Even then, when he thought about it, his greatest terror was that someone would respond to him.
How could they know who he was? He was now terribly difficult to love...
—Rainer Maria Rilke, "The Prodigal Son"
The baby blinked up incuriously, its deep blue eyes still too weak to focus on the horror looming above it, and tried to stick its foot into its mouth. Voldemort glared down at it and straightened, his hands clenching. It wasn't going to work. The blood wasn't close enough—he didn't even need to bother taking some to be certain, although the thought was tempting.
He turned and stalked out of the room. Lucius fell into step behind him as the nursemaid crept back into the nursery with a last terrified look in their direction.
"I thought you would be pleased, my Lord," Lucius ventured. "A son, as you desired."
Voldemort half-turned on him, but at the last moment he restrained himself and only hissed softly through his teeth, enough to make Lucius recoil. He hadn't bothered to tell Lucius precisely why he wanted the child. Telling him to hand over this new whelp as a replacement sacrifice for the firstborn son he'd already had to give might have broken his always-tenuous loyalty. Not that Voldemort would have cared in the slightest, if only the child had been worth anything. But Lucius was useful enough a servant not to be thrown away unnecessarily.
"I trust he will grow to serve me well," he said coldly, still simmering. "However, I fail to see why you were required here for the birth. Now get yourself to London. I will hold you personally responsible for the success of this next operation, Lucius—and to be clear, I expect the boy alive."
He apparated away without waiting for Lucius to get out the usual servile obeisance. Usually he found it entertaining—there was little quite as satisfying as watching this purest of pureblooded wizards groveling to him. At the moment, however, he was not in a mood to be amused.
Back in his study, Voldemort coiled himself back into the depths of his throne and settled, soaking up the heat the marble had absorbed from the piled braziers. It did little to soothe him. The Knife of Astarte gleamed silver on the hearth, except for where the blade was stained red with blood that still looked fresh and liquid. He stared at it unblinkingly, his hands clenching and unclenching.
A hundred spells he'd tried, at the very least, and none of them any use at all. The walls of the Scholomance could not be breached. Not for the first time, he cursed his own miserable pride as he brooded on the botched sacrifice, the memory ten years old now and still bitter. But oh, he'd wanted to gloat, he'd wanted to watch Lucius Malfoy squirm and suffer—smug, aristocratic, handsome Lucius, who had never before been forced to sacrifice anything more than a few moments of effort for his power. He'd wanted to see the terror on the face of Malfoy's spoiled brat, so pampered and adored every moment of his life.
Well, he had gotten what he wanted, and now he was paying for it with ten years of slow, grinding battle where there should have been instant victory. He hissed aloud once again, and on the far side of the hearth, Nagini lifted her flat, angular head and tested the air with a forked tongue, inquisitively.
"Massster," hissed the serpent, sliding out of her heap across the heated flagstones, crawling closer to the fire, along a careful path between the blaze and the gleaming edge of the Knife.
"Go back to sleep," Voldemort said. "I do not require you now."
"Massster," Nagini said again, tasting the air above the blade, weaving back and forth. Pausing, Voldemort leaned forward, his attention suddenly caught.
On the hearth, the Knife of Astarte was shining, and for the first time in ten years, not merely with reflected light.
Harry forced himself to stay still on the escalator, even though his back itched with the pressure of imagined eyes. Running would be the worst thing he could do. His only chance now was blending in with the Muggle crowd, busy with their shopping, and slipping out onto the street among them. That didn't keep his legs from desperately wanting to move.
His hands were buried in the pockets of his jacket, clenched hard, but he kept a casual, slightly bored expression on his face. He knew he looked like any dozen other young men in the department store, with his battered leather jacket and worn jeans, his hair a little unfashionably long in front and flopping over his eyes. The simple disguise had saved his life twice before; it might save him now.
And then he looked towards the door and saw two police officers standing on either side of it, their faces rigid with the queer blankness of the mind-controlled. They were looking hard at the faces of every black-haired man going past them. His gut tightened as the implications hit him. This wasn't just bad luck. This was a trap. For him.
He pressed his arm closer to his body, feeling the slender hardness of his wand tucked neatly into the lining of the jacket. It was a little comfort, but not much. How could they have known he would be here? They never used the same places for meetings between members of different resistance cells—this one hadn't even been arranged until just this morning, when he'd bumped into Colin Creevey by coincidence in the Underground...
He felt cold and angry at himself for taking so long to understand. Neville had been having visions for days, but they'd all been murky at best, and he'd sent Harry out today with only the information than something important was going to happen. It was his own stupidity in assuming that it was going to be something good, in jumping on the suggested meeting without thinking.
He had to get out and warn the others. Colin knew at least a third of the people in the London resistance; he might even have an idea of where their headquarters were. If Voldemort found out where Snape was, he'd come after them with everything he had, and he wouldn't even care if the Muggles noticed.
He took a little comfort that at least he was probably the first target. He'd have heard about it if anyone had been taken recently, and anyway Voldemort probably wanted him almost as much as he would want Snape. That meant there was still time. If only he could get to the others and warn them, they might be able to scatter the people Colin could betray.
He stepped off the escalator and ducked behind a large woman who was dragging two loudly squalling children towards the exit. Keeping out of sight of the policemen, he slipped between two racks of clothing and edged towards the back, rubbing his forehead as his scar stabbed with sudden pain. Voldemort was using a lot of power, he realized grimly. There could be any number of controlled people here.
He hid behind a double rack crammed with on-sale clothing and crouched down, scanning the room for any other people showing signs of Voldemort's hand. With a sinking heart, he realized there were at least a dozen of them that he could see—a pair approaching the escalator, another one moving towards the back exit, others simply milling around and looking.
They really meant to get him. He would have bet on himself against any three Death Eaters, but with all these Muggles around, if it turned into a fight—He shook his head and carefully started working his way towards another section of the store, keeping out of sight. He spotted another couple of Voldemort's agents coming up the escalator from the lower level, their faces frustrated, and he allowed himself a tight, grim smile as he slipped across an aisle and tucked himself against a mirrored column.
And then Harry saw the answer to his prayers—although he had to admit that he'd never imagined he'd ever think of Goyle that way. It had been years since they'd last seen each other—Goyle looked only slightly smaller than Hagrid now, taller than the service door he was guarding and almost as wide. People were actively avoiding going anywhere near him, leaving a lot of open room to cross with no distractions. But Goyle was as slow as ever, and his idea of looking around seemed to be to squint his piggish eyes in one direction for five minutes, then switch to another. It was child's play to slip around him while he was staring the other way.
And then past a couple of surprised store employees, around a lorry in the loading bay, and he was out onto a side street, gulping the hot, exhaust-laden summer air gratefully. Now he just needed to get a few more blocks away, and he could start to relax. He looked around, and only then registered how eerily empty and quiet the street was.
"Cruciatius extremio." It was drawled out, slowly and lovingly, and Harry felt the pain wash over him, intensifying from first syllable to last, driving him to his knees. He'd learned how to function through Crucio, he'd had to learn, but this—this was something different, something new, smell of lilies and sulphur thick in his nostrils, a ringing like a siren in his ears; he couldn't even breathe, or think.
"Lord Voldemort worked this out especially for you, Potter. I hope you're properly appreciative." Lucius Malfoy emerged, black robes rippling as he swung off the Invisibility Cloak he'd been wearing. "No, please don't get up on my account."
Sweating with the effort not to scream, Harry couldn't get out a response. Hermione, he thought desperately. Neville. His hands were shaking so badly he couldn't get at the packet of atropine. He doubled over, squeezed himself down small, trying to keep his fumbling from Lucius' eyes. He couldn't let them take him. He'd seen too many people broken to have illusions. It would take them time, but they'd strip everything out of him in the end.
"Gregory, Vincent, I believe Mr. Potter needs some assistance. Do make sure he isn't in danger of doing himself any injury."
Crabbe and Goyle rolled him over onto his back and pinned him down, their laughter stabbing worse than the pain as they ripped his jacket and shirt apart, throwing his wand aside. Harry tried to make his hands work with one last convulsive effort, groping at his jeans waistband. The packet was in his hands, the seal was broken, and the last thing he saw before the pain finally took him down was Lucius plucking it away with a smile.
