The Seventh Circle
The shattered remains of the cottage jutted into the sky above Harry as he approached it cautiously, skirting the larger pieces of rubble and trying his hardest to remain hidden from sight. His eyes strayed towards the roiling green cloud that slowly dissipated overhead, the vague outline of the skull and snake barely visible. Even under his thick cloak, he felt a shudder working down his spine. In the seventeen short years of his turbulent life, he had seen many Dark Marks lingering gloatingly over broken homes and splintered bodies. It never ceased to chill him. According to his godfather, he should only start worrying when it did.
As if on cue, there was a brilliant bolt of spellfire, and a cloaked figure cried out, then fell to the ground. Recognising his godfather's favoured brand of Blasting Hex, Harry bared his teeth in a fierce grin. One less Death Eater around to devastate another family home was always a cause for celebration. He peered deeper into the even darker shadows of the ruin, growling softly as he made out the still form lying awkwardly on the cracked tiles, neck twisted at an impossible angle. He touched one hand to the tattoo on the side of his neck. Even though he couldn't see it, he knew that the creature inked there would be stirring, the magic embedded into it flaring into life. He spoke softly. "Moony?"
As if he were stood right next to him, Harry heard the low tones of the man he regarded as another godfather speak into his ear. "Yes, Harry?"
"I need some light over the ruin - slow burn, standard spread." There was no audible reply, but an instant later the soft whump of magic echoed over the silent battleground and three incandescent streaks of light rose into the night sky, casting a shimmering haze on the scene below. Harry gulped, his throat constricting.
The young man lying in front of him was young, about the same age as Harry himself. He had the kind of face that Harry felt would have been lively and animated in life, but was strangely serene in death. Crouching beside the body, Harry glanced swiftly around, then deftly drew his hand across the boy's face, closing the sightless eyes forever. He straightened up, moving stiffly, then stepped carefully around the prone form and moved on, his eyes ceaselessly moving across the debris.
A fallen Death Eater lay spreadeagled across the splintered remains of a kitchen table. Without looking, Harry mechanically fired a blue bolt of lightning into the masked form. Standard practice. He had already come across one injured Death Eater trying to pass himself off as dead, and had helped turn the pretense into a final reality. The body jerked with the impact, but didn't move, and Harry grunted in satisfaction, moving on.
Soft plumes of dust swirled up around his boots as he worked his way through the wreckage of the kitchen. Half-buried beneath a fallen wall, he found another family member - what looked like an older brother to the one outside. There was nothing Harry could do for him. As he wiped a sleeve across his grimy face, the familiar sinking sensation was building in his stomach. It was beginning to look like there was nothing they could do for any of them.
He paused at the foot of the rickety stairs, peering up. As the false light flickered overhead, he could make out his godfather's footprints in the dust leading up to what remained of the first floor. He touched his neck tattoo again. "Padfoot, you still up there?" He frowned, taking in the unsteadiness in his voice. Not good.
Sirius Black's calm voice sounded in his ear. "I'm here, brat." Harry rolled his eyes, but immediately felt reassured. Sirius always knew what to say, even if it was only worn-out banter from his childhood. He cleared his throat.
"How's it looking up there?"
"Grim," Sirius replied flatly. In lighter moments, Harry might have suspected him of joking again, but there was no hint of humour in the older man's voice. His shoulders slumped, Harry started up unwillingly. He could have remained in the kitchen - neither Sirius nor Lupin would have thought less of him for doing so - but, as always, he had to know. Moony always thought Harry took too much on himself, but he knew better. However horrific the scene upstairs was to view, it was nothing compared to the last few minutes this poor family had endured.
As he reached the landing, he had to struggle over the charred body of yet another Death Eater. He looked down dispassionately at the bloody remains, and felt faint pride building. Whoever they were, this family had fought fiercely. As if to prove that, he wormed his way between two more brothers, slumped together in almost identical poses of defiance. More dead Death Eaters surrounded them, but the terrible, futile battle this family had fought was all too apparent. Hot tears prickled, burning his eyes, but refused to fall. He simply stood, staring hollow-eyed at the thick smears of blood that marked the last stand of the two brothers.
