IMPORTANT A/N: The hit count is much higher for chapter sixteen than for fifteen, so I think some of you got confused when I posted two chapters within twelve hours and may have skipped chapter fifteen. You might want to check to make sure you read fifteen.
Hermione didn't cry when Professor McGonagall sent a Patronus with news of Neville's death. She didn't cry when Lavender, Parvati, Dean, and every other present member of the Order who knew Neville broke down. She didn't cry when Ron looked at her with tearstained cheeks, and she didn't cry when she thought of Neville's brave, hardened face. She didn't cry as she silently climbed the staircase toward her bedroom, and she didn't cry when she thought of Neville urging Harry not to "gib it to 'em" at the Ministry.
But when she thought about Neville, the boy who just couldn't seem to keep track of his toad Trevor, she cried.
She collapsed on the floor in the upstairs hallway, unable to even reach her bedroom. She collapsed and cried her first tears of this war. She had been strong until now; she had been forced to be, but she couldn't hold it in any longer. Neville Longbottom was dead. That sweet little boy with a round face and an unmatched heart had been killed, and he had been killed at the hands of Harry Potter because Hermione had failed to lead the Order to victory.
It was the first time someone from her year at school had been killed in this war that she knew of and, for some reason, it seemed more real, more devastating to her than any of the other deaths that had taken place. It was one thing for older members of the Order to be killed---she had seen enough of that in the last war---but it was another thing entirely to have one of her own killed. It made her feel like soon they would all be killed, just as most of the members of the two original Orders had been. It made her realize fully that they were the new generation of sacrifice, and that they were most likely going to end up the same way as those who came before them.
Hermione heard footsteps on the stairs and tried to regain control of herself, but she couldn't. It was just too much.
"Hermione?" Ron said gently, kneeling down on the floor beside where she lay and placing a hand softly on her arm.
When she didn't answer, he laid down behind her and wrapped his arms around her, holding her tightly. She continued to sob while Ron held her.
Hermione didn't know how much time had passed, but it must have been at least an hour before she could speak.
"Oh, Neville," she said through her now soft tears. "You didn't have to be so brave."
"Of course he did," Ron said a little roughly. "He wouldn't have had it any other way."
Hermione half laughed and half cried. "I suppose your right," she managed. "But it's just…It's just not fair!"
"I know," he soothed as she rolled over to face him. He brushed a strand of her still unruly hair from her eyes and wiped a tear from her cheek. "None of it's fair. But it is what it is, and we have to do with it what we can."
He placed a soft kiss on her forehead and pulled back again to look at her.
"Hermione," he said tentatively, "You left before McGonagall's cat finished the message."
"What else did it say?" she asked, already regretting the time she had wasted in grief.
"He's going after the goblins tonight. He's going to have students and Death Eaters with him. McGonagall said she'd send us word when he was getting ready to leave."
Hermione sighed and climbed to her feet. She had hoped to have some time for sleep tonight, and maybe for some of Molly's cooking.
"Well," she said, straightening her robes and moving toward the staircase, "I guess we'll have to fight."
Harry paced his office at Hogwarts, wondering if what he had done had been wise. He supposed it would serve well as a warning, but it might also turn some of the less enthusiastic teachers against him. McGonagall was already a nuisance as it was. He didn't want to push her. The fewer deaths of well known and beloved people that could be linked to him, the better.
"Having regrets?" the portrait of Albus Dumbledore asked from behind Harry.
"Of course not," Harry spat. "I did what was necessary."
"I quite agree," Severus Snape added, causing Harry to stop pacing and stare at the portrait.
"It is never wise to allow an opponent who has demonstrated such capabilities to live. Had you let Neville Longbottom live, his foolish Gryffindor bravery may have been the end of you."
"It had nothing to do with his capabilities," Harry retorted. "You know as well as I that Longbottom was hardly a match for a flobberworm, much less for me."
"It is quite a relief to hear you say that," Dumbledore said.
