A/N: Huge thanks to my amazing beta Gwendolyn (agedsolarwhisk). Honestly, the whole thing would have been impossible without her. My gratitude goes also to Voice of the Nephilim for his invaluable help with several key scenes.

xXxXxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

What felt like an electric charge raced through Harry when the massive wrought-iron gates of the Longbottom Manor swung open.

Neville wobbled for a moment, and Harry steadied him, dimly aware of another shift in the atmosphere. But that wasn't the important part.

Shadowy figures entered the grounds, lit by spellfire.

Death Eaters, three of them.

"Oh no you don't," Augusta Longbottom shrieked and flew down the front steps, beams of light shooting out of her wand.

"Gran!" Neville shouted, charging after her.

The fight spilled outwards from the gates and, for a few moments, Harry couldn't tell how many bodies collided on the lawn in front of the house.

Harry and Neville barrelled into the fray cloaked by Harry's Shield Charm, which was just as well—a spell immediately bounced off the shield in an arc of light, illuminating a familiar face, a delighted smile.

"Ickle baby Longbottom!" cried Bellatrix Lestrange. "Merry Christmas!"

"YOU!" Neville roared, and Harry's heart sank. "I WILL KILL YOU!"

Harry fired a nonverbal Os amove before Bellatrix had the time to reply.

"Potter?" Bellatrix exclaimed, blocking. "Rodolphus never said—" Her eyes glittered angrily, but then the smile returned. "Crucio! Crucio!"

Harry rolled out of the way of one curse, tugged Neville away from another, shot a Laceration Curse, then aimed a Confringo at the ground beneath Bellatrix's feet—

He cast a quick glance around while she dodged, and saw that Hestia Jones locked in a fight with Auror John Rushmore just a few feet away. Closer to the line of trees, Auror Angela Smith fought a cloaked figure, but that was good, that meant she was not on the attackers' side—

"Crucio!" Bellatrix sang.

"Avada—" Neville began, but his voice wavered, and Harry threw him a quick look.

"Go on, cast the Killing Curse, see if it hurts me!" Bellatrix taunted.

Harry fired a head-exploding curse at Bellatrix, forcing her to block, but she was faster, and he pushed Neville behind him as another barrage of curses sailed at them.

"Don't stand still," Harry said, dragging Neville aside, "keep moving—Lassescavi!"

"Crucio!" Bellatrix hissed, eyes narrowed.

"Stupefy! Expelliarmus!" Neville shouted.

The spellsbounced off Bellatrix's shield, and impacted Harry's. They ricocheted off into the night, towards where Harry could see Hestia Jones still fighting the traitorous Auror.

Something wet landed on Harry's cheek, and he abruptly realized that it had started snowing—small, almost unobtrusive flakes.

"Crucio! Crucio! Don't worry, baby Longbottom, we'll have lots of fun!" Bellatrix sing-songed.

Harry dodged another Unforgivable, and longed to cast one of his own. But here, with the Aurors so near—

Fracta ossem, Harry cast savagely. Torqueo.

"Oh, very good, Harry!" Bellatrix whooped.

Fucking good it did if it didn't hit her—

"Neville, stay back! It's you she wants, not me!" Harry cast a particularly vicious burning curse at Bellatrix.

"I'm not leaving you!"

The ground under Bellatrix's feet sizzled and smoked as she jumped away, laughing in delight. "Don't sell yourself short, Harry! I like you more and more! Crucio!"

Harry feinted to the left just as, on the other side of the lawn, Augusta Longbottom let out an agonized scream.

"No!" Neville shouted. He dashed towards her and out of Harry's line of vision.

Ango maximus, Harry fired at Bellatrix, keeping her attention on him and off Neville. Vexo. Facio caecus—

Bellatrix giggled and retaliated with a jet of purple fire. Harry blocked on instinct, but just thena spell whooshed past him from an unexpected direction.

He jerked to the side, skidding slightly on the grass, then ducked to avoid her curse and spun sideways—

And felt himself go cold in ways that had nothing to do with the frigid temperatures.

Rabastan Lestrange was smiling as he aimed his wand at Harry.

There was no way Harry could take on twoopponents of that calibre. He needed a plan, he needed to get away—

Fulmen!

A flash of light erupted around Harry, blinding in the darkness. Bellatrix swore, and Harry had less than a second.

He spun, tried to Apparate to the other side of the lawn.

Tried. Failed.

Wards? Probably. Fuck.

"Crucio", Rabastan hissed, just as Bellatrix crowed:

"The Dark Lord said not to kill, but he never said not to touch!"

Harry dropped to the ground, avoiding the curse just in time.

Explodere caputem, he cast rapidly. Fracta ossem. Aspergo flamma—

The two Death Eaters were herding him away from the main fight. He could faintly see Hestia Jones shielding Augusta and Neville with her body as Rodolphus Lestrange and the traitor Rushmore pressed upon her. Further away, Auror Smith lay on the ground, and she wasn't moving—

But he couldn't help any of them, he could hardly even help himself as he tripped over a slippery root and barely kept his footing in yet another dive to the side. The snowfall was intensifying. It meant the night looked brighter now, but it hardly made up for the weather's disadvantages.

"Avada Kedavra," Harry whispered, backing away towards the trees. "Avada—"

"Not bad, Harry!" Bellatrix danced out of the way of the curse, somehow not looking inconvenienced by the moisture-slicked grass. "Crucio!"

Harry had been so busy dodging, again, that he'd almost failed to notice tree roots slithering towards him in waves, waiting to snare him.

He cancelled the spell, swerved to avoid Rabastan's curse, and then—

Something grabbed Harry's arms and slammed him painfully against a tree.

Breath whooshed out of him as branches wound around his arms, spreading them and holding him a vise-like grip. The wooden restraints twisted and pulled, and pain washed Harry's vision momentarily blank. He choked back a cry.

He was still holding his wand, but now it was pointing the wrong way—

"Well, this is lovely," Bellatrix said from right in front of him. Up close, her eyes were even more demented, giddy anticipation clearly reflected in them. "Isn't this lovely, Rabastan?"

Harry looked her square in the eyes, making sure that no fear leaked through his Occlumency barriers.

"Excuse me if I don't agree," he said, aiming for a calm tone.

Behind Bellatrix, Harry could see Rabastan retreating back to the main fight—although, at this point, it didn't look much of a fight at all. Someone had managed to take down Auror Rushmore, but Rodolphus had Neville and Augusta at wandpoint. Hestia was freshly distracted by Rabastan, and she hardly looked capable of standing upright, never mind winning a duel.

Harry swallowed against the first stirrings of panic. How had they been overpowered so quickly? Would anyone make it through the wards to help them?

No matter. He, at least, wasn't going down like this.

"Defiant to the last," Bellatrix murmured, brushing hair off Harry's forehead to uncover the lightning-bolt scar. "But so very foolish. I will hurt you, Harry. I want to hear you scream. Do you think you can do that for me?"

Harry clenched his jaw. He could see even before Bellatrix made her move that the time for talking had run out.

He had to act now.

Bellatrix fired the Cruciatus Curse at Harry at the same time as he said: "Diffindo!"

Ever since his capture, he'd been carefully turning the wand around—so that, instead of aiming at the sky, it would aim at him.

The spell ripped through the wooden restraints on his right arm, and Harry gritted his teeth as his skin tore along with the branches. But now one of his arms was free, and he swung to the left—

Bellatrix let out an enraged cry when her torture curse missed Harry by a hair.

He aimed his wand at his left arm, hoping to cut it loose as well—

But Bellatrix cast another Crucio a fraction of a second later. And this time, it caught Harry straight in the chest.

Pain. Harry's lungs burned, and his skin was on fire, and he couldn't breathe—

His left arm felt raw in the restraints when the curse lifted. He must have thrashed around—but he couldn't remember, couldn't think. His head was ringing.

It took him a moment to realize that something had changed.

Bellatrix was no longer standing in front of him; in fact, she'd been flung to the snow-powdered ground several feet away, and so had pretty much everyone else. Only Augusta Longbottom stood tall in front of the house, her wand held out in front of her like a sword, as if she was some Nordic goddess of war. Neville kneeled right next to her, looking shell-shocked, but everyone else had clearly been swept away in a violent blast.

The tableau held for a moment. Then, Augusta gave a loud wheeze and collapsed to the ground.

This snapped Harry back into action.

His left arm was still in restraints, and Bellatrix would not be down long.

Swaying a little, he tried to edge down and pick up his wand from the ground. He couldn't quite reach it from where he was, so he nudged it closer with a foot and slid down as far as he could, putting weight on the still-shackled arm. The skin on it tore as he did so, matching the wounds on his right arm, but the pain hardly registered even as fresh drops of blood dribbled down his shirt.

He didn't know how long he'd spent under the Cruciatus, but everything fucking hurt.

Finally, finally Harry grasped his wand again. He straightened back up freed his left arm with a nonverbal Diffindo.

He stepped away from the goddamn tree, and meanwhile—

Hestia had risen to her knees, and she shot a curse at Bellatrix. The Death Eater, also up by now, batted the curse away and immediately responded with one of her own.

Hestia had blood running down her side from an earlier fight, and she needed help. But, several feet away, Neville was frantically shaking his grandmother and not realizing that he'd left himself completely open to attack by Rodolphus and Rabastan.

Harry shot a volley of curses at the two Death Eaters and staggered over to Neville's side, slipping on the snowy grass.

Harry threw a shield up in front of Neville before even reaching him, and then pushed him out of the way of a curse.

"Harry!" Neville said, eyes wide. "Are you—oh Merlin, Harry, I—Gran—"

"I know," Harry said, immediately casting a nonverbal Lacero at Rabastan.

Augusta looked… bad, even in this lighting. Colourless and waxy and unnaturally still. Neville's hands were shaking, and there was blood on his shirt. The longer he stayed out here, the more danger he was in.

"Crucio," Rodolphus hissed, unimaginatively, and was echoed by his brother.

Harry forced his body to twist out of the way, pushing past the exhaustion. He was Neville's last line of defence, and everyone else was dead or dying, so by now, really, fuck everything.

"Avada Kedavra," Harry whispered, and felt Neville start next to him.

Rodolphus was the one dodging now, and Harry swiftly followed up with another Killing Curse at Rabastan.

Nonverbal casting was much faster, but then—the Killing Curse, which had to be spoken out loud, was also assuredly deadly and much more satisfying.

"Go," Harry said, without looking at Neville. "Take your grandmother and go, get inside the house."

The entrance was a few feet behind them, and if Neville could take Augusta to safety—

"No!" Neville looked at him with wide, wounded eyes. "Expelliarmus!"

"She's injured, she can't take more—" Harry dodged another curse, fired off a nonverbal kneecap-shattering spell.

"Harry—"

Frustration building, Harry darted aside and shoved Neville out of the way of a torture curse, again.

He itched to hurl answering Cruciatus Curses at the Lestranges, just to let them know how it felt, but he couldn't, couldn't possibly justify it, not with Neville right there. He tried to keep a cool head because he knew that he'd make mistakes when angry, but—

"You fight like one of us," Rodolphus said, sidestepping a curse. "And yet you fight against us."

"I'm not like one of you," Harry snarled, and blocked Rabastan's spleen-rupturing curse.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Neville dodging another Crucio, and sent a quick barrage of spells Rodolphus's way.

Harry wondered just when Rodolphus and Rabastan would get tired of toying with them and start fighting them for real. And how long Harry and Neville would last against that, especially if Neville was busy protecting Augusta and Harry was busy protecting Neville.

"Neville, just—go, now, get out," Harry snapped. "I'll cover you, just—"

"Not so fast," Rodolphus growled.

And then, a wall of fire sprung out of the ground around Harry, Neville and Augusta.

