Hermione was helping Enid fold laundry in preparation for the morning housekeeping when she learned about the battle at Hogwarts. The work was tedious and the small basement room warm from the dried laundry, and she was already half asleep and looking forward to bed when the soundof feet scurrying down the stairs above filled the room. Enid sighed and yawned sleepily into her hand, just as drowsy as her roommate.
"Sounds like Lorelei's coming to tell us something important. I'm think'n she's made up with Miguel...again."
Hermione hadn't been at the Hotel Raoulin for very long, but she had already been made privy to the joke 'Lorelei broke up with Miguel. It must be Wednesday.' Their fellow maid's overly dramatic nature invited a good deal of teasing from the rest of the staff, but since the other girl seemed to thrive on the attention Hermione didn't see the harm in it. It certainly helped break up the monotony of their daily routines.
The laundry room door burst open, admitting Lorelei in all her freckled glory. She was three years older than Hermione, but was so petite and excitable she could have easily been mistaken for someone three years younger. She was flushed and grinning as she hurried into the room.
"Enid, Heloise! I have wonderful, wonderful, wonderful news!" she cried.
Enid rolled her eyes, but smiled indulgently.
"How is Miguel?"
"Miguel? Miguel is an idiot! Who cares about him?! This is much better!"
"Oh? What happened?" Hermione asked, now curious herself. She mentally chided herself. It wouldn't do to get excited over Lorelei's little dramas, which occurred several times throughout the day.
"The war! It's over! Germany has surrendered!" she squealed and jumped up and down before turning on her heel to rush back up the stairs. "I have to tell Andrew! He probably fell asleep in the pantry again."
The girl was gone before Hermione could gather her senses to call her back, a flood of questions filling her mind. What did she mean Germany surrendered? How was that possible? Hadn't the fighting turned in Germany's favor after Lord Voldemort was forced to return to England in the wake of Lucius' death? Had they opted to use the lull in fighting to negotiate for terms of surrender rather than attempt to retaliate? Had there been a battle? Another assassination? Who had told Lorelei the war was over, and why did she believe them?
Of course, Lorelei could be mistaken. If the story was good enough, she didn't seem to be too interested in the facts.
"We should ask Mrs. Prewitt," Hermione said, setting aside her armful of towels.
"Maybe we should finish first," Enid suggested. "She won't be so cross if we ask after we've done what she told us."
"I'll ask her myself if you want, but I don't think I can sit here doing laundry until I know if it's true."
Reluctantly, Enid agreed and followed her out of the basement and up the stairs into the kitchen. Andrew was not sleeping in the pantry, but he definitely looked like he wished he were as Lorelei nattered at him. They entered the hotel lobby and could already see there were people on the stairs and along the hall gossiping.
"Something's definitely happened," she said to Enid.
"Do you think it's true, then? They say once the war is over, Britain will open its borders and we can go back home. I've relatives in the Cotswolds I haven't seen since I was little."
Hermione didn't offer an opinion. It could all be a misunderstanding or rumor gone wild, and her own thoughts and feelings were so tangled up at the notion, she didn't dare speculate what it might mean for her.
"Let's ask Mrs. Prewitt first."
They headed to their employer's office, but when they arrived they found she was not alone. Merle, the night receptionist, Mrs. Rumpall from the apothecary next door, and the elderly couple from Room 2A were all there and huddled around Mrs. Prewitt's radio. There was a man on the radio speaking in a serious, news-anchor tone. It was in French, and Hermione had to struggle to understand it through the crackle of radio static.
She made out the words 'surrender' and 'failed attack' and 'Lord Voldemort' repeatedly, but it was when she made out the word 'Hogwarts' that her heart suddenly began racing in her chest.
"What did he say?"
Merle 'ssshh'd her sharply and turned her attention back to the announcement. Hermione tried to listen in as well. Hogwarts was mentioned again, and after intense concentration and several minutes of reporting, she figured out the school suffered some sort of attack and that there had been casualties. After that, she couldn't make out what the man was saying. She didn't even try, her thoughts flying six hundred miles north to a castle and the brother and friends and godparents she had left there.
A hand touched her shoulder, drawing her back to herself.
"Heloise?" Enid whispered. "Are you okay? You've gone all white,"
Hermione blinked at her stupidly for a moment, then nodded.
She tried to think of some excuse, but was spared by Mrs. Prewitt, who had bustled over to them from behind her desk.
"'Eloise, Enid, 'ave you finished ze laundry yet? Well, never mind. 'ere, take zome money and go to Bayard's. Buy a bundle. Ze guests will not want to wait until morning!"
She shoved a few silvery coins into Enid's hand and hurried both girls out of the office.
"And don't let ze old crook swindle you like last time!"
Hermione didn't want to go, but she didn't have much choice. She followed her co-worker to a storage closet to retrieve their winter coats.
"Who is Bayard?" Hermione asked absentmindedly. She actually wanted to ask what Enid, whose French was considerably better than her own, had gleaned from the news broadcast but didn't dare risk showing any unusual interest in a school that shouldn't have had anything to do with 'Heloise'.
"He runs a newspaper stand a few blocks from here. Mrs. Prewitt buys newspapers and magazines from him when the guests ask for something special."
She felt her anxiety ease somewhat. She was much better at reading French than she was at listening to it, and a newspaper wouldn't be suspicious about the answers she sought from it. With considerably more interest, she hurried out of the hotel. Outside, the weather was cold and damp, and Enid slipped her arm into Hermione's and huddled close to keep warm as they made their way up the street and turned left towards the Parc Lutetia, a cozy little wizarding neighborhood with an ancient cemetery on one side and an open-air market on the other.
At first, the neighborhood seemed the same as usual. Couples and tipsy weekend revelers crowded the streets, interspersed with the occasional late shift worker. No one looked or behaved as if anything important had happened, but when they neared Bayard's newspaper stand they could see that the local citizenry wasn't as disinterested as it first appeared. There was a crowd gathered around the stand, not exactly a mob, but the man behind the stand was clearly harried by the number of people demanding their papers all at once.
"We better hurry or he might run out," Hermione said, pulling her anxious friend forward. They moved in as close as they could while they waited for a space to open at the stall so they could make their purchase. Hermione found herself standing next to a tall, broad figure in a black hood and coat. She wouldn't have looked twice at him, anxious as she was for news about Hogwarts and her family, but in the moment she was forced to wait idly her ever curious gaze wandered the crowd until it happened to land on the man's hand.
The first thing she noticed was that he wasn't wearing any gloves, nor had he stuck his hands in his pockets despite the below freezing temperatures. The second thing she noticed was how terribly pale it was.
She stiffened instinctively, identifying him immediately for what he was.
Enid, still gripping her arm, felt her sudden tension and turned to follow her gaze to the man beside them. The girl let out a startled squeak as she too realized what exactly they were standing next to. The vampire heard her and titled his head slightly towards them, dark eyes peeking out from the hood. He blinked once and stiffened too.
The girls both took an instinctive step backwards.
"Er, excuse us," Hermione apologized awkwardly. She had to remind herself not to run away. Vampires, after all, were technically legal citizens and hardly committing mass murder in the streets. Not in this century at least. She didn't want to come off as a rude and ignorant bumpkin by running away. Beside her Enid didn't seem nearly as concerned about appearances and was tugging persistently at her coat sleeve.
Dark eyes blinked at her, and she realized she had spoken in English. Perhaps he didn't speak it.
"Excusez-moi," she tried again.
He turned towards her fully, pulling down his hood as he did so to expose his face. It was Hermione's turn to gasp.
Her hand flew up of its own accord, covering his mouth before he spoke her name. Before he exposed her in the middle of this crowd, to Enid, to anyone who would think to look twice at her. He blinked at her in surprise.
"Um... Heloise... maybe you shouldn't... uh... you know... Vampire?" her roommate stammered. "Teeth."
She was suddenly aware of his lips. His very cold lips she could feel smiling even through her gloves. She jerked her hand back. He barked out a laugh as she pulled away, his dark eyes as warm as she remembered even against the unfamiliar, deathly whiteness of his face.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded. "I thought you were dead."
He cocked his head in amusement, and she blushed.
"I meant really dead."
"Ah, dat... is a complicated story."
"You know him?" Enid whispered anxiously, still trying to tug her friend away. Hermione wasn't quite sure how to answer that.
"In another life," Viktor offered with that same teasing smile, his fangs just peeking out behind his lips. He reached out, and she forced herself not to flinch as he touched a lock of her straight, black hair. "You were always lovely, but dis new look especially suits you."
