A/N: This story is my attempt at a probable ending to the Harry Potter book series and begins at the end of the seventh year just before the final battle. The pseudo-prologue is meant to catch everyone up on what happened from after the events of HBP to where this story picks up - sorry if it's long-winded. I also strongly recommend reading the one-shot companion piece of Harry's visit to Godric's Hollow, "Mum, Dad, It's Me... Harry".
Lastly, many references are made to events that happened between Half-Blood Prince and After the Die is Cast - they are clues to a prequel that I will be writing shortly after AtDic is finished. Just in case anyone's confused :). Okay, I'm done rambling. Enjoy!
A solitary figure beside the lake, Harry sat gazing across the water, blissfully mindful of a temperate summer breeze that seemed to sweep away the gloom of war. As the wind moved over him, he turned and looked upon Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with a wistful grin, and surprised himself to realize how quickly his time at school was drawing to an end. His seventh year was almost done; commencement was approaching, bringing with it virtual banishment from the only home Harry had ever known.
Seven long years had passed since that first day he stepped foot on the school grounds; Harry could barely believe it. As he replayed in his mind the wondrous events that brought him here, he felt as though he was looking back on someone else entirely. That Harry had not a clue how much life would transform him from the innocent, and though he hated to admit it, reckless youth he once was to the worry-ridden young man he had become. The days of exploding snap and wizard trading cards seemed a lifetime away, and he put a hand to the uncomfortable ache in his chest at the thought of it. He knew better than most - so much can happen in a year.
In the months that followed his visit to Godric’s Hollow, Harry departed from school on long hiatuses in search of Voldemort's Horcruxes, a difficult maneuver considering the ubiquitous presence of Professor McGonagall’s watchful eye. She had swallowed his refusal of her help with great difficulty, for Harry was adamant about keeping the details of “Dumbledore’s Mission,” as he described it, perfectly private. Naturally, he understood her concern, but found it unnecessary; though he never spoke about it to anyone, Harry felt sure that Dumbledore’s protection and guidance had never abandoned him despite the headmaster's untimely death. That he had survived the ordeals that destroying each Horcrux presented was nothing short of miraculous, and yet Regulus' locket was shattered, all that remained of Hufflepuff's cup were its melted remnants, and Nagini lay drowned in the watery cave, leaving one more Horcrux to find before Harry would seek out Voldemort himself.
There were only two people he couldn’t exclude from the journey.
Through it all, Ron and Hermione remained beside him. They followed him dauntless into danger and emerged with scars of their own, but friendship, loyalty and a fervent desire to see the end of Voldemort’s power bound them to the task. He always knew they were stronger together than apart, but it was especially apparent in these last few months. It didn't hurt that Ron had finally stopped being a prat and asked Hermione out, Harry thought with a grin.
His throat tightened as his thoughts turned to Ginny. Nothing chipped at his resolve more than the memory of sitting by the lake with her at Dumbledore’s entombment and speaking the words that would keep them apart for a year after. They couldn't avoid one another - Harry would never have wanted to anyway - but Ginny’s valiant efforts to preserve their friendship despite their split often left him cold. One meaningful glance from her drove him quickly back to the dormitory to hash it out with himself over the necessity of their separation. If only she hated him - perhaps then he might better withstand the temptation to cast everything he said at Dumbledore’s funeral to the wind, abandon the hunt, maybe sleep at night for a change. To feel like a normal person again, and pretend he was what he was not. Free.
Pulling his robe around him tightly, Harry felt a change in the wind, and the chill drew him to his feet. Letting out a gust of air, he fingered the locket in his pocket, wondering if today would be the last day he ever saw Hogwarts again.
Harry entered through the portrait hole to find Ron and Hermione sharing a nap on the couch. Ron slept upright, head back and mouth hanging open most unflatteringly, while Hermione dozed on her side, her head draped on Ron’s lap. Ron was snoring. Loudly.
Without a second look, Harry lobbed a bit of treacle tart at Ron’s head as he walked towards the steps to the boys’ dormitory, causing his freckled friend to snort himself awake.
“Harrrryerrrgh… that you?” he yawned, his head lolling to the side groggily. “I’ll be up…just – mmph – five more minutes…”
“Don’t strain yourself,” said Harry, popping the rest of the tart into his mouth as he went up the stairs. It seemed Ron shifted in the wrong direction as Harry heard Hermione let out an aggravated groan. He bit back a laugh and picked up his pace around the staircase, content to put off for a little longer the conversation with Ron and Hermione that he had been rehearsing in his head the entire walk back from the lake.
