It was a nice day when Harry Potter stepped outside the Burrow to travel back to Hogwarts—so nice that he did it thrice. Although, to be truthful, he didn't even seem aware of the blueness of the sky, or the cheerful, puffy clouds in the East, not even one of him. In fact, as the three Harry Potters exited the broad, gray door of the Burrow all in a line, they were far too preoccupied to notice anything about the weather at all. In that, they were all alike. They were also identical in dress, wearing loose-fitting jeans and identically bland sweatshirts on their thin, medium-height frames. All three wore their thick, pitch-black hair pulled into a short ponytail, their bright green eyes ringed by the iconic round eyeglasses. But as much as they looked alike, in another, very real way, they could not have been more different.
The first strode out of the door with stormy eyes and a somewhat desperate expression, as though moving forward depleted the last reserves of his self-control. He did not look afraid, but by turns incredulous and horrified. The second figure moved languidly, like a cat, eyes behind the lenses daring the world to try anything, stopping as it pleased him, two steps in front of the other Harry. He swept his fringe away to bear the infamous scar, and as the first Harry hissed, "Stop doing that!" in his direction, his lips quirked up in a smirk. By then, the third Harry was near, walking with squared shoulders and steel in his green eyes, scanning the area around the Burrow, his hand already gripping his wand.
"Come on, you bloody bastards," he muttered.
"Now, now, Weasley," said Harry number two in low, drawling tones from beside him, "wouldn't want Mummy to be hearing that, now would we?"
"Shut it," Harry number one whispered with a furious look, grabbing the back of number two's sweatshirt in a clenched fist. "Or there will only be two of us left."
"Harrrr-eeee, easy, mate," Harry number three counseled with concern radiating from his green eyes. "You need to relax. Everything is going to be fine. Don't worry about us."
Unnerved to be receiving a comforting talk from himself, Harry blinked. But he did nod and release Harry number two. After a few deep breaths, he spoke under his breath. "If either of you want to back out, do it now. Last chance."
Harry number two looked over his shoulder and spoke through clenched teeth. "I'm not scared, Potter. There's nothing more they can do to me."
"Oh, nice one," Harry number three gave number two an easy grin. "I like how you're getting into character. That one was almost convincing."
Harry number two whipped around so quickly that his hair started to slide clear of its elastic band. "How dare you insinuate—"
Harry number three dropped his smile and took a step closer, so that he was chest-to-chest with number two. "I'm not insinuating anything. I was there the day you hid in the house, saving your own hide, while Dementors ravaged my family—"
"Stop it!" Harry number one jerked number two away with some difficulty, as number two was now completely rigid. "Stop fighting about that! We need to be focused!" Harry was running out of breath. "There's a lot that's at stake here." Number three had backed away, hanging his head, but number two still looked mutinous. Harry couldn't say any more; a lump had been lodged in his throat semi-permanently, ever since this morning when Dumbledore had refused to listen to his protests concerning the plan. And now here they were, risking more lives just to get Harry safely to Hogwarts. How many would die this—
Number two turned back to him in disgust. "Oh yes, the life of our precious Potter is at stake, the Boy-Who-Can't-Keep-A-Family—"
And then somehow, it was Harry number three jumping forward to hold back Harry number one as he spewed threats and turned crimson. Harry number two smiled just out of reach and raised his eyebrows as if to say, "That was easy."
Of course, Dumbledore and his entourage chose that moment to arrive at the door, and there was a general outcry when they saw the state of the Harrys. Then the crowd of Aurors and friends flooded around them, several trying to ascertain what had happened and intervene. Ron and Hermione stood slightly behind Harry number three, obviously figuring that Malfoy-Harry had gotten to Charlie-Harry, and the real Harry had been holding him back. They were wrong, and it felt weird to see them standing so supportively behind the wrong Harry. A bit embarrassing. Harry was inwardly pleased when Ginny came up to him, the real him, and whispered "Give him hell, Harry," before moving on over to stand beside Draco-Harry. That momentarily confused Harry, but then he remembered that confusion was the name of the game. Maybe that was why Ron and Hermione were over by Charlie-Harry.
