|SIYE Time:8:50 on 27th July 2021|
The Doors of Perception
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Category: Hogwarts Express Challenge (2006-3)
Genres: Action/Adventure, Drama
Warnings: Death, Violence
Story is Complete
Summary: With the fall of Dumbledore, Harry is determined to start his own private war against Voldemort, but first he has to get home. A dead ferret, a snake in knots, and a train that cannot stop may stop him before he can get started.
Hitcount: Story Total: 6297
Not my sandbox. Those original bits not found in JKR's official works are mine. You are free to borrow the ideas, but only if you give credit. If you find I've borrowed or replicated someone else's original ideas, please let me know so I can give credit where due.
The Doors of Perception
"There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception."
~Aldous Huxley, with reference to William Blake.
Harry felt caged by the compartment he was sharing with Ron and Hermione. Ever since the funeral, the two had been quite close. It seemed only a matter of days now before they would admit their hormonal imbalances with respect to each other, and Harry was secretly pleased by the development. They would be too preoccupied with each other to notice when he slipped off to take care of things. Both of them had failed to leave him alone since announcing their determination to follow him. It was making him barmy.
He had been using the Marauder's Map for the past two days to get some peace and quiet while planning his next moves. It had taken him all morning to escape their watch for a few minutes before they boarded the Hogwarts Express. The information he had already managed to discover in just a few precious minutes was beyond critical, and the time to act was now, before the death toll became insurmountable. He had to start looking for the Horcruxes immediately. He needed to find a way to start reducing the number of Voldemort's supporters. Harry needed to find a way to win a war that seemed at its darkest moment.
Harry looked out the window, part of him wishing Ginny was present to comfort him. The way today had gone, however, he was glad she was elsewhere on the train. It was hard to see her and not react the way he wanted to, and every time he heard her voice or saw her face, his resolve threatened to crumble. But his path had no place for distraction, no place for compassion. Events had already outpaced him in that respect. Dumbledore was not the first nor would be the last casualty. Avenging his death was just another step in the long road of payback for Old Man Tom. Harry planned to collect, with interest.
As the train began pulling away from Hogsmeade station, Neville and Luna entered the compartment together. Harry was faintly amused at how Neville always seemed to be with Luna whenever Harry saw them but was clearly rather intimidated by her ever-shifting mental landscape. Harry knew that, despite the rumors, their relationship did not go beyond friendship. Harry doubted anyone he knew could handle Luna's unusual world view.
"How's Trevor?" Harry asked Neville. Neville held up a small basket and looked inside before smiling back at Harry, shrugging absently.
Luna looked dreamily at Harry. "Toads have the most vivid imaginations. Are your brains squirming like a toad, Harry?"
Harry simply shook his head at Luna's question. "Not right now, Luna, thanks for asking." Hermione huffed a bit at Luna's odd inquiry, but otherwise kept quiet, for which Harry was thankful. Her disapproval of Luna was now the silent, glaring variety, whereas previously, it had been the vocal, eye-rolling type.
Ron nodded at Harry and then the Wizard's Chess set he had setup on the bench, asking silently if Harry wanted to play. Harry felt he would rather amputate his leg with a dull rock, but if it would make time pass more quickly, then he would suffer through more defeats at the merciless hands of Ron.
As he prepared to begin the game, the compartment door suddenly banged open, causing everyone to look up in surprise.
"Harry!" Cho Chang was looking pale and quite shaken. "Help!"
Confused and certain his face reflected it, Harry had no real desire to help Cho unless it was something critical. "What's wrong?"
Cho grabbed Harry's arm, dragging him to his feet and leading him into the corridor. "Come on!" She was half-dragging, half-berating Harry into moving faster as she tried to get him to the front of the train. "You know how they announced that the school was closing, and there wouldn't be a prefects' meeting? Well, apparently Hannah Abbott went up there for some reason, and, oh, you'll see!"
As Ron and Hermione huffed along behind Cho and Harry, several other students were leaning out of their compartments to ask what was happening. Harry finally wrenched his arm out of Cho's firm grip. "What's this all about? I'm not a prefect." His reluctance to get involved in anything not related to accelerating Voldemort's demise was showing in the tone he used.