Suddenly, he heard a startled gasp, and looking up, whatever remnant of a smile he had on his face had vanished altogether as he made a motion to catch Ginny Weasley as she tripped downstairs.
“Oh, bugger it… Sorry, Harry, I didn’t see you there.”
Ginny stood at the entrance to the girls’ dormitory, pale fingertips fidgeting with the edge of her shirt. Her face was reddening sufficient to match her ginger hair and, judging by the burning sensation creeping up the sides of his neck, Harry was sure his ears were comparably flushed. Despite the voice in his head urging him to speak, his mind had gone blank.
“I, erm… couldn’t help but notice you, Ron, and Hermione have been back for a little while now,” Ginny asked, a hint of concern showing through her casual smile. “You’re well, I hope?”
Harry paused. There is absolutely no way to answer that question honestly, he thought to himself. Smiling plaintively at her, all he could manage was, “Not too bad. You?”
“Not too bad.” Ginny shifted on her feet and sought a different place to direct her gaze than Harry’s face. “You made it in time for exams, I see. How did they go? Last I checked, Hermione and Ron were downstairs still recovering.”
He shrugged. “Dunno. Reckon I passed seeing as Hermione had Ron and me up late every night of Easter break going over Potions... till Ron finally got so mutinous he threatened to chuck her.”
Ginny giggled. “That’s Hermione for you,” she said knowingly. “Mum and Dad will be pleased, I'm sure. Ron'll come home with top marks this year for the first time in his life.”
"You’re being optimistic. That's assuming Ron hasn't spent all this time studying Hermione instead of studying for his N.E.W.T.s," Harry chided.
Ginny swiped a strand of hair off her face. "Oh, come now. Hermione's been a good influence on him," she said with a snicker. "It's really improved his-"
"Regard for Victor Krum?"
"Focus!" she said, putting on her most scandalized face and nudging Harry's arm playfully.
“Oh, tell me about it. Quite unlike last year when I had to trick him into thinking I’d spiked his pumpkin juice with luck serum so he’d fly well when we played Slytherin. Wish Hermione had kissed him sooner – we’d’ve had every match in the bag.”
At that, Ginny laughed in earnest, and Harry chuckled in spite of himself. Admiring how bright her eyes became when she laughed, Harry gazed warmly at her, as he did whenever some of their old dynamic returned. Catching his gaze, she looked at him with a glimmer of something like hope in her eyes and said, “Are you going down to dinner now?”
He could manage it, couldn’t he? Why not join her and put off the evening’s tasks a bit longer? Then again, thought Harry, if Ron and Hermione remained catatonic in the common room, leaving him to fend for himself, he couldn’t trust his mind to resist wandering onto another agony-inducing vision of him and Ginny alone together at their favorite tree by the lake; the warm breeze taking them far away from the school grounds and all his gloom and worrying. Suddenly noticing the change in her expression, Harry knew he was giving himself and his struggling thoughts away.
She spoke promptly, her voice softer. “Actually… I’ll probably take dinner in my room tonight. N.E.W.T.s aren’t over yet, you know.”
Harry nodded and felt a surge of appreciation for Ginny’s quick thinking. “Right.”
An awkward silence hung between them. She knew him too well. Harry argued with himself in his head over the various ways he could stop Ginny from going back into the girl’s dormitory. By herself. Alone. Without him.
At last, Harry reluctantly spit out his goodbye. With a weak smile, Ginny turned the knob and disappeared into the girls’ dormitory, leaving him alone in the corridor, something twinging uncomfortably in his chest as he stood dumbly watching the door for several slow, remorse-filled breaths. Finally, he turned quietly into his own dormitory, empty save for Neville Longbottom, who also seemed to have taken quite a blow from his N.E.W.T.s. He sat asleep against the headboard of his four-poster bed, A Squib’s Guide to Defensive Charms beneath his limp hand.
Harry dropped his robe on the bed and walked over to the mirror, weary and frustrated. Pushing back the fringe of hair over his face, he examined his scar for the third time that day – a new habit he’d been developing over the last year. He ran a finger down the zigzag on his forehead and, staring unblinkingly at his reflection, tried to imagine his face without it.
“All right there, mate?” came Ron’s voice from behind him.
Harry straightened himself. Here goes, he thought morosely. “Just getting ready. I don’t suppose Hermione’s up yet?”