But no, Ron and Hermione stared after hearing Ginny and then looked chagrined. Ron shrugged apologetically and Hermione mouthed, "Sorry," but they stayed where they were. Harry understood. It was more confusing for anyone watching that way.
Dumbledore, who seemed to have no questions involving the fight and was holding a Firebolt Harry thought he recognized, simply gestured for number two, the Draco-Harry, to move over to the group of Aurors holding brooms.
"Harry, I have been successful in my attempts at retrieving both your broom and your Quidditch eligibility. Congratulations." The look on Draco-Harry's face soured considerably.
"Wonderful," he said, the word dripping with sarcasm. "I can't wait to get up there and lose to Slytherin." Tonks, who was nearby, jerked closer and Draco gave a cry like she'd pinched him. "What?" She hissed something at him that Harry couldn't hear. Draco-Harry let out a disgusted sound. "Oh, all right! I meant to say that we'll beat those nasty Slytherins hands-down, of course."
Dumbledore merely held a finger to his lips and Draco-Harry straightened up, apparently remembering who he was speaking to.
"You will be traveling with some of our finest Aurors to Hogwarts today, Harry. Fly fast and perhaps you'll be early enough to sample the Welcoming Feast. I heard that the House Elves have simply outdone themselves in treacle pudding this year."
Draco-Harry gave a curt nod and moved forward to take the broom. As he moved into place beside the group of Aurors ready to fly, Harry felt the dread in his stomach give a leap of agony. All those people . . . Tonks, Mad-Eye-Moody, Hestia Jones and several other witches that Harry couldn't recall meeting . . . they were all flying right into danger, just as a decoy.
Notably, it was probably safer for Draco to travel as someone other than himself; the Death Eaters would probably kill him on sight. Lucius Malfoy wanted Draco's head on a platter for turning traitor, much as Harry wanted Lucius' head on a platter. Or, well, at least Harry wanted him out of commission. The hatred he'd felt for Lucius after the torture he'd suffered at his hands had slightly diminished during the past weeks spent in quiet recovery at the Burrow. It had faded into a steady desperation to avoid Portkeys and a determination to train hard. Harry was not going to let himself become helpless like that again.
Mad-Eye hit Draco-Harry with a Disillusionment Charm, which made Draco complain, of course. Then they got on their brooms and started to take off.
As he rose, Draco seemed to give a last, sudden look in Harry's direction, but it was hard to tell because it was only a ripple in the strange lump of invisibility between Tonks and Mundungus. Harry tried not to watch them leave. If he didn't act like it was the last time he would see them, then maybe it wouldn't be.
"Now, Harry," Dumbledore turned to Harry number three as though the other Harry had never existed. "We thought it best if you arrived at the Express by Ministry car this year, so several cars will be arriving any minute."
"Yes, sir," agreed Harry number three, a bit too heartily for Harry's tastes. Charlie had been far too eager to put his life on the line for Harry again, and ever since, the memories of Mrs. Weasley's Boggart would not leave the real Harry alone. What if Mrs. Weasley lost Charlie because of him trying to protect Harry? No.
The thought galvanized Harry and he pushed number three out of the way, stepping toward Dumbledore. "It's over," he whispered to the Headmaster. "Neither of them have really been acting like me. If anyone was watching, they'll know which one's me and the other two are going to be in danger for no reason—"
"No, Harry," Dumbledore chided him. "There is a very grave reason, and you know what it is. You are thinking with your heart, my boy, and this is not the time to follow it. Let them do this for you, all of them." The old man seemed to want to reach out to Harry, but stopped himself. "In the end, what they do is not just for you, but for all of us."
Half-horrified, Harry stared down at the broken, downtrodden grass under his feet. He nodded, then stepped back, letting Dumbledore continue his talk with number three. Harry was not the one in charge, and it was not time for him to be the One yet. Then it would all be up to him. But how he hated slinking about, acting as though he were afraid of Tom!
