Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all related terms and characters are the property of JK Rowling. The use of copyrighted material is for non-profit entertainment purposes only, and in no way constitutes a challenge to the existing copyright.
A/N: There is a reason I rated this story as R. I warned everyone that starting from Chapter 2 things get gruesome. If you consider yourself sensitive to graphic descriptions of violence and general blood and gore, DO NOT READ THE FIRST DREAM! Skip the italicized text, and you'll be okay.
For this chapter, anyways. Next chapter, the gore is not limited to Harry's dreams.
In this chapter, I figuratively box everyone into the trap with fear and panic. The field trip – and the slaughter – begins next chapter.
Chapters 3 and 4 of the MEtyK revamp are taking forever, as they've presented me with some plot-stumping choices. I'll have them ready to post with TMF Ch.6.
The "Sir Harry" Challenge – my writer's block has cleared, and this is more and more likely to be chaptered. If I do, then the first section is coming up soon.
TMF Chapter 6
The Pale Chapter 3
Harry stepped from the shower, his panic joining the last of the blood as it rushed down the drain. All he was now was annoyed. Trust his nightmares to leave him coated in blood. A swift kick against the washroom cupboard was all the comfort he could provide for himself. Heaving a sigh, he dried himself and pulled clean underwear and clothes on.
"Harry, are you alright?"
Hermione's muffled voice came through the door, and a small twinge of happiness fought through his mood. Only Hermione would have the strength to calm him, strip his bloodstained clothes away, and force him into the shower. His admission that it was her blood in hadn't fazed her in the slightest.
"It isn't her blood anyway," he muttered to himself, "not really. It's just a dream."
"Harry?" Hermione's voice was far more insistent now.
"I'm just about done!" He dried his hair furiously with the towel, checking around his face and body for any further signs of blood. He was clean. Good. If he never had to wake up caked in his girlfriend's gore again, he'd consider the possibility of God existing.
He pulled the washroom door open and grabbed Hermione's hand, easing her worried look with a kiss.
"Come on," he said, "let's grab breakfast."
Breakfast was a traditional Weasley feast, only slightly strained by the events of the morning. Harry brushed it off as a side effect of Voldemort, and hinted that it was ten times better than outright possession. The comment effectively shifted the sympathy and attention partially to Ginny, and diffused most of the worry. Soon, the mood was once again frantic as everyone dressed and packed for Hogwarts, before the Order arrived to provide escort to King's Cross. Hermione quickly ushered Harry onto the train, talking a mile a minute about what they should take for classes.
"You're out of your mind!" Harry laughed, while Hermione whined playfully. They sat side by side in the prefects' compartment, waiting for the Head Boy and Girl to begin the meeting. Given the flippancy of his suggestion, it surprised him that McGonagall took him up on his offer to swap Prefect and Captain with Ron; perhaps his new and improved OWL scores won her over, or perhaps it was Dumbledore.
"But you'll like them!" Hermione pleaded, giving Harry a mournful look. "You've just gotten all your OWLs, I'm sure they'd let you in!"
"I am not taking NEWT Arithmancy and Runes," he reiterated forcefully. "Not only am I absolutely lost in them, but I probably have the lowest passing grades on record. There's no way they'd let me take the classes."
"They would if they knew you'd got those 'A's with only a month of work. Both Babbling and Vector would jump at the chance to see what they could make you do in a year."
"How many NEWTs do you think I'm taking?" He only just barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Hermione's greatest flaw was the tendency to mistake his intelligence as equal to her own. "I already have to have Potions, Defense, Transfiguration and Charms, if I have any shot at being an Auror. With Muggle Studies, that's five. With Arithmancy and Runes, that's seven. If I keep Herbology like I wanted to, that's eight. If I take Care, that's nine. Are there any others you'd like me to go for?"
"Why would you take Care? It's hardly a qualification that you could use after school."
He gave a nod in concession. "I know; I just threw it out there. Hagrid'll be right pissed with us if we all drop his course, though."
"He survived for our first two years without seeing us daily," Hermione said dryly. "We'll visit for tea."
"Can't argue, I suppose. Fine then, no Care. Herbology's next on the chopping block. If you want me to take Runes and Arithmancy so badly, I need you to drop Herbology so that you have time to help me. I need 'E's in those NEWTs, or I'm wasting my time."
"Done!" Hermione shouted triumphantly. "So, Seven NEWTs for us both, then."
"Provided the professors bend, yes." Harry paused as he considered his other friend. "And four for Ron, I think."
"What? No! He'd have to have at least the other five with us?"
"Potions," he reminded. "An 'A' doesn't get you into Potions."
Hermione's expression creased in dismay. "An 'A' doesn't get you in much of anywhere," she muttered. Harry raised his eyebrows, and she stifled a giggle. "You're different. You managed two impossible 'A's' after only a month of work! He, well… He should have retaken his OWLs like you. Herbology, Care, Defense, Muggle Studies... that's about it. He doesn't have the grades to get in anywhere else."
"Ugh." It was worse than he had realized; with Herbology gone, Ron would be in only two of his classes. Considering how little he'd seen Ron over the summer break, it was almost painful to think he'd see so little of him at school too. Thinking of the summer almost made Harry laugh. Ron made appearances at meals and for Quidditch, and then disappeared, invisible once again. It might have been distressing, if Harry hadn't been far more interested in his newfound relationship with Hermione.
"Harry? You're zoning out."
"Sorry." Knowing she'd ask anyways, Harry gave her a brief explanation of his thoughts.
Hermione gave an angry snort and tossed her great mane of hair. "I really can't believe him. He's had all summer to get used to us being together, and he still just runs away!"
"Once he gets a girl, he'll be better. He still fancies you, is all. I reckon he just doesn't know where else to turn right now."
