"What happened to you four?"
Everyone looked to Harry who appeared to have gotten the nomination for spokesperson without even running. Harry wasn't sure what to tell her at first but then decided the cover story they had worked out for the Ministry would be best.
Harry nodded. "Dumbledore had asked Remus Lupin to come to the castle for some reason. We were visiting with him before what looked like a mini-staff meeting was going to start. Suddenly, Dumbledore announced there were intruders in the castle heading our way. A few minutes later, a group of Death Eaters burst in."
During Harry's recitation, Madame Pomfrey was waving her wand over Hermione. The bandage meant she looked most visibly hurt. In addition, Ron, Draco, and Harry were content to wait until her arm was fixed, so they had pushed her forward.
"Are you the only ones hurt?"
"No, but Hermione's the worst off other than the prisoners."
"Yes, ma'am. We subdued almost all of Death Eaters. One got to the gate and apparated away. Remus and Professor Moody were both here, so they are going to take the Death Eaters to the Ministry."
"Alright, Miss Granger, it appears that your arm is broken. The good news is that it is a simple break that I can fix rather easily. Come sit on this bed here. The rest of you, settle down on a bed each. I'll get to you in just a few mintes."
She bustled off to the potions cabinet, and Draco and Harry went and sat on beds facing each other. Ron picked the bed closest to Hermione. Harry saw him murmur something to her, and she nodded and smiled back feebly. He had a feeling that now that the adrenaline was wearing off, that arm was hurting something fierce. Harry took his eyes off his friends and looked over at Draco.
"You're sure you're OK?"
"I'm fine." Draco smile also looked a bit off. Harry decided that Madame Pomfrey's orders could be ignored for now and moved over to sit next to Draco. He put his arm around Draco's waist and pulled his head down to Harry's shoulder. Then, he rested his own head on top of Draco's. Harry closed his eyes and breathed in the still clean scent of Draco's shampoo. He was starting to feel better already.
Madame Pomfrey kept Hermione overnight but sent the rest of them back to their dorms after fixing their various cuts and burns. They picked her up on the way to breakfast the next morning. In the castle, the students were chattering and most of the talk seemed to be about with what happened last night. Harry was glad they had a story worked out ahead of time. It had gotten exaggerated, of course, in the grapevine of gossiping students, but it still resembled the story he had told Madame Pomfrey last night.
When the mail came and the students who got the paper saw the headlines, it set up more buzzing. The main headline was the attack at Hogwarts, but there was a significant side story about what happened at Burgin & Burkes along with some speculation that the incidents were linked.
That story said that six Death Eaters were apprehended in Knockturn Alley, but it appeared that Kingsley Shacklebolt had managed to keep the Vanishing Cabinet from becoming news. Harry would get the full story of what happened from Dumbledore later. Harry looked over at the Ravenclaw table and made eye contact with Lisa Turpin. He would find her later to let her know if her uncle was among those captured last night — as soon as he found out from Dumbledore. For now, Harry was content to sit with Ron and Hermione and let Ron answer the questions thrown at them by the people sitting nearby. He was glad this battle was over, but he realized that it was not going to be his last.
The next few weeks sped by. In addition to exams, Harry and his friends had a lot of details to work out about the summer program at Hogwarts. Mrs. Weasley had agreed to come and teach, and Ron and Ginny would stay all summer as well. Hermione was going home for a few weeks and then coming back for the rest of the summer. While she was home, she would get a visit from Professor Snape and some Order members to check and reinforce the wards around her parent's house and office. Being friends with Harry carried certain dangers, and they were all doing their best so her parents weren't used as a weapon in this war.
Harry had gotten permission from Dumbledore to not go back to the Dursley's this summer. Harry wondered whether Vernon and Petunia had celebrated when they got his letter telling them they didn't need to pick him up at the station since he wouldn't be coming back. Luckily, Harry had long ago stopped leaving anything personal at their house. So, he knew that if he never went back, he wouldn't be missing anything.
Draco and Ron both invited a few more people to the summer school experience. Their common Common Room had worked out well and was often full of students from all four houses working on their homework or playing games. They had eight Slytherins, four Ravenclaws, and two Hufflepuffs who needed sanctuary. They only Gryffindor that they identified as 'at risk' was a graduating seventh year that no one was able to make any progress with. Draco was happy that most of his Slytherin year mates, including both Crabbe and Goyle, had decided to follow his example. Unfortunately, they still could not be openly friendly with Draco. They also had a number of other students who were staying for the summer, so no one would realize the real purpose of the program. Overall, it was going to be a busy summer, and Harry was looking forward to it as he hadn't looked forward to a summer ever before.