Cho just latched onto his arm again and dragged him behind her for the last two compartments, telling him it had nothing to do with prefects, while Hermione and Ron exchanged glances with Harry behind Cho's back. Stopping outside the prefects' carriage, Harry saw that Ginny and Hannah were both standing at the doorway, looking pale.
For a moment, Harry wanted to seize Ginny and never let go, but he let that moment pass. Ginny looked at him with sad eyes, before slowly opening the door and walking in, motioning for Harry to follow her. "I asked Cho to get you, Harry. I found Hannah being sick in the loo, and she brought me here. You should see this." She stopped in the middle of the compartment and pointed at a corner of the luggage rack, before gesturing to the floor by the other end of the rack.
Resigned that he would now be involved in something he wanted to avoid, Harry took a closer look at what Ginny was pointing to. On the left end of the rack, there was part of a head exposed, but it was odd -- an eye, a wisp of blonde hair, an ear, but no blood. At the right end, in a small puddle on the floor, was a dark red substance. Looking back at the others, Harry slowly reached out and felt the silken fabric of an invisibility cloak under his fingers.
Grabbing the edge, he pulled it off in one sharp motion, revealing Draco Malfoy, dead, his sightless eyes staring at Harry in silent accusation for not saving him, his face frozen in a horrible grimace and his hands clenched tightly together, testimonies of a painful death. His body had multiple wounds all over it. The wounds closely matched the effects of the Sectumsempra curse from Snape's old book.
Harry kept his face blank as he studied the body. Pointing to the necklace of opals around Malfoy's neck, Harry looked at Ginny. "This seems familiar, doesn't it?"
Hermione gasped. "That's the necklace that put Katie in St. Mungos! I really don't know how that got there. It was supposed to be destroyed!"
Harry shrugged and continued to look Draco's body over. "He's missing a ring. Look, see the ring finger on the right hand? That lighter band of skin?"
Hermione nodded slowly. "Probably the Malfoy signet, Harry. He should have been wearing it."
Harry looked back at the random collection of prefects, friends, and ex-girlfriends. "Ok, you have a dead ferret, apparently hoisted on his own petard - or rather, necklace. Considering that he almost killed Katie and Ron, and also attempted to kill either Dumbledore or myself, what do you want with me?"
Harry paused to stare at Draco's face, some of his resentment at his former nemesis coming out. "If he wasn't dead already, I'd be happy to help him along, and I bet Ron wouldn't mind helping."
Ron grinned weakly, looking uncomfortable with the sudden presence of death and blood, even if it was Draco Malfoy, the git who almost killed him.
Ginny raised one shoulder in a mild gesture. "We didn't know who to tell. Dumbledore always had faith you, so I thought that you'd be the right person to figure out what to do."
Harry sat down and sighed, his head in his hands. "He trusted Snape, too," Harry murmured. Ginny frowned at him, apparently the only one to have overheard him.
Running his hands through his hair, Harry looked up. "Alright, Cho, go get all the other prefects. I want one prefect at each end of every car with students. No students are to move between cars. Hannah, you're going to stay outside this compartment. No one gets in other than one of us, the engineer, or the Aurors when they show up. Cho, when you're done getting the prefects in place, let the engineer know we've got a dead Death Eater in here, what we've done, and ask him if he can speed up the train or something. I would imagine he can contact someone by owl or something to let them know we need Aurors."
Ron looked puzzled. "Mate, why don't you just Apparate out and get help?"
Hermione rolled her eyes while sighing dramatically. "Honestly, Ron, don't you listen? You can't Apparate on or off of a moving object. You'll kill yourself. I know the train can't stop once it starts, but surely they can make it faster or something." Looking back at Harry, she appeared to be thinking deeply. "But what about brooms, Harry? You could fly off, Apparate out, and come back with help, then fly back on."
Harry just shook his head. "Hermione, what do you think will happen when the students find out that first, there's a Death Eater on the train, second, he's been murdered, and third, the group around the Chosen One has run off to who knows where?"