"But it's rude!" Hermione protested, throwing her hands in the air. Harry looked around surreptitiously; Hermione had been quite loud, and the other prefects were all paying attention. All but Malfoy avoided his hard gaze as his eyes raked across the group.
Malfoy. It would be so easy to hurt him, to kill him. Just draw his wand, and… No. Not like this, not in front of her. Never.
"Got something to say, Potter?"
"Not really. Your dad out yet?"
Malfoy's expression darkened. "Sooner than you think."
Harry shrugged. "Not my concern, really. It's not your father I want, it's your aunt."
"Really?" Malfoy's face widened with an uneven smirk. "By the look on your face, I'd swear she'd killed your dog."
Hermione inhaled sharply, and the rest of the compartment tensed. Anger surged and boiled, but Harry fought it down desperately. Not here. Not with her here. "Your aunt gave me a nice lesson in the Unforgivables," he said quietly. "Said you have to mean them, or they won't work. Tell her," he said, leaning towards Malfoy, "tell her that I've been practicing."
No one dared to speak; even Malfoy was speechless from the blatant threat. Hermione squeezed Harry's hand so hard he thought it might break, but he said nothing. As the Heads, Cho and Roger, entered the compartment, Malfoy began to fidget, and then jumped up and left, shutting the door behind him. Harry's anger eased, almost purring with satisfaction.
"What's with him?" Cho asked, looking around. Everyone was looking at or away from Harry, so it was only a moment before she turned to him.
"Hey Harry. I heard about your position switch. Choosing Prefect over Team Captain, I'd never have guessed." Harry shrugged, and Cho moved on. "Did you say something to Malfoy?"
"I threatened his aunt with the Unforgivables." Hermione squeezed his hand even harder.
Cho looked shocked and appalled. "Why? What did she do to you?"
"Malfoy's aunt is Bellatrix Lestrange."
Almost immediately, the tension eased out of the room. Everyone gave a small gasp of recognition, and a sigh of relief. Threatening someone with the Unforgivables was a horrible thing, but threatening a Death Eater... that they could understand and tolerate. A scathing remark nearly found its way out, but Harry clamped down, chastened by the death grip Hermione kept on his hand. He let his comment and his anger slide back, and settled into his seat, letting Cho and Roger begin the meeting.
"Did you have to call him out in public like that?" Hermione whispered as they exited the compartment. "It doesn't accomplish anything."
Harry flicked his eyes at her appraisingly. "Sure it does. Now Malfoy's name is associated with Lestrange. That erodes the value of his word to everyone but most of the Slytherins. That story will make it out to the parents, too."
"That's a little bit cruel, Harry."
"No, that's sneaky and devious, but I intend to do that a lot this year. The less everyone trusts the obvious Death Eater children, the harder it will be for them to move. The harder it is to move, the more likely they'll have to do something that gets a professor's attention and gets them expelled."
Hermione kept a firm grip on his hand, shouldering him along the hallway. "You seem to be forgetting that they'll be trying those expulsion-worthy actions against us," she hissed. "I don't want you to be attacked. With threats like that, you're baiting them to strike at you."
"Why yes, I am."
Hermione growled her disapproval, but the presence of other students forced a premature end to the conversation. The rest of the walk was silent until they reached their friends' compartment. Ginny and Luna lounged on one side, while Neville and Ron sat on the other, a chessboard on the seat between them. Ginny happily surrendered her spot, squeezing in behind Ron and sitting hard enough to upset the pieces on the board, making Ron curse loudly.
Harry happily collapsed into the window seat, unconsciously shaking out his crushed hand, trying to restore feeling. Hermione sat close beside him, leaning against him as he leaned against the window. She was still upset; he could feel the tenseness of her muscles against him. He reached an arm around to rub her back gently, and smiled as she slowly relaxed into him.
"So, how'd the meeting go?" Ron asked, trying to set up his chess pieces while failing to keep Ginny from poking and tickling his sides. Not once did he look across at them.
Harry shrugged. "Not bad. Discussed classes with Hermione, sacred Malfoy off, and debated schedules."
"You scared Malfoy?" Ron looked up to for a moment. Harry allowed himself to smile at the minor victory.
"He threatened Bellatrix Lestrange with the Unforgivables," Hermione said, her lips pursed in disapproval. "Right in front of all the other Prefects, too."
"Go, Harry!" Ron hooted, echoed by Ginny's "Yes!" Neville smiled and nodded, and Luna turned her face up from her issue of the Quibbler, scanning Harry intently.
"I don't see why you're all so happy," Hermione said. "This will just provoke Malfoy to respond. We really don't need the trouble."
"It'll come whether we need it or not," growled Harry, his patience beginning to fray. "Look, I'm not sorry I said it, I get that you don't like it, but I really, really don't want to discuss Malfoy anymore. I'll deal with him if I have to."
Hermione looked slightly put out at his tone, but she relented, again relaxing against him. Ron's attention was back on his game, and Neville tried to pay more attention to the board than to Ginny's antics behind Ron. Luna, however, kept her gaze on Harry.
"Can you use the Unforgivables?" Harry's eyes snapped up to meet Luna's, and he tightened his arm around Hermione reflexively. Luna's eyes had lost their misty quality; they were sharp and focused, like a hawk looking at its prey.
"Yes." He turned away, ignoring the quiet gasps of surprise, and watched the scenery speed by. Another small twinge of happiness arose inside him: Hermione had not been surprised. Maybe she'd be open to studying more than just Arithmancy and Runes this year.
Long years at the Dursleys had made Harry very sensitive to even the slightest fluctuation in people's moods; it had saved him from punishment several times. Luna was angry, but Luna, being Luna, was atypical even in her anger. Luna stood and kissed him on the cheek, and firmly ordered him to "be nice," before walking leaving the compartment. If only it were that easy. If only.
