Author's note: Thank you for all your reviews. Thank you. Seriously. Your feedback motivates me to keep writing and improving this story. Concerning this chapter, you can expect loads of development here. I hope you'll enjoy it.
A couple of minutes later, Harry stormed past Draco Malfoy back to the library. He did not even give the young, confused Death Eater a single side-glance. His blood was on fire with rage and disappointment and he had to do his best not to unleash it all on Ron and Hermione, once he found them sitting in a secluded corner and talking quietly to each other.
They stood up when they saw him, their faces tense and worried.
"We're leaving," Harry said curtly at once.
"We are leaving, Ron," Harry raised his voice. "You wanted me to warn you ahead, so here I am, warning you. We ran out of time."
"Does it mean that You-Know-Who...?" Hermione began, but Harry interrupted her.
"You can guess twice, Hermione! We need to notify the Order. And we need to get ready for the fight."
"I see," she said quietly and nodded. "Do you know how much time we've got left, Harry?"
He took a deep breath and shook the tension off his arms and shoulders, willing himself not to start punching the walls.
"We should refrain from staying here till the morning, though," he added more calmly then.
"All right. I'll have my handbag packed in a minute. In the meantime," she said and approached him, giving him a small package wrapped in a brown paper, "you should eat this."
When Harry gave her a confused stare, she furrowed her eyebrows.
"You must be starving!"
Now that she mentioned it, Harry had to admit that his stomach was for the past couple of hours cramped into a tiny, spasmodic ball. With all the butterflies gone, only acid remained in his guts, adding fire to his veins.
He opened the package and took a hungry bite into a crispy toast. It was remarkable what a little nourishment could do to his mood. His anger dulled as he ate and his thoughts cleared. It was a blessed relief and Harry relished in it.
He was just finishing his scant meal when his friends returned to him, double-checking their belongings. Ron then looked up at Harry and paused; he seemed to have realized something since he began scratching his chin thoughtfully.
"Funny," he said then, still watching Harry quizzically. "When did you have time to shave, Harry?"
Harry's mildly appeased stomach jumped at those words and he felt heat creep up his face as he slid his palm over the smooth skin on his cheek.
"Err … uh … that was before … and, anyway," he stuttered and took another deep breath to calm himself. "We need to get out of the castle now. I suppose we can only use the same passage as before which means we have to get ready to face the Dementors again."
"Maybe we don't have to use that one," Ron shook his head and cast a quick glance at Hermione.
"Go on," Harry prompted him when he saw his hesitation.
"Well, it's still only a theory," Hermione hastened with explanation. "When Draco was taking us back to the library, we heard two Death Eaters talking about a couple of students who were spotted at Hogsmeade three days ago."
"Really? Another passage remains open then?" Harry asked eagerly. "But as long as we don't know which one it is..."
"We can ask Neville," Ron butted in. "I heard him say that the D.A. will be celebrating in the Room of Requirement tonight. Besides, who else would dare to leave the castle aside the members of the D.A.?"
"That's right, mate," Harry said, amazed.
"Good job," he added and looked at Hermione, who smiled weakly at him.
It was the worries in her eyes that cooled Harry's budding excitement back to zero. Seeing her distress, he felt a prickle of conscience, but he chased it away fast.
"All right, then," he said throatily after that. "It's time to go."
"There is still Draco...," Hermione uttered quietly as they approached the entrance door.
"I know," Harry sighed. "I'll take care of it."
He flung the door open and pointed his wand at the young Death Eater whose blue eyes widened with surprise.
Harry saw him grasp the handle of his wand, but that was all he managed to do.
"Petrificus Totalus!" Harry shouted and Draco fell backward like a statue, hitting the ground loudly with an expression of surprise frozen on his features.
Harry immediately knelt down to him and made him look into his face.
"He won't hurt you if you tell him that you would have to kill me to stop me," he said simply and then he looked up at Ron and Hermione.
Then he rose to his feet and they broke into a run, sprinting up the staircases and corridors. Harry was ahead and Ron and Hermione close behind him, checking the Marauder's map all the time.
With that warning Harry immediately ducked behind the closest armour, pressing his back to the wall.
"What?" he gasped.
"Peeves," Hermione said breathlessly and Harry cursed silently.
Slowly, he peered from behind the harness and looked at the poltergeist, who was hovering in the midair, playing with his dreadful orange bow tie and cackling to himself.
"I'll go ahead and try to open the Room under the cloak," Hermione suggested in a barely audible voice.
"No, I've got a better idea," Harry shook his head, thinking of imitating Bloody Baron. However, before he could clarify it further, Peeves perked up at once and flew right through the closest wall, disappearing from their sight.
"Well, that was cl-," Ron began, but before he could finish the sentence a sudden, high-pitched sound of an alarm bell resounded in the empty corridor.
"Seems like someone's already noticed that we're missing," he said glumly instead.
"Let's get moving then," Harry said and the trio ran out of their hideout and hurried along the corridor to the place where a stretch of blank wall opposed an enormous tapestry depicting the comedy of troll's ballet.
Reaching their destination, Harry concentrated hard as he paced along the wall, thinking of the D.A. and the Room of Requirement. Curiously, he was just finishing his second turn, when the door suddenly appeared out of nowhere and a crowd of students ran out of it.
"Alarm! It's an alarm! Back to your Houses, everyone! Quickly!" Neville's voice boomed down the corridor.
The students gradually came to halt, turning around to look at Harry, Ron and Hermione.
