Fandom: Harry Potter
Word count: 6560
Notes: UM. I don't know what I'm doing in this fandom! Honestly! I just came home from watching HBP with a lot of meta about character parallels swirling around in my head, and then I tripped over half a bottle of red wine and this came flowing out. I wrote the vast majority of it in a single glorious sitting, which I should really try to do more often.
Big thanks to ariastar for feeding me little tidbits of Harry-centric meta when I complained that I could write Draco approximately forever, but was having trouble getting the Boy Who Lived to talk to me.
This fic owes a large debt to pogrebin's story arise on the ruins, which you should definitely read because it's a more original and more interesting fic than this one.
Here you are at the end of the beginning; this year is the axis upon which your fate spins, widdershins, the direction of undoing. No matter what happens, this will be the year of irrevocable change. No matter what is written down by these reporters with their thirsty quills and their cameras that steal a little slice of your personal history, black and white and staring out from inky borders, the knowledge dwells inside you inexorable and loud: a storm is coming.
Memories can be tampered with and history is just the memory of the powerful.
The cameras throw light into your eyes like the echo of a curse, like whatever is left behind when the words have been spoken.
Dumbledore says, Take my arm, and for the briefest of moments you think about refusing. There are people in this world who don't believe that you can save them from anything, who don't know that you were chosen for something large and daunting.
But your hand has already slid up and around the soft material of his sleeve, and by the time the scenery shifts you've discarded your half-formed protestation as irrelevant. Dumbledore knows what he's doing. Even when he leaves you in the room with Slughorn's worried expression and the rubble of a Muggle household, you can feel his hand, steering you onto an invisible path, one step at a time. You still don't like the idea of being a pawn but if there's anyone you'll bend your pride for, it's Albus Dumbledore.
The awkward smile on your mother's face is comforting, because she looks like she's unsure of what she's doing in the photograph, trapped by someone's approval. There's a quiet ache in your chest as you look at her and a sharper one when Slughorn mentions Sirius, but despite everything, you like it, this shelf of celebrity without expectation. Gwenog Jones doesn't look anxious, on her broom, her eyes fixed on some distant goal and not on you as you gaze at her image. Most of these people live lives of normal distinction; they earned their way to a position and are proud of it. They didn't grow up with a world's whispers wrapped around their soul.
Slughorn gazes at you in a way that is becoming familiar, click click, the gentle sound of ivory moving one space forward towards the promise of power and independence that lingers on the horizon.
When he's repairing the house Dumbledore doesn't say a word, because when a person reaches a certain level of power it isn't necessary. You smile because it's so seldom these days that you are witness to something as simple as this, something being put back in order instead of being ripped apart. Shards of glass and wood and metal reforming someone else's life.
Nice suit, Pansy says, and she reaches out to stroke a finger down your chest. There's a terrible moment wherein you remember Fenrir Greyback's fingers doing the same thing, Aunt Bella laughing like a banshee, and your mouth flies into a hard line of secondary panic before you can smile and flirt back. The train chugs onwards just as it has done every other year, and the memories keep battering away at your mind: the ice-cold pain as the Dark Mark curled onto your arm like the tail of a sly beast, the way it felt to stand exposed and examined and to be given instructions that sent your heart plunging into your shoes before you dragged it back up, through pride, through will, through the plain impossibility of refusing Voldemort's decree.
You're so on edge that when the carriage is plunged into darkness and coughing, you're already on the lookout for a culprit, and you're more than willing to gamble -- statistically, if nothing else -- on the likelihood of Harry Potter ruining your train ride.
You're looking a bit tense, Draco, Blaise says, which is friendly concern if you speak Zabini's particular dialect of disdain.
You look at the golden landscape shooting past the window.
You say, I'm fine, and move the conversation on to summer gossip, then Arithmancy, then Quidditch, squeezing Pansy's fingers and refusing to mention anyone's parents. You feel old, and displaced.
When the train has arrived and the carriage is empty you look down at Potter's unmoving face and the edge of the scar where it peeks out from under his ridiculous hair and you remember, with a surge of gratifying heat, how good it feels to have a tangible enemy. Right in this moment it doesn't matter that your mother hugged you too hard before she let you go, or that you have no idea how to fix a Vanishing Cabinet, because Harry Potter is at your mercy and he's the reason why you have to prove your family's worth to the Dark Lord.
You've got someone to blame, and it's the best thing that's happened to you in weeks.
To Hermione's surprise you've actually read certain sections of Hogwarts: A History by now; namely, the parts about the enchanted ceiling, because in the rare moments of contemplation of the future that you allow yourself, you've always thought that it might be nice to have a similar spell in your own house. And you'd like to make sure you have a bed with curtains and maybe some secret passageways and a statue or two; it's silly, but this castle has been the only home you've ever loved, and leaving it is going to be very hard indeed.
His father's cane? Hermione says. That's a bad sign.
You pull your gaze down from the candles that drift underneath the illusion of night sky, and shake your head.
Maybe. But it could mean nothing.