He woke up in the pitch dark on a cold concrete floor, still half-naked, patches of damp mold slimy under his hip and his shoulder. His whole body ached in every atom, and he could barely manage the short distance to the walls. As it turned out, he might as well not have bothered. The cell was completely bare, and there was nothing at all he could use.
Time crawled. Eventually a couple of lackeys so minor he didn't even recognize them came in with a spell-lamp and a hard metal chair and heaved him up onto it, chaining him ankles and wrists under the hot white light. The Veritaserum and Compelling Draught weren't thoroughly brewed, and churned in his stomach after they forced them down his throat. Then Lucius came in, his white-gold hair and pale skin gleaming in the magical light, horribly familiar, and it began.
Harry talked as slowly as the potions would let him, gave up every miserable true story he could dredge up from his childhood, every humiliation described in thorough detail. He could see Lucius enjoyed those too much to bother forcing him along to more important things, and every minute he held out was a minute where Hermione and the others might get away.
The door opened and closed every once in a while, people coming in to bring Lucius things, whisper in his ear. The light stayed the same, the thick cloying taste in his mouth stayed the same, Lucius's smile stayed the same. Harry kept talking, helplessly.
Another black-robed flunkey opened the door and came in with a tray of water, clear flagon and cut-crystal glass making rainbows on the bare walls. Lucius didn't stop Harry's recitation, just held up the glass and drank without ever looking away from Harry's face. The water gurgling was so loud. Harry licked his dry lips, staring at the glass, the shine on Lucius's mouth. The door closed quietly, and Harry heard the bolt slide home.
A hand fell on his shoulder, and an unnaturally quiet voice spoke, barely audible over the faint crackle of the light. "Cessura."
The compulsion to speak fell away so abruptly it left Harry gasping. Lucius half-rose from his chair and fell back into it limply, as if his legs had abruptly stopped working. No sound came out of his working mouth. The black-robed man came back around into the light, reached up and pushed back his hood.
"Hello, Father," Draco said softly. He looked at Harry and twitched a hand. "Alohomora." The cuffs clattered to the ground, and Harry made a noise that didn't qualify as words. He wondered crazily if maybe he'd broken, gone insane under the interrogation, and this was all hallucination, some fantasy of rescue and forgiveness all at once.
He slowly got to his feet, rubbing life back into his arms. Lucius was still sitting frozen in the chair, apparently unable to speak, staring at Draco with unblinking eyes. Less than an arm's length away, Draco watched them both without a word.
It was the look of him that convinced Harry he wasn't dreaming. He reached out to touch Draco's hair, as long as his father's now and tied back from the thin, sharp face with a strip of black. Too fine and crackly, clinging to his fingers, with ends ragged as though they'd been hacked off with a knife. Draco's eyes were wary, and he shivered a little when Harry's hand slipped through the strands and onto his neck.
And the skin was warm and real, he was real, right there. "You got out," Harry managed. "You got out."
Draco shivered again, harder. Harry knew he ought to draw back his hand, but he couldn't quite make himself do it. Then suddenly Draco's arms were around him, tight enough that he couldn't quite breathe properly, and he put his arms around the too-thin body. He pressed his hot eyelids against Draco's bony shoulderblade, the rough wool of the robes scratchy against his skin.
It was only a moment, then Draco pulled back, hands folding into the heavy sleeves of his robe and face closing up. "Sit and rest," he said, nodding towards the empty chair, still in that too-soft voice. "Don't drink the water."
"I can rest later. We have to get out of here, now," Harry said. "I don't know what else Colin told them, who else he gave up—"
"Colin?" Draco sounded uninterested. He was looking at Lucius now, and there was a queer, frightening expression on his face. Lucius still hadn't moved, or even blinked, far as Harry could tell.
"Colin Creevey, the one who got me caught. He's turned traitor," Harry said slowly.
"Traitor to who?"
"The Resistance. Draco—how did you know I was here, if you don't know any of this?"
Draco turned cool, impenetrable eyes on him. "I didn't."
Harry looked at Lucius, and thought he could see real terror in the man's locked-open eyes. "We have to warn the others—Snape and the others," he said, grabbing for something to pull Draco out of here, away from whatever he was planning to do. "Draco, he's not worth it."
Draco smiled, and it was, horribly, just like Lucius's smile. "This won't take long."
"Imperio." Draco said it gently, but it took hold of Harry all the same, and he was too tired and sick with the drugs and horror to fight it off. He sank back into his chair, unable to even speak.
Draco turned back to Lucius. "No, this won't take long," he said softly, reaching out to tilt Lucius's head back. "A bit longer than it took you for Mother, though. Yes, I know all about that, Father. I know all about a great many things." Draco smiled again.
Harry closed his eyes, so he didn't have to see. There was no screaming, oddly enough.
He woke up with Hermione putting a cold compress on his forehead. She pushed him back down. "It's all right," she said. "Lie still a while, you'll feel better soon, I've put a Refreshing Charm on you."
"Snape's getting him settled," she said, pushing limp strands of hair off her forehead with the back of her hand. It had been a mad scramble when Harry had finally brought Draco back to headquarters, to get everyone moved and anything they couldn't take along destroyed beyond use. Harry hadn't been much use, either, still falling-down sick, and Draco had only stood in a corner and watched them all scurry around as if it had nothing to do with him at all.
" 'Mione, it's important, I have to tell you—Lucius Malfoy's dead." He hesitated before going on. It felt weirdly like betrayal. "Draco... Draco killed him."
"I know. He told us." She sat back on her heels, lips pressed tight. She reminded Harry of McGonagall every time she did that. "I think he was almost daring us to say something about it."
"Lucius deserved it."
"Oh, Harry, what has that got to do with anything? Of course he deserved it, I'm hardly going to cry for Lucius Malfoy," Hermione said impatiently. "But you must see that Draco's horribly dangerous. I know you're glad he's out, and I am too, and not just because he got you safe, but there's no disguising that he's gone as Dark as can be."
"Discussing our returned prodigy, I see."
Harry sat up despite Hermione's restraining hands as Snape came to the side of his cot. "He's not Dark! Anyone would have—"
"Tortured his father to death after poisoning him with Immobilium?" Snape said dryly. "Don't be absurd, Potter. She's quite right, and it's scarcely a surprise. The Scholomance is the pinnacle of Dark Arts schools, after all."
"I thought you liked Draco," Harry said accusingly.
"He had more promise than most of you as brats, but I hardly intend to let that blind me. See to it you don't let your own misplaced guilt do the same."
"Severus, what are we going to do about him?" Hermione asked hurriedly, before Harry could splutter a response. "Voldemort must know he's back by now, and my Scrying Shield won't block him out for long, not when he's marked—"
"Yes, yes," Snape said, impatiently. "Neville lost all Sight as soon as you two came back, Potter. There are too many possibilities branching ahead, from a climactic moment—"
"You want to make a stand!" Harry said, a hard surge of excitement gripping him. He and Sirius had been arguing for an all-out fight against Voldemort for months now, but Snape had always overruled him.
"Now?" Hermione said. "But I haven't finished developing the Ameliorare spell, or the—"
Snape cut her off. "You'll always be working on something new, Granger, and so will Voldemort. These current circumstances are as good as we could hope to arrange. Voldemort will come to us if he thinks he has a chance at Malfoy, no matter what ground we choose, and Malfoy may even give us added firepower they won't be ready for."
"Oh, so we're going to be using Dark magic now?" Hermione said sharply.
"Perhaps you would suggest that we hand Malfoy over and let Voldemort complete his ritual?" Snape said coldly. "We have few other alternatives. There's nowhere Malfoy can hide for any length of time."
"If we want to protect Draco, we should help him stop using Dark magic, not ask him to use it to help us beat Voldemort," Hermione said. "It's bad enough he was trapped in that horrible place for all those years, without us encouraging him."
"That place, Granger, is one of the foremost schools of magic in the world, despite any of its less savory qualities," Snape said. "And I assure you Malfoy is not such a dullard as to have missed the opportunity to acquire that kind of power, or he would not have lived to escape. That may make the very difference between victory and defeat."
"And all of a sudden, that's all that matters now? Winning, even if we corrupt him and ourselves?"