"We need to contact the Order," Harry said quickly, skipping the greeting. "Neville, is there any way how we can get out of the castle unnoticed?"
Neville's eyes widened for a fraction of a second, but then he nodded fast.
"Stop loitering around and run!" he shouted at the students who regrouped around them. "Even you, Seamus! It's not worth it! I'll help Harry – you go - just go!"
Then he beckoned to Harry, Ron and Hermione.
"Come, quickly," he said, while retreating back to the Room of Requirement. "Follow me."
Once the door shut behind them, Harry came to an instant halt. Bewildered, he looked around the chamber they were in. He could not recognize it at all. It was certainly huge enough to provide space for dozens, maybe even a hundred of students. He could see the golden Gryffindor lion on a scarlet tapestry at the wall opposite to them and right next to it there was the black badger of Hufflepuff in a yellow field and the bronze eagle of Ravenclaw on the blue background. The silver serpent of the Slytherin House was pointedly missing. Harry's eyes scanned the room further, noticing numerous bookcases filled with books and parchments, armchairs and tables around the walls and he even noticed some provisional beds in a distant corner.
"Where are we?" Ron breathed out in disbelief.
"It's our Room of Requirement, of course! Surpassed itself, hasn't it?" Neville said excitedly. "But the coolest thing is that the Carrows cannot find us here – as long as we're careful enough to close all the possible loopholes. The only problem is that they always notice when you're missing in the classes, so we cannot stay here for too long."
"But the alarm's on!" Hermione said quickly. "They'll be checking the Houses for missing students. You should hurry back before they notice you're gone!"
"Nah, don't worry about me," Neville waved it off. "I don't mind if they do. Besides, I've got my pureblood status to protect me. They're not gonna kill me for this, they'd be in serious trouble."
"Moreover," he added with a brighter smile. "You wanted to get out of Hogwarts, didn't you?"
"What do you mean? Is there a way how to get outside from here?" Harry asked.
"You can bet there is," Neville winked at him, leading them towards a large portrait of some girl on the wall. "First time I had been hiding in here for a day and a half, I got really hungry and I wished for some food to appear and looked what happened when I did."
He turned to the portrait, raised his hand and said a single word.
The girl in the portrait smiled and nodded a little and then the whole thing swang forward, revealing an entrance to a tunnel behind.
"What is this?" Ron shook his head in disbelief.
"Ariana?" Hermione asked with confusion. "That Ariana? Dumbledore's sister?"
"Exactly," Neville nodded. "Come on. Let's go and have a proper dinner."
"Where is this tunnel leading to?" Harry asked as he, Ron and Hermione followed Neville inside.
"To Aberforth's Hog's Head. Did you know he's Dumbledore's brother?"
"Yes," Hermione peeped out. "I read about it in that ... Skeeter's book," she said timidly, as if ashamed of her knowledge.
"That's right," Neville nodded. "Ab told me that Skeeter had been snooping around for some time, requesting interviews and stuff, but he refused to talk to her. Don't expect him to say anything nice about Dumbledore, though. I don't think they actually talked to each other after that … incident, you know."
"But he's in the Order, isn't he?" Harry asked.
"Yeah, he is. He's a nice guy, in fact. He's just got these issues when it comes to his brother."
Harry did not pursue the topic anymore. He could identify with people who had issues with Dumbledore's 'For the Greater Good' life motto. He was sure that Dumbledore himself suffered enough for it.
And so did he.
They walked for some time in silence before Ron's quiet whisper captured Harry's attention.
"What is is, Ron?" he asked and turned to him.
"I just wonder … does You-Know-Who know already that we ran away?"
"I don't know," Harry muttered under his breath. "Lately, he's been very efficient in blocking me out. I can't help but think he's plotting something."
Harry tried to ignore the leaden blocks that shifted inside him as he said those words. He caught Hermione's quick glance, but before he could say anything more, the portrait on the other side of the tunnel opened up and they hopped inside a small, dim room.
"Ab?" Neville asked, looking around. "Are you in here?"
"Mr. Dumbledore?" Hermione asked quietly as they searched the small room with a single dusty window.
"He's not here," Ron complained about the obvious, watching Neville go check the inn.
"He's left here some food," Harry said, pointing at a loaf of bread, some cheese and a bottle of wine on a table.
"I wouldn't eat it," Ron mumbled, though his eyes said differently. "Who knows how long it's been here..."
"It's fresh, don't worry," Neville said as he returned from the inn. "Aberforth always leaves us some food on this table when he's off to do some stuff for the Order like today."
"If you say so," Ron said, unsure, but he was already heading for the table and taking a knife into his hand.
"Anyway, you can't leave now. It's after the curfew. You would have dozens of Death Eaters at your heels right away. Better wait till the morning. Much safer for us all," Neville said, taking a seat.
"I was wondering," he continued as they were all seated around the table, "if I could go with you this time. I mean," he added quickly, "I'm kind of fed up with being hunted down by the Carrows all the time. I want to do something helpful too … if you understand me."
Harry exchanged quick glances with Ron and Hermione and then he spoke.
"You're being very helpful, Neville. Amazing, really. If you left the school, what would happen to the students? I'm sure you know by now that they need someone to stand by their side and not just some unreachable icon. They need someone who can show them that their resistance is not futile."
Harry paused to take another bite into his portion of cheese. He rolled it on his tongue for a moment and then he took a sip of the wine.
