"Silly girl, stand aside now. I will come to you in a moment. But first, I will end the suffering of the last Potter. Stand aside! … Avada Kedavra!" The sound of a body crumpling to the ground.
Harry was in more pain than he'd ever known in his life, and that was saying something. It robbed his mind of coherence, he couldn't think, had no idea where he was, who he was or what he was supposed to be doing.
A toe nudged him onto his back and his left hand touched something warm. His grasping fingers found a hand and he turned his head, demanding his eyes focus.
It was Hermione. She lay still, eyes staring up at the sky in a sightless way with which he was all too familiar. Rage filled Harry. Clever bookish Hermione, the bossy know-it-all who had got him and Ron out of so many scrapes lay dead while he was feeling sorry for himself!
On your feet, Potter! he urged himself, show him what it means to love, to put somebody else before yourself, so that you would do whatever it takes and pay the price…even to the last resort…the last resort… Love is the last resort, stronger than death…
In that instant, his mind cleared. He ignored Voldemort's gloating voice taunting him with something and focused completely on the care he'd known at school from Ron, Hermione and then Ginny, the acceptance from Hagrid, the love from the Weasleys and the Order. The support from classmates and the love of the last two Marauders. The emotion washed the pain, the rage and confusion from his mind, and he recalled what Professor Dumbledore had said about our choices defining us.
Weird unearthly fluting filled the sky and Harry heard again the soaring inspiration of phoenix song. His heart swelled and although he got shakily to his feet, he couldn't see and he willed for someone to point Voldemort out to him. His wish was granted when small hands touched his forearms and turned him into an embrace. The air was alive with cursing; jinxes and hexes flying all around.
"Harry! You can't see can you?" It was Ginny, he would know that sweet voice anywhere.
"Point me, love, I know what to do," he whispered. Her ragged breath was fluttering over his mouth. A wand was pushed into the sticky hand gripping the pale holly wand.
"Yours won't work. Take mine, but watch out, it can be tricky sometimes. It's like it's got a mind of its own," she told him in a hasty undertone. She made to pull away.
Harry wrapped one arm around her and held on to her tightly. "You're not going anywhere, Weasley. I need you, I love you." He turned his head to face the sound of her voice but found his vision still dark. He heard Ginny inhale sharply.
"Oh how touching!" Voldemort mocked, and his Death Eaters laughed harshly. "I'm in a mood to be generous, one kiss before I sweep you away."
Harry gripped Ginny's waist more tightly. "I'll kiss her when you're dead, Riddle, and not before!" he yelled defiantly, letting Ginny direct his arm to point at the enemy.
"Oh, you will, will you?" he heard Ginny mutter with a touch of asperity.
"Why did you make all these choices?" Harry called, feeling the will forming in his mind.
"For the power!" Voldemort exulted.
"Power is an illusion. Only love endures," Harry snapped. "But you wouldn't know about that would you? Because you turned your back on love. You murdered your family!"
"Love is for fools, Potter," Voldemort snarled. "It is human weakness wrapped in a pretty covering. But my family, my true family surrounds me. They stand at my side-"
"But they don't love you!" Harry interrupted fiercely, "They don't trust you, they do what you tell them because they fear you! At the first sign of weakness, Riddle, they'll desert you, just like they did last time, because you have to love somebody to care about them, to care what happens to them. And all they care about (Harry gestured blindly) is saving their own hides. You say you always know when you're being lied to? If you don't believe me, ask them and see for yourself!"
As he finished speaking Harry felt other bodies pressing against his back, he recognised Ron's gasping breaths and experienced a sharp pang that Hermione wasn't with them.
Except… that wasn't right, she was with him, the way Sirius had said his parents were; in his heart. Ginny pressed closer, supporting him with the strength of her wiry body.
"Harry… your scar!" Ginny whispered, clutching at him.
"What about it?" Harry didn't need to touch it to know it was burning hot.
"It's glowing… and flames are leaking out… Good Gryffindor Harry- I've just realised! It's a rune! You're marked with 'algiz', the protection rune!" Ginny burst out intensely.
While Harry, who, after all had never studied Ancient Runes, wondered what Ginny was getting all worked up over, he heard her muttering urgently to Ron and tightened his grip around her waist in an attempt to stiffen his buckling knees. Judging by the screams and insults flying around Voldemort wasn't getting satisfactory answers from his 'family'.
"Harry," Ginny hissed over his ear. "Tell him you'll show him what it's like to be loved." Harry's incredulity must have shown on his face because the redhead added impatiently, "You and he are connected by the Curse that failed, through your scar, aren't you?"
"So, you thick prat, ‘algiz’ is also a channel for a power. What's the strongest power in the world, Harry?" Ginny's voice was full of exasperation. "Do I have to draw you a diagram?"
