"That wand's more trouble than it's worth," said Harry. "And quite honestly," he turned away from the painted portraits, thinking now only of the four-poster bed lying waiting for him in Gryffindor Tower, and wondering whether Kreacher might bring him a sandwich there, "I've had enough trouble for a lifetime."

~ The Deathly Hallows

Ron's mouth twisted appreciatively. "Understatement of the century, mate."

And he glanced at Hermione, whose lips were wriggling with the effort to contain her laughter, and Harry snorted, and then the giggles came in earnest, hilarity swelling up around them in a column of relief and incredulity. It filled the room with such warmth it was a wonder that Harry's heart did not burst. Even after the sounds of strangled breathing had dissipated, the muscles of Harry's face continued to twitch with the ghost of a smile.

But the afterglow faded away as reality settled in, leaving a chilly, empty sensation in its wake. Harry forgot all thoughts of sleep and sustenance. From the looks on their faces, it seemed that Ron and Hermione had reached similar conclusions.

"There's still so much left to be done."

Hermione said it quietly, so that Harry could have pretended not to hear. Ron's small nod was little more than a dip of the head—also easily ignored. The ugliness that awaited them was several floors below them, after all. How easy it would be, to slink away, unnoticed, to his Tower, where he could then slide deeply into the oblivion of sleep. Blissfully undisturbed, if he wished it. Ron and Hermione would understand.

Instead, he said, "Best get to it, then."

Hermione reached for Harry's collar and hugged him hard. Soon, Ron's arms snaked around them both and held them tightly.

The three of them stood like that for several minutes. When they broke away, Hermione was sniffing and Ron was blinking furiously. Harry attempted to speak past the lump in his throat. He wanted to thank them, but found himself at a loss for words.

In the end, he turned and headed out of the Headmaster's tower. His friends followed solemnly.

Down in the Great Hall, the devastation left over from the battle had begun to sap some of the energy from the revelry and merriment. The high spirits of an hour ago were dimming rapidly among the residents of Hogwarts, even as the news of Voldemort's demise spread like wildfire to the rest of the Wizarding World.

All over Britain, there was excited rioting in the streets as wizards and witches threw caution to the wind, caught up in their own celebrations. Stories were swapped feverishly, becoming more outlandish and fantastic with every repetition. There was talk of miracles—it was a legend in the making.

And all across Europe, just as they had done 16 years before, thousands of wine glasses were being raised in toast to the Boy Who Lived; only this time, the honorific that issued forth reverently from the awed and humbled lips had changed.

"Long Live Harry Potter—Master Of Death!"

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡

The first order of business was in finding the bodies. To Harry's horror, it had turned out that the fifty or so fatalities that had been found initially were not the only casualties. As the day grew lighter, the Great Hall began to fill with ever increasing numbers of the dead, the dying, and the cursed. By noon, the death toll peaked at twenty-eight aurors, twelve students, two professors, forty or so death eaters and over thirty magical creatures.

The effort involved in recovering a hundred and twelve bodies was stupefying. People were arriving by the dozens in floos all over Hogwarts, as the floo system was no longer being regulated by the ministry. Some had simply walked into the castle through the front entrance. Medics, parents, Hogwarts alumni, and the townspeople of Hogsmeade swamped the Great Hall, and everywhere there was chaos and pandemonium as people rushed boisterously to offer help amid the on-going recovery efforts and, to Harry's irritation, offer their own congratulations to the Boy Who Lived.

Owls bearing panicked howlers and ecstatic letters in equal measure flew in through the broken windows, and soon after, the hooting and screeching became deafening. All of the world wanted—demanded—to hear the miraculous story for themselves. Had the impossible really happened? Was He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named finally gone? Was the reign of Lord Voldemort truly at an end?

The more bodies that were brought in, the less Harry was sure.

Of course, Harry knew logically that Tom Riddle was gone for good. Harry had seen for himself what had remained of Voldemort's soul during his brief brush with death, in that strange, limbo-like afterlife which had assumed the form of King's Cross Station in Harry's head.

But even in the face of his certainty about the truth of Riddle's destruction, the violent evidence of Voldemort's long, cruel lifetime left its mark everywhere within the castle. The stenches of blood and sweat and fear were like a horrible presence that enveloped everything and everyone. Despite the fact that the side of the Light had won this round in the battle of Good and Evil, Voldemort seemed more real than ever.

Harry wanted no part of it. In the wake of a victory which had cost him so much, he could not help but feel he deserved some sort of reprieve. Running away wasn't an option, he knew, but… what if he could take Ron and Hermione, and maybe Ginny, too, and just… go somewhere quiet and secluded? He needed to get away from this poisonous atmosphere. Surely that wasn't so much to ask.

