Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter.

Well, here's the last chapter. Sacrifice is already underway, and ought to be posted soon. Thanks for bearing with me for so long.

Chapter 24: And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder

For once in her life, Luna Lovegood did not understand.

She silently watched her childhood friend doing her best to comfort the Boy-Who-Lived, who appeared to still be more than a little out of it. Luna quietly felt that state was conducive to productive thinking, but kept her theory to herself. It was not the time to be controversial. She dared not intrude on Harry's mind, confused and frightened as he was, although he hid it well behind a Slytherin emotional shell. Luna disapproved of such measures. The idea that showing emotion was betraying weakness was simply absurd. Especially in the company of one's friends.

She noticed her Potions Professor's eyes falling on her every so often. The man didn't attempt to enter her mind, however. Luna had been aware of his mental intrusions from the day she arrived. She'd done nothing at first, knowing that he'd find nothing of value in her mind because that was exactly what he was searching for. Someday, she'd let Harry see her thoughts. See her real thoughts, that was. As much as she liked Ginevra, Harry was the only one that bothered to understand her. Quitesad, really, Luna thought. It's rather foolish of them to assume I'm loony because I say something interesting only once in a while.

Then, she'd decided to tell him exactly how much she knew. She didn't really like the Slytherin Potions Master: A miserable, hateful, shell of man, and not the kind she wanted knowing her secrets, or, more importantly, learning the secrets of others through her.

It seemed that the man had figured it out anyway. That one time, she'd pushed back, easily slipping past his barriers because she decided to pretend they weren't there. She'd lingered, then allowed herself to be ejected. Luna had gotten a bit of rush out of it, actually. But she'd decided not to antagonize the man, and had instead focused on finding interesting alternatives to the recommended ingredients. After all, she was nothing if not unique. Why should her work be any different?

But she'd soon found she lacked the knowledge to do this effectively, and abandoned the idea. Potions was far too structured for her enjoyment. Her favorite class was Transfiguration, because Luna could be creative. Well, sometimes her ideas didn't work, and Professor McGonagall hadn't been very happy with the result of some of her experiments. The woman was old, Luna thought, but her reaction wasn't the result of a Nargle infestation, which made the brain go fuzzy, just simple stubbornness that grows stronger with old age. She also enjoyed Astronomy. She'd always liked to stare at the stars, redrawing the constellations in her mind. The Great Snorkak was far more impressive than Leo the Lion, she thought. When she'd told Professor Sinistra this, the small woman had laughed. Luna didn't know what was so funny. The greatest advances in human history had been made when mavericks ignored convention, only to have their theories become a part of convention. Luna would very much like to create new things, but she didn't want them to become convention.

Because then I'll have to come up with completely new ideas. That would be dreadfully boring. Should not the first thing that comes to mind be the best?

Well, Luna wasn't sure she really believed that, but it hardly mattered. Her life was a maze of contradictions and paradoxes. What was a few more conflicting thoughts in a mind full of them?

A mental sigh. Luna had found herself questioning a lot of things recently. Her dad had known of her abilities since she was four years old. Her mother had known even longer, before she blew herself up. Her dad, a few years after that dreadful day, had taken her aside after she'd confused Ginny's mother by telling her what ingredients she was planning to use in her special Shepherd's pie, and explained to her that she could not allow anyone else to understand how special she was. In Harry's case, at least, she'd broken that rule. Still, her father seemed to like the Boy-Who-Lived, despite the many terrible stories that were circulated about him.

Harry looked broken, vulnerable. His right arm was wrapped in a massive bandage of white gauze. His face was covered in minor bruises and cuts. He'd been to Hell and back again, as the Muggles said. At least, that's how Luna thought it went. Perhaps it was through Hell and Back Again? Yes, that made more sense. Hell was a place where bad things happened. So to go through it would be far worse than simply visiting it.

She turned her gaze to Ginevra, who sat protectively at Harry's bedside. They had once been friends, although Luna could scarcely remember it. Apparently her own mother, Ophelia, and Molly Weasley had been close. She'd even heard that her mother had known Lily Potter. Luna wasn't sure it really mattered. She could tell Harry no more about his mother than he could about hers.

Even Luna Lovegood had been interested by the news of a blooming relationship between Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley. Of course, the cause of her interest was quite different. She'd been rather disappointed with her friend for allowing a childhood fascination to morph into an adolescent crush. Luna failed to understand why people did such things. As was often the case, the boy that Ginny had a crush for did not exist, and probably never had. Yet the crush existed. It was quite odd, Luna thought, for a person to long for something they knew did not exist. Things were different, now, of course. In an ironic twist of fate, Ginevra Molly Weasley had overcome her irrational attraction to the Boy-Who-Lived…and proceeded to develop another one, this one for Harry Potter the Slytherin. And, it seemed, Harry had reciprocated her feelings. She was still puzzled by the question he'd asked her in the Forest. In the midst of discussing his destiny, one that Luna could see plain as day, although the outcome was still to be determined, he'd asked her about his girlfriend.

Luna supposed she might have gone too far in her somewhat-playful efforts to appear omniscient. The truth was that while she was fully aware this wasn't the case, it was far easier to keep Harry's ego in check if she didn't let him know the limits to her insight. And Luna had essentially accepted that as her personal responsibility. She wanted to make Harry think, to question what he might have simply assumed. Sometimes she succeeded. Sometimes she didn't. It was still worth the effort. For if she didn't do it, nobody else would, or even if they tried they would probably fail. And if Harry's arrogance grew, they were all doomed. Luna didn't need to be omniscient, or even have the ability to read the magical currents, to draw that conclusion. It was not coincidence that Harry Potter was always at the center of the clash between Light and Dark, and the factions that made up each. He was a nexus, a focusing point. He alone could pull the disparate factions that made up the Wizarding World into a force that could match the armies of Lord Voldemort.