"Is it?" Harry asked disinterested, resuming his pacing.
"Yes. I had wondered whether enough of Harry's qualities had remained in you to give you wisdom in the areas you once underestimated to a near fatal degree. They apparently have not."
Harry turned to face the portrait.
"Longbottom was brave," Harry sneered. "I do not deny that. But bravery would not have been enough to be more than a nuisance to me. So unless you're going to go off about Neville's capability for love, and how it would have created a glowing ray of sunshine to destroy me, your point is invalid. And I don't believe bravery was one of the qualities you mentioned as being overlooked by Voldemort. Love, yes, of course. And if I remember correctly, innocence, house-elves, children's tales…"
Harry trailed off here, remembering something.
"It would not be wise, Tom," Dumbledore said, seemingly reading his thoughts. "The story is just a story. The individual objects exist, yes, but uniting them will not truly make you immortal."
"Was that why you essentially died to get them all?" Harry asked, smirking.
"What would you do with it? You have the two most powerful and useful Hallows already. Who would you bring back? Those you've killed? Or those you've betrayed?"
"I wouldn't necessarily use it," Harry said thoughtfully. "But it would be nice to have the set."
"Tom, I believe you've misunderstood the legend. Remember that I am bound to serve you and am therefore incapable of uttering a falsity to you. The three relics are said to make you the master of Death. That does not directly translate to immortality. The wand, theoretically, enables you to kill anyone you choose. That gives you one aspect of power over death. The cloak allows you to elude those who seek to do you harm. You can kill with the wand, and can keep from being killed with the cloak. But neither of those things can keep loved ones from passing on. The stone enables you to have control over this aspect of Death. The Hallows do not make you immortal, but they give you power over Death in three very precise, and nearly complete ways. Do you see the distinction?"
Harry nodded. "There is a distinction, yes, but an arbitrary one. I believe the bearer of the stone can bring back whomever they choose?"
Dumbledore nodded reluctantly.
"Excellent," Harry said, turning toward the door.
"Harry," Dumbledore called as he did, and Harry turned, surprised at the address.
"You forgot one."
Harry raised an eyebrow in question.
"Qualities Voldemort overlooks. You forgot one."
"Get to the point," Harry said impatiently.
"One of the most important, in fact, in this case at least. You forgot loyalty."
Harry snorted. "You think I underestimate loyalty? I, who know exactly what true loyalty is worth?"
"I think you underestimate the loyalty that lingers still from so long ago, and what will happen when those dying embers are alit once again."
Harry rolled his eyes and walked from the office, heading resolutely for the Forbidden Forest.
For the first time, the whole of the third Order of the Phoenix were gathered together. They were cramped together in the kitchen, some of them spilling out into the hall, the dining room, and even into one of the bathrooms. The tightly packed house gave Hermione the false impression that their number was larger than it actually was.
Kingsley and Bill were going over possible strategies, but their task was made much harder by the fact that they didn't know anything of Harry's plan, not even where he was planning to attack. They could go on for days about tactics, but all of it was likely to prove useless.
When all the talking was done, a dense silence fell over the house. They all stood in their traveling cloaks, shifting awkwardly on their feet, waiting for word from McGonagall, but no word came.
"Well," Hermione said shakily after a while, "I guess since we're all here, we should say some words for Neville."
"I think that's a good idea," Ron said, and Hermione smiled at him.
Hermione had expected someone to speak up, but when no one did, she realized they were all waiting for her. She took a deep breath and began to speak, not even knowing where she would begin.
"Er…well…Neville was a great man. He…er…did a lot of really…er…good things." This was not going well.
"I remember," she said, feeling a small smile spread across her lips, "in our first year of Hogwarts, when Dumbledore awarded Neville ten house points at the leaving feast, making him the student to beat Slytherin and win the house cup for Gryffindor.
