have?
In one swift movement, Harry lifted the sword and pointed its hilt toward her.
'Take it,' he said. He tried to smile encouragingly. 'You can do it.'
She stared down at the sword in surprise and tilted her head to run her gaze down the length of the blade. Her small hand closed around the hilt finger by finger; when her grip was tight, Harry let go completely.
Merope smiled, just a little, and Harry realized that those may have been the only words of encouragement she had ever received.
'I'll try,' she said. 'Thank you.'
When her other hand abandoned his, all the pain that had built up within him exploded. Harry blacked out.
He suddenly returned to consciousness, his eyes snapping wide open as though he'd been doused with cold water. Something was being pressed into his hand hard enough to leave a mark; Harry looked and saw that it was the locket, which was already dissolving. His eyes fell upon a small, blocky female hand as its fingers slipped into the murky water.
Lengths of broken chains were scattered on the island.
Harry slowly got to his feet. He felt empty inside as he caught sight of his twisted reflection again; even though he'd found all the pieces of Voldemort's soul, it seemed like he had impossibly far to go before retrieving the missing part of his own.
'I need to leave,' he said out loud, sensing that this would have its intended effect – death had no hold over him. A bright light appeared behind him, in the entrance to the cave, and Harry walked through it, bracing himself for what he'd find on the other side.
The brightness dissipated as Harry's feet hit the solid stone of the dais. 'Hermione?' he called immediately, unable to see as his eyes adjusted to the lack of light.
No answer. 'Hermione? Ron?'
No one was there. Deeply worried – How long have I been gone? – Harry felt his way down the steps of the dais, nearly tripping on the last. When he leapt back into the central room, wand at the ready, no one was there.
Where was the Order? He looked around at the doors; Hermione's marks were still on them. They wouldn't have left without me. They would only have moved if they were attacked; either they'd moved into one of the other rooms, or…
Don't think about that. They couldn't be. He had to stick to the plan. Hermione was supposed to have returned to the veil and given him what he needed, but she hadn't, so he had to find her instead.
His attention was immediately drawn to the golden X on the door. Hermione had marked it differently from the others for a reason; perhaps she'd thought to look there first?
The door in question led to a surprising place – surprising because of its absolute normalcy. It was a narrow corridor with evenly spaced wooden doors, each with a nameplate. Several were shinier than the others, which Harry took to mean that they were newer, especially given the names on them: Antonin Dolohov, Amycus Carrow, and Augustus Rookwood, Department Head.
The door to Rookwood's office was ajar.
He walked in, wand at the ready. The first thing he noticed was a man – probably Rookwood – propped stiffly against the desk. He was clearly under a Body-Bind Curse.
'Harry?' called Hermione's voice from behind the desk.
'Hermione?' answered Harry as he stepped around the man. Hermione was crouched behind the desk, focused intently on an open drawer of Rookwood's filing cabinet.
'I'm looking for it,' she told him. She huffed in frustration and shut the squeaky metal drawer, only to open it up again a second later. 'How did your task go?' After examining the drawer for only a second, she shut it again and then repeated the process; Harry was so engrossed in watching her and wondering how she was seeing what was in there without eyes that he was slow to answer.
'Um, fine, I guess. I got them all.' The thought of his own reflection still haunted him; Harry looked at his face in the shiny reflection of the filing cabinet, and it seemed normal, but he knew what he was on the inside. With an injection of urgency, he asked, 'Where are Ron and the others?'
'I don't know.' Hermione didn't look up; the drawer rolled shut again. 'The Death Eaters attacked in force, but the Order was doing all right. Ron got caught up in a duel and told me to go on ahead. Rookwood nearly killed me on his way out of the office.'
Harry flung a dirty look at Rookwood's back. 'No luck yet, I guess?'
Hermione shook her head. 'No, but the drawer contains something different every time I open it; it's got to be in here somewhere.'
With Hermione searching the drawers and the Order nowhere in sight, there was nothing for Harry to do, and being useless made him antsy. 'Found anything yet?' he asked less than a minute later.
Another minute later, after poor attempts at pacing (for the room was crowded with Rookwood), he asked, 'Found anything yet?'
Not much later, he asked again, 'Found anything –'
'I'll tell you when I do, Harry,' she answered with a hint of reproof. He clapped his mouth shut and sat in Rookwood's plush office chair, trying to be patient.
But he kept his eyes on the door.
Harry noticed when Hermione didn't close the drawer again as quickly as usual. 'Found something?' He tried to see around her to what was in the drawer, but all he could see was darkness.
