A/N: Here we go. A Wednesday update.
Anti-Litigation Charm: I do not own.
Harry was awoken by the sound of a loud, thunderous roar that echoed across the grounds. He bolted up in bed, and for a moment, wondered if he had perhaps merely dreamt it—but shoving aside the hangings around his bed, he realized he was not the only one. The rest of his roommates were also up, wide-eyed and terrified.
A second, bellowed roar could be heard, and the castle seemed to rumble ever so slightly.
"That sounds like Charlie!" Harry said, scrambling to get out of bed.
"What's going on?" Dean asked sleepily.
Ron was the first at the window.
"Harry… I think you'd better take a look at this…"
"What is it?" Harry demanded, shoving his glasses onto his face.
And then he saw.
In the distance, Charlie had taken to the air, the end of the broken chain dangling from his neck. The sky appeared to be aflame, until Harry realized with alarm it was the fire and smoke pouring from the edge of the Forbidden Forest. White-hot flames shot out of the black dragon's mouth, lighting up the sky with blinding light. Someone was clinging to his back, but a moment later, the dragon had twisted his neck around in mid-flight and ripped the person off with a sharp yank of his mouth.
Neville, Dean, and Seamus were crowded around them now, peering where they could for a better look.
"Harry!" Neville jabbed his finger at the ground, where the stone circle preceding the path to Hagrid's could be seen. A familiar figure was racing in the dark, brown hair flying wildly behind her. And she wasn't alone—Harry hadn't noticed them at first, because they blended in so well with the darkness, but now he glimpsed their silvery death-masks. "Look—Death Eaters!"
The dragon was circling over Hagrid's house now, and Harry saw him shoot another round of white flames, this time at the ground, causing the Death Eaters below to scatter. A shriek pierced the air as one of them didn't get out of the way in time, and the boys' eyes widened in amazement and terror as the man fell to the ground, tearing off his cloak and stamping his foot to try and extinguish it.
In the distance, they heard Fang barking, still locked in his house. Now Hermione was within range, and Harry saw her hiding behind the boulders of the Stone Circle to conceal herself, she could be seen bent down low, peering around the corner. And then she disappeared, her form melting away into the night. Harry assumed she must have Disillusioned herself.
And then she ambushed them. Bright purple light struck one of the Death Eaters, causing him to sink to the ground. Another tore off her mask, revealing black hair almost as wild as Hermione's, and dodged a jet of sickly yellow light by a hair's breath. They began to duel, Bellatrix clearly attempting to identify Hermione's whereabouts from the direction her spells came from, while the other Death Eaters used the opportunity to rush past, heading straight for the school. A spell struck one of the fleeing Death Eaters from behind, felling him, but there were too many for Hermione to get all at once while still guarding her back from Bellatrix.
"They're heading here," Neville said, his voice unusually high.
"So is Charlie," Seamus said, pointing upwards.
And so he was. The dragon was following the Death Eaters now, swooping down low in an attempt to breathe fire on them, but they all scattered and ducked. Two of them turned their wands on the pursuing dragon, but to no effect, as not enough of them appeared willing to unite and risk their lives for a chance to take out the fiery predator.
"We've got to stop them," Harry said determinedly.
He ran from the room. Ron was hot on his heels, as was Neville.
"Oi, you can't be serious!" Seamus bellowed from the top of the banister as the three of them headed down the stairs.
"You can come with us if you like," Ron called back.
But a moment later, both he and Dean were following them. They were about to make it to the portrait hole when another voice stopped them.
"Wait!" Selenius could be seen coming to a stop at the foot of the stairs, nearly tripping over the last step in his haste. "I'm coming with you!"
At the other staircase leading up to the girls' dormitory, Ginny arrived at that moment as well.
All five of the older boy stared at the first-year in disbelief.
"No effing way…" Ron said.
"We don't have time for this," Harry said. "Selenius, you have to stay here—"
"Mu—Professor Granger's dueling out there!" Selenius said, very nearly slipping up, but he caught himself in time. "And the rest are coming! I can help!"
"No, you can't," Ron said.
Selenius's jaw set, and Harry saw something in his eyes gleam almost dangerously, much in the same way Hermione's did. It was like seeing an amalgamation of Hermione and Snape standing in front of him, and for a moment, he wondered how Dean and Seamus couldn't see it. The same slight lift of the lips into a snarl, that narrowing of his eyes. His father's sneer, his mother's dangerous glint. He was angry, Harry could tell, and this was about to escalate.