Luna didn't know all that much about magical history; while she managed to stay awake in Professor Binns's class, often wondering what it would be like to be a ghost, she wasn't really that interested in the subject. Still, she had heard (words and thoughts) that many Dark families, including some not of the pureblood variety, had been extremely discontented by the defeat of Grindelwald, and lamented not joining Voldemort because they badly underestimated him. They would most likely not make the same mistake again. Voldemort would have little trouble recruiting on the continent, it seemed.

Luna relied on the thoughts of others a bit too often, she felt. Sometimes, she became so focused on every one else that she would forget to think for herself. Maybe if she'd done that, she would have told Harry about her suspicions concerning the fake Moody. Maybe if she'd done that, he would never have had the chance to plant the magical bomb at the bottom of the Lake. Maybe if she'd done that, Gabrielle Delacour might still be alive.

She'd learned from that mistake. Or so she hoped. Though in the end it hadn't mattered, she'd been able to communicate that Harry'srescue by his guardian wasn't all it seemed to be. It was a step in the right direction. Luna didn't want to be a hero. She wanted to go unnoticed. But that was becoming more and more difficult, and would soon be impossible. And she had an obligation to the memory of Gabrielle Delacour to use her gifts to save the lives of others. She would put her talents at Harry's disposal. She would not follow him blindly, but she would offer little resistance, even if she felt he was wrong. After all, she'd believed she'd been right to remain silent, and it was clear that her instincts had misled her more than once. Harry had to lead this war. It would not be easy. It never was. But he'd have to be allowed to make his mistakes and learn from them, just as she had.

She could only hope, as she looked upon the unconscious form of the Boy-Who-Lived, that those lessons might be learned without the cost of more innocent lives.

For Neville Longbottom, a state of confusion was as natural as breathing…or so it seemed at times.

For as long as he could remember, he'd been on the outside, desperately trying to prove himself worthy of being treated like something other than a disappointing and weak-minded child. His grandmother had loved her son, his father, holding a place in her heart that Neville could never fill. She'd even grown to love the shy half-blood witch that her son had married: Neville's mother, Alice.

It occurred to him that ever since that conversation with Harry – a lifetime ago, it seemed – he'd been thinking of his parents more and more in the past tense. For although Harry hadn't been gentle, he'd been right. Alice and Frank Longbottom were nothing more than shells of their former selves. The intelligence, the courage, the compassion that the two had been known for was now lost forever. Neville had finally begun to accept that like Harry, he was a war orphan. The…peoplethat the St. Mungo's staff claimed to be his parents simply weren't, and that was all there was to it. He'd discovered that this attitude was far less painful when it came to visiting his parents with his paternal grandmother, the fierce and intimidating Augusta Longbottom, the proud and powerful matriarch of an old and storied Light family. There was no longer that small, childish part of him that expected his parents to recognize him, to comfort him, to be there for him.

On his last visit, he'd almost looked upon them as if they weresomeone else's parents. In the past, he might have been ashamed of such thoughts. But as he graciously accepted the gum wrapper that…Alice always made a point to offer him, he felt no shame. Instead, he felt more loved than he ever had before. His parents had sacrificed their lives for him, suffered so that he might survive. And he became all the more determined that he was going to make them proud of him, of who he was.

So when Harry Potter, a Slytherin heavily disliked by most members of Neville's own House, but the only person he'd ever spoken to that seemed to really understand him, had made it clear that he wouldn't mind Neville's company, and Hermione Granger, a Gryffindor outsider like himself…well, exile would probably be the better term, had made it a point to track him down and invite him to work with her and Harry on various assignments, he didn't politely decline, as he might have in the past. He refused to be ashamed of who he was. It had been difficult to overcome his own shyness, his own ingrained sense of worthlessness. But Harry, Hermione, and Ginny, an exile from her ownfamily, had shown great patience. And gradually, as he'd grown closer to them, he'd begun to wonder if he really was worth all the bother. Harry seemed to determined to prove to Neville that that was in fact the case.

First it had been study sessions, then, one day, Hermione had led him out of the Gryffindor Common Room, practically dragging him by the sleeve of his robes, to a deserted corridor on the 7th Floor. Except that less than a minute later, to his great astonishment, he'd seen a door push out from the blank stone, and once it swung open, witnessed an intense and prolonged duel between Ginny Weasley and Harry Potter. He'd been confused, even frightened, but his fears were soothed when after Ginny was knocked down and disarmed, her boyfriend had calmly walked over and helped pull her back to her feet. She'd been grumbling, something she did whenever she lost to him. Harry had just laughed. Then he'd caught sight of Neville.

For a moment, his piercing emerald eyes had locked with his, as if seeking entrance to his very soul. Seemingly content in what he'd seen there, Harry's face had split into a wide grin. He'd soon found himself standing across a dueling ring from his Gryffindor classmate. Hermione had trounced him; that wasn't the point. Because he'd started to learn from his mistakes. Harry had hammered that point home more than any other. "If you believe you will fail, that you'll never get better, then you will never accomplish anything. But if you believe that with time, practice, and some good advice, you'll learn from your mistakes and grow stronger, then you won't fail. You can't fail. For defeat becomes nothing but a learning experience, a chance to improve."

Neville had done his best to take those words to heart, to reward the Slytherin's faith in him, faith that no one else had ever shared before. Harry had told him more than once that he wasn't helping Neville because it was the right thing to do. That wasn't how a Slytherin made decisions. No, he was helping Neville because he felt the slightly (although now noticeably less) pudgy, clumsy, forgetful Gryffindor had the potential to be far more than he'd ever thought possible. And because if things went as badly as he thought they might, Harry wanted Neville's wand at his back.

Neville had never felt as terrified and relieved as he had at that moment. But Hermione, as always, had come to his rescue. Ron hadn't really spoken to him much this year, and it had become clear that he didn't approve of Neville's association with Harry, or the way he'd insisted that Harry hadn't entered himself in the Triwizard Tournament while the rest of Gryffindor had been loudly venting their displeasure, and Hermione had gone up to her room to escape the abuse. He might have just resigned himself to the fact that he was alone once again, had not the Muggleborn witch staged a dramatic and angry defense of his intelligence after he'd had a particularly bad experience in Potions the next day. Seamus and Dean had been ribbing him about it, and they'd ended up slinking away with their tails between their legs…literally, as Hermione earned herself a very,very rare detention for magically implanting rat's tails on their posteriors. When Neville had finally found his voice and thanked her, Hermione had gone pink. That incident had occurred just a week before he'd finally learned what Harry had been doing when he'd nearly taken Ron's head off with a misfired Slicing Curse.