The Express soon rolled to a stop in Hogsmeade, and after an uneventful coach ride to the castle, Harry found himself seated in the Great Hall, waiting for the feast to begin.
"Welcome to Hogwarts!" Dumbledore called jovially. Harry tuned the Headmaster out, focusing on his hands. The words 'I must not tell lies' still stood out plainly on the back of his right hand, though the scars had long since faded to white. He turned his gaze to stare at the back of Malfoy's head, then Luna's, before glancing at Hermione and then staring again at his hands.
"... New Muggle Studies professor. Please welcome Professor Wattins." Polite applause sounded for the new professor, and Harry looked up at her quickly. She was an elderly woman, reminding him of Neville's grandmother with fewer wrinkles. Her eyes were large and expressive, and she looked around with a startling intensity. Harry thought of an older Luna Lovegood, with some experience to temper the fantasies.
"I wonder if this one will need as much minding," whispered Ginny from two seats down. Harry shrugged, not caring. Hermione turned to talk quietly to Ginny, and Harry fell into himself again.
"Finally, given the rather repugnant nature of last year's Defense against the Dark Arts teacher, I have resolved to teach this year's Defense class myself." After an instant of silence, cheers erupted from every table, Harry's among the loudest. Finally, Defense would be worth learning.
The rest of dinner passed quietly. Ron was sitting closer to Dean and Seamus, rambling about Quidditch and doing his absolute best to avoid talking to Hermione. Occasionally he would turn his head to include Harry while he talked, but it was short-lived, and Ron would never look past him to Hermione. Judging by the tone of Hermione's voice beside him, she didn't much care, which was just as well.
With dinner finished, he had one more stop to make for the night. He leaned over and kissed Hermione on the cheek. "I have to go talk with McGonagall. I'll see you upstairs."
"Good luck," said Hermione, turning to kiss him properly. "I hope she'll let you take those classes."
"One way to find out." Offering excuses to everyone else, Harry made a beeline for McGonagall, while the other Gryffindor girls descended upon Hermione, wanting to know the details of why she and Harry were kissing. Harry made his case to the professor as they walked to her office, where she pulled out his OWL marks and flipped through them.
"I'll speak with Professors Babbling and Vector," McGonagall murmured, looking over Harry's course selections while they sat in her office. "Given your remarkable turnaround on your OWL results, and Miss Granger's tutelage, I don't see why they would refuse you entry into their classes."
Harry let out the breath he was holding. "That's good to know. I didn't want to disappoint Hermione."
"Not today, I think. Barring acts of God, your class selections will stand. Now back to Gryffindor with you." McGonagall made a shooing motion with her hand, and Harry left the office in high spirits, heading back to the common room.
He found very few people in the common room when he arrived. Hermione had the other prefects around her, and seemed to be discussing something of importance. She waved him over as soon as she saw him enter.
"...in threes, not pairs," she continued as he approached. "I'll put the plan to Cho so that it changes officially, but even without it, grab a friend you trust and get them to patrol with you. I'll make sure Professor McGonagall writes notes to keep Filch off people's backs. But anything less than a group of three just isn't safe anymore."
"If we have to, we can pull multiple patrols," Harry said, making his presence known to the others.
"It'll be horrid with NEWTs coming up," said Katie Bell. "I don't think this is worth the extra fuss." The other Prefects, to Hermione's frustration, echoed Katie's sentiments.
Harry placed a hand on Hermione's shoulder to calm her and turned to look at everyone else. "You can all keep a secret, right?" Everyone's head nodded. "I'm close enough to Dumbledore to have access to some of his methods for monitoring the castle. If you like, Hermione and I can stay on 'stand-by' while you're patrolling, and if we see anything bad, then we'll come to back you up.
"And no," he raised his hand as people's mouths began to open, "I can't show you how I'll do that, so don't ask. Otherwise, you'll find yourselves at the mercy of a very angry Professor Dumbledore." There were several clicks as mouths snapped shut, and Hermione looked at him with a devious glint in her eyes. They quickly agreed upon Harry's suggestion, and the other Prefects disappeared to their dorms, leaving him alone with Hermione.
"I can't believe you," she laughed, smacking his arm playfully. "Using Dumbledore's name like that. That was horrid!"
"It'll work, though." He grabbed for her hands to stop her continued attempts to smack him. "With Dumbledore's name invoked, no one will dare question how I know where everyone is in the castle."
"It's a good plan," Hermione agreed, leaning into Harry now that he had caught both of her hands. "We can do our homework and monitor the map, and if anything happens, we can be there faster than most people. I still think three to a patrol is a good idea, though."
Harry shrugged and nodded. "Pass it by Cho and Roger, then. Worst case is everyone says no."
Hermione voiced her agreement, before changing the subject. "What did Professor McGonagall say?"
"I'm good for those classes as far as she's concerned."
"Yes, wonderful," he echoed with much less enthusiasm. "How about you try to prepare me for what to expect, then. I'd rather not hit the classrooms blind."
Hermione had her textbooks out almost immediately, and the remainder of the evening passed with Hermione perched on Harry's lap, lecturing quietly on her favorite classes, while he listened and stroked her hair, occasionally asking questions.
Unbelievable pain! Movement hurts, but he pushes anyways. He must get up, he must. His muscles hang on by threads, so deep are his wounds, but he pushes harder, forcing himself upright. She doesn't have much time. His arm instinctively curls around his stomach, holding his entrails in place. Some escape anyway.
He staggers over to her, falling on top of her immobile form. There's so much blood; he forces himself to look away from her wounds, so many times worse than his are. Far too many things exposed that should never be outside the human body. She can't speak with her tattered neck, but she mouths the words determinedly, repeatedly.
"I love you too," he croaks, his voice barely able to respond, and he kisses her. It's impossible to hold his head up any longer, and he slumps weakly to the ground, his head supported by hers, their lips locked together.
