There was a nervous feeling in the pit of Harry’s stomach as he stood on the sidelines, watching his friends. Over in the corner, Bill tucked a strand of Fleur’s hair behind her ear and gave her a gentle peck on the lips. Next to them, Luna twirled in circles around her father. A few feet away, Molly Weasley was fluttering about, offering up cake and making sure her guests were enjoying themselves.
Harry closed his eyes and tried to calm the panic that was quickly building up inside him. He felt like throwing up, but he wasn’t sure why. But he had a bad feeling, and it was one that was growing stronger with every passing second.
Something was wrong, he just knew it, and it had nothing to do with just finding out that Dumbledore hadn’t bothered to mention that Bathilda Bagshot lived in Godric’s Hollow.
He opened his eyes and stared straight ahead, but he couldn’t concentrate on anything or anyone. He didn’t even realize that Hermione had appeared out of the crowd until she drew up a chair beside him.
“I simply can’t dance anymore,” she panted, slipping off one of her shoes and rubbing the sole of her foot. “Ron’s gone looking to find more Butterbeers. It’s a bit odd —”
She trailed off, staring at him, cocking her head slightly to the side. “Harry, are you okay?”
Harry did not know where to begin, or even how to explain, but it did not matter. At that moment, something large and silver came falling through the canopy over the dance floor. Graceful and gleaming, the lynx landed lightly in the middle of the astonished dancers. Heads turned as those nearest it froze absurdly in mid-dance. Then the Patronus’s mouth opened wide and it spoke in the loud, deep, slow voice of Kingsley Shacklebolt.
“The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming.”
Time seemed to stand still. Harry stared at the vanishing Patronus in horror, but not shock. It was almost like he knew this was coming. But still he stared in disbelief.
It wasn’t until he felt Hermione beside him draw her wand that his brain seemed to kick in and he joined her, fishing his own wand out from the pocked of his dress robes. He could tell he wasn’t the only one stunned. Many people were only just realizing that something strange had happened; heads were still turning toward the silver cat as it vanished. Silence spread outward in cold ripples from the place where the Patronus had landed. Then somebody screamed.
Harry and Hermione threw themselves into the panicking crowd. Guests were sprinting in all directions. Many were trying to Disapparate, but something was wrong. No one was disappearing. It was like the protective barriers of The Burrow were somehow working against them. But how was that possible?
Harry felt lost. The screams and cries around him were getting louder. He was getting jostled in every direction. He couldn’t make anyone out.
“Ron!” Harry heard Hermione scream, but he couldn’t see her. “Where are you?”
“Go now!” A voice was shouting in his ear, and he turned to see Remus Lupin standing there.
“Get out of here, Harry!” he urged.
Harry paused, torn and indecisive. He didn’t want to leave his friends, he couldn’t leave his friends. He needed to find Ron and Hermione.
But it was too late.
He made a move to plunge into the crowd when a firm hand grabbed his arm. The last thing he saw was a Death Eater draped all in black centimeters from his face, his hot breath musky on his face.
“You aren’t going anywhere.”
[Six months later]
Sometimes, it was unbelievable how much things had changed. Life before the Death Eater crackdown seemed so long ago, almost unrecognizable now. Harry often found himself trying desperately to conjure up memories of the early days, of Quidditch practices and study sessions in the Gryffindor Common Room, of feasts in the Great Hall and trips down to see Hagrid in his hut. He even tried to recall fights with Draco and the feeling of loathing he would get when he saw Professor Snape, but with every passing hour, the memories seemed like they were fading, melting away until he wasn’t even sure if they had actually been real.
Dementors patrolled the streets now every night. And giants patrolled them in the days. It wasn’t safe to go outside, not even into your own garden, once the sun set. If you were caught, you were set to Azkaban, which was growing fuller by the day from wizards who were either caught trying to escape or some who had just given up and asked to be imprisoned.
Wizards were only allowed to leave their homes for two hours a week, and that was only in order to get any necessary supplies. Only the Death Eaters and their families had jobs still. Hogwarts’ doors had closed to students. It was no longer a school but a training facility for young Death Eaters. It was rumored that Voldemort was often seen roaming the halls.
Harry didn’t know where most of his friends had gone. Owl Post was watched and monitored. There was no way to get word to anyone. He wondered every day what had happened to Hagrid, to McGonagall, to Tonks and Remus. But there wasn’t any way to find out.
The morning of the so-called Reaping, as Voldemort was calling it, dawned bright and sunny. The first ray of sun that fell across his cot had Harry opening his eyes. He hadn’t really slept anyway. He knew what was about to happen.
He turned his head, though he didn’t have to. The sound of Ron’s snores filling the room told Harry his friend was still asleep. But he turned his head anyway to make sure. Ron had lost a lot of weight in the past six months. They all had. There was barely enough food to feed them all once a day, but it was somehow more obvious in Ron, who seemed to have grown a couple more inches.
Harry sighed and pushed away the bedding, getting out of bed and heading to the window. It felt like the sun was betraying him, up there in a blue sky, a promise of a wonderful day, when really, the day was going to be anything but.
He was still staring out the window sometime later when he felt a presence beside him.
“So this is it,” Ron said glumly.
Harry didn’t answer, just nodded.
“We should probably get ready,” Ron said.
“Yeah,” Harry said. “I suppose we should.”
They pulled their dress robes out of the wardrobe. Mrs. Weasley had cleaned and ironed all of them the day before, making sure they were as spotless and as perfect as possible. Even Ron’s were perfect this time, as Bill had given him one of his to wear. They had been warned that they must come looking their best and that anything less would not be acceptable.
Harry and Ron each pulled on a similar outfit. Gray pants and a white collared shirt. A black tie. Then they slipped their dress robes on and put on the shiny shoes Mr. Weasley had polished for them yesterday with some Muggle shoe polish he had found in the shed.
“I have always wanted to use this!” he had exclaimed happily, until Mrs. Weasley had glared at him and his expression had dimmed.
“Errr, not like this, of course,” he’d amended.
Once they were dressed, they turned to their hair. Harry ran his hand through his, patted it down as best he could, but there was nothing he could do. Unruly as ever. He just hoped there wasn’t an inspection test to be passed or something.
When they arrived in the kitchen, they found the rest of the house there. Arthur, Ginny, Fred, George and Hermione were sitting at the table, plates of eggs and hash and sausage before them. Huge cups of tea were steaming up the air, while the tea kettle hummed on the stove. Mrs. Weasley was stirring something by the counter, humming a little under her breath, but everyone could tell it was forced.
None of the occupants at the table were actually eating. Ginny and Hermione were just staring at their plates, not even attempting to pretend, while the others were aimlessly moving pieces of eggs from one side to the other.
“Oh, there you boys are!” Mrs. Weasley was the first to spot Harry and Ron, standing awkwardly at the entrance to the kitchen.
She hurried over to them, placing her hands on their shoulders one at a time and staring them up and down. When she got to Harry, she reached up and smoothed down his hair, then frowned a little, tried again and then frowned some more. Finally, she pointed her wand at him and murmured something Harry couldn’t quite make out. A blue spark flew out, and he felt a bit of warmth at the top of his head. A fleeting smile flickered across Mrs. Weasley’s face and she stepped back and nodded.
“You both look very handsome,” she said, as though she were seeing them off to attend a wedding and not their potential deaths. “Now go eat some breakfast. You might need it.”
Her voice broke just slightly at the end of that sentence as she turned back to her cooking. The rest of the room stared deliberately down at their plates.
Harry wasn’t hungry either. He smiled gratefully as Mrs. Weasley dropped a hot steaming plate in front of him, but his stomach was doing flip-flops. It was only by her glaring, at all of them, that he managed to choke at least some of it down.
Mr. Weasley kept glancing at his watch the entire meal, each time his face getting paler and paler. Finally, he placed his hands on the table and looked at each of them.
“We need to go,” he said. His voice was somber.
Instantly, Mrs. Weasley burst into tears. Ginny looked like she might throw up. Hermione stared down at her robes, fiddling with the sleeves. The twins looked impassive. Harry took a deep breath and told himself he had been through worse.
But then it really was time to go.
They all stood up, adjusted their robes, and looked around the kitchen. For a few seconds, Harry tried to remember everything about this place. He had a feeling he might never see it again.
There was a crowd of people in the streets. They stepped out of The Burrow and into the mass of thin, tired, fearful people, all of whom were making their way to the center of town.
It was pretty much silent except for the sounds of feet scuffling and occasional coughs or sneezes. The guards who were lining the streets glared at them and kept their wands pointed, looking for the first sign of trouble to make an example out of someone.
Harry inched closer to Ginny as they walked. He could see Ron and Hermione holding hands in front of him, their knuckles white from gripping each other so tightly.
“You know what you have to do, if you can find a way to escape, right?” Harry whispered to Ginny, as low as he could and still have her hear him.
She didn’t even glance at him. “Yes,” she said, “but what if …?”
“They won’t take all of us,” Harry said. “It’s only six from Hogwarts total.”
“It might not be you, you know.”
“Yes, it will be. The Dark Lord” — Harry grimaced slightly as the words left his lips. Even now, with the threat of death being placed on heads if he was referred to as anything else, it was hard for him to say it — “wants me dead. We all know that.”
Ginny barely nodded at this. From the corner of his eye, Harry could see her blink away tears.
He reached for her hand.
“Just promise me you’ll try,” he said.
“Just promise me you’ll live,” she said back.
They were scheduled to take the Portkey that was going at nine ten sharp. Luna and her father were in their group.
“Hello, Harry!” She beamed at him, and for a moment, Harry wondered if she realized how serious this was. But when she threw her arms around him in an embrace, he felt her fingers tighten into his shoulders for just a second and he knew that she did.
“Hullo, Luna,” he said.
She probably looked the best of all the Wizards there. Whereas everyone else seemed to have faded a little over the months, Luna almost seemed to shine. Her hair glowed in the morning sun, and her dress robes sparkled in purple.
Next to her was the strangest Wizard that Harry had ever seen — and that was saying a lot.
He had shoulder-length pure white hair that looked a bit fuzzy. He was slightly cross-eyed, but he had a pair of glasses perched on his head. A hat, rather like a Muggle graduation cap, was perched on top of that. His robes looked like they came out of a Muggle’s version of the 1960s, all multi-colored and splotchy. Around his neck he wore a pendant that was shaped a bit like a triangular eye.
“This is my father,” Luna said. “Xenophilius Lovegood.”
Xenophilius didn’t seem to be paying much attention to his daughter and her friends. He was staring intently at a few of the other wizards in line for the Portkey.
“There is something different about those two,” he mused.
“If that’s not the pot calling the kettle black,” murmured George in Harry’s ear. Even in the somberness of the moment, Harry smiled. It felt nice to want to laugh, even if for just a second.
But then the guards were gesturing to them and the time for laughter was over. Harry felt like he was standing in mud, every step a struggle for him to take, as every step closer to the Portkey meant one step closer to his fate.
The Portkey for their group was an old Muggle fire hydrant. Big enough to accommodate the large number in their party. They had been warned that there were serious consequences if you missed your portkey, and no one seemed willing to risk it.
At exactly ten past nine o’clock, the Muggle fire hydrant started to glow, a bright vibrant blue. Hands reached in, desperately trying to touch and make sure they weren’t somehow left out. Harry felt Ginny grab his hand again as his finger found a spot on the fire hydrant.
A few seconds later and the twisting sensation in his gut began. In the next instant, he felt like he was being sucked through time and space, with no time to even say a proper goodbye to the place he had called home for six months.
The arena the Death Eaters and their minions had assembled for today’s Reaping ceremony was in the middle of a huge forest in Albania. Their fire hydrant landed them all in a clump in the middle of tree stumps and broken branches. There were muffled grunts and groans as people tried to untangle themselves and get to their feet, checking their robes nervously to make sure they were still as spotless as possible.
“Get in line!” A guard was standing over them, wand outstretched. Like all the other guards, a black mask covered his face.
No one hesitated. They lined up in single file as quickly as they could. Harry stood behind Ginny and in front of Ron.
“Let’s go,” the guard instructed once they were ready. “No talking.”
They set off into the woods, down a path that was easily marked by white stones. Harry could hear the sounds of other footsteps as they walked, and he knew other groups of people must be arriving as well.
He could see the arena long before they arrived at it. It was menacing looking, sticking up above even the tops of the trees. It was constructed of gray stone, dark and imposing. Harry could see archways at the top, and as they drew closer, he saw they were all emblazoned with the Dark Mark. The sky above the arena was dark and stormy, as though Voldemort himself was controlling the weather in that area. As the clouds swirled high above them, a bright green Dark Mark stood out, illuminating the arena in a similar fashion to Muggle search lights.
Up under the archways, Harry could see an impressive collection of guards. It seemed like there were hundreds of them, all identical in their black robes and black face masks, wands pointed, scanning the crowd, looking for any sign of trouble from anyone. And high above them, almost lost in the swirling clouds, Harry could just make out the shapes of Dementors. As they drew closer, the coldness in his joints and body seemed to grow, and he knew he was feeling their presence too.
Harry had never seen so many people in one place before. But every Wizard in the United Kingdom was here. They had to be. Dementors and guards were searching every house, checking people off on a list. If you weren’t where you were supposed to be, you were dead. No one risked it anymore. It wasn’t worth it.
