Minerva watched Harry, Ron and Hermione leave then turned to Dumbledore.
"Albus," she began but stopped when he held up his hand.
"Not now, Minerva," Dumbledore said calmly. "You can yell at me to your heart's content later. You can even hex me a bit if you like but Severus believes that Voldemort will send his Death Eaters here and I can only imagine it will be soon."
Minerva nodded. "I shall hold you to that, Albus," she said grimly. "Mr Longbottom, gather your people. Kingsley, do the same."
Neville nodded and ducked into the Great Hall, closely followed by Kingsley Shacklebolt. They returned with their respective groups; Neville leading the DA with Luna and Ginny at his side and Kinglsey leading the combined Order and Ministry forces. The two groups eyed the Headmaster and Snape with shock and surprise, breaking out into startled chatter.
"Silence!" Dumbledore bellowed, gaining instant obedience. "As you can see, stories of my death have been grossly exaggerated. We do not have time to tell the entire story here but the short version is: I was not killed by Severus and he has been working for the Light the entire time. When Harry succeeds tonight, Severus will have played a considerable role in that happening. Now, Voldemort's Death Eaters are likely to be approaching the school. You know what you must do, follow your leaders."
A thundering noise rumbled through the school and the walls shuddered around them.
"Remus, all the students are in their dormitories?" Minerva snapped.
"Yes," Remus replied staunchly. "The teachers who did not wish to join us have joined them and the dormitories are warded and protected."
"Good," Minerva replied and Remus hurried off to join the Order group where he stood beside Moody. "Let's go. That was the first of the wards coming down."
The group walked out of the doors and took up positions in front of the castle. They all had their wands in their hands and they waited silently, all of the words they wanted to say having already been said inside. Minerva stood in the middle of the group with Dumbledore on one side and Snape on the other. The DA students stood to her left with Neville, Luna and Ginny at the front of the group. The Order and Ministry people stood on the other side; Moody stood at the very front with Kingsley at his side and Tonks had worked her way over to join Remus. Seven red heads stood amongst the Order members; Percy had gotten the message from his parents and he and Penelope had taken their places with their family. Fred and George were handing out various items to the Order members and they then hurried over to the DA and did the same with the students. A second rumbling noise rolled up from the borders of the castle and the air shimmered around them.
"That's it," Minerva said grimly. "That will be sufficient to allow them entry."
Just then Hagrid emerged from the Forest, his massive half-brother following him docilely, both of them carrying massive clubs made of tree branches. Grawp looked around the gathered witches and wizards curiously then he turned when they heard the howls of Greyback and his pack.
"Doggies!" Grawp said with a delighted grin. "Hagger, Grawp go play with doggies."
"Tha's okay, Grawpy," Hagrid said. "I'll come with you."
"Hagger play with doggies?" Grawp bellowed happily. "Hagger and Grawp play with doggies!"
"Be careful, Hagrid," Minerva called out.
Hagrid waved one massive hand then he and Grawp jogged towards where the howls had come from. As the others watched, Greyback and his pack came bounding up from the gates, changing directions when they saw the giant and his half-brother.
"Doggies!" they heard Grawp bellow then their eyes widened as the giant simply reached out and picked up one of the massive wolves like it was a puppy.
The wolf twisted in the giant's grasp and sank its teeth into his hand. Grawp bellowed angrily and tossed the wolf to the ground. The snap when the wolf landed was audible and the wolf did not move.
"Doggies bad!" Grawp yelled angrily. "Grawp kill doggies! Hagger kill doggies!"
They watched as Hagrid and his half-brother began laying into the wolf pack with their clubs. They were quickly distracted by the sight of the Death Eaters stalking up the path. The moment they got within spell range the Death Eaters raised their wands and began casting curses and hexes. The castle's defenders scattered and the battle began. The Death Eaters favoured the Cruciatus and the Killing Curse and that put the defenders at a slight disadvantage. In fairly short order it was the DA that began to show their ascendancy. Harry had, through the good offices of Neville, Ginny and Luna, drilled into them the need to keep moving, to dodge the spells. It was easy to avoid the Killing Curse if you weren't there to let it land.
The Order members were quick to follow the DA's lead and so did the Ministry after a few quick, barked orders from Moody and Kingsley. Slowly on each side the numbers began to be whittled away, either by death or by stunning or binding spells. Dean Thomas was the first casualty among the defenders; felled by a Killing Curse as he protected an unconscious Parvati. Shortly afterwards Ernie MacMillan and Zachariah Smith died as they caught and stunned two Death Eaters that bore a remarkable similarity to Crabbe and Goyle. The Weasleys were remarkably intact; they seemed to be working in pairs or small groups, alternating between attacking and protecting each other. It was a tactic that worked well and was quickly copied along with the DA's tactics.