Angry bitterness flooded him, and by the time he pulled his thoughts out of the past, the Ministry cars were arriving. This time, the remaining Weasleys exited the house and surrounded Charlie-Harry, hugging him and telling him good-bye. Kingsley Shacklebolt's replacement at the Ministry, Claudina Mossbergin, had stepped out of the first car and smiled at Charlie-Harry. He neared the car, giving a final wave to all. It wasn't until he got in that Claudina's eyes fell on the real Harry still standing beyond the crowd of people. She gave a start, then looked back into the car at the grinning Charlie-Harry. Finally, she looked at Dumbledore, who offered no explanation, only a slight nod.
Claudina was an attractive witch with delicate features, dressed in a slim, jacket-like robe. Now, however, she looked almost comical, shifting in her heels, hands frozen in awkward positions as she decided what to do. She spoke to Charlie-Harry briefly, then seemed satisfied. Bill Weasley said a quick good-bye to his family next and climbed in beside his brother, surprising the real Harry. He hadn't heard about that part of the plan, and was immediately torn. He looked over at Mrs. Weasley, and saw that her smile was strained as she waved. Two of her sons in that car. Her two eldest. Harry clenched his fists and forced himself to stay in place. If there was anything that surprised Charlie during the drive, Bill would be there to help handle it. And they could activate their emergency Portkey as well, if necessary.
They would be just fine, Harry reasoned, just fine.
The reason Sirius had died was because Harry thought he needed to always take everything into his own hands, to save everybody. He wasn't going to do that this time. Listen to Hermione was his number one rule, and she agreed with Dumbledore. "Best-case scenario: with three of you all taking different routes, they won't know which one to attack, so they won't attack at all."
It was the worst-case scenario that had been cycling through Harry's mind endlessly since then, the one that involved the Death Eaters saying, "What the hell, he's got to be one of the three, let's attack all of them." Then there would be death and pain and . . .
Harry turned back to watch. The driver had already levitated Harry's real trunk in the boot of the car and slammed it shut so loudly that Claudia jumped. She glared at him, then turned to smile and wave royally at the crowd.
A chorus of "Bye, Harry" went up as the door shut. Two cars followed the black Rolls Royce holding Charlie-Harry, and one sedan pulled out in front, all with odd-looking flags flying at the front corners of the hood.
Now, for the hard part—or, well, the equally hard part. The Weasleys all filed by Harry, going back to the house without acknowledging him there. They'd said their rather somber good-byes inside. Of course, the twins, Ron, and Ginny all managed to give him covert grins and wagging eyebrows as they walked by, in direct opposition to their orders. Their apparent coldness was supposed to convince anyone looking that the real Harry had gone off in the cars, getting a royal send-off, etc. That meant that Charlie was the real bait, the one in real danger. Of course, he had the most coverage: all of the cars were manned with Aurors, and had practiced maneuvers to protect the occupants of the middle car.
As for the real Harry . . .
Dumbledore walked up to him and dropped something into his hand without a word. Only a nod passed between them. Harry waited until the door shut behind him for the final time, and then looked around the surrounding countryside, narrowing his eyes. He couldn't see anyone or anything. If there was someone out there, wouldn't they be taking a shot at him right now? Of course, the defenses here were stellar, and nothing would really get through, but shouldn't someone try? That was the reason for the whole charade today; the Death Eaters knew Harry was here, knew that he'd have to get to Hogwarts somehow. The Floo was unsafe, the Portkeys approved by the Ministry and thus, suspect. Everything seemed like a gamble; so the Order had decided to try subterfuge.
Harry bent down and re-tied his shoelace, hoping to confuse any watchers, perhaps draw the attack away from Charlie or Draco. If someone would just attack now, maybe then they could drop the charade and call everyone back and Harry wouldn't have to feel so helpless.
