Harry braced himself against the doorframe, his eyes quickly taking in all the opposing forces standing against him. Once before, in a training exercise, Snape had set him up against twenty magical foes, transformed from various pieces of furniture around the training room. The objects had come after him, growling, snarling, and grotesque, wood and stone turned into enemies.
He had tried to fight them, to beat them back with magic and with physical force, but they had overcome him in less than ten minutes. Snape had rescued him, but Harry had been furious. He had kicked the wall, spitting and seething, refusing a healing potion for his bruises and scrapes.
"No, no!" he had yelled. "I'm not taking that. You bring them back to life and let me have a go at them again. I'll rip them to pieces!"
Snape had gripped his shoulder and turned him to face the wall, pressing him there until Harry's rage had abated enough for him to listen.
"The point of this activity," Snape had explained, "is not to send you into a mad fit. The point is to train your instincts, to get you to a place of calm calculation where you act, not react."
Harry had taken the potion and healed, and then Snape reanimated the furniture. He had tried again.
In the frigid air, Harry blew out a long breath of air, letting it puff in front of him as he surveyed his foes.
Listen to your heartbeat.
Slow it down.
"So you've come after me?" Harry spoke, his voice almost dull. "You've come to take me away."
"No," McGonagall said. She swallowed. Harry noticed the lines of her throat. She looked tired, worn out. "We're just trying to help you, Harry."
"You think I'm a danger to myself," Harry went on.
Be calm, don't react.
"A lot has happened to you," she went on, taking half a step forward. Mr. Weasley stayed behind her. He looked awkward and uncomfortable and very nervous.
Harry tightened the grip on his wand. He could feel the Dementors trying to get at him, suck away his will to act, force him to despair.
"We're going to get you that help," McGonagall said, the usual teacher voice creeping into her tone. "I've spoken with the doctors a St. Mungo's, and they are going to take good care of you. There're healing spells, treatment, therapy."
"You want to lock me up there?"
"No," Madame Pomfrey spoke up, "we just want to help you."
"You can't. You don't have that authority," Harry tried to buy time. "Dumbledore won't let you, and he has the final –"
"Dumbledore's gone," Mrs. Longbottom interrupted. "He died from wounds of the final battle."
Harry's world stopped.
McGonagall was saying something about how old Dumbledore had been, how sickly he had been over the last year, and how he had gotten the wounds fighting off three Deatheaters from hurting a family with small children.
Harry felt his eyes crowd with tears. Not Dumbledore, too. First Snape, and now Dumbledore. When had he seen Dumbledore last? Why hadn't anyone told him at school? He had been in the hospital wing but afterwards, he had gone back to his rooms. Dumbledore hadn't been at the Great Hall during meals, but Harry assumed he was off on official business. Many teachers had been missing; a lot of students were gone, too. The holidays and the final battle – he hadn't really seen anyone except Ron, Hermione, and Luna. But – but –
Harry looked up. Everyone had drawn closer while he had scrambled to think.
It is over. It is done. Just go with them.
Go to the hospital and let them take care of you.
You've lost already.
He looked down.
On the toe of his right shoe was a smudge of mud.
That night in the dungeons, he had gone after the bewitched objects again. He had destroyed about five of them before they overcame him. Instead of bursting in a rage, he had been quiet as Snape chilled a compress and held it on the back of his neck to stop his bleeding nose. Harry had stared down at his shoes, watching drops of blood splatter on the scuffed toes.
"You did better," Snape had said.
"I still lost."
"The point is not to win. The point is training yourself to fight against more than one thing at a time."
Harry had said nothing.
"Sometimes," Snape had held the compress steady on the back of Harry's neck, "you go up against too many foes. You can't jump in the middle of a great maw and expect to defeat everyone at once. They outnumber you physically, they can cast spells all at once, they can distract you."
"I've fought more than one person at a time," Harry had protested. "I know I can do it."
"Listen," Snape's voice had deepened. "I'm trying to teach you something. It's not the winning that counts – it's learning how to fight. It's learning how to take care of yourself. Think about when you get into trouble. What do I do?"
Harry had edged away, hoping he wasn't about to get swatted.
"Hold still and answer the question."
"You . . . punish me," Harry had answered, not quite brave enough to add "even though I'm too old for it and it's not necessary."
"No, what do I do before that? I always ensure that you're safe first. Safety always comes first, then reprimand if it's warranted. It's the same with battling enemies. You put everything else aside to save yourself first. Later you can feel guilty or punish yourself or reflect on whatever you think you missed, but in the heat of the moment, you always make sure you are safe first."
"But I have to save other people fir-"
"Oh, no, you don't," Snape had given him a cuff to the shoulder which hadn't really hurt, but had quieted Harry's objections. "What good are you ripped into pieces on a battlefield? How can you help anyone then?"
"So run away to fight another day?" Harry had quipped.
"Of course. Run and let your opponents come to you. Put aside all that arrogant confidence that makes you challenge your enemy to a fight, and let him come after you. You have the upper hand then. He's moving aggressively while you're watching, waiting, anticipating. Set aside everything and concentrate on saving yourself. You can always fight later."