"Also, I would appreciate if you were more honest with me," he said then. "I can see how much you like being the leader of the D.A. It makes me think that the main reason behind your desire to leave is Ginny. You want to see her again, don't you?"
The effect of Harry's calm words was immediate. Ron squirmed with discomfort, Hermione gave him a questioning look but Neville, poor guy, turned red from the head to his feet.
"I … I'm really sorry … Harry," he stuttered out. "I really did not mean to … it happened so suddenly and I don't know how … and … I felt so miserable about it, you can't even imagine..."
"It's all right, Neville," Harry sighed, gazing into his cup, "I'm fine with it, really."
"You … you really mean it?" Neville asked incredulously.
"Yeah," Harry said, raising his eyes. "I mean it. Ginny and I … it just didn't work out."
"And what about me?" Ron grumbled. "No one asked me about the permission!"
When three pairs of curious eyes turned to him, he furrowed meaningfully.
"She's my sister!"
"Stop it, Ron," Hermione sighed and rolled her eyes. "You're only embarrassing yourself. Ginny can date whoever she wants."
Idly, Harry wished he could also date whoever he wanted.
In other reality, perhaps. A million miles from here would be probably fine.
He gulped heavily, no longer feeling hungry.
"I'm off to bed," he said and sprang to his feet, unable to bear the constriction in his chest. He realized what he said right then and bit into his lip hesitantly. "If there is such an option, of course."
Neville, who seemed unusually eager to please him, jumped up as well.
"Sure, Harry," he said. "There are several beds upstairs. We … I mean me, Seamus and others slept there a couple of times already … so I guess it's okay if we use them again."
Harry nodded to Ron and Hermione and followed Neville up the narrow wooden staircase into a small mansard.
"I'm sorry, it's no luxury, but it's kind of okay for one or two nights," Neville said apologetically, once he opened the door and stepped inside.
Harry went in after him, then sat down on the nearest bed and looked out of a tiny window. After sleeping for months in a tent, he was content with any proper bed. He scratched his forehead as his scar began to prickle him a little and then he nodded.
"It's okay, Neville," he said to his unnerved friend. "Look, no rats, no cockroaches... Better than okay, actually."
"Yeah. That's right. Well then ... good night, Harry," Neville nodded and closed the door quietly, leaving him alone.
The darkness was soothing. Harry contemplated lighting up the lamp on the bedside table at first, but now that his head met the pillow, he was glad he did not bother. Here, without any distractions, his scar was throbbing more intensely, but it was still a mild pain compared to the usual seizures. Harry closed his eyes, resisting the temptation to look into Voldemort's thoughts.
Instead, he pressed his face into a pillow and forced himself to think about Snape and Dumbledore and all the things they told him today, but it got all mixed up in his head and eventually slowly dissolved in tiredness that clouded his senses.
Then there were noises … voices, perhaps? His friends talking downstairs?
A feeling of cold anger flooded him all of a sudden. He stood in a large, dark room lit with nothing but a flare coming from the fireplace. There was a magnificent oak table in front of him covered with parchments and official documents... They were scattered everywhere, the ink was spilling over the desk … and the noises … yes, the noises were coming from the man who was kneeling at his feet, whimpering and shaking in fear.
"You did what, Thicknesse?" Harry asked in a high, cold voice, barely controlling his anger. "How come you're accepting orders from anyone but Lord Voldemort?"
"M-my Lord … it was Yaxley," the man almost cried. His long black hair was sweaty and his beard streaked with silver shook as he spoke. "Yaxley told me it was your wish, master. I-I did not want to bother you by requesting confirmation..."
"This is unacceptable!" Harry hissed coldly, raising the Elder Wand. "Go and fetch him! And you'd better not keep me waiting."
Harry watched the man scurry out of the room hastily before looking down at his large pale hands. His rage was only muted by disquieting distress that blossomed inside him freely and that he could not pacify with his common sense of purpose.
The time was almost up, he knew he needed to act. He needed to return to Hogwarts and yet...
"It must be done," he said quietly to no one. "And it will be … soon. But first..."
He raised his eyes and caught their red reflection on a glossy surface of a dark, brazen lamp.
Harry turned his head to the other side. His forehead was on fire.
Someone was calling him and that voice was becoming really obnoxious.
"Harry, please, wake up!"
There was a loud yelp that finally broke through his sleepiness. Harry opened his eyes only to see that he thumped Hermione with his pillow.
"Ah! Hermione!" he groaned. "I'm sorry … what's going...?"
"Harry! It's Ron!" Hermione cried as she pushed the pillow off her face. "I could not stop him!"
"Stop him?" Harry muttered, groping the tiny bedside table for his glasses. "Stop him from what?" he asked as he found them and put them on.
The morning shine blinded his eyes and Harry had to blink several times before he noticed that someone else was standing in the doorway.
"Mr. Dumbledore?" Harry asked with surprise once he noticed the long grey beard and recognized the familiar blue eyes.
"It would be very foolish of you to come after him," the old man said without any introduction.
"Can anyone finally tell me what's going on?" Harry shouted out as he scrambled to his feet.
Hermione turned to him and he could see now that her eyes were red and puffy.
"Mr. Dumbledore brought us horrible news," she hiccuped. "Bill … Bill Weasley is dead, Harry! He was murdered … at the Ministry … yesterday evening."
"Murdered by the Minister himself! On You-Know-Who's orders!" Hermione cried. "And Ron … he … he just … flipped out. He said … oh, Harry! He said he's going to kill … You-Know-Who! Then he took the map and ran away!"
