Disclaimer: All characters belong to JKR. I am only a dreamer, a destructive soul whose only pleasure is watching the ghost of a griffin fly against the backdrop of stone exploding out into a sun-filled sky. Oh, and no money made here. None.
AN: Only the hardcore readers bother with the author notes so I shall be brief. This is all I've got and then some. For those who care, the chapter was written mostly to the song "Chance" by Savatage. Grand and epic. Just my style.
A grand bow to Ariadne, my ever present friend, beta and partner-in-crime. Thank you so much for taking me to lunch and stealing the manuscript. It's done.
On with the show...
Ron approached the hospital wing doors, clutching his wand arm where he had been clipped by a wayward hex. A hollow sound was echoing, rising higher than even the hexes and curses from the battle roaring to life outside. His gait slowed; there was no mistaking the voice, the crying, the consuming grief. Standing in the doorway, he froze, his hand slowly relaxing, all sound blotted out except this. The clattering of his wand when it hit the floor barely registered. Molly and Arthur were on the far side of the wing, huddled over someone, and the fact that Madam Pomfrey was simply standing at the foot of the bed told him what he already knew.
When Molly raised her head and looked directly at Ron, she stopped for a moment, before sobbing even harder.
Hermione appeared by his side, picked up his wand and pushed him back out of the wing into the corridor. Ron stared at her with wide eyes as the color drained from his face.
"Who?" he rasped as she gingerly took hold of his injured arm.
Hermione's eyes met his, trying to find the words, struggling because saying it aloud made it real. "Ron, I'm so sorry," she said, holding his arm. He was shaking, his eyes fixed on the open doorway, flinching when his mother's cries worsened. Hermione placed a hand on Ron's shoulder. "It's George."
Ron lowered his head and stared at the floor in shock while Hermione examined him, explaining in a whisper how it had happened, that Charlie and Fred were now leading the dragons after the last of the giants before they could reach the castle. If they did, there was no telling what colossal destruction they could cause.
Suddenly, the castle was rocked by an earth-shaking explosion that seemed to jerk the corridor at an angle, pulling the portraits out from the walls and slamming them back. With a hand on the wall, Hermione closed her eyes for a moment, praying that Severus had made it safely.
She pulled a healing potion from her robe pocket and handed it to Ron.
"Drink this. Your arm isn't broken, and this will take care of the pain," she instructed, trying to ignore the battle raging ever louder through the halls. Sound carried so far it was as if the fighting was directly around the next corner. She pulled a parchment out of her pocket and read it quickly, sighing in relief. Ron looked at her strangely as he drank the potion and handed the flask back to her. The color in his face had not returned.
"What is it?" he asked, leaning to read the parchment.
Hermione took a deep breath. "Voldemort. It's time."
Ron's eyes darted to the hospital wing doors then back to Hermione. Instantly alive. He reached for his wand, asking urgently, backing away, "Thestral, Hippogriff, broom... anything."
Hermione's eyes widened. "No, Ron you can't."
"Give me something that has some bloody wings! Tell me!" he raged, his face turning an alarming shade of red and his breath hitching as he glared at her.
"Hagrid has a Hippogriff in the next corridor," Hermione said, pointing reluctantly.
Ron turned and left, running down the hall.
Hermione called after him, "What are you going to do?"
He stopped, turned, and said in a determined voice, "Play chess."
Severus had managed to avoid most of the explosion's impact, but did not entirely escape the debris that followed. He stood in a darkened classroom, the only light streaming in a single beam from a circular window high up on one wall. The dust rained down, filtering through the light, eerily reminiscent of snowfall. Running a hand down his leg, he felt for where his robes were stuck, indicating where shards of glass had torn through his robes and impaled themselves into his thigh. With his other hand, he held his side, his coat torn in a jagged stripe from the griffin. There was no need to look; his decision was already made.
Cursing as he threw the shards of glass aside, Severus spotted a set of small eyes watching him from a nearby desk.
"Have an opinion, do you?" he scowled, but then was intrigued to see the cat looking at him expectantly. "I suppose I do owe you a debt of thanks for that act of utter bravery out there."
Severus could have sworn the cat grinned at him before bowing its head slightly. The light revealed only the faint outlines of its fur before they were both plunged into darkness by a shape flying by the window. A horrific roar followed by others filled the air, shoving any hope for coherent thought aside, the sound heard as much inside as out.
The corridor where the griffin had once stood was completely gutted, the floor missing, the wall forced backwards by the blast. Desks, parchment and a teacher's podium from what was once a classroom littered the floor once level below.
Standing at the edge, Severus looked out over the grounds. Before he could fully process the scene, through the multitude of duels he had the distinct vision of Draco running towards the opposite side of the castle grounds, resolutely ignoring anyone who dared attempt to slow him. It didn't require much to realize that Draco had spotted Lucius leaving the castle after fleeing the griffin.
"Kitty," Severus said, as he watched Draco enter the forest, "today, we avenge your Narcissa."
Severus only hoped he could reach Draco in time.
"Tell them to go back out the gates and attack any Death Eater they see on the way. They're to go back to Azkaban," Remus said with a hand fisted in Wormtail's robes. It was by far better to simply remove the Dementors, as Voldemort could command them to attack again.
Wormtail nodded and complied. Remus watched as the Dementors twitched in mid-flight, turned, and flew to join the others. As they reached each other, it was if the word had spread and each one turned and slipped away. When one Death Eater made the mistake of leaving the cover of the forest, he was immediately set upon by several Dementors, who spiraled briefly, then swooped in to deliver the Kiss.
Wormtail suddenly looked to the sky with stark terror on his face and bolted out onto the grounds.
Remus, assuming he was leaving to join Voldemort, yelled after him, "Run all you like, Peter! There's nowhere left to go!" and reentered the castle to join the fight.
After the Hippogriff acknowledged Ron with a bow, he hesitantly mounted and mumbled to himself, "Just like a broom. Just like a big, four-legged, people-eating broom with bloody wings."