"You can't stop me," he said quietly.
All five of the sixth-years turned to look at each other, and then raised their wands.
And then Harry saw Ginny take aim from behind.
The first-year suddenly froze, stiff and rigid as a board, a look of ugly surprise on his face. And then he slowly toppled over and hit the floor, completely motionless, entirely taken off-guard. Another spell, and thick ropes had wrapped themselves tightly around his prone body, ensuring he would stay there once the Petrificus spell had worn off. Ginny stepped over him as she walked toward the portrait hole.
"That's why you can't come," she said coolly, though she looked ever so slightly apologetic. "Sorry."
She turned to the rest of them.
"Let's go," she declared. "I've already contacted the rest of the DA. Luna and Susan are coming."
There was a sudden, enormous crash; Harry heard the gong of the Clock Tower as the bells attached to it shook violently, and then there was an almighty roar.
"Charlie!" Harry said, shoving open the portrait. "I'll go take care of him—the rest of you, don't let the Death Eaters into the castle!"
"Death Eaters?" The Fat Lady could be heard repeating in alarm, as they climbed through. "Violet, did you hear that?"
"I'll send word to the Headmaster!" Violet asserted, skipping over into the next frame.
Harry ignored her, and instead began climbing the stairs leading toward the giant clock that kept time for all of Hogwarts. He craned his neck in time to see Ron leading the way to the Entrance Courtyard, just underneath the clock tower, where the Death Eaters were undoubtedly making their way. He saw Luna join them shortly after, with Susan Bones following close behind.
Harry reached the next landing and then ran through the door, opening up to the wooden platforms and staircases that made up the tower, with a system of pulleys and ropes interwoven into them. Harry grabbed hold of one of them, and pointed at the attached weight resting atop the tower.
The weight flew toward him, causing the rope to yank upward sharply. Harry ducked as the weight flew toward him, smacking into the wall behind him, and held on tightly as the rope carried him up several flights of stairs.
Through the gaps in between the beams, Harry could see jets of flame striking part of the courtyard. It blocked off the archways on either side, forcing the Death Eaters to keep their distance and not quite step foot into the courtyard. Proudfoot and Mipsy were already there, and Harry heard him try to order the students back inside, but with his focus on the Death Eaters, he couldn't force them to and they refused to listen to him.
There was a loud clunk as the second weight just above Harry hit the pulley that blocked it from going further, and Harry leapt off, running up the last flight of stairs. Charlie was clinging to the other side of the clock, though the glass face had shattered in several places. Harry carefully stepped through one of the holes, and narrowly ducked a swipe by Charlie's tail as he scrambled for something to hold onto.
"Charlie!" he bellowed. "It's me!"
The dragon stopped writhing in place, neck twisting around the look at Harry. His mouth opened, and for a moment, Harry was afraid he was about to be roasted—but then the dragon let out a pleased guttural sound that Harry had learned to recognize, and nudged him in the shoulder in greeting. Harry grabbed the spiked around his head, dangling from them he was lifted up.
Harry swung himself onto the dragon's back, patting him in relief as he peered down at the courtyard below, and then back at Charlie, who was swinging his neck from side to side. It was then Harry realized why Charlie was still here—the chain was wrapped around the post that both of the clock hands were attached to. He was stuck.
Harry lifted his wand.
The chain snapped. With a triumphant roar, the dragon pushed off, spreading his wings and diving down below. Harry grabbed the harness and what was left of the chain, hoping against hope that he could steer. A yank to the left, and to his surprise, Charlie banked in that direction, opening his mouth to spew more of his threatening white-hot flames near the bridge that proceeded the courtyard. Harry had only ever seen him breathe red fire, but now he supposed that since Charlie was seriously trying to burn them all, hiking up the heat to another notch made sense. He just hadn't considered it possible.
The flames turned blue a few moments after impact, and he saw one of the Death Eaters hastily back away as a fireball landed inches away from his feet, and let out a yelp of surprise as it exploded into blue-bell flames. And then the flames were forced the part, as one of the Death Eaters enspelled them away from the entrance to the courtyard while others tried to extinguish them with water, and they charged through.