"It was funny, really. He had tried to stop Harry, Ron, and me from stopping Voldemort from getting the Philosopher's Stone, so I had to put the Full Body Bind on him. Dumbledore gave him points for being brave enough to stand up to his friends.
"That was probably Neville's first experience with personal glory, though it seems so small now, after everything…" She faltered here, but when she spoke again her voice was strong.
"Nobody really saw Neville as brave when he was young, but he always was. He fought against Voldemort more times than I can count, and he never gave in. He was one of the bravest people I've known.
"He never really got the glory he deserved, but I think he was okay with that. He had his moment in first year, and he had his moment when he killed Nagini, but he deserved so much more.
"He died fighting. He died fighting for his friends, and I think that's…that's what he would have wanted."
She finished speaking, not really pleased with what she'd said. Neville deserved so much more than any words she could offer, but it was the best she could do.
"Thank you, Neville," she said quietly, and the Order murmured the same.
After finding the exact spot where he knew it had fallen, after trying every spell he knew, after using every instinct he had to try to sense its presence, Harry found himself on his hands and knees, digging through the underbrush, searching for the last of the Hallows.
An odd sort of tingling had begun in Harry's mind the moment he had set foot in the forest, and it continued now, increased in its intensity. It wasn't an entirely unpleasant sensation, but it wasn't comfortable either. He could feel it even in his teeth, as though he had been electrocuted. He found it difficult to concentrate, as the sensation had created something like a bubble between himself and his surroundings. He felt as though he was deep under water, trying to hold a conversation from the bottom of the lake.
He knew now where it had come from. He knew now the memory he had been unable to recall when he had set foot in the forest the night he met with the Centaurs. The memory which had remained on the edge of his subconscious had come back to him the moment he had set foot on the path to the clearing where Voldemort's army had once sat. It hadn't been a violent revelation, but a smooth transition from forgetfulness to remembrance, as though the memory had always been there. He supposed it must have been. How else would he have been able to remember the stone, what it did, and that he had used it once before, if he didn't actually remember using it?
But he hadn't remembered. Not until tonight, and that knowledge made him more uncomfortable than the memory itself.
The memory made no difference to him. It was irrelevant. Why would he react to it otherwise? He had seen his parents, sure. He had seen the forms of Sirius Black and Remus Lupin, yes. They had accompanied him to what was to be his own death.
His own death…
That was it, he realized now. That was the part of that night that his consciousness had been trying to shield him from. Something inside of him, whether it was Voldemort or his own determination for power, had thought the knowledge that he had once been willing to sacrifice everything, to sacrifice his own life to eradicate the world of a force he now represented, would be enough to dissuade him from his aims.
That particular assumption was foolish. He was fully aware of who he once was. He had no illusions about that particular fact. He remembered with clarity how hard he had fought against Voldemort, and how passionately he had once believed in those things he fought for. He remembered but it made no difference. It wasn't a lack of better judgment that led to his current actions. Conversely, it was precisely his disillusion from such foolishly noble aims that now enabled him to act as he did.
He shook his head as he pawed around on the forest floor, trying to clear from his mind the strange tingling, and to focus on the task at hand. He had to find the stone. Once he found it, everything would be complete. Everything that had held him back to this point would impede him no longer. Finding the stone was all that mattered.
"My Lord," Draco Malfoy's voice sounded uncertainly behind him, but Harry didn't halt his search.
"What, Draco?" he snapped.
"The students are prepared to leave."
"For what?" Harry spat.
"The Goblins, My Lord?" Draco answered quietly. "You asked to have the students ready to leave within the hour. They have been waiting for nearly four."
"Why would I have ordered that, Draco? What do you think we are going to do, launch an attack on a deserted bank at midnight? I don't have time for this. Leave me."
"My Lord?" Draco said hesitantly.
"What?" Harry hissed, finally stopping his search and turning to inflict Draco with a furious stare."
"Will you be going in the morning, then?"
"Yes," Harry said. "Have them ready at eight. Now go!"