Apparently Hermione suddenly comprehended the panic that could ensue if they all disappeared, since she didn't pursue the subject of flying off the train any further. "Oh. So we just wait until we get to King's Cross? What about gathering evidence or something before the killer can get rid of it?"
"Do we know that he was killed here? Do we even know if the killer is still on the train?"
Harry shrugged in response to Cho's apprehensive inquiry.
Hermione was tapping her fingers on the seat, talking slowly. "Those poor house-elves clean the train right before the students get on, so I'm fairly positive the answer to both of your questions is yes."
Ginny slumped next to Harry while Ron sat next to Hermione, who unconsciously took his hand in hers. Cho and Hannah remained standing in the corridor, peeking into the compartment, unused to the group dynamics around Harry beyond the D.A. classes two years ago.
Harry looked at Hermione before asking the obvious question. "What was Draco doing on the train in the first place?"
Ron, absently staring at his hand linked with Hermione's, looked confused. "Who cares?"
Hermione's exasperated glance warned everyone that she was about to explode. "Honestly, Ron. Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. Why he was here could be critical!"
"He must have been meeting with someone," Ginny piped up.
Harry narrowed his eyes as he appeared to think through the ramifications.
Draco moved silently under the invisibility cloak, looking for his contact. Spotting who he needed, he crept through the few early students milling by the carriages and tapped the shoulder. "Let's go!" he hissed. Moving swiftly toward the still-empty train, Draco kept an eye on his contact who was now following him.
Harry looked at Ginny with a half-smile. "Well, that would almost certainly narrows it down to a Slytherin, someone who shared the pure-blood beliefs and leaned toward Voldemort's banner."
Ron, apparently feeling some of his Gryffindor bravery, tried again. "Really, does it matter? Whomever he met with, if he did meet with someone, they weren't very likely to kill him, now were they? What's the point in meeting someone who wants you dead?"
Harry smirked. "That's odd, I seem to have lots of meetings like that."
Ron looked shocked for a moment, before back-pedaling. "I never said it like that!"
Harry just shrugged. "I know, Ron. The point is, we all meet with people who want us dead sooner or later." Ginny placed a hesitant hand on Harry's back, rubbing gently in small circles, helping him relax.
Harry smiled at her, enjoying the sensation briefly, then stood up, knowing he had to stop now before what resolve he had collapsed and he confessed everything to her, begging for her forgiveness and understanding. Harry looked at each of them in turn. "Alright. Cho, can you go take care of the prefects and the engineer? Hermione, let's look over the body and see what evidence we can find. Ron, Ginny, can you move back please?"
As everyone started moving, Hermione whipped out her wand and said, "Fenestra Valens!" On the end of her wand, a large magnifying glass appeared, with enough optical magnification that Harry was sure he could count ants from 20 paces.
"Hermione, put that magnifying glass away. We're not looking for subtle things here." Hermione almost seemed disappointed as she flicked her wand and the lens disappeared.
"How'd she know how to do that?" Ron asked.
Hermione just looked at Ron as though her patience was running thin. "Ron, if you're going to track down people and things, don't you think you should brush up on useful spells for it?" Her statement reminded Harry that he really needed to be preparing for his mission and not wasting time on ferrets, dead or otherwise.
Harry rifled through Draco's pockets. "I think Ron's right, in some ways, Hermione. Let's assume that whoever Draco met with wanted to kill him. We know Draco is too much of a coward to meet someone he knows wants to hurt him. So why would the other person want to?"
Everyone was quiet as Hermione and Harry finished inspecting the body and the contents of Malfoy's clothing. Stepping back into the corridor, Hermione closed and locked the compartment door before casting the Imperturbable charm on it. Nodding to Hannah who took up guard, the quartet started to head back to the next train car when Hermione stopped and snapped her fingers. "Voldemort!" she exclaimed.
"What about him?" Harry asked. "I doubt he's here."
Hermione shook her head. "No, look. Draco failed his task. Voldemort would order his death, and Draco must have known that. So he was probably meeting someone to try and get shelter, someplace to hide. But whoever he approached wasn't about to go against Voldemort's orders!"