Ron directed the Hippogriff to take flight out of an open corridor and swoop low over the grounds before angling over the trees. His eyes teared from the wind and, through his bleary vision, he saw Charlie and Fred directing the dragons near the gates. Giants were attempting to make their way towards the castle, reaching up each time a dragon came within range.
Trees rushed by below, revealing several packs of Death Eaters running in different directions, completely disorganized. Ron brought the Hippogriff down lower and several Death Eaters fell as they frantically looked up at him, eyes wide with fury as he swept past.
Flying low over the treetops, Ron leaned over the Hippogriff's shoulder, staring down into the forest. Taking a second pass, Ron's hand jerked on the Hippogriff's chain hard.
It was Voldemort. The words screamed in Ron's mind. Nothing else. His heart was both soaring and stopping in the same instant and he brought the Hippogriff into a sharp dive, directing it straight at the few Death Eaters still at Voldemort's side. Some stood their ground, while others turned and bolted for the safety of the thicker woods.
Voldemort glared directly at Ron and drew his wand. In a haze, Ron almost forgot to take evasive action as a jet of green light flew up through the canopy, blasting leaves up and startling the Hippogriff into almost throwing him off. Fistfuls of feathers and the Hippogriff's wing under his leg was all that kept him aboard.
Dragging himself back aboard, Ron flew around in a larger circle, dodging spells and herding Death Eaters towards where Charlie and Fred led the dragons on their rampage. Norbert had voluntarily joined in, as if he recognized that the giants were the enemy and needed no further incentive to attack.
One last group stood defiantly between Voldemort and the gates, repeatedly throwing hexes and curses up at him as he rode by. Ron, remembering his brother, turned and threw the Hippogriff into a terrifying dive straight at them. In a horrific moment, he recognized the young faces of Crabbe and Goyle before the Hippogriff stretched its neck out to slash at them. They turned with the rest, glancing over their shoulders at him as he pulled up and rushed back up to the sky.
Ron watched the last of the Death Eaters turn and move towards where his brothers led the dragons.
Leaving one lone figure.
As he circled around the area where Voldemort was isolated, Ron raised his fist to the sky, calling, "Check!"
The Entrance Hall was in near-ruins from the fighting.
Hexes and curses had destroyed most of the staircase, leaving it a semi-ladder with holes along the way just begging to break a leg or cause enough hesitation for an opponent to deliver a final curse. Order members and Death Eaters fought through the Great Hall and to the upper floors. The staircases continued their calm changes even as a full-scale battle raged around them, causing momentary confusion when dueling partners were suddenly sailing apart from each other in mid-strike. Severus' lab door had been blown open and the equipment destroyed as Death Eaters searched for healing potions to resume fighting. They failed, however, to break Severus' wards on the supply closet, and were soon cornered and taken by Remus and Bill.
Ginny and Hermione raced out onto the grounds to search for the wounded. They spotted Moody far off near the forest and headed for him, keeping low and throwing hexes and shielding spells to avoid the incredible number of curses flying through the air. Already they had both been hit by several stinging hexes and Ginny had narrowly evaded a Killing Curse. They had been using the Marauder's Map to spot anyone who ceased to move, so they could find them even if they were out of plain sight. When they reached Moody, he had been hit by several hexes and his good leg lay at an angle that made Hermione slightly ill. She offered a grim smile when he waved his hand towards several prone bodies and proudly informed her it had taken four Death Eaters to take him down. Four.
Hermione glanced around quickly to take in the state of the grounds. Death Eaters were in Full Body Binds or covered in hexes, and, thankfully, no giants were in sight. She thought of what could have been if that large of a number had reached the castle, and firmly pushed that thought aside. There was no argument; without the dragons, it would have been a completely different situation.
Her eyes traveled up to take in the completely unsettling view of the interior of the castle on display from Severus' destruction of the last Horcrux. Portraits, stone, glass and several desks littered the grass, their placement a testament to the tremendous force of the explosion.
Turning back to look towards the gates, Hermione saw a Hippogriff hovering over the forest. It angled quickly, as if heading off the progress of something, then circled around before dipping down low. Ginny bound Moody's arms and legs so he could be transported, and lifted her head.
Ginny squinted then grasped Hermione's arm hard.
"Is that Ron?" she gasped, shaking Hermione as she stared up in the sky. The Hippogriff moved lower and hovered below the treetops so they could no longer see. By the frantic beating of its wings, Hermione could tell it was engaged in a fight. Hermione nodded to Ginny as a fact swam lazily to the front of her mind.
Hippogriffs were carnivores.
They watched as the Hippogriff rose up but then twisted to the side. Several green bolts flew up around it, coloring the sky, blending into the treetops.
The sight of Charlie aboard a Thestral rising over the treetops broke Hermione out of her thoughts. Two ferocious dragons followed him, throwing an immense shadow across the grounds, casting dueling pairs into darkness for a fleeting second in time. Charlie had made the turn and was heading back towards the gates when several bolts of light shot up from a group of Death Eaters, striking one of the female dragons hard. Her wings jerked and folded sideways as she spiraled, twisting, turning completely over. Duels all over the grounds halted at the sight of something so colossal falling from the sky and in anticipation of the destruction that was sure to come.
The battle nearly forgotten, silence reigned in a surreal instant, frozen.
The dragon splayed her wings out and threw them; inverted, however, this did nothing to correct her flight. She slammed into the ground, throwing huge pieces of earth upwards in a blinding spray. Her body cart-wheeled over, tail whipping into anyone and anything within range, finally crashing into the base of the North Tower. She tried to right herself, screaming in utter fury, but then the Tower shifted, sank, and leaned at a disturbing angle.
Hermione absently clutched Ginny's hand and watched in horror as the dragon thrashed her head from side to side, beating it against the stone with each pass, effectively slicing further into the Tower's base, undermining its structure. The roar was of both pain and rage as the beast thrust her back up, freed her wings and attempted to fly, even as part of the castle crushed her chest to the ground. Dirt and rocks flew as she beat her wings furiously, pulverizing the rubble around her.
In response, the Tower slid, jerked, then tilted at an impossible angle, dangerously close to falling.