"That's not fair, 'Mione," Harry said. "What do you want to do, tell him not to fight back any way he can when Voldemort comes to carve him up? You're acting like Draco's evil—maybe he's learned Dark magic, but he didn't have a choice! This could be our best chance to finally beat Voldemort for good."
"Wonderful," Hermione said stormily, getting up. "I hope you have something planned for when we have to beat Draco afterwards, then." The door slammed behind her.
Snape scowled after her. "How she can continue to be this blindly na´ve after everything escapes me." He rose as well. "We'll gather in the basement for planning in two hours. I have to communicate with Black and Hagrid. Are you recovered?" At Harry's nod, he went on. "Put together a preliminary strategy for us. Assume Hagrid's cell will join us fully and Black's will contribute half their strength. If we fail, something must be left for hiding the remaining children."
"Right," Harry said, getting up. "I'll need to talk to Draco, find out whether he can help us, what he can do." Snape nodded and swept out, and Harry took a minute to wash his face off and put on fresh clothes before going out.
He found Draco in a small, bare room on the third floor. All the other windows in the building had been covered up with hastily-conjured shutters for security's sake, but Draco had evidently magicked his open again, and early morning sun was painting a slanting rectangle across the empty floor. Draco was sitting on the ground just outside the patch of sunlight, apparently staring into thin air.
"Hey," Harry said uncertainly, not sure if he was interrupting anything.
"Dust in sunlight," Draco said, whisper-soft. He reached out and put his fingers into the light and waved them around, making long shadows on the floor. "There wasn't any of either, inside."
Harry came in and sat down cross-legged next to him. "How did you get out?"
"Did I?" Draco spoke like he was talking to himself, never looking away from the sunlight. He reached out unerringly and touched Harry's cheek, stroked it lightly.
His thumb brushed over Harry's lips, fingertips resting on his cheekbones. Harry found that he was having to make an effort to breathe. "Yes," he said, whispering without really knowing why. "You're here." He reached up.
But Draco pulled away before Harry could touch his hand. "Yes," he said, standing up. He turned away from the window and pulled the hood back up over his head, tucked his hands away in his sleeves. After staring at the sunlight, Harry could barely make him out in the dim light of the room. He got up off the floor, feeling suddenly cold, and not knowing why.
Draco was the one to break the silence, his voice distant. "Professor Snape tells me we're going to fight. I expect you'll be wanting me to participate. What do you need?"
Unsure what had just changed Draco's mood, Harry fell back on the practicalities. "To know what you can do, mainly. So I know how to work you into the strategy."
"Mm." Draco turned and said something, a word that hurt Harry's ears and meant nothing.
Draco held up a hand and looked past Harry. "Chairs and a table," he said, as if giving instructions. Harry turned around: no one was there, but when he turned back, Draco was moving to sit at a plain table that had appeared out of nowhere. "Air elemental," he said, answering Harry's stare.
Harry pulled out the second chair and sat down heavily, taken aback. He'd done summonings himself, but with half a day of preparation, and they hadn't been good for anything but a little spying. "Can it help in a fight?"
"Too fragile. A demon would be more useful," Draco said, as if he were talking about conjuring up a quart of milk. "But I can't use combat magic and hold a demon at the same time."
"Right, naturally," Harry said, trying to match his casual tone. In the shadows of the hood, he could make out Draco's lips curving a little. "I think we'd better avoid demons."
"Still squeamish, Potter?" Draco said mockingly. "Well, there are better alternatives, anyway. The dead, for instance. Under some circumstances, they can be given a target and set loose, bound to the target's death."
"But if they aren't ghosts, if they've passed on—"
"I can work around that. It will make things easier if I call people that the rest of you saw die. I imagine there have been a few."
Harry couldn't say anything for a minute. Draco tossed it out like nothing, and Ron—Dumbledore, all the others—"Yeah," he managed, wishing he could just push the table aside and hit him. "There have."
"Oh, did I hit a nerve?" Draco didn't sound like he cared much, and Harry did shove aside the table then. He had Draco up against the wall, hands fisted in his robe, hood sliding down and his still too-pretty hair mussed, and Draco just laughed, short and vicious. "Do you expect me to feel sorry for you?" he hissed in Harry's face. "Because you've watched a few people die?"
Harry let go and dropped his hands. "I'm sorry," he said, feeling sick and guilty. Draco had been in hell for ten years, and—
Draco made a shoving motion with one hand and whispered something, and Harry was flung back onto the table. Draco leaned over him, arms braced on either side of Harry's head, eyes fever-bright. "Save your pity," he said. "I could kill with a word. I could call up an army of demons and let them smash this whole city to pieces, do you think I regret it? Do you think I wouldn't do it all again? Do you think—"
Harry pushed up off the table and grabbed Draco by the shoulders and shook him to shut him up. "Would you?" he said, panting so hard he felt his lungs pressing against his ribs, his collarbone. "Would you really?"
"I don't get to choose, do I?" Draco said, jerking away, folding his hands back into his sleeves. He was also breathing hard, an angry red flush mottling his cheekbones, even though he stood rigidly straight again. "And neither do you, so spare me your regrets. From what I can see, you'd be in rather a nasty spot right now without my education. Quite convenient for you all, my returning, isn't it?"
Harry stared. "If you're implying—" He couldn't finish it, choking on the idea.
"Oh, not you personally," Draco said coolly. "But Dumbledore was really remarkably clumsy about the whole thing. It's entirely understandable, you know. Hard to see how else your side could have dealt with Voldemort getting his hands on the Knife of Astarte."
That was enough. "Forget it," Harry said, turning for the door. "We'll do this without you. If Voldemort gets past us, feel free to try and save yourself any way you like, with demons or otherwise."
Draco just laughed at his back. "There, that's better than pity. Do feel free to let me know when you're ready for my help."
Harry slammed the door behind him.
Lucius Malfoy's corpse was laid out face-up on a waist-high cooling slab, illuminated by five spell-lights. Voldemort circled the body, laying identification spells over it one after another, each one absorbing the traces of one of the torture spells, rising up and sketching its name in letters of fire before fading away. He'd lifted a round dozen so far, half of them so obscure he barely knew them, and he actually didn't recognize the last killing one: a name with a dusty, Egyptian flavor and the shadow of a dark power men had once worshipped.
Finally there was no more to be gleaned, and he dismissed the slab back to the dungeons. He rolled the taste of the new curse over his tongue, savoring it and the anticipation of using it for the first time. Possibly he would try it out on one of the idiot guards who had so spectacularly failed to keep either Potter or Lucius's son here until he arrived.
He might even want to keep the Malfoy boy alive for some time, to extract any other morsels like this from him. He still wasn't sure how the brat had managed to escape the Scholomance. If it weren't for the new—or rather very old—curse, he would have been inclined to go back to his original assumption, that the whole thing had been an elaborate illusion of Dumbledore's making, now dispelled. But this was too extraordinary, too malevolent, to have come from any other source but that Dark school. Sheer elegance, to use the victim's own wizardry and soul against him, to make him condemn himself to his own worst nightmares and trap himself within them until he died of fear.
A gesture at the door opened it and brought his waiting Death Eaters into the room. He smiled to see Ginny in the lead. "Ah, my dear, quite recovered? I regret this fresh loss for you, and at such a time."
She bowed to him low, even though she was still pale from the delivery. "Your sympathy honors me, my Lord, but I'm sure that Lucius was happy to die in your service, as any of us would be," she said. "I will raise our son to feel the same."
"Yes, my dear, I know you will." He stroked her wan cheek and indulged himself by invoking a spell of aura vision, enjoying once again the thick mesh of black corruption he'd so skilfully woven around her small core of self.
In this at least, Lucius had done something right, setting the imprint on this all-important pawn so early in her life. Voldemort hadn't realized until much later just how completely he would be able to hold her. She could use the Death Curse as casually as any of his servants, torture with a laugh on her pretty, smiling mouth; she had spied and murdered for him, with no effort required on his part beyond an occasional touch of maintenance, all because she'd once welcomed him in.
And before he'd handed her over to Lucius for the breeding, he'd even taken her to bed himself, just to watch her cry out in pleasure and gratitude beneath him, whose body could give pleasure to no woman in even partial command of her senses.
