Disclaimer: I own nothing; it all belongs to J.K.Rowling. I'm just borrowing the characters to play with for a while. This is for pleasure only, no profit is being made, and no copyright infringement is intended.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
The slow, monotonous sound of water leaking from a dilapidated wooden bucket filled the cavernous room. The steady splashing was the only sound breaking the silence, save for the heavy breathing of the many inhabitants hiding within the primitive quarters. Some slept, curled uncomfortably over their cloaks, trying to catch a brief respite. Most just hung back in the shadows – waiting and watching…
Cool, early gray light was spreading across the dew-soaked grass and leaves. Deeper inside its depths, the forest still appeared inky black, menacing, as if it could easily hide an approaching army of the vilest creatures known to wizard-kind.
Not even the barest whisper of a breeze fluttered the branches, nor a morning caw of a raven could be heard. The forest was still and silent – ominously so. It was as if nature itself was anticipating the approaching evil.
A deceptively small hut stood alone on the edge of the forest, just outside the village of Hogsmeade. Chosen because of the sparse surroundings, the hut covered the mouth of a tunnel where most of the Order of the Phoenix lay in wait. All of them had put their own lives on hold as they attempted to stop the terror of Lord Voldemort's rise to power, and the promise that they might be on the threshold of that goal dripped nearly tangibly from the air.
Harry's bright green eyes scanned the room, squinting at each subtle movement from the other occupants until he'd assured himself that his friends were all still there and still safe. Everyone was safe – for the moment, at least. His anxiety over what he might be dragging them into next was keeping him awake. He knew he should be resting, but if these were to be his final hours, he wanted to remember them all. He wanted every last moment he could spend with his friends.
His breath hissed as he unintentionally scraped his shoulder on the cool stone of the wall, sending sharp, pincer-like claws of agony across the raw wound beneath his shirt. He'd forgotten to have it Healed when they'd arrived at the secluded hideaway where he and his friends had finally rejoined with the remainder of the Order. He'd been much more worried about getting aid for an unconscious Hermione. She'd been so still and pale, he'd really thought they were going to lose her.
He cringed at the memory. There had been far too many close calls already, but this last injury of Hermione's had been the worst. Defense had never been her strong suit, and she simply hadn't been able to raise her shield in time. It was a wonder Ron hadn't Splinched the both of them in his panic. He'd insisted on carrying Hermione despite the fact he wasn't even certain where they were going.
"I'm taking her, Harry," Ron had said fiercely, his eyes blazing with a fiery mixture of terror and determination. "I'm not letting her go now."
That had been two days ago. Harry furrowed his brow, or had it been three? It was no use; he couldn't remember. All his days seemed to blend together. He gingerly adjusted his position, resting his back against the rough wood of the wall but unable to get comfortable. The air was heavy and oppressive, the night's darkness offering no solace from the ever-present heat.
Can it get any hotter? He wondered, feeling a trickle of sweat run down his stiff and aching back.
Unlike the previously cool summers when the Dementors had been breeding, this one had started unbearably hot and sticky. Harry shuddered to think what that meant. Those resulting young Dementors were juveniles now, and they were learning to feed themselves. As awful as that was, it had proved useful, he remembered with a grimace. He'd managed to use one of those juvenile Dementors to suck out the piece of Voldemort's soul that had been hidden inside Harry's own scar.
Or at least, Ron and Hermione had seen that it was done. Hermione had learned some of the spells used to control the Dementors out at Azkaban, and she said the juveniles were easier to handle than fully matured ones. Still, it had taken both her and Ron's Patronuses to stop the adolescent creature from turning its Kiss on Harry's own soul when it was finished. Harry really didn't remember any of it except an agony worse than anything he'd ever experienced in his entire life.
Harry's world spun as the slimy feel of the creature's mouth clamped around the scar on his forehead. It took all the restraint he possessed not to pull away as his mother's screams echoed in his head. A glistening, rotting hand reached out to grasp his shoulder, and he felt as if he was drowning in a bone-numbing cold. The incantation to cast his Patronus hovered on his lips, but he bit down until he tasted blood to keep it inside.
This had to be done. There was no other way.
