Something was wrong with the Headmaster.
Harry saw it from where he sat beside Theo at the Slytherin table.
But Dumbledore was not the only change. There were more than a few holes were students should have sat at the Slytherin table. And the Slytherins were not the only ones to suffer losses to their numbers.
Harry wondered if that was a good choice of the parents. Where the students truly safer away from Hogwarts? There had already been several reported attacks by Death Eaters in the last month.
Perhaps they knew something he did not. Or perhaps they left the country entirely.
Harry returned his solemn gaze to the Headmaster, studied the way the man no longer looked him in the eye.
When it was announced the their Head of House was the new Defense professor, life was finally breathed back into the silent Slytherins, as they stood with a riotous cheer.
Harry looked at Theo instead as the boy clapped, and remained firmly seated.
Defense class with Snape was perhaps the best Harry had experienced. He enjoyed the mans acerbic comments on his classmates stupidity; he quite agreed with him.
Snape never directed his sharp tongue towards Harry; In fact, at times, Harry felt as if he was invisible. It was an enjoyable sensation, and allowed him to relax. The relaxing in turn made him tense.
A rule: a wise man seeks to put his enemies at ease, the better to strike at them from behind.
Hermione didn’t like that she liked Snape’s teaching style. Harry saw her struggle with it, the choice to be happy or angry or depressed.
She liked the harder material. She hated the mans teaching style. She liked the no nonsense attitude, hated the insults.
Hermione was a walking contradiction, and Harry wondered how she kept upright, even as he found it fascinating.
Harry did not hold her hand. When he walked through the halls, she still walked behind him beside Theo, his two shadows, nothing changed. Harry did not exchange the pleasantries he saw other couples do; He choose anonymity for reasons both complex and simple.
He was selfish of her; He would not share any part of her with anyone else, even the sight of her kiss.
The Slytherin watched them with envious eyes, and told him that Greengrass was under a betrothal contract. Most Slytherins did things in such ways.
Harry could see the wisdom in such a choice. He merely wondered why the parents thought their children would choose to follow it.
He chose to lay aside time to obsess over her. Time that was theirs alone, free of Theo or study or choices.
Instead, he taught her that there were more ways to communicate than with endless wasteful words strung together. That at times words were not necessary and even useless.
And Hermione taught Harry what it meant to be truly speechless.
The material should have been more difficult that year. Instead, Harry found himself doing his own research, his own studies, his mind progressed so far beyond Hogwarts that at times he thought the classes his true payment for the room and board.
Harry focused on advanced wand techniques, delved into rituals, began practicing wordless and wandless magic. His shadows followed behind him, each branching in their own directions, expanding on his own path. Hermione made potions in an abandoned classroom from books in the restricted section. She was now the new potions professor, Slughorn’s, star pupil. Theo bought a dagger and drew runes onto his cheek that allowed him to see magic, then had to have Harry devise a glamour strong enough to cover the scars he could not see. Harry did not ask what other scars the boy already bore out of sight.
He noticed Malfoy was acting strange. The blond was skittish, jumping at odd moments, always looking over his shoulder. When Harry ran through the halls at night he found the boy skulking about every odd nook and cranny, searching, hiding.
Harry took note of this and filed it away for later study. Not the best choice, but a good one nonetheless.
During the Christmas holidays, the Headmaster called for him again.
The elderly wizard was disappointed in him. It wasn't that the man wouldn’t meet his eyes any longer. It was the tone of his voice, the frequent reminders of his task.
The one fate had given him, to kill a Dark Lord, the one Harry hadn’t done properly as a child and so must try again.
The Headmaster dropped hints and left clues in the air, a visible trail to follow and a subtle push to get on with the chase.
Harry did not like to be pushed, and so made the choice to leave the given path and search instead for the truth behind the Headmaster’s game.
Slughorn was the obvious king in this particular battle of information. He held some information the Headmaster wanted; or some information the man wanted Harry to find, without telling him directly.
Harry decided the direct method was the most preferable.
Hermione brewed the Veritaserum. Theo got the man to open the door. Harry cast the spells.
And together, his shadows and he learned of horcruxes.
A dark and twisted magic, the wizard said in a dull voice. Evil and arcane. Forbidden.
To split a soul to prolong a life.
Harry saw the flaws in such a choice; the increasing lack of intuition, sanity, magical strength. He saw the immortality, and how it would override all objections the Dark Lord might have had.
He finally knew the truth in Voldemort’s name.
Better a zombie alive than a wizard dead, is what a man who flees death says to himself. Better weak in many battles, than strong in only one.
To Harry, it was a bad choice, and one he would remedy for the wizard.
They left Slughorn packing his things in a frantic scramble, moaning of retribution and torture and fear, and began the list.