Ginny had been an amazing help. She'd tried to help him learn the basics while Harry worked with Hermione and Blaise on more advanced material. Harry was a natural instructor, confident, authoritative, and knowledgeable, but Ginny had done a bang-up job as well. He'd been fit to burst when he'd managed to cast a perfect Stunning Spell, and Ginny had given him a hug while Harry slapped him on the back. He was still a bit behind the others, even Ginny, but he was now secure in the knowledge that he could use his wand without any unintentional destruction of his surroundings. Harry told him he could afford to be quite a bit more aggressive in his technique, but he'd still commended him on his progress.

Now, as he sat anxiously at the Gryffindor House Table, Hermione in the seat to his right, looking as distant and distracted as Neville had ever seen her, he could for the first time say with confidence that he knew what Professor Dumbledore was going to tell them before anyone else did. Indeed, if the man was true to form, Neville knew far more than what the Hogwarts' Headmaster was going to tell the assembled students. The Hogwarts Rumor Mill had been cranking them out like never before in the last week, and not even the End-of-Term exams could stop them. Some of the rumors denied that Cedric Diggory was actually dead. Harry had been laid up in Hospital Wing for over a week, recovering from some truly frightening injuries, internal and external. The Cruciatus Curses he'd taken had left him too weak to get out of his bed without assistance from one or more of Madam Pomfrey, Hermione, Daphne, and Ginny. Neville got the sense that Harry was quite embarrassed by the whole thing, something that baffled him.

Harry had eventually told all of them, in vivid detail, exactly what had happened from the moment he entered the maze to the instant he'd passed out on the Pitch, his left arm clinging tightly to both the Triwizard Cup and Cedric's body. His voice had been flat and emotionless, although his composure had threatened to break on several occasions, none more than when he described the cold and brutal execution of Cedric Diggory. Harry blamed himself for Cedric's death; that was perfectly clear. The trap had been laid for him, and him alone. Harry wasn't one to let reason escape him, but the guilt deserved or not, was eating at him.

There had been another incident, one he hadn't witnessed because he'd been in the middle of a long conversation with Professor Spout about her choice of material on the exam. The conversation had dragged on well beyond the point of necessity, but his Herbology teacher seemed to greatly appreciate the chance to return to something resembling routine. Later that evening, he'd watched as she angrily assigned two 5th Years detention for spreading rumors that Harry had killed Cedric, but was going to get off because of who he was. She'd told them to report to Snape, and the look of fear in their eyes at that moment rivaled the worst terror he'd ever experienced from the thought of the Potions Master. The plump witch had smiled at him again as she departed. He'd really come into his own in her class this year, even – with Hermione's encouragement – seeking her out before and after class to talk to her about some of his private reading. She'd been able to point him in the direction of several useful and comprehensive references, and she'd been most interested to hear about Harry's experience with Gillyweed. From the way her eyes widened at several points, it was clear that Neville had actually told her a few things she hadn't known before. She'd been fascinated by the way Harry was able to ascend to the surface rapidly without any ill effects, to the point where both of them temporarily forgot the reasons he'd been forced to take that kind of risk. And then, a few weeks before the Third Task, she'd taken him aside and told him that he was already better at Herbology than both of his parents. He'd almost asked her to put that in writing and send it to his grandmother, as proof that he really was worthy of praise. He'd ended up simply relaying his Professor's words. And Augusta Longbottom's response had been to say, for the first time in ages, that she was proud of him.

He was snapped out of this reverie as he noticed that Hermione was staring at him, concern lighting her ever-curious chocolate brown eyes. "Are you alright?" she asked quietly. He nodded, and she bit her lip. A nervous tic, Harry had told him. "Professor Dumbledore ought to be speaking soon," she said. "I have to wonder how much he'll tell them, given what the Minister said.

"Somehow I don't reckon that'll stop Dumbledore," Neville whispered.

"No, I don't either," Hermione admitted. Her gaze drifted across the room, to the distant Slytherin table, where Ginny, Harry, and Blaise sat, along with Ginny's friends Anne and Melissa, with the Durmstrang students sitting alone at the end of the table. During the night, their Headmaster, Karkaroff, had vanished. More accurately, he'd fled. His testimony had landed some of Voldemort's best in Azkaban, and he was now on the run for his life.

Briefly, Neville's eyes stopped at the Ravenclaw table, where Luna Lovegood sat alone, staring up at the enchanted ceiling. The Beauxbatons students, including the anguished and humiliated Fleur Delacour, sat silently at the end of their table. It was school tradition for all of the members of a House to sit together for formal occasions and Feasts, and indeed it was accepted practice for the Houses to keep to themselves during meals, but that hadn't stopped Hermione for the last few years. Neville often got the sense she felt no more loyalty to Gryffindor than she did to any other house, so disgusted was she by her classmates' behavior. Particularly that of Ron Weasley, who was now eyeing both of them suspiciously.

"What are you two on about?" he asked. Ron seemed to lack the filter between what he thought and what he said.

"Nothing that concerns you, Ronald," Hermione replied coldly.

Ron glared at her, and Seamus and Dean, who flanked him, also looked quite a bit unhappy. Percy was looking in their direction now, a barely-hidden scowl on his face.