He dissolved the spell with a thought and the choked aura faded from view. There would soon be a great deal more time for indulging in this and other pleasures, but now was not the moment. He turned to the other two Death Eaters who had entered. "Our spies tell me that the fools are preparing a last stand, moving forces here to London," he said. "They have shielded themselves from view for now, but thanks to the sacrifice's presence among them, the Knife will soon allow me to pierce that veil."
"We will be ready to strike, my Lord." Dear Bellatrix, still as passionate in his service as ever.
"I expect no less," he said, nodding to her graciously. "You are prepared for their opening maneuver, I trust?"
Rodolphus bowed. "We are, my Lord, precisely according to your instructions. A troop of ogres is waiting at the Museum, and Bellatrix and I will be joining them personally to oversee matters."
"Good. See to it that you do not disappoint me," Voldemort said. "Our final victory is now at hand. I am in no mood to tolerate anything that would delay it further."
Harry leaned against the column, wrapped in his Invisibility Cloak, waiting for the security guard to finish his sweep. Five minutes, 'Mione, he sent along the thin binding of the Mindtouch spell she'd laid on him. Tell everyone to be ready. She sent back a wordless affirmation, and he slipped out to follow the guard and make sure he left the Celtic section on schedule.
Right on time, and five minutes later he was standing with Hermione, Justin Finch-Fletchley, and Hannah Abbott in front of the wall niche holding the Lycurgus Cup. The automatic light kept steadily going on and off, a display intended to show visitors how the cup went from red to green in daylight. Tourists loved to take pictures of it. They'd like the fake replacement just as much, and the real Cup was actually an old magic sink that Hermione planned to use for a massive extension of the Protego spell.
"All right, 'Mione, you get it out," Harry said, keeping his voice low. "Hannah, go keep an eye out in the main room, Justin, watch the other hall over there. I'll take our exit." He hesitated, then added, "Keep sharp, I've got a bad feeling." He saw them all get tense and almost regretted the extra warning, but his hunches had been right too often. And right now, he could practically smell something off.
And then, pacing across the hallway that was their escape route, he realized that he was smelling something off. "Ogres!" he yelled, pulling out his wand and running back towards Hermione. She jerked up, surprised, and the fake Cup fell over even as she made the switch.
Alarms started going off. Harry ignored them and shoved Hermione towards the hallway. "Get out of here! Justin, Hannah!" he yelled, heading to look for them. Justin came pelting back in, wand out, and Harry waved him after Hermione, keeping his back to the hallway, covering for them. Ready to back away, he paused, irresolute. The stench was getting stronger, but if it was just ogres—if Hannah were just injured—
I can't reach Hannah! Hermione's thought-message left him cold to the bone. He had to see. "Hannah!" he yelled again, then pulled on the Invisibility Cloak as quick as he could and ran to the other side of the room. He crept along the wall to the door adjoining the main room until he could peer in.
Half a dozen ogres were milling around, and worse, the Lestranges were standing over Hannah's body. He didn't need to take a closer look; she had the grey look of a victim of Avada Kedavra. One of the ogres lifted its head and sniffed, deep, and turned to look right at him, and Harry bolted for the hallway even as Bellatrix started throwing curses left and right. Glass cases shattered all around him. He could hear sirens outside, getting louder, not that those would be of any help.
"Stop them!" he heard Rodolpho shouting. "Don't let them get away! Destroy the Cup!"
Hermione, GO! Harry yelled silently, clutching the throat of his cloak tighter to keep it from exposing any part of him while he dodged Impedimentium and Stunning hexes. The loud crack of Disapparating came twice from the hallway, and he threw himself flat behind a case while the whole troop of them went rushing by.
He gave them a count of two, then scrambled up and pointed his wand at the door. "Colloportos!" It squelched shut obediently, but almost immediately it started to shudder under the impact of ogre fists. Harry ran for the main room and slid to his knees next to Hannah's cold, stiffening body, his throat tight as he collected her up in one arm.
With a flick of his wand, he watched the room disappear around him, and the pounding tread of the approaching ogres faded out.
They lay Hannah's body straight in the basement and covered her with a sheet because there wasn't time for a funeral. No one cried at deaths anymore, they just got angrier, and by now Harry could feel the anger almost shaking the walls as he walked through the headquarters, checking with the heads of the different troops to make sure everyone was on schedule.
Hagrid had come in earlier, with a rough hug for Harry and Hermione, and was now getting what sleep he could after a quick briefing. Sirius would be arriving at midnight with the last of the reinforcements. They'd be making the move to their chosen battle position on Salisbury Plain after dawn. Hermione expected the Scrying Shield to fail anytime after eight in the morning, and they all expected the attack to come anytime under five minutes after that.
He finished his rounds and circled back to the planning room. Snape and Hermione were reviewing the casting priority for the major defenses and the landmines, as Hermione liked to call her new set-spells—she'd worked out a way to cast a major spell hours before a fight, targeting an area, then set it off with a quick charm. The only problem was, so far she was the only person who could actually get them to set, although anyone could trigger them once she'd done. So they had to be rationed against all the other spells that only she could cast.
"Everyone's ready," Harry reported, dropping into a chair next to the map table and unsuccessfully swallowing a yawn. "Just waiting for Sirius now."
Snape nodded and straightened up from the table, obviously wanting to rub the small of his back and not allowing himself the luxury. Hermione rolled her eyes; Snape's refusal to make even the smallest concession to being tired was a longstanding source of argument. But for once, she didn't go into it.
"We're settled here as well," she said. "We'll start with the extended Shielding Spell, focused on the Cup, then I'll set as many of the mines as I can before the Scrying Shield comes down. After that, I'll just concentrate on reinforcing the shield."
"Right," Harry said. "I've got Padma's group handling the triggering for the mines. Make sure you let her and her second know as you set each one and where. Stunning Spells for the triggers, okay?"
"And Malfoy?" Snape asked.
Harry squared his shoulders. He'd known this was coming. "I don't think we can rely on him for anything," he said quietly. "He—he thinks Dumbledore set him up to be trapped in the Scholomance."
"Oh, Harry, no," Hermione said, shocked.
Snape snorted. "Only someone with very little knowledge of Albus could have suspected him of doing anything so eminently practical," he said. "I assume you reacted as hysterically as might be expected?"
Harry glared at Snape. "Yeah, I was angry, but that's not the point. If he thinks we're to blame too, how can we expect him to help us?"
"He'll help us, Potter, because we are not proposing to carve him up like a Christmas roast, unlike Voldemort," Snape said. "Albus is dead. He can bear our guilt, and he's long past needing you to defend him." He shook his head. "I'll speak with Draco myself. He'll do best as a wild card, in any case, I suspect. We haven't time to effectively work him into a troop."
"And if he starts calling up demons and setting them on all of us at once?" Hermione said.
"I believe I mentioned to Potter that holding a demon in a combat situation isn't really practical."
All three of them jerked out wands in surprise and wound up with them aimed at Draco's shrouded figure, half-hidden in the shadows in the corner.
Snape recovered first. "Malfoy, how long have you been sitting there?" he said, stowing away his wand again. "And how did you get in here?"
Draco only smiled to both questions. "Don't worry too much about my stabbing you in the back," he said, looking at Hermione. "If it's even close enough for me to contemplate, you'll be doing splendidly."
Hermione said tartly, "You know, you might want to take this more seriously, since they're going to kill you if they beat us."
Draco shrugged. "Only if I don't kill Voldemort first," he said. "I imagine the Death Eaters would fall into line behind me quick enough if I managed that."
"Killing Voldemort—is that a possibility?" Snape said intently, while Harry was still choking on that. He could feel Hermione sending him a meaningful glare, and he carefully avoided her eyes. "So far, all we have considered is some means of imprisonment—"
Draco hesitated. "I'm not sure," he said, the first suggestion of any uncertainty in him. "He's close to immortal. I know a few things to try, but they won't be easy to get off in a fight."
"That's more than we have so far," Snape said. "I want you with Granger during the fight, then." He looked at Hermione. "And you will use him."
She had her lips pressed hard together, but she gave him a single curt nod anyway.
Snape turned back and studied Draco's face. "I trust you will indulge me, Malfoy, by giving me your word," he said. "I would not find it amusing to be, as you put it, 'stabbed in the back.'"
Draco smiled thinly. "Certainly. My word as a Malfoy," he said. "For however much that is worth."