A combined effort at the Stupefy spell by Luna, Ginny and Neville caught the Death Eater who had been leading the group square on the chest. The Death Eater spun around, his mask dislodged by the movement and as he feel the three students recognised Draco Malfoy. They quickly ducked and dodged out of the way of the return volley of spells and were just about to retaliate themselves when suddenly there was a wailing cry emerged from every Death Eater.
The defenders stood stock still as the Death Eaters grabbed at their left arms in a collective, united move. The cries changed to screams and as they watched a strange black smoke emerged from the sleeves of the Death Eater's robes and weaved up to their throats. The smoke circled the throats of the Death Eaters, even the unconscious ones, then solidified and tightened in a sudden move, choking the life out of the Death Eaters in an instant. The defenders turned almost as one towards Snape and found the Headmaster clutching the Potion Master's left arm with one hand. His wand was somehow gripped tightly in his ruined right hand and he was swirling the black smoke around it. As it began to solidify the Headmaster barked a single word and the black smoke around his wand vanished. He let go of Snape's arm and the Potions Master shoved his sleeve back to reveal unblemished skin. There was nearly universal surprise when Snape smiled with delight as none there had ever seen that expression on the dour and sarcastic man's face.
"Potter won," Snape said triumphantly and loudly enough to be heard by all of the defenders.
Dumbledore smiled, his eyes twinkling brilliantly. "Severus, I do believe you are right."
A mighty cheer rose from the defenders and suddenly everyone was crying and laughing and throwing themselves into the arms of those around them. Only Ginny broke free and she took a few steps forward and stared down towards the gates, her face anxious and hopeful. She was soon joined by her family and they stood beside and behind her as they waited for their adopted son and brother.
Ron and Hermione dived in opposite directions after the Stunning spells left their wands. They rolled and came to their feet, letting a second round of Stunning spells go as soon as they were on their feet. They had the grim pleasure of seeing both Bellatrix and Lucius ducking and dodging their spells, looking surprised at both the strength and speed of them. However the two senior Death Eaters rapidly recovered and Lucius threw a nasty curse in Ron's direction while Bellatrix caught Hermione with a well-aimed Cruciatus.
Ron heard his girlfriend's screams from behind him and he swallowed hard as he ducked Lucius' second curse and threw a quick Expelliarmus at the blond wizard. When Lucius was concentratig on darting out of the way of that, Ron turned and threw Ginny's favourite Bat-Bogey hex at the insane witch. He heard her scream some vicious obscenities and he allowed himself a brief grin before returning all his attention to Lucius.
The four of them exchanged spells, the walls crumbling around them as the curses and hexes were dodged or deflected. For the first time, Ron and Hermione saw the value of the training Moody had given them. As the battle continued, they could see Lucius and Bellatrix starting to sweat and breathe heavily. The two students were definitely feeling the effects of casting so many spells but they were still feeling reasonably fit and able to continue dodging the spells. As soon as they both realised this they both started dodging more and using shielding spells less. The less energy they spent on shielding spells the more they would have for offensive spells.
They had no idea how long they had been fighting when suddenly Lucius and Bellatrix screamed and clutched at their left arms. Ron made his way over to Hermione and they watched in horror as black smoke trickled out from the sleeves of Lucius and Bellatrix's robes. The smoke worked its way up to their throats then wrapped around them, solidified and strangled them in a few dreadful seconds. The smoke then floated away and Ron and Hermione looked at each other for several long moments.
"Please tell me that means what I think it means," Ron said quietly. "Are you okay?"
Hermione nodded though she was favouring one ankle. "You?"
Ron nodded then he took a deep breath. "Fine. Harry?"
"Never better," came the reply from the stairs.
Ron and Hermione whirled around and looked up to see Harry standing on the landing above the foyer, looking weary and exhausted but triumphant nevertheless.
"Is he…dead?" Hermione asked hesitantly.
Harry nodded. "Yes."
Hermione gave a sobbing cry and buried her head in Ron's chest. He wrapped his arms around her almost instinctively as Harry slowly walked down the stairs.
"He's really dead?" Ron asked.
"Yes," Harry said again as he walked over and stood next to his friends. "It's over."