What they had been alluding to was the long-awaited confrontation that resulted from Cornelius Fudge finally taking the time to visit Harry in the Hospital Wing. The man had not thought to inform Dumbledore or Snape, obviously hoping to take advantage of Harry's weakened state, if such a thing were in fact possible. Unfortunately for him, those two had quickly learned of his presence, and he'd entered, flanked by three Aurors, at the same instant that Daphne was leaving. Fudge, whom Augusta Longbottom thought a pompous fool and corrupt coward, had been the very picture of arrogance, wearing formal green robes and his trademark bowler hat. From Hermione's descriptions, Neville thought he'd probably resembled an overgrown Leprechaun, a comparison that only grew stronger when he'd gone red at the sight of the Grey Maiden. Hermione had told Neville that the man had just stopped himself from ordering her to leave. Neville privately confided that it sounded like a great way to get yourself killed, an opinion that Hermione wholeheartedly agreed with.

Fudge had listened impatiently as Dumbledore gave a vague description of what they'd seen in Harry's memories. The Slytherin remained silent throughout, to the point where Fudge had demanded to know if You-Know-Who had struck Harry dumb as well. Harry had responded in a harsh tone that he was indeed perfectly capable of speaking to those that he considered worth the time and effort. McGonagall had been appalled, but Hermione said Daphne had flashed a predatory smile, and Tonks, one of the Auror bodyguards and Harry's close friend, had coughed loudly to prevent herself from bursting into peals of laughter.

Predictably, Fudge's bad mood had gotten worse. He'd roughly presented Harry with his winnings, ignoring Harry's question of why the Diggory's didn't get half of it when their son had touched the Cup at the same instant that he did. Then, he'd started ranting, calling Dumbledore delusional, Harry an attention-seeking nutcase, and Daphne a danger to society. He'd been stunned into silence when Harry had calmly held out his left arm and ripped off the dressings, asking Fudge if he still thought Dumbledore was delusional. He'd declined the chance to review Harry's memories of the event, suggesting that Dumbledore could have altered them, and they were highly unreliable testimony. He'd been about to go when Harry had called him back, as Madam Pomfrey hurriedly replaced the bandages on his arm. Impatiently, the Minister had turned around.

That's when Harry had let him have it.

"Sir," he'd said. "I never expected you to accept any of this; your record is more than enough evidence of your cowardice and lack of personal responsibility. Thirteen years ago, you allowed more than a dozen high-profile Dark families to escape justice because you didn't want to anger the pureblood community. You'd come into office promising peace, and you were anxious to deliver it and put the Wizarding World at rest. Dangerous criminals that should have rotted in Azkaban for crimes so heinous they still give veteran Aurors nightmares were allowed to go free for the appropriate bribes. So your outright refusal to accept that Voldemort has indeed returned, and most important, returned under your watch, hardly comes as a surprise. Once again, you accuse those wiser than you of being paranoid so you can continue living your peaceful delusion of a life. Somehow, I'm not entirely confident that time will change your tune, either. And in any case, it might not even matter because we don't have time for you to see reason and stop denying the truth because it isn't politically convenient." Harry paused. Though he remained in his bed, it was clear to all who was in command of this exchange. Fudge had gone rigid. Dawlish and McGlinchey looked outraged, though behind them, Tonks was smirking in satisfaction.

"You dare-" Fudge spluttered.

"I dare," Harry replied, eyes blazing. He commanded the attention of the entire room, holding his audience spellbound. "I dare because I know that I'm right, and deep down inside, you know I'm right too. And I dare because I could bring you down if I so choose. You've built a house of cards, Minister, one that's all too easy to blow over."

"You're bluffing," Fudge said, though he didn't sound like he believed it.

"Even though you never befouled the halls of this castle, surely you know the traits of each House. Especially Slytherin. I have more allies than you know."

"Delusional…" Fudge gasped, face pale, eyes wide as saucers. "Is this the kind of respect for betters that you instill, Dumbledore?"

"I assure you, Minister, that our students are taught proper manners. But I allow my Slytherins certain liberties when it comes to those that fail to earn the respect their position gives them," Snape said softly, a malicious sneer on his lips.

"You really think you can get away with hiding the truth, Minister?" Harry asked. "Can you really expect people to believe that Cedric Diggory dropped dead of his own accord, and that this," he said, proffering his scarred and scabbed arm "was the product of some accident? Even a blind troll could recognize this as the result of a Flesh-Shredding Curse. And the resistance to healing is a trademark of Lord Voldemort's magic."

Fudge looked fit to burst. He'd rudely bid Dumbledore farewell, then declared that he was needed at the Ministry. Tonks had stayed behind, giving Harry a wink, before Dawlish had yelled for her to join them. She'd stuck her tongue out at her little brother, then departed.

As his friends and teachers stared at the Boy-Who-Lived in amazement, Harry had summed up all of their feelings. "That felt really good."

"The wisdom of threatening the Minister of Magic is perhaps questionable, but that was indeed an impressive performance, particularly when one considers it was made from a hospital bed. 40 points to Slytherin for putting that fool in his place," Snape said, a hint of pride in his voice.

Dumbledore finally did rise to his feet. Neville glanced over at the Slytherin table. Harry's eyes were riveted on the Headmaster, and Ginny's eyes were riveted on her boyfriend's face. As usual, Dumbledore's mere presence killed off any remaining conversations. "Welcome to the End of Year Feast," he said. "It is truly unfortunate that we are gathered here today to remember a great tragedy. A young man, full of promise and energy, was cruelly cut down before he had a chance to truly live. And so we remember Cedric Diggory." He raised his glass in a toast.

Most of the students did the same, though a few Slytherins got death glares from Pomona Sprout as they left their glasses untouched. The students murmured "Remember Cedric Diggory."

"However, I will not allow you to depart here believing the Ministry's baseless claim that Cedric's death was a tragic accident. Nor will I allow such a gross injustice to be done to the memory of Gabrielle Delacour, beloved sister of one of the champions. And I also refuse to allow the sullying of Harry Potter's reputation. Despite what falsities you may hear in the coming months, I implore you to understand that in facing down his nemesis, and living to tell the tale, Mr. Potter displayed tremendous personal courage, cunning, and magical ability. He was not responsible in any way for Cedric Diggory's death."

