Harry learns a bitter truth right before he must face Voldemort for the last time.
Harry looks around at the devastation. He wonders if Hogwarts will ever be the same. Oh sure it can be rebuilt, but it would never be the haven it always seemed to him in the past seven years.
He sighs and looks out into the Forbidden Forest. He knows what he has to do. There is no question about it. Voldemort swore to kill everyone if he didn't go and he can't have another death on his conscience. His mind suddenly imagines Hermione's body on the ground, her eyes lifelessly looking up into the sky, Ron beside her...his chest tightens and his stomach twists. No, he thinks to himself, no more deaths. I will keep them safe.
He sees his friends moving through the rubble. He sees Neville helping Luna up with his left hand. Harry's eyes widen in surprise to see the Sword of Gryffindor in his right hand. Where did Neville get the sword? He wonders but shrugs, thinking it not important right now. He tries to find his other friends. He sees a flash of red and his heart tightens as he sees Ginny walk by, her arm around Hermione. By the way they are holding each other, he doesn't know who is comforting whom. He can't see Ron but he saw him earlier, he knows he's safe. Right now he must gather his courage and face Voldemort. Here. At the end. At the close. Close?
Harry reaches into his pocket and pulls up the snitch left to him by Dumbledore. I open at the close, he reads. Could it be? He wonders.
Looking around, he's surprised that no one has approached him yet. They must be thinking that he's still deciding what to do, as if he has another choice. He walks deeper into the castle until he finds a place where he can get a little privacy, an alcove mostly hidden by fallen debris.
He ducks under some rubble and looks around. Satisfied that he is out of sight he puts the snitch to his mouth. The snitch opens and a soft light emerges and a familiar figure appears. Harry's eyes tear up as he sees the lined face, the beard and the brilliant blue eyes. However the expression the ghostly image has is filled with great sadness and...shame? The apparition opens his mouth and the familiar voice tugs again at Harry's heart.
"Harry, here we are at the close. If things have gone as planned then you already know the truth, that you are the last Horcrux and you must know what that entails. I am so very sorry, Harry, that it has come to this. Please believe me that if I could have found a way, I would have done so. You have become very dear to me, my son, more than you can possibly imagine.
"Which is why it shames me to admit that I am in some way relieved that I am dead and I am spared to see your pain when I have to tell you the truth. The whole truth. Please believe me Harry that I am sorry to have done this but I could see no other way before me. I spoke to you once about choosing what is right and what is easy. I don't know if I chose right, but I promise you, it was not easy.
"Listen closely Harry..."
Hermione was walking around the castle looking for Harry. She parted with Ginny a while ago and she realized that she hadn't seen Harry in a while. She was afraid that Harry might have left for the Forbidden Forest but a quick chat with Oliver Wood, who was standing guard at what used to be the gates, told her that he hasn't seen Harry. She was relieved until she remembered that Harry did have his Invisibility Cloak. She was getting a little frantic until she saw him, ducking under some rubble.
"Harry!" She called out with relief and ran towards him. When he turned to face her, she stopped and she grew concerned at the look on Harry's face. He looked...blank. She started to get worried. Sorrow, she could understand, anger and even fear but this? This blank look, this look scared her.
"Harry? Harry, what's wrong?"
Harry took a deep breath. He seemed to pull himself together and Hermione couldn't help but feel relief when some animation finally entered his face. He gave her a weak smile and said, "I'll explain everything later. I don't have much time. Where's Ron?"
"He's with his family."
At that remark, Harry's brows come together for a minute then clears up, like he made a decision. "I think that's for the best," he murmurs softly and then with a little more strength he nods as he says, "Yes, that is best."
"Come with me. Hurry we don't have much time."
Harry starts to move quickly through the debris until he gets to the gates. He walks resolutely pass Oliver and two others standing guard with him. Oliver seems about to say something but is quelled to silence by Hermione's look. She walks quickly past him and catches up to Harry who is now standing and looking at the tree line of the Forbidden Forest.
"Hermione I need you to do something for me," he starts while facing the trees. He looks down at his feet as he continues. "Please don't ask any questions, there really isn't enough time left. I have to go to the Forbidden Forest soon—"
"Harry! Please don't! There has to be another way!"