Sirius was crouched next to their bodies, his posture dejected. He glanced up at Harry, tears coursing unashamedly down his face. Harry envied Sirius his freedom. Quick to anger but even quicker to forgive, Sirius - his father in all but name - had shown Harry that a tender heart could endure, even in these dark times. He hunkered down next to the older wizard and sighed heavily, his eyes still lingering on the carnage.
"What's the point of it all, Padfoot?" It came out sounding more plaintive than Harry would have liked, but it didn't matter. Not here.
Sirius shook his head regretfully, wiping the tears away roughly. He cast a baleful look around, then scrubbed his face hard with one hand. When he spoke it was almost a whisper. "Sometimes, Harry, I just don't know." He rose heavily, using Harry's shoulder as a crutch to hoist himself up. His hand lingered for a moment, and Harry glanced at him.
"You okay, old man?" His attempt at humour was even more threadbare than Padfoot's earlier attempt, but Sirius let out a brief bark of laughter. It cut off quickly. Laughter seemed unspeakably wrong in this charnel house of horror. Turning businesslike again, Sirius indicated the sole remaining door. "I've been upstairs. Nothing." His tone revealed the truth. Nothing - or no-one - alive, at any rate. "Check out the last room, will you?"
Harry glanced curiously at the other man. It wasn't like Sirius to leave a room unchecked. Then he looked more carefully at the door; at the faintly visible shapes of butterflies worn away by the passage of time. Of course. Each of them had their own peculiar weakness when it came to the dead.
For reasons too obvious for any of them to ever comment on, Harry felt most affected by the parents. Soft-hearted Lupin couldn't bear to see the very young children. For Sirius, it was always the girls. Again, it wasn't anything they ever talked about, but Harry had long suspected the old Marauder would have liked to have been the proud father to his own little girl - in another life. Harry almost laughed, then bit back a sob. Another life. An impossible dream.
Stepping carefully over the outstretched arm of one of the dead brothers, Harry paused at the entrance to the room, his hand closing on the doorknob. For a moment, his arm felt leaden, refusing to obey his command. Behind him, he could hear Sirius edging closer, lending his silent support. Taking a deep breath, Harry's grip tightened and he pushed the door open. It yawned open, then stopped, caught on something out of sight. Harry put his shoulder to the door and he shoved, grunting with the effort. Slowly the door inched open, then suddenly gave way, catapulting Harry in. Overbalanced, he landed heavily on all fours - and stared in dumb horror.
Inches from his face, hidden until now behind the door, he gazed directly into the lifeless eyes of a middle-aged woman, a thin trickle of blood still oozing from her mouth. Harry choked, his bile rising. Behind the woman's body lay the figure of a man. He turned away quickly, then vomited. Instantly, Sirius was beside him, one warm hand rubbing his shoulder comfortingly. Harry clung to the older man's hand, the tears falling now. Dimly, he was aware of Sirius speaking quickly.
'...all my fault, Harry, I should have known the parents would-"
"Not your fault," Harry muttered thickly, then spat, trying to rid his mouth of the sour taste. "None of this is your fault," he said quietly.
Sirius began to speak, then froze as a floorboard creaked. They both did.
There was someone else in the room. Someone alive.
Without conscious thought, they both whirled towards the faint sound, wands extended. Harry was almost facing the source of the noise, and caught sight of their quarry first. His mind screamed a warning, then he struck out.
His hand slammed into Sirius' wand, knocking it upwards. Instead of hitting the target, the deadly golden stream of energy rocketed skywards out of the window.
"What the hell-"
Ignoring the older man's furious exclamation, Harry continued his movement, twisting the wand out of the man's grip. Caught by surprise, Sirius relinquished his wand, eyes widening in shock as Harry tossed both wands to one side.
Silencing him with an impatient gesture, Harry crawled forward on all fours until he was peering under the torn mattress. Looking back at him with wide, fearful eyes was a girl with a blood-streaked face and thickly matted hair. Her wand was pointed at him in one shaking hand, the fingernails torn and bloody. Taking care not to make any sudden movements, Harry hunkered down further, ignoring the congealing blood that quickly sank into his clothes.