Harry heard Neville gasp, and squinted momentarily to adjust his vision. The blaze looked completely incongruous in the wintry scenery. Bright reds and oranges obscured the world beyond the small circle, but even so Harry could see Rodolphus and Rabastan looking smug, like they knew they had Harry and Neville now, and—

No. Harry wasn't letting the bastards win.

"Avada Kedavra," Harry cast again, through the fire. Explodere caputem, damn it, something—

The flames coalesced into shapes, and they leapt at Harry and Neville and Augusta, as if sentient.

Dodging had become far harder in the restricted space. Harry bit down on a shout as a fire dragon licked his leg, burning through his jeans, and crashed into Neville while sidestepping a lazily cast Cruciatus. Neville fell with an anguished cry.

"Sorry, sorry," Harry breathed. "You okay?"

"Yeah, my arm—"

They needed to get rid of this wall of fire, but Harry had no fucking idea how, or when he was even meant to do that when he could hardly find the time to cast counter-attacks. He was injured, and the Lestranges were enjoying themselves—

There was nowhere to run, the three of them locked in a small space, roasting slowly inside the furnace of Rodolphus's making. Neville was panting in pain as he cast a Stunner, Augusta couldn't even avoid the flames, and yet another torture curse was flying straight at Harry.

And Harry just—couldn't.

The heat, the pain, the deep, swelling frustration

The sudden surge of anger rose up within Harry, sweeping everything in its way. He felt as if hewere breathing out flames as something, some invisible cord inside him, snapped.

Harry raised his wand, and focused all his power on the fire before him in one mindless, fury-driven push. He let his anger go, let the floodgates open—and, encountering an obstacle, forced his surroundings to bend to his will. It felt like no magic he'd never performed, but it was powerful, and liberating, and—

Like he could do anything. Like there were no limits.

Harry's heart thundered wildly in his chest as a wave of excitement swept through him.

The flames around him flared higher. They coiled, twisted, and lungedacross at the two blurry human shapes, at the land and the trees and the air itself. They spread and grew and danced to Harry's command.

From somewhere far away, Harry heard screaming, but it drowned in the rush of blood and fire in his ears.

Power thrummed in his veins. He felt alive like never before, and there were no limits.

He'd show them. He'd bloody well—he'd had enough, and it was high time he—

The screams got louder, and the smell a charred flesh filled Harry's nose. He was the eye of the storm, and satisfaction spread through him at the thought. Let everyone burn. Let them all burn—

He heard someone laughing, a high, deranged sound.

Thoughts slipped away. He floated in the blood-red haze, and he was untouchable.

Then—

A solid shape rammed into Harry, and suddenly he was on the ground, blinking in confusion.

He got one moment of awareness. He saw dark manic eyes, felt locks of long dark hair in his face, heard a hiss of fury.

And the world went black.

xXxXx

Harry woke up in an empty hospital ward, and at first he had no idea why he was there.

This was clearly a room in a proper hospital, and not the Hogwarts infirmary. A look around revealed that Harry's was the only bed in the plain but spacious ward. A window let in slanted beams of winter sunlight; a time charm told Harry that it was nearing midday.

His whole body felt heavy and sluggish, and a dull ache pressed upon his head.

Last night—

Harry squeezed his eyes shut.

He had no recollection of being brought to the hospital, but he remembered fire.

He remembered fire, and screams, and—

He'd killed people. He'd—fuck.

Harry struggled to breathe through a wave of nausea, bit down on the panic of not knowing and forced himself to piece together the vague flashes of recollection.

The fight. Bellatrix. The torture curse. Neville. Fire.

Rodolphus Lestrange writhing and shouting in horror, eyes bugging out as the flames licked at his sides, none of his spells having any effect—

Rabastan Lestrange, with half of his body burnt away oh god his insides

Harry leaned over the side of his bed and threw up. The returning memories seemed seared onto his retinas, and he couldn't stop seeing it, couldn't stop replaying it in his head—

Like he was viewing it through someone else's eyes. Like it wasn't something he'd done. Like he was in Voldemort's head and the emotions of the perpetrator didn't at all match with his own.

("You fight like one of us…")

Harry gave a sputtering cough, wiped his mouth and straightened up again, blinking his eyes clear.

He'd been happy. That was the one thing he remembered with perfect certainty. The joy had been a bone-deep, vicious thing, sharp and lethal and cutting him just as much as it had torn into the others.

Which was…

With shaking hands, Harry reached for his wand on the bedside table, and vanished the mess on the floor.

He wasn't ready to think about what all this meant.

First, he had to—figure out what had happened, screw his head on, get his bearings.

His recollections of last night were too jumbled, a maelstrom of colour and sound. He wasn't sure what had happened to Hestia, or Mrs Longbottom, or—

Oh god. Neville. He'd been right behind Harry, so he should have been okay, but what if the fire—

Harry staggered off the bed and made for the door. He had to get answers, and he had to get them now.

When Harry wrenched open the door and all but fell out the other side, he saw—

"Tonks?"

Mad-Eye Moody stood just a little ways off, and the expression on his face when he looked at Harry, suddenly sharp and almost concerned—

"Harry, oh thank Merlin." Tonks bounded towards him and drew him into an unexpected hug. "Oh Harry, we were so worried!"

"What happened?" Harry asked, looking over her shoulder to lock eyes with Moody. "Is everyone—is Neville okay, is—"

His voice came out raspy, and he coughed as he cast a glance around.

"Longbottom's next door," Moody said shortly.

The general hospital decor and the signs left Harry in no doubt that he was at St Mungo's. Which probably meant he'd been brought here last night, after he'd blacked out, for whatever reason.

Bellatrix? Did Bellatrix attack him?

It didn't take a genius to work out that Moody and Tonks were on bodyguard duty, so clearly the Order had become involved in the battle at some point, but Harry had no idea of what that point might have been.

"How is Neville? And his gran? And Hestia? When did you get there?" Harry looked wildly between Tonks and Moody. "What happened?"

"Calm down, Potter," Moody said, voice gruff, and yes, that was definitely worry lacing his words. Moody grabbed Harry's shoulder. "You're fine, you did good, Longbottom's alive. Tonks—"

"I'll get a nurse," Tonks said immediately, and made to leave down the corridor.

"I don't need a nurse, I need information—"

But, of course, they did get him a nurse, and bundled him back in his room, and got several potions into him after a diagnostic charm and a lot of ominous muttering on the nurse's part.

Either the medication took effect, or Harry's panic receded on its own, but he found himself more capable of normal human conversation by the time the nurse left again, letting Tonks and Moody into the ward. Quite possibly, it helped that Harry's head was no longer spinning, which, wow, he hadn't even realized it had been doing.

"We've already called Dumbledore, and he'll be here as soon as he can," Tonks said, sitting down at the edge of Harry's bed even as Moody took the visitors' chair. She probably thought the news was reassuring. "He'll be glad to hear that you're awake so soon. When we found you—" She cut herself off and exchanged glances with Moody.

"Yeah." Harry leaned back against the pillows. He'd compromised with the nurse by staying on the bed, but not in it. There was no way he'd receive visitors while huddling under the covers, not when he was already feeling so off-balance. "I figure I must have been pretty bad?"

The nurse's undertone comments had included words like burns, lacerations and prolonged exposure to the Cruciatus Curse. None of them good things.

Tonks grimaced.

"The mediwizards had to stabilize you before we could even transport you to St Mungo's." She paused. "Well. We wanted to get you to Hogwarts, actually, but of course the Minister wouldn't let Dumbledore take you away."

Harry nodded, but didn't let himself get sidetracked. "When did you get there, exactly?"

"We couldn't Apparate in straight away, but we finally got through right in time to see Bellatrix Lestrange knock you out," Tonks said.

Right.

"We threw her off, and then she Disapparated before we could stop her," Tonks continued. "We tried, but we had our hands full with a massive fire which covered like half the grounds, or looked like it. You were right in it, too, though you and Neville and his grandmother suffered less—damage than the others."

"Neville," Harry said, tensing again.

"You were worse off than Longbottom," Moody said. "He'll be fine. Says you protected him." A searching look followed on the heels of that.

Harry shook his head. "I tried."

"Neville was okay, certainly compared to the rest of you. He was the only one left conscious when we arrived," Tonks chimed in.

Harry stifled the urge to break out in laughter, because yeah, this was setting a really low bar on okay.

"What happened to all the others?"

"Smith is dead," Moody said, blandly. "Jones is dead. Augusta Longbottom is in a coma in the nerve damage recovery ward."

Something of Harry's horror must have shown on his face, because Tonks hurried to say:

"But they say she'll wake up. Her brain activity doesn't look too bad, apparently. But she might, ah. Suffer consequences. They said she took quite a lot of damage, especially for her age."

"Yeah," Harry said, voice hoarse. "She was pretty fierce, but the Lestranges…"

"The Lestrange brothers are dead," Moody said, and Harry couldn't help his flinch. "As is Rushmore. Longbottom isn't too sure who killed Rushmore—says he didn't see—but according to him, it was you who'd killed both Lestranges."

Harry felt a chill run down his spine as he looked up. "It was self-defence."

"Of course, Harry, no one blames you," Tonks said earnestly.

"The Lestranges wanted to get at Neville," Harry said. "They wanted him more than me, they—" The full import of the realization hit him suddenly. "They hadn't even expected to find me there."

Tonks and Moody exchanged another glance.

"Did they say that?" Tonks asked.

"Bellatrix—she was surprised, she said Rushmore didn't warn them…" Harry frowned. "But that can't be right. Rushmore was how they got in, and he was there because of me."

"As a matter of fact, from what we've found out, the raid on the Longbottoms had been planned well in advance," Moody said. "We knew they were going to hit somewhere at Christmas, and it turns out, Longbottoms were on the list. Unfinished business for the Lestranges, and all that." His mouth twisted in a scowl.

"Yeah." Harry rubbed his scar. "Yeah, I think she said that. But how could they not have known if Rushmore did?"

"Well, there's no saying that the Lestrange brothers were in the same boat as Bellatrix," Tonks said. "By attacking you, they went directly against You-Know-Who's orders. Bellatrix is supposed to be his most loyal follower—so maybe they didn't tell her, knowing she might have put a lid on the whole operation."

"She did claim she wouldn't kill me," Harry said.

It came out flat, because everyone knew what that meant: that Bellatrix would torture him, instead.

"Harry, you do know that we would have got to you sooner if we could have," Tonks said, emphatic. "But we just couldn't get through the Anti-Apparition Jinx until it broke on its own. If what Neville says is right, one of the Lestrange brothers must have been maintaining it…" Tonks trailed off, visibly uncomfortable to broach that subject again.

Moody rescued her, speaking up again with, "Either way, you aren't all why they attacked. They were biding their time until an opportunity to get the Longbottoms came by, and Rushmore was it."

"Because I was there," Harry said. "Because Dumbledore told me to take Aurors along."

Moody looked about to say something to that, but then—

"So I did," Dumbledore spoke up, appearing in the doorway. "But I think you can understand why I thought it prudent, at the time. I could not have known, any more than you, what consequences would follow."

Startled, Harry turned to see Dumbledore step into the ward with a swish of midnight-blue robes. Immediately, the room seemed to shrink in size for his presence—as if accommodating for that aura of power that the Headmaster always carried with him.

"Harry. I cannot tell you how gratified I am to see you so recovered," Dumbledore said, smiling and acknowledging Tonks and Moody with a genial nod. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine, Professor," Harry said, without quite meeting his gaze.

His composure was in tatters, and if the Headmaster would glance into his eyes now, he'd know everything.

Dumbledore conjured up a chintz chair and sat down next to the bed, facing Harry.

For a moment, he was silent, simply studying Harry—or taking stock of his condition, Harry wasn't sure. He wasn't exactly in a hurry to get the conversation going, either.