“Yeah, she’s up. It was a right foul chore getting her off the couch, though. Funny how she never had a hard time staying awake when she was lecturing us on Ancient Runes,” Ron remarked, grinning to himself. Funny how he used to find that more infuriating about Hermione than endearing, Harry reflected with a sidelong smile.
Ron threw on his robe and started pulling on his trainers. “It’s getting late, Harry - better get going, don’t you think?”
“Right. Been meaning to talk with you about that.” Harry grabbed his bag and slung it over his shoulder. Glancing over at a slumbering Neville, he swallowed hard and pulled Ron into the stairwell out of earshot. “Listen,” he started hesitantly, suddenly unable to look into Ron’s perplexed face. “There’s something I have to tell you.”
Placing a hand on Harry’s shoulder, Ron cocked his head to the side in concern. “Blimey, Harry, you’re pale as the Bloody Baron. What is it?”
Harry sighed. “It’s just… I think I’m going to take this last trip on my own.”
Ron shook himself as if he had just lost his hearing in one ear. “What? Why?”
“Lupin and I spoke last night through the fireplace,” began Harry. “I know, I’m sorry. I just couldn't risk telling you and Hermione this morning at breakfast, but... he’s given me some important clues on the whereabouts of that last Horcrux. He seems to think it’s at King’s Cross… the Hogwarts Express,” he explained, avoiding Ron’s stupefied expression altogether. He bit his lip and braced himself for the retaliation. “This won’t be like the other times, Ron. I want you and Hermione to stay here.”
As expected, Ron seemed more than offended. He looked downright infuriated. “I should’ve known this was coming.”
This time, it was Harry’s turn to look incredulous. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you’ve gone absolutely mental. Seven years of getting into the sort of near-death situations you read about in the Restricted Section together and now you want to go it alone?”
“I know what you're thinking but-” He looked anxiously at the door and lowered his voice. “Can’t you understand? This is it! This is the last one! Once I destroy it, there’ll be no more stops before I hunt Voldemort himself,” he declared in a resolute tone. “After all our searching and nearly getting killed and how crap everything’s been… it’s going to end.”
“If you destroy it.” Ron moved around Harry, blocking his way to the common room. “What if you fail?”
“I can’t fail,” he muttered, “and that’s why you can’t come. Voldemort’s probably been wise on you and Hermione for ages. And let’s not forget what happened to the last person who tagged along.” Harry slipped past him and strode down the stairs towards the common room.
Ron gaped at him. “Oh, I see!" he snapped. "First Ginny, now us... We're not all Cedric Diggory, you know! Wait, Harry… HEY!”
Hermione headed Harry off at the bottom of the stairs. She looked expectantly from one to the other. “You two are making a racket. What’s going on?” She looked at the sack slung on Harry’s shoulder. “Harry, we’re not ready yet…”
“Harry thinks he’s leaving without us!” yelled Ron.
"Please, Ron, of course he's not," she snorted loftily and waited for validation from Harry. When none came, Hermione gasped and looked at him as if she would have him committed to the psych ward at St. Mungo's. “Harry! Are you mad?”
“I suppose I must be!” he grumbled, trying unsuccessfully to tame his impatience. “I’ve already let you do more for me than I should have, and I’m grateful, I really am. But if you come with me on this one, you'll face far worse than anything we've contended with so far. Once that last Horcrux is gone, Voldemort will know he’s mortal - if I don’t find him first, he’ll find me, and nothing but murder will be on his mind when he decides to make another Horcrux out of your deaths!”
Both Hermione and Ron had been struck dumb at Harry’s words, and his voice became strange as he contemplated the possibility he might never see them again.
“You know I’d never have made it this far without you. I can’t say how much it’s meant to have you behind me all these years. But you're not coming with me tonight.”
Hermione stared at him fixedly. “I can’t let you do this. It’s suicide, Harry, even Dumbledore had you as his second-”
“And look what it got him! Hermione, if I live through tomorrow, I need to know that I can come back to find you lot safe and sound… but most importantly, alive. ” Pulling the locket out of his pocket and stringing it around his neck he added quietly, “No one else ought to die because of me. I beg you. Please don’t follow me.”
The three stood in stunned silence for a moment before Harry finally wrenched himself free of their gaze and headed for the portrait hole.
“Harry,” said Hermione quietly, eyes brimming. “You know what made you different from Voldemort?”
Harry stopped but did not turn to face her.
“Like Dumbledore said. Voldemort has no allies. He relies on no one. He acts alone.”
He looked over his shoulder. “Tell Ginny I said goodbye,” he said in a strangled voice and strode out of the common room.