"Your personal promise will do for me," Snape said. A flash of something unreadable crossed Draco's face, and then a faint twist came to his lips. He gave a half-bow and swept from the room without another word.
Harry watched him go, then glanced at Snape. "Do you need me any more tonight?"
Snape glanced down at the plans, then shook his head. "No. Everything is settled. Get some rest."
"That goes for you too, Severus," Hermione said firmly. "You won't do us any good tomorrow exhausted."
Harry prudently got himself out of the room before that could escalate the way it usually did. He caught up to Draco on the stairs, climbing back up to his room.
"I'm impressed," Draco said as he drew close, saving Harry the trouble of trying to figure out what it was he wanted to say.
"We Slytherins all thought he hung the moon, but that was because he was ours. It certainly would never have occurred to me that he would make a successor for Dumbledore."
"I guess—" Harry said slowly, "I guess it's that he's ours now, too. Or that we're his, maybe."
Draco nodded, and they went the last flight without saying anything more.
Harry lingered in the doorway. The room was empty again, the table and chairs gone back wherever they'd come from. Draco went to the window and stood looking out at the midnight lights of London.
"Do you blame me, too?" Harry asked after a moment of silence, tentatively.
"Certainly," Draco said, over his shoulder. "I blame everyone in range, Potter. You and Granger and Weasley, Snape and Dumbledore, Voldemort, my father. I suppose I even blame Longbottom, pitiful as that is."
He'd left out one name, though, and Harry thought he might be beginning to understand. "Yourself?"
Draco laughed without any mirth. "Of course. I'm the one who went in, after all."
"I'm sorry," he said, coming up behind Draco, laying a careful hand on his shoulder. "We should have found a better choice for you, somehow."
Draco leaned his forehead against the glass. "You haven't been able to find a way out for yourselves, Potter," he said. "Why should you be able to find one for me?"
He sounded hopeless, blank. "You did find the way out," Harry said.
"So I can die at Voldemort's hands, thus making him a dark power so vast the Earth will tremble beneath his heel for millennia. Odd, how happy and carefree I don't feel," Draco said.
"What happened to killing him, first?"
"There's precious little hope of that. I've got the knowledge, and some amount of power, but next to Voldemort— Look, he made himself what he is, alone. The kind of will, of mind, of spirit, that could choose that—"
"—is pretty miserable. He's nothing to admire, Draco."
"That doesn't mean he's nothing to defeat, sadly. Our chances of beating him tomorrow aren't much to speak of."
"Not if we go in with that attitude," Harry said, taking hold of Draco's shoulders more firmly, turning him around. "Listen to me," he said, thinking that he might be starting to finally understand everything Dumbledore had tried to tell him, only now, with the words in his own mouth. "Voldemort hasn't got anything but hate and hunger, and that's not much to fight for. It's not much to live for. We've got things that matter more than power."
"Do we?" Draco sounded halfway between dismissive and hopeful.
"Yes," Harry said. "And that's why we're going to win, sooner or later, even if we all die tomorrow."
"Oh, if you're going to qualify it that way," Draco said, pettishly. "I don't care what happens to the lot of you after I die, Potter. I'll be dead; it won't matter to me anymore."
"I think you're full of it," Harry said. "Tell me something, Draco, if all you care about is power, about surviving, why did you even leave?"
Draco silently stood there looking at him, and then unexpectedly he took a step across the room and took the front of Harry's shabby overcoat in his hands, the worn lapels, and tugged. It wasn't an attack, just a gentle pull, and Harry went with it, confused.
It took him a strange long moment to understand the brush of Draco's dry lips against his, the cool uncallused tips of Draco's fingers across his jaw, alighting briefly on his throat. Then understanding came, and Harry flinched back, startled; or he meant to, of course he meant to, except instead he was off-balance, leaning in, when Draco as quickly stepped back, remote again, and pulled his robes close around him. "You'd better get some rest, Potter," he said. "Tomorrow will be a busy day."
Harry stumbled down the stairs to his own bedroom, not much more than a glorified closet, without any windows. He could have had a bigger room, but this one had always felt oddly comfortable, close and dark and familiar like childhood; he hadn't even bothered to chase off the spider in the corner. But now it was suddenly stifling. He cracked the door open for a little air, sat down on his bed breathing hard and put a slow fumbling hand up, tentatively, towards his neck, where Draco's fingers had rested, so briefly—half expecting the skin would feel different, hot, marked somehow; burned, maybe. But nothing was different; everything wrong with him was inside.
He knew everyone was waiting for, expecting, him and Hermione—one betrayed, one widowed, both of them left behind; it was the right ending for the story, and so everyone thought it was only the war, that they were only waiting until it was over. The handful of times they'd risked a quiet celebration, a toast to the dead on New Year's or a wake after too many losses built up, someone well-meaning would always put a glass in his hand and whisper to him, "Don't waste the time you have," or there would be a sudden silently-orchestrated rush out of a room, and they'd be left alone.
And one night—one bad night, the night Parvati didn't come back, he'd gone up to the room she and Hermione had shared with a cheap half-bottle of gin. After most of it was gone, Hermione had pressed her face against his shoulder on the bed and sobbed, "I miss him so much—I miss—" Harry'd said, "I do too, Mione," throat aching with it, and she'd pulled his wet face down against hers and kissed him.
They'd fumbled together on the bed. Harry had done his best, sick and terrified that he'd do something wrong and lose everything he had left in the world, but after, when they were lying together sticky and quiet, Hermione had suddenly started laughing. She'd put her arms around him and said, "Oh, Harry, how stupid we are." She got up to get them glasses of water, and they'd cuddled to sleep; in the morning, she'd kissed him practically, on the cheek, and sent him away.
He'd been so relieved, and also glad to have it over with: guiltily, because it felt a bit like he'd used Hermione just to be done, but if she hadn't wanted, he never would have, ever. Other people had offered, with or without words, and he'd said no; he was done trying, after Ginny. He had friends he loved, people worth fighting for: that was enough. There was a war, and someone had to fight it, so other people could be happy after.
And now Draco Malfoy of all people came back, half-mad and half-corrupt, with his thin hand and his pale glittering eyes, and that was what—it made Harry feel sick and furious. He tried to sleep, but he woke up three times in the night, sweaty and twisted up in his sheets, dizzy, angry, and finally he threw them back and stormed back up the stairs through the house, faint glow of morning starting to water in despite the boards and pulled blinds, and pushed into Draco's room.
Draco was lying on his side on the narrow bed, still in his robes, composed and still with his hands folded under his face. He opened his eyes when Harry came charging in, pushing himself half up, but Harry crossed the room and shoved him back down again, and then fell on him, awkward and desperate. "You needn't be a barbarian about it, Potter," Draco said, but he was tearing frantically at Harry's robes with his own hands, and biting Harry's bare shoulder as they slipped free, so Harry paid no attention.
Harry licked the hard lines of Draco's collarbones, faintly salty; he buried his hands in Draco's hair and pulled it free; Draco gripped his hips, bruising tight, and gasped when he pulled Harry tight against him. They struggled and shoved and nearly fell off the bed, trying; kissed and bit and scratched each other, until at last Draco sighed, deeply, and lay back, his hair spilling in a fine tangle over the dark sheets, with his eyes heavy-lidded down to slits and his legs resting over Harry's hips. "Well? Get on with it," he said, hoarse and breathless, and Harry groaned and moved in him, shivering with how badly he wanted, needed, longed to.
Harry drifted off afterwards, for a little while, and woke up alone in the mess of sheets with Draco standing over the bed, dressed again but now in new, elaborate robes: thin black silk, the sleeves close-fitted to the arm for fighting, with the over-tunic in black embroidered with white threads: mourning colors, and when Harry looked closer, the white threads were unicorn hairs. He had clasped his hair back, and suddenly looked like himself again, someone Harry could have imagined the old Draco of schooldays becoming, with a faint pink flush back in his bleached skin, and his mouth red and bruised. It made Harry feel awkward and strange all over again, and he stared up at Draco helplessly a moment.
"Stand up; there's not much time to make you presentable," Draco said.
"It's a war, not a costume party," Harry said, shoving aside the covers, and rummaged in his robes for his wand. "Refresco." He tapped himself with his wand, and was clean, at least; and his robes were easy enough to patch.