That quieted the last whispers. Dumbledore took a long pause, then spoke again. "Cedric Diggory was murdered by Lord Voldemort. Using an ancient and corrupt Dark ritual, Voldemort was returned to body. Mr. Potter witnessed this event, and I have reviewed his memories of the incident. Make no mistake, Lord Voldemort has returned. The Ministry will most likely deny this, but it is imperative that you know the truth. Another tragic incident that occurred in the past few months was the death of Barty Crouch Junior, an agent of Lord Voldemort tasked with impersonating Professor Moody. The death of Alecto Carrow, a known Death Eater, which you witnessed on the Quidditch Pitch came about after she stunned one of the judges and took her place, finishing what Crouch Junior had begun. Also victims of the Dark Lord were Bertha Jorkins and Barry Crouch Senior, both killed simply because they were in the way."

"These acts, these murders, these plots are not the disorganized and desperate work of madmen. It was a carefully orchestrated scheme executed with precision and ruthlessness. And it succeeded. Lord Voldemort walks among us once more."

The venerable Headmaster turned to look at the cowed Durmstrang and Beaxbatons students. "I wish you to know that in the coming struggle against the Darkness, Hogwarts will stand as a bastion of the Light. But its doors will be open to any who wish for or require shelter."

"Thank you," he concluded, sitting. For a long moment, there was dead silence. Then Neville watched Harry rise to his feet. His eyes still locked on the Headmaster, he began clapping, despite his bandaged right arm. Slowly, his friends followed, including Hermione and Neville. Gradually, more and more students rose to their feet and applauded. Draco Malfoy, Pansy Parkinson, and the blonde's bodyguards remained seated. The applause thundered through the Hall, eventually joined by a number of the leaderless Durmstrang contingent and Madame Maxime's Beaxbaton's pupils. Something shone in Dumbledore's blue eyes as the noise finally began to die down. He stood again. "In light of the events of the last few months, the House Cup will not be awarded this term. If you'll notice, all four Houses of Hogwarts, as well as Durmstrang and Beaxbatons are represented in the decorations. I like to use this as an illustration of cooperation. We are all human. Our parentage, our blood does not make this any less true. When the interests of all are threatened, common decency must prevail. Now, let the Feast begin!"

Conversation was muted as the students ate. Harry consumed his meal like a machine. He seemed terribly distracted, even from this distance. Neville was concerned about his friend. Was he ever going to trulyget over what happened that night?

Somehow, Neville wasn't counting on it.

Hermione Granger finally let her quill fall silently to the parchment as Professor McGonagall announced the end of their End-of-Term Transfiguration exam. Her first reaction was to fret about all the additional information she'd been unable to incorporate into her theoretical essay, but a more reasoned part of her, one that had steadily grown in influence with Harry's urging, told her that she'd written far more than was expected, let alone required.

She waited silently as her classmates began to stir around her, stretching and confiding their fears of failure in hushed whispers to their neighbors. Harry wasn't there, having been exempted by his participation in the Triwizard Tournament. A good thing, Hermione thought. He hasn't been the same since that night…

Not that Hermione could blame him in the least, of course. He probably hadn't even told them the whole story of what he'd experienced, what he'd faced that terrible night. He'd seemed reluctant to discuss certain things, and it had taken days for Ginny to coax him into admitting that Cedric had been cruelly murdered right in front of him. Hermione had cried a lot that day, and though he held them back, as only a stubborn Slytherin boy with a misguided male belief that to shed tears was to show weakness, Harry had clearly been deeply affected. Ginny had held him for a long time, but though his eyes glistened, the tears had not fallen.

Harry seemed lost within his own mind. He was slow to respond to what others said or asked of him. He gave abbreviated, basic answers when he was forced to. He spent a lot of time in self-imposed isolation in various parts of the castle and grounds, just staring straight ahead, completely lost in his thoughts. His physical wounds had just begun to heal, but the others, the mental wounds, the ones that could not be healed by spells and potions, seemed to run far deeper than they'd first suspected. There were times where only Ginny seemed capable of getting through to him, and he was far less affectionate with her than usual. But when she would plop down in his lap, refusing to allow him privacy or the use of his legs, he didn't argue.

As if the physical wounds aren't bad enough, Hermione thought as she got up to leave, gathering up the contents of her bag and slinging it over her shoulder. She still got a bit nauseous at the memory of Harry's right arm, displayed defiantly to the stunned Minister of Magic, and earlier, when Madam Pomfrey had changed the dressings on the fresh wounds right in front of them. She'd nearly been sick right then and there. The sight of the rent and torn flesh and bone, the damage done to the body of her best friend, who seemed ridiculously unfazed, was one of the most horrible she'd ever experienced. Harry had also suffered multiple broken ribs, a badly sprained left ankle that left him with a slight limp even now, and numerous cuts and bruises, ranging from minor lacerations on his face and neck to a deep wound on his left shoulder. Most of those were mostly healed, but the bulky white dressings on his arm remained, a constant reminder of all that he had suffered. Yesterday, she'd entered the Room of Requirement to find him practicing his spell-casting…with his left arm. She'd seen the frustration, the near-despair on his face, and she'd slipped out without him catching sight of her. He didn't need witnesses to his weakness. Of course, Hermione didn't look at it that way, but Harry did, and that was what mattered. That he was being ridiculous didn't change the way he felt.

Harry's disinterest extended into his classes. He'd rather carelessly destroyed his own cauldron with a blatant and obvious mistake. Silently, he'd Vanished the remains, though not before fumbling with his wand, which drew sniggers from Malfoy, Parkinson, and Draco's bodyguards. Those had been silenced by the look of pure and unadulterated malevolence that Snape had thrown them. He'd taken no points, not even commented on the assignment, though he'd been forced to give them both a zero. Harry hadn't even apologized, but he'd come close before wandering away to the hiding spot of the day, and she'd tried not to be too hard on him.

But her concern for his state of mind grew with each day. Just hours previous, Neville had happened upon the Boy-Who-Lived sobbing in a corner of the Astronomy Tower, and Harry had screamed at him to leave. Neville, absolutely mortified, had complied, though he'd come straight to Hermione. When the Gryffindor bookworm had gone to the Tower herself, it had been empty, although she now suspected Harry had just been hiding under his Invisibility Cloak. He also had the Marauder's Map, mostly to keep Ginny from finding him, so Hermione couldn't be sure about that.