Harry caught on in a blinding flash of illumination. This would be even better than what they had planned. Feeling Ron's hand on his shoulder and both Ginny's arms around his waist he shouted out to his enemy.
"Tom? You claim to be the most powerful wizard in the world, is that right?"
"I am the greatest wizard of all time!"
"Full of it, more like!" Ginny whispered and Harry wanted to snigger at her interjection. She gave him strength, always had.
"You've tortured me with the Cruciatus curse, but I know of something stronger, something worse, even more painful," Harry said. The air surrounding them was very still and Ginny whispered that he was listening. "I'll show you, if you're brave enough, if you dare. Have you got the heart of a Gryffindor inside that Slytherin skin?"
"Yeah, that's good mate, taunt him! Get him into full 'mad-mode'. He won't think straight," Ron hissed. Ginny murmured something over his shoulder that Harry couldn't make out.
"You seek to make me stronger?" Voldemort said. "Then nothing will stand in my way!" he crowed.
"And Snape had the nerve to call me arrogant!" Harry muttered. He felt a delicate touch on his fiery scar and Ginny whispered what sounded like 'origo via'.
"The channel should be open, Harry, concentrate on powerful feelings of love. Whatever you can find inside yourself," Ginny said, so Harry did. Only now he had alternate realities to choose memories from and Voldemort was already crying out, enraged.
"Hurts, doesn't it, to be loved so much?" Harry said in a conversational tone of voice. Something warm and heavy landed on his other shoulder, bringing Harry strength and calmness.
" 'Lo Fawkes," he murmured and received acknowledging Phoenix song in return. "That's the pain of too much tenderness," Harry called out, over the panicky sounding yells. " That's what we put up with because we care for others more than ourselves. The fear of losing those we love is greater than anything you could inspire, because they're the only ones who matter to us, not you… I wonder what your mum thinks when she watches you from wherever she is now. I bet she's really sad, seeing what you've become."
"It was my father's fault!" Voldemort snarled, "But I made him pay!"
"No, you just confirmed that he'd been right all along by reinforcing his worst fear; that anything to do with magic was evil and to be shunned," Harry continued, keeping up the flow of memories through his mind. Briefly he thought of the Dursleys and Voldemort seized his chance.
"As your family shunned you, Potter! Even now they fear you will return and upset their ordered world. You hate them, don't you… you want to make them suffer, to pay for what they did to you. I can show you how, Potter." Voldemort was softly gloating.
Staring up into Harry's bloodied face, Ginny saw the momentary pain and doubt. "Harry?" she said gently.
His face twisted and she wondered what Voldemort was sending back along the channel into Harry's mind. She had to help him, had to do something. She made her mind up in a split second. She twisted under Harry's grip, now so tight that it was painful, and reached up on tiptoes to touch her lips to his bleeding scar. She had to drag his head down to reach.
"In the name of love," she muttered. She poured her own feelings into the scar; everything she was; her heart, her soul… The scar burst open fully and Ginny tasted hot, metallic blood.
Many throats cried out harshly -Harry's included- and drawn into the mark of the rune, Ginny felt the strength of the aching and burning, of the quiet strength and gentleness, of the comfort and warm security of acceptance, of the tenderness and mind-blowing ardour that comprised love in its many facets. She couldn't let go, she wouldn't let go; Harry shouldn't have to bear this burden alone. In the extreme layer of her consciousness, Ginny felt the magic forming… connecting…
Let me help you, Harry, she begged silently. You don't have to do it alone.
Harry felt a second of weakness, of doubt, in his link to Voldemort. He decided to press his advantage and pulled back from their mental connection. He put up all his shields and felt Ginny's body wilt as her soul was caught inside with him. He lowered her body to the ground as gently as he could.
"You are losing your companions, Potter. You are doomed! You know it! You cannot resist my powers."
"Maybe," Harry said. "So kill me then." Ron growled and Harry caught his arm to swing him away with as much of his strength as he had left, knowing that Ron had been about to take the killing curse in his stead.
Harry felt -because he still couldn't see- Voldemort raise the brother wand and level it at him.
"Come on!" Harry goaded. "What are you waiting for? Kill me! I won't strike back."
In the innermost sanctum of his mind a small light was growing. ‘Harry?’ it said. ‘Where are you?’
"Why do you beg to die?" Voldemort demanded. Harry offered a smile borrowed from Draco Malfoy. "ANSWER ME!" the Dark Lord raged.
"Kill me, Tom." Harry inclined his upper body towards his enemy. "Just get it over with. You win, I lose. Kill me," he said quietly. The light in his mind was stronger and now acquired form. The firelight glow of a female form drew closer.
‘Me either.’ *Amusement* ‘Nice place you've got here…’
‘Aren't you going to say 'make yourself at home' then, Harry?’
* Acceptance/ Affection* ‘Why not. You've already got my heart. Might as well rule my head while you're at it.’