Their line stopped moving after what seemed like hours, but it was probably only twenty or thirty minutes. Ginny stumbled and grabbed on to Hermione in front of her to help her keep her balance. A guard pointed his wand at her and snarled.
They had to be checked in before they were let into the arena. “Harry Potter,” he said when it was his turn. The guard held out his hand, and Harry handed over his wand, watching as the guard checked in it. Next, he made Harry hold his hands out, palms up, and the guard used his wand to scan his fingers, magically identifying him based on fingerprints. After a few minutes, the guard pointed his wand at a piece of parchment, and a section of the paper gleamed bright purple. The guard nodded and Harry was directed inside.
“No talking,” a guard commanded as Harry entered the foyer of the arena. “Say your goodbyes later.”
Harry gulped, and the feeling of dread that had been with him all morning seemed to increase ten-fold.
He watched as Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and Xenophilius Lovegood were directed to the right, into the stadium where parents and those older than age nineteen were to be seated. The Reaping wasn’t for them. They were safe. Only those ages eleven to nineteen had to endure the ceremony.
Hermione, Ginny, Luna, Fred, George, Ron and Harry were all directed through an interior archway straight in front of them. The ramp curved down, toward the ground of the arena. Along the way were even more guards watching their every move. Not that it mattered. The walls of the path were so high, Harry couldn’t see anything except the smooth gray stone walls anyway. There was no escape, even if someone wanted there to be.
They kept walking down the path until they came to a split. Boys one way, girls the other. Three girls were going to be chosen for the Reaping and three boys. Harry guessed they wanted them separated for dramatic effect.
His fingers brushed Ginny’s one final time, and Hermione gave him a hint of a sad smile, before the two of them, along with Luna, who still had a dreamy smile on her face, were ushered off to the path on the left.
Harry, Ron, Fred and George took the path to the right.
The walking was slower going here, the pathway a bit narrower. In front of him, Harry could see Seamus Finnigan and Colin and Dennis Creevy. Not that he was surprised. This was basically all of Hogwarts gathered together for a Sorting that was so much worse than being given a House.
Finally, a spark of gray seemed to come from the end of the path and they emerged onto the arena grounds.
It was nothing like Harry had ever seen before. It was shaped like a Quidditch stadium. Bleachers towered high into the air around them. The top rows were so high, Harry could just make out shapes, but they were indistinguishable as people. The grounds of the arena had been cordoned off into two separate sections. One for the girls and one for the boys. There was a black stone wall surrounding the two sections, ensuring those in one had no way of seeing those in the other. The ground itself almost seemed to be made of molten lava. It was black and crunchy to the touch, and Harry felt like it was just waiting to suck him up.
He took his place in his section, sandwiched between Ron and George. He could see Neville a few rows in front of him, Dean a few people off to his left. The only person he didn’t see was Draco Malfoy, but that was to be expected as well. High-ranking Death Eaters got their own families excused from the Reaping. Harry was sure Draco was around somewhere, though, ready to laugh at his misery and probable upcoming death. Harry’s fists clenched into fists just thinking about it.
Out in the crowd, he could make out some faces in the bottom rows. He thought he saw a flash of someone who could have been Professor McGonagall, but he wasn’t sure. Most people looked helpless, defeated. No one spoke — they weren’t allowed to, but Harry doubted there would have been much conversing even if it had been okay. Many stared at their hands or off into the distance. A few looked completely terrified. Some of the women — mothers probably of the children now cordoned off — were dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs.
Little by little, the arena filled up, as did Harry’s own section. He could feel Ron shifting slightly beside him, too nervous to stay completely still. The twins, though, were silent, not willing to risk a joke or a prank this time. Harry wondered how the girls were faring, wondering if he really would get to see them again.
Soon, there was no more movement. Harry guessed everyone had arrived. A surge of dread engulfed him, but he forced himself to push it down.
Finally, it was time to start. The skies above them seemed to darken even more, and the Dark Mark grew even brighter, until the green light from its symbol engulfed them all. Faces turned upward as trumpets began to blare.
In a rush of smoke and the sounds of cannons, a stage emerged. Voldemort stood there, his arms outstretched. People tumbled over themselves trying to bow and curtsey before him.
Even still, after these six months, it took every ounce of will power Harry could summon to force himself to kneel at Voldemort’s presence. He preferred to die than to do it, but he knew he couldn’t risk it. He, Ron and Hermione had spent the last six months talking in hushed tones, planning and arguing and researching. Dumbledore had wanted them to find the Horcruxes, and Harry knew he — they — could not give up until they had.
For as miserable as his life had become — for as miserable as everyone’s lives had become — even in his darkest moments, Harry wasn’t ready to give up yet. There had to be some hope. There just had to be.
And although he knew he was probably going to be dead in a few days’ time, his last remaining hope was that all their strategizing and plotting had paid off, and one of the others would do what he only wished he’d had time to do.
Voldemort’s voice echoed through the stadium, as soft and slithery as a snake, his red eyes glinting in the light of the Dark Mark.
“I am pleased to see you all hereeeeee,” he said, as though everyone had been given a choice and they were all here because they wanted to be. Harry felt nauseous.
“It is time for the Reaping,” Voldemort said. “To choose our worthy candidates.”
To watch them die was left hanging in the air, as Voldemort stepped back and gestured to one of his Death Eaters to step forward.
Harry’s eyes narrowed. He had known it.
Lucius greeted the crowd. “I’m sure you all know how this works,” he said smarmily, “but I will go over the rules once more for any of you who may be confused.” His lips curled slightly at that, and Harry imagined the Death Eaters having a good laugh as they plotted out this whole thing months prior.
“To honor our esteemed Lord, we must sacrifice to him. And there is nothing better to sacrifice than that which is most important to us.” Lucius paused here, as though he were waiting for applause. “Therefore, ten countries from all over the world were invited to participate.”
“Invited. Right.” George snorted softly beside Harry, but so softly Harry didn’t think anyone else heard.
“From each country,” Lucius continued, “three fortunate females and three fortunate males will be chosen to compete. They, along with the six members from the other nine countries, will live together in a place of our Lord’s choosing, battling for the pride of their countries.”
Battling to the death would have been a more apt description, Harry thought.
“We, of course, have high hopes that we will prevail, and our lucky winner will return to us a hero!”
Applause burst out from the stadium, probably from the Death Eaters and their families who didn’t have to worry about it. From everyone else, there was a scattering of clapping, as though people were afraid they would be stunned on the spot if they didn’t.
Lucius turned to look off stage.
“It is time!” he cried. “Bring in the names!”
Everyone turned to look in the direction Lucius was pointing. At first, Harry couldn’t see anything except the heads of the students in front of him. But then it appeared. A huge green orb slowly emerging from one of the tunnels under the arena, becoming bigger and bigger as it approached. It seemed to be surrounded in green smoke, and it spun and twirled in the air, light dancing off its sides as if it were alive, twisting and turning and flickering. It was actually quite beautiful, even if it did hold a fate almost worse than death inside it.
The green orb made its way over to the stage, bobbing and whirling as it did so, until it came to a rest beside Lucius, floating gracefully in mid-air, the green smoke still twirling around it. Now that it was closer, Harry could see the Dark Mark engraved on its sides along with the image of a snake that coiled all the way around it.
“Wonderful!” Lucius announced. “Our Lord will choose the names himself. Winners, please make your way quietly to the stage. No celebrating please.”
No fighting was the real unspoken request. You would be killed instantly and one of your family members would be offered as a replacement if you did.
Lucius tapped his wand on the green orb, and all of a sudden, it started to spin, faster and faster until it was just a green blur. Voldemort held up a hand and the orb halted in mid-spin. As it did, Harry could see a piece of parchment fly up and out of it, floating directly into Voldemort’s hand.
The crowd was quiet, all eyes focused on Voldemort, all ears straining to hear. No one moved, no one spoke. Harry wondered if anyone was even breathing.
Voldemort studied the name.
“Neville Longbottom!” he hissed.
Harry’s heart sank. Beside him, Ron gave a teeny squeak. Harry closed his eyes. He had prepared himself months ago, when the news first came, that he was going to be chosen, and he knew he was going in with people he knew, but with his friends? With his best friends? He wasn’t sure he was tough enough to handle that.
He opened his eyes with a heavy heart, watching Neville slowly emerge out of the crowd and take his place on the stage. He had his head raised, his chin held high, his wand clenched firmly in his hand.
Harry felt proud of him.
The orb started to spin again. Harry noticed that Neville didn’t even watch it. Voldemort once again raised his hand and again the orb came to a halt. A paper flew out and into Voldemort’s hand.
Harry knew what he was going to say before he even said it.
He swore Voldemort almost cackled as he said his name, drawing it out exceptionally long. But why wouldn’t he? This was the moment he had been waiting for.
Ron made another tiny noise under his breath, and George and Fred both gave him looks that could only be described as pity.
“Don’t give up,” he thought he heard Fred whisper as he made his way past him to reach the end of the row of people, turning then to make his way up the aisle. A guard ushered him out of the cordoned area and up the stairs of the stage. He averted his eyes from Voldemort and from Lucius Malfoy, instead focusing on Neville. Neville’s eyes met his and Harry swore he nodded just slightly.
Harry had barely taken his place beside Neville when the orb began spinning once more. This time it was a Ravenclaw third year whom Harry had never talked to before.
Then it was time for the girls.
“Help me, Merlin,” Harry thought to himself. “Don’t let it be Ginny or Hermione.”
“Hannah Abbott!” Voldemort’s voice sounded over the crowd. Somewhere in the distance Harry thought he could hear a cry, but if he did, it was quickly silenced.
A few minutes later, Harry saw the blonde girl make her way on to the stage. Her eyes were downcast as she took her spot beside Neville, and Harry thought he could see a tear on her cheek.
This time Neville gasped. Lucius shot him a glare. Harry could sense Neville start to tremble. Harry felt sick.
But Luna, almost as expected, glided on to stage, a serene smile on her face. She nodded at Harry, Neville, the Ravenclaw boy who’s name was Michael, and at Hannah, and then she took her spot.
Just one more name left. Harry felt a bead of perspiration drip down his back.
Please not Ginny or Hermione. Please not Ginny or Hermione.
Harry’s head spun, the world around him suddenly turning black. He thought he was either going to throw up or pass out or both.
Instead, he forced himself to breathe, to not giving anyone the satisfaction of seeing him squirm. Hermione obviously had the same thought, because when she appeared on stage a few minutes later, she practically stomped over to her spot next to Luna and, as Neville had done before her, her chin was high and her back was straight. She looked like she was daring anyone to mess with her.
Just looking at her made Harry raised his own head higher. Hermione and Neville were right. The Death Eaters and Voldemort might control them now, but they didn’t own them, and they never would.
Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Luna, Hannah and Michael all stand a little straighter as well.
In the center of the stage, Lucius was talking again, but Harry wasn’t listening. This was what he had been fearing, this was his worst nightmare, and it was coming true.
But he was not giving up that easily. That was one thing he refused to do.
They let them say goodbye after all. The six Tributes, as Lucius referred to them after the Reaping ceremony, were let into a room underneath the bleachers and told not to talk until given permission. The six of them stood together, side by side, all of them focused intently on their guard, never wavering in eye contact.
Finally the door opened and Lucius Malfoy slipped in, his lips curled into a sneer.
“You have five minutes,” he said, and then he gestured behind him.
People streamed inside. They were all there — Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Fred, George, Ron and Ginny, Xenophilius Lovegood, Neville’s grandmother, Hannah’s parents and others who must be family members of Michael.
Mrs. Weasley burst into tears the second she entered the room and gathered Harry and Hermione in her arms, squeezing them to her.
“Stick together,” she told them, and Harry was surprised by how strong her voice sounded, despite the tears rolling down her cheeks and landing on the top of his head. “Trust each other, protect each other. You might think there is no way out, but there is always a way out.”
Mr. Weasley was next. “You are the bravest kids I have ever met,” he said. “We will do everything we can to get you out of there.”
He leaned in. “I think I have a way to contact the Order,” he whispered, his lips so close to their ears no one else could hear. “We are going to do everything we can. You just need to hang on until then.”
The twins hugged each of them in turn.
“Do what you have to,” Fred said.
“Don’t be afraid to break a few rules,” George said, and tousled Hermione’s hair.
Harry turned to Ron. His best mate was staring at him in horror and disbelief and pain.
“Don’t die,” was all Ron managed to utter before he almost strangled Harry with a hug.
But it was Ginny who was hardest to say goodbye to. She wasn’t crying, and she looked as defiant as the six Tributes did, but her hand was shaking. She reached into her robes and pulled something out, pressing it into Harry’s hand.
“You know what to do,” Harry told her.
“So do you,” she answered, and then she snogged him. Her lips pressed to his, tender, soft, gentle.
He wanted more, but a command of “That’s enough!” echoed around the room. Lucius was back, and all the family members were being ushered out of the room. As the guard grabbed Ron’s arm to get him to untangle from Hermione and Mrs. Weasley cried harder, Harry slipped the gift from Ginny into his robes, hoping no one saw it. As his fingers traced over it, he knew what it was.