Ron reached out with one arm and dragged Harry into a fierce hug. After a few seconds Harry returned it and Hermione freed one arm and wrapped it around him as well. Harry buried his face into Hermione's hair and slowly began to cry. From the shuddering of Ron's shoulders, he was doing the same thing and the three friends stood there in that abandoned manor for several minutes before they got themselves back under control. The slowly separated, not looking at each other as they wiped their tears away.
"Let's go home," Harry said into the silence.
Ron and Hermione nodded and the three of them walked out of the manor, not even sparing a glance at the two dead Death Eaters lying behind them. They walked through the still night air until they passed the wards then they apparated back to the gates of Hogwarts and walked up towards the castle. Halfway there they passed several dead wolves; they looked like they'd been beaten in some manner.
The shriek had all three of them looking up to see Ginny sprinting down the path towards them. She threw herself into Harry's arms, tears running down her face, then she lifted her head and kissed him fiercely. Harry held her tightly and returned the kiss, not noticing the rest of the Weasleys running up to them, delighted smiles on their faces. When he and Ginny finally broke apart he was swept into Mrs Weasley's arms then passed to Arthur then from brother to brother. The same thing was happening to Ron and Hermione and when he finally was relinquished back into Ginny's embrace, he exchanged amused glances with them.
"Oh Harry!" Molly said, unable to say anything more. She simply smiled at him with delight.
"Well done, Harry," came the quiet voice of the Headmaster and the Weasleys parted to allow Dumbledore to pass.
"Thank you, Professor," Harry said, not letting go of Ginny.
Dumbledore's eyes were alight with delight and pride and he smiled broadly at Harry.
"I know this is the last thing you would like to do but the Minister is here and would like to know what happened," Dumbledore said quietly. "He has already spoken to many of us who were here but your story is what he really wants to know."
Harry sighed and nodded; he didn't like the idea but he knew it was necessary. "Could you tell him to get everyone who wants to hear it in one place because I really don't want to have to tell it more than once."
Dumbledore chuckled. "I think that is fair."
The group walked back up the castle. The defenders, who were now cleaning up the grounds, looked up as they passed and slowly enthusiastic applause began to grow. The defenders left what they had been doing and followed along behind and by the time they reached the castle there was quite the entourage trailing behind Harry, Hermione and the Weasleys. The first person Harry saw when he walked into the Entrance Hall was Remus and he broke away from Ginny to throw his arms around the werewolf.
"It's over, Remus," he said softly.
"I know, Harry," Remus said with quiet delight. "I know."
"Harry," Dumbledore said quietly.
Harry let go of Remus and walked over to join the Headmaster. Minister Scrimgeour was standing next to Dumbledore and he held out his hand to Harry with a sober look.
"Thank you, Harry," Scrimgeour said with a respectful inclination of his head. "Albus said you only wish to do this once. I am perfectly willing to abide by that wish. Perhaps we should take this into the Great Hall."
Harry nodded and followed the Minister into the Great Hall. They were followed by the Order, the Ministry defenders and the DA. When the Minister protested this last inclusion, Dumbledore said that as the DA had protected the castle with the same ability as the others, they deserved to hear what had happened as well. The Minister wasn't pleased about this idea but he subsided when Harry agreed with the Headmaster. Harry then walked up to the teachers' table where Snape was sitting.
"Welcome back, Mr Potter," Snape said, standing and bowing slightly.
Harry was a bit startled at that action and he nodded awkwardly in return. "Thank you, Professor Snape."
Harry sat down and was joined by the Minister, Dumbledore, Ron, Hermione and Ginny. An Auror came forward at the Minister's signal and she pulled out a quill and some parchment, sitting down near the trio and looking ready. Everyone else had settled themselves down at the various tables by this stage and one glance from the Minister had them sitting quietly.
"Harry, will you tell us what happened after you left Hogwarts?" Minister Scrimgeour asked firmly.
Harry took a deep breath and slowly began to speak, the scratching of the Auror's quill the only other sound in the room. He described their approach to the manor, the fact that Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange were waiting for them in the foyer. He described how Ron and Hermione had distracted them in order to allow him to get up the stairs to where Voldemort was waiting.
The Minister asked him to pause here and asked Ron and Hermione to give an account of what they had done. They quickly described their battle with Bellatrix and Lucius, everyone wincing when Hermione told how she had suffered under the Cruciatus. They finished their account with the description of what had emerged from the dark Mark and how that had killed Lucius and Bellatrix. The Minister thanked them then respectfully asked Harry to continue.