Draco made sure the compartment was empty, as he turned to his contact. Pulling off his coak, he held up one hand before casting Imperturbable charms about the doors and windows. "I need help!" Draco said urgently when he was done. "I need to get out!" Draco never noticed his contact slowly sliding a wand out.
The four looked at each other, each slowly nodding as they understood the impeccable display of logic. Harry sighed, before looking back toward the prefects' carriage. "So, we know that Draco was on the run, he was probably seeking shelter, someone turned on him, covered their tracks by cleaning up the blood, and covered him with an invisibility cloak. They took his ring as well and must have secured the necklace from wherever it was kept. Right?"
Hermione nodded. "The curse, Harry. Their wand will show the curse used. That makes five things we need to look for. And Harry, you know what that curse was just like we do. We all know that you know how to do that spell, Harry."
Taking payback for failing Voldemort's commands, Draco's would-be savior cast Sectumsempra and watched Draco fall back, knocking himself unconscious when his head hit the bench seat. The contact quickly wrapped Draco's still-bleeding body in the invisibility cloak and levitating him into the luggage rack. Quickly casting multiple 'Evansco' spells to remove all the blood, the Imperturbable charms were left in place as the compartment was left empty except for an invisible, slowly dying, failed Death Eater.
Harry paled a bit at the implication within Hermione's words, intentional or otherwise. He silently handed his wand over to her. Hermione looked ready to cry, but she cast the magic to identify the last spells Harry had cast. Only a few cleaning, packing, and final exam spells came out before she handed it back. Wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand, she said quietly, "I had to check, Harry."
Harry shrugged. "You didn't like my alibi?"
Hermione looked confused. "Hold on, what alibi?"
Harry smirked as he pointed at both her and Ron. "You two have been shadowing me every moment I'm not in the loo. I still think Ron follows me in there sometimes, afraid I'm going to escape down the drain or something." Rolling his eyes, he leaned against the wall of the corridor. "What now?"
Hermione shook her head as she stared into space, while Ginny and Ron kept them company. "Harry, have you ever seen those crime shows on the telly?"
Harry shook his head. "Not allowed to watch TV, touch the computer, eat, breathe, sleep, or be happy at all among the Muggles, remember?"
Hermione winced at Harry's blunt response. "Sorry, Harry. I was remembering that those investigators for the Muggle police. They have a method for making blood show up, even if it's very faint. Have you heard of that?"
All three of the others shook their heads. "Really, you all could stand to read more. I think I know how to do that with magic. It's the type of light used, and you have to look at it through a type of special glasses. I think we can modify 'Lumos' to make the black UV light, and maybe I can charm your glasses to see the blood. I think it might work. Look, you've got a bit of blood on your sleeve there, Harry, from checking Malfoy's body. And I think that's a spot on Ginny's shoe. Let me try, okay?"
Harry leaned back, curious to see what Hermione would come up with. Handing her his glasses, she tapped them briefly while saying, "Lux scino ater!". Putting his glasses back on his face, nothing appeared different as he looked around. Hermione pointed at Ginny's feet, before telling him, "You shouldn't be able to see anything different yet, Harry. It will only be sensitive to black light."
"Black light? That's kind of barmy, isn't it? Isn't that just making darkness?" Ron asked. Hermione ignored him, while Ginny told him to be quiet.
"Lux ater!" Hermione incanted, causing everything in front of her wand to change color slightly. Harry was startled to see a spot on Ginny's shoe to glow brightly, as well as the edge of his sleeve.
"It works quite well," Harry told Hermione with a smile. "Shall we go see who has a bit of blood about them?"
As they reached the door into the first student-filled car, Cho met them coming out. "Harry! I'm sorry! I tried to keep it quiet, but some students overheard me talking to the prefects, and before I could stop it, I think everyone found out!" Cho looked ready to start crying again, causing Harry to take two sharp steps back and unconsciously put Ginny in front of him.
Harry tried for a calm and soothing voice. "It's okay, Cho."
Cho was sniffling slightly. "Well, when they found out you were looking into it, most of them calmed down. I'm sorry." Cho quickly wiped at her eyes. "Uhm, the engineer said he let the Aurors know, and the train is on an emergency rush. We should be at King's Cross in about an hour."