But this castle had been Harry's beloved home. These survivors were Harry's only family. He couldn't just leave them to face the wreckage by themselves; no matter that he desired the close company of only a few of these well wishers, or that he was bone-tired and hadn't slept. They needed him.

He would stay.

And so, with what remained of his nerve, Harry continued to seek out and drag back the foul dead. As the unorganized frenzy died down into some semblance of order, Harry found that he welcomed the hard work and the brief respite from having to think, and let his body take over. He offered what comfort he could give to the grieving, accepted the burdens of his loved ones willingly and allowed his hand to be shaken by strangers.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡

"Is that all of them?" Hermione sagged onto the bench where Ron lay groaning with an arm draped across his face. Harry was staring into space from the seat opposite them.

The dead had long been rounded up and placed under stasis charms. House elves were levitating large mounds of rock and piling them by the Great Hall's double doors. Flitwick was attempting, along with McGonagall and Slughorn, to make repairs to Hogwarts' crumbling foundations, but was obviously having trouble. Students who had survived the battle were comforting one another, most of them reunited with weeping parents, while others sat conspicuously alone. There hadn't been any more bodies in a while, but the truth of the matter was that Hogwarts was in ruins, and none of them had slept.

"Was that a rhetorical question?" Ron piped up grumpily, without moving. The amount of work still left to be done was staggering, of course. But for now, thankfully, the rest of it could wait until for a godlier hour.

Everything that had needed to be done fast, had been. Those who could be saved had been sent down to the Hospital Wing shortly after the St. Mungos' volunteers had started arriving. The remaining survivors were strewn about the Great Hall, most of them sleeping. All that remained was the arduous process of rebuilding Hogwarts from the ground.

Many of the younger students, who had returned to offer their assistance despite McGonagall's misgivings, were put to work scouting the Hogwarts grounds for missing persons. The Weasley family had left for the Burrow an hour ago with Fred's body, with the exception of Ron and Ginny, who had insisted on staying behind to help. Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnigan had been sent out to search for any stray wands or cloaks that had been dropped by the Death Eaters, to be used as evidence against them. Hagrid was trying to coax Grawp from his sprawled position on the floor some distance away. Poppy was scurrying from table to table, administering bandages and salves to those workers who had gone untreated in the interests of getting work done quickly. Ghosts were drifting about and offering their advice to anyone who would listen.

Harry was not thinking about any of this, however. His body was shutting down, the heat and exhaustion catching up to him; but as a result of this, his darker thoughts were beginning to float to the surface. He was distantly aware that Ron and Hermione had started to bicker heatedly, but Harry wasn't listening. What he wanted most was a dark little corner where could go curl up and sulk under some conjured blankets, and a strong muffliato charm.

He was just wondering if he could get away with sneaking off for a second time in under two hours, when all of a sudden a horrible possibility occurred to him and his blood iced over. He stared up at Ron and Hermione.

Hermione caught sight of his gaze and stopped arguing with Ron at once, a self-righteous look painted across her features. "Harry! He's being so insensitive. Could you please inform him that—" But she stopped short when she saw the look on his face, and her eyes widened. "Harry?"

"We forgot somebody," he said curtly, and took off for the Entrance Hall at a run.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡

"Harry… wait!" Hermione's voice was calling out to him from the top of the hill. But Harry had far too much momentum to slow down for them. He couldn't stop the pumping of his legs across the grass any more than he could stop the Adrenaline coursing through his body, or the shame curling in his belly.

"We just left him there, Hermione!" he managed to yell into the air behind him, but didn't wait to see if they had heard. He sped up and veered to the right, heading for the whomping willow and the secret passageway behind it. He cast a hasty spell to stop the furious waving of its branches and hurried to the entrance, trying to remember past the pounding in his head just how many hours it had been since they had left him bleeding on the floor.

Ron and Hermione did their best to follow him, but he was too far away and soon they admitted defeat. They stopped, clutching their sides, and wheezed, trying to keep Harry in their line of sight.

"What the bloody hell is his problem?" Ron puffed angrily, but it was worry that painted his features. Harry was making a beeline for the Forbidden Forest.

"He's obviously trying to get back to Snape." Hermione had her eyes screwed up in concentration, and wasn't looking at him. Ron stared at her incredulously.

"But why is he running? Snape's dead! We saw him die!" Ron shook his head, taking several deep breaths.

"It is sort of weird that we forgot about him, though, isn't it?" said Hermione, still not looking at him. It was, of course, but Ron thought that Hermione was rather missing the point.