Harry described how he'd climbed the stairs to find Voldemort waiting for him. He told them of their verbal exchange and his revelation of the prophecy caused more than one horrified look in the room. He then described how they had duelled for a while and their continued verbal exchanges. Finally he came to the point where he'd been knocked down. He ignored the gasps that sounded through the room and described how he'd thrown the destroyed Horcruxes at Voldemort's feet.
Dumbledore picked up the story here, explaining to the horrified crowd about Voldemort's experimentation into creating more than one Horcrux and how that had been how he had survived the Killing Curse the night Harry's parents had died. He described how between himself and Harry, they had found each of the various Horcruxes and destroyed them. He also told how Voldemort's snake, Nagini, had also been a Horcrux and described Snape's role in the destruction of the snake and the retrieval of the last Horcrux.
Harry picked up the story again and described how he used love to power his Killing curse. The room was absolutely silent at this point as Harry, in a shaking voice, told how he gathered all of the love that he had for his parents, his godfather, his friends, his adopted family, for everyone and threw it behind his Avada Kedavra. They listened as he described how the green light had been shot through with gold and how it had felled the Dark Lord as effectively as any other Killing Curse. He then pulled Voldemort's wand out of his robes and placed it on the table in front of the Minister. Scrimgeour recoiled slightly then he gingerly picked it up and handed it off to Kingsley Shacklebolt with a look of distaste.
"What happened then?" the Minister asked into the silent room.
"I went downstairs," Harry said quietly though his voice carried easily. "Found Ron and Hermione and we came back here."
The Minister nodded and silence reigned throughout the room.
"Thank you, Harry, Ron, Hermione," Scrimgeour said with a nod of his head. "Now I think you three should get some rest. Your job is done."
"Quite right," Madam Pomfrey said, elbowing her way through the crowd. She placed a hand on Harry's shoulder then repeated the action with Ron and Hermione. "Don't think I didn't see that limp, Miss Granger."
A low chuckle shimmered through the room as Madam Pomfrey ushered the three students out, with Ginny and the rest of the Weasleys following. She fussed around them as they got changed and into beds in the Hospital Wing then she handed them goblets of Dreamless Sleep. The trio drank gratefully and let sleep swirl around and drag them down.
When they woke early the next afternoon, they found Mrs Weasley sitting between Ron and Hermione's beds and Ginny sitting between Harry and Ron's beds. Madam Pomfrey came bustling out of her office at Mrs Weasley's call and she quickly checked the three students over. She told Hermione she'd healed her ankle while she slept then told the three of them they could go whenever they liked. They quickly got changed back into their school robes and left the Hospital Wing with Mrs Weasley and Ginny.
"I'll be going now myself," Mrs Weasley said when they got to the Entrance Hall. "I only stayed to make sure you were alright."
She hugged them all tightly and kissed Ron and Ginny. She then smiled and kissed Harry and Hermione before heading out of the castle. Harry took Ginny's hand and Ron did the same with Hermione.
"So what now?" Ron said to no one in particular.
"There's parties going on in all of the common rooms," Ginny said with a smile. "The Gryffindor one was particularly boisterous when I left this morning. Fred and George left a lot of stuff with Seamus."
Harry stared down at the floor. "Did anybody die?" he asked.
Ginny sobered and held his hand tighter. "Dean Thomas. Ernie MacMillan. Zachariah Smith. A couple of Slytherins we didn't really know. Some Aurors." She paused. "And all of the Death Eaters except for Snape."
Harry grimaced and Ginny cupped his chin in her hand. "It wasn't your fault, Harry," she said firmly. "They made the decision to stand and fight. No one forced them. They could have stayed in the dorms. You did what you had to do and so did they."
Harry let out a shuddering breath and nodded. "I know."
"Let's go and sit down by the lake," Hermione suggested. "I don't know about you guys but I'm not really ready to celebrate just yet."
The others nodded and they walked out of the Entrance Hall and down to the lake.
It took a couple of weeks for everyone to settle down and get back into their normal routines. The students had a tendency to eye Harry, Ron and Hermione with awe and stunned respect. The trio found this annoying until Seamus grinned and started kowtowing in front of them in a manner that Fred and George would have applauded. His actions had a two-fold effect; firstly, they made Harry, Ron and Hermione relax and secondly, they stopped the worst of the hero worship when they showed how stupid such actions looked to others.