That seemed like a lifetime ago, but it was true.
Harry looked up from his shoes, his eyes alert.
Dumbledore later, grief later, despair later.
Too many in the air to try to out-fly them. Couldn't go back in the inn because Soulless Snape was upstairs and needed to stay a secret. Couldn't wait for backup from the good side because, well, this group was the good side. Or at least they had been.
"I'm sorry about Dumbledore," Harry said, wishing his voice wasn't so tight. "You should have told me though. You want me to fight your battles, but the moment they're over, you keep me in the dark. No wonder I don't trust you."
The adults exchanged side glances.
"We're sorry," Mr. Weasley finally spoke. "We've tried our best, really. But with bad information and politics and keeping the powers that be happy . . . but you took my son. You took Ron with you."
Every fiber of Harry's being wanted to apologize. He liked Mr. Weasley, and what's more, he respected him.
"I didn't take him," Harry heard himself say, barely realizing it. "He chose to come with me. I've never made anyone do anything they didn't want to do. I give everyone a choice, something all of you have never given me."
Mr. Weasley glanced at Mrs. Longbottom, but said nothing.
"In light of this new development," McGonagall said as if she hadn't heard Harry, "guardianship has been placed in the hands of Mrs. Longbottom and myself."
What? McGonagall as a guardian? Fine. But Mrs. Longbottom? That was so –
No, no! Resist reacting. Resist thinking about how cold and distant she had been as Madame Moretta. Save that for later.
"So the both of you think I need to be committed?" Harry said. "I'm not capable of making my own decisions?"
"The grief you have gone through-" Madame Pomfrey started, but McGonagall shook her head.
"There will be time to talk about this later. We have always had the best intentions for you, Harry. We have always been worried about you – you've been through so much, more than one person should have to bear."
"So you track me down like a wild dog? You bring your authority, your doctors," he glared at the medi-wizards, "your traps," at the straitjacket and the cot, "your mood controls," at the Dementors. "You come here to subdue me, to take me away quietly? My days of being quiet are over."
"If you had just told someone," Mrs. Longbottom frowned. "If you had just let on what was happening. Instead you run off, blow things up, throw this temper tantrum."
"You think this is a temper tantrum?" Harry asked coldly. He could feel the magic drawing in, but he felt oddly removed, distanced from his emotions, in control. "You haven't seen me throw a temper tantrum."
The adults were watching him warily, hands on their wands. A few of the medi-wizards had taken out enchanted straps that looped in the air, ready to ensnare prey.
He looked straight at McGonagall. "They brought you here because they thought I would come quietly. That I wouldn't want to hurt you. You either," glancing at Mr. Weasley. "I don't want to hurt anyone. Unfortunately, I'm still under orders to save myself before I save anyone else."
The doorway behind him started cracking with ice.
"Snape is gone, Harry!" McGonagall was tense. "You have to accept that. You have to let someone else take care of you. You need help."
"Put down your wand and come forward slowly," Mrs. Longbottom ordered. "If you resist, we will have to use force."
Harry desired nothing in that moment except to act, to throw himself into frenzied action. But he forced himself to stand still, drawing in so much magic that the air pulsed.
"Harry Potter," a member of the Ministry spoke, "you are under arrest and medical confinement for attempting to hurt yourself, committing truancy against your guardians and school, performing underage magic, and vandalizing a Muggle's home. You will be placed under medical care at St. Mungo's until such time as they deem you no longer a threat to yourself or to others. Surrender now."
Harry smiled lazily. "You want me? Come and get me."
A few members of the Ministry stepped forward to answer the challenge, but Mrs. Longbottom held up an arm.
"No, wait. Send the Dementors first."
Harry felt justified in every awful thing he had ever thought about her. The two dark shapes in the sky swooped down for him, and the gloomy darkness that they brought pressed down on Harry.
He raised his wand and shouted, "Expecto Patronum!"
The light that blasted from his wand was so bright Harry was nearly blinded by it. He saw the stag bound out of the flash, throbbing with his magic. It went after the two Dementors, and Harry took his chance.
He jumped off the doorstep to the right, somersaulting behind a shrub and leaping to his feet in a flat-out run. He sprinted behind the inn as a stupefying curse hit the corner of the building. Wood shattered off the eaves, but Harry didn't even pause. He broke to the left and headed for the woods. Battles against a few foes were easier in a cleared space. Battles with many foes were easier in wooded area or a building, anywhere that he would be able to hide.
All those endless lessons that Snape had drilled into him came back, appearing in his mind so smoothly that Harry had time to act on each one.
Move erratically so they don't have a clear target.
Every few seconds, use small amounts of magic to distract. Don't use powerful spells against the foe; just small zaps left and right that explode debris to cloak movements.
Harry ducked behind a tree and listened to the wizards and witches trampling after him, arguing with each other, shouting out advice on how best to catch him.
Harry did a quick assessment of his body from the head down as Snape had taught him. He wasn't hurt, just panting from the run. His shoes were a little tight. He should really buy new shoes.