"Harry!" Hermione screeched, terrified.
"Not yet," Ron shouted, his teeth chattering. "We have to let this happen, Hermione. It's the only way."
He'd never heard such raw pain and emotion in his friend's voice, and he wondered if it would be the last thing he'd ever hear.
His head exploded in burning misery, and he couldn't fight the darkness any longer.
The pain had been worse than the Cruciatus, and he thought it would drive him mad.
Still, it had worked. He was alive to prove it.
Sighing heavily, Harry tried to control his breathing and let his body relax. Thinking back on that time caused him more distress than he could allow himself to feel. If things went his way, he'd deal with it all when this was over – and it was finally almost over.
His eyes once again scanned the room, glancing past the dark, huddled shapes in the corners until he found a familiar shock of red hair. A smile tugged fondly on his lips, grateful for the amazing loyalty his friends had shown him. He never would have survived this long if it hadn't been for them, and he was never quite certain what he'd done to deserve them.
Ron had his head tilted back, his mouth hanging open in sleep.
At least he's not snoring.
Harry had lost many a night's sleep tossing and turning and trying to drown out the sound of Ron's heavy snores. The hangings on the beds at Hogwarts must have been Charmed to mute sounds because he never remembered it bothering him so much at school.
Ron's hand was draped loosely around a sleeping Hermione's waist. In the dim pre-dawn light, the hand almost looked real. It was much more natural looking than Mad-Eye Moody's eye, but Ron had still had a hard time adjusting to his own strength while wearing it.
Harry shuddered, remembering in vivid and agonizing detail each moment of the destruction of Hufflepuff's cup.
"We've done it! We've actually found one," Hermione squealed, her excitement overshadowing the gargantuan task before them.
"We got lucky," Harry replied grimly. He'd been the only one to witness the destruction of a Horcrux before, and was really the only one slightly prepared for what was to come.
"And now we have to destroy it," Ron said, swallowing as if just realizing the implications.
Harry reached a shaking hand forward. The cup was perched on a gleaming golden pedestal. Perhaps this one would be simple.
"Harry, no!" Ron shouted, grabbing Harry's arm and holding him back. "Not you. It can't be you. I'll do it."
"What are you on about?" Harry asked.
"I've told you before – you have to go on. You can't be the one to do this," Ron said firmly.
"Are you mad? I'm the one who has to do this! The prophecy says so," Harry snarled.
"The prophecy says you're the one who can destroy Voldemort," Hermione said, her lower lip trembling. "That means Ron and I are the ones who have to destroy the Horcruxes. You have to survive to go on."
"If you think I'm just going to stand back and—"
"That's exactly what you're going to do. Sorry, mate," Ron said before shoving Harry hard, sending him sprawling backwards and onto the hard stone floor before he could reach for the cup.
Metal fisticuffs had grabbed Ron's wrist, squeezing so tightly that blood began oozing along the sides. Hermione and Harry tried frantically to free him, but the metal didn't release Ron until it had completely severed his hand.
Oddly enough, it was during this tragedy that Harry had stumbled upon the most crucial fact of the entire quest. He'd cut his hand when Ron had pushed him away, and it was his own blood that had eventually destroyed the cup.
He'd always assumed it had been the venom on the Basilisk fang that had destroyed the diary, but that fang had also been drenched in Harry's blood. He wondered if that was the reason for that strange gleam he'd seen in Professor's Dumbledore's eyes after Harry had explained that Voldemort had used his blood during the rebirthing ritual.
His blood somehow destroyed the Horcruxes.
Once his terror over Ron's predicament had subsided, Harry had been exceedingly pleased that he'd been the one to discover that connection ahead of Hermione.
Of course, it was that same clue that led Hermione to eventually discover that Harry himself was also a Horcrux.
"Just spit it out, Hermione," Harry said, exasperated. He was tired and ill-tempered, and she obviously had something she needed to say.
"Oh, Harry," she said, sniffling.
He noticed for the first time that she was very pale, and her hands were shaking.
"I've been over and over all these notes, both the ones I've made during our search and the ones Professor Dumbledore left you. Everything keeps coming back to it, no matter which way I turn. It's the only thing that makes sense. I kept thinking there had to be a mistake. It couldn't be true. I don't want it to be true, but everything just fits once I'd accepted it."