"Each time I hope it is the last time, but here we are, once again," Dumbledore uttered softly, at last. "Harry, you must be tired of hearing an old man's repeated apologies, but please believe they are sincere."

Moody and Tonks glanced between Harry and Dumbledore, clearly not following.

But Harry nodded at the same time as the Headmaster said:

"It pains me to impose on you at such a moment. However, you know what must be done."

Instead of rehashing last night, Harry would much rather crawl into bed and stay there until he'd sorted through everything in this mind, which sounded like it would take him a year or two. But of course this was necessary.

"What do you want to know?" Harry asked.

At that, Tonks's expression suddenly went from confused to incredulous, and Moody's customary scowl became even more pronounced.

"Albus, this had better not be what it looks like," he said, voice low, and Harry blinked at him because—what the hell?

"You would be making a mistake in thinking that I wish this on Harry," Dumbledore replied, gently chiding. "But he is the most reliable witness we have."

"Oh, is he?" Moody snarled. "So how come Potter is a witness where Longbottom was a victim? And since when do we debrief kids we've just carted off the battlefield?"

Dumbledore's brow clouded infinitesimally.

"Alastor, we shall not revisit this old argument now."

What old argument?

Harry was too tired to deal with this. It's not like Moody's well-intentioned interference would actually get him out of the aforementioned debrief, in the end.

"It's okay," he said, aiming it at Moody and Tonks. "I'm used to it."

"You're—" Moody stared at him, and then turned to Dumbledore, looking even more thunderous than before. "Is that how it is?"

Dumbledore surveyed him calmly.

"Ah, Alastor. Are you, of all people, going to speak to me about the need to treat Harry like a child?"

Moody visibly started and then set his jaw again.

"So you're playing your own game, as always," he said. "You're not going to let us make a move because you've got dice on the board already. And here we were thinking you wanted Potter to beat Voldemort just with phoenix song and Gryffindor courage."

"Alastor," Dumbledore said, and now there was an edge in his voice—that extra hint of power. "Do not assume you know my mind in this matter."

"No, clearly," Moody said, and seemed not to notice the alarmed glance Tonks shot at him. He focused on Harry again, instead—except that this time, his look was sharp, considering. As if he was seeing Harry in an entirely new light.

Harry didn't bother staring back. Some day later, he'd think back to this exchange and try to process what it meant, but now it ranked pretty low on his list of priorities.

He took a drink from the glass of water on his bedside table and waited.

"Harry, if you would," Dumbledore said.

Harry put the glass down.

"I guess Neville's told you that we were in the lounge," he began, clearing his throat. "And then his grandmother came in…"

He stumbled over some details, and his voice wavered in a few places. He didn't go into the particulars of the spells used, because that would just be inviting trouble; he just said he'd relied on curses that required specific blocking or dodging, which was, technically, true.

He hesitated when he got to the end, because—

"The fire," Dumbledore said gently. "Was it you who had conjured it?"

"I—partially." Harry fixed his eyes his hands. "It was Rodolphus Lestrange to begin with, and then I—added to it."

"You duelled with fire spells?" Tonks asked, cutting in for the first time. She sounded impressed.

Moody, on the other hand, looked perfectly blank.

"Something like that." Harry ran a hand through his hair. "Honestly, at that point I was—exhausted, really. It was all just instinct." He shook his head and immediately winced at the mild throb.

"You killed two of the most famous Death Eaters on instinct?" Tonks repeated. "I mean, I get that they had taken a beating by then, but still—"

Harry clenched his jaw.

"We were losing," he said. "They swept in and had us on the defensive from the get-go, and there were too many of them and too few of us. The Lestranges cast the Cruciatus Curse over and over, and they wanted to get at Neville, at his grandmother, at all of us. I couldn't—I couldn't let them. I panicked."

"Very understandable," Dumbledore murmured. "So you panicked and cast a fire spell. What then?"

"And then—I couldn't control it." It was almost, almost the truth. "I—put too much power into it, and then I couldn't stop it. There was so much fire…"

Harry recognized dimly that this was probably the least coherent that Order members had ever seen him be. Moody and Tonks looked once again as they had at the beginning of the conversation, worry bleeding clearly through their expressions.

"Harry, at your age, in your position—anyone would panic," Tonks said, leaning forward. "No one blames you, okay? Just, I hadn't realized that you could… That you had so much…" She waved a hand.

Moody snorted.

"The lad produced a corporeal Patronus at thirteen. Of course he's got a lot of goddamn power."

Dumbledore inclined his head, though whether in a thoughtful gesture or in agreement Harry didn't know. He lowered his eyes again as the Headmaster gave him a long look over his half-moon glasses.

"Indeed, Harry," he said, "your desire to protect your friends is commendable, and there is little doubt that you were instrumental in preserving their lives."

Harry blew out a breath.

"But you wish I hadn't killed people while I was at it," he supplied, wanting to get over with the inevitable reproof.

Tonks winced and seemed about to interject, but Dumbledore spoke first.

"That is not something you can take lightly," he said, tone mild. "Every life you take—"

"Fractures my soul," Harry said. "I know."

He wondered what Dumbledore and the others would do if they knew he'd laughed as he'd turned the fire on the Lestranges.

Would they consider him deranged, a danger to others, too volatile to be around children? Would they pull him out of Hogwarts, keep him at Grimmauld Place, arrest him?

("Be careful with the spells you learn—and I won't worry about locking you up in Azkaban one day.")

They wouldn't. There was no more Azkaban, anyway, and he was still the Boy-Who-Lived, they needed him, even if he—

Even if he enjoyed killing people. Sometimes.

Fuck.

"Are we done here?" Harry asked, without looking up at Dumbledore.

"I will leave you to rest," Dumbledore said, and got up from his chair.

Moody and Tonks followed suit.

"I'm gonna go visit Neville, actually," Harry said.

"We'll be here for a few hours more," Tonks said, hovering by the door. "So holler if you need anything, or—want to talk. Okay?"

"Sure," Harry said, and pretended that it didn't hurt to push his body off the bed.

xXxXx

"You saved my life," Neville said, staring straight ahead and avoiding Harry's eyes.

Harry gripped the back of the visitors' chair by Neville's bed, unsure if he should sit down. Neville's hands were clenched on top of the bed covers, his mouth twisted in an unhappy moue. If he was mad at Harry, then he had every right to be.

Whatever Harry had told Dumbledore, he had, in fact, given Neville cause to fear for his life when he'd unleashed that fire storm. That Neville and his grandmother had escaped unscathed was an accident more than anything else. Harry had endangered them and probably inflicted more damage on Neville's property than all three Lestranges combined, so—

Yeah. If there was ever a friendship-ending moment between them, this was it.

"Nev," Harry began, without any idea of what he'd say next.

But Neville interrupted him.

"I never knew," he said, "that you could be like that. Or that I was so goddamn useless."

The venomous hiss to that word brought Harry up short.

"What?"

"I had all these grand ideas, of how I'd avenge my parents one day, you know." Neville's gaze didn't waver from some spot on the opposite wall. "And then—it was so easy for them to—to—" He bunched up the blanket in his fists. "I couldn't do anything."

Harry looked at him in dismay.

It had not occurred to him, wrapped as he'd been in his own guilt, that Neville might suffer a crisis of confidence in the aftermath of the battle. It had been so natural for Harry that of course Neville couldn't be expected to fight on the same level, that he hadn't thought that maybe Neville would resent himself for not having fought better.

"Nev, that's not fair," Harry said. Standing was growing difficult, so he lowered himself gingerly into the chair and leaned towards the bed. "The Lestranges are some of the worst there is. Adult wizards don't even—I mean—Hestia, and Auror Smith—" Harry shoved the mental images away. "You can't measure your skill against the Lestranges, that's mad."

"But you could fight them," Neville said. "You and Gran protected me the whole time. You stepped in front of me, and you got hurt. You and Gran both."

"I—"

"And at the end, Gran was—she was almost dead, and you looked dead, and everyone was dead, and I was the only one left, and I hadn't even done anything." Neville's eyes were red, and his breath was coming out in sharp pants.

Harry swallowed, understanding hitting him hard.

"Neville," he said, floundering. Oh god. It should be anyone, anyone but him here, because he was shit at this, and he was far from stable himself. "None of this was your fault. Of course we protected you, or tried to, but that doesn't mean—"

"Bellatrix wanted me, and you didn't let me fight her. And I was angry, like a stupid kid. And when I did get to fight, not her, but one of the others? Do you know how long I lasted? Do you know how easy it was for them to break my wand, to—"

"Don't do this," Harry said helplessly. "Your worth is not tied to—it's not all about how well you fight. Nev, you can't judge yourself on… It's not fair," he repeated.

"But it's fair to expect you to protect me?" Neville asked, meeting Harry's eyes for the first time.

Harry shook his head. "This isn't about that."

"You're the same age as me, but you fought like one of them," Neville said, and there was a distinctly bitter edge to his tone. "You shielded me like you weren't important. Like you knew you could take whatever they threw at you, and you knew I couldn't."

Harry ran a hand over his face.

He hadn't, in fact, been at all confident of his ability to take on the Lestranges. But it was true that stepping in front of Neville hadn't been a question; Harry would have done it for anyone who needed protecting.

Except that was the problem, wasn't it? Neville didn't want to need protecting, and nothing Harry could say here would make him feel better about that.

"I'm sorry," Harry said, trying anyway, "if it came across like—"

"Don't," Neville interrupted, and wiped at his eyes. "Whatever you do, just—don't apologize to me. You've saved my life, and maybe Gran's, too, if she ever—if she wakes up, and—"

"You grandmother will be okay," Harry said. "Nev. You'll be okay. We've made it, and we'll be fine."

If he repeated it enough, maybe it would become true.

xXxXx

The conversation left Harry exhausted, so he agreed without too much protest when a kind-faced doctor handed him a potion that would send him into a healing slumber. According to the doctor, Harry's vitals still looked off, and his nervous system was remarkable by the sheer fact of its continued existence.

When he woke up, it was eight in the morning, and he was starving.

Harry was just polishing off the remainder of his porridge when Rufus Scrimgeour breezed into his ward with a perfunctory knock.

"Minister," Harry said, resigned, and put his plate away.

Scrimgeour wore the air of a person who hadn't anytime recently dropped work in favour of such trivial things as sleep or food.

"Harry," he said, pacing over to the window. "Good to see you looking better." And then, without any more of a preamble: "I know it's quite soon, but we can't exactly afford to wait. I would appreciate it if you told me the details of what happened at Longbottom Manor."

Well, that was hardly a surprise.

Harry's report to the Minister turned out quite a bit more coherent than the story he'd told Dumbledore, possibly because Harry was better rested, in less pain, and it was his second time talking about all this. Scrimgeour heard Harry out in silence and proceeded to drop a bunch of newspapers onto his bed.

Harry skimmed the headlines.

5 dead, 3 injured in Longbottom Manor attack

Boy-Who-Lived caught in Longbottom-Lestrange battle

Source: Potter's presence "an accident that saved the day"

"Your press has been generally positive so far," Scrimgeour said. "We need to keep it that way."

He walked to the window and back. Harry watched his progress in silence.

"It should be a clear-cut case—you've been a hero and helped to defend a prominent family, at great risk to yourself. But the dearth of witnesses complicates things." Scrimgeour paused.

"Because you only have my word for what happened," Harry supplied tonelessly.

"Well. Not only yours. But Mr Longbottom is, of course, a minor, and he could be considered an unreliable witness." The Minister frowned. "On the other hand, given his tragic history, he would be unlikely to shield the perpetrator, and his word would carry significant weight. Perhaps we can arrange for his statement to us to be… leaked."

Harry clenched his jaw. "Please, let's not use Neville's tragic history as currency in this."

Scrimgeour shot him a glance. "No journalist has missed the parallel between this attack and the one that debilitated his parents. But I would have you believe that I take no joy in exploiting the fates of Frank and Alice. Both good Aurors, and a loss to the corps."