She felt herself blushing even harder. Turning to Enid, she asked her to get what they came for, promising to leave as soon as she did. The other girl needed no further encouragement and put forth extra effort into squeezing into the crowd. Hermione turned back to the vampire and crossed her arms.
She had no idea what to say to him. He seemed quite content to just stare at her, studying her with childlike wonder. He had looked at her like that before, back at Hogwarts when she said something he found so utterly peculiar and yet charming. Before he had betrayed her.
Suddenly, without thinking, she slapped him.
He flinched even though she was certain her hand was smarting more than his face.
"I deserve dat," he said.
"Yes," she agreed.
"I am sorry."
"I don't care."
Except that she did. She cared that he was sorry, that he had regretted leaving her like he had and kidnapping her best friend on top of it. She wanted him to feel positively awful about it, because it had damn near killed her. And then he had gone off and supposedly died before she could ask him why. Only he apparently hadn't. Except he still sort of had. She didn't have a clue on how she was supposed to feel right then. Should she be happy? Angry? Indifferent?
She didn't know, but the slap had felt pretty damn good so that was probably a step in the right direction.
"Dere is much I would say to you," he continued. "Much I would apologize for, but I cannot do dat here. Can we speak in private?"
She glared at him.
"Viktor, I wouldn't have trusted you enough to go somewhere alone before you became a vampire. What makes you think I would trust you now? Anyway, I don't care anymore."
A lie, an obvious one at that, but she was done dancing to his tune. Let him be sorry or not sorry as he chose. It didn't change anything. They could never have what they had before. They were no longer those children anymore.
"Ah..." Viktor sighed. "I made it quite impossible for us, didn't I? Dese mortal affairs dat mean nothing to me now."
Hermione looked away. The way he looked as he spoke made it apparent he didn't consider her one of those 'mortal affairs' he was now indifferent to.
"Did you know about the attack at Hogwarts?" she asked. It might have been a little reckless to say so near the crowd, but she wasn't going off alone with him to ask it.
"No. I haven't followed de war since I died."
She wondered if she should believe him.
"Then why are you here at a newspaper stand?"
"The war isn't the only thing they print in the newspaper..."
He reached into his pocket, and Hermione instinctively reached for her own wand that wasn't there. She berated herself afterward. Viktor was a vampire, and vampires couldn't cast spells. Rather than a wand, he pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it to her. She carefully unfolded it. It was a newspaper article. About her. There was a photograph of her in her dueling robes and a headline 'Sentinels Still Searching for Murdered General's Daughter'.
It suddenly became difficult to breathe, and she hastily folded the paper again and handed it to him. He brushed her gloved hand with his fingers as he took it back, quite deliberately she thought, and placed the article back in his pocket.
"You can't... You can't be in love with me," she said sternly, not looking at him.
"I don't really have much choice in de matter. It would be much more convenient if I were not."
"I don't love you."
A truth. A wonderfully reassuring truth. She didn't love him anymore. She had hated him for a long time, and then simply forgotten about him.
He smiled at her sadly.
"I know. It doesn't help."
Hermione couldn't think of what to say. Was she supposed to comfort him? Commiserate? Spurn him still further? She was spared having to reply by Enid grabbing hold of her arm and her attention.
"I have the papers. Let's go," she said anxiously, her eyes flitting nervously to Viktor.
"Okay," Hermione agreed. To Viktor she said, "Don't follow us."
He didn't move from his spot as Enid hurriedly pulled Hermione away, and once they were out of sight of the vampire her roommate questioned her.
"Who was that, Heloise? How do you know a vampire?"
"I didn't know a vampire," she said. "But I knew him when he was human. A wizard. We dated for a while... sort of."
Enid seemed to relax a little. Obviously, she felt better about rooming with a girl who hadn't had a romantic affair with a vampire. Those sort of girls were known for coming to a sticky end.
"So what happened?"
"He ran off with my best friend."
"Oh! That's awful!"
"Yes, it was," she agreed. "And I would appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone else about it. Lorelei would be insufferable if she knew, and Mrs. Prewitt would try to lecture me and never let me out after sunset again."
"I promise. Just... be careful, okay? He still seemed interested in you," Enid warned and looked around nervously as if expecting to be followed. There was no one to be seen, and as they reached the Hotel Raoulin, the other girl finally seemed to relax. Hermione did not look around once. She didn't need to.
She could feel Viktor's eyes on the back of her neck all the way home.
Queen Ophelia read the letter in her late father's study by firelight, wrapped in warm shadows and secrets. She had her own study of course, one she had decorated herself to a more modern and less overtly masculine style, but she liked to read Lord Voldemort's letters here. When she had been just a girl and her father had been grooming her to take his thrown, he cosseted her away here and talked to her of secrets by the firelight. She had ever since associated her father's space with secrets, and if given a choice she preferred to read all the Dark Lord's correspondence there, particularly the private letters.
This letter was both private and official, talking of personal matters and politics with equal intimacy. It was secrets layered upon secrets, a conspiracy by style rather than necessity. There was nothing there she could not or would not have shared with her advisers, but he worded it all in such a way that she was sure would have made them blush and huff indignantly at his presumption.
But she wouldn't read the letter to them. She would answer the letter, and he would send more letters back in a tone her advisers would find more acceptable, although they would always huff indignantly at the presumption of a governmental usurper addressing a queen. No, this letter was for her, and for Serafina, who was now old enough to begin learning secrets herself.
"Germany has surrendered, as you know," she said to her niece when she finished reading the letter to herself. Serafina was kneeling at her feet, staring up at her like a child being told a story. "The battle at Hogwarts destroyed two thirds of their fighting forces. They sent word they wished to surrender within hours of their defeat. A wise move under the circumstances. The Dark Lord's retaliation if they continued would have been... thorough, I imagine."
Serafina nodded, but Ophelia could tell the girl didn't really understand what she meant. All her niece really knew about the Dark Lord was that he was a handsome rogue and semi-king, exceptionally charming and highly respected by both his people and their own. Hers was a child's understanding, because Serafina herself was still a child. She was shiny curls, bright eyes, glowing smiles, and dresses of ruffles and lace. Gently, she reached out and ran her fingers through her niece's curls and decided it was time to straighten them. Serafina was almost a woman now and would one day be a queen. She could not continue to look like a child's doll.
"He intends to submit the terms of their surrender very shortly and has offered to take our own terms into consideration in recompense of the assistance France has given him. What do you think we should ask for, my dear?"
Serafina frowned thoughtfully, but she was distracted.
"I don't know. Did he say whether Prince Harry is alright? Do you suppose we'll see him soon for the negotiations?"
The queen sighed.
"Lord Potter is not a prince, my dear."
The incorrect title was a matter Serafina had been scolded on by both the queen and her tutors on several occasions, but which showed no signs of disappearing. It was an annoying, but relatively harmless quirk.
"I'm sorry, but is he alright?"
Ophelia considered not answering the question until they had completed their discussion on more official matters but decided it would be petty. A queen must be patient above all else.
"Lord Potter was seriously injured during the attack. It seems he was maimed by the enemy, and it is feared he will lose his left arm."
Serafina gasped softly, eyes widening.
"Lord Voldemort has requested our best healers to attend to him, and I will, of course, send them, but nothing can be guaranteed. It may already be too late."
"Oh, my poor prince."
Ophelia's expression hardened.
"I mean Lord Potter."
"Why do you say so?" the queen demanded. "Lord Potter was injured in service to others. He has known battle and been injured before. He knew the risks, and he made the sacrifice; for his country, his ruler, and his classmates. Do you suppose if he had known the consequences, he would have chosen differently? For all your supposed admiration of 'your prince', you do not seem to grasp his character. Do not pity him, child. Admire him and learn from his example. Now, what should we ask for?"
Chastised, Serafina looked down in embarrassment. She was a princess, a witch born from a mighty lineage. Her heart ached at the thought of her brave, darling prince being so savagely injured, but Queen Ophelia was right. Harry was to be admired, and loss of an arm would not sway her affections for him. He deserved a love that would not waiver from mere injured vanity. He was a great prince. He deserved a great princess.
She tried to turn her thoughts to the Queen's question, to see to her duties just Harry had seen to his.
"Hhhmmm... we should have the Germans pay for all the damage caused by German terrorists," she said after some consideration. "And to compensate those who were injured or killed."
"Yes, very good. What else?"