He crouched, knees bent and arms loose, ready to run behind another tree, zigzagging deeper into the woods.
"Cut him off!" a male voice shouted far behind him. "Divide these woods – burn them down if you have to."
"No!" Mr. Weasley protested. "You're not going to hurt him. You said we would do this without hurting him."
Harry kept moving with his wand drawn in front of him. His ears noted the sounds from the twigs cracking under his feet to the chaos behind him. If they set fire to the forest, he would need to get out. He could call for his broom, but taking to the skies meant presenting himself as a target.
Ahead, a grove of thick trees were clustered together. Harry put his wand between his teeth and grabbed for the lowest branch. He swung himself up as quickly and as quietly as he could.
Snape had devised a maddening exercise for him one lazy Sunday when Harry didn't want to do anything other than lounge and eat Bertie Botts' Beans. In the middle of the training room, a collection of logs and planks had been charmed into the trunk and limbs of a broad tree. Snape had told him to climb up the device, and the moment Harry got to the second branch, the boards started moving, sinking into the stone floor. More boards had appeared at the top of the constructed tree.
"That's correct," Snape had replied to Harry's look of surprise. "The tree will keep sinking. You have to climb up to keep from touching the ground."
"For how long?" Harry had pulled himself up to a higher branch as the tree sank down slowly.
"Until you reach the top."
That of course had proven impossible as the tree sped up the faster he climbed. He had climbed up three feet only to find it had sunk three. It was an exhausting, brutal exercise. And Harry had never reached the top. Snape had only called a halt when Harry was so winded he almost fell off.
Climbing this tree was easy, and Harry found himself fifteen feet up before he realized he was off the ground.
As he pressed himself against the tree trunk to wait, he realized he had never appreciated Snape's training or bothered to thank the man for his foresight. At the time, Harry had been a little too busy wishing Snape at the bottom of the lake. Once he reunited Snape's soul with his body, he would be sure to thank Snape. After Snape was done hanging him out to dry for impregnating Luna, of course.
Below, the adults were Apparating in and out of view as they kept shouting to each other to look harder.
Harry frowned as he rubbed traces of bark off his wand. Snape had never let him Apparate even though Harry had begged for it. Snape had been firm about Harry having to be of age which wouldn't come until next summer of course so no Apparating until then.
"But you want me to run, and it's the best way to run away!" he had exploded at Snape towards the end of their discussion (argument).
"It takes more magic and concentration to Apparate over longer distances," Snape had replied. "You'll get somewhere and be disoriented and weak. And how do you know that you're not Apparating somewhere more dangerous than before. We've already seen that you can't be trusted to Floo through the fireplaces responsibly."
"That was only one time!" Harry had wailed, but Snape had been adamant. No Apparating.
"Would have helped now," Harry grumbled to himself. "Nowhere can be more dangerous than right here."
Maybe he would halfway thank Snape once he was whole again.
A snap occurred on the tree branch in front of him as a wizard Apparated in front of him. The wizard's eyes widened and he opened his mouth to shout, but Harry's stupefying curse hit him before he could make a sound. Harry reached out to grab him before he could fall.
The wizard was an older man, one of the Ministry, but Harry had trained for hours maneuvering bulky logs into place, so he didn't drop the man. He pulled him over to the trunk and propped him against it with the man's legs astride the thick limb below. The wizard's wide-open eyes stared at him as Harry climbed to a higher branch.
That was one down and two Dementors nullified, but how many more could he defeat before they all came after him and overpowered him?
He climbed to another tree, swinging onto the branches with sure movements and eyes searching for any unexpected movement.
"I knew this would happen," McGonagall's voice drifted from the tree trunks below, four trees over. "You should have let me go into the inn and talk to him there."
"The Ministry of Magic said that we should contain him at all costs," Mrs. Longbottom replied.
Harry stilled himself to listen.
"I don't care what Rufus Scrimgeour said," McGonagall replied. "He only got involved after Pomfrey went to the doctors at St. Mungo's for help. This should have been kept in the school as our concern."
"It's too dangerous!" Mrs. Longbottom was nearly shrieking. "He defeated the most powerful, evil wizard in centuries! You know what happens when one evil tyrant falls. Another rises up to take his place, usually the one who defeated him in the first place!"
"Harry isn't going to become Voldemort," McGonagall argued. "He's different. He just wants to live a normal life, and with the right help –"
"Open your eyes, Minerva. Look around you. The boy's never going to be normal. I went along with Snape's brain-headed notions to train the boy and exchange the marks, but we were playing with magic that couldn't be contained. I told Snape that once you delve into that sort of magic, there is no coming back from it. He insisted he could control it, could control the Boy Who Lived, could manage that sort of wild magic. Then he died and we're left with an unstable form of magic inside this-this orphan freakshow."
McGonagall said nothing.
"We've defeated evil," Mrs. Longbottom said. "It's over. The final component is this boy. Let them take him to St. Mungo's. He either gets better or he doesn't. Either way, he's contained. We cannot have a loose cannon running around, blowing up Muggles' homes for revenge. We just can't."
"All right," McGonagall sighed. "Set fire to this forest."