Harry nodded politely. "Okay, Cho, is there anything else? If not, can you help keep an eye on the students?"
Cho nodded, turning to head back into the car. She paused with her hand on the door before looking back over her shoulder. She seemed to watch Ginny for a moment before speaking to Harry. "Pansy is acting weird, Harry. She won't patrol her car, and she doesn't seem upset. It's the only odd thing I noticed."
"Thanks, Cho," Harry said, grateful for a hint at where to start. As the Asian girl disappeared into the car, Harry looked at Hermione. "You don't really think Pansy would do in Draco even if Voldemort asked for it, do you?"
Hermione shook her head. "I don't know what any of those people would do, Harry. We need to look into it."
Harry nodded slowly. "We still need to check each car as we go, and we've got about an hour to figure it all out." Leading the others into the first car, Hermione sustained the ultraviolet illumination from her wand while Harry glanced at the ground and each compartment they passed.
They were nearly half-way down the train when Harry held his hand up. He pointed inside the compartment where Pansy Parkinson was sitting by herself. Opening the door, Harry walked in while Hermione kept her wand lit and slowly swept the room.
Pansy eyed them coldly. "What do you lot want?"
Harry aimed for a voice that was void of emotion but knew he probably came off as cold as she did. "You know what we're doing, Pansy. No need to pretend otherwise."
Pansy flipped her hair over her shoulder before staring at the Weasleys in contempt. "Who appointed you to the Aurors, Potter?"
Harry sighed. "No one, as you know. But I'd rather not have to fend off yet another incompetent attacker now that Draco is done with that title."
Pansy recoiled and looked ready to attack Harry herself. Three wands pointing at her kept her in her seat.
Harry looked at her for a long moment before deciding on a different tack. "You've made no secret that your sympathies lie with Voldemort and Draco, Pansy. I know that Voldemort wouldn't be happy with Draco for failing his mission."
Harry was watching Pansy closely, looking for any tell-tale signs of emotion in her eyes. "He might even have ordered his death by now." The involuntary tightening of her eyes was all the answer Harry needed. "I see you've already been told Draco is to be killed for his failure. Tell me, did you see him before he died? Or are you just the reason he's dead?" Harry's closing tone was in imitation of the drawl Malfoy favored. He already knew she was not involved, but he wanted to know the scope of her loyalties.
Pansy averted her gaze to the window and ignored Harry, one slow tear tracking down her cheek which she refused to acknowledge. Harry tapped Hermione on the shoulder and pointed at the bag sitting next to Pansy.
Hermione glanced at Harry before looking back at Pansy with a blank face. "What's in the bag, Pansy?"
Pansy glared at Hermione. "None of your business, mudblood!"
Ginny laid a restraining hand on Ron's arm, who had gone beet red with rage. Catching Ron's eye, Harry shook his head at Ron, telling him to leave it be for now.
Hermione narrowed her eyes as she stared back. "We're tracking Draco's blood, Pansy, and there's blood on your bag. That makes it evidence!"
Pansy sneered in a way Snape would have admired. "That's not evidence, that's my lunch! For a know-it-all, you leave a lot to be desired!"
Harry decided to intervene before the two girls came to blows. "Well, then, Pansy, you won't mind us taking a look, now will you?" While he kept a wary eye on the two girls trying to vaporize each other with thoughts alone, Harry picked up her small bag and opened it. Sighing, he said to Hermione, "She's telling the truth. Looks like she's a fan of steak tartare." Dropping the bag back onto the bench, Harry turned to leave before Pansy stopped him.
"Why do you care what happened to Draco, Potter? You wanted him dead."
Harry looked at Pansy with an expression of sorrow. "You're right, I did. For what he did, for whom he almost killed in stupidity, for whom he tried to kill, I would gladly see him dead. But I didn't cut him to ribbons this time, Pansy." Harry left Pansy to sit alone, wrapped in her cold anger and misery. Harry supposed that Pansy might, after all, have sheltered Draco despite the orders from Voldemort.
As the quartet reached the corridor and closed the door to Pansy's compartment, Ginny looked at Harry carefully, her eyes full of something Harry couldn't quite fathom. It was making him nervous. "What now, Harry?" she asked quietly.