The snitch Dumbledore had given him.
I open at the close.
He doubted that particular message would come in handy now, but at least it was a reminder of home and Hogwarts and, most importantly, a reminder of what they were fighting for.
It was two days between the Reaping and the day the Death Eater Games began, but it might as well have been ten minutes. As soon as their families had left, the six of them were whisked away. They were taken to a nondescript building that could have been a Muggle hotel for all Harry knew, each assigned to a room with a bed, a chest of drawers and a small bathroom. Food was delivered to them each day, but other than that, they were not allowed to see each other, to contact each other or to otherwise try to escape. Their wands were taken away, but Harry doubted it mattered. He was pretty sure magic had been somehow prevented in their rooms anyway.
At various times of the day, guards would stop by to check on them, make sure they were behaving. At other times, Ministry officials stopped by to explain the rules of the so-called game they were about to play and to make sure they understood. As though there was any question to “the last one left alive wins.”
They weren’t allowed to take anything into the arena where the Death Eater Games would be played, except their wands and what they were wearing. The competition consisted mostly of witches and wizards, but there were some Muggles and some other magical beings, they were told. Harry wondered briefly what the Muggles were given, if anything, to defend themselves with, and he also pondered what they could mean by other magical beings. He guessed vampires and werewolves probably.
There was nothing to do during isolation and, apart from these quick visits by the guards and Ministry officials, nothing to distract themselves with. Harry tried sleeping, but sleep proved elusive. Instead, he lay on his bed for hours, wondering what was going to happen and if there was any way to survive this.
Neville. Luna. Hannah. Hermione. Even Michael.
Harry sighed. There was no way he could ever hurt any of them. He didn’t think he could hurt any of the others either. But he would fight. To get Hermione out alive. She deserved it, and Ron and Ginny needed her. He wasn’t sure if Ron and Ginny would have any luck being able to search for Horcruxes while the Death Eater Games were ongoing, but maybe, just maybe, if Hermione could manage to make it out alive, she would be given greater freedom and access.
It was their only hope.
The guards came to get them the day the games began before the sun had even started to rise. Harry was awake, though. He’d slept fitfully, off and on, until finally he had just gotten up, gotten ready and then just waited. The night before, his guard had brought him a new outfit. Jeans, a simple white tee-shirt and an all-black robe. He hadn’t been hungry much during his stay in isolation, but he forced himself to eat dinner the last night there. He didn’t know when he’d be eating again, and he knew he was going to need some energy to make it through.
The guard who came to get him, after a “no talking” warning, led him down a few sterile hallways until they came to a completely empty room. White walls, white ceiling, white floor. No pictures or furniture or anything.
Michael of Ravenclaw was there already, and he offered Harry a nod as he walked in. Harry went and stood next to him, his hands in his pocket, his fingers curled around the snitch. Hannah arrived next, followed by Luna, then Hermione, and finally Neville.
When they were all assembled, huddled together in the middle of the room, one of the guards left, coming back a few minutes later with Lucius Malfoy.
Lucius looked at them each in turn, his eyes landing on Harry and staying there as he began to speak.
“Don’t let us down,” he said. “England needs a champion. I suggest you win.”
Harry wanted to ask what he would do if none of them came back the champion, since they would all be dead, but he didn’t bother. He actually didn’t want to know. His thoughts wandered to the Weasleys, and he resolved once again to do anything he could to help Hermione win. The lives of the Weasleys might depend on it, too.
“Now, be off,” Lucius said, and he gestured to the guards, who moved in close to the Tributes. One by one, Lucius used his wand to bind each Tribute with his or her guard, ensuring none of them could escape. When Harry was safely secured, his guard spoke. “On three.”
And then his guard twisted, and in seconds, he and Harry were disappearing into thin air, reappearing in what looked like a cave. It was small and rocky. On one side there was a platform.
“Get on,” the guard said, and Harry did what he was told.
The guard dug into his robes and pulled out something long and slender. Harry’s wand. He handed it to Harry.
“Once you get up there,” the guard said. “you will have five minutes to look around. Don’t move until you’re given the signal.”
Harry wanted to ask what the signal was, but there wasn’t enough time. The platform was already moving upward.
What he noticed first was the brightness. He blinked, the gray light piercing after being inside for so long. After a few seconds, though, he could begin to make out shapes.
They were in a clearing, almost a meadow, full of wildflowers and weeds and jagged rocks. Just behind them, probably about forty or fifty yards, was a dark, imposing forest. Somewhere, he could faintly hear the sound of rushing water, but he couldn’t see where it was coming from.
His platform had stopped about three feet off the ground. All the Tributes looked to be in a gigantic circle. He could barely make out the people on the opposite side of the circle as they were so far away. Next to him, though, much closer at about five feet away, was a small, blonde girl who was clenching a pointed stick in her hand. Harry guessed she was one of the Muggles.
On his other side was another Muggle girl, this one slightly taller, with long dark hair done back in a braid. She had a bow in her one hand and arrows thrown over her shoulder.
In the center of the arena was a spire of rocks, rising high in the air. At the very top was a collection of brooms, and scattered along the sides were jugs of water and baskets of what Harry presumed was food.
He stared at it for a second, and then he knew. It was a trap. They wanted them to go toward that.
Then he noticed something else. On the ground, at various intervals between the rocks and the platforms, Harry could see bags hidden amongst the flowers and weeds. He guessed they were also supplies.
Quickly, he turned his head in both directions, scanning the Tributes, finally sighing in relief. Just three platforms down from him to his left was Hermione. He could see her looking around. He prayed to Merlin for her to notice him, and as he did, she turned her head. He nodded to her, as slightly as he could, hoping she could understand what he wanted.
“Don’t go to the middle,” he mouthed as inconspicuously as he could.
Hermione didn’t show any signs of comprehension. She just turned to face forward again. Harry shifted nervously.
But it had to be getting close. He was sure they had been out there for almost five minutes. He could see the others peering around, waiting.
He wasn’t even sure what he should be looking for, or if it was just something they would hear.
But he didn’t have to wonder for long. Suddenly, in the middle of the arena, over the pile of rocks, a huge timer made of smoke appeared.
.30 said the green letters.
As the Tributes watched, it began to count downward.
29 … 28 … 27 … 26 … 25 …
Harry took a deep breath and gripped his wand even tighter.
24 … 23 … 22 … 21 … 20 …
He positioned his feet so he was ready to jump and run when the time came.
19 … 18 … 17 … 16 … 15 …
He cast a glance sideways. He could see Hermione getting into position.
14 … 13 … 12 … 11 … 10 …
He tried to scan over the rest of the arena, but wherever Neville and Luna were, he couldn’t see them. He hoped they were close to each other.
9 … 8 … 7 … 6 … 5 …
Harry sent one last prayer up to Merlin and waited …
4 … 3 … 2 … 1 …
A cannon sound.
Screams filled the air.
Harry jumped off his platform just as a purple light went whizzing over his head. He looked to the left, saw Hermione, and took off running as fast as he could, almost plowing straight into the girl with the arrow.
He didn’t know if Hermione had understood him before, but she was running toward him, too, dodging a boy in some kind of school uniform.
“Harry!” she panted. “We need to go!”
She pointed toward the rocks and the collection of brooms and food. Harry could see people getting close to it, and already the sky was filled with green and red lights, and the sound of screams.
“No!” he shouted. “It’s a trap! We have to get out of here!”
“No! It’s a trap!”
And he grabbed her arm and started to run.
“Wait!” Hermione stopped suddenly, yanking her arm away from him. “I can get that!”
She was gesturing off to their right, and as Harry turned, he could see a spot of bright blue amongst the weeds. One of the bags.
Before he had a chance to react, Hermione took off running toward it.
“Accio!” Harry heard her cry, but the bag didn’t move. It figured the supplies were enchanted. She kept running.
“Hermione! No!” he shouted, but she wasn’t listening. She was now headed toward the bag full speed. Harry charged after her, but by then the distance between them was too great.
And then he saw him. Another wizard, a huge guy with muscles like that of a Muggle weightlifter. He had spotted the bag, too, and he was raising his wand, his mouth already beginning to move.
“NOOO!” Harry yanked out his wand, but it was too late. There was nothing he could do as …
Out of nowhere, a blonde guy slammed into the weightlifter, knocking him to the ground and causing his wand to drop from his hand. The curse from the weightlifter’s wand slammed into the ground, creating a huge crater.
Hermione stopped millimeters from the bag, frozen.
“Bloody well run!” The blonde guy yelled at her, and Harry gasped. Even from the distance between them, he could clearly see fangs. And blood on the guy’s chin.
“HERMIONE!” Harry screamed.
“Run!” The blonde guy shouted again. And this time Hermione did. She jumped forward, grabbed the strap of the bag, then took off running.
Harry raced as fast as he could toward her, taking the bag from her and grabbing her hand.
“Run!” he yelled. “We need to get out of here!”
He pulled her in the direction of the forest.
“Faster!” he yelled as a shot of purple light flew over their heads.
“I’m trying!” Hermione cried, but they speeded up a little.
There was no one in their way now. The forest lay before them, about a hundred yards away. The sounds of the battle behind them were drowning out most every other sound. Screams of pain and torture and agony echoed in the distance. The sounds of death.
Harry prayed Luna and Neville had gotten away, but there was no time to think about that.
He glanced behind them and saw a flash of light.
“Get down!” he shouted to Hermione and pushed her to the side. They tumbled to the ground as the curse whistled innocently over their heads and plowed into a tree.
“We’re almost there,” Harry said. “Go!”
And they were up again, running as fast as they could. Closer and closer and closer, until finally, the darkness of the forest swallowed them up.
Harry stumbled to a stop, Hermione bouncing into him.
“We need to keep going. We need to get far away from here. They’ll find us.”
He blinked in the newfound darkness, waiting for his eyes to adjust. He swung the bag Hermione had grabbed for them onto his shoulder.
“Ready?” he asked.
She nodded, and they were off again, running through the forest as fast as they could. No idea where to go or what to do except to run.
They ran for what felt like hours, past trees and shrubs and broken branches, tripping over logs and stumbling on rocks.
Harry held Hermione’s hand the whole time, not letting her slow down.
“We need to find shelter,” Hermione finally panted. They had stopped at the bottom of a steep incline to drink some water from their wands. “We can’t run all night.”
Harry nodded. He knew she was right.
“There was an outcropping of rocks a couple miles back,” Hermione said. “There could be caves.”
Harry ran his fingers through his hair. He didn’t like the idea of going back in the direction they had come from. Who knew what else, or who else, could be waiting for them? There were sixty people out here, and only five of them, apart from himself, could he trust. If he could even trust them. But he didn’t want to think about that.
“I researched a lot of protective spells,” Hermione said. “We’ll be safe.”
Harry was still unsure. “How do you know they will work?”
She shrugged. “Aguamenti worked.”
“On the supplies,” she said, and raised her wand, pointing it at a small rock. “Accio rock,” she called, and sure enough, the rock soared up off the ground and into her hand.
“See?” she said.
Harry was still unsure.
“Why give us wands if they don’t want us to use them?” she asked.
“To kill,” Harry said, but he knew Hermione had a point. If they wanted to temper everything good they could do with their wands, they would never have let them have water.
He picked up the blue bag and hefted it on to his back.
“We should look what’s inside,” Hermione said.
“Let’s find shelter first,” Harry said. “I don’t like being so exposed. There are too many people around here.”
Hermione nodded. “Okay,” she said.
Harry grabbed her hand again and together they took off, this time at a slower pace, being as quiet as possible, keeping an ear out to see if they could hear anything else. But the only thing they could hear was the squawks of birds and other animals.
They came upon the rock outcropping Hermione had been referring to just as the sun dropped down for the night. Not that it made much difference. The forest was hard to see in during the day. But it did feel creepier. And it made Harry nervous.
“Lumos,” Hermione whispered, a burst of light coming out of the tip of her wand. Harry glanced around them. He didn’t see or hear anything, but he didn’t want to be seen.
“Let’s look fast,” he said.
For once, luck was in their favor. “Here,” Hermione whispered a few minutes later, and she pointed her wand into a small, damp cave.
“That will do,” Harry said, and they crawled inside.
As Hermione set about protecting the boundaries of their rock cave, so they wouldn’t be seen by Muggles or detected by other witches or wizards, Harry finally opened the blue bag.
Two containers of what looked like stew. A blanket. And a rain poncho.
“Oh, that’s helpful,” Hermione said.
“Yeah,” Harry said as his stomach grumbled. “Do you reckon we should eat the stew now?”
“I guess so,” Hermione said. She dropped down on the ground beside Harry and put her head in her hands.
Harry turned to look at her, really look at her. For the first time since the cannon had sounded, she didn’t look determined or resilient. She looked sad.
He scooted over next to her.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said quietly.
“Really, Harry?” Her voice was sharp. “They want us to kill each other. Do you not get that?”
“Just because they want us to do it doesn’t mean we have to,” Harry said, but he knew he didn’t sound very hopeful.
“And how do you propose we avoid that?”
“I don’t know,” Harry said softly. “I don’t know.”
They never ended up eating the stew. They never ended up sleeping much either. Just sitting, staring miserably out into the darkness.