She's already gone, and he can feel the darkness encroaching. Like a thousand tiny hands, it comes, pulling away at his senses, leaving only blackness and peace. He fights with the hands. He must get up. Slowly. One limb at a time. Ignore the blood, there's plenty more. Just keep moving.
He staggers to his feet, stumbling towards the shrouded figure vanishing into the distance. He shuffles past Neville's body first, meeting the dead boy's stare. The head – and the rest of the body – still quivers in its death throws, nailed to the wall in a dozen ragged pieces with each section pinned and labeled.
Stop. Look away.
Ron's head scuttles past on a set of spidery legs growing from his severed neck. With mechanical efficiency, the head climbs on top of Ginny's unmoving body to gnaw viciously at an arm.
He forces himself onward, letting the sounds of Ron's gluttony fade away.
"Hurry, Harry!" Luna stands before him, with an enormous silver knife in her outstretched hands. "Come on, we have to get started!"
He takes the knife and Luna smiles at him, opening her robes. He wraps an arm around her waist to steady her, and lowers the knife to her exposed breasts. A pair of crimson eyes looks on in amusement from behind her.
With surprisingly little effort, he slides the knife smoothly into –
"No!" Harry swore as he came awake. His stomach lurched violently, and he struggled to breathe as he staggered to the washroom. A dream. Just a dream. The side of the toilet was soothing and cool as he viciously expelled half-digested remnants of last night's dinner. A small eternity passed as his stomach righted itself, and he walked quickly to the shower, abandoning any notion of returning to sleep.
A quick glance showed him that his bed was clean as he dressed for the day and gathered his books. Four sets of snores from around the room assured him that he had not woken anyone. He closed the door quietly behind him as he left, descending to the common room.
His watch reported 4:15am, far too early for breakfast, but far too late to consider heading back to bed. Perhaps some studying was in order. Maybe if he could immerse himself in his courses this year, he could avoid the nightmares while he was at Hogwarts.
"Harry?" He glanced up to see Hermione sitting by the fire. "What are you doing up?"
"Avoiding your corpse." He collapsed into the couch beside her, dropping his bag at his feet. "Avoiding everyone's corpse. Every bloody night..."
"You should see Madam Pomfrey," Hermione urged. "She must have something to help you…"
He scoffed loudly, making Hermione trail off. "Yeah, more Dreamless Sleep potion. I don't fancy knocking myself out every night, thanks. No, I'll go the 'intense studies and practice' routine like the one I did over the summer. It'll do me better in the long run."
Hermione made a worried noise, but Harry remained silent. Finally, she sighed and sagged back against the couch. "I just want you to take care of yourself."
"How about you? I'm surprised to see you up this early."
Hermione smiled and ducked her head. "I couldn't sleep. I don't sleep much anymore. It's nothing bad, just the way I am."
"Well, you're likely to get company." Harry draped an arm across her shoulders, and she smiled, leaning against him.
"Since you're here, we could keep going with Arithmancy," she offered, half-reaching for her book bag.
"Sure, why not?" Harry reached down to fish for his own textbook. "Now's good to start the brain-cram. Tell me where we left off…"
4:30 am slowly became 7:30 am, and Harry followed Hermione and Ron down to the Great Hall. Throughout breakfast, Harry stared at Luna. No amount of Arithmancy could rid him of the horrific feeling of cutting into her with that knife. It was only a dream. He could still feel the cool metal of the knife, and the soft warmth of her skin…
"They're just dreams," he muttered quietly into his pumpkin juice. "Just dreams."
Hermione stayed close to him as they walked to class, offering support. He leaned against her, greedily drinking in her presence, filling the seemingly endless void. As if she could feel his hunger for affection, she pressed closer whenever she could; whenever their eyes met, she gave him a worried smile.
"Come straight in!" Professor Wattins called from inside the classroom. Harry walked in to see that the professor had arranged the classroom with desks in a wide semi-circle around the edge. Harry sat at the seat nearest to the exit; Hermione sat beside him, rolling her eyes. The professor, too, looked at him with a calculating eye as the rest of the class filled in. Ginny plopped herself down beside Hermione, and Ron beside Ginny. Another eight students sat in small groups at various intervals around the room.
"You have told me quite a bit about yourselves." The professor's quiet but firm voice carried across the room, commanding their attention. "You have seated yourselves with the people that you trust the most, and you have sat away from those you trust the least. Some of you," she indicated the group at the back of the class, "are here for what you view as the easiest NEWT grade in the school." The group of three sitting in the back looked away, all a different shade of red.
"Others are here because they have been forced to attend for political reasons." Harry instinctively looked across the room. Draco Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson stared back; Draco's face was one of open contempt, while Pansy's was more neutral.
"Yet others of you are somewhat aware of the other students in the room, and have arranged yourselves to be well out of the crossfire." Harry flicked his eyes to the group of three that sat in the farthest corner of the classroom, well away from him and well away from Malfoy.
"And one in particular has seated himself in the most strategically sound position, in case the room proves hostile." His gaze moved from Malfoy to the cool eyes of the professor. A small twinge of panic lit in his belly; his hand inched toward his wand.
"Tell me, Mr. Potter, why have you chosen to sit there?"
Harry looked at Wattins, scanning her up and down for signs of a threat, or weakness. "Are you familiar with the recent history of new professors for Hogwarts?" he asked eventually. Wattins shook her head and waved, wordlessly asking him to continue.
"Maybe the rest of you aren't, either. After my first year, where Quirrel carried Voldemort in the back of his head and died after having a go at me, we got stuck with Lockheart. Lockheart had a go at me, too; he's a permanent resident of St. Mungo's now. In fourth year, our Defense teacher was a polyjuiced Death Eater that nearly killed me; he got the Dementor's Kiss. Last year, our Defense teacher took great pleasure in sending Dementors after me and threatening me with the Cruciatus. For some reason, she's still an Undersecretary.