Draco turned and left the clearing without another word, but seemed to cast anxious looks at Harry over his shoulder as he went.
Harry waited until Draco had left before resuming his search. It had to be here somewhere. It had to be.
The sun had risen fully before Harry even realized dawn was approaching. He had searched every inch of the clearing where he knew the stone to have fallen. He had backtracked and followed the same path again, to be sure he was in the right place. He had searched through the night but been unable to find the stone.
It was only with great reluctance that he abandoned his search and walked slowly back to the castle. He considered putting off his visit with the Goblins, but it wouldn't do to let too much time pass. It wouldn't take long and he could resume his search once they had finished.
Students he knew to have been instructed to accompany him were already beginning to mill around in the Entrance Hall. Harry checked the battered old watch on his wrist to find that he had only twenty minutes before they were scheduled to leave.
He quickened his pace toward his office, barely paying attention to where he was going. His thoughts were completely occupied by the stone.
"Someone must have found it," Harry said to himself as entered his office, absentmindedly cleaning the dirt from his hands and robes with his wand. "Someone must have taken it. I was certain no one had seen where it fell, but they must have. But how could they have known what it was? It would have just appeared as a normal stone."
"Does your scar pain you all the time now, Harry?" Dumbledore asked curiously from his portrait, causing Harry to realize that he had been rubbing his lightning scar furiously as he thought. He lowered his hand slowly before addressing the portrait.
"Have you finally accepted the truth?" Harry asked, ignoring Dumbledore's question. "That is the second time you have called me Harry."
"I have been forced to concede that at least a portion of Harry remains," Dumbledore answered.
"And why is that?"
"Certain characteristics inherent to Harry's being have surfaced in yours. While I am not entirely convinced that Harry is the controlling force, I must acknowledge that he is a rather large presence."
"And what characteristics are those?" Harry asked, slightly amused.
"You are dwelling on finding the Resurrection Stone to distraction, and while the tendency to dwell on relatively irrelevant matters is shared by you both, the particular object impeding on your thoughts and dominating your actions is one Voldemort would barely concern himself with. Harry, on the other hand, would be drawn to it."
"While I don't deny the ultimate conclusion you have drawn from this insight, your logic is faulty. Do you truly believe that I search for the stone for the same reasons I once would have? Do you assume that I will use the stone to restore James and Lily Potter, and perhaps Sirius Black to this world? That is not what drives me."
"Of course not," Dumbledore answered. "But the basic desire to restore the dead to this plain of existence is one borne from Harry's deepest desires. The Hallow one chooses defines one's most basic desires and inherent characteristics. You have chosen to concern yourself with the stone, and therefore, I must assume that enough of Harry is still present to allow his most basic qualities to remain."
"Of course I dwell on the stone, Dumbledore. I already have the wand and the cloak. I do not place the stone above the other relics."
"Perhaps not," Dumbledore answered elusively.
"And your logic is faulty," Harry added, glancing at his watch. "If the Hallow one most desires defines them, then Voldemort would have originally chosen the cloak rather than the wand. He would have chosen to elude death rather than inflict it."
Dumbledore chuckled darkly from his portrait, but didn't answer.
"But of course," Harry said to himself after a moment. "Voldemort saw inflicting death as immortality. He wouldn't need the cloak. But that is irrelevant," Harry finished looking at Dumbledore again.
"Before you leave, Harry, I must implore—"
"You must implore me to reconsider attacking the goblins. I know. Honestly, Dumbledore, if it weren't for the amusing nature of our conversations, I would have already had your portrait removed. These remonstrations grow tiresome."
Without another word, Harry swept from the office. Gringotts would be opening soon, and since the bank held the largest amount of goblins at any one time, it was the only logical place of attack. Subtle attacks on individual goblin families, as Voldemort had done before, were no longer sufficient. He would have to make the goblins, and the rest of the wizarding world, understand what it cost to cross him.