The Minister looked like he meant it, too, and Harry remembered that he used to head Aurors in the past. He'd probably known Neville's parents personally.

"Regardless," Scrimgeour continued, "it may not come to that. Young Longbottom's words—and yours—will be substantiated by the reports of Aurors who saw Bellatrix Lestrange attack you. In fact, some of that is already making press rounds." He paced some more. "And yet this opens another dangerous avenue."

Harry wasn't fully sure what Scrimgeour was getting at. Harry being on the side of the good guys was a welcome thing, right?

"The word is spreading that it was you, somehow, who killed the Lestranges," Scrimgeour said. "And while that does wonders for your reputation in some respects, it also casts you in a… somewhat worrying light."

Harry grew still.

"Because I've killed someone?"

"No, Harry, because you, too, are a minor." Scrimgeour sighed and glanced aside. "It's easy to forget, what with everything—but you're still at school. You shouldn't be capable of killing two grown, dangerous men."

Harry laughed, nearly choking on the irony. "So, what, they're expecting me to get rid of Voldemort, but I'm supposed to walk on rose petals and sunshine until then?"

"People get uneasy when they see a teenager with a body count," Scrimgeour said grimly. "And don't get me wrong, Harry, I don't like it either. I'm not saying it's wrong what you did, but I don't think this is a school kid's job. And people are bound to wonder: if you do this at sixteen, where do you go from here?"

Harry lifted his chin, struggling to stay calm.

"I go on to fight Voldemort."

Scrimgeour tilted his head to the side.

"And then?"

("In many ways, for all anyone knows… you could be planning or thinking anything.")

Harry took a steadying breath.

"This is about Skeeter's article, isn't it."

"The article won't help," Scrimgeour acknowledged.

"But I mean—Minister, surely you don't think that I—" Harry couldn't even put it into words.

"Oh, no." Scrimgeour waved a hand. "I don't believe it for a moment. But our concern is with the public opinion, not with mine."

Harry blinked at the evidence of Scrimgeour's easy faith in him. Relief swiftly followed on the heels of surprise, and the Minister clearly picked up on that, because his next look at Harry was somewhat exasperated.

"Don't be ridiculous, Harry. We've had our disagreements, but I've yet to see any power-hunger on your part. And you've certainly given me enough Death Eaters' names that you can't be pursuing You-Know-Who's agenda, either."

"Thank you," Harry said quietly.

Scrimgeour only shook his head and moved on to a new topic.

"Then there is, of course, the unfortunate affair of Rushmore's betrayal." He frowned, looking out the window.

"Let me guess," Harry said. "You want to hush it up about him, too."

"Allowing people to think that Aurors can't be trusted would be disastrous," Scrimgeour said. "We'll conduct an internal inquiry, of course… discreetly. We need the public to have faith in law enforcement."

Harry ran a hand through his hair. "But without implicating Rushmore, how do you explain the Death Eaters getting through the wards?"

Scrimgeour was still gazing into the distance.

"Perhaps we don't need a detailed explanation. Nobody knows the full extent of the defences on Longbottom Manor, and the Lestranges' skills are infamous… People will believe that sheer brute force got them through."

Harry raised an eyebrow.

"Rita Skeeter will dig in and not let go until she finds something."

"Ah." Scrimgeour gave a singularly unpleasant smile. "Ms Skeeter will not be troubling you anymore in the foreseeable future." And then, in a vaguely triumphant tone: "You see, a thorough investigation, launched after that latest inflammatory article of hers, revealed that Ms Skeeter is, in fact, an unregistered Animagus. As such, she is currently restricted in a way that puts quite a hold on her career."

Harry stared, struck speechless.

That Scrimgeour would do this—

Was this what it meant to have the might of the Ministry behind Harry? It felt… disturbingly nice.

"They tell me it's likely you'll be discharged in a few hours," Scrimgeour continued, glancing at his watch. "We can hold the press conference immediately afterwards."

Harry nodded.

"Proudfoot and Williamson will let me know when you're released," Scrimgeour said, referring to the two Aurors on guard. "I'll get everything prepared for a meeting with the press in the meanwhile."

"Great," Harry said. "I can't wait."

xXxXx

Harry's discharge from St Mungo's and the ensuing press conference went exactly to Scrimgeour's plan.

Eager to say as little as possible about the battle, Harry stuck to the script and delivered rehearsed responses; his only deviation was when he did his best to credit the fallen Aurors and Mrs Longbottom for their efforts. He was perfectly genuine—without Mrs Longbottom, he would hardly been standing there today—but too many reporters seemed to interpret this as a display of charming modesty. The narrative needed a hero, and, with all the others indisposed and Neville not cutting too impressive a figure, that hero was going to be Harry.

At least, until it would become more interesting to poke at the holes in the official story and cast doubt onto Harry's role. Harry could foresee this as well as Scrimgeour could, and resigned himself to it in advance.

Tonks was one of the Aurors securing the press conference, and after it wrapped up she sneaked off to Side-Along Harry back to Grimmauld Place.

"I cando this myself, you know," Harry pointed out.

"Yeah, but that would mean letting you go somewhere without bodyguards, and everyone's way too paranoid about your safety at the moment," Tonks said. "Myself included. So bear with us, okay? It'll wear off soon enough, assuming you don't get into any more peril for the rest of the holiday."

Harry was onboard with that plan.

Not unexpectedly, his arrival at Headquarters caused a bit of a ruckus.

"Harry! Oh thank goodness!" Mrs Weasley cried, as soon as Harry set foot in the kitchen at Number 12, Grimmauld Place.

The Order seemed to be in the middle of lunch. The roast smelled delicious, but Harry proved to be a bigger attraction than the food, because most people jumped up and abandoned their plates at once.

"Blimey!" Ron said, throwing a glance over Harry.

"Hey, kid," Sirius Black said, and engulfed Harry in a sudden embrace. "Good to see you out and about."

"Harry," Lupin said warmly. "Come sit down."

Harry said hello to everyone else—which was Bill and Ginny Weasley—and then joined the Order at the table even as Tonks made her excuses.

"The Ministry's in an uproar, of course," she said, eyeing the food wistfully. "I'd love to stay, but—see you all later, folks."

As soon as everyone had said goodbye to Tonks, the focus shifted back to Harry. Something felt different about this, a strange undercurrent in the air between Harry and the Order members, but Harry didn't know what to attribute it to. Did this have something to do with Mad-Eye Moody and his odd behaviour back at the hospital, or had they simply been worried about Harry?

With so many dead and injured—Hestia dead—the latter option wouldn't be surprising in the least.

"Tell us everything," Sirius said, leaning his elbows on the table and looking at Harry in rapt attention.

"Sirius," Lupin murmured, chiding. "Leave Harry in peace. How are you feeling, Harry?"

"All right." Harry shrugged. "Thank you, Mrs Weasley," he added, when she passed him a dish of Yorkshire puddings. And then, to Sirius: "I doubt I can give you anything new. I'm guessing Dumbledore's told you what happened."

"That he has." Sirius beamed at him. "Sounds like you'd have made James and Lily proud."

Harry looked down at his plate.

"What's been going on otherwise?" he asked, and he doubted anyone missed his blatant bid at misdirection.

"Well—" Sirius bared his teeth in an entirely too-canine smile. "—there's quite a bit of chaos in Death Eaters' ranks now, do you know? According to Snape, anyway." He made a disgusted face.

"Oh yeah?" Harry glanced up, interested.

He wasn't the only one. Ron and Ginny were drinking up these morsels of information with obvious eagerness—a fact which instantly came to Mrs Weasley's attention.

"You two! You're finished eating, so run along!"

"Mom!" Ron protested. "Bill, come on, tell her, we have a right to know—"

Bill held up his hands.

"I'm not getting involved in this."

"Ron, Ginny, you heard me! Out!" Mrs. Weasley demanded, and the duo trooped out with bad grace.

Harry watched them go.

"You were saying?" he prompted, turning back to Sirius.

"The battle ended up being quite a blow for them," Sirius said, and he looked very satisfied about that. "Two dead, not counting Rushmore—besides, the papers are calling a victory for you, so it's a loss on all counts. Voldemort was, apparently, furious at dear Bella." So much cousinly love in that last word.

"So the attack really was unauthorized, and I wasn't the target," Harry said, feeling relieved even though he'd all but known this already.

"It seems so," Lupin spoke up, amber eyes far too understanding when they met Harry's. "Voldemort wasn't even in the country, and had to come back from abroad after the news hit. Like Sirius says—" Lupin shook his head. "—he wasn't pleased."

"He's gone on another spiel about not approaching you, apparently," Sirius added. "And guess what? Now he's saying that it's for their own good. You're supposedly this dangerous wizard powered by weird magic, hence your immunity to killing and general arse-kicking proclivities."

Harry froze with the fork halfway to his mouth.

"What?"

"You've embarrassed him and his followers often enough that he had to offer up some sort of explanation," Lupin said, looking at Harry sympathetically.

Harry shook his head.

"He'll never convince everyone. Some of the people on his side—" trained me, shit, he couldn't say that outright. "—were my Housemates, they've seen me up close. He won't make them believe that I'm a freak of magic or whatever."

Bill snorted.

"Well, it's not them he has to convince, is it? It's the higher ranks, the inner circle. They're terrified of him, for one thing. And for another, they'll want to believe what he tells them, because otherwise they're all fuck-ups following a giant loser."

"Bill!" Mrs Weasley cried, and set down a stack of dirty dishes with a clang. "These people killed your father! You will not dismiss the danger out of hand like that!"

Absolute silence descended for a few moments.

"Sorry," Bill muttered.

Harry poked at a piece of broccoli and tried to think of something that did not make him want to break things.

"What's Voldemort doing abroad?" he asked into the awkward quiet.

"Severus has said he's looking for something," Lupin said.

"Yeah, I remember," Harry said. This had come up way back, in the summer sometime. "He's been at it for a while though. What's he looking for?"

The adults exchanged glances.

"That's what we'd all like to know," Bill said.

"Dumbledore might have some idea," Sirius said, a scowl on his face, "but he's not telling."

Of course not.

Harry sighed and dug into his roast.

xXxXx

Another sleepless night, and this was getting stupid.

Harry threw the blanket aside and rose from the bed.

It wasn't even the nightmares. But the events of the battle kept flashing through his mind, and unanswered questions kept him staring into the blackness outside the window.

Harry didn't regret killing Rodolphus and Rabastan Lestrange. But the way he'd done it—

He'd revelled in the smell of their charred flesh, and basked in the sound of their horrified screams. He'd been high on their pain, and drunk on power. Every dark place within him, all the doors he'd kept closed, every ugly impulse—released and unchained and he'd delighted in it, in—

In finally doing what he'd longed to do for so long.

Which, well.

Incidentally, it was also a thing that bad people liked doing. The whole violence, murderous rage, joy in killing thing—it had evil written all over it, and Harry had never fully understood the urge before, never mind thought he'd actually—

("Just how deep did your Death Eater initiation go?")

Yeah. Yeah, good fucking question, because—

Oh, screw it.

Harry pulled on a jumper with clumsy fingers, and bent down to tie his shoes.

His judgement was clearly fucked, and likely had been for a while. He needed someone good to tell him where the ethical north was, and preferably before he lost his mind walking around in endless circles.

Harry crept downstairs under a Disillusionment Charm, careful to avoid squeaking floorboards. The night's cold air hit him when he stepped out onto the porch, and he realized he'd forgotten his coat. But it didn't matter.

He spun on the spot and Apparated.

Only standing in front of Cedric's front door, Harry remembered that it was very late, that Cho might be there, that Cedric might not be at home on a weekend night. But all these considerations didn't stop him from pressing the buzzer.

When the door swung open, a very dishevelled Cedric appeared on the other side.