She was scaring him, and he was doing his best not to let it show. Her avoidance was only increasing his anxiety. "Just tell me, Hermione."
"It's you, Harry. I think you're the missing Horcrux," Hermione said before bursting into tears.
"She's mental," Ron said, staring at Harry with wide eyes.
Harry felt a chill run down his spine. "Completely barking," he muttered. "What are you on about, Hermione?"
He'd fought her long and hard on that revelation, but too many things that had happened to him suddenly made sense with that one missing piece of knowledge.
Harry jerked back from his memories, wincing as he once again brushed his sore shoulder on the wall.
"Are you planning on getting that Healed or just suffering like a martyr all night?" a soft, feminine voice asked from across the darkened room.
There was exasperation in the tone mixed with fondness and the briefest tinge of annoyance. Ginny moved like a wraith from the shadows into the dim light, lowering herself to the floor next to him.
Startled, Harry grasped his wand tightly, leveling it at her as she approached but dropping it when he recognized her. He was annoyed with himself for allowing her to catch him unawares. Her hair was pulled back in her trademark ponytail tied with a scrap of green cloth, and she had smudges of dirt along her cheek and chin.
Harry thought she looked beautiful, reminding him of a phoenix rising from the ashes.
He grinned sheepishly, feeling bubbling warmth fill his belly, despite the warning bell that rang in his head to keep his distance from her. As time passed, these two opposing desires had continuously battled in his mind to the point where he didn't even know what he was saying to her half the time.
You have to stay away from her.
But she makes me happy…
You put her in danger.
She's in danger anyway…
"You really should try and get some sleep. We both should," she whispered, although the intensity in her eyes denied any hint of tiredness.
Sleep became the furthest thing from Harry's mind. "I'm all right," he said, his eyes locked on hers.
In the dull light, he thought he saw a trace of pink stealing across her cheeks, reminding him of years gone past. He was struck by how far they'd come, he and Ginny.
When he'd awoken from the Dementor attack, she had been in the small hideaway where Ron and Hermione had carried him. He didn't know how she'd got there, and he'd never asked. He was just grateful to see her. She'd gently brushed his head with a cool cloth and solely tended him while he regained his strength. Once he'd recovered, he'd both expected and dreaded her return to school. She'd never left, however, and he'd never found the strength to mention it.
Although they'd been traveling together, they hadn't rekindled their romantic relationship. Neither of them had even breathed a word of it to one another, but her mere presence by his side made him feel stronger. She gave him hope and an urgency to end this thing once and for all.
There were other things waiting for him.
"Turn around and let me see what you've done to yourself this time," she said, gently tugging on his torso as she began unfastening the buttons on his shirt with trembling fingers.
Harry allowed her to remove it, intently watching her small hands before turning his back to her, exposing the damage to his throbbing shoulder.
Ginny hissed as she examined the wound. "What happened to the emergency medical kit Professor McGonagall gave you? You should have put some Healing balm on this at least. This spell is going to sting."
"I lost it," Harry grunted, scrunching up his forehead as he tried to remember the last time he'd seen the black, leather case. In truth, he'd forgotten he'd even had the kit. All of them had become quite proficient with Healing spells on this long, painful journey.
"What do you mean you lost it?" she snapped. "Episky."
Harry sucked in a breath, knowing her exasperation had made the spell sting more than it had to, but unwilling to let her know she'd got to him. Despite the burning pain, he could feel the wound mending. Ginny's gentle fingers began applying a pasty salve over the wound, sending instant, soothing relief down the length of his arm.
Sighing in gratitude, he slipped his shirt back over his shoulders. "Thanks," he mumbled.
"You really have to take better care of yourself, Harry," she admonished. "What if-"
She stopped, a harsh breath catching in her chest.
Harry raised his eyes to meet her swimming brown ones. Time seemed to stand still as they stared at one another, the annoying drip of water continuing in the background.
He suddenly wished they were somewhere else, and that there was more time to tell her all the things he needed to say. He wanted to reassure her, to tell her not to worry, but he knew he couldn't do that. They both knew what was coming, and what could happen. There was no more time to take care of himself – no more time for anything.
