Chapter Nine: That Last Lesson
The sun was beginning to set when Harry, Remus, and Severus ended their efforts to beat back the remaining creatures from Hogwarts' grounds. They had been joined by several Aurors, professors, students, and citizens of Hogsmeade. At last, the fighting stopped, the wards were strengthened, and the weary battlers turned their gazes upon the castle, or what was left of it.
"God," Remus said, viewing the partial destruction. "That looks as awful as it would to Muggle tourists, doesn't it?"
"The Ministry'll have its work cut out for it Obliviating anyone who's been close to it. Wards or no, people had to have heard the commotion," Harry heard a witch he did not know reply.
"Mr. Potter, are you well?"
Snape's talking to you, he told himself. You should answer.
Harry looked about himself and felt nothing to see the bloody and broken bodies strewn everywhere. This is war. This is death. This is—
"Harry, look at me," Snape said firmly.
The boy looked up, blinking; he felt as though he were waking up from a nightmare or just turning away from a horrible film on the telly, and he wanted nothing more than to find the plug and blank everything out, make everything quiet.
"You are not dreaming, boy," the man said gently. "Have you been injured?"
"Good. Come, we should regroup with the others and find a safe path into the castle."
"You needn't remain here."
"I . . . I'm afraid to go back. I don't want to—"
"HARRY!" two voices called loudly across the grass.
As he turned, Ron and Hermione rushed up and grabbed him into a hug. "I—"
"You did it, mate! I knew you would!"
"Oh, Harry, you're all right!" Hermione exclaimed, kissing his cheek and then pulling away to wipe the blood from her mouth. "Scourgify!" she cast, first on her friends, and then on herself, before looking Harry over and casting a warming charm on him for good measure. "Ron, let's get him inside," she ordered crisply.
The witch's charm made things feel normal again to Harry, and he gently shook them off. "No, wait. Remus," he said, looking over at the wizard, who was walking slowly away from the others.
"Mr. Potter, go with your friends. I shall look after Lupin."
"Thank you, Sir. Oh, and I never said, but congratulations."
"What?" Hermione asked.
"Thank you, Mr. Potter."
"What'd you mean by that? Winning?" Ron asked.
"No. Um, no."
"Can't you say?"
"I don't kn—Blaise! Is she—"
"She took a knock in the head, but she's fine," Ron assured him. "What's up with Sna—"
Suddenly, it hit him: Tonks. Harry's knees buckled, but his friends kept him standing.
"Right. Into the castle with you," Hermione told him.
"No. Tonks. Tonks is . . . Tonks is dead."
"Wh—what?" Hermione asked. "Oh, how?"
"Remus loved her."
Ron cleared his throat. "Hermione, I think maybe I should go after them. Snape's not the comforting sort."
Hermione and Harry sank down into the grass, the witch glaring as a well-wisher attempting to approach, and then the others milling about in confusion began to drift back toward Hogwarts.
"Take a minute. We can go back when you're ready."
"I don't . . . know that I'll ever be ready."
"It was a great shock, you know, for all of us when the castle was attacked. When Ron, Neville, and I couldn't find you, we—"
"Neville. Shit. I never—"
"Don't worry about that. He's sorry. It was stupid, but he was just trying to help."
"I don't understand. Dobby—"
Hermione sighed. "I should have stopped them."
"I really don't understand," Harry said, more crossly.
"Neville, Dobby, Dean, Millicent, and Ginny—they made you think that—"
"That was a joke? Nev's been in the Infirmary for two weeks because he was playing a prank?"
"Well, he actually wanted to study for N.E.W.T.s in peace and quiet, and also to push you together with Zabini. He didn't mean—"
"And you knew?" Harry demanded, standing up, albeit a little shakily.
"Not right away, and by the time I did know, you were gone, so I couldn't tell you. Where did you go, anyway?"
"When?" the boy demanded angrily, though he was not sure that he was truly mad at Hermione, or if he was just furious in general. "This is STUPID! Stupid, bloody, sodding ridiculous! This isn't the way it's supposed to happen!"
"There is no correct way for war to end, save in pain and blood and death," Albus Dumbledore said from behind the two Seventh Years.
"She's dead. She killed them and she's dead. Look at this," Harry demanded, sweeping his arm out to indicate the bodies lying about them. "This . . . this is . . . this is," he stopped, not knowing what it was, or why he was yelling.
"Harry," Hermione said, rising and attempting to touch him.
"No. I don't . . . I want . . . never . . . ."
"Miss Granger, would you be good enough to—"
"Yes, of course," she said, moving a little away to give the wizards their privacy.
Dumbledore approached Harry and stared at him until he focused on the wizard. It took some time, as the boy was trembling and finding it difficult to concentrate.
"When I defeated Grindelwald, it was nothing like this," Albus said, holding out a hand as if to steady Harry, but he swayed out of reach. "He had been my teacher, my mentor some years before his sanity left him. I knew him, you see, so when it became apparent that his madness could only be stopped by death, it was surprisingly easy to get close to him. Oh, I was never in his head, but I knew his habits, his routine."
"How did that help?"
