Gryffindor won their Quidditch match against Hufflepuff by a 210-point margin and were favorites once again for the Quidditch cup. Ron spent the remainder of February and all of March working his team harder than ever in preparation for the final match against Ravenclaw, determined that the team would not break their four-year winning streak during his Captaincy. They practiced twice weekly for at least an hour in every kind of weather, and Ron insisted that his team play with something close to perfection before he would release them each evening.
The D.A. was still meeting every Wednesday, and Harry was proud of the progress that each of the students was making. He had heard from Tonks that the D.A. members were by far the most advanced students in each of her Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, and Harry grew more and more confident in their abilities to defend themselves each time they met.
Kingsley, too, was working Harry harder than ever. Harry could now perform many of the simpler spells soundlessly, but only when he used his wand. To his own growing frustration, he was unable to perform soundless and wandless magic simultaneously, and he drove himself nearly to distraction practicing each night, sometimes well after curfew with the help of the Marauder's Map and his invisibility cloak. After all of this, he still went back to the Gryffindor Common room and worked on his homework, staying up well past midnight each night before falling exhausted into bed.
On top of everything else, Harry and his friends still traveled to London twice per week to continue Harry's attempts to breach Voldemort's mind. To everyone's growing dismay, he seemed unable to do anything but wear himself out trying to make the connection, but he confided to Lupin that he felt he was growing closer each time and would continue trying until he succeeded.
It was with the thought of finally breaking through that Harry and the others got up well before breakfast on the first Saturday in April and proceeded as usual to Professor McGonagall's office, where she was waiting for them with the freshly-replenished pot of Floo Powder in her hands.
"How are you feeling, Potter?" she asked as the others sleepily took their handfuls of powder and spun away out of the grate.
"Fine, Professor," Harry said, stifling a yawn. The truth was, he had gotten less than four hours of sleep the night before, having stayed up late to finish an essay for NEWT Transfiguration, and after this attempt he had a full day's work ahead of him between Quidditch practice, his daily run, practicing for Kingsley's lessons and his homework.
"You must be focused," she said anxiously, worried that Harry was not actually up for another attempt.
"I'm ready, Professor," Harry said with a touch of impatience. It seemed as though he went through the same routine at least once for each time he traveled to London, with one of the professors, or with Lupin, or with one of his friends. Why wouldn't they understand that he had no plans to quit until he had succeeded, that his own exhaustion was inconsequential in comparison with what he had to do?
Without another word, Harry threw his handful of Floo powder into the fire, stepped into the green flames and cried, "Grimmauld Place!"
Minerva McGonagall watched him go with a lump in her throat. She did not make it a habit to treat any of her students any differently than the others, but she had to admit that she found Harry Potter to be one of the most extraordinary young men she had ever met. As she followed him through the Floo Network to Grimmauld Place, she hoped beyond all hope that his trials would end in time for him to have some kind of a normal life.
"Are you ready, Harry?" Albus Dumbledore asked seriously once they had all assumed their usual stations around the lone chair in the parlor, all having some kind of physical contact with Harry. Ginny was once again holding his hand tightly, wishing it was already over. Tonks had joined the group a few weeks before. Once she had talked to Remus and understood the magnitude of Harry's undertaking, she had insisted on doing anything she could to help.
Harry nodded and closed his eyes, drawing as much strength as he could from the contact of his loved ones. The familiar golden beam appeared almost instantaneously, along with the shimmering beads of light.
Harry had figured out a few attempts earlier on that it worked best if he used his energy on the search. He had found that when he focused on finding Voldemort rather than on propelling the beads of light forward, the light moved on its own and he could get farther before he lost his strength and had to actively draw from the others.
Harry inched through the blackness, every ounce of his energy dedicated to finding and gaining entrance to Voldemort's mind, which he knew was at the other end of the golden beam...if he could only reach it without being pushed back.
As he came towards what had always been the end of his journey, Harry braced himself for the repellant force which always pushed him back. In a few moments time, he felt it but immediately pushed back with all the strength he had left.
* * *
In the parlor at Grimmauld Place, the entire room suddenly crackled with magical energy and the group surrounding Harry jumped simultaneously as though they had all felt an electrical current run through his body and into their hands.