He stood with a sigh and pulled the bright orange gumball back out of his pocket. No one had chosen Harry number one, even after that rather obvious display earlier. Or maybe no one would be attacked today at all. Maybe they'd all arrive safe.
After waiting another moment, Harry put the gumball in his mouth. With a practiced flick of the wrist, his wand slid into place in his hand. Then he bit into the gumball. As soon as his teeth sank into the soft core, there was a squirt of butterbeer in his mouth, a tug behind his navel and a jerk that pulled him off his feet—again.
There was the usual disorienting roll of darkness and light that came with the use of a Portkey. Dumbledore had made quite a few of these special gumballs in honor of the occasion and handed them out liberally, with Fudge's reluctant approval. Now it would only be a few seconds until the real Harry arrived at Hogwarts safe and sound, along with anyone else in their scheme who had run into danger.
But the ride had barely begun when his scar prickled and the feeling of frenetic propulsion stopped—as suddenly as if Harry had hit a brick wall. But he didn't fall back to the Burrow. No, the magic of the Portkey was still pressing him forward, only something else wasn't letting him go. Fear like cold water swirled in his stomach, and he knew, even before the sudden spearhead of agony bloomed in his skull, he knew it was Tom.
Harry curled in, clutching at his head, suspended somehow between where he was coming from and where he was going to. It was Tom's magic blocking him—he felt his presence in their connection—and as the force of the Portkey renewed itself behind him, Harry was caught, squeezed between the two.
The pain made it impossible to think, but his mind clutched at the old question: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? He now knew the answer: they would kill anything between them. He was being squeezed out of life. The Portkey would exert more force, then Tom would match it, as if upping the ante in some torturous poker game. Harry felt the repercussions in his head first, but the pressure on his body soon became intolerable. He cried out in the void between the wheres, uncurling his body to give one thrashing attempt at freedom, mentally thrusting out against the two forces—
The forces closed back in with hard blows on his abdomen and back. He couldn't get a breath, was unable to even thrash now. Did Dumbledore know what had happened? Or was he oblivious, still at the Burrow, celebrating the safe return of Harry to Hogwarts?
Harry managed to get in two more breaths, shallow ones. The Portkey's energy felt ragged now, uneven. If it gave, would Harry be taken straight to Tom? Frantically, Harry searched in his mind for a spell, anything to break free. For some reason a Reducto curse was on the tip of his tongue, but he didn't dare try it, since he was the only solid matter in the situation. He'd probably kill himself.
Another stab of pain in his head was followed by gleeful laughter that danced along his frayed nerves.
"Do it, boy! Let's see how real this Prophecy is! Will it be you or me?" The words reverberated in Harry's skull. Tom knew the Prophecy, the whole thing! How? How had he learned it? Harry grabbed another breath as the force on Tom's side lessened.
"The Kingsley traitor told me everything, of course. Now—do it! Toss out a Reducto and die by your own hand! Or wait and die by the force of your Headmaster's spell! Your choice entirely, but I would consider both to be brought about at my "hand," wouldn't you? We can fulfill the Prophecy right now! Tom cackled, sending bright colors and nausea through Harry's mind. His magic pushed harder, and Harry's next breath was infinitesimal. He fought to keep his thoughts straight, and suddenly realized that he had the answer. Tom was in his head now, and he knew how to fight him there.
With a heaving effort made harder by lack of oxygen, Harry erected the gray screen of Occlumency in his mind, blocking out his chaotic thoughts and the pain all in one. Tom shrank back: he'd felt this once before. "Procclumens," Harry mouthed carefully, using the knowledge of what he'd learned over the summer. As long as his focus and will were strong, he didn't have to actually say the words aloud. On the screen came delicate, faded memories, the ones Harry had chosen: of Hermione's hug in his first year, of Ron's sacrifice in the life-size chess game, of Sirius' smile and concerned gaze. Tom shrieked in pain, and Harry bit through his bottom lip to keep from doing the same as the pain in his head doubled and the crushing force grew stronger. Harry had no more air, but he focused harder and the images gained strength and color. His audience had no choice but to retreat before the barrage of love.