Everything they had been through since they had met — the troll in the bathroom, the Chamber of Secrets, Cedric’s death, Dumbledore’s death — it all seemed to pale in comparison to the situation they were in now.
“Do you think the others are still alive?” Hermione had asked at one point during the long, seemingly endless night.
Harry had shrugged. “I hope so.”
The morning dawned cold, gray and stormy. High above them, thunder crashed. Water splashed down hard on the rocks surrounding their cave. Hermione had to use magic to seal their entrance to prevent the water from seeping in.
Their cave wasn’t big enough to light a fire, so they huddled together, using the rain poncho and blanket as protection.
“How long do you think we can stay here?” Hermione asked.
“I think it’s best to keep going, if we can,” Harry said. “Get further away.”
“We need to find food,” she said.
Harry agreed. But the weather didn’t. It wailed and stormed, as though the skies above were angry, but whether it was angry with the Tributes for hiding or with Voldemort and the Death Eaters for organizing this in the first place, Harry didn’t know.
Eventually, they broke out one of the cans of stew and split it between them. They needed to eat something. They had no idea what was coming their way, and they needed any energy they could find.
They finally slept, too, more out of exhaustion than anything. Harry went first while Hermione kept watch, making sure no one broke their magical boundaries. But it didn’t really matter. They never saw, or heard, sign of anyone else.
Harry felt better when he woke, if only a little. He traded places with Hermione, positioning himself by the cave entrance as she curled up on the blanket a little further inside. He found his eyes flickering back and forth between the outside and the girl asleep on the ground beside him.
For as much as he hadn’t wanted any of his friends to be here, he was glad she was with him. For company, for someone to help devise a plan with, but mostly, because her presence gave him strength and conviction. He couldn’t give up, not until he had made sure she had won. He had to get her home, get her back to the others. The Horcruxes were out there somewhere. All they had to do was find them.
As if it were that easy. Harry almost scoffed at himself.
He woke Hermione up a few hours later.
“The rain is stopping,” he told her as she rubbed sleep out of her eyes. She had dark circles under her eyes, but she nodded at this news.
“Let’s go,” she said, already standing up and stuffing their blanket back into the blue bag.
“Put the rain poncho on,” Harry told her. “My clothes are thicker than yours.”
They weren’t, and she knew it — all six of the Hogwarts tributes had been given the exact same outfit — but he wanted her to have it. She slipped it on over her robe without arguing.
Checking around to confirm no one was near, they slipped out into the late afternoon chill and continued on in the direction they had been going yesterday, as far away from the starting platforms as possible.
They went slower today, the wet ground making it harder to walk and the squish of rain-soaked mud beneath their feet slightly louder than Harry considered comfortable. They stayed hidden in the shadows of the trees the best they could, flitting from one to another, pausing intermittently to stop and listen, to see if they could hear anything.
About an hour into their walk, they finally found some trees with low-hanging fruit. They gathered as much as they could, stuffing their bag full and eating what they wanted. It wasn’t a lot of food, but it was enough to get them through a few days if they needed it.
A few hours later, they came upon the perfect spot to stop for the evening.
Harry pointed ahead, to a towering oak tree, full of branches and covered in leaves, its uppermost ledges just a few shades higher than everything else in the vicinity. It wouldn’t as safe as a cave, but they needed to see what they were working with — what the land was like, if they could see any signs of magic coming from anywhere, if they could sense anyone near to them who might want to harm them.
Hermione, though, looked horrified at the very thought.
“Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head. “We are not going to sleep in a tree.”
“We’ll tie ourselves in,” Harry said. “It’s perfectly safe. And see all those branches? No one will be able to see us.”
“No,” Hermione said. “If you want to climb up there and do a lookout, go for it. And then you can come back down and we’ll find a safer spot.”
“It’s the only way,” he insisted. “We need to be up there at night. We can see signs of magic better when it’s dark.”
Hermione was not convinced, but finally, she gave in.
“You go first,” she told Harry, who nodded and began scampering up the tree, making sure she was following him.
It wasn’t until they were halfway up that it began to dawn on Harry why Hermione had been so apprehensive. He had slowed down, so she could keep up with him, but even still he could hear her breath becoming more and more ragged.
Finally, she whispered, “I can’t do this. I can’t.”
Harry turned around. The sun was setting and it was growing darker, but even in the lack of light, he could see how pale she was. She was clutching at one of the branches, her knuckles white, trembling slightly.
“Oh,” he whispered, feeling like a twat. How could he not have realized she was scared of heights?
“Hermione,” he whispered softly. “It’s going to be okay. I’m not going to let you fall.”
She didn’t answer him, just clutched the tree harder.
“Can you look at me?” he said. “Just look at me.”
He waited till she did, lifting her head slightly. Their eyes met, and he smiled. “You can do this,” he said.
He held out his hand. “I’ve got you.”
Very slowly, Hermione nodded, her eyes never leaving Harry’s, but she reached out her own hand. As soon as he could reach her, Harry curled his fingers around hers, holding on tightly.
“Let’s go,” he said. “Just step where I step.”
And so they began. It was a slow, painful process, but Harry went slowly and Hermione followed in his footsteps. Eventually they emerged into the air, high above the other foliage around them.
Close to the top, Harry spotted two branches, both wide enough to fit an entire person with room to spare, and located almost side by side.
Being careful not to go too fast, Harry navigated them over to the branches and helped Hermione on to hers.
Once they were settled, Harry told Hermione to raise her arms, then pointed his wand at her.
“Incarcerous,” he murmured, and ropes appeared out of thin air, wrapping around Hermione and securing her to the tree.
Once he knew she was secure, he pointed his wand at himself and uttered the same spell. Then he slipped his wand into his pocket and reached out and took her hand while they waited for night to fall fully.
The announcement came sometime in the middle of the night. Harry had been dozing on and off on his tree branch, starting awake every now and then to check for signs of magic or life anywhere around them.
A few times he thought he spotted a flicker of light — perhaps a wand — off in the distance, which he would point out to Hermione, but there didn’t seem to be anyone, or anything, really close to them.
The announcement began with the re-appearance of the green glowing orb that had so ruthlessly spit out their names during the Reaping.
It suddenly appeared in the sky, almost directly above them, glowing green and casting an eerie light on everything below.
Harry nudged Hermione awake.
“What’s going on?” she whispered, and he could hear the fear in her voice.
Harry took a moment to use the light from the orb to check out their surroundings.
They were firmly entrenched in the middle of a forest, as far as he could make out. He couldn’t even see the platform area from which they had come just two days prior, even though he was sure he was looking in the right direction. Way off to his left, the forest looked to drop away, and he wondered if there were cliffs over there. To his right, again far in the distance, he thought he could make out the glint of water tracing a path through the trees. A river perhaps.
His attention, though, was quickly drawn back to the green glowing orb.
A rumble was echoing out of it.
Harry heard Hermione whimper softly beside him, and he once again sought the comfort of her hand in his.
A raspy voice suddenly broke through the night.
He was speaking through the orb. Somehow.
Harry felt himself instinctively pushing his body back against the tree branch, as though to disappear more completely, even though he knew they couldn’t be seen. Or at least he hoped they couldn’t be. He didn’t put it past Voldemort to come flying out of the orb at any second.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, he simply continued speaking.
“Congratulations are in order,” Voldemort’s detached voice said. “You have all survived this long. There are now just thirty-eight of you left.”
There was a long pause.
“We trust there will be less of you tomorrow. Good night.”
Without warning, the green orb suddenly disappeared, like a light switch being turned off, leaving nothing behind, not even a hint that it had once been there.
Harry and Hermione were silent for a long time. Finally she spoke.
“Only thirty-eight,” she said. “Twenty-two have died.”
She didn’t have to say what they were both wondering. If Neville, Luna, Hannah, and even Michael were still alive somewhere out there.
“I’m not sure what to think,” she said, “if that’s good or bad.”
“Me neither,” Harry said. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree. He thought he heard Hermione sniffle next to him.
Neither of them slept any more than night.
The first sign of movement in the distance happened just as the sun appeared in the eastern sky.
Hermione saw it first, suddenly grabbing Harry’s arm and pointing with her other hand.
Harry saw what she was looking at right away. Green and red sparks were flying through the air a couple kilometers from where they were perched in their tree. They were too far away to hear any noise, but with the amount of flashes, coming from all angles, it looked like a fight had broken out.
They watched silently as the sun began to grow from a tiny speck to a fully formed orb, rising up into the sky and casting a soft golden glow over everything. The battle itself was over quickly, maybe fifteen minutes at most. But the aftereffects lingered. Here or there, a stray burst of light could be seen at all intervals for the better part of three hours.
Fortunately, none of the action seemed to be moving toward them.
The rising of the sun also brought a better look at the world they were contained in. Harry had been right in his impression that it was mostly forest for as far as the eye could see, but here and there were bits of different terrain that had been hidden from view in the darkness. There was indeed a river over to their right and cliffs to their left.
But farther past the river, way off to the right, they could also see outcroppings of rock. Rock that probably contained caves that they might just be able to hide in for a few days, as long as their enchantments worked, which Hermione seemed convinced they would.
The trek to the caves was long and exhausting, a lot of it uphill and through paths strewn with dead trees and overgrown branches. There was probably a faster way, but Harry and Hermione both decided it was safer to keep to the shadows and away from anything that could be seen as a true path.
They had just finished crossing the river at the shallowest point they could find when they heard the crunch of leaves, coming from somewhere to the left of them. Harry grabbed Hermione’s arm and pulled her behind a log lying haphazardly on the bank. It wasn’t the best hiding place, but it was all they had.
Seconds later, an acromantula appeared, tottering along.
Hermione’s eyes widened, her face losing what little color it had. Harry rubbed his forehead. He should have known they weren’t alone in this little forest world Voldemort had placed them in.
They waited silently for more to appear, or for any other creature really, but when nothing did, they decided to risk it and continued on their path to the rock outcroppings.
“Does this seem a little too easy to you?” Harry asked Hermione as they walked.
“This seems easy to you?” she said.
“Not easy,” he said, trying to find the words to explain. “But this is …. you know who. I guess I expected …”
“Traps?” she said, filling in his sentence. Harry nodded.
“Maybe he wants to give us a false sense of security,” Hermione mused. “Make us think we have it all figured out and then spring something on us.”
“Yeah,” Harry said. “Maybe.”
He was quiet for a spell.
“We should make sure to be extra careful on our lookout then,” he finally said.
She nodded. Harry noticed she moved a few centimeters closer to him. He found he didn’t mind.
They had been right. There were caves hidden in the outcropping of rocks just past the river. They decided on a cave that was almost directly in the center of the rocks. Just by looking from afar, all you could see was a huge boulder. It wasn’t until you were almost on top of the boulder that you could tell there was room behind it.
This cave was bigger than their first one. They could stand up straight in it and could walk about ten paces from the entrance to the back.
They spread their fruit out and drank water from their wands after Hermione was done magically sealing the entrance. Harry’s stomach was grumbling, and he knew they were going to have to search for more food soon. Their fruit supply would only last so long. And they needed to get their energy up, so they could face whatever it was that was coming next.
Over dinner, they decided the best course of action was to stay low for the next couple days. Nothing could find them here — they hoped — and there was no sense looking for trouble.
They took turns keeping watch while the other slept. A couple times a day, one would sneak out to go in search of food. Harry found a bush with some wild berries that he scooped up. Hermione was able to find a tree with nuts that she brought back.
On the second day, they broke out their last container of stew and split it between the two of them.
They were lying side-by-side on the blanket on the cave floor. Hermione had enchanted it to feel more like a mattress. They could barely feel the floor below them.
Harry could feel his eyelids beginning to droop. It was his turn to keep watch, but it was storming again, and the combination of the storm and the magical enforcements made it unlikely that anyone would be coming to find them, and he found himself unwilling to move from where he lay.
Images of Ginny back in The Burrow flashed through his mind. Images of the four of them — Harry, Hermione, Ginny and Ron — spending those long months of Voldemort’s reign sitting on Ron’s bed and plotting how to find the Horcruxes replayed in his head.
“I open at the close,” Harry found himself mumbling, and that was the last conscious thought he had.
He wasn’t sure how much later it was when he finally opened his eyes, but he felt the grogginess that comes with a heavy sleep. He felt like something was in his mouth, and it took him a few seconds to realize it was hair. He started when he realized that in their sleep, he and Hermione had somehow moved closer together and were now curled up tightly next to each other.
His hand was on her hip, and her head was on his shoulder. He stared down at her, her face beautiful and peaceful in her slumber. He felt a pull to her unlike anything he had felt before.
He was still staring at her when her eyes fluttered open a long time later.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
He nodded, but he felt like she was waiting for an explanation.
“I was just thinking,” he finally said. “That you have no idea what it means to me that you’re here. I wouldn’t be able to survive this without you.”
He frowned, realizing how that sounded, and tried to backtrack. “I mean, I wish you weren’t here, but I’m glad you are. In a horrible way. Do you know what I mean?”
He felt her move even closer to him.
“I think I do,” she whispered.
“Am I a horrible person for even thinking that?” he asked.
“No,” she whispered. “Because I feel the same way.”
She moved even closer still, her eyes focused on his. Harry gulped. She reached a hand out and gently touched his cheek. Harry dropped his head.