"Keep going. We've got nearly 30 minutes left to inspect not quite half the student compartments."
The quartet was just about to enter the last passenger car when they saw Theodore Nott gesturing wildly to Ernie Macmillan, one of the prefects keeping the last car locked down. As they opened the door from their side, Nott stunned Ernie before wrenching open his door, only to stop short when faced with Harry and his friends.
His gaze narrowed, Nott insolently looked them over. Harry kept a tight grip on his wand as he watched the tall boy. "Potter! Who do you think you are, trying to keep people from moving around?!"
Without realizing the import of what he was saying, Harry gave the other boy an odd look. "You've got blood on your shoes, Nott. How'd that get there?"
"I need help!" Draco said urgently when he was done. "I need to get out!" Draco never noticed his contact slowly sliding a wand out. "You failed your mission, Draco. You know what that means." Before Draco could move, Theodore hit him with the curse Snape taught him, Sectumsempra. "Failure is not an option," Nott sneered.
Before anyone could react, Nott shouted "Reducto!" while Harry instantly countered with a "Protego!" to deflect the curse. The shield was only partially formed before the curse smashed into it, knocking Harry back into his three friends, sending them all sprawling. Looking up, Harry caught a fleeting glimpse of Nott climbing onto the roof of the last student car before he disappeared.
Getting to his feet, Harry charged after him. Clambering up the ladder, Harry ignored the yells from his friends to come back and surged onto the roof. Nott was already well away. As Harry struggled to his feet on top of the passenger car, Nott jumped onto the first cargo car roof and kept running.
Harry ran after Nott, casting "Stupefy!" repeatedly after Nott's form. He heard someone scramble up behind him but didn't take time to check on who it was. He hoped that it wasn't an enemy. The wind was pushing at his back, making it hard to run well. With the train moving at higher than normal speeds, Harry struggled to maintain his balance. It took him several steps to adjust to the wind pressure.
While his curses all missed Nott, they had the desired effect of slowing him down so that Harry was able to gain ground. Then Nott almost missed his jump and had to fight his way back onto the roof. As Nott tried to keep going, Harry leapt in a diving tackle, and they both landed hard on the cargo car roof, breaking through and smashing to the floor inside the car.
As both boys got to their feet, Harry realized he was bleeding slightly from a cut on his hand, while Nott was dripping blood from a tear on his knee. Before either could register what to do next, a tremendous multi-voiced roar made both of them look behind Harry. An immense, black, three-headed dog was growling at them and preparing to charge.
Forgetting about their running battle for a moment, both made a mad dash for the opposite end of the cargo car, realizing en route that the car was half-full of boxes of books. As Fluffy chased after them, Harry heard Ron trying to cast spells to distract the dog and the voices of the girls yelling for him to run faster.
Nott reached the door just before he did, slamming his shoulder into it to pop it open. As Harry made to move through the door, Nott got to his feet, smiled evilly, and slammed the door in Harry's face, causing Harry to bounce off and land on his arse. Painfully. Risking a glance back, Harry saw that Fluffy was occupied with trying to get at Ron and Ginny, while Hermione had disappeared. Whipping his wand forward, Harry cried "Reducto!" blowing the door off its hinges. As he stepped onto the platform between cars, he heard Hermione yell down to him that Nott had already entered the next car.
Another "Reducto!" and Harry was inside that car as well, keeping an eye out for the tall boy among the crates of books and potions supplies. Before he could register what was happening, a blasting curse nearly took off his head. Diving to the ground, Harry looked up to see a giant Blast-Ended Skrewt charging after him. Realizing that there was no way Nott would be in this compartment, Harry cursed Hagrid for his choice in pets while making a mad zigzagging dash for the other end of the car, expecting to be blown to pieces at any second. Several crates took hits, sending potions ingredients and text books flying, but a lucky miss took out the door Harry was aiming for before Harry got there.
Running headlong into the next car without concern for what may be waiting for him, Harry stopped short when a large taloned foot came slashing at his head while a warbling wail echoed around the inside of the car. Diving back out the door, Harry tried to catch his breath as the wailing from the car he just left fought for his attention with the Skrewt trying to blast its way out of the last car. It looked like he had less than a minute before the Skrewt would be free to pursue its intended lunch again.