She tried to think of something else, but all she could think of was Harry, somewhere in England, writhing in agony on a hospital bed. The queen eventually answered for her.
"First and foremost, we will demand the release of French citizens detained in Germany. We have over fifty of our people who were imprisoned illegally after we officially declared ourselves allies of Britain. They too must be compensated for any injury to themselves or their property. Then we must have the names of those saboteurs released. Terrorism is still an executable offense, particularly since we were not in open war with Germany itself. We may also ask for compensation for the expense of both the creation of the new werewolf colonies, which were made necessary as a result of Germany's abhorrent abuse of werewolves, and for the military defenses we built along the Rhine."
Serafina nodded, feeling foolish for not having figured at least some of that herself.
"Do you suppose," she asked after another moment of thought, "that Harry will come back to France soon for the negotiations?"
Queen Ophelia sighed in exasperation.
Four days after the Great Battle of Hogwarts, as it was now being called, Harry found himself sitting across from Giles Loughty, a reporter from Wizarding Weekly at a hotel in Bristol. The man was in his late forties and dressed in a brown suit and a dark green robe, his tiny glasses perpetually threatening to slide off his large round nose. Harry was dressed in white. His robes were white. His shirt was white. His pants, his shoes, his right glove all white. The bandages wrapped up the length of his left arm and hand were white, but that was usually a given. Even his skin seemed strangely white.
Except for his left arm.
That was the darkest shade of black, and most of it was carefully hidden from view but for the tips of his fingers peeking out through the bandages. His healers had said he shouldn't wear his glove over it, but their reasoning had been vague and unsatisfactory. Harry suspected it was Voldemort's doing. He wanted the world to know his protégé had been injured without appearing as if he were flaunting it or showing weakness. The thought made Harry curl his hand into a fist and hide the blackened digits in the palm of his hand. It hurt to bend his fingers, but he didn't mind. His healers said the pain was good. At least he could still feel his fingers.
"Lord Potter," Loughty began, "I would like to first thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I understand you are still recovering from a very harrowing experience and that you have many other matters you must attend to."
"You are welcome, but I ask you keep this interview short. I do have other matters to attend to. A funeral, as you may have guessed," he said, gesturing towards the white robes with his good hand.
"Of course, of course. Let me ask, how are you? There are rumors that you had been seriously injured during the attack."
"I took a curse to the arm, as well as some bumps and bruises... magical exhaustion."
Harry's left arm twitched involuntarily.
"It's too early to say. I suspect I'll have another scar or two to tell my children about. I got off lightly, considering..."
Loughty nodded sympathetically.
"You lost friends during the attack."
There was no question, so Harry didn't answer. Of course he had lost friends, but even if he hadn't been close to those who had died, he couldn't be expected not to grieve. They had all been growing up together in Hogwarts.
"There were fourteen deaths that occurred inside the castle itself that night," the reporter continued. "Nine of them were students, three teachers, and two Sentinels. Any you were particularly close to?"
"All of those who died at Hogwarts... all of those deaths hurt, but yes, one in particular I feel... more keenly than the rest."
He did not say the name. It felt disrespectful to the others to elevate one death among the many, and he doubted it would have comforted the boy's family any to have known it. Allbright... Timothy Allbright, who had lived up to his surname in all his luminosity of spirit, had died in western corridor while covering the retreat of his classmates. Harry had mentored him in Dueling Club, watched him grow from a timid first year barely able to cast a Shield Charm to a confident, competent duelist in the span of three years. Out of all the Duelists, Allbright had been the one he was most proud of. There was talk that the boy was going to be a Prefect next year.
But he was gone now. Gone like Larousse. Like Brennan. Like Lucius. Like thirteen other witches and wizards who Fate had not favored that night. Professor Slughorn, who had still spoken to him sometimes of his mother with genuine fondness, and Professor Vector, who would never get to finish that paper they had worked on together. Burrows and Underhill, honorable men both, gone before he could either hate them or forgive them. Amanda Tott, Hufflepuff prefect, who led Harry's study group in Herbology but couldn't grow weeds herself.
So many lost.
Loughty cleared his throat, drawing back his attention.
"I understand your foster father and the school headmaster, Severus Snape, was critically injured during the battle as well. How is he?"
Harry didn't bother to correct the man. Snape was his guardian, not his foster father, but it seemed a petty distinction under the circumstances.
"He is lucky to be alive. I am extremely grateful to Draco... Draco Malfoy, that is, for coming to his aid. The Headmaster was... tortured to be blunt, and he refused to betray the school. If it weren't for Draco and his friends, I don't think he would be here now."
"Draco Malfoy... he is the late General Malfoy's son, yes?"
"Yes, and Headmaster Snape's godson."
"A friend of yours?"
"You seem to have many very brave friends."
"Everyone who was there that day was very brave. Not all of those brave people walked away unscathed, I'm afraid."
"There are many who are saying it is you who was very brave. They're calling you a hero."
Harry shook his head.
"Nothing I did would have saved the school or the other students on its own. It's Lord Voldemort who deserves to be called a hero. I would have been killed if he had not arrived when he did, and it was his spell that defeated the Germans-"
"A spell you helped cast."
"A spell I didn't know or understand and couldn't have done myself."
He hated to say it. He hated to give Voldemort that particular accolade, but it was deserved. None of them would have made it without the Dark Lord having been there. The reporter leaned forward a bit, his expression changing from politely sympathetic to concerned.
"There are those who have accused the Dark Lord of using magic of the Darkest kind. What would you say to that, having been witness to it directly?"
Harry stared at him for a long moment. Up until now the interview had been almost entirely choreographed. Loughty's questions and Harry's answers had been written on little cards he had thumbed through that morning over a breakfast of truly abominable hospital food. He had agreed to do it. There hadn't been much point in fighting it, and the Dark Lord had explained these tedious rituals were all necessary for the nation to walk through its own stages of grief and mourning. Children had died. Many more had been seriously injured and psychologically scarred by the experience. Hogwarts was in ruins. Harry had gone along with it, because he didn't know how else to grieve himself.
But Loughty's question stirred something in him. He knew what his answer was supposed to be. He was supposed to say that a powerful spell was not necessarily a dark spell, and under the circumstances, it had been all that stood between Hogwarts and absolute destruction, and he dared anyone to criticize the Dark Lord's actions who hadn't been there themselves. That's what he should have said.
"I would say that they were absolutely right."
Loughty gave him a surprised look, which quickly turned nervous. Clearly, he had expected him to deny the truth.
"Um... hah-ha," the reporter laughed nervously, "I suppose, given the circumstances it wasn't unreasonable-"
"He used blood magic," Harry continued. "There were Germans who had gotten into the castle, so he went about slaughtering them and then exsanguinating them. A very messy process. You should have seen him afterward. He was covered in blood, head to toe."
"Ah, ha ha, Lord Potter-"
"But it was essential, you understand. The stones of Hogwarts are already soaked in blood. That's where all the magic comes from. That's why it keeps absorbing more from all the witches and wizards who live there. It's all Blood Magic. He just needed more. So... he took it. And then he used it. I helped him."
He uncurled his left hand, showing Loughty his black tipped fingers.
"I paid a price for it."
The reporter stared at him for a long moment.
"Do you regret it?"
Harry smiled at him sadly. It was perhaps the only question Loughty had asked him that wasn't scripted.
They both turned to the door where Reggy loomed, his expression sternly disapproving. Harry wasn't sure if it was directed at him or at Loughty.
"Your ride is here," he said, his expression softening somewhat. Ah, so the reporter it was then.
"Thank you, I'll be right there. Mr. Loughty, I am afraid that's all I have time for today."
Loughty stood and bowed politely, rather than shake his hand. It was a gesture that Harry wasn't entirely comfortable with, but one that seemed to becoming increasingly common the last couple of days. He wondered how much of it was respect and how much was a desire not to touch him. He stood, paused a moment when he felt slightly light-headed, then strode out of the room. His personal aid (why the hell did he need a personal aid?), Rebecca, had his cloak, also white, ready for him and slipped it over his shoulders as he entered the hallway. Reggy hovered. He was always hovering it seemed, but at least he didn't try to make him speak when he didn't want to.
"You look pale. Is your arm still bothering you?" the elder wizard asked. "I could make your excuses. No one would think less of you under the circumstances."
Yes, they would, Harry thought without resentment. He would have thought less of himself too.
"I'm fine. Despite what Lord Voldemort insists I tell the press and anyone who asks, my arm is not about ready to fall off, and I'm not going to keel over dead. You needn't coddle me."