Draco rolled his eyes. "That doesn't mean you oughtn't dress for the occasion." He took the robes out of Harry's hands and threw them into thin air. "There." Harry turned and saw a new set neatly folded on the bed: also black, with red and gold thread picking out the seams.
"You didn't make those, did you?" Harry said suspiciously.
"No," Draco said. "There are thirty closets full of formal clothing in Malfoy Manor, and I suppose that's mine now, so it's not even stealing."
"You can't inherit anything from someone you've killed," Harry said.
"In my family it seems there's hardly any other way you can," Draco said.
The sun came up a small hot coal between two stands of cut trees, blowing mist away across the plain. They were on the bare chalky ground in the military training grounds, far from the tourist crowds at Stonehenge and Avebury, but Harry could still feel the ley lines in the ground, buried deep and old, but still there. Hermione's breath burst out of her in a gasp when the light hit her face, and the clear crystal ball that keyed the Scrying Shield cracked down the middle in her hands, and went soot-black and smoky like a burnt-out lightbulb.
They'd been planning to pick off as many as they could before the fight really began, but Voldemort's army didn't come in bits and pieces; between one blink and another they were just there, another dark mass like a forest on the plain, ogres and a couple of giants hulking on the flanks, and a whole wing of wizards on broomsticks, hovering on the other side. "What are they about, d'you suppose?" Dean Thomas said. "They're too far up there to hit us with anything, and those ogres'd do a sight more good in the center."
"But wouldn't do nearly as well to make sure I don't make a run for it if things are going badly," Draco said coolly, folding his hands behind his sleeves.
Harry tapped his wand against his throat and shouted, "Front lines, with me," amplified, and turned to go; Malfoy caught him and brushed his thumb over Harry's jaw. "You didn't shave," he said, the pad of his thumb pressed lightly against the corner of Harry's mouth, for a moment; and then he had whirled away and gone to stand with Hermione and Snape.
There wasn't time to think about it; the Dark Mark was in the sky, and Voldemort's lines were rushing to meet them, roaring like oceans. Harry could see the heart of Voldemort's camp far to the back, at the top of a hill that he didn't think had been there ten minutes before, and Voldemort himself, smooth pale head gleaming amid the black and silver masks of his Death Eaters.
"Piece of cake, eh, Harry?" Hagrid said, nudging him with an elbow, hard enough Harry nearly fell over, and Harry found himself laughing as he drew his wand and lashed out with his first "Stupefy!"
It was like being alive again, taking deep clean breaths of the air whipping down over Salisbury Plain, smell of fresh-cut grass, and even the smoke tasted like living fire, and not dust and grey ash. They'd been hiding so long, avoiding battle, sneaking, Harry felt almost exultant now, shoulder to shoulder with Hagrid, Sirius looking over at him with a wild reckless slash of a grin that Harry gave right back to him.
He was being showy, deliberately, firing off green and purple blasts that flared against the morning, and predictably Voldemort sent some big guns after him: half a dozen ogres in a phalanx, packed neatly together as they came charging, and Harry blasted them all with a single Petrificus Totalis and sent them toppling backwards into Voldermort's ranks, opening up some room. "Now!" he yelled, and they all dived out of the way and let the centaurs make their tremendous charge forward, arrows singing off their bows in many voices, trampling into Voldemort's front ranks.
They kept coming: at first mostly people pale and scared and fumbling with their wands: Voldemort's idea of cannon fodder was those whose loyalty he wasn't sure of, whether they knew anything about combat magic or not. Harry didn't hold back. They'd put the Dark Mark on their arms, they'd turned someone in or tormented Muggles or just licked Voldemort's boots, knowing what he was. Behind them came the real core: cruel, hard-eyed wizards and witches, ambitious and sneering insults along with their curses. Harry saved his breath and just settled into his stroke. Magic was singing along his arms and his scar was aching fiercely. They had a long way to go.
The battle ebbed and flowed. Harry cycled people around to the Healers for Refreshing Draughts and Brighteners, and went back once himself. He couldn't help looking, but he couldn't see more of Hermione or Draco than just their heads, part of the tight cluster of their strategists, launching the big set-spells against the far end of the battlefield, and shielding all of them at the front from Voldemort's assaults: firestorms and lightning strikes that burst over their heads, splattering on shields while they all fought on, barely able to notice, below.
The sun was past its zenith now, and sliding down towards the far horizon again, stinging and deep orange at the corners of his eyes. They were more than halfway to the hill by now: they'd been pushing Voldemort's army steadily back all day. But night would give Voldemort the advantage: the vampires, the goblins, the pennaggolans would come out; and the ogres could see in the dark, too. Harry caught Fred heading back to the front line too, tall and gaunt in his old greying robes, with his face cold and intent; there was a streak of blood across his face, and more on his knuckles. "Pass the word; everyone's to cast Night-see on themselves whenever they go to the back," Harry told him; Fred nodded, and they both dived back in together.
Harry didn't notice the voice at first; it was a whisper in his ear, not loud enough to break his concentration, until he was between spells and catching his breath, and it came clear for one instant in his ears: give me your dead, softly, in Draco's voice, imperative, and for a moment Harry saw Dumbledore again as clear as day, an empty bloody husk; Ron crumpled and burning, on the floor.
He shuddered all over, and turned back to fighting, but it kept running just at the threshold of his hearing, and he saw others around him flinch, a little, as they heard it too. Give me your dead, Draco whispered, again and again, and after a while, Harry started remembering other things: Ron standing by Hermione, in front of the altar; Ron being carried off the Quidditch field on everyone's shoulders, his face exalted; Dumbledore in his office, with Fawkes crooning softly overhead.
Twilight came creeping at last over the plain. The nocturnal ranks were coming, vampires pallid and glowing faintly from within, their mouths very red, and somehow it wasn't a surprise at all, to turn and say to Ron, "The Extundo charm should do for them," and have Ron grin back at him and say, "Right, let's clear this lot away."
Voldemort's ranks shuddered, wavered, and fell back from them, horror on their faces, all those vicious power-hungry wizards going pale, for no reason Harry understood. He was full of fierce, terrible joy, as though a hundred aching places in his heart had been filled in. He saw Hannah, grinning as she lashed a Widowmaker across the face with a lash of fire, that spell she'd never had a chance to get right; he saw Remus fighting back to back with Sirius against a pack of revenants.
"Reckon we ought to give them all a bit of a show?" George said, looking over at Fred.
"Think Voldemort would appreciate a bit of Flash-Bang-Boom?" Fred said, and his laugh was loud even though it sounded strange, unused somehow. The two of them were suddenly holding out their hands for their broomsticks and gone, into the air, while trails of fireworks started bursting off behind them.
"Harry," a voice said gently, behind him, and Harry slowly, reluctantly turned, and found himself facing Dumbledore.
"Watch your back, Harry!" Ron said, and added, "Expelliarmus! I can't be watching you all the time, you know."
"Hello, Harry," Dumbledore said. "This is not very wise, I'm afraid."
Harry didn't want to listen to him. He didn't want to hear this; he didn't want to know what was unwise, even while it was quietly trying to make itself known, in the back of his mind. "I haven't time to talk right now, Headmaster—"
"The longer we remain, the more of you we will take with us when we leave," Dumbledore said. "You must take the hill, Harry, quickly; and then you must let us go."
"I don't know what you mean," Harry said, trying to make it true. "It's not me, it's nothing to do with me—"
"You have given up your dead," Dumbledore said. "But you may choose to take them back again."
Harry shut his eyes, tight, and when he opened them he knew again, knew too much, and he could see what the enemy saw: the terrible grey corpse-light on the faces of the dead. They were not smiling, any of them: their faces were remote and blank and empty as they fought, while all around them the wizards laughed and grabbed at their arms, and a little color and light leached out of the living, with every touch.
He looked at Dumbledore, and at Ron, and let himself reach out once more and touch them, to see them smile at him and live, and then Ron said gently, "Come on, then, mate; there's work to do."