"WHY DIDN'T YOU WAKE ME UP IMMEDIATELY?!" Harry roared in a frenzy.
"I was trying!" she cried out. "It took me ages to wake you up! You were having some … nightmare or something!"
"We need to stop him now!" Harry hurled out, buttoning his shirt in haste. "We need to stop him before he does something really stupid! Where's Neville?"
"He ran after him … back to the school. It's just minutes ago," Hermione said, choking.
"Damn it!" Harry snarled, taking on his shoes fast.
"I say this again. You should think twice before going back there, Harry Potter," Aberforth stopped him at the door, his voice low and even. "Consider what you are about to do."
Harry looked up into the old man's face, his eyes ablaze with determination.
"I'm sorry, sir. I will not let my best friend commit suicide!" he said through gritted teeth. "That's the only consideration I need."
Then he and Hermione ran downstairs and towards Ariana's awaiting portrait.
"Please, let us in," Harry pleaded and she nodded a little and revealed the corridor behind the screen.
A distinct burning sensation in his scar only pumped adrenaline in Harry's veins as he galloped up the narrow, dark passage towards the school. He did not wait for Hermione, knowing that she would catch up with him eventually. He needed to find Ron, but without the map there was hardly a way he could do it in time.
He made it to the Room of Requirement in a record time, only to see that it was empty. He could not hide his disappointment; how much he would appreciate his friends' help now!
Harry forced himself to a full halt, trying to stand still and think. If Ron really wanted to proceed with that insanity, he needed a plan. It was not like he could run into Voldemort in the first corridor. That way he would only encounter Carrows who...
"Damn!" he cursed again.
Hermione burst into the room after him, bending over and massaging a stitch in her side.
"The Carrows!" Harry said quickly. "Hermione, we've got to find the Carrows! Ron can only summon Voldemort by touching the Death Eater's Dark Mark!"
"What about Draco?" she said between gasps, sounding more desperate than ever.
"Gosh, you're right!" Harry snarled. "And we don't know who he's after 'cause we don't have the map!"
"Let's draw their attention towards us then," Hermione said. "We must be careful to avoid the capture and at the same time watch out for Ron when he appears."
"All right, let's do it..."
At that point, the pain in Harry's scar suddenly peaked and the Room of Requirement disappeared before his eyes. All he could see was a completely different room, darker one but also familiar, and he was towering above Yaxley, who lay on a dusty carpet in front of him, twitching and shivering violently. And Harry was furious because of the summons he felt. They were calling him back to the castle while he ordered them not to disturb him unless the highest emergency. He needed the answers … and he could not have them now.
"No! Not yet!" Harry heard his own voice as if from a huge distance. "Ron … don't!"
"It seems you'll live a little longer. I'll talk to you later," another, colder part of Harry hissed at the man on the floor and he turned around and headed for the fireplace situated behind him.
"Harry – Harry!"
Harry opened his eyes forcefully and looked into Hermione's distressed brown ones.
"It wasn't him," Harry gasped out as if in pain. He remembered his dream much better now. "I think that …Voldemort did not order Thicknesse to do it. It was Yaxley. I don't know what exactly is going on here … but Ron is doing this madness in vain!"
"Harry," Hermione said slowly, holding his face to keep the eye contact. "Where is he? Tell me, where is Ron?"
"I don't know … but Voldemort's here," Harry breathed out heavily. "He's already here in the castle … and he's … he's going to the third floor!"
As if she had been waiting for that, Hermione sprinted out of the door and Harry had to do his best to keep up with her. They raced downstairs like crazy; one little stagger and Harry knew he would break all his bones against the nearest wall.
It did not matter. He didn't care. All he could think about was stunning Ron, hiding him under the Invisibility Cloak and getting him safely out of Hogwarts. And in order to do that, he needed to find him before Voldemort.
There was a moment when he really thought that he could make it, but then a terrible shriek of pain carried in an all too familiar voice crushed his hopes. Hermione, who was still ahead of him, cried out in desperation and pulled out her wand hastily.
"No, Hermione! Don't!"
They were just turning the last corner when Harry finally caught up with her and held her tight as she squirmed against him, hissing at him like mad.
"Stop it! Just stop it right now! You'll get us all killed!" Harry shouted and she stilled in his arms at last, though still trembling uncontrollably.
It was the moment when Harry took a look at the scene before them.
And the sight presented to him froze the marrow of his bones.
Alecto Carrow was on lying on the ground about twenty feet from him, probably stunned, possibly dead. Snape stood close beside her reclining body, holding Neville Longbottom under his neck, pressing his wand against his temple.
And then there was Ron. His legs were kicking the thin air as the ultimate power of the Elder Wand was holding him ten feet above the ground, slowly throttling him. He was unable to make another sound.
Time seemed to be doing strange things. During their gallop to the third floor it went incredibly fast, but now it stopped and died together with Harry's breath.
The last occupant in the corridor moved.
Tall and gaunt, Lord Voldemort stepped forward, his red eyes and his pale face slowly turned to Harry, unreadable, clouded by the shadows.
"Ron!" Harry called out and released his hold on Hermione.
They were late, too late, he realized with desperation as he raised his wand.
The deafening silence stretched on and on.
Voldemort watched him, still again, only the muscles on his white jaw stretched and relaxed occasionally. Then he took a short, loud breath, his thin nostrils widening for a fraction of a second.