Voldemort was silent. Harry could almost feel the wheels turning. "You know something you feel will be your advantage and not to mine… What is it, I wonder?"
The pressure against Harry's mental shield grew to nauseating proportions. No, it was more than that. It exceeded nauseating, was bypassing excruciating and neatly overtaking debilitating before dropping a gear and opening up the nitrous-oxide injectors past agonising to reach permanently crippling, and Harry struggled harder to keep the evil at bay. He could feel tendrils snaking around, feeling their way, searching for the smallest breach…
‘He's coming, isn't he?’ *Concern*
‘Yep… You don't have to do this. Stay in my head, I mean.’ *Care/ Concern/ Worry*
‘Hmph. That's where you're wrong, Potter. I want my life back. It's mine to risk and I choose this.’ *Resilience/ Determination*
‘I think I love you, Ginny.’ * Amusement *
‘You only think? Or you know?’ *Serious*
‘Um, I think, I'm pretty sure I love you’ *Certainty/ Delight/ Love*
‘Good. We can explore that later. Now can we get rid of old Snake-eyes?’ *Strength/ Passion/ Love*
‘Absolutely.’ *Determination/ Love/ Passion*
‘Let's go.’ *Determination/ Love/ Passion*
Voldemort's voice rang out. "You know the Prophecy in its entirety! I will drag it from your mind, Potter, if I have to split your thick skull open like a rotten fruit!"
"Kill me, you'll never find out what the Prophecy says." The words issued from Harry's mouth but the greater part of his mind was occupied elsewhere.
Voldemort advanced on Harry, barely disturbing the straggly growth underfoot. A couple of the Death Eaters detached themselves from the loose circle and made to follow him.
"Let me, Lord!"
‘Lucy and Belly’ *Sarcasm/ Hatred/ Anger*
‘When? Now? Don't get distracted. Only I'm allowed to distract you.’ *Firmness/ Affection/ Intent*
‘He has to touch me, Hermione said…’ *Loss/ Love/ Admiration*
‘Touch us.’ *Love/ Strength/ Support*
"NO! Stay back, I command it! He is mine!"
Ron watched from his place slightly behind Harry's right shoulder as the remnant of a Hogwarts Head boy approached. He knew what he had to do but was poised in a dilemma. Hermione was down -unconscious- he refused to believe she was dead. Not his bright, clever, long-suffering Hermione. Stick to it Weasley! Hermione was down yet she was supposed to be touching Harry as well.
"Eight feet," he murmured over Harry's ear and the last Potter responded with a barely perceptible nod. Could I summon her?
"Six feet." Harry stiffened slightly. I won't leave her behind Ron thought.
‘I wish…’ *Loss/ Dejection/ Sorrow*
‘Hermione?’ * Affection/ Knowledge/ Appreciation*
‘Yeah.’ *Pain/ Guilt/ Sorrow*
‘She's got it covered.’ *Confidence* ‘ Trust me. Would I lie to you?’ *Knowledge/ Admiration/ Strength/ Fun*
“Er… *Uncertainty/ Knowledge/ Affection *
"Three feet… Gryffindor! His breath stinks!" Ron flicked an agonised glance at Hermione and thought he heard Harry suppress a snort.
"I tried to teach you manners once before, Potter, tried to teach you gently. You have exhausted my patience and I will wring what I desire from your broken body!" Riddle's voice sailed up the scale, both in volume and pitch, so that he was screeching fit to shame any Banshee worthy of the name by the time he reached the end of his sentence.
Harry let out a long gusty sigh, full of boredom. "Boring, boring, boring! Stop getting off on making threats and get on with it."
As much as Ron believed Hermione knew what she was doing with her spellwork -her practice of Charms and Transfiguration was inspired- he fervently wished there had been another way to set this up. Harry had suffered so bloody much, damn it, and Voldemort's touch always reduced him to puking like a hyperactive volcano. Ron would never have believed how far the stomach could project gastric contents if he hadn't witnessed it personally.
Abruptly, he understood why Ginny had been forcing thirds on Harry for the last week and then after a huge dinner, declare he was allowed water only during the six hours preceding this mad venture.
Harry felt the long white fingers reaching forward to his head and only by forcing a blink did he know for sure that his eyes were closed. Good, that was good. Legilimency required eye contact; Riddle would force his eyes open in an attempt to see into his heart, and when he did that….
In the sanctum of his mind Ginny was silent, waiting for the change to come. Harry could feel her beside him and just for a split second, he hoped she really knew, really understood what she was doing.
‘Course I do, you great thick pillock.’ *Reassurance/ Longing/ Patience*
‘But we argue and fight worse than Ron and Hermione used to!’ *Jumbled/ Uncertainty/ Contrition*
‘I'd rather fight out my life with you than live peacefully with anyone else… idiot’ *Understanding/ Respect/ Tolerance*
‘You're not blushing are you, Harry…?’ *Surprise/ Amusement* ‘Damn! I'm good!’