Maybe it was the darkness of the cave, the warmth of their bodies pressed together, the storm and the wind raging outside. Harry didn’t know. He didn’t know what he was doing or what he was feeling or what to do next, but she seemed to.
She moved in once again — they were now almost pressed up against each other — and moved her fingers to under his chin, tilting his head up so his eyes were looking into hers. Their faces, their lips, were now less than a millimeter apart. He stared into her eyes, searching for something but he didn’t know what, and then it happened.
He closed the gap between them. Her arms went around his neck as his lips met hers, and for a second, the troubles around them disappeared. In that moment, there was nothing else that mattered. No pain, no fear, no heartache. Just them and the feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Not a nervous butterfly feeling like when he had been with Cho. Not a nauseous feeling like when he had to dance with Parvati. But a feeling that, for once, everything was right.
Hermione didn’t pull back but she did stop.
“What are we doing?” she whispered against his lips.
His eyes opened, and once again, he found himself staring directly into hers.
The moment was over.
Sighing, he pulled back, his cheeks growing warm.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t know.”
“You’re my best friend, Harry …”
“You’re my best friend, Hermione …”
“But Ron. … I can’t …. I just …. I think I’m in love with Ron,” she finally managed. Harry thought she almost looked sorry about that, but he knew that couldn’t be right.
He forced a smile. “And I think I’m in love with Ginny,” he said. He was, wasn’t he? He thought so. He had been so sure before they got here. But this place, this situation, he felt like it was messing with his head.
“We can’t do this,” she said.
“Yeah,” Harry mumbled. “We can’t. It was stupid.”
Yet neither of them moved. They stared at each other, searching each other’s eyes. Harry’s mind was working overtime.
What if this was it? What if this was how his life was going to end? Most likely it was. There was no way they could both survive, that much was sure. And he had already vowed that he wouldn’t let Hermione die if he could at all help it. So was it really so wrong, Harry thought, for just one moment, to do something that would take all the fear and the uncertainty away?
Hermione answered for him.
“I feel guilty,” she whispered.
And there it was. Because even if it was just she who made it out alive, Ron was still out there. And so was Ginny.
“Yeah. Me too,” Harry whispered back. “Me too.”
“They can’t know,” Hermione said softly. “About … what just happened.”
“Nothing happened,” Harry said.
“They can’t know,” she repeated.
“They won’t,” he promised. “Don’t worry. No one will ever know.”
By the time the sun rose the next morning, Harry and Hermione knew they had to get out of that cave. They needed to do something to distract themselves from the guilt of what had almost happened.
There hadn’t been any new announcements since the first one, so they had no idea how many Tributes were left or what could possibly be happening, but they couldn’t worry about that now.
“We should follow the river,” Hermione said as they set out for the day. “See if we can find some fish, so we can eat more than fruit.”
That was a good idea, Harry knew. The fruit was good, but it was hardly filling, and they were hungry more times than not.
They walked in silence, checking their surroundings and avoiding any eye contact. It was easy to pretend being quiet was all about survival, but they both knew it was more than that.
And a few hours later, once they had accumulated a nice pile of fish but still hadn’t spoken more than fifty words all day, Harry knew he had to do something.
He watched Hermione. She was standing on a rock in the middle of the river, aiming her wand at the fish. She had a good aim; she was better at this than Harry was actually. Harry could see her concentrating, her brows furrowed, her lips pursed.
She looked so serious, so intent on getting the fish that was inching ever closer to her.
He waited until she was just about to aim before he made his move.
The water splashing over her startled her so much she slipped off the rock and crashed into the water.
Harry’s hand flew to cover his mouth. That was not what was supposed to happen.
He waited for her to emerge from the water, spluttering and furious.
But instead he was the one left sputtering when a huge wave crashed unexpectedly over his head, causing him to slide off the bank and into the current.
He splashed around, trying to regain his bearings, and felt hands pulling him to his feet. But before he could open his mouth to say thank you, those same hands were dunking him back under.
He twisted out of her grasp and pushed himself out of the water once more, popping up behind her. He grabbed her by the waist and tossed her to the side, knocking her into the water. She kicked at him as she went under, soaking his glasses completely.
They were laughing and playing and splashing so loud, they stopped paying attention to the world around them.
Until it was too late.
The creaking of a branch just in front of them seemed to come out of nowhere. They both froze, mouths open, eyes darting from side to side. There was no where to hide, so Harry did the first thing he could do.
He pushed Hermione underwater, keeping his hand on her head to hold her down.
Whoever it was, maybe they would only see him. Maybe she could get away.
He held his breathe and waited, the longest seconds of his life.
He was so startled he let go of Hermione and she floated to the surface.
And then Harry and Hermione were tripping over each other, stumbling their way through the water to the blonde girl who was gracefully navigating the river toward them.
Harry reached Luna first, pulling her into a tight embrace.
“You’re alive!” he beamed.
She almost looked mystified. “Well, of course,” she said serenely. “Why wouldn’t we be?”
Harry wanted to ask her if she realized what type of situation they were in, but instead he focused on her choice of words.
“Oh, yes,” Luna said, turning around. “Neville!” she called. “Where are you?”
And then there he was, appearing almost out of nowhere, clad in jeans and a ripped up shirt, standing on the edge of the river bank and beaming at all of them.
Hermione was the first to reach him.
“You’re both alive!” Neville said, spinning her in a circle as she laughed, her hands tightly around his neck.
“So are you!” Harry said, clapping him on the back.
He felt like a weight had been lifted. Two of his friends were still alive. They had all made it this far. For the first time since they had arrived at the arena, Molly Weasley’s words floated through his mind.
”You might think there isn’t a way out, but there is always a way out.”
“So where you have been?” Harry and Hermione had taken their friends back to their cave with them. It turned out Luna and Neville were much more efficient hunters and gatherers. They had three bags with them, all full of nuts, berries, a few fish they had caught and even the meat of a few small animals they had captured.
They toasted their food by the heat of the fire, and Harry and Hermione had their first solid meal in days.
“All over,” Neville answered. “The first day we stayed close and hid in the trunk of a tree. You should have seen this girl …” He gestured at Luna. Harry couldn’t help but notice how close the two of them were sitting. “She was amazing!”
Neville beamed as he told them how Luna raced into the foray and snatched up five bags full of supplies, then made it out without even being targeted once.
“And then we just started moving,” he said. “Every day. Always moving. Paying attention to where others were and staying out of their way.”
“You didn’t ..?” Hermione faltered. “Have you …?”
“Killed anyone?” Neville finished. “No. No, no, no. We aren’t going to do that.”
“No,” Luna chimed in. “My father says just because someone wants us to play a game doesn’t mean we have to play it how they want us too.”
Neville nodded. “Exactly.” He cocked his head to the side. “What about you?”
Both Harry and Hermione shook their heads vigorously.
“No,” Harry said, and explained how they really hadn’t seen anyone since their very first day there, how they stayed far away from everyone and mostly remained hidden.
Neville nodded. “We saw some casualties,” he said softly. “The first couple days. No one we know, though.”
“One was just a little girl,” Luna chimed in. “Very pretty. A girl with a braid was crying over her.”
A girl with a braid. Harry thought back to the moment this whole thing started. The girl on the platform next to him with the long dark braid. He wondered if she was alive, if that was her friend.
The foursome drifted off into silence. Harry knew they were all thinking the same thing. They were glad for each other’s company, but this was no where near over.
The second announcement came that night. They had been sitting around the dying embers of the fire, plotting out a plan for the next few days, discussing whether it was better to remain hidden, as Hermione thought, or to keep moving, which Neville was pushing for. Neville was convinced there had to be a way out, though Harry agreed with Hermione that it was just wishful thinking at this point.
The glowing green orb appeared just as it had the first time, right above them — or so it seemed — casting its eerie light everywhere. They all crept forward, to the entrance of their cave, careful not to step out into any place where they would be visible.
Harry still didn’t put it past Voldemort or the Death Eaters to be flying around up there, just waiting to take them all out.
Once again, it was a raspy voice that broke through the stillness of the night.
“Attention, tributessssssssssss,” Voldemort’s voice said, exactly as it had the first time around. “Congratulations are in order. You have all survived this long. There are now just twenty-two of you left.”
There was a pause after that, the word twenty-two hanging in the air.
Twenty-two left, Harry thought as he felt his heart sink. Thirty-eight dead. Thirty-eight innocent kids now dead because Voldemort and the Death Eaters wanted to punish the Wizarding World.
Harry felt rage boil up inside him and his fingers clenched. If only Voldemort were in front of him now. He opened his mouth, feeling a burst of rage shoot up inside him … but cool fingers on his arm quickly stopped him.
He looked over at Hermione as she scooted closer to him and took his hand.
“Now is not the time,” she whispered, and he knew she was right.
The raspy voice was still speaking.
“Good luck,” Voldemort said. “And may death be with some of you tomorrow.”
And then, once again, the green orb was gone, and all that was left was the inky blackness of the night.
Harry and Neville took first watch, letting the girls sleep.
“So,” Harry said after a while. They had been mainly sitting in silence, their thoughts thousands of miles away from the hell they were trapped in. “You and Luna, huh?”
Even in the barely-there light of the moon above, Harry thought he could see Neville flush.
“You noticed?” he said, but Harry thought he could detect a note of pride in Neville’s voice.
“I noticed,” Harry said. “I’m happy for you, mate.”
Neville shrugged. “I wish it hadn’t happened like this,” he said.
“Yeah,” Harry said. “I know what you mean.”
“But,” Neville continued. “If I’m going to be dead in a few days, I might as well at least do something that makes me happy.” He paused. “And she makes me happy,” he said.
Harry smiled. “That’s wonderful.”
“What about you and Hermione?”
Harry almost choked. “What … er, what do you mean?” he said, a little too quickly. But if Neville noticed, he made no indication of it.
“You two seem close,” Neville said.
“We are close,” Harry said. “But she has a boyfriend. And I have a girlfriend.”
“Who you probably won’t ever see again.”
Harry didn’t bother to mention that he was going to try with all his might to make sure Hermione did, in fact, see Ron again. But how could he? For Hermione to live, Harry knew he, Neville and Luna all had to die, and that was something he just couldn’t deal with yet.
“We’re just friends,” he said.
“I know,” Neville said. “You aren’t those type of people. Just … this situation … sometimes it makes you see things in a different light is all.” He shrugged. “Just forget it, mate,” he said.
“Okay,” Harry said, but he couldn’t forget it. Neville’s words continued to haunt him the rest of the night. He wondered if Neville was picking up on something and what he would really think of him if he knew the truth of what he and Hermione had done. He knew Neville had just basically indicated he would understand, but Harry wasn’t sure he really would. After all, how could he when Harry himself could barely understand?
A few hours later, Harry came to another decision. For as much as he was going to try and protect Hermione and see that she was the sole survivor, he knew Neville was going to try and protect Luna. And he knew, deep down inside, he couldn’t risk that Hermione didn’t make it out of this.
He had to tell Neville the truth.
“I need to tell you something,” he whispered to Neville. “It’s important.”
Neville turned to face him. Harry could tell by the look on his face that he knew that whatever Harry was about to tell him was not something to be taken lightly.
“You can tell me anything,” Neville said. “You can trust me.”
“I do,” Harry said. “With my life. And my deepest secrets.”
“You have to promise you can’t say a word to anyone about this, except for Luna. You have to swear.”
Neville made the symbol of Merlin in the air. “I swear to Merlin,” he said. “I won’t say a word.”
Harry took a deep breath. “It started last year, at Hogwarts,” he said. “With Dumbledore. He had a mission for me.”
And Harry began to tell Neville everything, about his sessions with Dumbledore, what he learned about Tom Riddle, about the Horcruxes.
“Dumbledore destroyed the ring,” he said. “And we finished off the diary. We’re pretty sure Helga’s cup and Salazar’s locket are two more. And something of Rowena Ravenclaw’s.”
“And the last two?” Neville asked.
Harry shrugged. “Dunno,” he said, adding how they had spent the last six months researching and discussing every possible alternative.
“And you’re sure you can find them?” Neville said.
Harry nodded. “I know so. Ginny and Ron, they were going to see if they could find a way, but whoever makes it back — being the survivor, there is a better chance you might get a tiny bit of freedom — has to help them find them and destroy them. You have to promise you will.”
Neville nodded. “Of course I will,” he said. “You can count on me.”
Harry sighed. “We need to stop him,” he said. “Or the entire world will be destroyed.”
“Yeah,” Neville said. “It will be.”
“Thanks, mate,” Harry said. “Let’s wake the girls. Hermione needs to tell Luna.”
And so they did.
Harry pulled Hermione aside after he nudged her awake. “Tell Luna everything,” he said. “I trust them. It’s the only way.”
Hermione nodded. “I will,” she said. “I promise.”
As the girls went to stand guard, Harry took his spot on the blanket on the cave floor. He could hear the soft whispers of Hermione and Luna, and he knew Hermione would do what he asked.
There was still so much work to be done, but he felt better knowing there were now four of them who might someday put an end to this misery.
In the end, staying low for a couple days won out. They decided they might as well see if any of the others would take each other out without worrying about getting involved or getting injured in any way.