"Harry Potter," he said softly, then, "...has returned to Hogwarts. He has returned to save his pitiful little friend..."
The Elder Wand moved a little and Ron fell to the ground, curling up and moaning.
"...who thought he could challenge the Dark Lord. Who thought he could summon him like a pet for a play..."
There was unmistakable anger in that voice, cold and sharp like a knife-edge.
"Oh, and I would play with you, fool," he hissed at Ron viciously, "...with pleasure, if I had time."
"But as it is," he continued aloofly and slowly set out towards Harry, his gait somewhat uneven, heavy, lacking its usual grace, "...there is only one question I have for the Chosen One."
Harry looked directly into those bright red eyes and saw another undefinable emotion leaking underneath the fiery anger. The problem was that it remained … undefinable.
"Have you brought me the cure?" the Dark Lord asked in a measured voice.
Each word felt like a hammer slamming into Harry's heart. It cut so deep and hurt so bad that Harry could not speak.
"If not," Voldemort whispered, his cat-like eyes narrowing, "we can end it right here. And I shall start with the redhead..."
"NO!" Hermione screeched and ran towards Ron before Harry could stop her. "We have the cure," she cried, taking Ron's head in her lap. "We have it! Please, please, don't kill him!"
Voldemort's face reflected no emotion.
"So?" he asked evenly, ignoring her.
"Harry, don't tell him!" Neville said through gritted teeth. "Whatever you've got, don't tell him!"
Harry met his eyes and then Snape's black, unreadable ones.
"You've heard her," he finally said in a constricted voice. "Do you want your cure? Ask Hermione."
"I am asking you," Voldemort said coldly.
"Then you're asking the wrong person! I, obviously, have nothing to offer to you! Nothing at all," Harry snarled, his throat burning.
Voldemort opened his mouth. For a fraction of a second Harry could almost see the words forming on his lips – but then he retreated back to his ice-cold shell and his fiery eyes turned to Hermione who sat crouched by Ron's side.
It was perhaps the first time he actually acknowledged her presence.
"Speak, Mudblood," he hissed at her. "Don't try my patience."
"It's the...," Hermione said, her teary eyes meeting Harry's. "It's the ultimate sacrifice. You've got to perform an act of the ultimate sacrifice," she said under her breath.
A brief surprise showed in Voldemort's face as he looked down at her, turning towards her fully.
"Interesting...," he whispered softly. "A Mudblood reading the Dark Arts books. Who would have thought?"
Slowly, he looked up at Snape, whose face remained empty like a mask.
"Well," he continued quietly, "perhaps you could also tell me, how shall I proceed with such a task?"
Harry kept the eye contact with Hermione and tried to read her thoughts. Was she going to lie like she did with Umbridge? Did she know that something like that was not going to work with Voldemort?
"There is … a way," she said haltingly, clutching at Ron's hand. "If breaking the curse is the thing you desire the most … then … then you should learn all about the procedure once you look into the Mirror of Erised."
"It must be still there, in the basement," she added hastily. "I don't think Professor Dumbledore removed it."
There was a momentary silence during which Harry gaped at her, once again astounded by her wit. And he was not the only one.
Even Voldemort gazed down at her speculatively, while caressing the Elder Wand with his long white fingers.
"Very interesting," he said then and his gaze returned to Harry. "Obviously, Potter knows how to pick the excellence even among dirt."
"Well then," he continued, "I shall return to the Mirror of Erised and Harry Potter will accompany me. If I obtain what I desire, I may spare your worthless lives. Severus … keep a watchful eye on them before I return."
"Harry, don't...!" Neville began again, but Snape silenced him with a flick of his wand, so the only sound that could be heard was Ron's quiet moaning.
Hermione, who sat by her boyfriend's side, was aghast. She watched Harry transfixed, shaking her head.
But Harry had easily accepted this kind of development. It could be worse, much worse, in fact. He was not afraid to be alone with Voldemort, although the wizard was treating him like his enemy again. Harry knew he could handle this – and so he gave Hermione a short nod and then he turned away and set forth to the forbidden part of the castle.
The only thing that kept bothering him was the strange gaze Snape was giving him as he walked past him. He had no clue what it meant, but it was giving him chills.
On their way to the basement, Voldemort was walking quietly two steps behind him and Harry found it very distracting. He did not break the tense silence despite hundreds of words that wanted to escape his lips. Harry fought them all; being a young Gryffindor, he valued his pride highly and he was nowhere ready to demean himself.
They gradually descended through all the rooms that previously secured the Sorcerer's Stone. This time they were all empty and Harry noticed that they also appeared smaller and somewhat less significant.
Perhaps it was because everything appeared smaller and less significant with Lord Voldemort by his side.
Harry suppressed that thought immediately and entered the last chamber.
Miraculously, it was still there. The Mirror of Erised stood in the middle, perhaps a little more dusty than the last time, but certainly the same size and magnificence. Apparently, only the exceptional objects drowned the Dark Lord in comparison.
Harry took a couple more steps to it, but then he changed his mind. After all, he knew what … who he would see in there. Why should he torture himself even more?
"Lost courage, Potter?" Voldemort sneered, speaking to him first.
Harry had braced himself for that.
"No … it's just … I already know what my parents looked like. Hagrid gave me their album."
When Voldemort did not reply, Harry gestured towards it. "In any case," he said, "we're not here because of me. Aren't you going to have a look?"
The Dark Lord raised his narrow chin and observed Harry intently.