Hermione watched in helpless awe as the Tower shifted yet again, dropping huge pieces of stone onto the grounds. What she saw next shocked her even more. Harry had emerged from the side of the castle, and, while far enough from the action, he was directly in the path if the Tower should fall. She tried to scream to warn him, but was drowned out by the dragon's roar as it thrust itself upwards and rocked back.
The Tower swayed drunkenly and began to fall, its shadow rushing up over the grass, plunging Harry into darkness. Someone was screaming. Ginny. Hermione grabbed onto her, shoving her to the ground before she could bolt from her side. Not enough time. The darkness; she couldn't see him anymore, screaming his name with Ginny, her voice failing.
The sun was blocked as the Tower passed, outlined in a perfect silhouette before it collapsed, coming apart in the end. The ground disappeared from under Hermione and Ginny before they came to rest several feet away. The sky gone, choked with a hail of stone and dirt, raining down, covering everyone.
The obscene moment of silence that followed allowed them to hear the birds from the other side of the castle - the Owlery - every school owl had taken flight, screaming over the grounds in a collective wail, frantically beating their wings to rise into the sky and flee.
Remus had just left the Room of Requirement after levitating three Death Eaters in Full Body Binds into the makeshift jail. Moody had not returned, and Remus feared that his bravado at throwing himself headlong into battle may have backfired. The jail now held forty or so prisoners in various states of incapacitation, and couldn't hold many more. He replaced the wards and was descending the stairs when he felt a wand shoved into the back of his neck.
He froze, cursing himself for coming alone.
"My, my, you've grown," growled a voice dripping with murderous sarcasm.
Turning slowly, Remus was met with the foul sight and deranged eyes of Fenrir Greyback. The truly insane have a look of helpless drive; however, Greyback knew exactly what he did - and loved every minute.
"Remus? Is it? I usually don't keep a record of my conquests, but I remember you," he breathed, spreading his grin wider as if to display his teeth. "Oh, yes, I particularly enjoyed you. So young."
Remus gripped the handrail, his wand angling in readiness.
"Busy during the full moon these days, are we?" Greyback asked in mock politeness, enjoying the hatred, reveling in it.
Remus backed down the stairs as Greyback approached, holding his wand out, waiting.
Greyback drew first, screaming, "Avada Kedavra!"
Remus barely had the thought to duck, wrenching his wrist, trying to hold onto the handrail to keep from falling. The spell blasted through the wall behind him, forcing the portrait occupants to scream and flee their broken frames while others fell onto the staircases below.
Stepping backwards, Remus continued to descend, throwing multiple Disarming spells while dodging Greyback's rebounds.
Greyback's face held a contorted grin, appearing permanently amused, a shattered window into what was left of his soul. Each step down was taken dramatically, in complete control and with a flourish, spreading his arms wide, inviting another round.
A blinding lattice of red and green as they both struck, spells rebounding everywhere; fire, it was racing up the handrail, flying by as Remus let go. Greyback lunged at Remus with a wide snarl, tendrils of spit hanging like spider webs between his jaws.
Another barrage of spells and the handrail gave way, almost sending Remus falling backwards.
Remus had reached the sixth floor landing on one staircase when he backed onto the stairs to go lower. He had managed to block several spells, the last of which rebounded, knocking Greyback backwards to land against the banister. Greyback literally roared with unintelligible rage, losing any semblance of the refined facade he had displayed earlier, lunging at Remus with pure animal instinct before stumbling and almost falling.
Suddenly, the normally calm staircases came alive with a raging fury. Greyback's staircase jerked, disengaged from the landing and swung with such force that he was thrown against the handrail, clinging frantically as it flew. It accelerated as it turned, slamming into the opposite wall, slicing completely through it and throwing dozens of portraits down to the Entrance Hall below. Greyback still held onto the banister, panting from the impact. As he went to pull himself up, the staircase began to break free from the upper landing and twisted sideways, allowing its bottom stairs to crash into the lower level. The impact completed the break, and the entire structure arced over in a slow, deliberate rotation, beginning its descent into the stairwell, with Fenrir Greyback screaming the entire way. Remus called to those below to get out of the way as several tons of solid stone and marble crashed down past other floors, tearing stray staircases down with it.
A huge plume of dust exploded in solid, rolling thunder as Greyback and the staircase hit the Entrance Hall floor and shattered, sending stone crashing out the front doors in a wave of marble and remnants.
Remus stood in utter amazement as the rising dust obscured his downward view. Through the haze, he watched in astonishment as the staircases slowly shifted into motion, calmly rearranging themselves to replace those that had fallen.
Harry was suddenly shoved to the ground, knocking the air out of him. Someone's hands were on his shoulders, pinning him down. It was Wormtail, panting hard, his eyes fixed upwards in complete terror. Before Harry could say anything, Wormtail threw himself onto him and the world exploded in a dragon's roar, descending into a twisted declaration of immeasurable pain, silenced as stone, dirt, and utter chaos drowned it all out.
Ginny - she was screaming his name - and then the absurdity of rain in the form of rocks and tumbling chunks of stone.
Harry looked up to see Wormtail groan as he pushed himself up and looked around. The Tower lay in ruins just inches from them, looking strangely deflated. The calls of dozens of owls, howling, their screeching a siren as they blotted out the sky, rising over the castle. Blue returned, the bright sun; how he'd always thought a battle happened in the dark of night, blinding wind, rain or something sinister, not on such a day as this. The battle resumed on the other side of the fallen structure with stray hexes and curses flying up into the sky.
Harry shoved himself backwards, staring in disbelief.
"You..." he said, needing a second glance at the fallen Tower as if to confirm reality. A crystal ball rolling to a stop nearby told him it had been the North Tower. "You saved me."
Wormtail nodded, suddenly appearing both exhausted and determined. He rose to his feet and drew his wand, unflinching, as Harry stood as well.
Several emotions crossed Wormtail's face before he stepped backwards, turned and ran towards the forest.
Lucius rose to his feet, staggering a slight step to keep from listing after having been struck by several wayward hexes from the main battle. Before he could fully stand, he saw someone appear at the edge of the forest and stop. Staring at him.