"Do you really think this plan of Ron's will work?" Ginny asked, her voice trembling slightly. She bit her lower lip, breathing deeply through her nose.
He watched as she swallowed again, pulling herself together and covering her emotions with a stoic mask as she always did – his Ginny. She wouldn't allow herself to go to pieces now.
"It's a good plan – Ron's always had a head for strategy. Voldemort usually comes at me when he learns where I am. Why should this time be any different?" Harry asked, shifting as he tried to cover his own unease.
"D'you really think we can trust Snape?" Ginny asked, her voice a mere whisper.
Did he really think Snape could be trusted? If that wasn't a loaded question, he didn't know what was. He supposed it depended on situation to situation. In the end, he thought Snape would always do what was best for Snape. He just had to keep faith that Snape thought eliminating Voldemort would best serve his own interest.
Harry would never like the man, but he'd found a way to tolerate him. Somehow, he didn't think that was what Ginny wanted to hear, but with the very real possibility of so little time left, Snape wasn't what he wanted to talk about at all.
He swallowed. "Snape helped me with Nagini. I never could have got close enough to slip her that potion made from my blood without Snape's help. I'd thought I'd have to destroy Nagini and Voldemort together. Professor Dumbledore's portrait still insists we should trust Snape, and we have to have faith in Dumbledore."
The words felt bitter in his mouth.
Ginny narrowed her eyes, studying him intently. He suddenly felt very exposed, and he shifted his gaze away from her probing one.
"So, Snape will slip the information to Voldemort that you're hiding here alone, and we'll all be here to greet him when he arrives?" Ginny asked, quirking an eyebrow and apparently allowing Harry's obvious reluctance about Snape's loyalty slide for the moment.
"Pretty much," Harry said, grinning, despite the gravity of the situation, at the simplicity of her words. "He underestimates the power of friendship because he's never had a true friend. He expects me to be alone. Who in their right mind would follow me on this quest?"
Ginny grinned wryly although the smile never touched her eyes. Harry raised his hand, cupping her cheek. She leaned in to him, gently kissing his palm. The soft touch sent a jolt of burning heat up his arm. It had been so long since he'd really touched her.
"I'm certain that he'll have his Death Eaters with him. He'll think his victory is at hand, and he'll be able to make quick work of it. Hopefully, that'll only be the first thing that goes wrong for him today," Harry said gruffly, squaring his shoulders.
"And the waiting will finally be over. I don't think I can stand it any longer," Ginny said, a sob creeping back into her voice.
Harry gently lifted his arm and reached for her. She shifted toward him without hesitation, burying her face in his uninjured shoulder. He rested his chin atop her head and inhaled that sweet floral scent. Even amidst this dirt and grime, she still smelled intoxicatingly fresh and alive.
He wondered if she had any idea how much she meant to him. She never demanded anything from him but gave everything she had to give. He knew he'd die for her, but she made him want to live.
"The summer solstice," Harry said, clearing his throat. "Seems a fitting time to end all of this, doesn't it?"
"No. The summer solstice is a time of life and beginnings. This isn't the end of anything, Harry. It's the beginning. If it were the winter solstice, I'd be afraid. But I'm not now. The summer is you. He's the winter. It's a good omen," Ginny said, her voice muffled in his shirt.
Harry felt a prickling behind his eyes, and he clamped them tightly, pulling her against him. If he needed to, he'd stand in front of Ginny on the morrow and die first, like his father had done for his mother. He'd at least try and give her the time to escape. But just now, as the sun was rising in the distance and casting a rosy hue through the gray mist, Harry felt hope blossoming in his heart.
True, if he managed to do what he planned to do this day, it would mean Voldemort's end, but it would also mean the beginning of Harry's life. No more hiding, no more loss, no more being alone.
He could stand beside Ginny freely rather than surreptitiously watching her from a distance; he and Ron could get that flat they'd talked about and begin Auror training together; Ron and Hermione could finally go on a proper date. The wizarding world could begin to rebuild, growing stronger, unafraid.
A beginning. He liked the sound of that.