"He thought that working with the Muggles to win their war would shield him as he set about waging his own, but Grindelwald was a creature of habit. Despite his wards, despite his guards, despite himself, he could not deviate from the pattern of his life. Because I had once been a part of it, I merely insinuated myself into his routine again. He never saw his death coming. He only knew it was time for his evening nightcap. . . . Do you remember what Binns taught you about Grindelwald's defeat?"
"He died in battle . . . against you."
"Yes, that is what is taught. It makes a better story," the older wizard said, his features grim.
"What . . . what really happened?"
"Everything you learnt is true. There was a battle. People did die, and horribly, too. But Grindelwald did not fall in the field. Grindelwald suffocated in his own bath after drinking a Scotch laced with a magical poison, and his servants dragged him from it, clothed him, and brought him to the fighting where they found me. The rest is, as they say, history—but a romanticized version of it spun by the Ministry to give that war an 'appropriate' ending."
"Appropriate? It wasn't enough that you killed him?"
"Obviously not, dear boy. You, having made history, having seen that it is not a story, but life playing itself out, know that wars end in death. That they are not clean. That nothing about them is good."
"Isn't it good that Voldemort's gone?"
"Indeed, it is, but would it not have been better if Tom Riddle had not been able to call to him the most frightened, the greediest, the weakest members of society and waged this war with them to begin with? I'm afraid that the forces at work in our world are not so pure. Grindelwald was supposed to be the last dark wizard. I knew when I killed him, when I saw his servants seeking to preserve his legacy, his myth, that there would be another."
"What are you saying? That what I did was . . . was for nothing?"
"Not at all. What I am saying is that you did what you had to, and you know that it was not a story. Tom Riddle was an evil, well-educated man without any self-control. He tortured and killed people because he could, not because it was right, and he will not be the last to do such things. You stopped him. You did what was right. You are a good and brave man, and I am very proud to have known you. What I am telling you is that there is no appropriate end to war, and that though now you are feeling shocked by what you have done, that feeling will pass. I do not know what it is you were expecting, Harry. I can only tell you what I was not. I was not expecting to see people dragging Grindelwald out into the battle to insure his legacy. It was . . . painful to note how desperate people can be for a 'proper' story."
"I . . . I think I understand," Harry said, feeling bone weary and somewhat calmer. "Are you telling me that—no, wait. I don't understand at all, Albus—oh, I mean, Sir."
Dumbledore chuckled. "Albus is fine, Harry. They, your adoring public, will cast you even more firmly in the role of hero, now that you have defeated Riddle. They will make of your victory a story, and you will hear it and hate it. You will hear it, and want to disabuse the tellers of their inaccuracies. What I'm telling you is that you are Harry James Potter, a seventeen-year-old wizard of great power, who did what no young man should have to do, and you did it because it was right. Do not forget that. No matter what you hear in the coming days, months, years, do not forget what happened. This," Albus said, sweeping his gaze over the dead, "is war. And it is ugly, but it is over, for now. There will be another hero, another villain, another war, in time. But this is your war, your life. It is always an unexpected thing, life, but remember your deeds, and those of others, and try not to let the stories bother you."
"I want to tell people about what she did. People should know that story."
"Yes, they should. They should not, however, know this, this death. It doesn't actually help people to see it. It merely horrifies them. That is why we have stories. Your story is one of bravery and sacrifice, and knowing that will help people to be strong in the face of evil. Though it will disgust you to see the tale mangled beyond recognition, hearing it, telling it, will give others courage. People need their heroes. You need the truth, and eventually, you shall need to learn to live with the simplicity of it. You did what was right because you could. You faced evil, you defeated it, and it was ugly—it did not end the way you imagined it would. But end it did, Harry, and you are to be commended for it."
"It wasn't just me, Sir."
"No, it was not."
"I . . . I want to see Mrs. Tonks."
"Let me . . . I need to tell Hermione."
Harry walked over to where Hermione was waiting with a medi-wizard. The man reached out his hand, and the boy took it.
"Thank the gods for you, Harry Potter," he said fervently.
Harry just nodded.
"Thank you, Medi-wizard Ambrose," Hermione said. "You might want to see to yourself, too."
"Oh, of course. I'll do that. And I'll tell my children I met you, Sir. They'll be so proud," the man said, hurrying off.
"You're going to tell the Tonkses about their daughter, aren't you?"
"How did you know that?"
"It's the right thing to do, isn't it?"
Hermione was surprised when Harry grabbed her and pulled her close, but she held him just as tightly.
"I'm sure Neville's sorry, Harry."
He barked out a laugh. "It's all right. Just a prank. Please, tell Blaise that I'll—"
"I will. I promise. I'll see you when you get back," Hermione told him, walking back to the castle.
When Harry turned around, Albus was gone. "What? Albus?"
"We can't all be phoenixes, Harry," the Headmaster's voice said near his ear. "We each of us come to the end of our stories."
"Oh, oh, God. Albus. You're—"
"So very proud of you, dear boy. So very proud."
"Thank you, Sir," Harry said, feeling the other wizard's presence fade slowly.
He knew that he would always be grateful to the man for sparing him the shock of his loss.