Minerva kept her position of Headmistress though she made it clear that the job was Dumbledore's at the end of the year. Slughorn also made it clear that he was leaving at the end of the year and, much to everyone's surprise, Snape agreed to resume his teaching duties after a long discussion with Dumbledore. Remus also indicated he would be leaving at the end of the year; the Minister had approached him about working as a liaison between the Ministry and the remaining werewolves. Remus' tale about how Voldemort had nearly gained their support and the why behind that had the Minister deciding that maybe it was time that something was done. Moody agreed to continue on as Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher for at least one more year, having surprisingly enjoyed himself teaching during the year.
Harry, Ron and Hermione bent their efforts into their NEWT revision, glad to be doing something normal and having nothing else to worry about for once. Harry took a day out of his studies to take Snape down into the Chamber to retrieve the remaining Basilisk fang. He found the Potions Master still highly abrasive and sarcastic but the nasty edge seemed to have disappeared. Harry got the impression that Snape didn't hate him quite as much anymore. Casimir had settled on a feather pattern halfway between his old pattern as Fawkes and his new one as Casimir. He still answered to both names and spent about an equal amount of time with both wizards.
When the trio walked out of their last NEWT exam they adjourned down to the lake, returning to the place where they had sat after Dumbledore's funeral the previous year.
"So what are you going to do after we finish this year?" Ron asked Harry.
Harry snorted as he lay back and laced his fingers together behind his head. This was a question he'd been asked many times in the last several weeks by many, many people. He stared up at the clouds thoughtfully.
"I'm not going into the Auror program," he said quietly. "I think I've had my fill of dark wizards and witches."
Ron looked surprised but Hermione nodded.
"I'm not surprised," she said quietly as she leaned against Ron. "You've done your job."
"So what are you going to do?" Ron asked.
"I'm going to play Quidditch," Harry replied. "For a year at least. See if I like it. I've had offers for trials from half the teams in the England league. Well, everyone except for the Harpies actually. But I'm only trying out for the ones that made it clear that they'll judge me on my ability, not my name." He paused and shot a sly look at Ron. "And yes, one of those teams is the Cannons."
"Please say you'll give them a fair go," Ron pleaded anxiously.
Harry laughed and Hermione rolled her eyes.
"I can promise I'll give them a fair go," he said with a grin. "And if they want me and I like them, I'll join."
Ron whooped excitedly before Hermione smacked him on the arm.
"So what are you two going to do?" Harry asked warmly.
"Moody's given me a recommendation to go into the Aurors," Ron said. "Assuming my NEWTs are good enough I should get in."
"You still want to become an Auror?" Harry asked curiously, looking over at Ron.
Ron nodded slowly. "Well, your job is done but I kind of like the idea of working there."
"Good," Harry said. "What about you, Hermione?"
"I've had a couple of offers," she said thoughtfully. "I was having a bit of trouble deciding between them but I think I might accept the offer from the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. I think I could do some good work there for house elves and werewolves."
They were quiet for a time then Hermione looked over at Harry.
"What did you mean when you said you'd play Quidditch at least for a year?" she asked.
"I met with Moody and Dumbledore last week," Harry replied. "They said the Defence job is mine whenever I want it. I…kind of like the idea of teaching but I'd like to see something of the world first. So I thought I'd go and play Quidditch for a while then come back here and teach."
"You couldn't teach next year anyway," Ron said with a grin. "Teachers can't get involved with their students and Ginny's got one year left."
Harry laughed. "Yeah, that was a consideration."
"At least if you play Quidditch the team management will keep the reporters away," Hermione said with a frown.
Harry rolled his eyes and Ron did the same. The reporters had been trying to sneak in ever since Voldemort had been killed and eventually the teachers had had to alter the wards to keep them from sneaking in. Hagrid had helped with that as well, convincing Grawp to wander down near where the reporters had gathered. Grawp hadn't hurt them but he had made some suggestions about playing with them. Since the reporter knew Grawp viewed what he and Hagrid had done to Greyback as playing, they'd quickly scattered, keeping largely to Hogsmeade.
"Maybe if I keep refusing to talk to them, they'll find something more interesting to write about," Harry said, half-hopefully. "I just want to concentrate on my future. Now that I actually have one."
"Sounds good to me," Ron said idly.
The three students settled back into silence and considered what now lay in front of them. It was good to finally contemplate normality rather than what Voldemort was going to do next and Harry was happy to keep it that way. His life was now his own and he had a job to look forward to and a girlfriend to spend time with. As far as he was concerned, life was good.