With a feral snarl, Lucius shoved himself forward, forcing his legs to support him, adrenaline granting the ability.
Standing tall, Lucius sneered, "Why, Draco, how nice to see you."
Even with the battle raging around him, Lucius' eyes locked onto his son and shut everything else out. Draco did the same, descending the slight hill to draw nearer. They both held their wands tightly, begging for a reason to strike first.
"Worthless traitor..." Lucius spat, his voice dripping with viciousness. The blood trailing from his mouth and face did nothing to quell the vision of the complete wreck of a wizard he had become. He raised his wand, standing at an angle.
Draco remained silent, taking in the image of what had once been his father. He approached slowly, his wand held high. Several Thestrals galloped by behind him, flailing their wings for balance as they leaped over a trench.
"Better to be a traitor to the losing side, father. Look around. Does it seem like you've chosen well?"
Lucius snarled, "You're not worth my energy. Always a failure. Your wretched mother's side of the family - producing nothing but an inferior waste of magic." He stood his ground even as Draco drew closer. "Speaking of which, give your mother my best-"
Before Lucius could complete his sentence, Draco lunged for him screaming, "Crucio!" only to watch in horror as his father not only dodged the spell but sent it back at him.
Draco managed to avoid the rebounded spell, falling to his knees as it tore past. Throwing a leg out to rise, he tried to move to cover as two more spells just missed his head.
Lucius slashed his wand to the side, a low laugh as Draco gasped and lurched sideways to fall up against a tree trunk.
White hot pain tore through his arm. Draco clutched it tightly, feeling his own heartbeat, the blood flowing at a terrifying rate, quickly drenching his sleeve and wand.
"You're absolutely right, Draco," Lucius taunted with a grin. "Let's draw this out. After all, a slow death for a traitor is tradition. Besides - I have nowhere else to go."
Draco scrambled behind several trees and crouched low, cradling his wand arm as the muscle refused to adequately cooperate. He flexed it experimentally and hissed in pain, the feeling of his tendons working under his fingers almost as disturbing as the amount of blood, drenching everything, leaving small pools on the ground.
His father began to blast bushes apart, set trees on fire, and rant about blood, traitors and justice.
The last... justice.
As Lucius walked confidently towards where he hid, Draco lurched across the path, casting several Stunners. The bolts illuminated the shadows red as they screamed past Lucius, who dodged at the last moment. True shock registered on his face at the near miss before arrogance returned, then vengeance. He raised his wand, bared his teeth and began casting an unimaginable number of spells.
"Come out and face me!" Lucius raged as he awkwardly negotiated the deeper brush. As he looked down to pull his robes over the brambles, he was struck by a red jet of light and thrown backwards into the thorns. He screamed into the sky more in rage than pain as he struggled to rise. Before he could stand, he was struck again, this time tearing a gash across his shoulder.
Draco moved slowly from behind a tree and found himself greeted with the opportunity he had been replaying in his mind for days. Lucius had his back to him, searching for him in the brush. Draco told himself it was for his mother, it was in the heat of battle.
It was not the same.
His mind quieted - silent - the pain a distant echo as Draco raised his wand, even as it dripped with his own blood.
Harry looked away from where Wormtail had disappeared into the forest to see Minerva and Tonks fighting their way to him. They exchanged worried glances before running for the cover of the forest where Remus and Bill waited.
Minerva was nervously brushing dirt from Harry's robes. "All right, Harry?"
Harry, along with everyone else, glanced in the direction that they had seen Ron fly, seeming to share the same thought. He would lead them to Voldemort.
Minerva looked to the sky and stated decidedly, "Safer flying, Harry."
With a look of relief, she spotted Hagrid approach with several Thestrals following him - and Buckbeak.
Hagrid turned and motioned to Buckbeak as the others climbed aboard Thestrals. "He's all yours."
Harry nodded and moved forward in a bow which Buckbeak promptly returned.
As Hagrid helped him up, he said, "Now, Buckbeak, you take care of our Harry here. He's got important work to do."
"Thanks, Hagrid," Harry said as he took hold of Buckbeak's chain.
Hagrid wiped a tear away while giving Buckbeak's neck a firm pat. "You'll be fine, Harry. Remember, you have something he will never have. Friends who love you."
Harry's face hardened, and Hagrid swore in that instant he looked so much like his father. He nodded, and Harry cued Buckbeak into a gallop to take to the sky with the others following. As the ground fell away, he took in the sight of the battle and saw that they were clearly winning.
Brief moments in time. Death Eaters struggling to escape from invisible bonds that were clearly one of the twins' traps, chased by Centaurs, and driven by Ron into a clearing where Order members and supporters waited. Dozens of red and green bolts of light flew through the trees, surrounding Ron as he worked fearlessly.
Hagrid's hut - it was on fire, caved in on one side. Giants. Death Eaters. The dead too many to count. One of the dragons, lying on its side amongst the bodies, a wing torn at a sickly angle.
Harry watched Minerva, Tonks, Remus and Bill land and fight the Death Eaters, keeping them away.
Looking down, Harry's heart froze at the sight of Voldemort glaring up at him, repeatedly touching his wand to his arm, becoming more enraged when it did nothing.
Most importantly, he was alone.
Draco held his shaking wand, closed his eyes, drew back and screamed, "Avada-", but was violently struck from behind. He fell in a twist of robes, onto his mangled arm, only registering pain for an instant before he was knocked unconscious and Petrified.
Lucius swung around to find Severus standing over his son's body.
Sputtering, his eyes filled with pure, unadulterated fury, Lucius tore his robes from the thorns and roared, "He was mine! HOW DARE YOU!" He awkwardly lunged for Severus, seemingly too far gone to complete a spell worthy of his state of mind.
Severus strode calmly towards Lucius so that they met in the middle of the clearing. He reached out, fisted Lucius' robes in his hands and slammed him against the nearest tree. With a grip not nearly as careful as in the Room of Requirement, Severus crushed Lucius' throat and shoved his wand up under his jaw, twisting it.