Ron watched the long white fingers reaching up purposefully to Harry's blood-streaked head and press hard into his skull. The thumbs trailed down through the dried filth and dragged open the green eyes, moving the flat snake-like face closer.
The slitted eyes dilating with pleasure at the thought of tearing Harry's mind apart made Ron want to hurl; he swallowed convulsively, repeatedly, and made sure he had a firm grasp of Harry's shoulder through the torn robe.
Instantly, Harry grabbed at Voldemort's wrists, holding them firmly in place. The gold bands on both of his middle fingers were miraculously clean of blood. They glowed blue.
You need to eat more mate, you're skin and bone was Ron's last thought while the hooking sensation at his navel dragged him away.
As the Gryffindors pitched forward under the influence of the unauthorised Port Keys that Hermione had created before they had all sneaked out of Hogwarts, Ron heard the enraged shouts and screams of Tommy's 'family' dying away behind them.
~*~ ~*~ ~*~
The noise coming from beyond the sealed door was phenomenal. The Unspeakables gathered in the large black, circular room, drawn from wherever they worked to stand on the shimmering dark marble floor and gaze at one of the unremarkable, handleless doors.
Several of them wore compassionate expressions as they stared at the blue-tinged rectangle. Some merely looked intrigued while others hurried away after only a few minutes, returning with blanched faces and evidence of hastily 'scourgified' workrobes.
"Shouldn't we send for somebody?" a voice whispered.
"Who do you suggest?" came the very dry response.
"I don't know… An Auror, or someone." This suggestion was greeted with a cacophony of snorts and wordless exclamations.
"Half the gold in Gringotts wouldn't get an Auror to walk through that door!"
Another figure entered and the doors spun in their usual agitating fashion. With the noises of inhuman agony now emanating from a different position, the onlookers turned as one to face the new direction.
"Shouldn't- shouldn't somebody be taking notes?" The pained suggestion was muttered by a slow deep voice.
"Who was working on that project currently? Have we any idea?" asked another, more authoritative voice. Some heads shook and were acknowledged with a nod.
Another door opened and allowed a wedge of golden light to intrude as though it were the first light on a new world. Some of the onlookers turned to glance at the visitor and startled gasps caused more Unspeakables to turn, and in their turn, gasp and make way.
Still the screaming and tortured rasps of inhaled breath rent the air. The room spun again.
The Headmaster of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry nodded to acknowledge the simple greeting and then he too, fixed his gaze upon the same door. His long hands folded up before his face with the tips of the ancient forefingers grazing his lips. He was the living image of a carven tombstone figure. His pallor only accentuated the impression.
"Do you have any idea…?" Croaker began. He avoided Dumbledore's penetrating eye, wishing he hadn't asked the question. He wasn't really sure he wanted to hear the answer.
Dumbledore however, took a step towards the door, around the edges of which light was beginning to leak. "I have a theory, nothing more."
The screams were becoming hoarse cries, some of the sounds almost interpretable as attempts at speech but dying away too quickly to be identified. They sounded nearly human. A human slowly being destroyed one inch at a time.
Again the door burst inward and a multitude of people erupted into the room. Some of the Unspeakables recovered sufficiently to try and remove them. The spinning blue lights added to the unreality of the situation.
"Get out of my bloody way!" a hoarse voice snarled and a shabby, unkempt man shoved them roughly aside with un-natural strength to throw himself at the door and bang on it with both fists. "Harry! HARRY!" The name was torn from the depth of his broken soul.
Nobody spoke and nobody moved. They were all too shocked at the raw emotion, the sense of unbearable loss pouring out from the raging soul before them. Crackles of raw magic left his hands causing splinters to fly from the smooth surface he was beating. Now the mood turned nervous; that door was heavily enchanted -it had to be- he would have to be stopped-
Any ideas the more wand-happy Unspeakables might have had died the moment they saw the retired Auror Alastor 'Mad-Eye' Moody limping up behind the intruder. He was now slumped on his knees, his forehead resting on the cold black door and sobbing unashamedly. His thumping had subsided into feeble intermittent pats.
"Why didn't you tell us -me- what you were planning?" he demanded in a broken voice. "I would have gone with you! It would have been a blessed release!" He made a hiccuping noise.
In the subsequent silence the nose blowing seemed very loud.
Moody put a gentle hand on the shuddering shoulders. "Lupin, come away. The seal on the door is failing –put it away Jenkins, you fool-” he snarled and spoke more gruffly to the figure on the floor. “Come away, man, we don't know anything for sure."
Another smaller, stouter figure hurried over and helped the sniffling man to his feet. "That's right, Remus, you come with me now." It was a woman's voice and she too seemed to be choking on her tears.