Harry could tolerate the hovering, but not coddling. In some ways he was glad to have someone he could be bluntly honest with regarding what had happened. Reggy had been at the battle, he had lost men there, and he was clever enough to figure out most of what really happened on his own. Out of everyone that had been attending to him, an endless stream of healers and aids and guards and court officials, Reggy seemed to be the only one who truly understood what he had been through.
"If anyone has a right to be sore about this media circus, it's you. You have the right to heal and grieve in privacy. He shouldn't be making you play brave martyr on top of everything else," the Captain insisted.
'He' being Voldemort. Another point in Reggy's favor, he didn't seem the least concerned about pointing out the Dark Lord's amoral and oftentimes selfish behavior. At least not in private. But right now, Harry didn't want to talk about Voldemort. It was too confusing to sort through how much resentment his mentor did or did not deserve. He was a selfish bastard, but he had his own sort of honor. He believed the dead deserved remembrance.
"Maybe not, but I still want to go. This funeral... They were my friends, Reggy. My classmates, my teachers. They deserve to be honored and remembered."
Reggy nodded reluctantly, clearly unsatisfied with the answer.
"Fine, but if you start to feel dizzy, tell me. You're not going to honor anybody by fainting from exhaustion into someone's funeral pyre."
Ira sat beside Snape's hospital bed, her left hand holding a book in her lap and her right entwined with his. He was quiet, like he was most of the time these days, and his thoughts wandered around meaningless things. He brushed his thumb over hers, feeling her smooth, thin skin beneath his calloused fingertips. She was reading quietly a book Snape himself had been in the process of reading before the battle on the history of the potion master's profession. It was a rather grisly book to be honest, filled with anecdotes of potion's experiments gone horribly wrong and poisonous rivalries and muggle persecutions (potions master, which had been mostly women before the Renaissance, were unfortunately vulnerable to witch hunts).
Someone entered the room, and he tensed. Ira stopped reading and looked up. It was Healer Brently, a gaunt, gray man who always looked like he was glaring even when he wasn't.
"How are you feeling, Professor Snape?" the man asked blandly. "Is the dosage of your potions proving adequate?"
Snape blinked at the man slowly, then said, "Less."
Brently stared at him for a moment then nodded.
"I'll have the nurses reduce the pain potion to three-fourths the current dose. We'll see how you feel tomorrow before I approve anything less than that. There's no need to be proud about these sorts of things and suffer if you don't have to."
"I don't believe it is a matter of pride," Ira protested. "The potions affect his ability to think clearly. It makes him uneasy."
Snape had not told her this, but somehow she had figured it out. He felt a swell of affection for her, his attentive, conscientious wife, and with it a swell of guilt. He had put her in danger, failed his duty as her husband to protect her, and even now couldn't bring himself to confess it. To warn her that she still wasn't safe so long as she remained by his side while the Dark Lord waited to collect the debt his lies had cost him. He was glad she wasn't looking at him. He didn't know what she would have been able to read in his face if she had been watching him instead of the healer.
"Hhhmmm... If it's merely a matter of mental acuity then I'll see if we don't have some local anesthetic in stock that should help. Now then, let's see the progress on the leg," Brently said.
The healer moved to the foot of the bed, pulling away the sheet that had been draped over the injury. Snape's eyes, which had been following the healer closely until now, moved to stare up at the ceiling. He felt uncomfortable looking at the limb encased in a torturous-looking cage of pins. Ira tightened her grip on his hand in sympathy. He had seen the leg once already that morning. It was swollen, purplish, and didn't look entirely straight from the angle he was lying at. Every time he saw it he wondered if it would be that way forever.
Brently frowned at the leg as if it had insulted him.
"It's healing. Slower than I would like, but at least everything looks straight. No infection."
"Potter would have been up by now," Snape said in annoyance. This was a rather common complaint as of late. Harry had a similar injury in both legs and treatment after the Battle of the Berlin Underground. His injuries had been egregious, and it had taken weeks to recover fully, but his broken legs had been repaired within a week. He had been able to walk on his own only a few days later.
"Unfortunately, you're not a teenage boy any longer, Professor Snape," Brently scolded. "They're a lot more... springy at that age."
"How long then?"
"Until the pins come out? Tomorrow should prove sufficient. Until you can walk on it? Another... six days, perhaps? You'll need a cane for a couple of weeks."
Snape nodded. It wasn't what he wanted to hear, but he had accepted that nothing about his recovery would be pleasant. A part of him was glad that it wouldn't. Penitence had always seemed like a pretentious sentiment to him, but it was the sort of pretentious sentiment the Dark Lord approved of. Perhaps he would consider at least some of his punishment meted out already. It was difficult to gauge what would appease the Dark Lord, even now, when time and his soul had mellowed him... relatively speaking.
The healer left, Ira settled back, and Snape waited for her to start reading again, but she didn't immediately.
"I probably should wait until they reduce your pain potions," she said. "But I... there's something I wanted to talk to you about, and it just gets harder to do the longer I put it off."
He turned towards her, taking in her expression. He was struck by how pleasing she was to look upon. Not really beautiful, she was too plain to be little more than mildly pretty most days, and her eyes were too shadowed and her skin too pallid right then to be even that generous. But, nevertheless, she was pleasing. She had a very earnest expression, held in check by a very feminine sort of English dignity that he thought would only make her features more refined with age rather than withered.
His fingers traced along hers, twisting the wedding ring on her finger round and round absently. He thought about her fingers, and how delicate they were in his hands. He thought about the Dark Lord and his threat to cut them all off. All but the ring finger, so she would understand that it had been entirely his fault. He thought about fear. He thought about guilt. He thought how pleasant it would be when they reduced his pain potions so he wouldn't be so stupidly sentimental.
"What is it?" he asked.
"It's just... after all of this. Well, not just this, but you know, the entire year..."
The baby. Their baby. Lost. A dream so large and buried in a jewelry box.
"I've been thinking... that we should try again."
He blinked at her. He wondered if he had drifted off to sleep without realizing and was dreaming this conversation.
"I've been a coward, Severus, and selfish. I've been so worried about losing what I already have, I stopped thinking about what I was already losing by giving up. We wanted a family so badly, and we were doing it. We were so close, and then... and then we... and then there was a disappointment, and I lost myself to it. I gave up. We had barely really gotten started, and I just... couldn't anymore. But I was wrong. Or maybe I just wasn't ready. I don't know, but after what's happened... I nearly lost you. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't... Am I making any sense?"
Frankly, Snape wasn't entirely sure that she was, but he thought she had made herself pretty clear in the beginning. She wanted a baby. He was a half-dead cripple, and she still wanted to have his baby. He wasn't sure if he should want to kiss her or throttle her at the moment.
"I was thinking," she continued, "that Hogwarts is going to be closed for the rest of the term at the very least, and you'll need time off to heal too. We can try again in the fall, so if it works this time, then I'll have the baby next summer. The war is over now, so it will be safe to try and buy a place down in Hogsmeade again or even have one built while the market price is still low. Harry will be off to university next year, so we'll have the extra room at the cottage if that plan falls through..."
His mind started to wander. Not off subject, he was still quite attuned to the idea that another attempt at children was going to be made and preparations were in order. Her idea of preparation and his just happened to follow different tangents. Most notably, he needed make amends with Voldemort and very soon. The attack on Hogwarts and the subsequent surrender by Germany (and it was not a surrender he entirely trusted) had bought them both time, but there was no way the Dark Lord had forgotten about his punishment. After several days of worrying over the matter, albeit in a half-drugged stupor, he was of the opinion that cutting off Ira's fingers had probably been a ruse. She was, after all, not only Snape's wife but also Harry's friend and Morgan's stepdaughter, one the elder wizard was actually quite fond of.
Voldemort had intended to scare him, and it had worked. That his punishment would stop at scaring seemed unlikely, however. He needed to find a way to make peace with his Master once again. He needed to keep his family safe.
He could give up Ron Weasley, but somehow he didn't think it would be enough, and he had his own reasons for wanting the boy to remain in his debt. Weasley had potential, if he could be taught to curb his more petty and impulsive behaviors, and Snape felt a debt held over his head would one day prove quite useful. That he was not in fact responsible for Lucius' death meant he would not satisfy Voldemort by way of compensation, only prove to be a waste of time and effort for everyone involved in the investigation.
He would, of course, still give Weasley up if necessary, but only if necessary.
Something else would have to serve as compensation to Voldemort.