"Harry?" he asked, incredulous. Then, frowning at whatever he saw in Harry's face: "Come on in."

Cedric threw the door open wider, and Harry stepped through.

"Is this—are you—not busy?" It was an inane question, but Harry had to ask.

Cedric shook his head and ran a hand through his hair, smoothing it down. "No, it's fine."

He led Harry from the small hallway into the living room. A wave of his wand lit the lamps, revealing off-white walls, beige couch and armchairs, and a dining table in dark wood.

"Harry." It wasn't prodding or impatient, but, yeah, Cedric probably wanted to know why Harry had barged into his flat in the middle of the night.

Harry took a deep breath.

"So I may have gone batshit and killed people."

He heard a sharp intake of breath from Cedric, but didn't turn to check his expression.

"There was a duel. Kind of. And I was so angry…" Harry bit his lip, shook his head.

"Harry—"

"They were Death Eaters, and they were attacking us. They were horrible fucking people. They've once tortured Neville's parents to insanity and had a great time doing it. But I kind of did the same to them, and what does that make me?"

"Harry, stop right there, okay?" Cedric took him by the shoulders. "Sit down, tell me the whole thing from the beginning, and then we'll see what it all means."

Harry allowed Cedric to steer him to the sofa and watched as Cedric left the room and came back with a bottle of Firewhisky and two tumblers.

"For the record, this is the most terrible way to deal with anything," Cedric said. "But you look like you could use a drink."

He poured generous helpings into each glass, leaving the bottle on the coffee table in front of them, and handed one of the tumblers to Harry. Then he joined Harry on the sofa, leaned against an armrest, and fixed him with a keen look.

"All right," he said, calmly. "Tell me what happened."

The account of the battle sounded bizarre in Cedric's tidy lounge. The room's neutral colours clashed with the description of red blood and flames, and the quiet posed a jarring contrast to shouts of pain and fury.

"The thing is, it's—I've killed someone before that night, okay." Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Cedric whip his head around to stare at him. "And that time was… pure self-defence. That was an accident, even, more or less. And this—"

Cedric put the tumbler back on the coffee table. "Harry—"

"I know this wasn't normal, okay, I'm not that far gone." Harry looked into his glass. "But I don't know why it happened, and whether it's going to keep happening now."

"You—" Cedric turned away abruptly. "Merlin's balls, Harry, I don't even know where to start." He just sat motionless for a moment, apparently trying to come to terms with everything he'd just been told.

Something burned low in Harry's gut—Firewhisky, or guilt over inflicting this on Cedric, he wasn't sure.

He took another sip, and this time the burn was definitely from the alcohol.

"That—other person," Cedric said. "The first you've… That was at the Ministry last year, wasn't it?"

"Yeah."

"Right. So you…" Cedric faced him again. "Have you even talked to anyone about this?"

"You, now." Harry swirled the whisky and watched it lap against the sides of the glass.

"Me, now," Cedric repeated bleakly. "Half a year after it happened, and a week after you've snapped and killed someone else. I—give me a moment."

He stared at the wall just beyond Harry's shoulder, expression inscrutable. Then, he expelled a long breath and reached for the bottle again.

"When you came here tonight, I thought you were freaking out because you've made your first kill," he said, voice level. "It's not an easy thing to deal with, and with what the papers were saying about you and the Lestranges—well, I kind of assumed the worst there. And I was going to tell you that it's fine, because in a life-or-death situation you've got to make that call, and you can't be too hard on yourself for choosing to live."

Harry raised his glass to his eyes.

"And now you'll tell me it's not fine?" he asked, equally calm.

"And now let's take all that as read for that actual first kill of yours, whoever that was," Cedric responded, not looking away from Harry. "But this—seems quite different, doesn't it? Only, some of the same things apply. It was still a kill-or-be-killed situation, and a bloodbath besides. You were injured. You'd been tortured. There was no way that, given everything, you'd be making balanced, rational choices at that time."

"I know," Harry said. "But I wouldn't exactly define it as making choices."

"Yeah. That's where it gets—"

"Yeah." Harry threw back another mouthful of whisky. It tasted blatantly foul and was exactly what he needed.

"Listen, I'm not going to tell you that what you've done is okay, because you know it isn't. And it's good that you know that," Cedric said. "But this thing you're doing? Making yourself out to be the worst sort of monster out of there? Stop that. You aren't. You didn't go in hoping to get a chance to torture and destroy. It just—"

"Happened. Yeah." Harry cleared his throat. "But what if it happens again?"

"So focus on making sure it doesn't," Cedric said.

They drank in silence for a few moments.

"You say you cast a lot of Unforgivables," Cedric spoke up, his expression perfectly neutral. "You say they felt satisfying."

Harry leaned back on the couch and closed his eyes for a moment.

"Yeah."

"I'm guessing I don't need to spell out the problem with that."

Harry shook his head minutely.

Being able to cast the Unforgivables was one thing. Liking them—that lay, again, in the bad people do this category. Liking them so much that you had to actively resist the urge to use them—that was beyond bad people and straight into serious fucking danger land.

"So maybe you need to ask yourself how you got to that point," Cedric said.

"I don't know," Harry said. "I was just… angry."

He lifted his glass to his lips again, listening to the ice cubes clinking together. The combination of alcohol and the late hour fuddled his brain, smoothing out the sharp edges of reality.

Reality was a bitch and didn't deserve his full attention right now.

"Harry… please don't think that I'm trying to trivialize what happened, but has it occurred to you that you've run yourself into the ground, and that's part of what set you off?" Cedric asked.

Harry furrowed his eyebrows, looking over at him. "What do you mean?"

"I mean—everyone's got limits, right? You've been juggling a—a shit ton of concerns and responsibilities, a lot of it being unpleasant war-related stuff. And you're dealing with it mainly by not dealing with it on any emotional level, as far as I can tell." Cedric shrugged. "Something's got to give at some point, yeah?"

Harry rubbed a hand over his face. "Yeah, well. There isn't a lot I can do about that."

"You don't owe it to anyone to be as involved as you are," Cedric said quietly.

Harry gave a short laugh. "Scrimgeour says it's my civic duty."

"To hell with Scrimgeour," Cedric said, and there were notes of genuine anger in his tone. "You've got to start giving yourself breaks, Harry. You can't keep on like this indefinitely. Get some free time. Take up a bloody hobby that doesn't have you constantly on edge."

"On edge." Harry tipped his head back to look at the ceiling. "Is that the excuse we're going with, that I've been on edge?"

"Hey, don't discount that," Cedric said, pointing at Harry with his glass. "You're a sixteen-year-old kid with way too much on your plate. Someone twice your age would have trouble dealing with all this shit."

"That's not as comforting as you probably think it is," Harry muttered.

Though, in many ways, plenty comforting for four o'clock on a dark January morning.

xXxXx

"So you've had a fairly eventful holiday," Blaise said, leaning back into his seat opposite Harry.

The Hogwarts Express lurched forward. Harry glanced out the window, eyes sliding over the familiar sight as the train pulled out of the station.

"Just the first few days, really," he said. "But I've already told you about all that."

Harry's friends had sent him a veritable mountain of letters by the time he'd got back from the hospital, and he'd given them the same answers as he had Dumbledore, Scrimgeour, everyone at Headquarters. I'm fine. I panicked and lost control of a curse. It was a bad, bad fight, but we kind of made it, in the end.

He'd sounded honest enough—especially with the whole admitting the loss of control thing—that it came across as believable. Besides, there was no reason to distrust the story. Once calmed, his friends seemed to view this experience as yet another crazy thing in Harry's life, made different this time by Neville's involvement.

"Bet you're glad to go back to Hogwarts," Terry said. "It's always so peaceful and quiet there."

"Mmm."

Millicent shot a look Harry's way and then transferred her attention back to her cat. The cat purred, grudgingly appreciative.

Harry spared a thought for Hedwig, riding in a compartment with the other owls. She was fairly angry with Harry at the moment, since she hated Grimmauld Place and didn't understand why Harry insisted on going there.

Luna sat engrossed in The Quibbler—the front page promised an exclusive peek at the workings of the Ministry's army of Heliopaths. According to the cover, they'd been involved in the fire at the Longbottom Manor somehow. Harry honestly didn't want to know.

"So. Neville," Terry said, after a pause.

This produced a ripple effect across the whole compartment: Harry tensed, Blaise raised an eyebrow, Millicent raised her head, and Luna rustled her paper, folding it away.

Neville himself wasn't there. In fact, he wasn't anywhere on the train; news had come in just that morning that Augusta Longbottom had woken up, and so Neville would be several days late to school.

"From what I hear, his gran is okay," Harry said cautiously. "Or, well, lucid? That counts as okay. In, you know, Cruciatus victims." Oh god. "Just—don't bug him about it when he comes back?"

"Wouldn't dream of it," Blaise muttered, and earned himself a frown from Harry, because you never knew, with Blaise.

"Don't, okay?" Harry said.

"I have written Neville letters," Luna said, apropos of nothing. "He hasn't replied to me."

"He may have been a tad preoccupied," Millicent replied, in a flat voice.

Harry rubbed his scar.

"He hasn't been writing to Hermione, either," Terry said. "I guess, yeah, he's had enough to worry about."

Harry had seen Hermione, as well as Padma and Anthony, only very briefly; they'd said hello before rushing off to the prefects' carriage. Hermione had looked anxious, and Padma had squeezed Harry in a tight, corridor-blocking hug, to be pried off after a while by Justin Finch-Fletchley. Anthony had ended the traffic jam, gently urging Padma and Hermione along and promising that they'd all be back later.

Which probably meant there would be conversations. With Padma, there were always conversations.

Of course, Harry could always sidetrack her by throwing Luna's Heliopath theory her way. That was guaranteed to be great entertainment for the whole family.

xXxXx

"Potter."

"Nott."

Harry entered the dormitory just as Theodore Nott grabbed his things and swept away to the bathroom, presumably to get ready for sleep.

Harry threw a glance around.

Malfoy was reading a Potions book over in his four-poster and didn't acknowledge Harry except by drawing his curtains as Harry stepped further into the room. Crabbe and Goyle were snoring, and Harry knew Blaise was out tempting fate for the fleeting joys of a snogging session in the Astronomy Tower.

Harry dumped his bag by the bed and cast a routine spell to check that nobody had tampered with his bed or his belongings. Likely an unnecessary precaution, but automatic, after all these years—for Harry and the others, too. In fact, lately Death Eaters' kids put more effort into securing their beds than ever before.

It seemed they didn't feel too safe having Harry Potter sleeping in the same room. How strange.

A month ago, Harry would have taken pleasure in the thought of Malfoy fearing him, Nott worrying silently about what he might do, their goons considering Harry a threat. Now, he was almost grateful. Of all the people in this school, these adversaries of Harry's came closest to knowing how dangerous he could be. If they strove to protect themselves, to avoid Harry's wrath, it might make Harry's attempts at self-control that much easier.

Harry would rather not find out just how easy it would be to provoke him into another murderous rage. If his reputation had his dorm mates giving him a wide birth, Harry could work with that just fine.

He'd take increased distance from the rest of the school, too, if they'd let him have it.

While Harry had left Hogwarts for the Christmas holidays with Rita Skeeter's article fanning the flames of suspicion, he came back to see confusion and wariness writ large on the faces of his classmates. By now, after this latest battle, they were nearing an information overload—about who Harry was, what he wanted, what he'd done. The same media kept bombarding people with contradictory images of Harry, had done so for years, and even knowing him personally could not untangle that bewildering jumble of messages. Harry couldn't be everything he was sold as, not at the same time. But separating truth from lies had to be hard for those who hadn't been with him every step of the way, fighting enemies, negotiating with allies, staring death in the face.