Croaker examined the group of assorted folk who had barged into the supposedly highly protected Ministry department and decided he was having a long discussion with senior Curse Breakers when this mess had been cleared up. A very long discussion.
Who the hell were these people anyway? They seemed to be with Dumbledore, but what was he to make of this?
The previously sobbing man now seemed emotionally beyond reach. The woman -Croaker recognised her as Arthur Weasley's wife- was talking to him but his blank stare was fixed on the door. There was something familiar about him? What was it?
Croaker accessed his encyclopaedic memory and came up with the Werewolf Registry. Yes, he was described as Dumbledore's tame werewolf. Hadn't there been some scandal in the Prophet about him loose at Hogwarts and helping the mass murderer Black escape?
Croaker watched him. He was clawing at himself, tearing deep gouges into the flesh of his hands, pushing up sleeves to reveal silvery scars soon obliterated as his nails tore again and again leaving red trails to drip onto the pristine floor.
The public display of agony was more than Croaker could bear to watch but he did it anyway, because his job had trained him to do so. This was a werewolf -a dark creature- yet he was expressing pain and loss in an almost human manner.
It gave the Unspeakable pause for thought. Suppose…. Just for the sake of argument… that the committee was wrong. That werewolves were not evil per se. Some would be, unable or not strong enough to fight off the darkness the bite brought about, but others…? Like this one? He seemed to take his pain out on himself, not others.
Abruptly, Croaker recalled a book he had seen on Weasley's desk one afternoon, 'Hairy snout, Human heart' and how the abstract on the plain cover had torn at him, much as the werewolf -no, man, he corrected himself firmly- was now doing.
He frowned, pursing his mouth. The werewolf problem had always been left in the hands of the vociferous little minority who believed that the only good werewolf was a dead one. These people, along with well intentioned but helpless Healers, had only made their lot in life harder. As though it were not already.
Perhaps… it was time for the Mysteries to take a hand in looking for some resolution for these tormented souls. He resolved to speak to Dumbledore and this man, Remus Lupin, wasn't it?
The light of the flickering blue candles was being challenged by a growing brightness leaking around the opening edges of the black door. Somebody sniffed.
"Can anybody else smell bacon cooking, or should I go straight to St Mungo's?" Several nervous titters covered the last drawn-out sounds of raucous gasping breaths.
The silence was an affront to the ears. The brightness around the door increased until all those present were screwing up their eyes and throwing their arms up to protect their sight. It continued to bathe the room in increasing resplendence until the watchers cried out, certain the backs of their retinas had been burned out. Many turned away and so they missed what happened next.
There was an audible click, the incandescence dimmed to that of natural daylight and the door in the department of Mysteries that was always kept locked pushed open a few inches of its own accord.
For several long moments nobody moved or spoke, they simply stared.
When the door suddenly swung wider, many flinched and took a step backwards as though locked in a group mind.
Predictably, it was Albus Dumbledore who took the first steps forward.
His companions, among whom Croaker could identify Lupin, the Registered Werewolf, Arthur Weasley, his wife and one of their sons, Moody of course, and somebody he thought worked in the Experimental Charms department, moved up bravely in his wake.
The sound of harsh breaths, wheezing, and a tearing cough preceded the emerging figure. Male or female, it was impossible to tell because it was crawling painfully on hands and knees backward out of the room. He -or she- paused to haul something after them, seemingly using their last reserves of strength. It made a slithering sound that chilled the heart. It was the sound of someone dragging a body.
The instant the figure cleared the threshold, willing hands caught the smoking body, turning it face upwards into the light. Lupin gave a loud howl and clasped the figure roughly to him, rocking back and forth like a disturbed child. The acrid scent of burning pervaded the room, making noses prickle and eyes sting.
Croaker tasted bile. The face and one side of the head was severely burned, with blisters the size of Sickles deforming the features. The black robes were faintly smoking and the reaching hands were blackened, swollen and where they were cracked, bleeding. He -or she- Croaker still had no idea- was trying to get away.
"Harry, no," Lupin mumbled, having a fit of the shakes.
Male, then, Croaker thought. Astonishingly, despite his burns, he spoke. "No, I have to, S'alright." The harsh, racking cough came again, along with a trickle of bright red blood. It contrasted sickeningly with the raw burns.
"Others, have to get… others." More coughing, a horrible wet noise in the silence of this eerily illuminated place.
Croaker, the most senior Unspeakable since Bode had died two years ago, watched with incredulity running through his veins in lieu of blood as Albus Dumbledore caught hold of one of the charred hands.
"Harry, I must ask you…."
Green eyes, startlingly bright, peered short-sightedly up into those of the Chief Warlock and a twisted smile cracked the mouth further. The teeth showed white, the only natural thing on this nightmare head.