She hoped he'd manage to move past it. She had faith that he would. Maybe he just needed to be gone from Hogwarts. Maybe Daphne's fanatical training regimen was exactly what he needed. Maybe then he'd finally open up to them, let them help him heal in body and mind. Merlin knows he needs it.

Many girls might have assumed that Harry was simply scared and frightened, moping around, being an idiot. Well, the third was true. The first two weren't. No, four years of being Harry Potter's friend had taught her that Harry was far more thoughtful in his actions than the average boy his age. Harry was making the conscious and deliberate decision to alienate them all, because he thought it was for the best. He knew that he was taking a big risk, that he might be taking them all for granted, but Hermione knew that even if that were true, it hardly mattered. There was no chance that any of them would abandon him, no matter how much of a miserable arse he was. Despite the fact that he was obviously and deliberately avoiding her, Ginny's feelings toward him remained unchanged. She'd ranted at Hermione more than once, but in the end, they'd always reached the same conclusion. We can keep trying, but in the end, this will end only when he decides to end it.

They could only hope that'd be sooner, rather than later. But, maddeningly, Hermione knew that Harry would never admit to making a mistake in this case. He truly believed that he needed to be alone, and that was that.

It was just one of the many things about Harry Potter that made her both hate him and love him, practically depending on the day of the week. Her friend was an immensely complex and confusing individual, and at the same time extremely predictable. Or maybe that's just because I know him so well? she wondered.

Hermione continued her trek back to the Gryffindor Common Room. She was seriously considering an afternoon nap.

They'd been best friends for a little less than four years, and experienced many things that men and women many times their seniors could not claim to have witnessed or endured. The bond that had been forged as they fought to survive the perils of the defenses guarding the Philosopher's Stone had bent more than once, but it had never broken, and had indeed grown stronger despite a growing ideological divide between them. Hermione was an idealist, although not in the sense of ignorance or misguided optimism, and she was proud of it. Harry was a cold realist. While he occasionally acted out of good will towards others, he viewed the world through cynical eyes, and possessed an overriding belief that everything was relative. They were no absolutes, no unchallenged moral standards that had to be upheld. There was only tradition, law, and cultural mores. And of greater importance, there was the gray area that defined what immoral actions a society would condemn and which they would simply tolerate. Increasingly, Harry lived in that gray area, and that frightened Hermione to the core.

"For the Greater Good."

That had been the rallying cry of Voldemort's predecessor, Gellert Grindelwald. His rise, which had begun based on promises of social and political reform, had instead become a personal quest for power and led to an alliance with the Muggle dictator Hitler. And what had followed had been nothing less than the most destructive and far-reaching conflict in human history, Wizard and Muggle. Though the Muggles had been forced to fight on a second front, and wizards had played a role of little importance in the Pacific Campaign of the Second World War, the death toll in the magical community still soared past 20,000, and many of them hadn't been killed in combat. Eastern Europe had lost nearly half of its total magical population, and many more had fled following the rise of Communism, which itselfhad been backed by many of the remaining wizards and witches, who had made up a significant portion of the KGB.

But as Harry had told her, Grindelwald's defeat hadn't been total, nor had it been well-executed. It was true that Dumbledore had defeated him, a childhood friend, in personal combat, but his army hadn't met the same fate. Leaderless, it had fragmented, melted back into the countryside, only to be caught up in the final devastation of Nazi Germany by the mostly-Muggle armies of America, England, and Soviet Russia. From the horrors of firebombing had come an intense hatred of Muggles and their ways, one scarcely kept in check by the Ministries of Magic in the occupying countries after the war. It had been like a half-healed wound left to fester for nearly fifty years. And Harry had expressed his concerns that Voldemort might have a massive army just waiting for the call, an army he hadn't been wise enough to utilize the last time. It was a truly horrifying thought.

It was the same thought that he offered as the primary reason he was so consumed by the need to build alliances, to gather powerful, and most importantly, trained allies. Voldemort was going to come at them with an army many times the size of the one he'd mustered in the First Wizarding War, and he'd crush them with impunity if they couldn't raise a cohesive and formidable force to oppose him. Even if Harry somehow managed to kill Voldemort, others would take his place. And though they might lack the once-in-a-generation power he possessed, they'd still have little troubling crushing Wizarding Britain underfoot.

That he seemed to have focused so far on the Dark families, and was learning more and more about the kind of magic they chose to wield was a direct result of his realist attitude, and what he perceived to be his own strengths and weaknesses. It was a cold, practical, logical, and rational approach.

In his own words:

"Hermione, I'm learning the Dark Arts because they are potentially extremely useful. I've shown a great deal of aptitude for them, and I scarcely think the Ministry will mind if it helps me save their useless arses. Besides, they have no precedent for going after me. And Aiden wields a lot of power. I'm safe, Hermione."

He'd misunderstood the reasons for her concern, of course. She didn't care about the possibility of him getting in trouble. She was concerned by the undeniable propensity that powerful Dark wizards had for becoming ruthless, bloodthirsty despots. Like Grindelwald. Like Voldemort.

Wasthat what Harry was becoming?

Hermione could only pray she was just being paranoid.

She'd just entered the Gryffindor Common Room when she saw a pair of identical redheads rise to their feet and move toward her. She tensed slightly, but the Weasley twins seemed unusually subdued. "Hermione?" Fred asked.

She turned to look at them, but said nothing.

"We were just wondering, you see," George said.

"What's wrong with Potter?" Fred asked.

Hermione stared into their eyes in turn, trying to learn the motives behind their questions. She found nothing but genuine concern. "He's still a bit out of it after what happened to him," she explained. "He'll come around."

"Well, you see, that's the thing," Fred began.

"What exactly did happen to him?" George finished, somewhat hesitantly.

Hermione pressed her lips into a thin line. "You heard what Professor Dumbledore said."

"'Course we did," Fred said.