"No," he said then, his voice like an ice.
"I came here for the cure," he clarified. "It's almost the time."
"That's right," Harry said cautiously. "Therefore, I suggest you'd better do what Hermione said, if you want to know more..."
A cold, humourless laugh cut through Harry like a sword, making him wince.
"Do what the Mudblood said...," Voldemort repeated, mirth dissipating fast from his voice.
"You really believed it, didn't you?" he asked quietly. "You honestly thought that I would entrust my life … my soul … and my future into your hands. Into the hands of my enemies... Incredible."
"I'm not sure … I understand," Harry whispered, forcing himself to hold his stance as he took a grip of the handle of his wand that protruded from the back pocket of his jeans.
"It was a trick, Harry," Voldemort said matter-of-factly. "Our treaty was nothing but a lie that only served to keep you preoccupied. Naturally, I know what the cure is and I know what to do about it. I found the answers in the books myself. All I had to do was to keep this cure safely within my reach, so I could use it at my will when the right time came."
Unable to stop himself, Harry took a nervous step back.
"The ultimate sacrifice," Voldemort whispered. "I was a little worried when the Mudblood said it so openly... I was concerned that you had reached the correct conclusion as well – which would've explained your hasty flight from the castle yesterday night. But then again, I can see now that my worries were unwarranted. You have no idea of what I am talking about."
Another step back, much longer than the previous one.
"Yes, Harry Potter," Voldemort whispered, his red eyes gleaming. "It is you. You are my cure."
"What?!" Harry laughed nervously at that absurdity. "Seriously, how can I be a cure for anything? That's just silly!"
"Oh, but it makes perfect sense, in fact," Voldemort replied solemnly, conjuring a small table before pulling something out of his robes.
Harry instantly recognized Helga's cup. Cracked, bleeding and badly damaged, it looked even worse than the last time he saw it. It seemed like a miracle that it was still in one piece. The Dark Lord placed it on the table with a great care and reached into his robes again.
"You're the only piece of my soul that remains unaffected by the curse."
"What? What do you mean? You've still got Nagini … and the diadem!" Harry hurled out before he could stop himself.
Voldemort smiled mirthlessly.
"Tell me, Harry, have you ever heard of Merwyn's Law of Magical Interactions?"
"Yes, I have," Harry snapped, remembering Hermione's words. "It advises you against placing more than one enchantment upon a single object. Also, the strength of the interactions grows with the power of those enchantments."
"Precisely," Voldemort whispered and tilted his head aside a little. "Anyway, many great wizards and witches died because they experimented too much and omitted this particular law."
Harry said nothing, but he afforded himself a brief thought of Luna's mother.
"I was always very careful not to repeat their mistakes. Sometimes, I tempted the fates, I admit, but never to the point of risking my existence. And I would continue to do so, if Bill Weasley did not place that curse upon my Horcrux!"
"And so you had him killed!" Harry yelped, furious. "It was you after all! And I thought … I thought you've got nothing to do with it!"
Voldemort, in the meantime, pulled another object out of his robes. This time it was Rowena's diadem, and to Harry's great shock, it looked just as impaired as Helga's cup.
"Since all the Horcruxes are connected through me, it infected me as well. And what's worse, the curse has been reverted," Voldemort hissed between his teeth, ignoring Harry's outcry. "It's sucking my magic and my soul out of everything … but you, Harry Potter. Only you seem to be unaffected! I was wondering why is that so, but the answer is rather obvious. You were created by a mistake. You were not intended. The dark magic I used upon you was not aimed to create you. Hence, there is nothing to interact with the curse … and that also makes you a perfect cure."
He placed the diadem next to the cup and slowly turned to Harry.
"And so the piece of my soul that has turned against me will save me now."
Harry was just about to pull the wand out of his jeans, when his fingers gave a sudden spastic jerk around the handle and let it go.
He took one last staggering step back.
The realization hit him like a speeding train.
"You brought me here to kill me," Harry managed to whisper over the huge boulder that formed inside his throat. "You've been planning this from the very beginning. From … the very start!"
Harry's mind went briefly blank. Could it be that he was this naïve and inconsiderate? He wanted to scream, he wanted to rave, but all he could do was stare at Voldemort in numb shock, while hating that tiny part of himself that still hoped the man would deny it.
Now. Please now.
"The ultimate sacrifice," Voldemort said quietly. "There can be no higher sacrifice than killing a piece of myself."
It all made horrible sense now. Dumbledore's previous words boomed in Harry's eerily empty skull, whirling together with Snape's meaningful glares and comments and Aberforth's warning...
"I was so looking forward to tell you that, Harry Potter! I wanted to see your face when I revealed you the truth! It was my intended revenge … and my final victory! Cutting away that redundant piece of myself that is attached to you will help to save the healthy rest! Ah, your silly friends failed to destroy me – they destroyed you instead!"
Harry's heart died.
He could not hurt. Dead people did not hurt – and he was dead.
"Bravo," Harry heard his own dull, deadened voice distantly. "You've destroyed me. You won, Riddle. Congratulation."
An ominous silence fell after his words, but Harry barely registered it.
"Why aren't you celebrating?" he said in an empty voice a few moments later. "Ah, right, I am still alive, I forgot. What are you waiting for, then?"
The previously immobile muscles on Voldemort's face twitched as if chasing away an irksome fly.
"Aren't you going to put up one last desperate fight?" he finally asked.