"Tom is gone," he said simply. "It's nearly over." Somehow, and Croaker had no idea where the reserves came from in this injured man, he shifted onto his side then back onto hands and knees. Painfully, slowly, he crawled the few feet required and reached back inside the light. He grasped his burden and drew it steadily towards him, punctuating his effort with more rattling wet coughs that sprayed his blood over the immaculate floor.
Dumbledore, the werewolf, and Weasley senior hovered as close to the threshold of the room as they could be and not be in the room itself. Three times the young man performed this Herculean feat, bringing three just as badly burned individuals out and surrendering them to the care of Dumbledore's companions.
As each shivering body was brought forth, whimpering, exhaling long notes in the extremity of distress or worryingly silent, it was lovingly accepted and cradled by an adult who was in no condition to be working the necessary magic to help ease their suffering. The young man spoke to each, as though reassuring himself and after receiving some reply sank down close by, utterly expended. He was trying to catch hold of the hand of one of the others but could not manage it.
Their pitiful moans finally broke through Croaker's abstraction and prompted his humanity. He seized upon the arms of the two Unspeakables closest to him and said, in a tone of command, "In Merlin's name, get some bloody Healers down here!"
Grateful for something constructive to do, they both fled the scene as though the werewolf was after them on a full moon night.
Croaker regarded him. He was the one supporting the trembling body of the green-eyed young man.
As the senior Unspeakable, Croaker started to send people about their business, knowing full well that nothing more would get done today, or indeed, for several days after this. He gradually cleared the room until only Dumbledore and his people remained.
Dumbledore straightened up from listening intently to what this young man (Harry wasn't it?) had been telling him in an agonised whisper and moved sedately to the threshold of the Sealed Room once more. Croaker joined him, unable to deny the curiosity that had landed him this job in the first place.
So it was that he and Dumbledore were the only other living people who witnessed what the four had brought about.
On the floor of the chamber lay a body, its arms bent forward, the hands like reaching claws. Charred and twisted in the rictus of death, it was still recognisable as having human shape. Suddenly Croaker understood the smell of bacon… it was them, burning, burning alive.
A flicker, the suggestion of a caressing hand that vanished before the eye could wholly catch it and the cremated corpse was briefly given a more wholesome appearance. The image of a lean man with salt-and-pepper hair, possibly early seventies, was lying at peace.
Somewhere a door opened and the slight movement of air flowed past Dumbledore and Croaker. It disturbed the hair and soundlessly, the body collapsed in on itself. The shape lingered for a breath and blew just as silently away.
Plumbing new depths in the meaning of 'confusion', Croaker turned to Dumbledore, seeking answers. "What the devil…? What-who was that?"
"The mortal remains of Tom Marvolo Riddle," muttered a hoarse voice at Croaker's shoulder. He whipped round and found the young man who had emerged from the room and re-entered it an unprecedented three times was just behind him.
Croaker frowned at him. There was something familiar about him, he just couldn't put his finger on what it might be.
"Harry. You found the way." Dumbledore wore a smile that betrayed both his pride and anguish.
'Harry' nodded and dabbed uselessly at the trickle of blood sliding down his chin. If it were not for Lupin holding him up Croaker did not believe he would be capable of remaining upright.
"Yeah, it was something that Ginny said gave me the idea… love burns. Some people will die for love, others die from lack of it. He wouldn't learn to love, wouldn't let go of his fear and anger." The green eyes became bright. "I tried… we all tried, but it burned him up in the end. Perhaps it's better this way."
Dumbledore nodded. "He protected his body well but neglected his soul." The young man facing the venerable wizard tried to smile but only succeeded in splitting his burns open more widely.
Croaker stared at the green eyes, the singed half head of black hair and had his own 'Eureka' moment. "Great Gryffindor! You're Harry Potter!"
The eyes blazing with pain and determination turned on him. "I know I am," he agreed quietly.
Croaker turned slowly to regard the diminishing heap of dust. "So that's…?"
Harry nodded. "Voldemort, yeah. It's finally over… If Hermione worked the charms properly-" Here he cracked a gruesome grin as though anything else was unimaginable. "And if Wormtail redeemed himself by giving one of them to each Death Eater, they should all be dead because of their link to him, but it would be as well to send out the Aurors and Hit Wizards to check." Croaker marvelled. The body might be broken yet the mind was seemingly clear and whole.
Then the senior Unspeakable roused himself. Only later would he recall that he had been present at a defining moment in wizarding history, one of the few able to say 'I was there'. Now, all he thought about was these four, five if he included Lupin, who needed expert Healer attention.
"Where are those bloody Healers?" he snarled. He hurried away muttering imprecations under his breath leaving Harry and Dumbledore alone.
"You used Portkeys of course," Dumbledore said quietly. Harry nodded and coughed again, a weaker moist noise. It was an unpleasant sound and spoke of serious internal injury.