In the end, it would be as it always was. Some people would believe in him, because they wanted, or needed, to believe. Others would doubt him. And some would never be swayed by what he said or did, because they thought their futures had been written for them since their parents had taken the Dark Lord's mark.

And Harry didn't have it in him to do any more explaining, right now.

He'd managed to get through the first week of school without making a bigger spectacle of himself than simply walking the corridors rendered him. But in the second week back, he started receiving questioning glances from various duelling club members, and then he couldn't in good conscience avoid scheduling practice sessions any longer.

The Dementors were still out there. So were the Inferi. So were the Death Eaters.

Bigger things than Harry's sensibilities were at stake.

When the day came for the first duelling club meeting of the year, Harry would have given a lot to skip straight to spell practice, but of course people had questions.

"What happened?"

"Where is Neville?"

"Is it true that you've killed all the Lestranges?"

And it wasn't that Harry didn't have answers; he did, they took shape in his mouth with hardly any effort on his part.

But this, again, projecting the illusion of control, donning a mask, holding his head high when the last thing he wanted was to be here—

It was exhausting.

("Has it occurred to you that you've run yourself into the ground?")

"You seem thoughtful," Eddie Carmichael said from beside Harry after they'd told the students to pair up for exercises.

"Just wondering," Harry said. "How do you feel about holding this thing by yourself next time?"

It hadn't been all that serious a suggestion—Harry had thought of it a mere second ago—but Eddie turned to him with an expression of actual alarm on his face.

"What?" he said. "Why, what's wrong?"

Harry raised his eyebrows.

"Nothing, just—I thought I might take a break, that's all."

"Nah, come on," Eddie said, bumping Harry's shoulder. "Where would we be without our fearless leader?"

Harry gave a minute frown; Eddie's relief seemed a bit too genuine. The idea of chairing the duelling club on his own clearly didn't sit well with him. And why not? He was the Head Boy, hardly a stranger to responsibility. Or did he think that people wouldn't listen to him without Harry around? That would be ironic, since Eddie's clout was exactly the reason why Harry had taken him on as a co-pilot…

Harry watched the students shift into fighting stances and ready their wands.

Given the scarcity of club members conversant with advanced duelling techniques, they probably did need Harry at the moment. But, fearless or not, Harry didn't feel much like leading anyone anywhere right now. Not before he figured out where he was headed, himself.

xXxXx

"More hot chocolate, anybody?" Slughorn beamed around the table at the assembled Slug Club members.

"Please," Hermione said, in apparent defiance of her dentist parents.

Blaise declined, but Harry took some more and returned Slughorn's jolly smile.

The rotund professor seemed to have thawed off entirely since their conversation about Horcruxes. Perhaps it was the fact that Harry had never brought them up again, nor sought to speak to him in private; perhaps it was that Slughorn had truly believed Harry when he'd said that Dumbledore had not been behind the discussion.

By the look of them, nobody would guess how much time Harry and Dumbledore spent plotting together. It came in useful, sometimes.

"Mr Longbottom?" Slughorn pushed the ornate teapot at Neville.

"No, thank you," Neville said quietly.

But Slughorn's eyes didn't leave him, and this time Harry wasn't fast enough to redirect the conversation.

"I trust your grandmother is in better health?" the Potions master asked, head tilted to the side like a curious bird.

Neville pushed his plate away.

"Yes, thank you," he said.

Harry met Hermione's gaze across the table.

Neville had returned to Hogwarts two weeks ago, face drawn and words of Mrs Longbottom's infirmity on his lips.

("They say she'll never walk again, and she's trying to be so brave about it…")

Neville had taken to avoiding people, which was understandable; spotlight was a hard burden to bear even when you didn't have enough of your own thoughts and memories pressing you down. This social gathering was the only one Neville had ventured out to since his return, and something told Harry he wouldn't be keen to repeat the experience.

Slughorn opened his mouth for another question, and Harry and Hermione sprung into action at the same time.

"Professor—" Harry began, hoping that some suitable subject change would come to mind.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Hermione exclaimed, getting up from the table. "Sir, I completely forgot—Neville and I were supposed to see Professor McGonagall tonight about our transfiguration assignment!"

Neville blinked, blindsided, and McLaggen had clearly been about to make a snide comment when Padma corroborated Hermione's story by needling her about grades.

By the observant look on Slughorn's face, Harry could tell that they weren't fooling him any. Hermione had to know that too, because she threw Harry a desperate glance before ushering Neville from his chair and out the door.

But Slughorn only chuckled, a picture of amiability, and said:

"No matter, no matter. Perhaps it's time we adjourned, anyway. Professor Snape was most displeased when a couple of you nearly missed curfew last time!"

Cho, Blaise and the rest murmured their goodbyes to the Potions master, but Harry hung back. If there was anyone around who could do damage control, it was probably him.

Besides, he needed to reopen private lines of communication with Slughorn for Horcrux reasons.

Slughorn didn't question Harry's decision to stay. When the last of the other students had left, the professor sank back onto his chair with a sigh. "Well, Harry, I will say this. Mr Longbottom has loyal friends."

Harry met Slughorn's eyes squarely.

"We're sorry for—"

"No, Harry, the apology is not necessary. I suppose it was wrong of me to push young Longbottom on the matter," Slughorn said, smoothing a hand over his moustache. "It is only that…"

That he wanted to know exactly what had happened during and after the fight at the Neville's house. And he was accustomed to having access to information.

Familiar disgust—at the presumption of anyone who stuck their noses into his or Neville's life—rose up in Harry, but he tamped down on it, hard. He couldn't afford to sabotage Slughorn's tenuous trust.

"The fight was… I don't think it's something Neville will want to revisit, any time soon," Harry said, pitching his voice low.

"I hear it was a bloody battle," Slughorn said, heaving a gusty sigh. "I'm sure you haven't had an easy time of it either."

But he watched Harry closely for clues, keen to find out what Harry might reveal, where the chinks in his armour were.

Harry couldn't let him think like that. As far as Slughorn knew, Harry had no armour.

Harry nodded and let himself lean against the table, visibly giving in.

He forced himself to sound heartfelt as he spun his tale. It was easier if he thought of it as just another lie bringing Slughorn closer into the net of shared confidences, making him feel that Harry was surrendering secrets.

("So how come Potter is a witness where Longbottom was a victim?")

Harry wondered what Moody would've had to say if he could see him right now.

xXxXx

It had been most inconvenient of Apparition lessons to start taking up Saturday mornings, because that meant no Quidditch practice—and Slytherin's match against Ravenclaw was coming up in two weeks. Harry got to skip the course by virtue of having his Apparition licence already, but Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle were all lost to the cause.

Channelling the spirit of Marcus Flint, Harry rolled up his sleeves and rescheduled the practices to three hours earlier than normal. This made him immediately popular with the team.

"Seven o'clock on a Saturday." James Urquhart yawned, looking aghast, and shivered in the chilly February wind. "Harry, how could you?"

"Uh," said Crabbe in agreement, and leaned heavily on his broom so as not to fall over. The broom, impressively, held his weight.

"Less whining, more action," Harry said, kneeling down to release the Quaffle.

He threw the large red ball to Arthur Vaisey, who caught it with a bit of fumbling.

Malfoy sneered. "I hope you can do better in the actual game, Vaisey."

Vaisey glanced away. "Worry about yourself, Malfoy."

This, like everything else these days, seemed to provoke Malfoy's temper.

"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, stepping forward.

"Nothing," Harry cut in, voice firm. It was way, way too early for this shit. "You three—get in formation." He nodded at Malfoy, Vaisey and Astoria Greengrass, who just blinked at him sleepily for a moment. "Go! Warm up for a few minutes before I release the Bludgers."

Arthur Vaisey and Astoria soared up in the air obediently, but Malfoy stayed on the ground and stomped over to Harry, grey eyes glittering in anger.

"Potter, if you think—"

"Malfoy." Harry rose to face him, very calmly. He kept his arms by his sides, and did not reach for his wand. "Shut up. The only reason why you're still on the team is that I want to beat Ravenclaw, and I don't have a lot of time to train up a new Chaser. But get on my nerves some more, and I won't care. In the air. Right now. Or I'm finding a replacement."

Crabbe and Goyle froze in the background—perhaps wondering whether their futures on the team were tied to Malfoy's. Malfoy gritted his teeth and flushed in what appeared to be considerable anger, but then he whirled around on the spot and took off flying.

Harry looked after him for a moment.

"What crawled up his arse and died?" he asked Crabbe and Goyle, not really expecting a reply.

Sure, Malfoy had been a pain all of last semester, but lately he'd been practically vibrating with tension. He was the only one of the junior Death Eaters who wasn't avoiding Harry these days, too, but that was less strange and more quintessentially Malfoy. He just had to be contrary.

"Dunno," Goyle said. "He's got things."

"Right." Harry stifled a sigh and turned back to his task. "Ready for those Bludgers?"

He kept his team running drills for a couple more hours, and then it was time for Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle to go shower and change for Apparition lessons. After that, Harry had a meeting with Eddie Carmichael to sort out the duelling club schedule, and… well.

Technically, Harry had time to go to the library and pick up some of his old research. But something had stayed his hand last time he'd gone to the Restricted Section and reached for Magick Most Evile. A feeling he'd been doing his best to ignore for the last few months—a vague unease—floated closer to the surface again.

(Harry used to comfort himself that, whatever else he'd been reading, at least he'd been staying away from that.)

It was not that Harry thought he was doing anything wrong, exactly. A bit of reading had never hurt anyone. But…

("You say you cast a lot of Unforgivables. You say they felt satisfying.")

Most likely, there was no connection between Harry's recent immersion in Dark magic and that one sadistic urge. Yes, he'd pushed his own boundaries while doing the research, but that didn't mean he was prepared to do all the things he'd read about. It was just studying, for god's sake.

He hadn't done anything wrong.

But the other books rustled around him, and once again Harry felt a warning whispered against his skin when he touched the bindings.

In the past, he'd batted away all warnings, ignored all protests. Because he'd known better than everyone else. He'd thought he knew himself, and his limits.

Gazing at the dusty tomes in the Restricted Section, Harry wondered, for the first time, just what those limits were.

xXxXx

Harry might have talked to Luna about all of this; Luna with her gentle understanding and her much-undervalued perspicacity. But Luna seemed to be perpetually busy these days, spending all her time around the Hidden Room for the research project she, Padma and Hermione had initiated.

At least, the girls' troubles were bearing fruit. It had taken a long time—January had given way to February already—but one day as Harry and his friends were meeting after the duelling club, Luna triumphantly produced two objects and put them down on the table in the Hidden Room.

"Here they are," Luna said, glancing around at everyone present, which was Harry, Hermione and their Ravenclaw friends. "I have found your book in the storage version of the Room, Padma. And your globe, Hermione. Now you can't deny that they were there."

If Padma's stare could inflict physical damage, the book would have acquired a hole right in the middle of its bright pink cover. Hermione touched the globe of the earth, sending it into a slow spin.

They had claimed that Luna was wrong. That an object left in one version of the room could not later surface in another. That Luna must have imagined things.

"Fine," Hermione said, after a long pause. "Fine! But the Hidden Room does not exist in a different dimension."

That was Luna's latest idea; Harry hadn't bothered commenting the last time he heard it, and he wasn't about to start now.

"The dimension theory is only one of many," Luna said. "But—"

"Leaving the crazy postulations aside," Padma cut in, turning to Hermione, "do you suppose that, when everyone leaves the Room and it goes back to… well, hibernation, it Vanishes all objects to that storage place?"

"No," Hermione said, shaking her head. "If things left here get Vanished automatically to the storage version of the room, it would have to contain everything we have thought up. And that's not true. It gave us my whole room—"

"True," Padma murmured. "I hate to agree with you, but true. Your room wasn't in the storage. Neither was mine. Okay." She pursed her mouth in thought.