Harry turned away from them and shouted, "To the hill! Take the hill!" and as one they all surged forward together, driving Voldemort's front lines back against the coming reinforcements. The vampires shuddered back from the dead, even more than the living soldiers: when the dead touched them, they crumbled into dust. Voldemort's army was collapsing into confusion and disarray, and their own army of the living and the dead divided into two, and poured around the base of the hill, as the last of the ogres fell, and the battalions of Dark wizards broke and fled.
Voldemort's camp on the top of the hill was shielded, so thoroughly not a spell could make its way through. They all gathered around the base; everyone was talking jubilantly of an assault, how to get through, to overwhelm his defenses—and Harry swallowed hard, hard, and said, loudly, "We have to let them go now."
The pause didn't last long, and then people were talking again, but uncertainly, slower—"Listen to me," Harry said, and heads slowly started to turn towards him. "Listen. We have to let them go."
Slowly they turned to look at their dead, and slowly, one by one, the dead began to leave. They turned and walked away, into the dark, the pale grey glimmer of their skin swallowed up into the night. Dumbledore looked at Harry once, with his cold dead face, and Harry didn't touch him again, but he thought there was a faint glint of light, deep in Dumbledore's eyes, the barest hint of a smile, before he turned and joined into the steady moving stream of the dead, going away.
Ron was standing there, silently, waiting, and Hermione slowly came through the ranks towards him. She put out her hand to his face and stood there looking at him for a long, long moment, and then she dropped her hand and said softly, "It's all right. You can go."
"Mione," Ron said, low and strange and thick: not the false imaginary voice, but something more real, and more terrible, from far away and deep. "Ginny."
Harry's face turned involuntarily to look up at the hill: behind the shielding, Voldemort was standing and surveying the fleeing remnants of his army, his face twisted in a furious scowl; the Death Eaters were all standing back from him, anxiously, except for Ginny: her face uncovered by a mask and serene, her flame-red hair glowing in the unnatural spell-light, standing behind his shoulder; she was holding something cradled in her arms.
Hermione said, shortly, "We'll deal with her."
Ron's face didn't change, expressionless and still. "Save Ginny," he said, and then he closed his mouth again, and followed the others.
The last of the dead were going away, soft sobbing farewells going after them; Draco was standing at the edge of the army, staring into the dark where the dead had gone, unsmiling and bled-white, alone.
"Hey," Harry said, catching his arm, and pulled him around. "Are you—"
"If you finish that idiotic question, I'll be forced to do something rash," Draco said. "Can we get back to the battle now, do you suppose? You do realize that that was the easy part." He looked up the hill: Voldemort was looking down back at them, malevolence and hunger in his eyes, and—
"Incoming!" Harry yelled, and knocked Draco flat; the blast overshot them by bare inches and burst against the ground, cinders and smoking ash stinging on Harry's skin. Draco clutched at him, panting, and Harry hauled him back up and hustled him fast towards the shielded command-circle. Another blast hit, moments after they were inside; Audra Fenster and Hyun-ju Lee were standing in the middle of the ring, hands clasped, holding the shield up, but the tendons of their necks were standing out with the strain.
"Damn you, Granger, stop driveling after a corpse and get back in here!" Snape snarled. "This battle is not over, so if you cannot focus your attention—"
"Shut up!" Hermione said, scrubbing the side of her fist across her cheeks as she dived back into the ring. "Right. If we just break the shield, he'll Apparate away—we've got to have one team blocking Apparation first, and another to bring it down—"
"Why bother?" Draco interrupted. "It's a perfectly serviceable container. Just immolate them all inside it and be done. It won't do for Voldemort, not for good, but it will certainly wipe out the Death Eaters—"
"And Ginny, too," Harry said softly.
Draco spared a glance up the hill, quick and dismissive. "He has her soul caught in a Laqueum Dolosus so thick you can hardly see through it," he said. "I doubt she can even be freed and kept sane at the same time. But if you think she's happier being alive and his slave—"
"It would be saving her," Hermione said, low and miserably, sounding as though she were trying to convince herself. "It would—"
"I hope," Snape said, "that you are not all standing here like idiots and questioning whether we can bear the sad burden of killing Ginny Weasley, the murderess of nearly four hundred wizards, as the price of destroying all the other Death Eaters along with her."
"But if Voldemort has her ensorcelled—" Harry said. "If it wasn't her fault—"
"Yes, very sad," Snape said. "I fail to see how that alters the situation in the least. If you were in there, Potter, I would still give the order, and if I were in there, I hope at least one of you would have the intestinal fortitude for it." He turned to Hermione and said crisply, "Do it, Granger."
Hermione stared at him, and bit her lip, and then she turned to the shield and raised her wand.
"Wait!" Harry said, and jumped forward to pull down her arm.
"For Heaven's sake, Potter," Snape said.
"No, Harry's right," Neville said, and they jerked to look at him.
"What, Longbottom?" Snape said. "Have you Seen—"
"Yes, but not like that," Neville said. "I just mean, look at them—"
The Death Eaters were standing in a loose circle with their wands ready, Voldemort waiting behind them, and watching with a small, narrow smile, unalarmed. "They're not worried," Harry said. "He's not stupid, he's got to be thinking we're going to try something like this—"
"Clever bastard," Draco said. "If he's put a mirror-spell on it—"
"We'd burn ourselves up, instead," Hermione finished. "And there's no way to see that, not from out here—"
"Splendid," Snape said. "Very well; if we cannot bring down the shield, and we cannot destroy them inside it, can you get us through, without breaking it?"
They couldn't send through more than a few at a time, and Snape chose the first handful to go through, grimly: Harry and Hermione, Sirius, Mikkel Anders, Dean Thomas—
"I entirely understand why you would prefer not to risk Voldemort managing to shuffle me off the mortal coil and escape," Draco said. "But no, I am not in the least inclined to leave my fate in your hands."
"We're coming too, mates," Fred said, jauntily, and Harry turned to look at him, puzzled, and then stared in horror, because George was still standing there with him: he hadn't gone with the rest of the dead. They were standing close, shoulders brushing, and both of them looking strange: there was a faint touch of color in George's face, and a pale grey cast climbing over Fred's.
"Oh, Fred," Hermione said, pressing the back of her hand to her mouth, pale.
"No worries, 'Mione," Fred said. "It's been a bloody bore alone, is all."
"And we've always liked going out with a bang," George said.
"That, at least," Snape said dryly, "you may reasonably hope for."
"And little else more," Voldemort said, smiling in satisfaction, as he looked at his prizes. "Did you truly think that any of you could match me? There is no need to answer," he added, smiling; he had taken their voices, and pinned them helpless as flies against the inner wall of his shield, where all their forces could watch their defeat. "Ah, my Death Eaters. This day has been long in coming, and this hour even longer; but it is here at last, and witness its perfection: their best-laid plans against me have failed, and all of them, traitors and mudbloods and fools, now lie in my power."
"So may pass all your enemies, my Lord!" Bellatrix said, and the Death Eaters murmured in unison around him.
Voldemort stepped forward and took Snape's face in his hand to lift it up, the eyes bloodshot and unfocused, but, he was pleased to see, not so vague that Snape was past understanding. "And you, Severus," he said softly, "you will take days to die, and your screams will be heard from here to the ends of the earth, as a warning to all those who would betray me."
Snape's nostrils flared, and he managed to whisper, "You might be merciful enough at least to spare me the melodrama beforehand."
Voldemort smiled tenderly, and let his nails draw blood as he dragged them down and away from Snape's cheeks. "Yes," he said, "you will take a very, very long time to die. But first—" He turned to the altar, and reaching into his robes, drew out the Knife of Astarte, gleaming redly, hungrily.
"No!" Potter shouted, the sound cracking free of his throat, a high straining noise, and he threw himself desperately against the restraining spell Bellatrix held on him. But it was no threat, only useless whimpering: a fitting accompaniment to this moment, Voldemort thought, and he let Potter scream while he sliced open Malfoy's robes, baring the old thick scars, the pattern he had carved into the boy's flesh those many years ago.
Malfoy turned his face away, pinned down, and Voldemort smiled thinly, stroking his cheek with the side of the Knife's blade. "Consider, your blood will make me invincible," he said softly, breathing it out over Malfoy's pale skin. "It is not a death without meaning, if that gives you any comfort."
Malfoy flinched back from it, his chest fluttering with short, panicky breaths. "You may be invincible, but you'll still never be anything but a filthy, pathetic, half-breed reptile," he said through his teeth. "Get it over with."