"So no, I don't trust new professors at all. I barely trust some of the old ones."
Wattins' eyebrows rose as he talked. "Well, that's a little more than I expected," she said when he had finished. "Still, it helps to underline the concept that I'd like to discuss with you concerning both muggles and wizards: Psychology."
Psychology. Right. Harry lowered his eyes to his open textbook and read, page after page after page, while Wattins droned on. She wasn't the most charismatic teacher he'd ever met, and she stayed seated at her desk, sipping from a coffee mug as she lectured. Only near the end did Harry perk up, drawn by the increased volume of Wattins' voice.
"The trip will be mandatory, and I have assurances from the Governors that the Ministry will take appropriate precautions while we are outside of the school. While they might forgive small mistakes, take care to remember that you are all underage; just as well, since we'll be visiting a muggle hotel. Studying muggle reactions to the magical world has always been a… hobby of mine, and it will give us a good idea as to why it is that we have chosen to keep ourselves separate. The trip is an overnight stay at the hotel for Halloween; plan accordingly. The fifth-year students, as well as both NEWT classes, will be attending. If there are any volunteers from your peers, there is room for up to fifty of us.
"Ah, I've overstepped my time. We will pick up tomorrow with the basics of psychology. Please have Chapter 1 read, as we will be discussing its contents."
"Well, that was fun," Ron spat sarcastically as they left the classroom. "Nothing like being thrown in the deep end; 'oh, you all know nothing about muggles! Let's study Psychology.'"
"It's better than learning rubbish," Hermione countered. "At least this class will be worth our time now."
Ginny bumped roughly into her brother, warning him off of Hermione, before turning to Harry as while he likewise pulled Hermione a few feet away. "What do you think of her?"
He shrugged, uncertain of his feelings. "I don't know," he said slowly. "She's sharp, I'll give her that, but she sounds… artificial. Even Snape's a better professor."
"What do you mean?" Both Hermione and Ginny slowed down to hear his response. Ron, however, sped up, leaving them behind.
"Wanker," Ginny muttered as Ron rounded the corner and disappeared. Harry shrugged, and turned his attention towards Hermione.
"You know how you pick things up from the textbook right away?" Hermione nodded. "You know how until you're really comfortable with the knowledge, your answers pretty much sound like the textbook?" Again, Hermione nodded. "Well, that's what she sounds like. She doesn't really know her stuff yet, she's just parroting the books she's read."
"It's better than not knowing a thing," Hermione offered, and Harry nodded.
"It's fine; at least she's making an effort. I just wish that there was a professor that took muggles seriously, rather than just some small side-project that they happen to get paid for."
"At least we don't have to worry about the next class," Hermione said, brightening as she spoke. "Come on; Defense is next."
Making his way into Defense, Harry sat as far to the back of the class as he could to avoid Dumbledore's gaze. An irrational fear blossomed in his chest every time he approached the headmaster, heightening to near panic whenever Dumbledore was too close. Dumbledore felt fragile, for some reason, and Harry felt especially dangerous to him.
Ron was never one to complain about sitting in the back of a classroom, and he happily dropped into the seat to his right. Hermione looked torn, but only an instant. By the time Harry had turned to look at her properly, she was taking the seat to his left. If Dumbledore noticed Harry's choice of seating, he gave no indication.
"Control and focus," he said, his voice carrying powerfully across the room, capturing every student's attention.
"Those are the two properties to magic that we depend upon the most, yet develop the least. When you see me perform elaborate charms silently and effortlessly, when you see an accomplished professional perform the routine magic of his trade without resorting to his wand, remember those two words. They are the only difference between all of you as students, and me. Nothing more than control and focus.
"I know you have questions," he continued, raising his hands to stave off Hermione and a few others whose arms immediately shot into the air. "I ask that you let me finish. I wish to tell you exactly why these two things matter so much, why they are so crucial. Part of the answer is obvious, but part of it will shock you.
"Control is the obvious: With your wand and your incantations and your intent, you guide the magic to its final form. For those spells that we perform often, we can forego the incantation – something you will all be doing this year. For those spells that we have performed thousands of times over the span of years, perhaps intent alone is enough.
"Focus, however, is entirely different. We need focus, because as wizards, and unlike inherently magical creatures, which have their own personal reserves of magical power, we have a weak and indirect connection to the ambient magic of the world." Harry smirked as the pureblooded in the room reacted to Dumbledore's statement. "Yes, I know," the headmaster continued, "it's nearly unthinkable to consider that other creatures have a more tangible magic to them. However, it is true. For this reason, we must learn to focus our connection to magic and strengthen it while we are casting. Shall we look at some examples, then?"
Unlike Wattins' class, Harry paid close attention to Dumbledore's lecture, and his examples. The more Dumbledore spoke, the more believable his theory became. The purebloods were less than enthusiastic with the idea, but Harry was convinced by the end of the class.
"He always was a little mad," Ron muttered as they left the classroom. Hermione had taken to Dumbledore's philosophy of control and focus immediately; Ron had a completely opposite opinion about it, and seemed put off. Harry found that he didn't mind – it was more guidance than most other teachers could give. Ron's continued mutterings about Dumbledore drew his attention.
"I don't mean anything by it," he defended as Harry looked at him, "I just think that wizards are more magical than a lot of creatures out there, so it doesn't sound right."
"What's wrong with the idea?" asked Hermione. "I mean, it answers any question about magical skill, it allows for wizards to be weaker magically than some creatures but still be functionally stronger. All it takes away is the idea that power is inherent. What's so bad about that?"
"I..." Ron trailed off, his face flushed red.
Look ahead. Don't interfere.
It took an immense amount of willpower to resist snapping at Ron. Hermione had quite the presence around her when she started into a debate, and she had the redhead thoroughly flustered. A flustered Ron would lose his temper, and say some very hurtful things before he regained control.