Terry and Anthony seemed to be regarding the discussion in the manner of a sports match, waiting with bated breath for the next sally.

Harry wished Neville had not pleaded a Herbology assignment he had to complete, because then Harry would've had a fellow sane person here. Also, if Neville had stayed, Harry wouldn't have had to worry that Neville was avoiding all social interactions save for the duelling club. He hadn't turned up to anything since that dinner at Slughorn's…

"So the Room can provide us with anything we want," Hermione said, jotting something down in on a piece of parchment, "but we can't conclude that it contains everything it provides, because then it would have to hold everything under the sun."

"Except for food," Padma corrected, and a pensive look came over her face. "Apart from living beings, that's the only exception. The Room can't provide food."

Hermione bit her lip as she looked down at her notes.

"From which we can conclude," she said slowly, "that the objects here aren't Summoned from anywhere… because you cannot make food out of nothing, but you can Summon it."

"Let me get this straight," Terry said, and earned a glare from Anthony for interrupting the girls. "You're absolutely sure all this isn't Summoned from anywhere? Because what else can it be? Is there really magic that will create everything we see here from something one of us imagined, picking it out of our heads?"

Hermione opened her mouth to respond—but then, Harry had a sudden moment of recognition.

"Yes, there is," he said. "I've seen something that worked in a similar way before."

Everyone turned to Harry in surprise. He hadn't exactly been a major contributor to these discussions in the past.

"What was it?" Anthony asked.

"If you say a Remembrall," Padma interjected, "I'm going to head you off right here, Harry. They're a cheap trick."

Harry shook his head.

"There was this mirror, and it showed you not what was actually there, but what you wanted," he explained. "And it's not like you planned what you wanted to see in it. It just worked off your subconscious, or your deepest desires, whatever."

Terry looked impressed. "Sounds wicked."

Padma narrowed her eyes. "What mirror was that?"

Harry shrugged. "I don't know, but it looked old, and—important? Dumbledore had it, and then I saw it at the Department of Mysteries."

Hermione shot Harry a glance.

"I imagine it could be quite an eye-opening experience," she said thoughtfully. "Some literal soul-gazing…"

"Makes you wonder what a Dementor would see in it, huh?" Terry said.

"Could we please get back to the point?" Padma said at the same time as Hermione countered:

"I'm not sure Dementors have souls, as such."

"Well, do they have minds?"

"Not the point," Padma stressed, again. "We were talking about the Hidden Room, remember?"

"Yes, all right," Hermione said. "So Luna has proven that some things we leave in the Room may get transported to storage, but others may go to where they came from, that is, a state of nonexistence—"

"I was wrong," Luna said suddenly, and so loudly that Harry started at her voice. "The Hidden Room does not exist in a different dimension."

There was a moment's pause.

"Congratulations on that magnificent discovery," Padma said.

"It is much simpler," Luna continued, still gazing ahead with the expression of deep thought. "The Hidden Room does not exist."

This time even Anthony couldn't contain himself.

"I'm sorry, could you say that again?"

"This room," Luna clarified. "It must be an illusion, I'm sure of it. We think the objects here are real, but they are not. This is why real objects brought in from the outside are stored in a different place."

Harry blinked.

"Ridiculous," Padma bit out.

Hermione only rolled her eyes. "But of course. I don't see why we haven't thought of that already."

"It is because your mind is closed to everything but logic," Luna said in apparent earnestness.

"And you, I suppose, are the greatest scientist of our age," Hermione snapped, eyes narrowing.

"Whatever," Padma said, cutting in between with practised ease. "What I want to do now is check if we can leave food in the storage version of the Room and then try to wish for it here. And the other way around. What will happen, do you think?"

A new light shone in Hermione's eye. She jumped up, the argument already forgotten.

"Yes! Yes, brilliant, we need to test this at once—"

"Did you just call me brilliant?" Padma preened.

Hermione glared at her.

"Oh don't you go all diva on me. We have an experiment to conduct! Let's go to the kitchens!"

Terry trailed after Hermione with hearts in his eyes, Anthony wore an expression of keen interest, Padma flounced out the door and Luna followed at a sedate pace.

Harry knew that look on his friends' faces. It was their "no one is safe when research happens" look.

He left them to it and retreated to the Slytherin common room. He had a lot of his own regularly scheduled work to do.

xXxXx

"Hi, Harry!" Romilda Vane said, passing by him in the corridor. Her friends giggled, and Harry could already hear all the comments about to pour out of Blaise's mouth.

"Not a word," Harry said.

Blaise kept silent for about two paces. Then, "You're being romanced by a fourteen-year-old. This will never not be funny."

"To you, maybe," Harry muttered.

"To everyone who knows you," Blaise said gleefully.

That was, unfortunately, true. Padma, for one, had spent a whole Herbology class planning out Harry and Romilda's wedding in dramatic whispers.

"I hate you all," Harry said, and followed Blaise into the Defence classroom.

Just like that, his levity evaporated. If Snape's sallow visage was not enough to quash extra cheer, there was also the fact that Harry had not been doing too well in Defence lately. His classmates had doubtlessly never noticed, but Snape was another story.

True to his habit of the last few months, Snape swooped down on Harry just as the rest of the class paired up to practice nonverbal cursing. Harry never even bothered partnering up with anyone, because he'd known this was coming.

Snape struck without a word of warning, but Harry had already put up a shield. He dove behind a desk as Snape cast a spell he didn't know, and heard a minor explosion shake the ground under him.

Harry gave a quiet murmur, and then a doppelganger of his moved out of his hiding place, raised a wand at Snape—

Even as Snape attacked the illusion, the real Harry flung a quick barrage of Stunners from a few paces away. Snape had to spin before he could even block, but he recovered quickly and dispelled Harry's likeness with a quick wave of his wand.

"Go on, Potter," he said, eyes narrowed. "Is this all you can do?"

Harry Banished the desk at Snape, buying a couple of moments as he straightened and fired off another string of curses. They were absorbed by Snape's shield, harmless, and then Harry was on the defensive again.

He blocked a jinx aimed at messing with his balance, sidestepped a rather nasty veins-engorging curse, and reflected a cutting spell back at Snape.

Another dodged curse, and there, there was an opening, and Harry brought up his wand—

An instinctive curse rose to his lips, but this was not real, Snape was not the enemy, he—

Harry had hesitated a split second too long.

Pain erupted on the left side of his head, and when he raised his hand to his temple, his fingers came away covered with blood.

Snape stood glaring at Harry from a few feet away. Around them, the class erupted in whispers at the evidence of Harry's injury. Pansy laughed, Dean Thomas frowned, and Daphne Greengrass looked like she wanted nothing better but to get Harry immediate first aid.

"Pathetic, as always, Potter," Snape pronounced, but his eyes remained carefully trained on Harry. "Stay after class."

"Yes, sir."

Head perfectly—carefully—empty of thought, Harry retreated to the back of the room and cast a spell to close the shallow wound.

By the time the rest of the students left, he still hadn't marshalled up a valid excuse for his lapse during the duel.

"Your performance in my class has been abysmal since the start of the semester, and today you have reached a new low," Snape hissed, once the door was shut and warded. "Explain."

Harry looked at the papers strewn over Snape's desk. He didn't know what, if anything, Snape had glimpsed in his mind; perhaps his Occlumency defences had held, perhaps not. Harry wasn't about to start sharing confidences.

"I'm doing my best, sir," he said blandly.

"Don't lie to me, Potter," Snape said, and he sounded disgusted. "You have been relying on predominantly defensive tactics. You have failed to mount a significant attack even when I have given you ample opportunity. You are holding back, and I will know why."

Harry fought to maintain a blank expression.

"I assure you, sir—"

"Try this on your little friends, but spare me," Snape said, voice ice cold.

A pause descended. Maybe Snape hadn't seen anything, but clearly nothing Harry said was going to convince him.

"Very well," Snape said, and leaned back in his chair with an unpleasant smile. "I shall draw my own conclusions. Dumbledore tells me that, during the last battle, you lost control of a spell and, as a result, killed two people and caused serious damage to Longbottom's property. Coincidentally, you have avoided going on the offensive with me ever since. You leave me no choice but to assume that you fear losing control again."

Harry closed his mouth against the counter-argument he'd been about to utter.

He wouldn't have put it like that. But.

"You insult me, Potter, by presuming that you can inflict any damage from which I am unable to protect myself, you, or the other students under my care," Snape snapped then, and startled Harry into looking at him.

"Rodolphus and Rabastan Lestrange—" Harry began, but Snape didn't let him finish.

"—were inferior to me in skill, I assure you." Snape's look was pure Death Eater there for a moment.

"I'm not—this is not about me boasting," Harry said, a tad frustrated. He didn't think he could defeat Snape in a classroom duel. But he didn't know what he could do if he lost his grip on reality again, and keeping a tight control on his responses was paramount.

He could tell it was slowing him down in class, but letting go and fighting to his full potential in a classroom full of children was too big a risk to face.

"I see," Snape said.

Harry frowned. He wasn't at all sure Snape did see.

Snape nodded, as if in thought. And then he said:

"Detention, Potter."

Harry stared at him.

"Sir?"

"Eight o'clock." Snape scowled—presumably at the idea of seeing Harry that soon. "Well, Potter? Don't gape at me like an imbecile. I'd have got it over with immediately, but I have another class in—" He glanced at his watch. "—five minutes, and as such I don't have time for your teenage histrionics. But this evening, you will come to my office, and you will fight me, and you will not hold back."

Harry wanted to object, but Snape talked over his attempt to interrupt, face set in uncompromising lines.

"If you do hold back, it'll be another detention, every night, until you have got it through your thick skull that nothing but spell practice will happen to you in my classroom. You will not hurt other people. You will not hurt yourself. You will most certainly not hurt me. But if I need to beat this fact into you, so be it. Eight o'clock, Potter. Don't be late."

Harry left the classroom uncertain whether he'd just received a scolding or the best offer of help that had come his way in recent times.

xXxXx

In the event, it had taken four fake detentions—four evenings of Snape attacking and Harry, eventually, responding in kind and not going homicidal while he was at it—for Harry to regain something resembling trust in his control. He'd watched himself carefully for symptoms of impending breakdown, cataloguing any sparks of desire to cause real bodily harm. But, no matter how annoying or insulting Snape was being, Harry failed to fly into bloodthirsty rage.

By the fifth night, he was cautiously optimistic.

"Again, Potter," Snape barked, readying his wand. "A toddler could have fought off your last attempt. Focus!"

Harry restrained the urge to snort. He and Snape had been duelling for nearly an hour, and, while Harry hadn't managed to gain the upper hand, he'd certainly not done as badly as Snape claimed.

He flung another curse at Snape, dropped to the side and dissolved the ground under Snape's feet. Hardly a moment later, Harry needed to perform a series of complicated blocks, because of course Snape wouldn't let him rely on the Shield Charm, but—

This was almost fun.

Harry hadn't fought quite like this, not restraining himself and at the same time not fearing for his life, since his junior Death Eater tutors had broken ties with him a year ago.

"Next week, you do the same in class," Snape commanded as Harry picked himself up from the floor. "I refuse to mollycoddle you any longer."

Harry nodded, still catching his breath. He'd have to control himself more in a classroom setting, with so many bystanders around, but by now he couldn't imagine himself flying off the handle and trying to kill everyone for no reason.

"Thank you, sir," Harry said, pocketing his wand. "Really."

Snape just lifted a haughty eyebrow at him, as if saying, you're an idiot, Potter.

Harry hesitated before leaving the room.

It had occurred to him, the last couple of days, that Snape's actions fit oddly into the picture Harry had got of the Order's intentions.

("And here we were thinking you wanted Potter to beat Voldemort just with phoenix song and Gryffindor courage...")

That had sounded as if some people in the Order wanted to train Harry to fight, and Dumbledore had put the brakes on that. But was this thing with Snape if not training?