"My name is Harry," he said quietly, watching her face carefully. "Harry Potter." There was the faintest hint of recognition from the girl, a minute twitch of understanding. He sighed in relief. At least the girl wasn't completely catatonic. There weren't many times that Harry thanked his status as the so-called savior of the wizarding world, but this may prove to be one of them.
Moony's voice sounded in the still room. Sirius? Harry? What's going on?" Harry slapped a hand to the tattoo, silencing Remus' anxious tones. The girl had shrank away at the movement, and her wand waved even more wildly. He sighed.
"I'm here to help," he whispered. Not that he had been much help, he thought bitterly. "I'm not armed - see?" He slowly spread out his empty hands so that she could see.
In the background, Sirius was speaking to Moony in low, urgent tones. He now came forward, dropping to his knees beside Harry. He touched the boy on his shoulder. Harry looked up questioningly.
"We need to leave," Sirius said quietly. "Remus is picking up the scent of Death Eaters approaching through the meadows."
Harry swore under his breath. "How many?"
Sirius narrowed his eyes, regarding Harry evenly. "Enough," he said finally. He glanced at the girl, wincing at her blank expression. "Five minutes, okay?" Picking up his wand, he stood up, uncaring of the bloody mess his clothes had become.
As Sirius' footsteps faded slowly away, Harry turned his attention back to the girl. It was hard to tell under the gore-encrusted hair, but he felt sure she was about his age. Something about the shape of her face told him that in normal circumstances, she may have even been pretty, but right now she was teetering on the precipice of outright terror.
Her eyes shifted, watching Sirius leaving, then looked back at his. "You heard him, didn't you," Harry said. "We only have a few minutes." He reached out his hand towards her. "You need to come with us. Now." His voice was gentle, but laced with undertones of urgency.
The girl looked back mistrustfully. She stared beyond him to the fallen bodies of her parents and her eyes filled with tears. Ignoring his outstretched hand, she curled herself into a tighter ball in the cramped confines of the space under the bed. Her body shook with repressed grief.
Harry's tattoo throbbed three times in rapid succession. Three minutes. He shifted forward slightly, head brushing the underside of the bed. "You know who I am, right?" The girl gave a barely perceptible nod, her face now hidden from view. He stared at her back for a long moment, lost in thought.
"Then you know that he took my parents from me when I was a baby - before I even got to know them-" He broke off, alarmed at the bitterness in his voice. Even after all this time.
She looked up, tears still leaking slowly, and her desolate expression took his breath away. He cursed silently, feeling stupid and awkward under her gaze. Sighing, he searched for the words whilst his internal clock continued to run down inexorably. "What I mean is," he began, "That night, he set out to destroy my entire family, but didn't." Harry licked his lips nervously, not sure he was making any sense. "They sacrificed themselves to protect me, and I survived."
The girl's blank expression cracked slightly. "L-like me," she whispered painfully, the sound barely above a sigh.
Harry nodded, striving to keep his expression neutral. "Each day I continue to survive, it seems - well, it seems like another victory." His voice had dropped low to match hers, but it was shot through with fierce anger.
"V-victory?" She looked thoughtful for a second before the shock wiped the expression off her face.
Fixing her with an intense stare, he nodded jerkily. "I know it doesn't-" The neck tattoo burnt and Sirius spoke urgently, his words spilling out in his haste.
"Harry, time to go. They're here."
Harry's face hardened, his fists clenching. "On my way." He pinned the girl with the force of his glare. "We can talk more later, but if we don't go now - and I mean now - there won't be a later." He shot out his hand to grab the girl's arm, but she was already reaching for him, her face frightened but resolute.
Pulling her out roughly from under the bed, he scooped up his wand and checked it reflexively. Helping her up, he purposefully kept the girl's back towards the carnage of the room and corridor. He took her by the shoulders, stared down into her dazed eyes - she was shorter than he had realised - and spoke quickly. "Tell me your name."