"But he's dead!" said Ron again, voice breaking a little. "It's not even a 'he' anymore, is it? It's a body, that's all…." Ron peered at her face, which was pinched in concentration, agitated that his message weren't getting across. He threw up his hands. "Doesn't he know nothing he does will do anything?"

Hermione looked at him sharply. "That's true," she said slowly, and after a moment went back to observing Harry.

Ron stared once more at their friend, who was growing smaller and smaller in the distance. "You don't think Harry's gone mad, Hermione?" For a moment he struggled with the words.

"You don't think he'd try anything… really stupid, do you?"

They both looked on with trepidation as Harry approached the Whomping Willow at a brisk pace, and then at each other with alarm when large purple sparks began to shoot up from the tree.

"We've got to—"

"I know!"

They ran.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡

Harry was feeling very strange indeed.

He wasn't sure what, exactly, had prompted him to use the Elder Wand instead of his own, when just a few hours ago he had so adamantly stated to Dumbledore that he wanted nothing to do with it—he hadn't yet had the chance to get rid of it yet, as he had been so preoccupied with putting the castle back together. There'd been no time to return the wand to Dumbledore's grave. Wielding the wand had seemed like the right thing to do. Of course, he didn't know why purple sparks of all things had erupted out it, instead of the white glow that usually accompanied immobilization spells.

But it had done the job, and that was all that mattered as far as Harry was concerned.

He ducked down and began to crawl. Navigating the cobwebbed passage was very difficult to do for a person his size, even under normal circumstances, and mind-numbing panic did not make the journey any easier. His hand slipped against something sharp, and he bit back a wince as it drew blood. It hurt, but he resolutely ignored it.

Harry wasn't sure where all of this blind urgency had come from. He could feel it tugging at his gut, however, compelling him to do…something. He'd figure out what when he got there.

The possibility that Snape might not be dead was jumping around uneasily in his brain, tying his conscience in knots and making it difficult to rationalize. Had they deserted Snape at a critical point? If they had stayed, could he have survived? He had been so sure that Snape was dead, at the time. He hadn't checked the man for signs of life before he left—it hadn't even occurred to him to do so.

And now he was wondering, why the hell not?

He remembered with a pang that there had been essence of dittany available at the time, tucked away in Hermione's handbag. That he hadn't even thought to use it bit at Harry's conscience.

It was true that none of them had trusted Snape at the time, or had known the truth about Snape's agreement with Dumbledore. But was that really any kind of excuse at all, to abandon a dying man? So many innocent people had died… all because of him… because of Harry.

He reached the end of the tunnel, and tried to brace himself for what he might see on the other side. It had been at least four hours since they'd left him. He knew it was probably too late. But if there was any chance at all that Snape had survived…. Harry owed it to Snape to be sure.

Harry struggled a bit over a tangle of roots and fell unceremoniously from the opening onto the floor, but was up on his feet in an instant. He breathed out shakily and took in the sight before him.

Snape was on his back, in a pool of his own drying blood, with one arm outstretched from where he had been clutching Harry's robes, now lying limply on the wood floor. His eyes were closed.

Now that he was actually here, Harry was les sure of himself. There was something eerie about this whole situation. He took a cautious step, and then another, holding the Elder wand out in front of him.

He was being silly, he knew, fearing a corpse. He forced himself to kneel on the floor by Snape's right shoulder, where he wouldn't have to touch the blood and still have access to the wound at Snape's neck. It seemed impossibly deep, and extremely painful, assuming Snape could still feel it.

What had Harry been thinking? He had no idea what he was doing… didn't know where to even begin. He pressed two fingers to Snape's neck anyway, trying to feel a pulse. He couldn't, but that might just mean he wasn't doing it right. He sat back on his heels, trying to think. Then again, thinking had never been his strong point. He felt woefully ignorant. Once again he found himself envying the fact that at his age, Snape had invented dozens of fully functional spells, seemingly without effort. If only Harry was as brainy as he had been.

He paused. How hard was it, really, to invent a spell? To his knowledge Hermione had never attempted to do so, as clever as she was; probably because she liked to do things by the book. She had never been the most creative person when it came to her studies…. Inexplicably, he was reminded of Trelawny's parting words to Hermione in their third year divination class, and reddened guiltily. That wasn't really fair. Hermione, at least, was a quick thinker on her feet. Unlike him.

Harry was running out of time. If he was going to do something, he needed to do it fast. He glanced at the tunnel entrance. Hadn't Ron and Hermione been following him? He was sure they had. He strained his ears, but didn't hear their voices. No time to wait for them, then.