"Shall we continue our last conversation?" Severus drawled in a low voice. He laughed softly as Lucius clawed at his hands, his wand forgotten. "Oh, but Lucius, I do mean business now. You see, out here..." he said and gazed at the trees for a moment, "Out here, it is not considered murder. I will be liberating the world from your wretched existence. A hero."
Lucius' knees buckled and he slid down, the rough bark of the tree against his robes slowing his downward progression.
Through clenched teeth, Lucius gasped with what little air he could, "You killed Draco."
"I did no such thing," Severus responded, and drew his wand back slowly. "But I will kill you."
Suddenly, Severus' eyes flashed upwards to the shadow of a lone dragon through the thick forest canopy, not only passing over, but descending, heading straight for them and crushing a path through the trees. Severus lost his grip on Lucius as fire filled the world in an instant, burning everything overhead, lighting the treetops before shoving them into each other.
As Lucius leaped over a fallen tree and ducked under another, Severus screamed, throwing several spells after him. Lucius was struck at least once, enough to make him stumble badly before disappearing.
This time Severus did not choose a different language in which to curse.
Reminding himself as he felt in his pocket that this was far from the end, Severus made his way to the edge of the forest and signaled Ginny to fetch Draco. Nearby, he caught sight of a Thestral trotting aimlessly through the woods, made his way towards it, and painfully dragged himself aboard.
Severus searched the sky as the nervous Thestral danced under him and watched as a Hippogriff swung low out of sight. He then pushed the Thestral into a thrusting gallop, stunning several dueling partners into pausing at the sight of Severus Snape aboard a black, winged monstrosity, thundering through the battlefield.
With precisely aimed spells, even wounded and on a lurching Thestral, Severus weaved through the battle, taking down five Death Eaters as he passed. As they fell, their opponents stared in awe, both at the sight of him galloping away wildly, and at the stunning sound of his laughter.
Urging the Thestral onward, barreling towards the gates, striking down anyone foolish enough to be found within range. Several times, he swerved to choose particular victims, exacting revenge against those who had ever dared laugh at him.
Severus kept his eyes riveted to the sky as the magical beast expertly negotiated the grounds, leaping over fallen branches and trees. He struck down two more Death Eaters, sending one directly into a pit of Blast-Ended Skrewts the twins had set. He cued the Thestral to take flight to clear a large moat of what looked like quicksand, in which several giants were trapped, obviously Charmed to only activate under heavy weight.
Raising his head, he recognized Ronald Weasley on a Hippogriff, circling over one place near the gates. It could only mean one thing, and his heart rose just at the very thought of it.
Voldemort was cornered.
Voldemort struck out at two Death Eaters who had tried to desert him, even as a raging Hippogriff descended upon them, coming close enough to tear at their robes. Faced with either staying with a lunatic who was clearly losing and running for their lives, they chose the latter.
"COWARDS!" Voldemort raged, swinging around in a full circle to find himself alone, with the exception of Nagini, who raised her head, hissing loudly and baring her fangs. Voldemort repeatedly called the others using the Dark Mark; however, something strange happened - as the bolt of light flew from his wand, it immediately faded.
Twice more he tried and failed.
Suddenly, the sound of hundreds of breaking branches and the cry of a Hippogriff grew loud. Before Voldemort could look up, he was struck hard, his arm torn open as Harry and Buckbeak crashed through the clearing. Buckbeak touched down, slid to a stop, and spun while Harry struggled to stay aboard.
"You wretched... HOW DARE YOU!" Voldemort screamed and swung his wand. "Avada Kedavra!"
Harry clutched onto Buckbeak's neck as the Hippogriff launched itself upwards and out of the way. Voldemort's spell spiraled into the deep shadows, lighting the way green before it faded.
Sounds of a faraway war played as they regarded each other at last.
Voldemort glanced down at his arm, mocking, "What a touching act of bravery. You are even more stupid than your meddling mother and father." He raised his head and spread his hands. "Your father put up a good fight at least. He didn't scream for mercy until the end."
"That's a lie!" Harry dismounted Buckbeak and cast several Disarming Spells, which Voldemort irritably deflected. He could feel Voldemort trying to invade his mind, and felt a surge of confidence as he was able to keep him out. Voldemort's face took on an expression of mild surprise at the disadvantage of not having an opponent's spells broadcast beforehand.
"Is it?" Voldemort sneered and, without any indication, struck again, sending Harry to dive to the ground and roll frantically. He threw his arms over his head as a tree exploded in a wooden rainfall of branches, limbs and large pieces of bark. Even before the debris had ceased to fall, Harry scrambled through the brush and blindly threw a Stunner back at Voldemort. He missed; however, the scream of rage told him that with each spell he was infuriating him more and more.
"Nothing but a boy!" Voldemort screamed and, without knowing exactly where Harry was, took to blasting any brush within range. Flames danced on young trees and bushes as Harry frantically made his way through to find cover behind a wide tree. After taking a deep breath, Harry thrust himself back out and threw another Stunner.
Harry gasped in shock to see it strike Voldemort in the shoulder, causing him to stagger to the right before catching himself. Harry quickly hid again and tried to keep his wildly beating heart under control.
Taking a chance, Harry peered around the tree, hoping to have time to cast the Killing Curse while Voldemort recovered from the spell. Instead, he saw Voldemort's glare before a spell obscured his vision and rocked the tree backward. Harry had barely enough time to shove himself aside before the tree pitched back at the breaking point, swept through the branches of others, and fell with an earth-shaking boom.
Harry gritted his teeth and told himself hiding was not the answer. It allowed Voldemort too much time to calculate, and one misstep in timing was going to be the end. He stood and swiftly bolted to cover, closer to the clearing. As he ran, he threw a multitude of Disarming Spells, hoping to catch Voldemort once to give time to deliver the Killing Curse. At one point, Voldemort's wand did leave his hand; however, he quickly called it back and in the same motion threw another fiercely green bolt of light. Harry had to stop quickly, or else he would have run directly into its path.
Voldemort began to laugh.