Remus caught him as Harry's knees gave way and helped him to lean in a sitting position against the wall. "Don't you bloody dare, Harry!" he said fiercely. He picked strands of the dark hair from where it was stuck in the fluid oozing from the burns. What was left shone with the iridescence of a magpie's wing under the blue light. He gripped Harry's shoulders ferociously, and the burned skin crackled like crisp brown paper.
"Do you hear me, Potter! You die on me now and I'll, I'll…"
Harry snorted weakly. "Kill me?" he rasped. He took a short rattling breath that scared the hell out of Remus. "You and whose army? I've just defeated Voldemort. Doesn't that make me the greatest wizard alive?"
Remus stiffened and moved close to stare hard into Harry's clotted eyes. He caught the twinkle of mischief behind the pain and relaxed.
"Bloody Potters! Can you not be serious for one bloody moment!"
After a long second it became clear Harry was trying to smile but the immobility of his burned, taut face wouldn't let him. "Please! No more 'Sirius' jokes!" His eyes clouded. "I swear I could feel his hands shoving me so I couldn't give in and fall through the veil."
A silent tear sidled down the side of Remus' nose, over his lip and mingled in the dried blood of his self-inflicted injuries.
Suddenly, the door burst inward and a very irate woman appeared. Harry could not make her out clearly… she seemed to wearing pale robes, or was it an apron?
"Potter! What in the name of the Founders did you think you were doing?" She glared impartially around. "Every year it's the same thing! Thank Gryffindor you leave the school at the end of this year! I've got more grey hairs in the last seven years than in all the others put together!"
Harry could see some of the other adults smiling uncertainly. Molly looked like she was about to go up like one of the twin's fireworks, with the same long-lasting result too.
The school Matron drew a quick breath as she advanced into the room. "Shame on you, Headmaster! I thought you had more sense! These children need rest! They need quiet! They need-" She twisted to screech over her shoulder. "Severus! Get in here! You offered to bring the Potions, so stop drooling over the Artefacts out there and fetch them!"
Professor Snape strode into the room hovering a large cauldron before him from which the chinking sound of many potion bottles could be heard. Harry was prepared to swear that Snape muttered, "What did your last House Elf die of?" under his breath as Madame Pomfrey seized the cauldron, still fuming to herself and began dispensing remedies.
In his turn, Snape also snapped a name over his shoulder. "Longbottom! The Lazarus root is required in here. Cease dawdling!" The door was kicked wide and Harry's dorm mate Neville entered, floating one of the biggest pots Harry had ever seen.
The Potion master cast a withering eye over the shrivelled plant and its desiccated papery leaves. "Did you manage to kill it on the way here?"
Neville straightened up. "No, Professor. This is how it's supposed to look. Hi, Harry," he added, seeing the gleam of Harry's eyes on him. "Don't even try telling me you're fine. You look like Norbert spat you back out!”
Professor Snape was folding back his sleeves. A board and a golden knife appeared from thin air. "Less of the idle chit-chat." He extended a hand. "The root. I will prepare it."
The day held one more surprise for Harry.
"No, Professor." Neville Longbottom disagreed with the Potion master in a firm voice. Neither did he quail under the icy stare.
"What did you say?" Snape hissed, leaning threateningly right into Neville's face.
Neville didn't even blink. "You heard me, I said 'No', Professor. I have to prepare it. Unless you're willing to have a unicorn verify your virginity." Gazes locked, Snape backed down first. He handed the knife to Neville with an ill grace and took up his usual position of intimidation, right at Neville's back.
Harry wished Ron and Hermione could have witnessed Neville's ultimate moment of triumph. He wanted to punch the air in a high-five but his abused body wouldn't let him. He gloried in his friend's moment; a coming-of-age.
Neville had wanted to come with them but somehow, Ginny had convinced him to stay at Hogwarts. Was that plant the reason? What properties did it have… he'd get Nev to tell him later… His throat was feeling thick again… Harry coughed wetly and felt something warm and sticky dribble down his chin.
The school matron appeared before him in a blur of starched robes. Her wand waved in diagnostic spells and then Harry heard the sound of a thick potion glooping into a tumbler. It was cool on his burning lips.
"You would have to take after your father -swallow- wouldn't you! And again. Why couldn't you have been more like your mother? Such a pleasant, caring young woman. The only time I had her in the hospital wing was for the usual ailments! But your father!" She drew a long breath as she squeezed something wonderfully cool into Harry's eyes and closed the lids with a gentleness at odds with her sharp tone.
"Remus Lupin! Have you been annoying poor Arabella's cats again? No-I don't want to hear it! Swallow this! Yes, I know what it smells like! I'm not asking you to perfume yourself with it, I'm telling you to swallow it!" Harry heard Remus mutter a meek apology and gag it down. Several sharp retching noises reached Harry's ear. "Well, what did you expect? Pumpkin juice?"