He changed his mind. It probably was a good idea to interfere.
"Let me play Devil's Advocate," he said, drawing Hermione's attention to him. "Let's say that what Dumbledore's saying, that wizards don't have natural magical power, is true. Also, let's assume that Dumbledore's got some solid proof for this." Hermione nodded. "So, if you take away all the training wizards have at Hogwarts and their jobs, there isn't really anything much there, right?
"I mean, it's like being a wizard means nothing more than having freckles, or brown hair: it's like a switch, it's on or it's off."
"This completely invalidates the claim from purebloods..." If possible, Hermione became even more animated.
"Right, and that's why Ron's not happy." Harry swept his hand in Ron's direction; his friend reddened even more, and Hermione gave him a questioning look.
"I'd like to hear this, too," Professor Wattins said as they passed her in the hallway. "This might be a very good addition to our own discussions." The glint in Wattins' eye was skeptical at best. Harry felt uncomfortable under her scrutiny. Again and again, his attention was drawn to the wand held calmly in her hand, so unlike the other professors.
"Err, alright. You have two camps in the pureblooded, based on their views. I like to think of the pro-Pureblood and Death Eaters as hardliners, and everyone else as moderates. The Hardliners base their entire philosophy on being superior culturally and magically to non-purebloods, as well as every other magical creature. If Dumbledore's theory is true, then the hardliners only have culture to cling to, which isn't a strong enough stance." Hermione and Ron both nodded; Wattins gave a small nod, though disapproval shone in her eyes.
"What I was getting at with Ron is that the moderates don't necessarily dismiss the idea that they're superior; they just oppose the hardliners on moral and ethical grounds. In Ron's case – no offense, mate, it doesn't matter – Ron likes the idea that purebloods are superior, and I'll bet the rest of the Weasleys do, too. Purebloods like the Weasleys aren't fighting the hardliners because muggleborn and half bloods areright; they're fighting because the hardliners are wrong. There's a pretty big difference there."
"So you believe that nearly all purebloods are of the opinion that they are superior," Wattins summarized, "and the schism is one of ethics, not ideals. Furthermore, if Professor Dumbledore is right, then the shared ideal of magical superiority is patently false, leaving only cultural tradition."
"Sounds right," Hermione said, still nearly bouncing in her excitement. "It makes me wonder why there's even a war going on, especially if Dumbledore can prove this."
"We don't know that he can," Harry cautioned. "But I can still see the war happening. Try to forget about what we know about muggle rights and think like a pureblood family, like the Malfoys. Your entire way of life is threatened, and you find everything that you thought to be true about yourself challenged by what is quickly becoming the majority population. You're at risk of losing your cultural values completely to the press of muggle-inspired ideas and the notion of nearly complete personal freedom – which probably comes across as a childish lack of responsibility to society. Where you see honor and duty, the muggle-born see bigotry and slavery, and the world seems to be massing against you faster than you can react.
"This gets worse and worse until the 1950's, and the only hope left is a magical genius who's an unstable homicidal psychopath. As perverse as he is, he's offering a chance to hold onto the world you know, and reclaim the respect you've lost. His plans are almost foolproof, and all he's asking for is a little help in his own pursuits along the way. So little in return for the future of your children, and their children... wouldn't you do whatever it takes to ensure your children's future? Just think of Mr. and Mrs. Weasley; what wouldn't they do to make sure that their children stay alive, in one piece, and happy?"
Three sets of eyes regarded him Harry in a new light. Hermione's shone with admiration, while both Wattins and Ron looked as if they were awake for the very first time. Wattins quickly regained herself, frowning as she considered him, glancing surreptitiously towards the Defense classroom, where another class of students filed in.
"Well, that was a... very thorough analysis," Wattins allowed. "Good attention to both political and emotional motivators, as well. I think you'll do well in my class, Mr. Potter."
Harry watched the professor walk away; his face twitched slightly as the feeling of discomfort faded with her receding footsteps. "That was... weird."
"I think you impressed her." Harry spared Hermione a smile. 'Impressed' is not the word he would have used; 'irritated' would fit better, or perhaps 'angered.' Ron still had a far-away look on his face, and Harry ticked away the seconds as they resumed walking. Ron wasn't dumb; he'd get there.
There he was; Harry smiled.
"I'm... I'm really sorry," Ron said, aiming the comment more towards Hermione. "I didn't- didn't understand. I'll- I..." He broke off mid-sentence and lengthened his strides, taking off towards Gryffindor tower. Harry nodded to himself, and redirected Hermione towards the library; Hermione offered no resistance.
"Something happened there, and I missed it," she said, looking at Harry questioningly.
"With Ron? Nah." Harry waved a hand dismissively. "It's just leftover guilt from the summer; it'll pass."
"Leftover guilt? You mean because he fancied me. Why?"
"Pride, I reckon. If you had said no when I asked you out, I'd have probably killed myself trying to figure out what I didn't have that you wanted, or where I had gone wrong. Ron's doing the same thing now and he's not quite done yet."
"I know, I know; months, and all that. The biggest problem, I think, is that he didn't have anyone to talk to about this. His family's his family, and you and I are pretty much family, too. All the right things are there, and he can't find anything to blame for you liking me more. I've thought a lot about this; I've certainly had the time."
Hermione frowned. "It's not like that, though. There's nothing wrong, and my feelings are my choice."
"Yes, but Ron… Can I say something? Without you taking offense?" Harry waited for Hermione to nod, and continued. "If there's one thing about you that I could find fault with, it's the way you think. The problem, Hermione, is that you're so very smart, and adults think you're so very mature, and you know it."
"Okay? What do you mean?"
"No offense and I love you, okay?" Again, Hermione nodded. "You kind of think that because Ron and I aren't as smart as you, we're dumb. No one says that we're mature, so we're immature. You see?"