"Fine," Harry muttered as he stepped out into the open. The sight of Harry approaching on open ground brought Voldemort's laughter to an end, just as it had in the graveyard. With every step, his expression moved from wild amusement through anger, ending in bewilderment either at Harry's incredible stupidity or stunning bravery.
"Going to duel in a civilized manner, Harry Potter?" Voldemort asked, his arms spread in a polite manner, even going so far as to offer a bow. His mangled arm bled profusely, but he gave no indication of pain.
"No," Harry said with disgust and raised his wand. "I only do that with opponents worth the respect."
As he had done the previous night against Severus, Harry shut his mind and advanced on Voldemort. He boldly cast spell after spell, hoping that somehow something would make its way through. The air was alive with magic, unfocused, wild, begging to find its mark.
With eyes filled with rage, Voldemort dropped his mouth open in a snarl and blocked everything, sending Harry's spells rebounding wildly through the trees.
Harry didn't stop; rather he became even bolder as he continued to cast. Just as he wondered if Voldemort was going to try to fight back, he saw a movement and felt himself thrown backwards to land hard on the ground. Harry shoved his feet under himself and quickly rose with his wand outstretched, resolutely ignoring how badly his hand shook.
Voldemort bared his teeth and growled as he strode towards Harry, "I'm going to dispose of you, Harry Potter. Whether I have anyone at my side or not, it is you that are alone here. You see, I don't need anyone."
"He is not alone," a voice declared from behind.
Voldemort spun and roared, "Avada Kedavra!" casting the curse blindly. It blasted a tree in two, sending one half to collapse into the next, leaving smoke rising from the split.
Severus appeared, striding confidently though the haze, his expression mockingly impressed.
"Interesting," Severus commented with a grin as he approached. He cast a look of amusement at the smoldering tree as he passed. "Is that all?"
Voldemort appeared completely astonished at someone who not only didn't cower before him, but dared to taunt him. After all the years that Severus had bowed and treated him with respect, to see him act in open defiance was surely a shock. Voldemort snarled and raised his head as his eyes searched the forest beyond where Severus stood.
"Have they all forsaken you, my lord?"
The subtle smirk on Severus' face drove Voldemort into the upper echelon of rage. His eyes flew wide at the impertinence, the audacity.
"You're nothing without me, Severus!" Voldemort hissed in a low voice, his back arched in a type of posture known only to the trapped.
"Oh, Tom, don't talk like that," Severus laughed as he ran up a short embankment and followed around behind the brush. He motioned for Harry to run for cover.
Severus watched as Voldemort glanced up into the sky, attempting to cast the Dark Mark once more.
With a victorious grin, Severus launched himself out of the brush and roared, "Crucio!"
Immense pleasure spread on Severus' face as he listened to Voldemort's screams. Every time he had been tortured, Severus had kept himself sane with the hope that this day would eventually come. Knowing he was not strong enough to hold the curse for long, he was not surprised when the spell was broken.
Severus laughed and disappeared into the woods as a wild array of spells flew after him.
Voldemort rose to his feet and screamed to the trees, "Severus, you coward!"
A jet of red light struck Voldemort, almost throwing him off his feet. He stared in disbelief as his hand came away from his chest covered in blood. His eyes widened as he looked up to see Severus standing in the open with his wand up high.
"Do not ever call me a coward, you revolting insult to the wizarding world," Severus snarled.
Voldemort screamed in unintelligible rage and threw the curse after curse, illuminating the air green as bolts of light flew in all directions. Harry watched as Severus threw himself aside barely in time, and, even while scrambling to his feet, cast another spell at Voldemort cutting him again. Even in the heat of battle, Harry couldn't help but be slightly unnerved at how much Severus was enjoying himself.
It was then that he fully realized just how much Severus had been holding back in their duels.
Harry shoved those thoughts aside and launched himself at Voldemort, who was distracted while pursuing Severus. He set himself and drew his wand back to cast the Killing Curse, but, at the same time, caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye.
A red bolt. It was streaking out of the forest straight at him.
Harry was thrown and heard a sickly crack, exploding his world in pain as he clutched his arm. He quickly rose to his feet to see Lucius Malfoy laughing as he stood on a hill at the far side of the clearing.
The sounds of ferocious dueling reached him as Order members fought off the Death Eaters who were attracted to the sounds of their fight. Before Harry could react, Buckbeak screamed and charged directly at Lucius.
Lucius stood in complete amazement as the frenzied Hippogriff bore down on him with his beak open, intent on slicing him apart for hurting his friend. Lucius turned, running for the thicker trees with Buckbeak close behind.
Chaos reigned as they plunged into a massive duel, holding off the last of the Death Eaters who had a deep desire to be at Voldemort's side should he be victorious.
At some point, Remus heard Tonks scream Ron's name, staring in horror at the sky as a Hippogriff twisted in mid-flight, flailed its wings backwards and fell.
Remus stepped over the Petrified body of another young Death Eater and ran closer to where Harry must have landed. Dread filled him at the thought of Harry trying to face Voldemort alone until he spotted Severus land a Thestral nearby, glance at him, and nod as he charged over the hill.
As Remus drew closer to the clearing, he caught sight of a hunched figure standing in the shadows, raising his wand.
Nagini curled around tree trunks and through the low brush, undulating over exposed roots as she entered the clearing. She approached Harry and twisted around in front of him while he distractedly held his broken left arm. As she rose up and stared him in the eyes, he was startled and flung his wand out before him. Nagini opened her jaws wide and lunged to strike, only to be frustrated as Harry stumbled quickly backwards. She hissed loudly and drew back to lunge again, but was struck by a bolt of green light. She fell sideways, her jaws still stretched open.
Harry looked up to see Wormtail lowering his wand.
Their eyes met as Harry said in a stunned voice, "But - you didn't have to -"
"Traitorous wretch!" Voldemort screamed, turning from his pursuit of Severus. It was done without a seconds' passing - Voldemort's lips curled in a feral sneer, retracting over his teeth like a trapped animal about to thrust itself at an attacker's throat.