But they did decide they needed to return to Luna and Neville’s previous encampment. The two of them had more supplies they hadn’t had with them when they had all met up at the river, and they all agreed the more supplies they had the better.
The trek over wasn’t bad. It was long, and uphill, and exhausting, but they flitted through the shadows of the trees and didn’t run across anything more dangerous than some odd-shaped insects that Hermione took care of with her wand.
Harry’s stomach felt queasy the whole day, though, not in an ill fashion but more of a nagging worry that something was wrong. Again, he had the feeling that this was all a bit too easy. He knew without a doubt that Voldemort wanted him dead, and not a moment too soon. So why he was letting them off without sending all his forces after him? Harry still wasn’t sure.
When Harry mentioned this thought out loud, Luna mused that maybe Voldemort wanted Harry to survive this so he could be the one to kill him.
Neville and Hermione weren’t too sure about that, but Harry wondered if perhaps Luna was on to something.
The journey back to the cave was harder. The sun sank faster than any of them were expecting, and instead of faint traces of daylight to guide their path, they were met with impenetrable darkness in places, forcing them to call on lumos so they didn’t get caught in the branches or stumble on the rocks and holes in their way.
But the light from their wands worked against them. They could see what was directly in front of them, but nothing else past that, yet the light was a signal to anyone around them that there they were.
Harry’s feeling of apprehension grew with every step they took. He felt too exposed, too vulnerable. Anything could be out there.
But they were closing in on their cave. It was only five hundred yards away now. Maybe the would make it.
Harry started to hurry up, forcing his friends to walk faster to keep up with him. His nerves were a bundle of nervous energy at this point, and all he wanted was to get back to some semblance of safety.
Suddenly, a scream broke the night air.
Harry whirled around, as did Hermione and Neville, wands out, pointed in front of them, feet poised for battle.
What Harry saw made him do a double-take.
A shadowy figure with blonde hair had Luna in his grasp, its one arm locked around her chest, its other hand clasped around her throat. But what was worse was its face was pressed just centimeters from her neck.
Something glinted in the light of their wands.
It was a vampire.
Harry felt frozen, his thoughts screaming frantically in his head. Attack and risk it biting Luna? Stay in place and hope the vamp was alone?
Before he could move, though, he heard Hermione gasp next to him.
“You,” she said, moving forward a step before Harry could grab her.
“I know you,” she said to the vampire who was now looking rather curiously at her. The light from Hermione’s wand reflected off the vampire’s face. It was a male. Harry could see his features, wrinkled and warped, but as he watched, his face seemed to turn, the evil eyes and the fangs disappearing, leaving just a skinny blonde guy with an upturned brow looking at Hermione.
Hermione was still talking. “You saved me,” she was saying, “back by the platforms. You told me to run after hitting that wizard who was going to kill me.”
The vampire was nodding. “Well, isn’t this an interesting turn of events, then?” he said. “I saved you then only to kill you now.”
He grinned at this, and suddenly his face changed again, the fangs reappearing along with the wrinkles and monstrous mask. Hermione took a step back.
“Please …” she started.
But before she could say more, another shout was heard in the night. A girl’s voice.
“Help!” she screamed. “Spike!”
The voice was coming off to their left. She sounded desperate.
The vampire forgot about Hermione and Luna, suddenly letting go of Luna and turning and running toward the sound of the girl’s voice. Harry didn’t wait, although he probably should have, plunging after him. He darted through the trees. He could hear footsteps following behind him.
Bursting out into a clearing, his wand the only light, he came to a dead stop, forcing someone to slam into him from behind.
In the middle of a clearing was a small blonde girl holding something in her hand that looked like nothing more than a piece of wood.
With a jolt, Harry realized it was the girl who had been next to him on the platforms.
Surrounding her were five, maybe six, tittering, cackling acromantulas.
It was the vampire, suddenly appearing at Harry’s side. Harry didn’t hesitate. He ran forward, wand out.
“Arania Exumai!” he shouted. A burst of light came flying out of his wand, hitting the spider nearest the girl. It stumbled backward and sank to its knees.
“Run!” Harry shouted at the girl, but she didn’t move. Instead, she charged forward toward the other spiders.
“No!” Harry screamed. “Arania Exumai!”
He pointed his wand at the spider the girl was heading toward. He could hear Neville, Hermione and Luna begin to aim their wands at the spiders as well.
The girl wasn’t stopping though. As Harry watched in disbelief, she began kicking the nearest spider, plunging her stick of wood into the soft flesh of its belly.
The spider screamed, a piercing wailing noise that shattered the night.
Harry didn’t understand what was going on, but he ran forward to help the girl, aiming his wand again and firing off spells as fast as he could.
“Duck!” he yelled to the girl at one point, and she dove to the ground, rolling under the spider she was fighting and aimed her stick at its heart.
The spider screamed in agony and collapsed. Harry ran forward, grabbing the girl’s hand just in time, pulling her out from under the spider as it crashed to the ground in a heap.
“Thanks!” she panted, and raced off to the next nearest spider.
Harry took a moment to look around. Hermione and Luna were battling one spider, the vampire and Neville were battling another — the vampire seemed to almost be lifting the spider and twirling it around. Harry blinked, not really believing what he was seeing. The blonde girl was now fighting the last spider, the other two motionless on the ground. Harry ran to help her.
They made quick work of it. Harry aimed his spells, the girl jabbed her stick into its body, almost dancing under its legs. Finally, Harry found its last eye, aimed his wand and let loose.
The spider seemed to take one last breath, and then it, too, crashed to the ground, unmoving.
Harry and the girl collapsed on the ground, breathing hard.
“What were those?” she asked him.
“Buffy!” The vampire appeared out of the darkness next to them, almost glaring at the blonde girl. Hermione, Luna and Neville stumbled over after him, all of them looking a little worse for wear. Hermione had blood dripping down her arm, but otherwise no one seemed hurt.
Harry’s eyes darted nervously to the vampire, but he didn’t seem to be paying attention. Luna was, though. She pointed her wand at Hermione’s arm, and in no time, the wound was healed.
“What were those things?” the blonde girl asked again.
“Acromantulas,” Neville said. “Magical spiders.”
“I’ll say,” she said.
Harry noticed his three friends were all staring at the girl, who was now calming checking out her piece of wood that she had used.
“Who are you?” Neville finally asked. “What are you?”
She looked up. “I’m Buffy, the vampire slayer.”
Harry almost spluttered. “Wait, what?” he said.
“The vampire slayer?” she repeated.
Harry frowned. Luna jumped in.
She pointed at the spade. “Your weapon is a piece of wood?” she said in disbelief.
“Luna!” Neville scolded, but the girl named Buffy frowned.
“It’s a stake,” she said. “As I said, I’m the Slayer.”
None of this was making any sense.
“Wait. Come again,” Harry said.
“The Slayer,” she repeated for the fourth time, as though just saying it would be enough to make them understand.
They continued to just stare at her. She sighed.
“The Slayer,” she said again. “One girl in all the world who is destined to kill vampires and other demons who walk the earth, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
“You kill … vampires?” Neville repeated.
“Yes,” Buffy said, as though this was obvious.
“Like for a job?”
Neville frowned and pointed to the vampire. “But you don’t kill him?” he asked.
“It’s complicated,” Buffy said.
“That’s a bloody understatement,” the vampire said.
“So,” Luna looked between the two. “You two are friends?”
“Something like that,” the vampire said, and the way he said it made Harry take notice.
“More than friends?” Harry said.
“Something like that,” Buffy said.
“Well, now that we have bloody well deconstructed our relationship,” the vampire said, “can we ask who you are?”
Hermione took charge, pointing around at the rest of them. “Harry, Neville, Luna, I’m Hermione. We’re wizards and witches.”
“Yeah, I got that much,” the vampire said, then sighed. “This place is bloody crazy.”
“You can say that again,” Neville muttered.
“So are you going to kill us now?” Luna piped up, asking the question they were all thinking but no one wanted to ask.
“Are you going to kill us?” the vampire asked.
“No,” Luna said. “We’re aren’t killing anyone.”
“Well, then, neither are we. At least not tonight.”
“So then where does that leave us?” Buffy asked.
“Probably getting out of this forest,” Harry said. “We know a place that’s pretty safe.”
“Do you promise not to murder us in our sleep?” the vampire asked.
Harry shrugged. “Why not?”
“Okay, then. It’s settled.”
“So let me get this straight,” Harry said a few hours later. They were all settled in the cave. It was a little crowded with six people, but they all fit. Harry still wasn’t sure it was the best idea in the world to invite a vampire into their midst, but Buffy promised he wouldn’t kill them and said that they were tired of being on their own.
And although it sounded crazy, he believed her.
“So you weren’t randomly picked for this crazy place like the rest of us, but you actually chose to come here?”
It sounded a bit unbelievable to Harry, but everything Buffy and Spike had been telling them about their life in America seemed slightly unbelievable. For their part, they didn’t seem to be at all bothered by the fact that they were sitting with a group of witches and wizards.
“My best friend, Willow, is a witch,” Buffy had told them. “So we’re used to it.”
Now, though, Buffy was trying to answer Harry’s question.
“I wouldn’t exactly say we chose this,” she said.
“Right,” the vampire, whose name was Spike, agreed. “Not so much a choice.”
“More like assigned,” she said.
“Right,” Spike agreed.
“You got assigned to come here?” Harry frowned, struggling to understand. “So you get an assignment and then you go fight?”
“Not exactly.” Buffy tried to explain. “There’s a council. They keep their eye on things. When they see something come up, they let us know. They saw this happening, and they sent us. So here we are, saving the world again, yada yada yada.”
“Oh,” Harry said. He was still a bit confused, but he guessed it made as much sense as anything else.
“So you save the world a lot then?” Hermione asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Buffy nodded. “A lot, a lot.”
Spike agreed. “More than you can count,” he said.
“Yup,” Buffy said, then added, “And how about you all? How did you end up in this mess, except by bad luck?”
Neville pointed at Harry. “His fault,” he said, but Harry could see he was smiling. “He’s our Chosen One.”
Harry felt his face flush. Buffy grinned.
“Great!” she said. “Now tell me everything.”
So they did. They told Spike and Buffy as much as they dared — they left out the part about the Horcruxes — from Voldemort killing Harry’s parents so long ago, to Voldemort re-forming, to the Death Eaters taking control the night of the wedding, to the state of the Wizarding World now to how Harry knew he would be “chosen” for this but how he hadn’t wanted his friends to be.
“But we’re glad we are,” Hermione said at that. He shot her a look. “We don’t want you to be here alone,” she said, and once again, the way she said it made him flush.
“So where does that leave us then?” Spike said at the end of the story. By then, daylight was beginning to appear. Spike had moved to the back of the cave. “Light,” he had said. “It’s a no go for me.”
“Dunno,” Harry said.
“I’m not a big fan of this hide-and-seek thing,” Spike said. “I’m more of a go-getter myself, but to each his own.”
He lay back and closed his eyes.
“Wake me when you reach a decision,” he said.
Spike’s words stayed with Harry the rest of the day. They had all decided it was for the best to rest up, especially since they couldn’t travel during the day if they wanted to stay together, which for now it appeared like they all did.
Luna and Neville had shared their food, and Buffy pulled out some cans of stew she’d had with her.
“We found them lying around,” she’d explained.
They had also taken turns guarding the cave. First, Hermione and Harry, then Neville and Luna, then Harry and Buffy, who had insisted she didn’t need a partner but Harry felt more comfortable with them all going in pairs. And he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. His brain was buzzing.
That night, over dinner, he told them of his decision.
“I think Spike’s right,” he said.
“I am?” Spike said, then quickly repeated, “I am!”
A few seconds later: “Now what exactly am I right about?”
“I think it’s time to stop playing hide-and-seek, as you called it,” Harry said to Spike. “We’re sitting here waiting to die. When why should we? He wants me dead. Let him come fight me himself.”
“Excellent,” Spike said, clapping Harry on the shoulder a little too hard. Harry winced.
“Sorry,” Spike said.
Hermione was shaking her head. “I don’t like it,” she said.
“But Harry’s right,” Neville said. “If we stay here, we’re just asking for someone else to come along and kill us. Why not refuse to kill each other, make The Dark Lord do it. Or the Death Eaters.”
Buffy shrugged. “At least it would give us a fighting chance,” she said.
“I don’t know,” Hermione said.
“What do we have to lose?” Harry said.
“Our lives?” She blinked at him.
“We’re probably going to lose them anyway,” Harry said bitterly. “At least this way, we might take one of them out with us when we go.”
They decided to stay in place one more day, gather more food, practice fighting, and then set off the next day as soon as the sun began to set and there was no risk of Spike turning into a giant ball of flame.
Spike and Buffy volunteered to sit the night shift, so the others could sleep.
Harry had just about drifted off when he felt something nudge his shoulder.
He forced open an eye to see Spike almost eye level with him.
“What’s going on?” Harry asked blearily.
“I think there is something you should see.”
“No, mate, you need to see this.”
Harry followed Spike to the edge of the cave and sucked in a breath. There, just about twenty yards in front of them, was a shimmering doe Patronus. It seemed to be waiting for something. Or someone.
Harry took a step forward. The Patronus turned around and darted into the forest.