He closed his eyes, trying to think of what would work, but Ira was still talking. A soothing hum in the background of his mind, and before knew it, he drifted to sleep.
Harry slept on the train. He dreamed he was awake, riding through a moor, the water black and air gray with mist. Sometimes the train would stop at rickety wooden platforms that rose straight out of the muck, and ghosts would separate themselves from the mist and board. Voldemort sat across from him in his dream, but said nothing until Harry thought to ask where the train was going.
To the Styx,he said.
And the train crashed into the ocean, and he drowned quietly in black water.
He opened his eyes to Reggy sitting across from him, staring out the window thoughtfully just as the Dark Lord had been. The symmetry disoriented Harry for a moment.
"Where are we going?"
Reggy gave him a curious look.
"To Hogsmeade, remember? The funerals?"
The Hogwarts Express had been utilized to carry the funeral procession and the dead to Hogsmeade, a symbolic gesture Harry didn't much appreciate. He had always felt this particular train was meant for the beginning of a journey, not the end. No one had bothered to ask his opinion on the matter.
"Oh yeah, I meant, how long till we get there?" he said, yawning into his hand.
"Not long. Ten, fifteen minutes?"
It took thirty minutes, but not because his escort had miscalculated the distance. About two miles outside of Hogsmeade, a crowd began to form on either side of the tracks. Just a few people at first, but the numbers quickly began to multiply the closer they got to the village until the train was forced to slow to a crawl as hundreds of witches and wizards squeezed in as close as they dared. They were all dressed in white of varying shades, and Harry thought of the ghosts from his dream and shivered.
In Hogsmeade itself the crowd had gathered by the thousands. It was an official day of mourning, and all the schools and government offices and many private businesses had all closed, and its citizens flocked to the little village to pay their respects. The wizarding world was small and close-nit. Families, friends, neighbors of the victims gathered. People who knew the victims' families, friends, and neighbors gathered to support them. Old and present students alike gathered to comfort their teachers and each other and remember their fallen housemates, friends, and rivals. Even complete strangers came, marking the tragedy as both personal and national, mourning what was lost even as it finally led to peace.
The world outside the train flowed in rivers of white. Witches and wizards in white robes meandering to white tents and white stalls, where charitable businesses handed out free hot tea and cocoa in white mugs or white candles or Clothes Whitening Charms (not everyone owned white robes after all), and then pooled towards the center of the village where an enormous bonfire had been lit. It seemed even some of the village shops, normally their own kaleidoscope of colors, had been painted white or were draped in white cloth. The only non-white thing to be seen were the Culties in their crisp black uniforms and dress cloaks, a deep rusty red patrolling the crowds for lost children and troublemakers. The crowd seemed quiet though. Grim, grieved, and quiet.
The gathered mourners began to stir with the arrival of the train into the station and slowly made their way towards the platform. Culties cleared a path while an officious-looking Court Official spoke over the crowd for a few minutes. Harry didn't know what he said, but the people in the crowd seemed to shuffle with a little more purpose after he had spoken.
Harry watched it all from the window of his compartment, then turned to Reggy. The elder wizard stared back.
"You can still back out, you know."
It was tempting. The crowd seemed so vast, and inside the train compartment seemed so safe and warm. What would he be greeted with when he exited the train? Would they stare at him with pity for his blackened arm, his dead friends? Would there be acquisitions? Why didn't you cast the spell sooner? Why didn't you save them? Admiration? There goes the boy who helped win the war! He wasn't sure what he would find more nauseating. He wished, more than anything at the moment, that they had been instructed to put up the hoods to their white cloaks during the procession.
There was a knock on the compartment door, and someone said it was time to start lining up.
Harry opened the door and stepped out into the hall. Other students were already crowding into the aisle, and he felt instantly better surrounded by familiar faces dressed just like him. There was no particular order to the procession of students that would be escorting their departed teachers and classmates up to the cremation site, and Harry was grateful for this. He took a sort of comfort that he wouldn't be intentionally singled out, that he might pass a majority of the crowd without being recognized.
In the line itself, several other students regarded him with some surprise.
"Hey, Potter," a girl a few years behind him greeted him shyly. "Glad you could make it. I didn't think they'd let you out of the hospital yet."
Technically, Harry hadn't been in the hospital for the last three days. Once it became obvious the healers could do nothing about his arm and he wasn't in any danger of dying, he had been moved to a hotel in Bristol, right across the hall from the Dark Lord, although he had seen very little of him.
"Sshhh... I escaped. Don't tell anyone," he said, smiling weakly.
She smiled back just as feebly. "You would."
Conversation flowed up and down the aisles, subdued without the giggling and exuberant shouting they were all used to, but still familiar and vaguely comforting. Harry spotted Clyde and Ginny further up line, but it was too crowded to try and squeeze up to them. He didn't see Natalie or Draco, but the Slytherins had mostly gathered at the back of the train. None of their classmates had died during the attack, and many of them were only there reluctantly. When he had seen Draco the day before, a brief, tense visit, his friend had counted himself among the reluctant. He wasn't inclined to play the grieving friend to people he frankly didn't give a damn about while his father was barely cold in the ground. Harry hadn't said anything. It was a selfish thing for Draco stay home, but it would have been equally selfish for someone to demand he come. His friend had taken his silence as censure and stormed out of the room. Harry hadn't been in any state to chase after him.
They waited for what seemed like an eternity in the cramped aisle before the mourning wail of bagpipes echoed through the train, signaling the beginning of the funeral procession. Slowly, the procession shuffled through the narrow aisles of the train and out onto the platform. The sky was sunny and blue, but a sharp wind bit at his nose and ears, making Harry wish they had been instructed to put up their hoods for an entirely different reason.
Ahead of them, Harry could see the bodies of the dead, laid out on gurneys and wrapped in gauzy white cloth, their faces left exposed to reveal their peacefully sleeping expressions. Harry quickly looked elsewhere and took several deep, calming breaths. He had come to honor the dead, but he couldn't stand the idea of looking at them. Couldn't stand the idea of never seeing them again except as they were in that moment, empty vessels soon to be nothing more than ash. He was certain he would cry or vomit or do something irrational and embarrassing, and it would be in all the newspapers in the morning.
"Snap out of it," someone hissed in his ear.
Harry startled and stiffened. Very carefully, he glanced behind him. Draco glowered back at him reproachfully. Harry thought for a moment he was hallucinating. The other boy gave him an exasperated look and shoved him forward, and he had to turn back around and hurry to catch up to person ahead of him. They filed down the platform steps in single file, but once they touched the ground they formed up into columns and were handed candles that lit themselves when held. With some quick and careful maneuvering, Harry positioned himself beside Draco, who was now ignoring him.
He found that strangely comforting.
For the most part, everyone ignored him. Despite his earlier fears, most of the crowd did not seem to recognize him amidst the other students. Their focus was on the twelve students and teachers they were there to honor, and they were nearly a hundred feet ahead of them, laid out on levitating sleds covered almost entirely in white roses and pulled by white horses. People in the crowd were weeping, some quietly, some loudly, but the sound was drowned out by the wailing of the bagpipes.
The procession walked and walked, the crowd remaining thick around them, following slowly after them. The mournful wail of bagpipes gave way to drums and flutes and then to a violin. Hogsmeade gave way to an open pasture, and the road curved towards Hogwarts, but the procession turned to move off the road and up a hill. The wind blew harder and colder as they climbed. Harry's candle grew heavy in his hands and his legs began to ache. Halfway up the hill, Draco reached out to touch his candle and muttered a Levitating Charm on it so that it could hold up Harry's hand rather than the other way around, then pulled away. Neither said a word, but the kindness of the gesture gave Harry the encouragement he needed to make it the rest of the way.
The top of the hill leveled out into a wide, round plateau, and it was there the pyres had been erected. Three white granite monoliths, about ten or so feet high, stood at equal distance from each other. Around each stone were four pyre platforms spread out like the points of a compass. The pyres reminded Harry of brick molds more than anything, with solid granite walls and a hollow, rectangular space inside. At the center of it all stood Lord Voldemort, waiting patiently for their arrival. Harry tried to summon some sort of anger at the man for his presumption. Why had he not been a part of the funeral procession?
But the anger wouldn't come. Deep down, he knew the reason why. Someone had to prepare the way.
Once at the top of the hill, the students all dispersed into the surrounding crowd, leaving a wide space around the pyres. Harry followed Draco into the crowd, pulling up the hood of his cloak as he did so. Within moments, he felt completely anonymous, surrounded by hundreds of other witches and wizards, their hoods similarly pulled up to protect against the wind.