He thrust his wand arm out and screamed, "Avada Kedavra!" striking Wormtail dead.
Completely unnerved by the murder of his precious Nagini, Voldemort suffered a moment of deadly distraction.
A voice, tearing though his mind, commanding in a voice that offered no option, no hesitation. A simple word encompassing everything, centering the moment and forcing action devoid of emotion, contemplation, nothing but that one instant of decision.
The rage that Severus had taught him to control welled up as flashes of everyone Voldemort had destroyed flew through his mind. Focus descended, cloaking him in a surrounding aura of calm. Watching his own wand thrust forward, the sun etching its shadow on the ground, pointing directly at the source of it all.
They all watched in utter astonishment as Voldemort turned and, with a stunned expression on his face, fell next to Nagini and Wormtail.
Harry stood in amazement and kept his wand on Voldemort's body, assuming that it couldn't possibly be over. Too simple. Surely something more spectacular should have been required.
Staring down at Voldemort, a wizard, a mortal, Harry thought that what Severus had told him was right.
That when both opponents can cast the Killing Curse, the only variable is the timing.
Vast amounts of splintered wood were strewn across the forest floor, as it was impossible for a spell to miss and not strike a tree. Limbs hung precariously from the lower branches, caught only by the thickness of the growth. As Voldemort fell, the screams of the remaining Death Eaters rose, the Dark Mark burning brightly as their bonder died.
Looking back at the clearing, Severus watched Harry slowly lower his wand and sit on the ground as Remus and the others reached his side. He turned his back on them and knew in his heart that there was one more thing that must be done. He could not allow the opportunity to pass as it meant much more to him than anyone could possibly imagine.
He removed a makeshift map that Fred and George had made for him from his inside pocket and unfolded the parchment. While it looked very similar to the Marauder's Map, it did not show everyone within the whole of Hogwarts and its grounds. In fact, it only showed one person whose cloak carried a certain charm.
Watching Lucius' dot moving further into the forest, he was almost glad the Hippogriff hadn't killed him yet.
Severus grinned as he set off. "Time's up, Lucius."
According to the map, Lucius' dot had stopped near the edge of the forest where the castle grounds ended. Not far, by Severus' calculations.
Coming around a bend in what passed for a trail, Severus stopped to check the map again, furrowing his brow and angling the parchment to catch the light through the deep tree cover. What he saw was the dot labeled "Lucius" was not only moving.
It was coming straight for him.
Cursing under his breath, Severus clutched his wand as he climbed up an embankment off the path and out of sight.
Kneeling down, Severus waited as he heard Lucius approach. As he prepared to strike, Lucius came crashing through the brush, trying to run and twist around to check if he was still being chased. Severus slid down onto the path with his wand drawn and grinned as Lucius stumbled and fell into the dirt.
Lucius looked murderous as he thrust himself to his feet, refusing to give in to the multitude of injuries he had acquired throughout the day. He was completely covered in a combination of blood and dirt, his robes torn in far too many places to determine the cause.
Severus approached him and sneered, "Stay down, Lucius. Accept it, and I'll consider killing you quickly."
Before Severus could cast, a rush of wings and a piercing cry startled him into falling backwards. Severus clutched his side, gritted his teeth, and, as his eyesight cleared, he saw Buckbeak standing over Lucius, pinning him to the ground, holding his wings forward as if protecting his prey. Severus struggled to sit up and push himself away, startling the Hippogriff, who raised his head and stared towards him.
Lucius continued to shout and struggle, even as Buckbeak pressed a hoof on his chest harder.
Two predators. Buckbeak and Severus regarded each other, deciding if a battle over prey would ensue. Severus thought for a moment, lowered his wand, and slowly rose to his feet. This was the beast that had almost killed him and would now save him the trouble of murder. He bowed to Buckbeak deeply, with far more respect than he had ever done in the past. Buckbeak proudly pushed out his chest and lowered his head as well.
As Severus solemnly nodded, effectively communicating that he would not challenge him for his prey, Lucius managed to turn his head. Their eyes met for a startled moment in time before Severus shook his head and turned away.
Severus closed his eyes as he walked away, ignoring the sound of Lucius screaming his name as Buckbeak attacked.
Not long ago, Severus knew he would have been furious to be deprived of the chance at revenge, to own the honor of being the one to take a life in the name of justice. He would have ensured Lucius understood that simply being sent back to Azkaban was not high enough payment for his actions. He would have mocked him for a time, degraded him to the point of begging for mercy, then viciously delivered the Curse.
Now, he was strangely content to simply walk away, intent on going home.
"Poppy?" Minerva called as she entered the hospital wing. She walked alongside Harry, who was still pale but had a relieved expression on his face. At the same time, he looked like he'd want nothing more than to sleep for a year. Poppy picked up her wand from a nightstand before rushing over to him.
As they walked him over to an empty bed, Poppy muttered under her breath, "Arm is broken, yes... no, nothing else. Just a bit worn." Ginny swiftly appeared at his side and took his hand. She pushed his hair away from his eyes and kissed him desperately as she took his wand from the tight grip he still held on it.
Harry suddenly looked at her with dread. "Did everyone? I mean..."
Ginny's eyes were red from crying. She shifted herself to avoid having to look at the bed where her brother's body lay. "We lost George, but everyone else will be alright except... except Severus is missing."
"He was there - I saw him after. He was wounded, but he was still standing."
Ginny shook her head slowly and touched his face. "We haven't found him yet. He showed on the map, but very faint. I think Hermione has gone with the others to search."
Harry nodded and looked towards the windows as Ginny put an arm around him. "I can't help but feel guilty."
At Ginny's questioning expression, he said, "I should be happy - I guess - but I just can't."
"You're not alone, Harry," Ginny said sadly.
Severus gripped the bark of a tree, his fingers cutting into the rough surface until it gave way. It is true what is said about adrenaline - that once it subsides, the pain comes roaring back. He had walked as far as he could while ignoring his body's protests. The pain was near the level which required some sort of groan; however, he wouldn't allow it, choosing instead to hold his breath. Even in the early afternoon, the thickness of the forest closed out the sun, casting near darkness in places, although he was sure this was partly due to his failing eyesight.