Early in June, the Headmaster, Professor Snape, and Harry left the castle to look for one more Horcrux. The night they went to the cave was unseasonably cold and rainy. Dumbledore side-along apparated with Harry since he hadn't had a chance to master apparating to a spot on a map that he was unfamiliar with. The regular school year was almost finished, and they wanted to take this trip before the summer school session started. There would be less students, so someone would be likely to question why all three of them were gone on the same night.
Harry found himself trailing along behind the Headmaster and Professor Snape as they swam toward the dark fissure in the rock face. Once out of the frigid water and dry and warm thanks to the wonders of magic, Dumbledore quickly deduced that they would need to bleed onto the rocks to open the door. Dumbledore had cut himself before Harry or Snape could object.
The great dark lake was unfriendly at best and more realistically, malevolent. They carefully walked around the edge, being sure not to walk into the water. Dumbledore was in front, Harry next, and Snape behind Harry. On and on they walked, and Harry tried to convince his eyes to watch his feet or Dumbledore's back. Instead, they kept being drawn to the green glow in the center of the lake. He knew better than to ask what it was coming from. Undoubtedly, they needed to go there to retrieve whatever Riddle had left there — Horcrux or something else. They had stopped just inside the room for Harry pull out Ravenclaw's diadem and see if there was a connection from it to anything in the area, but none of the faint lines of connection lasted long enough to provide any useful information. None of them knew if the protections and other enchantments Voldemort had put in place dulled the connection or if they were simply on the wrong trail. Either way, they would have to follow this clue without the advantage of Harry's magic sight giving them any easy answers.
Suddenly, Dumbledore stopped, and Harry just missed running into him. After a moment and some wand work, a chain appeared and a tiny boat emeged from the water.
"Obviously, it is meant for one person. We will have to take turns to make it across the lake," Snape opined from behind Harry.
"Ah, but then how will it get back to this shore by itself?" Before Snape could offer an explanation, Dumbledore answered his own question. "I rather think an enchantment will have been placed upon this boat so that only one wizard at a time will be able to sail in it. Luckily, we can count on Tom to underestimate Harry, who is still underage. He should be able to go across with either of us."
"I'll go over first and take Mr. Potter. If there is a problem getting the boat to come back with a non-passenger, you may be able to do something to convince it since you seem to understand how his mind works better than I."
"Yes, that does seem prudent." Then, turning to the silent member of their party, he said, "Harry, make sure not to touch the water when you get into and out of the boat. I believe we may be safe in the boat. After all, Tom had to make it so he could cross if he needed. However, I'm certain there is something waiting in the water that we would not want to disturb."
The boat was small. Harry had to crouch since there was no place for him to sit. When they scraped up on the small island in the middle of the lake, Snape got out and Harry followed him. Since the boat had started moving on its own on the other side, Harry wasn't too surprised to have it sit and wait. It was, undoubtedly, waiting for the wizard to get back into the boat to cross back over. Snape stood on the shore looking down at the boat with a thoughtful look on his face.
"I hesitate to try any of the spells one would normally use to propel a boat as they might disturb the Inferi in the lake."
"Is that what they are? I saw some flashes of limbs, but I wasn't sure. Is it fire that I would use against them if need be?" Harry manfully tried to suppress a shiver as he thought of the seemingly dead bodies floating in the lake.
"Yes. Fire should keep them off when and if they emerge from the water. As to the boat …"
Before Snape could finish, it started to move back across the water. Harry stood and watched the boat while Snape went to check out the source of the odd green glow. Harry was sure that it was his imagination, but the boat seemed to take longer to cross to Dumbledore than the previous leg. He wasn't sure if it was not being there and uselessly worrying about Dumbledore or the certain knowledge of the Inferi floating below the boat waiting to do Voldemort's bidding should any of them do whatever it was to trigger that defense. Either way, he was relieved to see the boat reach the opposite shore. Dumbledore climbed in and almost immediately the boat started back over to the island.