Harry couldn't hope to aim his wand, as he was already holding onto Charlie for dear life. A moment later, he saw Hermione coming up behind the Death Eaters. While Proudfoot and the others held them at bay on the steps, Hermione took two of them down silently before they realized they had an enemy at their back. Her eyes lifted up to Harry, and Harry saw them widen in shock as she realized that Charlie had a rider. And then her attention was diverted back to dodging and ducking, but in the bright fire-light, Harry was sure he saw her grinning.
One of the Death Eaters aimed a spell, not at Proudfoot or the others, but at the castle itself. A chunk of debris broke off, followed by others the size of Harry's head.
"Look out!" he bellowed.
He saw the others scatter off to the side as it came crashing down. The Death Eaters forced their way through the opening, and Charlie shrieked before letting lose a jet of white flames in their wake, but it was too late.
Harry saw Hermione charged in after them, leaping over the rubble and coming dangerously close to the flames. Proudfoot was on his feet, immediately dueling the nearest Death Eater who had not made it past them, but Ginny, Luna, and Neville all ran inside to stop the ones who had gotten through.
"Land!" Harry ordered, pulling on the chain, hoping the dragon understood him. "Land, Charlie! The ground—get on the ground!"
Whether it was because he understood Harry or coincidentally had the same idea in mind, the dragon swooped low. He deliberately crashed through one of the archways, collapsing it with his enormous bulk before skidding to a halt in the center of the courtyard. Six-inch gashes were left in his wake, tearing up the stone beneath him. He shook his frightful head and then lashed out at the nearest Death Eater, lifting the startled man into the air by the back of his robes. They were all still dueling now, seven masked enemies to five people frantically trying to stop the rest of them from entering the castle.
Charlie snapped the unfortunate man into the air, and there was scream followed by a sickening crunch. Harry quickly slid off, trying to ignore the blood dripping from Charlie's mouth as he came to stand in front of the dragon. A severed hand fell to the ground, and Harry did his best to avoid taking a step back in nauseating disgust as the dragon bent down to lick it up.
"Go back to Hagrid's," he said, trying to get the enormous beast to understand him. The dragon cocked a blood-stained head at him. "Hagrid's—go to Hagrid's," Harry said, pointing at the Forbidden Forest in the distance. "Hagrid's," he repeated, hoping he didn't sound like an idiot trying to talk to a dragon.
Charlie reared up, and a moment later, with a powerful rush of wings, had taken flight. Harry breathed a sigh of relief, and then hastily ducked as a jet of green light flew over his head. He leapt back up, climbing over the debris on the ground to join the others.
"Stupefy!" he yelled, catching Dolohov from behind.
Charlie was useful to have around, but Harry was certain that it was by sheer luck—and, perhaps, the fact that Charlie was so used to the students and considered them a part of Hogwarts—that none of his friends had been hurt yet. No matter how small ("Not anymore," a part of his mind reminded him) or tame Charlie seemed, he was still a dragon, which were by their very nature frighteningly unpredictable creatures. Right now, Charlie was protecting his turf from unfamiliar invaders—Harry had learned that much about dragon behavior from his time in Care of Magical Creatures. He wasn't trying to save the students out of some goodness of his reptilian heart. He just wanted the Death Eaters out of his castle, and he considered the students to be part of his territory—that didn't mean he would be above roasting them if it meant getting the wizards encroaching on his land.
If Harry let Charlie stay, he was certain the dragon would have tried to get into the castle itself, and he wasn't sure letting a twenty-nine-foot-long fire-breathing reptile do that was the best of all possible plans.
He saw McGongall appear in the doorway a moment later, followed by Professor Flitwick. And then, at long last, Dumbledore stepped into view his wand raised, emanating such power that the Death Eaters attempting to force a second way into the castle withdrew in fear. Trusting that they had this well in hand, Harry ran past them, charging after the Death Eaters who had made it through.
Hermione followed Bellatrix's heels in hot pursuit, the other woman attempting to aim at her over her shoulder as they chased through the castle. At one point, Hermione cornered her at a dead end, causing them to fall into a fast and furious duel until Bellatrix managed to slip past, and Hermione followed again.
Hermione let out a shriek of rage when she realized that three seventh years who were in the middle of their Astronomy exams had come down to see what was happening. She skidded to a half, putting herself between Bellatrix and the students while the stood there, gaping at them.