Pallbearers unloaded the twelve carriages (Underhill and Burrows, the two sentinels who had died in the castle were to be honored in the military fashion at a separate service) and carried the dead to their pyres. Voldemort, stately and almost priest-like himself in his white robes, circled each the great monoliths, stopping before the dead to lay a silver coin over each eye. Harry thought of his dream, of the River Styx, where the dead went to forget and where Charon, the ferryman, would only take those across who could pay their way. His eyes felt suddenly hot. His head ached. He wished Hermione was there, crying on his shoulder so he could cry into her hair.
When the Dark Lord had completed his offerings, he moved towards Harry without even having to search the crowd for him. Rather than stop to stand and watch the rest of the proceedings, he grabbed his protégé by his arm and pulled him away from Draco and into the crowd. The people scurried quickly to move out of their way, and Harry was mortified to make a spectacle during such an event.
"What are you doing?" he hissed angrily.
"This part isn't for the like of us," Voldemort replied, continuing to pull him along until they reached the edge of the plateau. The hill was crowded, but on the side where they stood it was steeper and there were less people. Those that were there quickly make space for them with a wary, sometimes confused, glance. Voldemort let go of him, and Harry turned back towards the funeral.
He paused when he realized what Voldemort meant.
Priests had moved in and were speaking now, making some sort of sermon or prayer to a God neither of them could call their own. He turned back around and sighed. Ahead of them, off in the distance, Hogwarts stood in ruins. He had seen the pictures in the papers of course. The images were splashed across the front page of every paper since it had happened, but it hadn't prepared him for the reality of it. Her towers were broken, her roofs torn up or burned, windows empty of glass, and all around her lay ice. Ice thrown up from the ground like spears, ice blown up into glacial walls, ice hanging down from the roofs and trees and the archways in razor sharp daggers, ice in glassy sheets over every smooth surface, ice in opaque white mountains where fountains and statues once stood. The lake and moat reflected the clear sky like a mirror. All of it glittered in the sun, savage and clean, terrible and beautiful all at once.
I did this, he thought, feeling a mixture of awe, pride, and horror. As if hearing his thoughts, Voldemort's hand came to rest on his shoulder. No. We did this.
They didn't speak. Harry had nothing to say, and Voldemort, for all his blithe disregard for life, has a genuine respect for honoring it. This went on for nearly an hour as the priests performed their rites and people wept, prayed, sang a hymnal Harry didn't recognize, and shuffled to keep warm. Then it was over, and the people lined up to lay down their offerings of flowers, photographs, letters, and whatever flammable sentiment they could offer. Harry had nothing to offer, but it didn't really matter. With over five thousand mourners, there was plenty to pile over the dead and plenty more to fill the empty space in the pyre platforms too. He followed the Dark Lord in a snaking circuit around each pyre, willing himself to look, really look, at his fallen classmates and teachers for the last time.
Some of them he barely recognized. Vector looked twenty years younger with her glasses gone and her hair lain loose. Gerald St. James looked ten years older with his military haircut and sans his usual pouty glower. But some looked just the same. Allbright looked just as he always did. Small, pale, and yet somehow vibrant. Peaceful now, like he were having a pleasant dream. But Allbright wasn't sleeping. He was gone, and all that was left of him was so much flesh and bone, no more truly Allbright than a statue of clay or stone would have been.
Harry said his goodbyes in silence and moved on. At some point, he lost track of Voldemort and his mentor disappeared. He was not particularly concerned. He filed along with the crowd, Reggy eventually coming once again to stand beside him as if he had always been there. Harry intended to search the crowd for familiar faces, but his plans were ruined by a sudden wave of dizziness that caused him to drop his candle. He staggered and was caught by his escort.
"You pushed yourself too hard. Come on, I'll bring you somewhere to rest."
Harry insisted he only needed to sit down somewhere for a moment, maybe warm up by the bonfire, but Reggy wasn't listening. He took him to Madame Puddifoot's of all places, which had been requisitioned by Culties as a security station for the event. The gaudy little tea shop was known as a sort of romantic hangout by the students, and there were several private booths with comfortable couches. Reggy deposited him in the most secluded one he could find and cast a Muffling Charm to keep out the sharp military tones and pounding of heavy boots on wood floors as the Culties went about their business. He was left alone for a moment while his escort went to get him some tea, but suddenly immersed in a dark, warm, comfortable booth and already exhausted, he fell asleep before he got back.
Harry was woken hours later by someone sliding his glasses back onto his face. He hadn't remembered taking them off to begin with, so the sensation was sufficiently strange that he reached up to swat the helpful hand away and nearly fell off the couch in the process.
"It's time to wake up, Harry," someone said, sinister and familiar.
He opened his eyes, blinking blearily through his lopsided glasses at Voldemort seated across from him, drinking from a truly hideous yellow and pink tea cup. He righted his glasses. The tea cup still didn't look any better. Reggy, who must have been the one to replace his glasses, handed him a cup of tea. The cup was even more hideous, if possible.
As he reached to take it, he felt a twinge in his left arm and knew the pain potions had started to wear off.
"I put some of your potions in your tea," Reggy said.
"Thank you," he said, although he would have preferred he hadn't. The pain wasn't unbearable, and he would have liked all his senses about him when speaking to the Dark Lord.
"Yes, thank you," Voldemort interrupted impatiently. "I can handle things from here."
The Captain saluted and left, but not without a cautious glance back as he went.
"What time is it?" Harry asked, noting the tea shop was looking especially dim.
"The sun has just set a little while ago, so about a quarter after four."
That meant he had slept for nearly four hours. He was thirsty, hungry, his back ached, and his left leg had gone numb. He yawned and drank his tea. Voldemort watched him intently.
"How is your hand?"
"It's still there."
"May I see it?"
"Now?" he asked, surprised.
"I suppose later would be better. You should finish your tea if you want see them light the pyres."
Harry swallowed down the rest of his drink, and carefully climbed off the sofa. He stretched his back and shook his tingling leg, and once reasonably sure he could walk with relative dignity, gestured to Voldemort he was ready. They left the shop and entered the village. The wind had died down, but it was even colder now. There was a faint purple and pink glow in the west where the sun had set only a few minutes before, but stars were appearing rapidly in the deepening blackness of the sky. Charmed orbs of blue-white lights had been suspended above to light the streets, making the white robed people seem to glow ghost-like in the darkness. The crowd had thinned considerably, only a third of the previous number but still plenty to stop and stare at them as they made their way out of the village. They were still on the road when the pyres were lit, and they stopped for a few minutes to watch the fires burning at the top of the hill. Harry couldn't see the pyres themselves from their angle, but he could see shadows dancing against the rising smoke. Some of the shadows looked like people, some like birds and beasts, and some that looked like a combination of them.
Eventually, Voldemort placed his hand on his shoulder and led him forward. They didn't go off the road towards the burning hill, but kept on it, turning east back towards Hogwarts. As they made their way up the road, the hill fell out of sight and Voldemort murmured a spell. Harry stiffened, but it was only a Blackening Spell, their pristine white robes darkening into mere shadows. They continued on in silence.
Ahead of them, Hogwarts was dark, her torches left unlit, but the surrounding ice fields glowed very faintly in the weak light of the waning moon, creating a clear silhouette of the castle itself. Entering the ice field itself was not as harrowing an experience as Harry thought it would be either. At a distance the razor sheets of ice, some shards rising several feet above their heads, looked impenetrable by foot, but up close it was apparent that there had been paths made by melting and refreezing. Voldemort, his night vision superior to his protégé's, led them through a twisting curving path.
"What happened to the dead?" Harry asked. There must have been hundreds upon hundreds of dead after the battle, buried beneath the ice and snow, but in the dim light Harry couldn't see any of them. Surely they wouldn't have been left there?
"I believe most of them have already been found and... put away somewhere. Although, I wouldn't be surprised if some were missed. I don't suppose we'll find out until spring."
"Do you suppose any of them will come back as ghosts?"
"If they do, they will be immediately exorcised. They don't belong in this place."
The drawbridge that led into the castle was still standing, though just barely, and once they had crossed over it, they were met by several Culties, who gave Harry a terrible start when they stepped out from behind the portcullis. Voldemort dismissed them, then took a moment to show him something. He lit his wand and held it high. Harry was startled once again, but this time the sense of alarm seemed to grow and sink deep into the core of him. He could feel himself starting to tremble.