"Hold on!" Dumbledore cautioned them softly. He closed his eyes to try to gauge Harry's progress, but he was surprised to find a wall so solid around Harry's mind that it might as well have been made of stone and reinforced steel. His student's defenses had grown strong, almost impenetrable, throughout the past months, but he had never witnessed a shield like this from any wizard, let alone a sixteen-year-old.
"What's happening to him?" Ginny whispered fearfully. She, more than any of the others, could feel the power behind Harry's magic because she was actually holding his hand. His grip had become so strong that it was almost painful, and Ginny was suddenly more afraid for him than she had ever been.
"He's breaking through," Lupin whispered, his face deadly white. "Don't let go of him."
* * *
Harry felt as though he was freefalling. He knew he had broken through Voldemort's defenses, but he was not at all sure what he should do. He delved forward, drawing from the strength of his friends. For a few moments, all he saw was darkness, and he wondered if this was some kind of a trap. Remembering what Dumbledore had said, he proceeded with great caution, trying not to alert Voldemort to his presence.
"Use all of your strength," the Headmaster had told him during their most recent meeting, "but use it as quietly as you can. Think of it as you would think of screaming under a silencing charm. The power behind the scream is the same as it always was, but no one can hear it. You must focus on remaining undetected."
Harry had practiced on the Headmaster, and he used the same technique as had been successful in practice. He imagined again the golden beam of light, wrapping it slowly and carefully around himself, protecting him. When he felt surrounded by the very light which had led him into Voldemort's mind, he once again moved forward, probing carefully.
The images Harry began to receive repulsed him and frightened him. Around the edges of every one of Voldemort's memories was a frame of dripping blood, tainting each scene with a sinister red patina.
Harry watched as scenes from what must have been Tom Riddle's childhood flashed in front of him. In the first, two young children cowered in a dark enclosed space, whimpering in pain and soaking wet. A flash of a burning wardrobe and a tall man with long auburn hair came next, and Harry was startled to realize that this must be a much younger Dumbledore.
The scenes raced by in quick succession, not always making sense, and always switching too quickly for Harry to really understand what he had seen. A bubbling potion similar to polyjuice, cowering people in masks, an old cripple and a large snake...the scenes flashed, showing Harry visions of murders, of mayhem, of the Dark Mark hanging over countless destroyed houses...and then, the image suddenly slowed as Harry came to the memory he had been dreading the most.
"Stand aside, you silly girl," hissed a high-pitched, evil voice, sounding in the memory just as it had when Harry had heard it when the dementors got too near him in his third year. He forced himself to watch as the scene panned to his mother, a beautiful young woman with flowing hair and vivid green eyes, opened wide in defiance as she protected her only son.
"Stand aside, you silly girl...you silly girl...you silly girl..." Harry began to lose his grip as his heart grieved for the mother he had never really known, and it took all he had to remain undetected. He could no longer continue forward, and as he spiraled back into the darkness, he caught a glimpse of a heavily armored door, chained many times over and peppered with heavy spikes dripping dark blood before he lost both contact and consciousness.
* * *
The Order and Harry's friends watched in mixed horror and awe as his eyelids fluttered rapidly.
"He's succeeded," Dumbledore whispered.
Harry barely moved, but the magical undercurrent remained strong as he continued to search Voldemort's mind.
"I wonder what he's seeing," Ginny whispered, and everyone around Harry involuntarily tightened their grips on him at the thought of what must be inside the mind of someone as evil as Voldemort.
Two or three minutes passed in which everyone's gazes remained firmly on Harry's face, which was growing paler as he witnessed the horror that was Voldemort's mind. Suddenly, he began to speak, but the voice was otherworldly and not his own.
"Stand aside, you silly girl..." he muttered, his eyes fluttering wildly now and his head beginning to toss back and forth in denial of what he was seeing.
"Harry!" Lupin exclaimed, remembering just in time not to let go of his charge.
"Hold on," Dumbledore cautioned, his voice laced with worry.
"You silly girl...you silly girl...you silly girl," Harry mumbled, his voice beginning to crack.
Ginny's eyes filled with tears, and her mother and Hermione began to cry openly as they all realized what Harry must be seeing.
"Don't let go," Dumbledore said in a barely-audible whisper.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Harry's body gave a tremendous shudder and he collapsed into the chair.
"It's over," Lupin said hoarsely, and they all looked at the boy they had all come to love in their own ways...as a son, as a lover, as a student and a friend...and they wondered if he would ever be the same again.
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