To his surprise, it seemed that Snape's blood had stopped flowing some time ago. He knew this wasn't necessarily a good sign, that it probably meant he hadn't any blood left. There didn't seem to be nearly enough blood on the floor for that to be true

He wondered. Was blood capable of coagulating after death? He pulled at the wound to get a better look, but withdrew from it when more blood started to ooze out. He paled. Had he reopened the wound? He covered it with his hand to staunch the flow.

His palm was throbbing strangely. Careful to switch hands, he saw that some of Snape's blood had gotten into the cut on his hand. It stung a bit, but really, that was the least of his problems.

This was going nowhere. Physically, there didn't seem to be anything Harry could do for him, but perhaps magically…?

He touched the tip of the Elder wand to Snape's forehead, and closed his eyes in concentration.

But wait.... His heart skipped a beat. Was that a heartbeat he sensed, pulsing rhythmically beneath Snape's skin? He pushed harder with the wand tip, trying to get closer to the feeling, but after further assessment he changed his mind. It didn't feel like a heart beat.

Could it be a magical signature? It was very faint; hard to tell either way…. Harry's heart was beating very loudly in his ears, making it difficult to know for sure. Harry leaned forward excitedly, trying to probe deeper with his magic. If he could just establish some sort of connection with that pulse, maybe there was a way that he could draw the energy back toward him. It had to be worth a try.

His own magic began to swirl downward. It seemed to be flowing from his very veins, out through his fingertips, rushing out to occupy Snape instead. Was he glowing? He felt warm, a bit woozy. As he sunk deeper into the fading light of what had to be Snape's magical core, images flashed before his eyes in a dizzying progression; memories of his own, memories that had been given to him….

He thought he caught a glimpse of Snape as a child, at one point garbed in a coat that looked absurdly large on him and gesticulating wildly at two little girls who were perched on a swing set and wore reproving looks on their faces…. He saw himself, with a frame so short and slender he seemed hardly older than five but was probably closer to eight, crouching with his arms crossing his chest, eyes lighting with surprise to find himself on the school roof of all places, as two mean-looking boys raced past him below….

The memories spun faster, and suddenly new ones started to appear, ones he'd never seen before: memories of Snape, hunched by a cauldron in what looked to be his basement, casting nervous glances over his shoulder at the door…. The scene changed, and Harry heard shouting, and knew it to be Snape's parents…. he watched as Snape tugged on his mother's hand, crying, begging them to stop yelling, please, just stop…. Saw a burly hand collide with Snape's face, and then Snape staggering back, looking up with a betrayed expression at someone Harry couldn't see….

Harry tried to say something, but it was as if he had lost control of his mouth— words began to spring from his lips, the same words over and over—garbled nonsense that sounded a bit like "Told you Annie would miss it," but with the wrong inflection—only, Harry couldn't be sure, couldn't be sure of anything beyond the furious wailing inside his head, and none of it made any sense at all.

Harry struggled to open his eyes and found that he could. He looked down at his hands, realizing his wand was no longer pointing at Snape; it was pointing at him. Something silvery was dripping down his face and onto his lap, onto the man on the floor… and Snape was dripping too, from his eyes, which were wide open. The liquid—or was it a gas?—started collecting in puddle on Snape's neck and in his hair, and it was all mixing together.

And then Harry started to panic, because the Elder wand had risen into the air all by itself and was casting more spells—no, his hand had lifted it, without his permission, he was casting them…. Only he couldn't be, could he, he didn't even know what was going on…. And then the wand emitted a rapid succession of colors that were both dazzling and terrifying, and then—there were no colors at all.

Harry fell forward in a great lurch and didn't move again.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡

Hermione and Ron were having great trouble in getting the tree to stand still. Their spells seemed to have no effect on it. Whatever Harry had done to get inside, it was now preventing them from doing the same.

The special knot sticking out of the bark at knee-level was impervious to their efforts, the tree flailing as murderously as it always did. Usually they would have to press it to get the tree to halt its murderous flailing, and without being able to do that, Ron didn't see how they were ever going get inside it. And part of him knew that they wouldn't. Not if they kept trying like this.

Ron's curses died away as he tried to think of how they could approach this from a different angle. Hermione was showing no signs of stopping, however; she was panting furiously, as if she was personally affronted that the tree would dare reject her bidding. Ron didn't recognize half of the spells Hermione sent its way, and the variety was admittedly very impressive, but Harry was in there, doing Merlin-knew-what, and they didn't have time for this.

"Give it a rest, Hermione. That knot's not going to budge. We're going to have to use the other entrance."

Hermione paused mid-curse and blinked at him, "But that's miles away--"

He snorted. "Are you a witch, or are you not?" Ron shot her words from yesterday back at her with no small amount of glee. He reached out to grab her hand, and together they turned on the spot.