"We just don't believe he was telling the whole story," George clarified.

"And why should I tell you anything?" Hermione asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Because even though he's a slimy Slytherin-" Fred began.

"– and a right git at times –"

"– especially when he's playing Quidditch against us –"

" – too true, oh brother of mine –"

" –he's still a friend of sorts –"

" – and we're worried about him," they finished together.

"I'm sure he'll appreciate that," Hermione said. "But it really isn't my place to share that kind of information. Just understand that he's suffered some deep wounds, mental and physical. He needs time to heal."

"C'mon Hermione –" George whined.

"Shut it," Fred snapped at his twin. "If she feels it'd be betraying Harry's trust, then that's the way it is." Hermione flashed him an appreciative smile.

George made a face, but said nothing more for several seconds. "Sorry for bothering you," he finally said.

"It's alright," she replied. "And I'll pass your concerns along to Harry."

"You do that," Fred said approvingly. "C'mon," he told George. "Lee's got some new pet he's dying to show off. Says it'll be right useful for chasing off annoying girls." The two stock redheads sauntered off, heading for the portrait hole.

Hermione began her slow climb to the 4th Year Girls' dormitories. She just hoped Parvati and Lavender wouldn't already be there. Like Harry, she needed time alone.

Harry stood at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, his Hogwarts robes flapping around him in the swirling wind. The twilight sky was painted with bright oranges, reds, and blues, a truly spectacular sight. Yet it was not the aesthetic beauty of this place that drew the Boy-Who-Lived –Again-And-Again ,he amended – to this particular, desolate spot. He turned, staring up the path he had taken. The mountain of a man that he had been waiting for was slowly coming closer. Held with both hands was a large cage. Inside the cage was the same Runespoor that Harry had encountered in the maze. It was time to keep a promise.

If nothing else, I still have my honor, Harry mused. It was the cry of many a disgraced pureblood wizard. And while others assured him that there was no shame falling victim to Voldemort's machinations, Harry wasn't listening. He'd been overconfident, too focused on winning the Tournament to understand the importance of the events transpiring around him. He'd been too wrapped up in his own ambitions, he'd become complacent after the capture and death of Barty Crouch Junior.

Making things worse was that Moody, the real Moody, who had resumed his teaching duties with a reluctance and hesitance that defied everything he'd ever heard about the legendary Auror, had warned him again making that very mistake.

The scarred man's eyes, both of them, stared hard into his own. His protégés' own blemishes scarcely compared to the those of her teacher. "The Dark Lord works in many ways, Potter. And most of the time, we don't notice the danger until it is too late. Voldemort's never been one to quit. He may have failed, but he'll re-group, change strategy, and try again. Constant Vigilance, Potter," he growled. "You can't afford to be complacent."

And yet that was exactly what had happened. With Crouch dead, Harry had turned his attention to his training, his preparations for the Third Task, his alliance-building and ally-gathering, Bloody Hell, he'd probably thought more about Quidditch than the possibility that he might still be in mortal danger from agents of the Dark Lord.

Daphne hadn't taken her failure well. Her demeanor recalled another time when she had been driven into depression and self-loathing because of another failure, one that Harry still bore scars from. He tried to push those memories away, shoving them back into the dark recesses of his mind. But no matter how much his guardian tried to hide it, the shame was killing her inside. She felt humiliated, Harry knew. The Grey Maiden had been bested without firing a spell. She'd failed to protect Harry once again, and he'd been used to restore their greatest enemy, Lord Voldemort, to his body. Harry had tried to tell her that she shouldn't blame herself, that the Carrow bloodline was full of assassins and spies, those adept at concealing themselves in shadows and striking without warning, that she couldn't expect to overcome the fact that she was human, and that every human being made mistakes.

It was no use. Daphne would never forgive herself, and Harry could never make her forget it either. His guardian's mental state was just a late addition to the anxieties and concerns arcing through his mind.

Harry idly scratched at his bandaged right arm. The wounds from the Flesh-Shredding Curse had begun to heal, but progress was agonizingly slow. It wasn't a sure thing that Harry would still have full use of his right arm even if they did. Healing Magic was quite advanced, but certain intricacies of bone and sinew were beyond even its powers. He'd started practicing with his left hand, just in case. It hadn't been easy. If he was forced to make the change permanent, he'd have a lot of work ahead of him to just reach where he'd been before he'd entered the Maze.

He wanted nothing more than to be alone. His friends were lovely, and they cared for him a great deal, but try as they might, they couldn't help him right now. This was his burden, and his alone. Their own trials would come, and bring with them their own responsibilities and failures. There was no need to saddle them with his. He had to admire Ginny's tenacity, including somehow casting a Tracking Charm on his belt. He'd detected it immediately, and disabled it, but it demonstrated the lengths she was prepared to go. Maybe he was being a lousy friend, even a lousy human being, but he just didn't care at the moment. Hopefully they'd forgive him. It was possible they wouldn't. Harry didn't think it likely.

Some would say I'm taking them for granted. They'd be right. I don't deserve such loyalty, but I make loyal friends. Go figure.

Still, he'd have to find time to apologize to Neville for damn near scaring him to death. He'd been driven to tears by his inability to cast even a basic Slicing Curse with his untrained left hand. Angry at himself, angry at Voldemort, angry at fate, he'd instead vented it at a completely undeserving individual.

He refocused on the present. He had a job to do.

Dark eyes shined out behind the dark, bushy beard of Rubeus Hagrid. The Hogwarts Gamekeeper wore an expression of steely resolve, mixed with a dash of puzzlement, as he gently lowered the cage to the ground, retreating a few steps. "Yeh still gonna go through with this?" he asked. His words came out in a low growl.

Harry nodded. He stared back into the Forest. "I made a promise, Hagrid. What have I left it I can't keep my promises?" Interesting paraphrase, Harry thought. He wasn't sure where those words had come from, but they had effortlessly rolled off his tongue. Sounds good, anyway.

Hagrid merely grunted. "Yeh want ter do the honors?"