Hermione will always remember that look that Harry gives her at that moment. It was an expression of fear and sorrow...and absolute determination.
"Hermione, you know there isn't; and even if there is, there's no time to figure it out. We're at the close, Hermione."
Hermione can't help but give a little gasp. Harry can't help but smile. She really is the brightest witch of our age.
"Yes, the snitch opened. I need you to listen because you're the only I can trust who'll do this without question because you and I know it's the only thing left to do."
Hermione nodded. As Harry starts telling her what to do and why, her eyes get bigger and her heart feels like it's shattering. Tears start to pool but she digs deep into reserves she didn't know she still had and pulls it together for Harry's sake.
When Harry finishes, his shoulders slump and he looks exhausted. Hermione pulls him into a bone-crushing hug and the tears that she has been holding back starts to fall freely down her face. She feels something warm on her neck as she realizes that Harry is crying, too. They hold on for a little longer until Harry gently pushes away.
"I really have to go," he says as he hands her his cloak.
"I love you, Harry," she says, knowing she'll never get another chance.
"I love you, too, Hermione," Harry says. "Take care of them, you're really the only one who can."
With that, Harry sets his shoulders and starts to walk away. Hermione, holding tightly on to Harry's cloak, watches her best friend walk into the Forbidden Forest. Her eyes never leave him until he's swallowed by the trees.
"Dumbledore," she whispers. "How could you?"
She realizes that she still has a job to do, and she heads back to the castle. This ends today, she thinks grimly. No matter what it takes, it ends today. For Harry.
Voldemort still could not believe it. It is finally over. In the deep recesses of his mind, he could admit to the fear he felt when he realized that Potter had figured out the Horcruxes and was successfully destroying them. But now, he is safe. He looks down with something close to affection at Nagini. She is safe. He is safe. He did it. He has cheated death.
As he walks towards the ruins of Hogwarts. His Death Eaters behind him with that ponderous fool Hagrid carrying Potter's body, his mind is already leaping forward and making plans for the future. When he steps into the ruined courtyard of Hogwarts and sees the beaten and defeated wizards and witches in front of him, his heart feels full. The looks of hate and fear fill him, making him feel strong. Then he hears a cry and someone shouting Harry Potter's name. He can not help but smile as he can actually feel the waves of despair when the fools realize that their blessed Chosen One is dead.
But he knows the price of greatness, he can be magnanimous in victory. There are many pure bloodlines in the mob arrayed against him. Those lines will be needed, even the half-bloods. He speaks out to them. He needs to make sure they are cowed so they will be biddable. Perhaps if he told them that Potter cried and begged for his life? He can not allow Potter to become a martyr.
He had to give it to the boy, he certainly lived up to his House's name. Only in the depths of his mind would he admit how unnerved he was by Potter's quiet yet firm resolve. He stood there and did not even raise his wand. He looked at him and called him by that blasted name, his muggle name, and with a start he realized that Potter was not afraid of him. The boy knew that he was going to kill him but somehow this did not make him feel fear. For a moment, he wondered if the boy knew the secret, the secret that he has been searching for all these years? Perhaps in Potter's quest to destroy his Horcruxes, the boy stumbled on the way to cheat death? He wouldn't be surprised with Potter's accursed luck. Maybe that is why he could stand there and look death in the eye because he thought he would be coming back? He was tempted to let him live to learn what he knew but he quelched that notion immediately. The boy was too dangerous. At seventeen he had done what wizards eight times his age could not accomplish, it would be utter folly to let him live. What a waste. It was rather disappointing in the end. Potter just stood there. For a brief moment he thought that the boy had another trick up his sleeve, but no, Narcissa told him the boy was dead. He could not admit that he was too scared to check on the boy himself.
But now, here in the present, Potter cannot become a martyr. He begins to tell them about Potter begging and crying in pain—
Who dares? Ah, the mudblood. This girl-child stepped forward and was facing him down! Insolent little snit. Talking about how Harry would not have begged. He cannot allow this to continue. She must not be allowed to give them their spirit back. It is almost a pity that she has to be culled. She has more fight and courage than some of his own people. Perhaps she can be used to breed stronger wizards? Thoughts for later, I must end this now.