Above them, where previously there had only been brick and mortar, there now hung a relief. It was of a woman, her hair in braids and wild curling tresses, her bare arms open in welcome, a look of gentle welcome on her face.
"It's Her," Harry whispered. "It's Madris."
Voldemort looked back up at her, and smiled himself.
"I thought as much. Now, this is your patron goddess, if I recall. What did you do to summon her?"
Harry's thoughts were suddenly bouncing around in his head like a nest of Cornish Pixies. He had made a point not to think back on the battle or his several brushes with death during it, but he couldn't ignore it now. He had a made a promise. A promise he wouldn't be able to keep without the Dark Lord's approval.
"I promised to make Hogwarts her temple," he said with a grimace. Voldemort stiffened, the hand that hadn't left his protégé's shoulder tightened painfully for a moment. Then the dark wizard sighed, and his grip loosened.
"Not precisely the god I would have chosen myself, but then I can't criticize under the circumstances. She's powerful in any event."
"She's a queen among gods, you know," Harry pointed out, feeling defensive of Her despite his earlier reluctance.
"I know," Voldemort sighed, and moved them forward. Inside the castle was like the inside of a cave, dark, hollow, and echoing. It was cold too, and ice layered the floor and formed icicles off the furniture. Harry pulled away from the Dark Lord to place his hand against a stone pillar. His magus hypersentia sensed life and magic still there, but dormant, resting, gathering strength. A sleeping dragon.
"I've never felt Hogwarts this quiet before," Harry said, feeling melancholy even as he said it.
"It could have been worse, Harry. It could have been so much worse."
"Why did they do it? The Germans, I mean. Why attack a school? Did they think slaughtering a bunch of children would have won them the war? That's stupid. It only would have made everyone angrier."
Voldemort made a gesture with his wand, dispelling his illumination charm and lighting the surrounding wall sconces. The entryway was still terribly cold, but the room felt different all at once. The firelight gave the room a warmer glow, illuminating the castle in a light that made the abandoned castle feel more familiar and welcoming.
Voldemort explained, "It wasn't their intention to kill the students, but rather to take them hostage. As hostages, you all would have been considerably more valuable. Our population is relatively small, our children are precious, and the children attending this school particularly so. Seventy percent of the students here come from Pureblood families or have talented witches and wizards in Court positions as their parents or grandparents, and many of those are the sole heirs within their respective families. Then of course, there was you, a national symbol unto yourself. If you have been captured or killed, it would have been a severe blow to the country's morale. Had they succeeded in taking the students back to Germany, then they probably would have been able to get a cease-fire and our troops withdrawn. Even I would not have been able to justify such a sacrifice."
"But you wouldn't have surrendered, would you?"
The Dark Lord turned to him, light and shadow making his smile sinister.
Harry wondered what he would have done instead, but didn't ask. He knew he wouldn't like the answer, and he had enough inspiration for his nightmares already. Voldemort's smile widened as if he were reading his thoughts. He turned from his protégé and started up the nearby stairs. Harry followed after him.
Into the belly of the beast, he thought to himself.
"Why are we here?"
"A number of reasons. Queen Ophelia will be hosting the negotiations for Germany's surrender at her palace in Bourges, and I will be leaving soon to oversee the preparations. I wanted to speak with you before I left, and thought we might visit Hogwarts at the same time."
"I would like to come to France too. I want to see the war ended once and for all with my own eyes," he said. It was partly true. With the school closed indefinitely, his friends scattered to the winds, and only his own long, dull recovery to look forward to he would gladly have done some traveling in the meantime, even if much of it would be spent sitting in a corner and listening to grown men squabble. Mostly, however, he saw it as an opportunity to find Hermione. She was in France somewhere, and while he might not have been able to find her himself, it wasn't unreasonable for someone as clever as her to find him and secretly arrange a meeting.
"Perhaps for the official ceremonies," Voldemort conceded, "but for now you will remain in Britain while your magic recovers. It would be too much a risk to take you while you are this vulnerable. Besides, Blackbone has been demanding to see you."
Harry conceded with a nod. Hermione was important, but so was family. They would be anxious for him despite the letters he had sent, and he missed them something awful these days. They walked the western corridors with its partially collapsed roof and missing windows, a room of splinters and shattered glass that had once been the Transfiguration classroom, countless statues reduced to rubble and tapestries burnt or torn. Much of what had been salvageable had already been taken away for storage or repair. The portraits were all gone, as were the suits of armor, the display cases empty. Even the greenhouses, mostly untouched, had been cleared. Natalie had Inana, had smuggled her out during the evacuation and was keeping her for Harry (so she said, but he suspected his friend just really liked having a pet cobra). As they were exploring, Voldemort went over his plans for renovating the school.
"The destruction caused by the attack was a tragedy, but it presents a unique opportunity to improve the school," the Dark Lord said. "We had to postpone the construction of the Preparatory College wing of the school because of the war, but we'll have the extra income to finish that up soon. The school chapel will be reconstructed as a temple to Madris, but we'll just tell everyone it's the new Celtic Culture classroom. Eventually it'll be the Old Magics classroom, but I haven't been able to locate a practitioner sufficiently skilled or tempered to be a teacher yet. The Astronomy Tower... that was unfortunate, but perhaps something can now be constructed more in line with my conservatory near the Sianach Lodge. The entrance to the Chamber of Secrets will have to be moved."
"Or you could just rename it the Chamber of the Basilisk. I think that would be enough discouragement."
"Harry, you're assuming everyone has a shred of common sense. I assure you that isn't the case."
And Voldemort went on and on. The moat would be deepened and widened. The boathouse would be expanded so it could accommodate classes on water-based spells and transfigurations. The ruined artwork would be replaced with more modern pieces. There would be skylights on the southern corridors, and open walkways and mezzanines around the expanded courtyard. Ravenclaws' dormitory would need to be completely remodeled, and if so, Slytherin House would be demanding the same even if there hadn't been any damage to it, meaning the other dorms would be following shortly after. They would need more space. Britain's population was growing, slowly, and Hogwarts would need to grow to accommodate it. That would mean new classes and new classrooms, more teachers needing private chambers. More study places. A larger a library. Even the owlery, destroyed along with almost all its owls, would be moved and remodeled as a brattice off the castle's exterior wall over the lake rather than a small tower.
The more Voldemort talked the more excited he seemed to become about the prospects for the future. Harry tried to feel his enthusiasm, but he couldn't help thinking about what had been lost. A sort of innocence, he supposed. Had it been the castle's innocence or merely Harry's own perception of it? Since the day he had first seen it, Harry had loved Hogwarts. Its grandeur, its warmth, its mystery. But time and circumstance had made him slowly aware that the castle held as many grim secrets as it did curiosities, and there were places as dangerous and dark as the Forbidden Forest itself nestled within the stones. He felt it had balanced out, or even that the good parts outnumbered the bad. Now he wasn't so sure. There was blood in the walls, death and suffering. There had not been enough time to numb the horror of it, for new generations to forget about it, and for continued life to steadily wear away the sharp corners.
Hogwarts would never be what she was, either to his perception or those who came after. He mourned that, just as he mourned Allbright and Slughorn.
Eventually, Voldemort seemed to catch on to his distraction.
"Where are your thoughts?" Voldemort asked curiously.
"Here and there. You talk a lot about what will be or could be, but… I will miss Hogwarts the way she was."
"All things must change, Harry. Even if she were rebuilt exactly as she was before, she would not be the same. You saw to that when you summoned a Goddess, and when I soaked the stones in new blood. In saving Hogwarts, we have destroyed and rebuilt her. We are now as much her creators as the original founders were."
Harry thought on that for a long time, and the Dark Lord left him to his thoughts. Their wanderings had led them to Ravenclaw Tower, now a burnt-out shell, but the stones still stood firm. The stained glass windows had been blown out by the magical fire, and from their vantage point they could see the pyres burning in the distance. It occurred to him that those monoliths and stone pyres could stand as long as the castle itself, reminders of what was lost and won with the castle's rebirth. Perhaps others who died in sacrifice or service to the school would be similarly honored there.
Perhaps he would be too when his time came.
He ran his blackened hand along the cold stones, felt the magic resting there. Could he really be called a Founder? The magic was his magic, and not his magic. Shaped by him, but not of him. But then, the magic had not all been of the original founders either. They had taken much of the magic from the sacrifices made on the wall guarding the Forbidden Forest, and used it as they needed. Just as Voldemort and he had. If he could go back in time, would he have made the same choices?