Checking his wound, Severus found that he had bled completely through both his shirt and coat. He did not have much time at this rate, and a voice in the back of his mind stubbornly reminded him how foolish he was to allow his heart to drive him on to do such a thing. To die now would be nothing but stupidity on his part.
Negotiating the undulating terrain of the wilder parts of the forest was made much more difficult by dizziness caused by blood loss. Severus had walked for what seemed hours, and he feared he was becoming disoriented enough to become lost. He thought he had seen the castle through the trees and was heading for it, but now he saw nothing but more trees, gnarled brush, and several paths leading in all directions. He seriously considered lying down to rest, but knew in his heart that he would likely not rise again. The thought of being found out here and, worse yet, by Hermione, drove him to keep going. He had tried to cast his Patronus but hadfailed miserably, lacking the energy to perform such a draining spell, and had lost the parchment along the way.
Besides, he thought, he had no way to tell where he was.
He took Neville's flask from his pocket and held it up to the light. Taking a deep, hitching breath, Severus opened it and drank. Trusting a student's work was lunacy on a good day; however, there was no such luxury now. Overhead, he heard the loud sweeping sound of wings as what he assumed was one of the dragons passed over him. A cluster of Dementors followed, floating along in a winding pattern, their tattered wisps of robes indicating the movement of the breeze behind them. Part of his mind noted that they must be headed in the direction of Azkaban.
With measured movements, he eased off his outer robe and proceeded to negotiate the buttons of his ruined coat. Once the sea of black was parted, he could see the true carnage. His white shirt was completely soaked red and clung to him sickly. Baring his teeth in disgust, he removed the shirt and pulled it off of the wound. He stretched out the shirt and used the sleeves to tie it tightly around himself, stifling the scream that threatened to escape by clenching his teeth and severely straining his throat.
Severus thought he could faintly hear commotion that sounded like shouting and voices. When he shifted to head in that direction, the trees spun completely around, then shot upwards as he fell.
Watching birds quietly make their way across a patch of sky, framed by a maze of intertwined branches, he thought, interestingly enough, how birds are immune to things such as this, free to fly over everything without becoming involved. Something that Hermione would notice.
Severus felt himself slipping away just as bright orange eyes met his.
A rocking motion along with the sun on his face woke him gently. If he hadn't been lying on the cool forest floor, he would've raised up, felt for his wand, and closed the drapes, like any other morning. The events of the day, however, swam back to him in a haze, along with his last thoughts before sliding towards the dark. He moved the hand still resting on his side and was shocked to find that the bleeding had slowed to a manageable rate. He squinted as he tried to open his eyes, and was startled to feel a hand on his head.
The silhouette of a face surrounded by bushy hair moved over him.
"So, here we are again," Hermione said with a somber smile while she ran her fingers through his hair. She laughed with tears in her eyes as Buckbeak rocked Severus again by wedging his beak under him and pushing him gently. Severus shifted away from the huge Hippogriff and hesitantly placed a hand on its head.
Severus stared at Hermione as if he couldn't believe she was truly there. "I should be..."
She stopped him with a kiss as fierce as she dared without knowing how badly he was injured. She gripped his hair tightly, as if to confirm that he was still alive, holding him, pulling him closer. They lingered for a moment, before Hermione leaned back on her knees and placed her hand on his side.
"You have two 'thank yous' to give," she said, frowning as she moved his robes and coat away from his middle.
She said thoughtfully with a nod towards the Hippogriff, "Buckbeak, for one. He circled outside the hospital wing windows, screaming over and over. When I went outside, he lay down and here I am. He's very bloody, but not injured except his wing, a little."
Severus blinked in disbelief. Buckbeak raised his head and gazed at him for a moment before turning back to a hole in the ground where he was pawing, to flush out rodents he supposed. His beak and chest feathers were mottled with dried blood, and there were large areas where the feathers were torn out.
"Lucius," Severus stated, looking at Buckbeak.
Hermione grimaced, then nodded as she pushed his coat over his shoulders. "Draco was furious at what you did."
"I couldn't allow him to do it."
"It was a very noble thing to do, Severus," she said, looking at him with such love and admiration he didn't know how to react. "Very noble. Even though you almost got yourself killed."
"Again," she added, trying desperately to inject some form of humor into an intensely surreal day.
Together, they watched Buckbeak as he rooted in another rodent hole. Hermione grinned with sadness in her eyes as she looked back at Severus. "It's ironic how things come full circle, isn't it?"
Severus nodded distractedly, as he was still trying to grasp the fact that the same Hippogriff that had almost killed him had helped to save his life. He remained in a haze until she reached for the shirt and tugged on the knot.
"Didn't see yourself surviving this, did you?" she said, sighing as she untied his shirt where he had it tightened around his middle. She tilted her head as she ran her hand over the wound that stretched halfway across his abdomen. Without Neville's experimental healing potion, there was no chance he would have survived.
As they heard voices approaching, Hermione helped him to his feet. "Nice to see you've learned to take your medicine."
Severus attempted to scowl at her, but couldn't.
Hermione kissed him softly. "It's healing already," she said, and added, "Ah, here's your other 'thank you' now."
Severus looked up to see Remus and Neville arrive on Thestrals. As Neville dismounted, he looked at Severus with relief and smiled proudly.
Taking Hermione's hand, Severus said, "In light of the fact that my dangerous, death-defying and, no doubt, suicidal days appear to be over, do you still wish to marry me?"
Hermione grinned. "Will you wear that lovely coat?"
He laughed before catching himself. "Yes, if you wish."
"Will you dance with me?" Hermione asked, placing her hand up onto his shoulder.
A slight bow. "Absolutely."
She moved closer and whispered, "Of course I still want to. How can I ever hope to resist you? Better yet, why would I ever want to try?"
Severus allowed a genuine smile filled with relief and tremendous love. He could barely breathe in that moment as she reached out and touched his face.
"I love you too."
AN: Well, now. If now isn't the time to leave a review, I don't know what is. ;-)