Hermione connected the diary from second year, having learned more from a subdued Ginny Weasley than she had ever shared with her silent friends.
Slughorn said the brilliant young Tom Riddle had mentioned the word seven. So seven there must be.
Again, a third time, the Headmaster called for him.
This time, it was not disappointment, but rage, and those piercing blue eyes skewered him as he stepped through the door, and the push whipped his head back with shocking force.
And to his surprise, Harry found himself still standing. Found his mind a safe haven from the chaotic magic of the Headmaster, a lighthouse before the raging ocean, a thing of brick and stone with its feet upon solid ground, strong and immortal in a storm, worn down only through time and acts of God.
The Headmaster backed away, sat down, put his white head in wrinkled hands, one of which was black and twisted and poisoned.
“Horcruxes. How many have you destroyed?”
Dumbledore straightened, met Harry’s stare.
“You incapacitated a professor of this school. You drugged him against his will. You forced him to speak of terrors, a brute method that should not have worked at all.”
Harry smiled slightly. He did not mention Theo’s rituals or his own spells; let the man think Veritaserum was the worst of what they had done to the man.
“If you thought it would, you’d have done it yourself.”
Dumbledore's gaze hardened.
“Sometimes things must be done for the greater good.”
Harry thought of that choice; the one to put many things above the few. It made sense, unless those you loved were among the few.
“Then why are you angry?”
Dumbledore slammed his good hand upon his desk. The phoenix on its perch cried.
“You are not who you should be!”
The statement was honest. Harry wondered if he also meant, the person I sought to make you.
Harry said nothing this time. In his silence, the Headmaster continued, looking away, his eyes dull and voice flat.
“There are a few, most tied to the founders. That diary the Ministry destroyed with fiendfyre. A ring from the Gaunt family that I have taken care of in the same manner, though not before this.”
He raised the blackened arm, flexed it. Harry wondered if the fact that it had not been healed yet meant it never would be. He wondered if the black would grow.
“A locket of Salazar Slytherin's which I found in your godfathers house, also destroyed. Helga Hufflepuff's Cup which remains sequestered within the Lestrange Vault in Gringotts according to my sources. Rowena Ravenclaws Diadem, which is hidden in this very school so deeply I can not find it. His serpent, Nagini, the last.”
“That is only six. Slughorn said seven.”
The Headmaster met his gaze.
“I’m sure he considers himself the seventh part of himself.”
The sentence rang false, a bad choice of words. That was not how the numbers worked. Voldemort would be the center of a seven pointed star, not a mere point on its shape.
Dumbledore was hiding something. Harry did not break the gaze first, and still the phoenix warbled and moaned in distress, an aggravating sound.
The Headmaster stood, then turned away in disgust, his back clothed in regal blue robes dotted with golden stars.
Hermione added the details to the list with a smile and a flourish of her pen.
She smiled up at the two boys as they glowered down at the list.
“Well, the good news is he's nearly half way dead already!”
He questioned his choice to follow the prophecy he did not believe in. He questioned his choice to bring his shadows into the battle with him. He questioned himself again and again, and still he made the good choice, the best choice.
A rule to follow: A harmless enemy is one who is dead.
The diadem was the first they sought, because it was said to be in the castle itself. They spent the last month of term searching for it, from dungeon to tower, even delving into the Chamber of Secrets again.
Finally, it was Harry himself who found the room as he ran through the halls and saw Malfoy pace three times beside a portrait of dancing trolls, whispering frantically under his breath.
I need the room of Hidden Things, I need the Room of Hidden things, I need the Room of Hidden things.
Well, that sounded like exactly what Harry needed as well. He slipped through behind the Slytherin under his customary invisibility spell, and was graced with a large room cluttered with thousands, perhaps millions, of hidden things.
He ignored Malfoy as the blond cast spells at some cupboard, but walked the aisle, searching for a crown.
When he found it, it pushed at him. It whispered in sibilant tones, it promised and cajoled and threatened. It did not stop until deep in the Chamber of Secrets when Harry summoned Fiendfyre and watched its gleaming surface crack in the brilliant blue flames.
Theo twirled a quill through his long fingers, lounging back against a chair in the Room of Hidden Things. Hermione couldn’t keep her eyes off the objects around them, longing in every bone.
Harry broke the silence, bringing their startled eyes around to him.
“A serpent, a cup, and the wizard himself.”
Theo raised an eyebrow.
“I can think of little we can do about either from here.”
Hermione bit her lip, sliding closer to Harry to reach out and tentatively take his hand. Harry allowed the gesture, and saw Theo glance at their hands as the woman spoke.
“Gringotts will not be easy to break in to. Only a goblin can open those vaults besides the owners themselves. and they are all cursed.”
Theo looked away, nodded. Harry watched him, and his mouth stretched into a sharp smile.