Harry started after it.
“Whoa, where you are going?” Spike called after him.
“He has a message for me!” Harry shouted back.
The Patronus was moving quickly through the trees. He quickened his pace to keep up with it. To his surprise, he felt someone next to him.
He glanced to his right. Buffy was right behind him, her stake in her hand.
“Whatever happens next, we’re doing it together,” she said. “There is no other way.”
He nodded and kept up after the Patronus. It seemed to be leading them deep into the forest, but just as Harry was beginning to worry they would never find their way back, it stopped. It was a few hundred yards away. Harry and Buffy headed toward it.
Halfway to it, it shimmered and disappeared into the night sky.
“What the …?” Buffy said.
Harry frowned. That was weird. But he kept walking, trying to see if there was something he was missing.
“I found something!”
He turned to his right. Buffy was pointing at something. It looked like an old, abandoned well. Where had that come from?
She was peering down into it. He came up next to her and looked over the edge.
There, at the bottom of the well, was a sword he would have recognized it anywhere.
“You recognize it?” Buffy asked.
“Yes,” Harry said. He slipped out of his shoes. “Help me back up, okay?” he said to her, then he hopped the edge into the icy water of the well.
It was deeper down than it appeared. He had to dive down, the chill of the water making his breath feel trapped in his lungs.
The sword seemed to be stuck on the bottom. He wrapped his fingers around it and pulled.
It didn’t move.
He tugged again.
Still nothing. He was going to have to go up for air soon.
He tugged again. But just when he was about to give up, he felt it give.
He yanked on it one last time, with all his might, ripping it free of the mud, and sending himself and the sword spiraling upward.
Buffy’s hand grabbed him as soon he surfaced, and in seconds, she had hauled him over the edge, all seemingly without breaking a sweat.
“You are strong,” he said in amazement.
She shrugged. “Perks of the job. Hey!” She pointed to something on the sword. “It says something!”
Harry tilted the sword up. Buffy was right. Written in some sort of white ink, across the tip of the sword, there were two words printed. Your turn.
The next day, at sunset, the six of them stood at the entrance to the cave, waiting. They were as full as they were going to be, as rested as they were going to be, as prepared as they possibly could be.
Harry glanced at the sun, watching till it disappeared beyond the horizon.
“It’s time,” he said.
He exited the cave first, Gryffindor’s Sword clenched firmly in one hand, his wand in the other. Hermione, Neville and Luna lined up right behind him, and Spike and Buffy brought up the rear.
They had already determined it would probably take them two nights to make it back into range of the platforms. All they could do then was hope they could somehow call out Voldemort once they got there.
The first night proved thankfully uneventful. They walked as far as they could, until the first trace of dawn started to appear in the sky above. Then they found a cave and piled in to wait until the next night.
The second night they weren’t so lucky. They had been walking for about four hours, as silently as they could, keeping an eye and an ear open for anything or anyone that might be in the vicinity. But even with Spike’s and Buffy’s keen senses and the instincts of the others, none of them saw the band of Tributes perched high in a tree, as though they were waiting for them, until they were directly underneath their trees.
“Duck!” Harry yelled, shoving both Luna and Hermione to the side as a ray of red light flew directly at them.
“Expelliarmus!” Neville yelled, pointing his wand in the direction the beam of light had come from. But it bounced aimlessly off a tree.
More beams of red light came flying at them, and the six of them all scattered.
Shouts seemed to fill the night air, as more curses rained down upon them. Harry ducked behind a tree, darting out as often as he dared, alternatively firing stunning spells and shouts of Expelliarmus.
It seemed to go on forever. He heard screams of pain, the thumps of bodies hitting the ground. Harry had no idea how many people were involved, if anyone was hurt.
He saw Hermione battling a large guy in a black turban. He ran over to help.
“Stupefy!” He shouted.
He missed, but his presence startled the guy. He turned toward Harry, wand raised. That gave Hermione the opening she needed.
“Expelliarmus!” she yelled, and the wizard’s wand went flying off into the night. She pointed her wand at him, “Incarcerous!” and ropes bound him where he stood.
Hermione looked at Harry. “Where’s everyone else?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
The sounds of the battle had died down. There were intermittent moans, but it was hard to tell where they were coming from.
All of a sudden a cry broke thought the night air.
Hermione and Harry stared at each other.
“Neville!” they said in unison.
It had come from somewhere behind them. They took off, crashing into the trees.
“Neville! Neville!” They called.
“Here.” His voice came from just beside them. They turned. His back was to them, and he was kneeling down, tending to something.
It was hard to see in the dark, but then the moon shifted, light glinted.
Long blonde hair. Pale skin.
Harry thought he was going to throw up.
“Hannah,” Neville whispered, and Harry almost fell over. Relief flooded through him, then guilt at being relieved. He had thought …
Luna appeared out of nowhere.
From the look on Hermione’s face, he wasn’t the only one who thought the girl on the ground had been Luna. But still. Hannah was one of them.
Harry clapped a hand on Neville’s shoulder and bent down next to him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Were you friends?”
Neville nodded. “She was a great girl,” he whispered. Harry could see tears in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Harry said again.
“Me too,” Hermione said.
“We should do something for her,” Luna said. The other three looked up at her.
“Lumos!” she said. Her wand tip lit up. She turned around, waving her wand over the ground, looking for something. As they watched, she seemed to see what she was searching for. She disappeared into the bushes, only to emerge a few minutes later, her arms laden down with small white flowers.
She walked over to Neville and placed the flowers down beside them. Then she knelt down and began arranging the flowers around Hannah’s head, almost like a memorial.
Harry gestured to Hermione that they should leave them alone, and he took her hand and they headed back to the main clearing to find Buffy and Spike.
They found them near the wizard they had tied up just before Neville’s cry. Two other wizards — one boy and a much younger girl — were seated next to the first wizard, their hands and legs also bound. The girl was kicking at the ground and did not look pleased.
“I think that’s all of them,” Spike said when he saw Harry and Hermione. “Who are alive, at least.”
Harry noticed something on Spike’s face. It looked like blood.
He decided he didn’t want to know.
“What’ll we do with them?” Spike asked, studying them like he was admiring pieces of handiwork.
“There are lots of caves around here,” Hermione said. “We can magically lock them in there. They’ll be safe.”
“They tried to kill us,” Spike said. “You really care if they’re safe?”
Hermione’s eyes narrowed. “They didn’t ask to be here,” she said. “We are not killing anyone.”
“Oh, don’t get your knickers in a bunch,” Spike said. “I didn’t say kill them. I just suggested not keeping them so safe.”
“We’re keeping them safe,” Hermione snapped.
Spike rolled his eyes. “You are no fun.” But he yanked up the two males and headed off for the caves, Hermione behind him to take care of the enchantments.
They had just come back for the last captive when it happened. A glowing green orb appeared in the sky, casting light down upon them. Instinctively, they all moved back further into the trees.
For the third time, Voldemort’s raspy voice broke the night air.
“Congratulations are in order,” Voldemort’s detached voice spoke. “You have all survived this long. There are now just nine of you left.”
Just nine. The six of them plus their three captives, Harry realized with a start. Fifty-one innocent people, including Hannah and Michael and the girl with the bow next to him at the start, and all those other faces … they were all gone. Dead. Killed just because Voldemort and Death Eaters declared it so.
Rage began to boil in the pit of Harry’s stomach. His hands balled into fists. He took a step forward into the clearing.
“Harry!” He heard Hermione call him from behind, but he didn’t heed her. He took another step.
“Soon,” Voldemort continued from above. “There will be just one.”
Harry couldn’t help himself. He marched forward, all the way into the center of the clearing.
“No!” he yelled up to the sky. “No, there won’t!”
“Harry!” He heard Hermione again. He didn’t stop.
“You want me dead, Voldemort? You come fight me yourself! We aren’t going to do it for you!”
For a second nothing happened. Then a bright green light, a hundred times brighter than the glow of the orb, filled the night sky. A few people moaned from the intensity. But Harry held steady, glaring upward.
A few seconds later, there was a sound, almost like a mini explosion, and then the orb was gone and it was pitch black again. Somehow, Harry knew Voldemort had just accepted his deal.
For a long time there was no sound, although Harry could hear his friends breathing behind him.
“Is he coming?” It was Neville. He sounded nervous.
“No,” Harry said. “It will be tomorrow. Back at the platforms.”
“Ummmm, I hate to be a party pooper here,” Spike said. “But how do you know that?”
Harry shrugged. “I dunno,” he said. “I just do.”
And he did. It was a feeling, but a feeling he could practically guarantee was right. Voldermort wouldn’t come after them tonight. He wanted to gather his Death Eaters, make the nine of them wait it out, maybe spread the news to the Wizarding World.
Harry turned around to face all his friends.
“Well, let’s go find somewhere to sleep,” he said. “We need to be ready for tomorrow.”
There wasn’t a cave big enough for all of them to fit in for the night, but it was probably better that they were split into pairs. Harry had a feeling everyone had a lot to say to each other, and they all needed a final hour or two together.
Hermione had been quiet since Voldemort’s orb had disappeared from the sky. She kept looking at Harry, staring at him with eyes full of sadness and misery. Harry couldn’t tell if she was angry with him or just scared or maybe something else. All he knew was that he felt his heart break just looking at her.
She was perched at the edge of their cave, looking outside, casting glances back at him every few seconds.
He had an idea. He held out a hand to her. She looked at him in surprise. Or maybe it was skepticism.
“What?” she asked.
“Dance with me.”
Her brow furrowed. “What? Harry. Come on. I’m guarding here.”
He waved his hand at the night air. “It’s not happening tonight.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Spike said he’d keep lookout tonight.”
“A vampire is supposed to stop him?”
“Come on,” Harry said. “Just for a few minutes. Dance with me.”
“There isn’t any music,” she said.
He shrugged. “We don’t music.”
She sighed. “You aren’t going to give up, are you?”
He shook his head and grinned. “No.”
She shook her head at him, but finally she stood up. “Fine,” she said, and gave him her hand. He pulled her close to him and started to move, swaying side to side, her hand encircled in his.
She hesitated at first, not sure about the whole thing, still not really in the mood to be dancing, but as they went, he felt her relax, saw her face soften, saw a real smile start to form on her lips. And then the smile got bigger and a giggle escaped from her mouth. A giggle that turned into a real laugh as he twirled her around.
Harry felt his heart swell at the sound.
And then it happened. They were dancing. And he was holding her in his arms. And she was smiling and she was laughing and he couldn’t remember ever seeing someone look so beautiful.
And then it was like something he couldn’t describe took over his body. A feeling, an impulse, he had never had before, not even with Ginny in the moments they had lain together under the trees near the lake. This was something else. It was like he couldn’t control himself. It was like he stopped thinking and was just doing.
And all of a sudden, if he was going to die tomorrow, he didn’t want to die without doing this.
He tightened his hands around her waist, his eyes bored into hers, his head moved and his lips met hers.
She didn’t stop him.
He snogged her harder, found himself seeking entrance to her mouth with his tongue. She let him, and soon, their lips and tongues were moving together, exploring and tasting for the first time. His fingers moved up to stroke her cheek, smooth her hair, feel her silky skin under his hand.
She wrapped her arms around him and moved in closer.
He guessed later that it was him who made the move, who gently laid her down on the blanket, but he didn’t really remember how it happened. He just remembered that there they were, and his fingers, as if by their own accord, were dipping under her shirt, feeling the smooth expanse of the skin of her stomach. She moaned softly against his lips, moving her hands to his shirt.
He stopped what he was doing to help her, lifting his own shirt off his head and tossing it away. He returned his hands to her, quickly getting her shirt off as well.
She was before him now in just a plain white brassiere. He gulped, feeling his pants grow tighter at the sight.
He reached behind her, fumbling for the snap of her bra, trying to figure out how in the heck to take it off. She giggled again, then helped him.
It was the first time he had seen a girl’s — no, a woman’s — breasts. He stared at them, soft and round with little pink tips. His hands lifted, hung in midair, as though they were trying to decide if this were okay.
She nodded at him, and he took a deep breath before continuing what he had started. His hands slid over her warm flesh, and his fingers rubbed at the soft mounds, his thumbs brushing over the nipples that began to harden under his touch.
She sighed softly, then returned to snogging him.
They lay there together for awhile, just snogging and exploring each other’s bodies. He stroked her breasts and ran his hands up and down her stomach and along her sides, and her fingers explored every crevice of his chest.
By then there was no going back, and it wasn’t even really an option when he slipped out of his jeans and she unzipped hers. It was inevitable.
He looked at the girl next to him, dressed only in a pair of black cotton knickers.
He wasn’t sure what to do, but she nodded. “Go ahead,” she whispered as she took his hand and directed it toward her, pressing it down on her warm pelvis as she lay back on the ground.
He gulped — hoping she didn’t notice — then let his fingers trail over the top of her knickers. He found the sides, gripped them as tightly as he could so he didn’t do something wrong, and pulled them down. She lifted her hips up to make it easier.
He kept his eyes just on her knickers as he slid them down long, pale legs. It wasn’t until he had placed them on the ground beside him that he turned back to her and finally saw her — beautiful, naked, glorious. His eyes took in her most intimate area, the soft tuft of hair at the crest of her legs.