Very quickly, Harry was helping the Headmaster disembark, and they were all standing around the stone basin that was the source of the greenish glow. After looking in at the emerald liquid, Harry let himself fall into a very slight trance and studied the magic surrounding the basin. Snape and Dumbleore were conferring to his side, but Harry didn't listen. What he was finding was unlike any curse he had worked on before. There were layers and layers, all interlocking in some way so that to trigger one protection was to trigger them all. What made this different was that there was no obvious failsafe. Generally, there was a piece that went through each layer indicating the spell needed to undo the curse or a keyhole to indicate something to be poured over the cursed object (potion or blood generally) that the creator had built into the curses. That way, the creator could say the right words or pour a potion or blood (as with the door) onto the cursed object, and it would disable the curses so the creator or his confidante did not have to battle the curses.
"I don't get it."
"What do you not 'get,' Mr. Potter?" Snape sounded a bit disdainful about Harry's syntax, but it was probably just his own frustration showing through. Harry had learned to ignore his mood swings sometime this year.
"There's no key. How is Voldemort supposed to get at it if there's no key?"
"Well, it appears that the only way to get the potion out of the basin is to drink it. We cannot touch it or vanish it or transfigure it or any other of a number of things. I would guess he would bring someone or something along that he felt was disposable and make them drink it. I imagine he would enjoy watching them suffer as a special bonus."
Ah, Harry now understood the reason for the attitude. Snape was always this way when reminded of the cruel master he had willingly chosen to serve in his youthful stupidity. Harry was sure this was one of the reasons he found people leaping before looking into something thoroughly so very distasteful. After all, look where it got him.
"Have you figured out which potion it is or what it does?"
"It not meant to poison one outright. Instead, it makes you relive bad memories and bitter regrets as well as making you inordinately thirsty. If you don't drink it all or you are an extremely strong wizard and manage to get out of here promptly, you would not die. But, any one person drinking all of it would be severely weakened not to mention horribly thirsty. In fact, it is likely that if one of the Dark Lord's enemies came here, they would weaken enough before the end to stop drinking or be tempted to drink from the lake and then be set upon by the Inferi. Thus, keeping his Horcrux safe."
Harry swallowed the bitter bile that had risen in the back of his throat as he thought about having to drink Voldemort's potion. After a moment, his brain seemed to click back into gear. "So, if we split it three ways, do you think we can still keep each other safe?"
"I don't know. I would estimate we could each drink about a fourth of it and still be mostly rational. However, I don't know how quickly it would affect us after that."
"So, we need one more person."
"And since that's impossible, we need to decide whether one of us should remain unaffected and chance the other two drinking more or if we should each drink a third." A long silence followed Snape's last statement.
Finally, Harry broke it. "Professor, would a house elf be able to drink any without ill effects?"
"Yes, they would probably be able to drink even more than a wizard before it affected them."
"Well, there are tons of house elves at Hogwarts. Can you call them from his distance, Headmaster?
"Alas, they are bound to the castle rather than the Headmaster, so I cannot call on any of them outside of the grounds of the castle."
"So, if we can't call for a bunch of Hogwarts elves, I'll have to do it." Harry turned to Snape. "You did say even one more would be helpful, right?" At Snape's nod, Harry reluctantly did something he swore he never would. "Kreacher!"
A few minutes later, Kreacher popped in. Harry had bet that a house elf could probably get directly here if his master called since they could pop all around Hogwarts. He didn't like to think about the Black estate he'd inherited when Sirius died. Most of it was still tied down in paperwork as Narcissa Malfoy tried to contest the will. However, he had been told that in the meantime the properties would recognize him as their master and had consequently given Dumbledore permission to continue using Grimmauld Place for Order headquarters. He had tried hard not to think about the treacherous elf who was now his to command.
Before Harry could open his mouth to tell Kreacher anything, he looked frantically around himself and then threw himself at Harry's feet and start screeching, "No, no. Kreacher doesn't want to drink the potion again. Kreacher doesn't want to do it again. Kreacher will do anything filthy halfblood Master wants if he doesn't make Kreacher drink the potion."
Harry had finally snapped out of his numbness at the outburst. "Kreacher! Stop!" he yelled at his most forceful. Into the sudden quiet, Harry said, "You've been here before?" Kreacher nodded and opened his mouth to start pleading again, but Harry jumped in before he could start. "If you tell me all about it, you might not have to drink any of the potion. Now, tell me."
"Master Regulus told Kreacher the Dark Lord needed an elf."
Harry held up a finger to Kreacher and then turned his inquiring eyes to Snape.
"Regulus was Sirius' younger brother. He was a Death Eater who disappeared sometime before you defeated Voldemort. I never knew what happened to him, nor did your godfather. Everyone assumed that he was killed, but no one knew for certain."