Dean looked on unbelievingly as Hermione stared down You-Know—no. Voldemort. His name is Voldemort. He will never give in to fear again. If Harry could face him, he couldn't do any less. He gripped his wand tighter, wishing he had the courage to stand by Hermione. He's telling his foot to step forward but the sight of that—Voldemort, but the sight of Voldemort is keeping him in place and beating himself up for his cowardice.
"You were not there, girl," the mocking tones sent chills down Dean's back. "He squealed like a stuck pig, crying for his mummy and daddy."
The snickers of the assembled Death Eaters struck a spark in Dean. Those bastards are laughing at Harry! And suddenly his foot moved forward and he found himself standing right behind Hermione. Fury boiling inside him, he is barely aware that he's not alone when he stepped forward, a couple of others did so, too.
He sees Voldemort's eyes narrow.
"Enough!" he hisses. "Your Chosen One failed! He is dead! There is no one to stop me! Nagini! Kill them!"
The snake launched itself towards Hermione but before it could get near a blade appeared out of nowhere and sliced the snake's head off.
"No!" Voldemort screams as Hermione fires off a powerful hex. Voldemort blocks it easily. Suddenly appearing out of nowhere Neville stands between Voldemort and Hermione, a bundle of what looks like cloth at his feet. Harry's Invisibility Cloak! Dean realizes.
Dean looks back up to Neville facing down Voldemort with the Sword of Gryffindor held on both hands. His face one of determination despite the tears streaming down his cheeks.
"You killed my friend," Neville says so softly Dean almost fails to hear it. Tears still streaming down his face, he looks up at Voldemort his eyes blazing as he says in a tone that Dean has never heard from his friend before. "And you will pay. He was worth ten of you!"
Neville rushes forward and Voldemort fires a green blast at him but without missing a step, Neville uses the sword to deflect the curse and as it rebounds off the blade it strikes a Death Eater standing behind Voldemort and falls down dead.
Like a signal, the defenders of Hogwarts suddenly take heart and the battle begins again in earnest. Dean finds himself right at the frontline and realizes that the Death Eaters, despite outnumbering them, are barely holding on. He and his friends are fighting like demons, the strength of their spells fueled by rage and grief. The Death Eaters could still rout them if Voldemort manages to pull them together but he is being successfully countered by Neville and Hermione. Hermione's spells are keeping him off-balance while Neville uses the Sword of Gryffindor to block his curses as well as trying to cut him with it. Dean rushes forward to help and as he fires a hex at Voldemort he can't help but feel a rush, realizing that he just cast a hex at Voldemort.
However, Voldemort's skill and power can not be denied. He fires a curse at Dean that Neville barely manages to block, however the errant curse still grazes Dean's arm. A thousand needles seems to pierce his heart and his left arm feels like his bones are burning. Dean screams in pain and collapses.
Harry would get up, he thinks. Harry would never give up. Dean pulls himself up—refusing to look at his arm—just in time to block a curse directed at Hermione from another Death Eater. The Death Eater paid for it by a curse from Ron.
"Enough of this!" Voldemort suddenly shouts. With a wave of his wand accompanied by an incantation in a language unknown to Dean, a glowing red ring bursts forth from Voldemort and expands like an explosion. Dean feels something like a steel bar striking him in the chest as the red ring hits him and he definitely hears his ribs break. He is thrown back and falls to the ground. As he struggles to catch his breath, finding it difficult to breath—yes, definitely broke a couple of ribs—he looks up and sees that the spell took everyone down, defender and Death Eater alike.
Voldemort walks towards Neville and lifts him by the throat. Neville starts to choke but somehow still manages—barely—to hold on to the sword.
"I know you," Voldemort says with undisguised malice. "Longbottom, is it not? Did you really think that wielding the Sword of Gryffindor would be enough to defeat me? You? Your precious Chosen One could not touch me, what makes you think you could?"