Tom's force melted away and Harry could breathe again. The ache in his head faded. It was that simple. Harry had won again. Air slipped back into his lungs and he relaxed, expecting to be yanked forward immediately to Hogwarts.
Instead, he was unceremoniously dumped on a damp patch of scrubby grass, on a hilly plain, breathless again from the blow. Harry lay there on his back, winded and wasted from the partial possession and the opposing forces. It was at least a minute before he gathered himself sufficiently to wonder where he was. It had felt as though the Portkey had just given way at the end, its power sapped by the contact with Tom. Perhaps it had. Perhaps, like a rubber band that's been stretched too far, the spell simply broke under the strain.
Harry tasted the blood on his lower lip delicately and pushed himself up on his elbows to look around. He was on a somewhat barren plain, but nearby there was a structure he recognized: The Shrieking Shack. Harry groaned, half in relief and half in dismay. He was close to safety, but there was still quite a bit to be traveled, and he wasn't feeling his best. "Damn." Why hadn't they taught him to Apparate yet? Things like this were always happening to him. He was supposed to be safe atHogwarts right now! He sat up, pushing aside his anger.
Maybe someone would come to help him. Maybe they knew where he was. Harry chewed the gum one last time, hoping against hope that the Portkey would reactivate. No good.
He spat out the somewhat bloody gum and swiped at the red trail dripping from his throbbing lip with his sleeve, smearing a bright red streak across the material. Then he fixed his gaze on the Shrieking Shack and climbed wearily to his feet. His heart was pounding far too hard and his body felt cold. He hated Portkeys; he always had. There was always something bad at the end of them, always. If it wasn't a graveyard and Wormtail with his Cabbage Patch doll Tom, it was Malfoy Manor and that damn mirrored room. This time, he would have to wait a few minutes, but something was coming. With his luck, something horrible would be here within the minute.
"All right, that's it," Harry said loudly, and started walking. "I'm so sick of this." Dumbledore was just going to have to teach him to Apparate early. If the Marauders could all be unregistered Animaguses, then he could surely be an unregistered Apparationist. And as stumbled over the scrub like a wobbly toddler, he was sorely tempted to try it now, on his own. After all, he had done it at least once as a child, appearing instantly on the school roof when Dudley and his bullies were after him at school. But then again, given his luck, he'd probably splinch himself. Although, if the Prophecy were true, it would be impossible for him to die that way. But imagining how painful it would be to actually end up split in half, he decided to forego the experiment.
He'd have to do it the old-fashioned way. He took a deep breath.
"Accio Firebolt!" Harry's hand shot up in the air expectantly, bringing unexpected pain to his ribs. He crumpled, bringing his hand slowly back down. That squeezing had evidently done some damage. But he kept his mind focused. Wherever his broom was, it should be on the way to him. Of course, it was being ridden by someone else at the moment, but that shouldn't be a problem. Knowing Malfoy, the first thing he'd do was jump off like the coward he was, and knowing Mad-Eye Moody, the first thing he'd do was get Malfoy off the broom. Then it should come straight to Harry.
He headed in the direction of the Shrieking Shack very slowly, every step jarring his ribs now. Not good. He tried not to think about what this meant. Somehow, Tom had found out he was Portkeying, interfered and stopped him from getting to safety. But did Tom know where Harry had been let off? That wasn't at all clear. But so far, the situation wasn't desperate, at least not by his usual standards. He wasn't poisoned or tied up to a gravestone, surrounded by Death Eaters and Tom, or helpless from twenty Cruciatus curses and faced with one demented Lucius Malfoy, and it wasn't as if there were two-hundred Dementors around, seeking to feed off his essence. In fact, he was even somewhat close to his designation. After all, the Shrieking Shack was just at the top of the hill.
But it was just at that moment that, of course—of course—just as Harry neared the base of the hill, something stepped out of the bushes.
Horror dripped over him like hot wax as the thing stepped out into the cold sunshine and shrieked.