Harry had long figured that Snape's treatment of him in Defence class was a form of teaching, because Harry was actually learning something, albeit in an unorthodox manner. He'd assumed that Dumbledore had arranged for that, but in light of Moody's words, he'd begun to doubt.

"Sir, does the Headmaster… Were these lessons the Headmaster's idea?"

Snape stood motionless for a moment.

"That, Potter, is none of your concern," he said in an even tone.

His face told Harry that this was as clear a no as he would get.

"Go," Snape said.

Harry went.

The conversation stayed with him, though. Snape's subterfuge, Moody's concerns, Dumbledore's plans…

Determined that he had correctly worked out the Order's dynamics, Harry had, at some point, stopped looking. And meanwhile, things appeared to be not as clear-cut as he had thought.

Perhaps this was worth bearing in mind for the next time he was at Headquarters.

xXxXx

"Well, Harry, I must congratulate you on winning another match for Slytherin!" Slughorn said, leaning back in his chair at the dinner table, and winked at Cho. "No offence to your team, of course, Miss Chang."

"Maybe I won't go into professional Quidditch after all," Cho said wryly.

Slughorn chortled at the joke, while Padma gave a disdainful huff.

"Hey, you're good," Harry protested. "Er, your Keeper, though…"

"She's new," Cho defended.

The match had been over embarrassingly quickly; Harry had caught the snitch twenty minutes after it began. He might have let it drag out for longer, but Slytherin had been in the lead anyway, Malfoy pulling it together to work his usual seamless cooperation with Crabbe and Goyle.

Cormac McLaggen glowered at Harry.

"Don't be so smug, Potter. We can still beat you in the Cup. Just need to crush the Puffs hard enough. And the Ravenclaws." He threw a winning smile at Cho.

She bristled.

"Let me know how that works out for you," Harry said pleasantly.

Sadly, McLaggen was quite right in one thing: Gryffindor stood a very good chance of flattening Hufflepuff in about two weeks' time, in mid-March.

"Now, now, boys, don't fight," Slughorn said, shaking a reprimanding finger at them. But his walrus moustache trembled with a suppressed smile.

Padma turned to the Potions master then and he engaged her in light conversation both of them were so good at. Blaise watched them lazily, sipping his water.

Hermione, on the other hand, seemed lost in thought next to Harry as she gazed at a conspicuously empty chair that should have belonged to Neville. Harry reached out to touch her arm and she started, glancing at him. She checked that everyone's attention was otherwise occupied, and said in an undertone:

"Do you think we're being bad friends?"

"No," Harry said. The automatic reassurances, poised ready on his tongue, fell away at Hermione's look. Harry placed his utensils carefully across the plate. "I don't know," he amended, more honestly.

Neville had always had something of a low self-esteem, but it seemed to have plummeted even further since the events of the holidays. Harry and Hermione tried to reassure him, but sometimes it seemed like their presence was the opposite of helpful.

("You're the same age as me, but you fought like one of them…")

Such comparisons were stupid, of course, and the idea of measuring oneself up against Hermione was even worse, but explaining this to Neville without sounding patronizing was a tall order. Harry, at least, could claim superior training in the art of duelling; Hermione's only argument was I'm just naturally smarter than you and everyone else in a ten-mile radius.

Harry entertained a vision of the world in which he and Hermione weren't Neville's best friends. Would that have been better for his self-perception?

"He'll be fine," Harry said quietly. "We—"

But this was as much of a private conversation as he and Hermione had managed to have. They were interrupted and swept into the general discussion again. Dessert followed the main course, and soon enough it was time to leave.

"Stay a moment, Harry," Slughorn said as Harry rose from his chair. "I've got to thank you for that lovely surprise from your Hogsmeade trip."

Harry blinked, confused. He couldn't think of anything he'd done last weekend that might have warranted Slughorn's gratitude.

As the others trickled out, bidding the Potions master goodnight, Harry obediently lingered, gazing at the bookshelves that lined the room. A lot of these tomes were Potions-related, though an odd title popped up here and there. Knowing Slughorn, most of these belonged in the Restricted Section.

All these books, and Slughorn's undeniable knowledge…

Here it was again, a twinge of genuine desire to seek advice from the man. A monumentally foolish idea, of course. Harry wasn't in the habit of giving so much of himself away, and Dark magic was a thorny subject at the best of times.

"Something on your mind, my boy?" Slughorn asked once they were alone. He walked towards the fireplace and settled comfortably into an armchair, waving a hand at the seat opposite. "Be my guest, as it were."

"Thank you, sir." Harry sat down and looked away from the inviting expression of Slughorn's face.

He was so tempted to just ask.

He didn't have to give Slughorn any incriminating details. He didn't have to tell him the truth about what had prompted the inquiry. But—

Damn it if he didn't understand Tom Riddle's urge to seek answers were they seemed so easy to be had.

Who else could he talk to about this? Should he have debated the finer points of Dark magic with Theodore Nott? Gone to Dumbledore for a bracing lecture?

"That night, at Neville's house… there was a lot of Dark magic in the fight," Harry said, taking the plunge before he could think better of it. "Some of it I recognized. Some I didn't. And if I didn't know a lot of those things… I'd be dead, or tortured within an inch of my life. But these are the things that are wrong for me to know."

"Oh, Harry," Slughorn said sadly. "Necessary knowledge is never a bad thing."

"Sometimes it seems like it is," Harry said, studying the stone floor.

Among the good guys, that was. Among those who refused to fight with illegal spells even when nobility of purpose got them killed—like Hestia, like Auror Smith, like Kingsley.

Harry sighed. "Dumbledore…"

"Dumbledore has great wisdom," Slughorn said. "But he has always had the liberty of power. He is no poet of the underprivileged."

Harry observed the way the flagstones fit together, only thin gaps breaking the continuity of the smooth floor.

Slughorn was hardly underprivileged, with his pure blood and his connections and his creature comforts. But chances were he'd simply meant that Dumbledore had never had to be the victim.

"On occasion, we are forced to make terrible choices," Slughorn said. "Dark magic is another such choice. Would it be better if we could afford not to know it? Yes, certainly. But you cannot blame yourself for gaining knowledge that has saved your life."

"Dumbledore believes that Dark magic harms the soul," Harry told the stones.

"Yes." Slughorn nodded solemnly. "And is it not awful when we have to choose between the integrity of our souls and our very life?"

Harry raised his head to stare at Slughorn.

"All that about damage to the soul—you agree with that? Sir?"

"Why, of course." Slughorn frowned. "Is that not what we are discussing? That sometimes, desperate circumstances push us into adopting ill-advised practices?"

"But…" Harry felt thoroughly thrown off course.

Desperate circumstances hadn't pushed him. He'd learnt his first Dark spells alongside his Slytherin classmates; it was something everybody did, and nobody took seriously.

("Dark magic is never the answer… you lose as much as you gain, and more.")

Well, nobody who was reasonable about it.

"Dark magic isn't sanctioned by the Ministry," Harry said cautiously, "but—"

"Harry, Harry!" Slughorn shook his head. "Surely, you must know better than this revolutionary propaganda! If you have investigated Dark magic, you have to be aware of its effects."

"It's destructive," Harry said. "It causes damage to the target."

It was, in fact, the best way Harry knew to hurt people.

"Never mind the target, my boy!" Slughorn said, sitting forward in his armchair. "The caster! The caster is the one who bears the brunt of the damage, surely you know that!"

Harry frowned.

"But is it not the target that—"

"Oh, what does the target matter?" Slughorn waved a hand. "A fire spell is a fire spell, Dark or not. The target will burn either way, and the results might even look identical. But do you mean to set something on fire, or do you mean to burn it? That's the crucial difference!" He slapped a pudgy hand down on his knee. "Do you want to cause damage, or do you want to create flames?"

Yes, well, fair enough, but—

"And that's it, that's the danger?" Harry asked.

Slughorn stared at Harry, aghast, and rose to his feet in evident agitation.

"Harry, take care!" he cried. "You make it sound like a trifle, when countless wizards have bowed under the toll it takes. Trust an old man who has seen—who has felt…" Slughorn visibly held himself back and shook his head. "The more time you spend immersed in dark thoughts and intentions, the less room they leave for anything else in your mind. You start, unwittingly, seeing the world through a prism of darkness—and, since you've spent so long nursing a well of anger, you'll find it spills over far too easily… and then…"

Slughorn wiped sweat off his forehead, and Harry reeled back at sight of naked emotion on his face.

"You have to control yourself… yes, you have to exercise great control not to let yourself slip," the Potions master said in a hushed voice. His eyes appeared suddenly sunken as he gazed at Harry. "Dark magic is dangerous business, Harry… dangerous and altogether unpleasant if you will practice it, and not be content with just knowing. The things you can learn, the things you can feel…" His voice sounded wistful for a moment. "But the risk… you can lose sight of yourself so thoroughly you will never make it back again. I have known… so many people…"

Tom, Harry realized, the thought resounding like a bell tolling somewhere in the distance. He's talking about Tom Riddle.

Harry wouldn't pretend that Slughorn's words and general demeanour hadn't rattled him, but—

Was Tom Riddle the driving force behind this conversation? Was Slughorn genuine in his warnings, or was all this a bid to ensure that he wouldn't facilitate another orphan's descent into violent madness?

("If you do this at sixteen, where do you go from here?")

I'm not Tom Riddle, Harry thought, gritting his teeth, and restrained the urge to snarl this out loud.

"Professor—"

"No, Harry," Slughorn said, raising a shaking hand. "Truly, this is a subject of discussion we should leave well enough alone. And I do not wish to burden you with any more of my recollections…"

Whom would Harry's protests convince? If Slughorn had learnt from his mistakes, he wouldn't tell Harry a thing about Dark magic, about the power rituals, about the bloody Horcruxes. He never would have, no matter what Harry did.

The sudden insight struck Harry even as Slughorn smoothed down his moustache and tried for a smile.

"Now, then, before you go… I did mean to thank you, you know…" The Potions master turned to the mantelpiece, which was covered with numerous photos and trinkets. "Let us take this moment to break open that box of crystallized pineapple you've sent me. I feel rather in need of fortification, don't you?"

It took Harry a couple of seconds to cool his temper and process Slughorn's words. These were exactly two seconds he didn't have.

"Pineapple I—but sir, I haven't—sir!"

The denial reached Slughorn when he had already opened the box and swallowed the first bite of the candied fruit. Shocked eyes met Harry's as Slughorn froze with the next treat in his hand.

Then, even as Harry dashed towards him, Slughorn gave a rasping breath, expelling blue foam from his mouth, and toppled over.

"Professor!"

Harry managed to catch Slughorn with a hasty spell just in time. He lowered the Potions master gently onto the floor by the grate and checked him for signs of—he had no idea what. Everything he knew about poisons crowded his head as Slughorn twitched and gasped in obvious agony.

"No… time…" the professor moaned.

Fuck that. There was always—

Oh, for—

Accio bezoar.

This would either work or it wouldn't, but it was better than the alternative, which was figuring out a precise antidote and brewing it double quick while Slughorn inched closer to death's door.

A whole packet of bezoars flew into Harry's hand. He tore one out and shoved it unceremoniously down Slughorn's throat.

The professor's body lurched and wheezed and fell quite still.

Harry checked his pulse. Slughorn was still alive, and the terrible shuddering had stopped. Now he looked gravely sick as opposed to mostly dead.

Harry cast a glance around. He was alone with an unconscious man, a bag of bezoars and a box's worth of poisoned candy strewn about the floor.

"Great," he muttered. "Just great."

He sighed and got up, looking down at the prone professor. It was time to contact the hospital wing. And Dumbledore. And potentially Snape, as the other Potions expert.

Harry winced in anticipation of all the conversations he was about to have, and reached for the Floo powder on the mantelpiece.