Hermione's hurt glare made it clear to him that she did not see.
"Look, you don't do that so much with me, probably because I've got enough on my plate and you cut me some slack; but you do belittle Ron quite a bit, and it makes Ron feel like he's failed at something.
"Could you not look at me like that? I'm not insulting you! I do it to him too, you know. Ron and I started out about the same; he's had a chance to see me pull away in school and Quidditch, though, so I'm not as big a sore point. Ron started miles behind you in school, and he can't ever discuss things with you without losing or make decisions that you approve of. He never had a chance to compete from an even start."
"Neither did you, then! I don't see you acting like a baby!"
Harry looked over his glasses at her; Hermione turned beet red and covered her mouth with her hand. "The difference is that I've never sought anyone's approval for my actions. If you didn't like what I was doing, I didn't much care. Ron needed approval though, and you never gave it.
"It's probably why you fancy me more than Ron, now that I think about it."
"Because you didn't need my approval?"
"Since Ron was so defensive, you had to be right about him; since I just kept going, there had to be something else going on there."
Hermione nodded, and the pair lapsed into silence as they entered the library. Harry expected that Hermione would pick it up again, but she said nothing, guiding them to her favorite study corner behind the stacks.
"We're patrolling tonight," she reminded as they pulled out their Arithmancy books. Harry murmured an agreement, and lost himself in his studies.
"Harry, are you… mad at me?" He looked up to see Hermione worrying her lip, her book still open to the first page.
"No, of course not. Is this about what I said?" Harry walked around the table to sit beside her. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to poke holes. I just wanted to talk about it."
"But you made it sound like I was-"
"Hermione, stop." She quieted as his arms slid around her. "I love you."
"I love you, too. I try-"
"Shh. I'm sorry I said anything. It's just something I think; it means nothing. This is why I'm going to hate Wattins' class. Talking about how and why people think the way they do is just a fancy way to point fingers. I should stop doing that. Now, no more out of you. Smile for me."
Hermione gave a watery smile, and Harry kissed her, long and hard. Her smile was much happier as he pulled her up, and they gathered their books, heading to the Great Hall for dinner. They spent the evening studying, but Harry kept Hermione on his lap while they read, stroking her hair and whispering affectionately in her ear.
The irises glow fiercely in shades of yellow and red, pools of molten metal surrounding black voids. Everything else is lost to shadow, but those eyes...
Fear. Panic. Helplessness.
A hand grips his shoulder with incredible strength, talon-like fingers digging holes through his skin and muscle.
His eyes snapped open to see Hermione jump back. Darkness roiled around her, sticking to her robes and grabbing at her. The room was a sea of black, an impenetrable void. Only the shaft of light from Hermione's lit wand was free of shadow.
"Harry!" she breathed, lunging toward him. "Harry you have to wake up! None of the others will wake up, and this – this – whatever it is, it'severywhere!"
"Lumos!" he cried, and his own wand lit up beside him, searing the shadow away from it. He hastily snatched it up, and fumbled for his robes.
"We need more light!" Hermione moaned. "My fires won't work, they keep guttering out!"
Struck by a morbid curiosity, Harry reached out to touch the shadow. Feelings of helplessness and despair surrounded him just like in his dream, drawing forth painful, unwanted memories, almost like a Dementor. Dementors...
"I have an idea.Expecto Patronum!"
Prongs burst forth, turning to stand protectively in front of Harry and Hermione, radiating both light and warmth. The darkness jerked away from the area like a hand from fire, and the entire room basked in the serene glow from the Patronus, not a shadow in sight. The small fireplace in the centre of the room flickered back to full strength, and Ron, Neville and Seamus began to stir. Hermione sagged against Harry in relief.
"My God... what's going on? What's in the castle?"
"I need to get Dumbledore," Harry said. "Here, keep an eye on the map for anything strange. Ron, are you up?"
"Y-Yeah. I t-think I know what your d-dreams feel like, mate."
"Great. We'll compare notes later. For now, cast your strongest Patronus. Think of winning Quidditch last year, or something. Neville, Dean, you too. Even if it's mist, it'll still glow, and it'll keep the darkness away. I don't have time to explain, it's what gave you nightmares. Get everyone up, and down into the common room. Make sure at least one solid Patronus is active at all times. Damn, I wish Fred and George were here.
"Hermione, use your Patronus and get as many of the girls up as you can; start with Ginny so she can help. Same thing, everyone down to the common room, as many Patroni active as we can hold.
Prongs, let's go."
Hermione dashed towards the girls' dorms, her otter following at her feet. Ron led the other boys towards the other boys' dorm rooms, accompanied by a small dog and copious amounts of mist. Harry continuously fed power to prongs, keeping the Patronus active as he ran full tilt out of the tower and towards Dumbledore's office, the darkness receding before him.
"Potter!" Harry turned to see McGonagall nearby, fighting her way through the darkness with her lit wand.
"Professor, use a Patronus!"
A form too distant for Harry to see burst from McGonagall's wand and the darkness receded from her immediately. "Thank you!" she called. "Where are you going?"
"Hermione and Ron are rousing the Gryffindors, they'll be fine! I need to find Dumbledore!"
"I'll get him," the professor said, and with a flick of her wand, a second Patronus formed and sped down the hallways at an incredible speed. When Harry and McGonagall reached the gargoyle, they found it already open, and Dumbledore stepped forth. Fawkes was perched on his shoulders, and the darkness seemed to shrink away from the headmaster, as though afraid of him.
"Let's be away," he intoned, "there is much work to be done tonight." Harry followed in Dumbledore's wake, and the shadows closed in again, swallowing the open gargoyle.