“Then we get a goblin.”
It was as Harry was planning possible escapes from Gringotts caverns that the screams started.
He paused in his run, his feet on the third floor, and leaned over the edge of the nearby staircase to see spellfire above.
There were Death Eaters in the castle, and he had a choice.
His shadows were separated from him, each inside their dorms. He could go to one or the other, assure their safety, defend them.
Or, he could eliminate the threats independently, and trust his shadows to defend themselves if encountered.
He did not like the choices in front of him; but not making a choice was the only bad one he could take.
He followed the light, running up the stairs two at a time, and found two dark robed figures.
They whirled towards him, wands aloft, and Harry cut them down with savage flicks of his wrist and bursts of violet light. He heard them fall to the floor behind him and never paused.
A man leaped from the shadows, mouth stretched in feral snarl, teeth too sharp and gleaming.
Harry stopped running, and the man hit where Harry should have been in that moment, whirling too fast, fingers bent and clawed.
Harry drew his dagger and made the steel into silver.
When the werewolf launched again, Harry stepped back but his dagger did not move with him. It hung in the air for a moment before the chest of the beast passed through it.
But not unscathed.
The beast fell and twisted and howled, great gasping breaths, clawing at the chest where the dagger still was, unable to grasp the silver handle to withdraw the blade.
Harry stayed long enough to watch foam bubble from his mouth, then left him to perish alone.
He entered the Astronomy Tower at a run.
Malfoy, eyes and hair wild, had Dumbledore’s wand in his hand, leveled at the venerable wizard. Snape stood beside him, mouth twisted and grim.
“Kill him. Now!”
Dumbledore remained silent as stone, and Harry knew in that moment the man had been dying, and this was a death he had determined a good choice. The wizard did not need a wand to do battle any more than he needed glasses to see. He had made a choice to fall at the wand of Malfoy.
And Harry wasn’t pleased with it.
Malfoy shouted the killing spell, and the green light fizzled and fell short. The boy sobbed.
Harry stepped on to the roof, and saw shock spread across all three of their features. He did not wait for their response.
His first spell took Snape in the chest, the black robed man falling down to his knees, bound. Malfoy got off two spells before Harry incapacitated him as well, always in motion, always moving closer.
He turned to face the Headmaster, who had not moved.
Harry wondered if he could have killed this man if he had not wanted to die.
“You pushed me.” Harry said softly, finding the words easily for once, now knowing why the villains in stories talked instead of acted. Some things needed to be said; some words the air drew from the mouths of bad men against their will, a last punishment.
“You forced me.”
The Headmaster stood tall, his blue eyes sad and blue and wet.
“I did what I thought best, Harry. You had to make the right choices when the time came.”
Harry laughed as he raised his wand.
“I always make the good choice, Headmaster Dumbledore. Always.”
And he said the words, the two words that spelled death on emerald light, he reveled that this choice was his as well.
Harry turned to look upon the unconscious bodies of Snape and Malfoy. With a flick of his wrist, he allowed them to begin to wake.
He left the room at a slow jog, as fast a pace as safe on the stairs, and contemplated whether either of the two wizards would share what they suspected had happened upon the roof of the Astronomy Tower.
Some choices were his; some were not.
The Headmaster had left a book for Hermione of wizarding fairy tales. To Harry, he left an invisibility cloak that had been his fathers, and the blackened Gaunt ring that had been a horcrux. Harry could not see the connection between these gifts; Hermione looked haunted.
At the funeral, the phoenix sang a mournful dirge that rang in his ears like nails on a chalkboard.
When the bird burst into flames, he imagined it was a divine deity taking mercy on them all.
Snape and Malfoy had fled, along with what remained of the Death Eater force. The deaths within the castle of their number had been blamed on infighting; Dumbledores death on the traitor Snape.
When the fervor quieted and the weeping faded away, Harry went to the Room of Hidden Things, basking in the quiet with his shadows.
Then he told them the simple truth, and watched Hermione pale and shake and step away from him.
Theo stood resolute, his gaze as quiet as ever, but Harry could see the thoughts in his head.
Vindication, the pleasure of having made a good choice six years ago when he remained silent at Harry’s side and not loud at Malfoy’s.
Hermione was not so cold. She showed revulsion and fear, and over it all despair, because the fact that Harry had killed the Headmaster of Hogwarts would no longer make her run. She was bound as tightly to him as Theo, in ropes of loyalty and time and love. She could no more leave him than a tree could walk from the ground it was planted in because it no longer liked the angle of the sun.
Harry walked to her, watched her face twist, saw the tears his choice had put upon her face.
He stretched out his hand, and waited.
She looked down at his open palm.
Then she placed her hand in his with a grip too tight to be comfortable.