Risking a quick glance around the doorframe, Harry wanted to start laughing as he realized that Nott was trapped neatly between two hippogriffs. The tall boy's wand was laying just inside the doorway, and neither hippogriff seemed to want to let the boy out. All the crates were stacked into a neat wall, blocking the far exit from the car. If Nott tried to push things, he would be torn to pieces.
As he was trying to decide what to do, Ron landed on the platform next to him, out of breath. "Ginny wants your head, mate. What were you bloody thinking? Fluffy, the last Skrewt, and now two hippogriffs?" Ron was laughing weakly. "Can't we just leave him and let someone pick up the pieces later?"
Harry smiled in return before pointing at the Skrewt which had almost finished widening the doorway. "Keep it busy, will you?" Harry ducked into the car with the hippogriffs while Ron began swearing at Harry sulfurously. What really amused him, however, was hearing Ginny nearly match Ron profanity for profanity from atop the car with the Skrewt.
The nearby hippogriff whirled to face Harry, who had scooped up Nott's wand and bowed low to the creature, keeping his eyes on it warily. After a long moment, the hippogriff bowed back, and Harry approached it carefully, his breath coming in quick gasps. Looking at a pale-faced Nott, Harry was curious to know what really happened.
"Why'd you do it, Nott?" Harry asked.
Nott just frowned at Harry. "You'll never understand what it's like Potter."
Harry simply watched the boy as he tried to make himself small while the other hippogriff kept him cornered. "If your father is one of Voldemort's Inner Circle, and he tells you to do something, you do it. And you only get one chance. Draco should have known better than to come to any of us."
His curiosity satisfied, Harry pulled out his wand and lazily cast "Stupefy!", bringing the tall boy down. The second hippogriff whirled to face Harry, who was calmly petting the first hippogriff. Harry again bowed low but felt safe this time with one hippogriff's approval. After another long moment, the second one accepted him too.
Hermione arrived with Ron and Ginny, and all three waited for Harry to bring Nott over with the boy's wand. Handing the wand to Hermione, she confirmed he had cast the Sectumsempra spell. She began digging through his pockets and pulled out the Malfoy signet ring. She placed both the wand and ring into a conjured bag. "I bet the invisibility cloak was his too," she muttered as they turned to head back.
Harry looked at Hermione briefly. "Why do you reckon that these cars are full of Hogwart's books and supplies?"
Hermione looked sadly back at Harry. "I think they're evacuating everything to someplace secret, in case the castle falls to Voldemort." Turning back to Nott, Hermione flicked her wand a couple of times before the unconscious boy rose into the air and followed them.
"Why is the evidence bag floating like that? Isn't it enough to have Nott drifting?" Ron's voice was somewhat plaintive.
Harry shrugged. "Ask Hermione, she's the one that did it. I think she just missed with her Mobilicorpus the first time."
Hermione flushed bright red but kept her gaze on the ground. When they finally made it back to the prefects' compartment, they put Nott's stunned and floating body on the bench. Hermione pulled out two sets of handcuffs, looking at Harry with a question in her eyes.
Ginny raised one eyebrow as she looked at what Hermione was holding. "Wait a second. So how come you have these handcuffs, then?"
Ron suddenly looked contemplative, but Hermione just huffed in indignation. "Really, is that all you think about Ron? While you lot were playing with the hippogriff and skrewt, I thought these might be useful if we did catch the murderer." Ignoring their chuckles, Hermione handcuffed Nott's hands together around the hand rail by the window, being sure to loop the chain around the rail. She then did the same to his feet, after wrapping the cuffs around the bars holding the seats in place.
Ron spluttered while denying he had ever had any improper thoughts. Hermione rolled her eyes. "Whatever you say, Won-Won."
Harry sighed. "Well, now that that's over, it looks like we're almost there. I'm going back to our compartment. Coming Ginny? I think these two need some alone time." Ginny chuckled as she and Harry left Ron and Hermione arguing in a compartment with a dead ferret, a snake in knots, and raging hormones.