"Why?" Harry laughed hollowly and spread his arms, before letting them drop. "Why should I bother? Why should I try to stop you from making this final mistake? Why should I care? Why should I waste my breath by explaining that killing me is not an act of sacrifice but just another murder? Why should I continue being the same idiot I was up to now, who tried to show you that he could possibly care about you … that he could … perhaps even... Nah, you're hopeless, Riddle. Hopeless. Dumbledore was right. And I'm done with this. I am done with you. It's finished. Over. Just do it and kill me now. I'm sick of my fucked-up life anyway."
The silence spiralled horribly. Voldemort said nothing for a long moment and Harry could see he had serious trouble digesting his words.
"What are you saying?" he whispered at last and Harry, curiously enough, detected traces of doubts in his cold voice.
"It doesn't matter. You've already decided."
"What you don't see is that I have to do it, Potter! I have to, do you understand?" Voldemort hissed angrily and his face, his gestures showed the fear and uncertainty that bubbled close underneath the surface.
"I am not stopping you," Harry said plainly. "I am only wondering about one thing. If this is what you've been planning from the very start, what am I supposed to think about the yesterday evening then? You were there with me and you… You risked everything! Re-uniting your soul with the piece that is locked in here," Harry pointed at his forehead, "would have easily spoiled your grand plan completely. I don't get it. Why – just why did you do it?"
Voldemort's chest heaved with his fast breath. This time it was the Dark Lord, who seemed to be tormented by emotions while Harry's dead heart was cold and unresponsive.
"It was … just a momentarily weakness that I have managed to overcome like I had all the others in my past," he said at last.
"I see," Harry snorted dully. "If that is so, why are you so upset?"
Voldemort stepped forward, pointing his wand directly at Harry's chest.
Harry met his gaze squarely.
"You must understand, Potter," the taller of the two spoke again, "that what had happened in that bathroom was an inexcusable mistake. I gave in the temptation and I consider it a personal failure."
"Funny way how to think of the happiest moment in your life. You told me so, remember?" Harry noted idly.
When a frustrated cry escaped Voldemort's lips, Harry knew he hit the nerve dead on.
"Now, why are you so mad?" Harry continued, shaking his head. "I'm just repeating your words, am I not? When it comes to this, there's another thing you told me. You said that I will regret it tomorrow but look at me – I'm not regretting anything. The question is, what will you regret in those long, endless days to come?"
"Silence, Potter! Be quiet! It must be done! It must be!" Voldemort wheezed out, the Elder Wand trembling with the effort he put into his words. The red eyes were ablaze with pain that was quenching everything else.
And Harry only wondered why it touched his dead heart so much.
The tense moment was broken by an ominous crack coming from the cup on the small table.
Driven by instincts, Voldemort looked back and encountered his reflection in the Mirror of Erised that stood beside them, long forgotten.
His cat-like pupils dilated instantly and he stared at himself in the mirror, shock written all over his face.
The moment was, however, dispelled fast.
The red eyes fastened upon Harry's green ones again, frenzied, yet carrying a final decision.
Slowly, the pale hand holding the Elder Wand sank lower and lower still.
Harry did not even register those quiet words at first. But he could not miss the loud clatter of the Elder Wand against the floor and neither the cold hands on his face and in his hair … and the chalky lips, chilly and dry, brushing against his ear.
A desperate wail, barely reminding of Voldemort's voice.
"Oh, God," Harry gasped, as his abruptly reawakened heart tried to shatter his ribcage.
He circled his arms around the tall, agonized man, holding him closer and closer still. He did not know what was worse, whether the sounds of the shattering Horcruxes or Voldemort's cries of terror.
And Harry had to share all that dreadfulness through their mental link. It was insane; the pictures of something evil and hideous creeping from the dark, reaching for him, breaking his bones, tearing his flesh apart and slurping on his blood, dark and viscous...
His stomach lurched violently.
"Stop it! That's enough! Leave him alone!" Harry cried, still holding on to Voldemort. Sadly, he soon became too paralysed and the man slipped from his grasp, delirious, screaming something nonsensical before he lunged at the Mirror viciously.
Their combined weight shifted it from the balance and then, as if in a slow motion, the Mirror and Voldemort toppled over, coming to the ground with a deafening clash and glass break.
Harry instinctively covered his face to protect it from a massive cloud of jingling shards. Then he quickly ran forward to kneel beside the unmoving wizard, his gut clenching at the sight of bright red blood spilling underneath him.
"Tom," he said urgently, his loud voice surprising him in the sudden quietness.
He rolled him over to his back carefully, checking his injuries.
The bleeding was fortunately not as bad as Harry had feared.
"Can you hear me?" he whispered, listening for the breath in his chest, but he was not sure he heard anything.
Harry quickly used his shirt to wipe the patches of blood from the marble-white face and those large, spidery hands. Then he remembered his wand and, distracted as he was, tried to use a proper healing spell. When it finally took a desired effect, he slowly released his hold on Voldemort's black robes, watching his head loll back upsettingly.
"Can you hear me, Tom?" he implored, his throat becoming tighter and tighter with worries. He did not know who was he supposed to ask for help and he felt completely lost.
But then the closed eyelids quivered a little and Harry clutched the pale hands and rubbed those long, cold fingers in hope to bring more life into them.
"Step aside, Potter. Now."
Completely losing the track of his surroundings, Harry gave a tremendous start of surprise. He scrambled to his feet and spun around, raising his wand in the direction of the newcomer.