Voldemort hissed and said, "Be grateful that the ritual prescribes the manner of your death, or it would be as unpleasant as Severus's."
He raised his arms with deliberate, malicious grace, and called spell-light overhead, to illuminate the scene for all those watching below: his enemies, and the dogs of his own army, if they were beginning by now to crawl back, tasting his victory. Irritation, petty annoyances, even the frustrations of this day, all folded away and dropped from him like withering leaves as he plunged himself wholly into his magic, which had never disappointed or failed him, which nourished him as no pathetic ordinary human could understand, those who shrank from its real power. He put the point of the Knife over Malfoy's heart.
"Draco!" Potter cried, something frantic in his voice, and managed to wrench himself loose, crudely driving an elbow into Bellatrix's stomach and knocking her down to seize his wand from her grasp. "Expelliarmus!"
The Knife leapt free from Voldemort's hand, scraping a thin line across Malfoy's chest, three small drops of blood welling to the surface. The silent, explosive shock, wholly unexpected, flung Voldemort bodily across the circle, slamming him into his own shield. The Knife fell to the ground, smoking and pitted where the blood had touched it, which could only mean—
"Impure?" Voldemort snarled, lunging back to his feet, and he batted away Potter's pathetic attempt at an Incendiare curse, lashed him across the face with a quick Adustum, and flung himself at the altar, clutching Malfoy by the throat. "You vile, treacherous—"
And then he stopped and began to laugh, as the first unpleasant jarring wrench passed, the sensation of how very near he had come to utter disaster, and he could enjoy their final, ultimate failure.
"No, no," he managed at last, still laughing, "I commend you all. Clever of you, Malfoy, to manage to lose your virginity in scarcely a night of freedom—tell me, who helped you with it? Granger, here? Or—" And then Voldemort saw the look of horror on Potter's face and laughed again, in unrestrained delight. "Why, how degenerate of you, Potter. A wise precaution, nonetheless—a pity that as always, your weakness has proved your undoing. Extractum macula!" He struck Malfoy in the middle of the pattern, with his wand.
Malfoy screamed, his back rising up off the altar in a deeply bent arc as the thick ridged scars of the pattern of sacrifice erupted into open bloody red and then began to erase themselves, removing the mark like a slate being wiped clean. Potter lunged forward, raising his wand, but it was already over, and Voldemort laughed and flung Malfoy off the altar with a flick of his own wand, into Potter's arms, knocking them both to the ground.
"Immobiliare!" Voldemort hissed, and the spell pressed them both flat, in time for Bellatrix to stumble back onto her feet. "Do try and keep him pinned, this time," Voldemort said coldly, as she bobbed her head. "Goyle, Crabbe, help her."
Malfoy was limp, drawing sobbing, thick breaths, and Potter's hand had been frozen, clenched tightly on his arm. "Damn you, you idiot," Potter was hissing, between clenched teeth, and Malfoy muttered, "Like you have any right to talk."
Voldemort sighed, slow and pleased. Better and better still. Now he could extract every one of those secrets, after all—learn how Malfoy had breached the Scholomance's defenses, discover every spell he had acquired—and every moment of it would be torment added to Potter's just due. And meanwhile—"Virginia, my dear," he said, "give me the child, and bring me the Knife."
"Yes, my Lord," Ginny said, and handed him the baby, which squalled at once.
"Shh," Voldemort crooned, stroking the soft infant cheek with a fingertip. "Silencio." Its cries cut off, though its mouth stayed open, trying to yowl. He laid it down upon the altar, and unfolded the swaddling clothes.
"You utter shit," Potter said, struggling again—the boy was persistent, Voldemort would give him that. "Ginny, don't—" and then he bent down whispering over Malfoy, who coughed, horribly, and pushed himself up. He pointed a wavering hand and gasped out, "Egkataleipo!"—nothing Voldemort had ever heard before, but it did not matter; the spell had missed him entirely, pathetic clumsiness, whatever it had been intended to—
Voldemort coughed and put his hand to his chest, and looked blankly at the blood upon it for a moment, before the pain struck him reeling to his knees. Blood was welling up in his throat, on his lips, as he tried to speak, to form a healing spell—"Virginia," he croaked, gasping, and looked up. She was standing there before him, his blood in thick black stains on her hands, shining wet on her robes, and she knelt down and said softly, terribly, "Silencio." It stopped his mouth, just as the blade in his chest began to seethe and bubble and shiver, and the last he saw, before the Knife of Astarte drank his life, was her eyes, burning, looking into his.
Malfoy Manor was not what Harry would have expected a haunt of Dark wizards to look like; it was a big comfortable old manor house, cheery brick and stone, with wrought-iron fencing, and it all seemed almost Muggle-like and friendly, until you went around back and saw the garden full of aconite and digitalis and glowing-berried yew, the pen full of brooding asps, the vivid yellow bodies of the sac spiders hanging from their silk tubes.
The house hadn't been pillaged or destroyed, the way so many other old wizarding places had been. The paintings on the walls glared hatefully, but the house elves didn't fight them the way they would at the mansions of the other Death Eaters, scurrying to obey "Master Draco," and not even Hermione had been in a state to object to their servitude, at least to start. Their wounded and worn-out had filled up all twenty-three bedrooms twice over, with infirmary cots laid out in rows in the ballroom and the dining room. Even if Draco had claimed the master suite and theoretically refused to share, Harry hadn't bothered to take another spot, and since Draco hadn't made the house-elves throw his handful of things out of the room yet, it was working out.
For two weeks, barely anyone had even gotten up; as much because they didn't know what to do with themselves, bewildered as birds with freedom. Then they all seemed to start at once, one and two at a time, struggling out of their beds and around the halls, and finally out of the house.
Hermione had gone almost first, briskly determined to get Hogwarts open again, with Snape bitterly complaining in tow, and a dozen other prospective teachers she'd persuaded or bullied into coming along. "If you ever feel like teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts," she'd said, trailing off, and Harry stood a long time watching their broomstick vanish into the distance.
Sirius soon after, restless, to start hunting down the Death Eaters wherever they had gone to ground, his eyes bright, even with the long crooked scar on his face that showed white against Padfoot's fur. Most of the others, Harry's generation and still younger wizards, drifted away towards London, uncertain but game, and even the medical wizards began to pack their things, as the last few patients climbed from their beds.
Ginny said quietly, "And you're sure you don't mind?"
"Yeah," Harry said. "If you don't."
"No." She shook her head. "It's not its fault—not his fault, I mean. I just can't look at—" She stopped and heaved out a deep breath. "Anyway, that's settled." She picked up her broom and her satchel.
"Will you—will you write?" Harry said. "You could take Hedwig—" He stopped, looking at her face, and dropped his eyes. Fred and George had smiled at them all on that hill, just before dawn, as they stood around Voldemort's pyre. George said, "Well, it's time," and Fred said, "Yes, we'll be off then," and when the first ray of the sun slid up the hill and struck them, Fred's body fell to the ground alone, the smile still on his face.
It was hard to feel victorious when he ached all over for them, and for losing Ron, for losing Dumbledore and Lupin and McGonagall and all the others, as if all their deaths had happened yesterday and not over the last five years. He wasn't ready to lose her, too.
"No. Sorry. Not for a while, anyway," Ginny said. "It's not your fault either," she added, after a pause.
"Tell me, is this going to be a regular thing with you?" Draco said, after she had left. "Ridiculously inconveniencing yourself to compensate for irrational guilt? What the devil are you going to do with the thing?" He looked down into the crib.
"You mean we," Harry said.
"I refuse to be involved in this lunacy," Draco said.
"He's your brother."
"Half-brother," Draco said, "and not the better half. And conceived for purposes of ritual sacrifice between a Death Eater and a thralled victim, which can hardly be called ideal early-childhood conditions."
"We'll just have to make up for it," Harry said. "Get him a Firebolt or something." He picked the baby up and put him firmly into Draco's arms.
= End =
I know elynross looked at this along the way, and Cesca has given it a going over now, but this story has been seven years in the writing, and I have not only forgotten everyone else I inflicted it on, I don't even have my old email folder anymore to check. If you were among them, I thank you deeply, and please let me know!
|All feedback much appreciated!|
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