As they entered their compartment, the train began to slow as it arrived at King's Cross station. Knowing that everything was about to really begin, Harry felt reluctant to leave immediately. Ginny was here, they were relatively alone and undisturbed, and that combination had been impossible since the funeral.
Harry and Ginny stood near each other and watched the students milling around on the platform from inside the compartment. To Harry, this was the moment that everything depended on. His mission was clear, and while Ron and Hermione were insistent, they were going to have to learn to let him go. There were things he had to do by himself. The last thing he wanted was other people watching him as he dealt with what lay at Godric's Hollow or jiggling his elbow when he had to deal with a Horcrux.
Looking away from the window, he stared at his hands for a moment before looking up to find Ginny's eyes watching him calmly. Ron and Hermione were already out talking to their parents and some Aurors.
"Harry?" she asked quietly.
Harry merely raised one eyebrow in response.
"Draco didn't die because of Nott's curse, even though he probably would have in time. We both know that." Ginny stepped right up to Harry before sliding her arms around him, placing her head sideways on his shoulder. "I'm not sure I agree with the method, Harry, or where you got that necklace, but I understand why you did it. I think catching Nott was a bit of redemption. I presume you nicked the necklace from Dumbledore's office."
Harry entered the first train car slowly, unsure where Draco and Nott had gotten to. They disappeared off the map as soon as they entered the train together. Carefully, he began checking compartments. Harry quickly saw the pool of blood, knowing something unpleasant was causing it. Reaching out, he flipped back the edge of the cloak to see Malfoy slowly bleeding to death, apparently unconscious. Making a snap decision, Harry shook his shoulder to wake Draco up. "Potter!" Draco hissed in pain. "You're always prattling about saving people. Help me!" Harry studied Draco for a long moment, thinking of everything the boy had done or tried to do. Deciding on a course of action, Harry stared with contempt at the Malfoy heir. "If you want me to release you, make it worth my time. I need information."
Ginny leaned back to watch Harry's shocked expression. "I don't like what this war is making you do. I don't like that you're leaving, Harry, and that I can't go with you to keep you safe from yourself. It's hard to let you do this, but I do understand why."
Hugging him hard for a moment, Ginny spoke quietly into his ear. "If I were with you, at some critical moment, you might be worried more for my safety than what you must do to win. I don't care if I die fighting, but I understand what that would do to you. You'd do anything to protect me, and it might cause your defeat, which would kill us all. I can't risk the fate of our world for my desire to hold you close and to claim my place by your side. This isn't about glory or recognition. It's about finishing Tom. I still love you, you know? I'll still be here when you get done, and I'll help you find yourself and your happiness again. Just come back to me, alright?" After giving him a soft, lingering kiss, Ginny stepped back and watched him a moment. "You're not like him, Harry. Be strong." She turned and left the compartment, giving an amazed and slightly troubled Harry the freedom to walk alone down the dark path before him.
You may have noticed some quotes or fragments thereof from Aldous Huxley, Jim Morrison (the one that was lead singer in "The Doors"), and a few others in this one-shot.
Ginny's closing comments reflect a level of understanding that I personally lacked until properly educated by Chreechree. As most people, I struggled to understand why Ginny let Harry walk away at the end of HBP without discussing it at the very least. Chreechree, whose spouse is in the military, helped me understand just how hard it is to do that very thing. Ginny letting Harry go shows her strength and trust. I give Chreechree credit not only for helping me see a possible interpretation that does make sense, but also for working on this particular passage to help others see the light. We all agree, however, that Ginny should be alongside Harry, and will likely come to his aid in some manner during Book 7.
Credit for doing this one-shot goes to cwarbeck, who bullied me into it. (That's my claim, anyway. I'm sure she tells the story behind this submission differently.) After all, waving the curiosity stick in my face is bound to force me to do something. Evil plot bunnies.
As always, a big thank you to my genius betas who have valiantly strived to make this story better, despite my crafty attempts to make it incomprehensible. Immeasurable thanks to cwarbeck and Chreechree.
And yes, Chapter 9 of "Echoes of Power" was posted before this was submitted.
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