They fled at the command, and Bellatrix let out a cackle.
"Still protecting the students as always, I see—"
Hermione heard footsteps behind her again, and wheeled around in time to see Severus arrive. Understanding dawned on her—he had been charged with the task of escorting the students back to their dormitories. No wonder they looked terrified, they had only been doing as they were told, and picking between obeying Severus Snape and getting between a duel by Professor Granger and Bellatrix Lestrange was the worst of all possible options.
"Warrington, take the other students through the other route," he ordered quickly, and Hermione saw one of the Slytherin seventh-years hovering behind him wheel around and disappear up the next flight of stairs. Snape took a step forward. "Now, for this…"
Bellatrix's eyes narrowed, though her wand was still pointed at Hermione. "What are you going to do now, Snape?" she asked, eyes flaring with dangerous, demented glee. "You're finally going to have to make a choice!"
Without a moment's hesitation, Severus pointed his wand, not at Bellatrix, but at Hermione.
The rush of red light approached her so quickly that when Hermione ducked, it missed her by a hair's breadth. Bellatrix let out another shriek of delight, and the next moment, had turned on her heel and was running for the stairs.
"No!" Hermione roared, but was prevented from pursing by being forced to dodge another spell. "Goddamn it—Stupefy!"
Severus easily side-stepped her, crouching into a dueling stance as Hermione was finally forced to give him her full attention.
"Why?" she whispered, as they stood to a standstill. "Why does it always have to come to this?"
"It's the nature of the beast," he said, his voice so quiet she could barely hear him. A loud bang echoed through the hall, as a nearby knight shattered into a million brilliant gleaming shards, and then transfigured themselves into daggers, all flying straight for her.
Hermione pursed her lip, but it was understood—talk was overrated and over. She flicked her wand, transfiguring the daggers into a single entity again, only this time it was in the shape of a giant metal lioness, which launched itself at Severus—
He twisted his hand into an arc, and it dissolved into a cloud of dust; a jet of red light flew at her from within, and Hermione deflected it before diving forward with a blast of fire from the tip of her wand.
It struck the wall behind him, setting one of the paintings alight; Hermione watched in horror as the screaming occupants were forced to flee to the surrounding paintings, and Severus gave her a disgusted look, though was quickly forced to dodge as she sent another blast at him.
They danced around each other, neither able to flee nor allowing the other to run, and went directly for each other's throats. Hermione was defending herself against deadly spells, her scarred face contorted into a snarl as a secumsempra nicked her side. She retaliated with a Choking Spell, and for a moment, she thought she had him; he was lifted two feet off the ground with his back to the wall and gripping at invisible hands on his throat, struggling to breathe—but then he recovered himself long enough to fire back at her, holding her at bay while he dismantled the spell.
He fell to the floor, panting and massaging his bruised throat, and Hermione struck.
He waited until the last possible moment to duck, leading Hermione to believe for a split moment that perhaps it had struck—and then he nimbly rolled to the side and simultaneously took aim.
A bolt of light struck her head on, coloring her vision in red, and then the split moment of impending blackness rushed upon her as she hit the ground.
If one could see through Disillusionment charms, they would have seen Harry bent low in front of the tapestry to the Room of Requirement as Bellatrix disappeared through the door, waiting for her to reappear. If his plan was to swoop in and steal the Horcrux from Bellatrix, he needed to remain Disillusioned and perfectly still, so as to ambush her when she finally reappeared.
With the Stone firmly in his pocket, he knew he had a back-up plan if this failed to work. He knew Bellatrix—knew that she would see more immediate value in the Philosopher's Stone than in whatever unremarkable object the Dark Lord had seen fit to stuff his soul into. He mentally counted the minutes as they silently ticked by and then—when it had begun nearing forty-five minutes since Bellatrix had disappeared into the room—he reached into his robes and took out the decorative flask Hermione had given him for Christmas years ago, and uncapped it.
He dropped several fine black hairs he had been holding onto into it, and the thick, muddy liquid within bubbled and turned gold—an odd color for such an unpleasant potion, but he took a swig regardless before stuffing it back into his robes.