Dean's heart aches as he hears Neville choking. He reaches for his wand, ignoring the pain in his side.
"What was that?" Voldemort asks tauntingly. "I can't hear you with the blood in your lungs."
"He said," Voldemort's head whips around as Hermione answers him from the ground, wand in hand. "That Harry was not the Chosen One."
Voldemort looks back to Neville, who chokes out. "I am."
Neville then slams the sword into Voldemort's heart. Dean shudders as an unearthly keening sound comes out of Voldemorts mouth as he drops Neville. Voldemort coughs up black blood as he staggers back, the sword sticking out of his chest. He finally falls on his side and releases his last breath.
Voldemort's fall took the fight out of the Death Eaters. Those well enough to escape did, the ones who remained were quickly apprehended. Neville pulled the sword out of Voldemort's chest and without hesitation, pushed the tip into the Elder Wand, causing it to split apart. There was a brief flash and a sound like thunder, people looked up but if there was anyone with any objection to this act, one look at the expression on Neville's face and the way he stood silenced them.
Hermione, clutching her side, limped towards Hagrid's body. He was surrounded by the mangled and broken bodies of at least a dozen Death Eaters as he stood over protecting Harry's body until the very end.
I have no more tears left. Her eyes are dry as she stands over the bodies of two of her oldest friends. She feels someone draw up to stand beside her and in the corner of her eye she sees Neville. They both look at each other and something passes between them.
"What are you talking about Hermione?"
"It's you Neville. You are the Chosen One. You always have been."
"B-b-but what about Harry...?"
"A ruse. A decoy. To draw their fire so you would be kept safe until we get to the close."
"I don't understand...Harry knew...?"
"Not until a minute ago."
"Wait! So why is he going to the forest? He doesn't need to go! We have to stop him!"
Hermione remembered telling him how Dumbledore knew without a doubt that the prophecy meant that Neville was the only one who could slay Voldemort and to protect him, was willing to make Voldemort and his followers believe that the Chosen One was instead the child of the Potters. She remembered Neville's eyes widen as he realized that Dumbledore pretty much signed their death warrants himself.
"Even Dumbledore couldn't have guessed that Voldemort would turn Harry into a Horcrux when he tried to kill him as a baby. When Dumbledore learned about the Horcruxes, he knew that Harry's fate—his life was sealed."
"He knows all this and he's still going in there?"
"It's Harry, Neville, of course he would," Hermione said as she handed him the cloak. "Can we do any less?"
"Thank you, Harry." Hermione is brought back to the present at Neville's words. Neville reverently places the Sword of Gryffindor between Harry's hands. "I would be lucky if I become even half the man you are. Were." Hermione feels like an intruder but she can't bring herself to leave as Neville takes a deep, steadying breath and continues. "In the end, you were just like the rest of us but you faced him and beat everything he threw at you. That's what we should remember. The Chosen One didn't defeat Voldemort. You did."
When Neville turns away he suddenly realizes how quiet it is and looks around to see everyone looking at him. They all heard what he said. Looking everyone in the eye, he says in a strong voice, "To Harry Potter!"
"To Harry Potter!" Dean shouts. And the cry is picked up as everyone raises his name to the skies.
Hermione remains silent looking at Harry when she feels a warmth behind her and arms wrapping around her waist. She twists and sees Ron and with a cry of relief throws her arms around him and she buries her face into his chest. After a while she looks up at his face and she sees that he's looking at Hagrid and Harry, she can feel his heart beating loudly in his chest and this expression of sorrow on his face. He whispers one word and in that one word is grief. That word reaches into her heart and she finds that she does have tears left after all. And she clings to Ron with a desperation because she feels his grief just as keenly. And she always will, whenever she will hear that word.
I didn't come up with the plot. I read an article that mentioned a fan theory—posited before the series was finished—that Harry was not the Chosen One but that Neville was. Dumbledore knew this and to protect him basically offered Harry up as a decoy, knowing full well that Harry was going to live a life of danger and hardship.
The idea wouldn't leave me alone. So here it is. I also just want to say that the person who came up with this theory is friggin' brilliant. Wish I knew who it was so I can thank him or her properly.