The girl frowned, confused by the sudden question. "G-ginny."
Harry managed a tight smile. "Pleased to meet you, Ginny - I'm Harry." She already knew that, but he needed her undivided attention. He felt his expression become stony and saw her flinch, but pressed on regardless.
"Ginny, we need to walk through your house to get beyond the Anti-Apparition Wards." Her face when, if possible, even more pale, and he shook her shoulders hard, hating his actions even as he knew their necessity. "I know, - I know - but it is the only way out. And we will be getting out, understood?"
Her face wavered on the edge of tears, then something shifted in her eyes and she stood more upright. "I understand." Harry noted the firmer tone, and his admiration for the sole remnant of this devastated family grew even more.
"Good" he replied curtly, keeping his professional mask on. He checked that she was still carrying her wand, then tapped it with his own. "Use this if you have to. Don't hesitate." He turned to leave, hesitated, and turned back, face softer. "You can close your eyes for this first bit - if you want."
The girl - Ginny - closed her eyes for a moment, then shook her head savagely, opening them again. Harry regarded her in open admiration for a second, then reached down to take her hand. Her slender fingers curled between his, and she clutched at him with surprising strength.
The tattoo flared. "Harry! Now!" Sirius was almost snarling now, his words punctuated by sharp cracks which shook the battered house still further.
Harry didn't bother to reply, but ran for the door, dragging the unresisting girl with him. He heard her soft cry as they passed the fallen bodies of her parents, and felt the drag in his arm as she slowed involuntarily. He mashed down on her fingers, knowing that he must be hurting her, but she seemed to understand and kept going. They raced down the corridor as a series of dull thuds blew chunks of plaster over them.
Choking on the thick dust, Harry kept going relentlessly. His head was ringing from the explosions, but he could just make out the girl sobbing behind him. She kept going though, as they tore through what must be the darkest pits of her private hell, taking the shattered steps two at a time. Barely pausing for breath in the ruined kitchen, Harry charged onwards, sending shards of broken plates skidding across the cracked tiles as he went. Behind them, there was a thunderous roar as the building began to collapse under the renewed fusillade of the advancing Death Eaters.
Sirius was waiting by the door, his face drawn and anxious, but all he said was, "About time," before turning to send a powerful Reductor Curse into the remaining wall of the house. Stones exploded across the yard, and a quickly stifled scream signaled the approach of a further column of Death Eaters approaching from the orchard.
Harry glanced at his godfather, the two locking eyes for a moment. "Cover us," panted Harry, before lifting Ginny up bodily and half-dragging, half-carrying her across the patchy lawn towards the distant figure of a waiting Remus.
Ginny was trying her hardest to keep going, but the shock was catching up again and she began to falter. Harry kept forcing them to run faster, even though his lungs were burning and a red haze began to cloud his vision. Green streaks of spellfire hissed overhead, the lethal Killing Curses missing by less than a foot. Ahead of them, Harry could see Remus taking aim directly at them.
"Incoming," he screamed over his shoulder and threw himself bodily to one side, taking Ginny with him. He could have sworn the spell parted his hair as it passed through the space he had been inhabiting a moment previously before it struck the nearest Death Eater and sent him sprawling; dead before his body hit the ground.
Landing hard, Harry rolled to the left, trying to take the weight of the impact off Ginny's smaller body. He grunted as pain seared down his side - clearly one of those Killing Curses had come too close for comfort - and struggled to his knees.
Pounding footsteps sounded behind him, and a strong grip hauled him upright. "Come on kid - I thought you were tough," roared Sirius without breaking stride. Harry, still clasping Ginny tight to his uninjured side, limped on, too tired to think of a suitably cutting retort.
Remus was only a few feet away now, still lobbing spells high above their heads. The concussive impact of the spells behind him lifted Harry off his feet, sending them sprawling into the older man's arms.
Harry dizzily heard Sirius screaming, "Go,go,go!" before his arm flared with pain again and he spiraled off into darkness, Ginny's small form still pressed closely against his.
A/N: If you are interested, the full story behind this fic can be found on my blog (follow link in my profile).