Harry turned back to Kreacher and motioned for him to continue his story. In just a few minutes, Kreacher managed to hiccup and stumble through his horrible tale. How the Dark Lord made him drink the potion and then left him there to die. How Kreacher was dragged into the lake by the Inferi when he tried to quench his terrible thirst but didn't die by dint of the luck of having Regulus call for him. How Regulus had Kreacher take him back and ordered him to switch the lockets and leave him behind. How he was forced to watch Regulus be dragged into the lake and keep Regulus' secret even as his beloved mistress was mad with grief for her son. How Kreacher couldn't destroy the locket no matter how hard he tried to follow orders. How he stole it from the trash bin and hid it in his cupboard. How he caught Mundungus Fletcher stealing it and couldn't stop him from running away. Harry felt sick as he listened to the tale. For the second time tonight, he found himself swallowing bile as his insides fought to get outside.
"Kreacher was a good elf who did everything he could to follow his master's orders. I'm very glad you told me all of that. Just a few more questions and you should be able to go home. OK?" Kreacher nodded miserably as the snot poured down his face from his snout-like nose. "Can you describe the locket that Regulus took out of the basin?"
"Oh, yes. It was big and gold and had an S on the f-f-front that looked like a s-s-snake, and it would not open."
"Thank you, Kreacher. You did really well." Harry made eye contact with Dumbledore and Snape who had left Harry to deal with his elf through this long tale. After getting an infinitesimal nod from Snape, Harry continued, "Kreacher, when you can, you can go home. Whenever you feel up to it again, you can go back to working at Hogwarts. OK?"
Kreacher nodded even more miserably and with a last hiccupping sob, popped away. "Well, that was enlightening."
"Indeed, Harry. You dealt with that situation quite well." All of Dumbledore's customary twinkle was gone. "I will find Dung and locate the locket. We, at least, don't have to decide who is going to drink that potion this time. Shall we go back as we came in?"
Within a remarkably short time, the three of them were back out in the fresh air outside the cave and apparating to the bedroom in the Shrieking Shack they had left from. Harry was still in a fog as he walked back into the castle and took off the disillusionment spell he had applied before climbing out of the tree. Snape appeared next to him and took hold of his arm.
"I'll take care of Harry, Albus. You contact Fletcher."
Moments later, Harry was sitting in Snape's sitting room in the chair he had duplicated so everyone could sit and share tea after they had made potions. A vial was thrust into his hand, and Snape convinced him to consume the Strengthening Solution. Harry started to feel more alert almost as soon as it hit his stomach.
"Thank you, sir." He handed back the empty vial. "Would you mind if I sit here for a little bit longer? I don't want to go to Draco's or the Tower just yet. Too many questions."
"You can rest for as long as you need to. Would you like to play a round of chess or read a book? I think that some distraction would be best to get your mind back on track."
"Chess would be good, sir. But you may need to play a few rounds. I always lose really quickly when I play Ron."
"If I have to trounce you repeatedly in chess, I am willing to make that sacrifice for the greater good."
Harry had never been so glad to see that raised eyebrow. He snorted. "You're a humanitarian, sir."
AN: All of the details that I included (and all those I skipped over since I assume you've read the books) about the cave and Kreacher's story are, of course, from the last two books. I based the quantity of the potion they could safely drink on how long it took before Dumbledore was obviously affected in HBP.
Exams were almost a breeze after all the work Harry had put in this year. In what seemed no time at all, Harry and the rest of the students were sitting in the Great Hall for the Leaving Feast. Harry looked around the room at all the students who were (rightly) being protected from so much of the effort to bring down Voldemort and his followers. They all chatted excitedly with no idea of how much effort had been put into keeping them safe this year. Even his closest friends didn't know about the Horcruxes.
He wished he could be sheltered from the idea of a wizard evil enough to split his soul into seven pieces in his search for immortality but knew it wasn't to be. Instead, he would need to keep looking for those pieces. Harry wasn't sure if he would need to destroy all the Horcruxes, but he was sure he would have a hand in it. Then, he would have to destroy the small piece of Tom Riddle still walking around and looking mostly human. Harry looked up at the Head Table when he felt Headmaster Dumbledore looking at him. The Headmaster smiled and raised his glass slightly in salute.
Harry was glad he wasn't alone in this fight. He had his teachers, his friends, and the whole Order to rely on. He knew he could do it with a bit of help.