He had never seen anyone more beautiful, never wanted anything so badly.
He quickly removed his own undergarments and positioned himself over her.
It was easier that he had anticipated. There was some fumbling, some awkwardness. He felt himself turn red as his fingers brushed over her slit, felt for the first time the warm moisture between her legs, but once he had entered her, slowly and steadily so as not to hurt her, it was like everything came naturally.
He’d held her in his arms when they were finished, her head on his chest as she fell asleep, his fingers stroking along her spine, playing with her hair. Her legs were tangled with his, and he could still feel the heat from where they had been joined.
They dressed in silence in the morning, neither one mentioning anything that happened the night before. But as they headed out into the morning sun, Hermione took his hand and snogged him gently, and Harry knew it was going to be okay.
They spent the day sitting in a circle — Harry, Hermione, Neville, Luna and Buffy, while Spike stayed in the darkness of one of the caves — making small talk, firming up last-minute strategies but mostly just being quiet, all of them reflecting on their own. Luna and Neville sat close together, holding hands. Harry and Hermione tried to stay away from each other — they weren’t sure what the others would think if they knew — but as the hours passed, they crept closer to each other, until finally Harry was holding her in his arms.
He saw both Neville and Luna look over at him and smile.
About an hour before the sun was finally going to set, Neville and Luna disappeared back into one of the caves. Buffy went to find Spike.
Harry watched them go, then felt Hermione tug on his hand and lead him back inside their own cave.
The second time was better than the first, sweeter somehow, more loving. They snogged throughout, and he used his fingers to rub between her legs as they moved, until she was convulsing violently beneath him. When they were finished, he buried his head in her hair, wishing they never had to move.
But before long, they heard the sounds of people moving around outside.
“It’s time,” Hermione whispered.
Harry moved his head so he could look her in the eyes. He felt a surge of words ready to pour out of him.
He clasped her hand in his as he spoke. “I just want you to know,” he said softly, “that I don’t regret anything that happened. I wouldn’t have made it this far without you. I love you, Hermione Jean Granger.”
He watched as her eyes flooded with tears. “I don’t want to live without you,” she whispered.
“You have to,” he said. “You have to.”
His own voice broke on the words. “You need to go back, help Ginny and Ron … you need to end this.”
Hermione looked away when he mentioned Ron.
“What do I tell him?” she asked softly.
“You don’t have to tell him anything.”
“Yes, I do.” She turned her head back to look at Harry. “Because I love you.”
He didn’t know what to say, so he just snogged her again. He only had a few hours left to live, if that. He just needed to be with her one more time.
By the time they finally emerged from the cave, both red-faced, the others were waiting for them with smirks across their faces.
“About time love birds,” Spike said. Hermione flushed even redder.
Harry didn’t respond, just held up Gryffindor’s sword, watched the moonlight reflect off of its glistening blade. “It’s time,” he said, and the others fell quickly into line.
It was the fastest walk Harry could remember. The one time he would have loved for it to take hours, and it felt like mere seconds before they were emerging out of the trees. The circle of platforms lay in front of them. Even in the faint line, Harry could make out remnants of weapons, clothes, brooms, supplies. The last traces of the lives that had been lost.
“I’ll be right back,” he told the others. “There is something I need to do first.”
He moved off to the right, heading away from the group until no one could see him. On the walk, he’d had a realization.
Putting both his wand and Gryffindor’s sword in one hand, he reached into his jeans with the other and dug out the tiny golden snitch.
He knew now what he had to do.
He put it to his lips, pressed them against it and murmured, “I’m ready to die.”
He knew it was going to happen before it did. He didn’t know how, but he was ready.
They appeared one by one, not ghosts really, but not solid either. They were almost like an actual figment of his imagination come to life.
James was exactly the same height as Harry. He was wearing the clothes in which he had died, and his hair was untidy and ruffled, his glasses a little lopsided. Sirius was tall and handsome, and younger by far than Harry had seen him in life. He loped with an easy grace, his hands in his pockets and a grin on his face.
Lily’s smile was widest of all. She pushed her long hair back as she drew close to Harry, and her green eyes, so like his, searched his face hungrily, as though she would never be able to look at him enough.
“You’ve been so brave,” she said.
He could not speak. His eyes feasted on her, and he thought that he would like to stand and look at her forever, and that would be enough.
“You are nearly there,” said James. “Very close. We are so proud of you.”
“Does it hurt?” The childish question had fallen from Harry’s lips before he could stop it.
“Dying? Not at all,” said Sirius. “Quicker and easier than falling asleep.”
Harry nodded. “You’ll stay with me?” he said to them.
“Always,” James said.
“They can’t see you?” Harry asked, though he already knew the answer.
“Only you, my sweet boy,” Lily said. “We are only a part of you.”
“Then let’s do this.”
Harry slipped the snitch back in his pocket, took a firm hold of his wand and the sword and turned around to head back to the others.
They were all waiting where he had left them. No one seemed to notice anything different, and no one asked any questions.
Harry walked straight over to Neville and handed him the sword. “I want you to have this,” he said.
Neville blinked in surprise. “But?”
“You can do this, Neville. I believe in you. Protect the others. Maybe you can all get out alive.”
Harry walked over to Luna next, pulling her into an embrace. He did the same for Buffy and Spike.
“Thank you for not killing us,” he said to Spike, who shrugged and grinned.
“Ehhh,” Spike said. “It was more fun with you bloody wizards than it would have been without you.”
Finally, Harry approached Hermione. She threw her arms around his neck, and he snogged her.
“Don’t forget how much I love you,” he told her.
“Don’t forget how much I love you,” she said.
With that, the six of them headed back to where they had started this whole game, walking slowly across the field, until they reached the platforms, then moving forward as far into the center of the circle as they could get without climbing on the rock spire that still loomed straight and tall.
They didn’t have to wait long. It was as though the air around them came to life, shimmering and shivering, and then, one by one, bodies started appearing, Death Eaters in black cloaks and masks, lining the edge of the circle, closing off all the space around the six of them until there was no where left to turn.
And then, once everyone was assembled and a silence had fallen, the air shimmered once more and Voldemort appeared, as ugly as always, his red eyes practically burning, his snake, Nagini, draped over his shoulders. His hands were folded neatly around his wand, as though he had all the time in the world.
He looked up. “Harry Potter,” he breathed. “It is time.”
Harry took one last look around him, at his friends, at the girl he loved, at his mum and dad and his godfather.
He stepped forward. “It is,” he said.
Voldemort’s face twisted. If he was anyone else, it might even have been called a smile.
“The Boy Who Lived,” Voldermort said. “Now come to die.”
He raised his wand, paused a moment. Harry looked straight into the red eyes, daring him to act.
He saw Voldemort’s mouth move, a flash of green light, and everything was gone.
He could hear sounds around him, feel his body lying on the hard ground, long before he could open his eyes or move a muscle.
His first thought was he was dead. But, no …. He could hear voices. Some were crying. He thought it might be Hermione, but he wasn’t sure.
Someone was leaning over him, touching him. Fingers on his pulse. Harry could feel his own heart beating. He was sure the person touching him could, too.
The voice of Severus Snape loomed over him.
“He’s dead, Master.”
It was probably good Harry couldn’t move, or he would have jumped in surprise.
But as it was, he could hear the faint laughter begin from all around him. The Death Eaters rejoicing. And then an eerie laugh broke through the sound.
Harry wanted to leap to his feet, yell that he wasn’t dead, but his body was still not working.
Instead he could only listen.
“Would you like to surrender now?” he heard Voldemort say to his friends. “Or would you like to die as well?”
Harry forced his eyes open just in time to see Neville yell, “Die!” and watched as Voldemort threw his head back and laugh.
Harry was so focused on what was happening in front of him, he didn’t realize that Snape was still at his side until it was too late. He turned his eyes and saw Snape staring right back at him.
Harry cursed silently.
But Snape did something that startled him. He gave Harry a half smile, then turned back to watch the action.
What in the heck?
Voldemort was still laughing, Nagini hissing around his shoulders.
Harry could see the other Death Eaters tittering in delight behind Voldemort, amused by the actions of this boy.
All of a sudden, Spike pushed Neville to the side and darted out in front of the others.
“You want a fight?” he yelled. “Then let’s fight!”
He raced toward Voldemort and the Death Eaters behind their master.
Voldemort aimed his wand at Spike. “Avada Kedavra.”
Green light shot out, hitting Spike full on. His whole body went rigid, then he collapsed backward on to the ground.
Buffy gasped. Hermione screamed.
But it was the distraction Neville needed. Before anyone could even comprehend what was going on, Neville ran forward, Gryffindor’s sword in his hand. With one quick move, he thrust the sword upward, and as they all watched, Nagini’s head went flying into the air above them.
Voldemort screamed in fury.
Buffy shoved Neville out of the way before Voldemort could turn on him.
And then Harry was on his feet. His body was working! But no one noticed him in the commotion.
He ran forward as fast as he could.
Voldemort had turned toward Neville, his wand outstretched. He opened his mouth.
“VOLDEMORT!” Harry screamed.
Voldemort heard him. There were gasps from the crowd.
Voldemort’s wand moved, pointed at Harry.
“Avada Kedavra!” he hissed.
“Protego!” Harry shouted.
The bang was like a cannon blast, and the golden flames that erupted between them marked the point where the spells collided, causing Voldemort’s to backfire on him.
And then Voldemort’s wand was flying through the air, much as Nagini’s head did a few seconds prior, his body falling backward, his arms outstretched, his snake face empty, his red eyes vacant.
Voldemort hit the ground with a thump of finality just as Harry caught his wand in his free hand.
An explosion broke through the night. The very ground below them seemed to be shattering.
Harry looked up. It was as though the night sky itself was breaking.
And then, with a jolt, he realized it was. All of this — where they were, the platforms and the forest and the caves — none of it had been real. It had all been an illusion, created by Voldemort to keep them hostage, and now, upon his death, it was collapsing upon them.
The first piece of the night sky, really a solid block of cement, came crashing down.
Harry searched around him frantically, saw Hermione staring in horror at the sky. He raced toward her.
“We have to get out of here!” he screamed.
He saw Luna nod at him, and he knew she understood what was happening. “Grab Buffy!” he hollered at her, and she nodded again.
The world around them was shaking harder now, so hard Harry could barely remain standing. He saw Hermione fall as more pieces of sky began raining down.
He reached her, grabbed her hand, pulled her toward him, just seconds before a piece crashed down upon where she had just been standing.
They didn’t have time to make sure everyone else was okay.
“Ready?” he shouted.
“Yes!” she yelled back, and together they turned in place. But not before, from the corner of his eye, Harry saw something that fit all the pieces together. Snape had his wand pointed toward them, but he wasn’t cursing them. Instead, a beautiful doe Patronus burst forth and came prancing toward them just as he and Hermione Disapperated, away from the place that almost killed them.
[Six months later]
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Harry looked sadly at the girl next to him, squeezing her hand.
From this view, you would never know that anything bad had happened just a few short months ago. The air was buzzing with excitement, the whistle of the familiar train echoing above the din, families saying last goodbyes.
Hermione smiled at Harry, then leaned over and snogged him.
“You know how much it means to me to finish school,” she said. “And to help them rebuild Hogwarts.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m just going to miss you so much.”
“It’s only nine months, and I will see you in October for Hogsmeade Weekend.” She snogged him again. “It’s not to late for you to come too.”
He shook his head. “I can’t,” he said. “I need to try and work things out with Ron. See if he’ll ever forgive us.”
She nodded. “And I need to do the same with Ginny.”
They both sighed.
The war was over, Voldemort was dead, but it still wasn’t finished. There were so many broken things left to piece back together.
And Harry had one more mission apart from that. Harry and Hermione had deduced over long nights of Butterbeers with Neville, Luna, Spike — who, it turned out, hadn’t been killed by Voldemort’s spell, probably because he was technically already dead — and Buffy (who had stuck around in London for a few months before heading back to America) that somehow the Horcruxes had all been destroyed, and that Harry and Nagini had been the final two.
Harry had a feeling it was Snape who had destroyed the other ones, who had then sent him Gryffindor’s sword and had given him the way out. But he needed to know why.
More than that, he needed to set aside his past grudges against the man and thank him.
He’d given him his life back, the lives of his friends and, more importantly, Hermione.
“Promise to write me every day,” Harry said to her now as the Hogwarts Express blew its whistle one more time, signaling it was time to go.
“You can count on it,” she said.
She pressed her lips to his one more time.
“I love you,” she said. “We’ll get through this.”
“I love you,” he said, and then she was out of his arms, hurrying toward the train. He watched her jump on, at the final second, saw her hug Luna and Neville, who were returning along with her.
Harry sighed. The road ahead was going to be hard. Even though it hadn’t been intentional, the relationship between him and Hermione had cost them a lot of people in their lives.
The train was beginning to move. He raised his hand in a goodbye. He saw Hermione mouth “I love you!” from the window, and then she raised her arm to wave back at him.
The tiny diamond on her left ring finger sparkled in the light, and Harry smiled.
Yes, Harry reminded himself. It was going to be hard, but it was worth it.
And he tucked his hands into his robe and headed back out into London.