The door opened at long last, and Bellatrix emerged, looking triumphant. Severus flicked his wand at her, and—just as he had hoped—she didn't see the jet of light waiting for her. She fell the ground with a muted thud, and for a moment, Severus considered if he should just kill her—it was such a delightful opportunity to get her out of the way—but he had already reasoned his way out of it while cobbling together his plan. If she was gone, he would have the Dark Lord's ear, but his methods of elimination were too similar to Hermione's, and no matter what he tried, they would be too clean. His only option would be to stun her and throw her over a railing, staging it as an accident. But even so, he would surely be seen.
He rummaged through her pockets, searching, searching—
His hands closed around something, and he pulled it out. The diadem gleamed in the torchlight, and he turned it over in his hands in wonder as he finally understood what it was.
Wit beyond measure is a man's greatest treasure.
"Gemino," he murmured, and a double appeared. He slipped it into Bellatrix's robes, precisely where he had found it before, and got to his feet. He began dragging her across the hall, toward the stairs, stopping for a moment to listen for footsteps, and then propped her upright. He tapped her forehead with the tip of his wand, muttering the Memory-Charm spell, and then pointed at her chest.
He was flying down the stairs before her eyes fluttered open, as fast as Potter's legs would carry him. He flew with all the speed he could muster, nearly tripping over the staircase as it shifted beneath his feet. And then he was running down the corridor where he had left Hermione, and quickly knelt down beside her. He had left her propped up against the wall as well, her head bent over her chest, eyes closed. He lifted up her chin, pointing his wand at her neck.
"Ennervate!" he whispered.
Her eyes flew open almost immediately and she jerked in place, kicking him in the shins before realizing who it was. "I—I—Harry?" she asked faintly.
He held a finger to his lips, and shook his head before reaching into his pocket for the diadem. He pressed it into her hands, and her eyes widened.
"Take care of it in the Headmaster's Office." He squeezed her hand. "I have another ten minutes before the Polyjuice wears off—I must hide until then."
"Right," she said, struggling to her feet. She fixed him with a narrowed gaze. "You do realize you neglected to tell me that you had this plan in the works."
He gave her a slight smirk, one that looked very wrong on Harry's face. And then he stood up, and was about to leave when Harry—the real Harry—rounded the corner.
For a moment, the two of them stood face to face. Harry's wand immediately whipped out, pointing straight at Severus—but then he saw Hermione shake her head, and slowly lowered it as his twin approached.
Severus held up the Stone, turning it over for Harry to see, and then stuffed it into Harry's hands. The Boy Who Lived fumbled with it in surprise as his physical double stalked off.
"Was that…" Hermione nodded, and he pointed at Severus's retreating back. "That was really…" she let out a muted huff of laughter as she got to her feet, and he turned around to glare at Snape before demanding, "How did he get some of my hair?"
"Never mind that now," Hermione said, slowly getting to her feet. "Harry, where are the rest of the Death Eaters?"
"Most of them are outside," Harry said grimly, pocketing the Stone. "More arrived, but the ones already here were forced back outside—I came to find you, we need you down there."
"I need to take care of this first," Hermione prioritized, holding up the Diadem.
A sudden cry reverberated through the corridor, as Neville skidded to a halt at the other end.
"Harry!" he panted. "Harry, they're—they're leaving!"
"What?" Hermione demanded.
"Bellatrix ran out and told them to go—they got what they came for—they're running away!"
Harry looked at Hermione, who was clutching the diadem tightly.
"No," he said slowly, a smile spreading across his face as he realized with delight what had just happened. "They didn't."
Snape intersected them, fully himself again, just as they were rushing down the stairs to watch the last of the Death Eaters go. They were running past Hagrid's house and toward the Whomping Willow, ducking Charlie's flame in their wake. One of them was knocked over by the tree's swinging branches before it was frozen with the trick-knot, and in the distance, Proudfoot and Kingsley could be seen in hot pursuit while Tonks and Remus walked back, carrying a half-walking half-stumbling form between them.
"It looks like Bill got hurt," Neville said, not noticing the man behind him as they stepped out into the courtyard. "Fenrir was here, I saw him go after—" he looked behind him, and let out a squeak of terror when he realized who it was. "P-Professor Snape!"
Snape ignored him. "We ought to do a sweep of the castle," Harry heard him mutter to Hermione in an undertone. "Make sure none of them are lying in wait…"
"That sounds like something they'd do," Hermione agreed quietly.
She held up her wrist and began fiddling with her watch.
"I'll check for them on my way back. I have something to do first."
There was an audible pop, and she spun away.