His left hand caught a sliver of glass from the edge of the window, cutting open his palm. He grimaced and stared at the wound, two inches long and welling up blood as black as the surrounding flesh. He stared at the wound for a moment, before smearing the blood across the stones. It seemed he would have made the same choices. He wasn't opposed to making the same choice now.
The idea gave him a sense of satisfaction, and he understood now where Voldemort's enthusiasm stemmed from. Hogwarts was no longer just a refuge, but now also a canvass. The future had endless potential, and he had played a part in its creation. Perhaps he would have other parts to play. He turned to the Dark Lord who regarded him smugly, taking Harry' bloody offering as the acceptance it was. Harry felt a swell of irritation. Why did it seem Voldemort always got his way in the end?
"I want you to pardon, Hermione, or I suppose I should say, I want you to stop trying to convince the public she's guilty of something she's not," he said. It hadn't been his intention to bring her up, but he couldn't think of anything else that would irk the Dark Lord as quickly as this reminder of Harry's defiant trickery. It worked. Voldemort's expression quickly darkened. "As a reward?" Harry suggested.
"You cheeky little…"
The Dark Lord let out a huff.
"You know there used to be a time when people were afraid of me? They wouldn't have dared play these games. Now I can't turn around without someone pulling a stunt. You, Blackbone, Greyback, the Germans, Lucius, now Severus. For Merlin's sake, Severus of all people," he lamented.
"I don't know why that surprises you as much as it does. He's actually quite good at making others pull stunts for him. Besides, what are you talking about?"
"Don't tell me you've forgotten? I haven't. Lucius' curse. He withheld the identity of the perpetrator."
"Oh that," Harry said, as if it had all the significance of a lost scarf.
Apparently fed up with his protégé's 'cheek', he hit him with a Shocking Jinx. It was hardly the worst he could do, but stung something awful and left Harry pitifully weak-legged. He fell over with a squawk in an undignified heap.
"You're lucky you're injured or I would have made that a full Cruciatus," Voldemort said coldly. Harry glared back.
"You're lucky I'm injured or I would have given it right back to you," he snapped back.
The Dark Lord looked momentarily taken aback. Then his expression twitched and twisted, as if he was having trouble maintaining control over his face. It was Harry's turn to look alarmed. The Dark Lord burst out laughing. Harry scowled at him, but it only made the man laugh harder. He realized suddenly how ridiculous he truly was, already sat on his ass by the most childish of jinxes and still starting fights with the most powerful and probably evil wizard in the world.
Before he could stop himself, he burst out laughing too, and they continued to laugh for several minutes. They laughed until it hurt and they couldn't anymore. Then spent another minute or two trying to catch their breath. Voldemort leaned against the wall and slid down to sit next Harry, his right arm just brushing Harry's left. They fell into an easy silence, smiling to themselves.
"You're a ridiculous man, Harry," Voldemort said.
"It takes a ridiculous man to like you, my Lord, even if he only likes you half the time."
"I can't argue that."
"You still owe me something," Harry said, holding up his arm damaged arm.
"I saved your life," Voldemort pointed out. Harry shook his head.
"If we tried to keep score based on how often we saved each other's lives, it's going to get endlessly confusing. Especially since every so often, we try to kill each other. I helped save the castle… again."
"Using magic I summoned."
"Yeah, and nearly killing me in the process. Don't tell me you knew this was going to happen," he said, lifting his wounded arm.
"A minor miscalculation on my part. I overestimated your body's ability to adapt to my blood. It was probably because your magic was already so low, your natural healing-"
"Don't care. Still bloody hurts, and who knows if it will ever go back to normal."
"Well… we could always cut it off and grow you a new one," Voldemort suggested. Harry wasn't sure if he was joking or not.
"Let's not. Anyway, I still think you owe me a favor, and with everyone caught up with the end of the war business, I doubt they'll notice if you turn the investigation elsewhere and she just slips in. With Hogwarts closed, there's no reason for anyone to know she came back for some time."
Now was probably the best opportunity he was going to get for negotiating Hermione's return. Voldemort seemed to be in a relatively congenial mood at the moment, he did owe Harry a favor or two, and like he said, there was still an opportunity to withdraw the warrant without much public embarrassment. Everyone could get their happily ever after. Maybe.
"She's still a suspect."
"Then investigate her. Give her Veritaserum if you must. I know she's innocent."
"Because you know who really killed Lucius?" Voldemort asked, eying Harry expectantly.
"No, but it wasn't her."
"Has anyone told you how grating your absolute faith in others is?"
Funny enough, Hermione had made a similar complaint. Although, it had been directed towards Sirius. And Sirius had complained of his trust in Voldemort. Apparently, everyone thought Harry was an awful judge of character.
"You're pushing your luck, regardless," the Dark Lord continued. "There's still the matter of the curse, the origin of which you knew and did not tell me. You told Severus and not me."
Harry gave him a level stare.
"I don't know if you've noticed, but you have a tendency to overreact."
Voldemort glared back but couldn't refute it.
"You still should have told me. You should tell me now."
Harry sighed. "And then what would you do?"
Voldemort didn't answer.
"And that's why I won't tell you."
"I could make you."
"Yes," Harry acknowledged.
"But you don't think I will."
"I think I could find a way to make you regret it afterward."
"I imagine you could. You are the closest thing I have to an equal in this world," he said with a touch of melancholy. Harry looked at him curiously. Voldemort was a being unto himself, neither human nor demon nor god, just… Voldemort. There was no one and nothing like him, and Harry wondered for the first time if he wasn't a bit lonely. "We've shared almost all that can be shared. Dreams, magic, purpose, and now blood. Loathe me or love me, hurt me or heal me, you'll never be free of me. Would you even want to be now?"
Would he? Harry wondered. Sometimes he did, when the fear and pressure of living in the Dark Lord's shadow seemed to drive him to the brink of sanity. Yet challenge after challenge that had been presented, he had risen to, and for every moment of terror and pain there had been twice as many moments of wonder. The world was a place of infinite possibility, and he knew he would not have realized it without Voldemort leading him, sometimes kicking and screaming, through it.
"I suppose not."
Voldemort smiled another of his self-satisfied smiles that Harry found so obnoxious.
"I suppose I shall have to be the bigger man then and make the compromise. I'll give you two options. One, I will pardon your Hermione and allow her to return without fear of the law or myself, but you will give me the name of the one who cursed Lucius. Or, I will pardon the one who cursed Lucius, and continue to let the girl take the blame. One or the other."
Harry thought about it for a moment. It seemed almost fair at first glance, but then Hermione shouldn't have been persecuted in the first place and Ron, jerk though he was, probably didn't deserve what Voldemort had in mind for him.
"What about Snape?" he asked.
"What about him?"
"If I pardon Hermione, are you just going to threaten Snape to get the name of the curser?"
Voldemort chuckled. "Very good. You're getting better at this."
"So if I pardon the curser, will you leave Snape alone?"
He received no reply. Harry sighed.
"I'll pardon Snape then."
"That wasn't an option."
"I'm still picking Snape. Leave him alone. You owe him anyway for the whole… torture thing."
Voldemort stayed silent for a long time, thinking. Around them, Ravenclaw Tower, a darkened ruin, closed in around them in a strangely comforting intimacy. Torches flickered as the wind blew through the empty windows, making their shadows dance across the room. Harry closed his eyes and waited, listening and feeling his companion's breathing against his aching arm. Cosetted in darkness and ruin, it felt like they were the last two people left at the end of the world.
"Very well," Voldemort said at last. "Consider Snape forgiven, but not forgotten and Granger forgotten, but not forgiven."
"I have no idea what that means," Harry said.
"And I have no inclination to explain, but we're essentially right where we started before… this."
He made a vague gesture at the ruined tower. He climbed to his feet, and helped Harry to his. By now the worst of the Shocking Jinx had worn off and he could walk normally again. So that was it. Another battle of wits and wills, and they were right back where they started. Maybe. Probably not. Somehow or another Harry suspected Voldemort had tipped the scales in his favor, or at least thought he had. On the other hand, Harry was feeling more optimistic than he had since the battle. Hogwarts was closed, but she had a future, and in the meantime Harry now had the time and space he needed to pursue his private interests as well as public ones.
And there was still so much that needed to be done.
There seems to be some confusion about the 'Epilogue'. This is NOT the end of the series, only the end of the Book VI. There's still the entirety of Book VII to get through, and that should tie up all the loose ends floating around.