Harry managed a bubbling chuckle. How many times had he heard that phrase over the years? It seemed that Madame Pomfrey was in her element. He took each cup or vial she raised to his mouth and obediently swallowed whatever it contained. He had learned from experience that it was sometimes better to let the woman do her worst. This was her way of showing how much she cared. In her book, if you didn't get yelled at when you did something stupid, you weren't being loved and cared for.
"Help him swallow this, Remus, while I look at the others." The swish and rustle of robes told Harry that Madame Pomfrey had moved away while the catch in her voice made him consider another possibility. Did Madame Pomfrey yell so that she wouldn't cry instead?
Curiously, the pain was worsening and as Lupin held another cup to his lips, a cup that smelled suspiciously of dreamless sleep potion, Harry wondered whether Poppy Pomfrey might not be related to Molly Weasley.
‘Possibly,’ came the drowsy reply in the sidelines of his mind. ‘Do we get to the kissing now? He is dead…and you did promise!’ *Love/Fun/Pain/Drowsiness*
‘Ginny?’ * Surprise/ Pleasure/ Relief*
‘Why? Who else are you sharing souls with?’ *Amusement/ Sleepiness *
?! *Confusion *
‘Harry? Tell mum that I'm not dead, will you? That I can't speak 'cos part of me…’ *Drowsiness *
‘Yeah, 'course! I should have thought of that.’ * Guilt*
‘And, about Hermione…she's Stunned.’ *Pride*
!? ‘WHAT?!’ *Incredulity/Disbelief/ Hope*
*Drifting* ‘Yeah, my wand…bit mischievous…got mind of its own…apple and mistletoe with unicorn heartstring…Unique, according to Mr Ollivander…’ * Slumberous*
‘Ginny! What about Hermione!’ * Agitation*
*Sedated* ‘Uh?…Oh yeah……my wand hit her with Stunner right before the AK.’ * Rousing* ‘You'll never guess who the AK hit!’ * Smug*
Remus started when Harry's burned hand tapped his back and he dribbled the potion down the burned chin. "What is it, Harry?" The burned mouth moved, encouraging Remus to lean closer.
"Tell, Molly… Ginny's alive, in my head." Remus sucked in an urgent breath. "Worked a spell over scar… said 'in the name of love'… kissed me there. Tell Molly."
The Werewolf nodded his assurance and then whispered it over the good ear. "I'll tell her, Harry. Don't worry. Just sleep and let the potions work on you."
Remus Lupin watched the only son of one of his best friend's sliding into the alchemically induced sleep with a slight smile raising the unburned corner of his mouth before sitting back on his heels with a long sigh.
'In nomine Amor'; a very powerful charm. Did Ginny even know this spell was the first part of the Fidelius Charm? He decided he would need a long chat with the diminutive redhead after she had spent a couple of days in the Hospital wing. Perhaps not too healed, then he could ask her about her intentions towards Harry and not get Bat-Bogied into an adjacent bed! He managed a feeble grin; couldn't let the side down now or James and Sirius would never let him forget it.
A shadow fell over them and raising his head, Remus found it was Snape. He, too, was regarding Harry but still with his perpetual scowl. "I will have the ampoule back now, Lupin. You will not be requiring it, I think." He spoke softly, without inflection and it was impossible for Remus to know what was going on behind the glittering eyes.
Remus snagged the fine chain around his neck until he drew the dark green minuscule amphora from under his robes. "Yes, Severus. And… thank you." The amphora changed hands.
The lip curled only slightly. "You are welcome," the Potion master breathed before moving away, once again leaving Lupin with his Potter.
In a place that was nowhere, and everywhere, the Spinner, the Weaver and 'the Weirdo with the eyes' were busily re-organising the new threads of the Web of Life. The Child of Prophecy had made his Choice and it was their business to lay down the many possibilities that his actions and those of his companions had created.
"What do you suppose this Child of Prophecy will do now?" the Spinner asked. The Weaver passed her shuttle with consummate ease and allowed herself a rare smile.
"I think the pretty redhead will make his mind up for him, sister."
The Spinner spun her whorl again and smiled engagingly at the idea. "You did know there was another prophecy concerning him? A minor one?"
The Weaver looked up into her sister's mischievous face. "I do not believe that one was valid. It does not appear in the Hall of Prophecy," she replied thoughtfully.
"A pity." She smiled. "I like spinning the threads for babies." Her sister shook her head although she too smiled indulgently.
In his curly carved chair, Moros raised a goblet in a toast. "Exceptional. Truly exceptional." And he drank deeply to the brighter future unfolding before his eyes.
That's all folks!
Many thanks to my pre-betas on this one, Aggiebell, bart and Ninkenate and also to Jelsemium, my beta, for their encouragement, pointing out my ‘oopsies’ and willingness to share their time with me. Thanks muchly! Baffy.