"Snape?" he gasped when he recognized the man that stepped out of the shadows.
"Still alive, Potter?" Snape murmured quietly.
"What are you doing here?" Harry asked lowly, coming to stand in front of Voldemort protectively.
"Luckily, I don't have to answer any of your questions, Potter. Now, step aside, or else I will make you," he said in a voice that could move a mountain.
Harry, however, was not a mountain. He was someone far more resilient than that.
"No," he said resolutely. "You step aside, sir. And lower your wand!"
"Potter," Snape's dark eyes flicked behind Harry. "This is my last warning."
"Mine too," Harry countered quietly.
Snape pressed his lips tightly together, but hesitated. Harry honestly did not expect to have such an effect on him, until he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was a gentle, cool touch, not aggressive or invasive in any way.
"That will do," a high clear voice said and Harry glanced up to see Voldemort stand beside him, the Elder Wand in his hand again.
Harry visibly sagged with relief, turning back to Snape. As he did so, he almost missed how the Dark Lord leaned down to him and lightly grazed the skin at his temple with his dry lips. The simplest hint of affection was still enough for Snape to give him a heart-attack.
Or so it looked, at least.
His sallow face framed by two curtains of greasy black hair prolonged on and on and when it seemed to be at least two feet long, Voldemort raised his head a little and asked softly.
"Is something the matter, Severus?"
"Not at all, my Lord. I beg your pardon, my surprise is completely out of place," Snape managed to reply smoothly, while bowing slightly.
"Your apology is accepted," Voldemort said loftily, moving his hand down Harry's arm. "Still, perhaps you could explain what are you doing here and why does Harry Potter feel such a fierce need to protect me in your presence?"
Snape did not even blink as he calmly replied.
"I came here, my Lord, to offer you my assistance, if you needed it. I did only leave my assigned post because Draco Malfoy had volunteered to take care of your remaining captives Granger, Weasley and Longbottom. Concerning Potter's whimsical behaviour, I have no answer for that, my Lord."
"I see," Voldemort whispered, apparently well accustomed to Snape's bulletproof answers.
"Perhaps Harry can tell me more about that, then..."
Harry quickly licked his dry lips; he had feared it would come to this.
He did not trust himself to speak, for he knew that his words would hardly pass Voldemort's roentgen inspection. So he just shook his head slowly, watching Snape silently instead.
"Well ... in that case, you may leave, Severus," Voldemort said quietly, surprising Harry by dropping the topic without another inquiry.
Seeing Snape back out fast, Harry turned to Voldemort and spoke hastily. "Wait a moment... Let them go. You don't need them anymore, do you? Let Neville, Ron and Hermione go."
Voldemort gave him a peculiar look and for a moment Harry thought that his request would be denied.
"If you believe they are going to be safer out there," Voldemort finally said before looking at Snape.
"Do as he says, Severus. It is my wish."
Snape bowed to him curtly and left as silently as he appeared there.
And Harry watched him, wondering what the hell was that about. Eventually, he could not resist it any longer and had to ask.
"There is a rebellion under way at the Ministry, Harry. Not out in the open yet, but close enough."
"A rebellion? But the Order..."
"Do you really believe that the Order of the Phoenix would have participated in the death of its member? Although ... now that I consider it-"
"You mean Bill Weasley? It was the rebels who killed him? But why? Who are they?"
Gazing directly into his red eyes, Harry could not miss how tired Voldemort appeared.
"It's the Death Eaters, aren't they?" he insisted. "But why should they act against your..."
"I'm not certain who's standing behind it yet and I cannot simply slay everyone who's been Imperiused at this point," Voldemort said in an insipid voice. "Moreover, as you can see, I had to stop my investigation and return here to deal with … this," he made a gesture towards the poor remnants of his Horcruxes.
The silence prolonged for a while, but it was not an uncomfortable one. The ice-cold sensation that was coming off Voldemort before was gone. Seeing the scraps of the previously carefully collected trophies from the Hogwarts's founders, Harry had no choice but to admit that the Dark Lord had, in the end, picked him over all his Horcruxes. It was something incredible. Harry was not ready to even start believing it. He felt … he had never felt like that before. It was not exactly happiness, knowing how much Tom had sacrificed...
"Wait!" Harry gasped out suddenly. "The curse! It's been broken at last, hasn't it?"
Voldemort tore his eyes off the small table to glance at Harry. His eyes were haunted, carrying an expression of someone who just went through Hell and back.
"The price was too high," he replied.
"Does it mean that the Horcruxes simply…?" Harry tried to place the question, but I got stuck in his throat. He cleared it loudly and tried again.
"Did they die?"
"Something worse … if that is even possible."
Voldemort's expression changed slightly as his red eyes narrowed with suspicion.
"Why does it matter to you so much? You're … a very confusing young man."
"You still have to ask?"
The Dark Lord sucked in a loud breath, apparently frustrated again.
"I- Potter, I don't know what you want from me. I've never..."
"Nah, it's all right," Harry stopped him softly. "Don't worry about it. I'm fine with almost anything as long as I can believe you again."
"Meaning you want to believe me?" Voldemort laughed hollowly. "After everything what happened?"
Harry's resolute words made the Dark Lord look at him properly.
"All right. Later, then. We will talk later. I need to rest now," he said quietly then and extended his bony hand to hide it in Harry's warm armpit.
"Take me somewhere safe, Harry. Surely you must understand why I don't wish to stay here any longer."