All night, he, McGonagall and Dumbledore had fought their way to the common rooms and dorms of every House, to students caught in the throes of unnatural nightmares. While Prongs and McGonagall's cat kept the darkness at bay, Dumbledore enchanted each fireplace to burn with Gubraithian Fire. The holy, everburning flames banished the darkness from each room completely, and they moved on, one dorm at a time. Dumbledore seemed visibly weaker with every fire he enchanted, but he waved off Harry's concern. They finished the dorms, and Dumbledore leaned on Harry as they walked to the fireplace in the Hospital Wing. Then the candles in the Great Hall. Then the various Professors' Quarters.
Dumbledore collapsed after finishing McGonagall's fireplace, and Harry helped the distraught Deputy Headmistress move him to the Hospital Wing. Dumbledore's face was skeletally thin, and his breathing was erratic. Madam Pomfrey looked ashen at the state of the Headmaster, and quickly fell to work over him. Soon, Snape appeared, carrying several potions with him. McGonagall continued to hover tremulously around the bed.
Ignored by the professors, and worried about Hermione, Harry left the Hospital wing, heading back towards Gryffindor tower. He passed the stone gargoyle on his way, noting that the portal was still open. Curious as to why, he ducked up the stairs, and looked inside to see Dumbledore's office in complete disarray. Someone had ransacked the office, looking for something, and destroying most of Dumbledore's possessions. The charred remains of books littered the room.
"Son of a bitch," he whispered. Not knowing what to do, Harry headed down the stairs and back towards the tower. Dumbledore's office didn't matter; it only made any difference if the professor recovered. He'd deal with it later.
A dozen anxious looks greeted Harry as he entered the common room. "Dumbledore's in the Hospital Wing," he said, sitting in the spot Hermione had saved for him. "He's not good." She wrapped his arm around her, burrowing into his armpit. Unshed tears glistened in her eyes, and he could feel her shaking. Ron sat across from them, wide-eyed and devastated, wet trails forming on his cheeks. Ginny gathered Dean, Seamus and the Creevey brothers around her in a sort of group hug. Lavender and Parvati held on to each other for support. The entire Quidditch team huddled together in front of the brilliant white fire, drawing what warmth they could.
Every student was slowly recovering from the harrowing dreamscape the darkness thrust them into, and the news of Dumbledore's collapse did little to help their recovery. Harry could taste the emotion in the air, the tang of fear and sadness. The flames pulsed, drawing Harry's gaze to them. The very castle seemed to pulse when viewed through the white fire. In and out. In and out. The rhythm set itself against Hermione's shaky breaths and the deep wheezes Ron made as he tried valiantly not to cry. The sniffles and snorts of the other students all added to the cacophony, yet behind them all, the castle breathed. In and out. In and out.
Harry noticed with a growing sense of unease that the breathing was slowing. The fire pulsed heavily, and the castle began to radiate pain. He felt it as a small itch against his head, quickly growing into a burn. He could feel the pain spike with every weakening breath, and the breaths were growing fainter. In and out. In and out.
"No." Harry disentangled himself from Hermione and shot to his feet, bolting for the portal.
He held the portrait open for Hermione and grabbed her hand, pulling her along as he rushed towards the hospital wing.
He was wrong. He prayed that he was wrong. This couldn't happen.
They passed several professors, including McGonagall and Wattins. Both women turned and followed behind the two Prefects, trailing questions in their wake.
The castle seemed to shudder with the effort it took to breathe, and Harry pumped his legs harder, letting Hermione go as he sped ahead. He wasn't wrong, and he had to hurry.
Please, no. Not now. Let him live, just a little longer. Breathe, please breathe. He was almost there.
Harry crashed against the doors to the hospital wing, throwing them open, and ran towards the pale form of Dumbledore. The man's head tilted towards Harry, and an emaciated, claw-like hand grabbed Harry with frightening strength.
"Tell him, Harry," breathed Dumbledore, his eyes wide and bright. "Tell him that I did not fail. Tell him that I fought to the last, that I have made the ultimate sacrifice; that Hogwarts will be forever denied him."
Pain wracked Harry's body in time with Dumbledore's spasms. The ancient wizard held on, though, and pulled Harry close to him.
"The school is safe, Harry. Do not focus within; focus without. Be strong..."
"Harry!" Hermione entered the wing, and staggered over to him, panting heavily. The two professors entered quietly behind her.
"Ariana?" called Dumbledore, looking around uncomprehendingly. "Ariana, my dear, is that you? Please, please forgive me. Please, guide your errant brother home."
"Harry," Dumbledore said, snapping back towards Harry's voice. "There is so much for you to do, and so little to help you. Death is not defeat, Harry. Death will empower you more than you will ever know. Love... and death, Harry; love and death... together." A fresh set of spasms rocked the professor, and Harry leaned over him, embracing the ancient wizard in a futile attempt to stave off the attack.
"Proud... of... you... F-forgive..."
"Yes. Whatever it is, yes!"
Slowly, Dumbledore's death-grip loosened, and his hand slipped away. His luminous blue eyes dimmed, and he fell back to the bed, a small sigh escaping his lips, which sounded remarkably like relief.
The castle was silent, the pulse gone. The white, eternal flames in the hospital wing's fireplace flickered and dimmed for a moment, before flaring full and bright again. In the distance, Harry heard Fawkes begin to sing sadly. A gentle pulse of magic washed over him from the still form of the headmaster, spreading out to encompass the entire castle. One by one, the torches in the hallway burst into white flames.
McGonagall caressed Dumbledore's face, tears falling unchecked down her cheeks. Wattins brushed her own tears away, looking at the wetness in surprise. Hermione turned into Harry, hiding her stricken face in his robes. Harry stared at the bright light from the hallway torches, and listened to Fawkes. The ultimate sacrifice...
Eternal, undying light shone throughout Hogwarts.
Albus Dumbledore was dead.
It was 7:37am, September 3.
A/N: The setup is complete. Let the evil begin.