'I think so,' she said in an excited voice. She reached down shoulder-deep into the drawer and felt around the edges. 'I can see it, but…'
Harry was going to ask how Hermione could see anything without eyes, but the next moment, a bright flash of green light smacked into him, and he was faced with the familiar tugging sensation of almost-death.
When he was reborn, Harry was standing in front of the filing cabinet where Hermione had been – and Voldemort, with Ginny's smile, was pointing his wand at him. Harry glanced toward Hermione, who was struggling against Rookwood's grip.
'Well, well, well. It took me far too long to track you down. How will you wiggle out of this one?' He cocked Ginny's head toward Hermione. 'Surrender or she dies, Potter. I tire of chasing you.'
'No!' cried Hermione. 'Harry, don't!'
'Silence her,' ordered Voldemort, not daring to point his wand anywhere but at Harry. Rookwood cast a Silencing Spell.
Let me die, Hermione mouthed at Harry.
Harry shook his head.
'Why not let her die?' asked Voldemort with a sardonic laugh. 'After all, she's damaged goods…'
Voldemort pulled off the blindfold over Hermione's eye sockets, and Harry couldn't bear to look away. He was shocked by what he saw, but suddenly everything about Hermione's recent behaviour made sense; she possessed two roving, magical eyes like Mad Eye Moody's. One stared at Voldemort, and the other had spun backward in her head, presumably staring through her skull at Rookwood.
Voldemort sneered derisively. 'What is your decision, boy?'
Harry couldn't let Hermione die for him, but he also couldn't give up on his plan so easily – not when the lives of the rest of the Order were at stake (if they were even still alive), not to mention his own soul. He had to convince Voldemort to release her…but why would he do that?
'I'm waiting…impatiently,' said Voldemort. 'Five, four, three, two…'
'Wait!' cried Harry. 'Wait, you can't. I –' And then, in the nick of time, the solution came to him – at least, he hoped this would work. 'You owe me a life debt. Let her go,' Harry said commandingly.
Ginny's eyebrows rose as far up as they could. 'I owe you a life debt? I think not!'
'You do. My mother saved your life once, remember?'
Voldemort appeared thunderstruck; Hermione's mouth hung open. 'What?! How could you…'
'I know all about it. My mother saved your life, but you didn't save hers, did you?' Harry's disgust, unlike his confidence, was not feigned. 'It wouldn't have taken you much effort to just Stun her instead of killing her, but you were afraid of her by that point, weren't you? She was why you chose me as your equal instead of Neville Longbottom – she frightened you more than any Auror.'
Harry could tell that he'd struck a nerve. Ginny's face was disfigured by Voldemort's blind rage. 'Shut up!' He stuck his wand between Hermione's breastbone. 'Shut up, or I'll –'
'Your life debt to her has passed down to me!' shouted Harry as if his words would ward off any attempt on Hermione's life. 'You owe me, Voldemort! A life for a life! Let Hermione go – she's no threat to you! Let her live and we'll be square!'
Voldemort was breathing wildly. His eyes caught Rookwood's for an instant, and Harry didn't need Legilimency to know that he was embarrassed that one of his followers knew of such a smear on Voldemort's wizarding honour. Harry doubted that Rookwood had much longer to live.
He composed himself quickly, hiding his displeasure behind a callous smirk. 'Very well, Harry. By all means, let her go, Rookwood.'
Hermione sensed Rookwood's moment of surprise and, apparently not trusting Voldemort's sense of honour any more than Harry did, capitalised on it before he could move to release her. She wrenched her wand from his hand. 'Stupefy!'
Rookwood collapsed. Voldemort turned his attention to her, and in that instant, Harry acted.
Ginny's body was slammed out of the room and into the hallway. Harry rounded the desk, grabbed Hermione's hand, and ran out of the room, passing the recovering Voldemort and bolting toward the door.
'Why didn't you tell me?' Harry asked her. He pushed Hermione to the floor as a curse streamed past the point where her chest had been; then he pulled her up and kept moving.
'About…what?' she asked breathlessly
'You never asked!'
They leapt through the door, and the wall spun behind them. Harry knew it wouldn't be long before Voldemort reappeared.
Hermione tugged at Harry's sleeve and opened her palm upward. In it was what she had been searching for: the key – the last piece of the puzzle, aside from Voldemort himself, who had been easily led to the Department of Mysteries by Harry's mere presence.
Hermione stared up at him with her unnatural eyes that still managed to communicate her determination. 'We need to find the locked door.'