Harry didn't respond, except to flick his left wrist. He cursed as the holly and phoenix feather wand shot through his fingers. Embarrassed, he bent to pick it up, cheeks flaming. Hagrid to his credit, looked away, silent as the grave.

Finally, he pointed his wand at the magical locks that held the cage door shut, and with a quick and powerful Unlocking Spell, disabled them all. The door swung open, clanging loudly as it struck the adjacent side. Tentatively, the Runespoor slithered out into the open air, led by the planner. Harry turned to Hagrid and gave him a meaningful look. The half-giant nodded, picking up the cage and walking back toward his home, leaving Harry alone with the Runespoor.

"I've done as you asked," Harry hissed.

"Indeed, you have," the critic replied, sounding somewhat shocked.

"You are free now," Harry told them. "Free to roam the world as you wish. No wizard will ever stake ownership to you again. If by chance you should be captured, no prison will hold you."

"You have arranged this?" the critic asked.

"I will, if you'll let me." Hermione had done the research, Daphne taught him the spells.

"We trust you, speaker. You have not betrayed our trust yet," the planner said.

"Never before have we encountered a human such as you," the dreamer said.

"And, I suspect, we never will again," the critic added.

"I'll take that as a yes, then?"

The planner's head bobbed up and down. Harry pointed his wand at the creature, then waved it in a series of intricate patterns and swirls, muttering Latin under his breath. He felt his magic swell and burst forth, locking on to the Runespoor and vanishing into its very skin. When he was done, Harry lowered his wand

"A similar spell once saved me from death," Harry said. "May this magic serve you well."

"You are troubled, speaker," the dreamer said.

Harry blinked. "The person you spoke of before, the 'snake-man,' I believe it was, has returned."

All three heads hissed in dismay. "Then the Darkness has fallen upon the land once again," the planner said.

"It has," Harry said. "And it's going to be a long, hard battle to ensure that morning comes."

"If you should need our help, speaker, call our name, and we will come. We owe you something that can never be repaid," the planner said.

"I'm afraid I don't actually know your name."

"We are called Eripheus," the planner said. "We do not know how we came to be called this name, but it is the only one we have ever known. Goodbye, speaker. And Good luck."

"Goodbye," Harry echoed softly. The three heads stared at him for a moment, then the Runespoor began to slither into the Forest. Then, it stopped.

The dreamer stared into his eyes. "You cannot do it alone, speaker. You have many friends, yes? Let them help you."

With that, it was gone.

His heart heavy with a million emotions, Harry slowly headed back up the path. He would heed the dreamer's advice return to his friends, he decided. He'd had his time to think. He'd had his time to consider each of his choices, and, hopefully, to learn from his mistakes. It was time to move on.

The sun had nearly slipped beneath the horizon. As Harry reached the half-way point, it vanished. The sky grew darker. Ominous dark clouds had been gathering throughout the afternoon. A dull boom of distant thunder shook the air.

A storm was coming. A storm that would destroy him and everything he held dear unless it was stopped. There was no shelter from this storm. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.

I don't really have much of a choice, do I? Harry thought grimly.

He would drive back the storm…or he would die trying.


A/N: Hurray! Another one done! WOOT!

So, how was that for an ending? I don't think there's much doubt what Harry's going to be up to next year.

Some comments on this chappie:

That's Luna's brain. It's not quite as messed up as I had planned (a long time ago), but there has to be a limit where her strangeness ends and her abilities begin. You can see the attitude she has toward all of this is vastly different from all of the other characters, and that's intentional. It's nice to have a change from the normal Gryffindor/Slytherin dynamic. Luna has a tremendous role to play in this story, and while I realize that JKR never intended for her to be this super-powered, I assure you that she'll end up doing something more than once that only she could do. Harry's power manifests itself differently, more conventionally. But there are all kinds of magical gifts.

Neville is developing, faster than I'd anticipated, actually, and I'm pleased with that. He's an important presence, as sort of a somewhat less worrisome Gryffindor influence on Harry's runaway ambition. He also has a great deal of potential, although that's relative to the average wizard. As of now, he doesn't have any unique abilities, and I don't think he really needs them. I really believe that his changed mindset concerning his parents and grandparents was vital for his character to turn out the way it has. Harry did that for him, and his patience will be rewarded.

Hermione's back on track, pretty much. I really don't like what I did with her in SoD...actually, I'm really not all that pleased with most of the character interaction in SoD, but it's all a learning process. I hope you feel the same way I do that this installment was much better in just about every aspect. Hermione is always going to have a heavy sway over Harry, though he's learned to ignore her when he's determined to. I realize her character isn't all that likable at times, but she means well, her innocence is a product of her Muggle upbringing, and her power...well, that just makes things a whole lot more interesting. You'll see what I mean. But she's still more reliant on her books than her wand.

I hope you liked Dumbledore's speech. He staged a real defense of Harry, because this time he knows that Harry isn't well-liked and rumors have been spreading. He was a bit more passionate than he was in canon, but I thought that was fitting.

Ah, the Harry vs. Fudge thing is like an asp chasing a bumblebee. Fudge has his nest to hide in, but Harry's a lot more dangerous than Fudge will ever be, despite appearances. I thought that his growing self(sometimes over)confidence was really demonstrated by the way he read Cornelius the riot act. That was very satisfying to write. Lord, the system of government in the wizarding world is screwed up. It's a single-executive democracy, integrated into the feudal system post-Magna Carta (with the purebloods acting as the elites that essentially ran Parliament for quite some time after it was first formed), completely consumed by corruption and incompetence, as well as racism (toward Goblins and other creatures of "near-human" intelligence). And they think we Muggles are primitive? Really, while I've kind of added new layers to the system, my Ministry isn't all that different from JKR's. Harry just has a far better understanding of how it works.

Dolores Umbridge, in all her pink and fluffy glory, will be present in the next book. rubs hands together in anticipation of the confrontations between her and Harry

Thanks again to all my readers for sticking with me. I really appreciate your comments and feedback, and as I've said, it really is important to help me keep this thing grounded in reality.