You think about the look that distorted Malfoy's face -- That's for my father -- and the cold desperation with which he held on to Lucius's cane. Normally you would suspect him of some related mischief but, to your surprise, you recognise that particular type of selfishness. You can't begrudge even Draco Malfoy the need for family.
But when your eyes sweep the room, searching, the first candlelit blonde head you come across is Luna's. You smile and give her a little tilt of your goblet, and she solemnly does something with her fork that is probably an acknowledgment. Without her you'd be missing out on this, and you're grateful for the opportunity to start the year off as though everything is going to be perfectly normal.
Luna's always seemed as though she would be unfazed by the weight of prophecy. She goes through the world open-eyed and wondering and unafraid, and you think you're in danger of losing that; you can learn from her example. Luna has lived in the magical world her whole life and she can still spare the time to appreciate its endless undiscovered corners.
She fixed your nose and told you that you look ordinary.
You needed that.
Here, mate, you're not eating much, Ron says, and pushes some jelly towards you.
You smile and let yourself sink, for a while, into your life.
There's a corner of loathing in you that's reserved for Horace Slughorn, not because of his club or his simpering transparency or the fact that he neglects his teaching in favour of cultivating connections, but because of the Felix Felicis. You'd never imagined that there could be something so simple and so useful, and for a few heart-pounding minutes during that first class you let yourself believe that you'd be able to accomplish your task without undue effort, but then Potter -- of course -- strips you of that illusion.
You plan to steal it, naturally. You lie awake feverishly inventing and discarding plans to get into the Gryffindor tower, to force a first-year to bring you the vial, anything, but nothing ever works and before long you realise that he's probably used it already. Or not. But it doesn't seem to matter. It's like that Muggle game Blaise taught you all in second year because it was Slytherin enough for you to overlook both its origins and the strange playing cards, with their immobile numbers and their frozen kings and queens and their symbols like drops of blood. The point of the game is to deceive, to pretend that you're putting down the right cards even when you've got nothing at all. And if you're good enough at bluffing than you can claim the same thing round after round after round, three eights or two kings or whatever you please, and nobody will know if you put them down the first time or if they're still in your hand or if they'll lose everything when they dare to call you out. Just pretend. Just pretend and you can win.
That's what this is. You don't know if Potter used the Felix potion the day after his hand closed around it, or the day after that, or the day after that, or if it's still hidden in his room, or if he just laughed and smashed it to pieces as a fucking gesture, because for Potter everything turns out beautifully every fucking day.
At dinner you stir your stew and mashed potatoes into an unrecognisable mess and make the effort to laugh at Pansy's jokes, to watch Blaise illustrating strategy with a pepper shaker for a Chaser and three carrot sticks for goal rings. Your head hurts from reading and your throat is raw from casting spell after spell on the Cabinet, and all you can see when you glance across the room is Potter lapping up the adoration of Weasleys. Stupid bloody Potter winning at Quidditch winning at Potions winning at romance winning winning all the time, as though he hasn't a care in the world, as though the end isn't pressing iron heavy and diamond hard on both of your shoulders. You want to slam him into the stones and force him to feel it as constantly and as painfully as you do, this undoing, this unraveling of your world by powers that are, you know in your deepest heart, too immense and too dark for you. You want to yank his carefree adolescence from his hands like a fluttering Snitch and grind it under your shoes and flick the dust in his face until he chokes on it, because all the things he's winning at are the things that you can't let yourself want.
You are living two sixth years at Hogwarts: one has very little to do with school and everything to do with Katie Bell's convulsing body, your tranformation into the prize of Slughorn's collection, Malfoy's long legs disappearing around yet another corner before you can think of a good excuse to follow. And the other...well, the other has a lot to do with being teenagers, really. Voldemort is rising and Ron is snogging Lavender Brown and another quill is snapping in half in Hermione's calm able hands. Your scar aches like melting ice and yet you can lose an hour thinking about the smell of Ginny's hair.
When you look at Ginny you can feel the tenderness trying to escape from behind your anxiety, your constant nauseating fear that you won't be good enough, or even just enough. You're afraid that the wizarding world needs more than one boy to save it, despite prophecy, despite Dumbledore, despite the fact that you've come through more dangers than most people will ever face and you're still unharmed. By the general definition of the word.
The Aurors standing guard nod at you as you walk past; some of them know Tonks, and it's nice to chat about her sometimes, and the younger students dart wide-eyed glances at you as they move between classes under the escort of the Prefects. You feel old and not quite at home in your skin, wondering about how it would feel to go about your life with no more fear than anyone else, just the soft awareness of disaster balanced by the fact that nobody expects anything of you.
This is what adulthood is: knowing the most about what's at stake and holding it together anyway, sharing your joy but keeping your fear to yourself.
The only other person who looks as tense as you are is Malfoy, and isn't it strange that you should both know so much, and yet know so little about why the other is afraid. In odd moments you wonder if there would be any point in confronting him with something other than anger, if there is any possible way the two of you could connect. In other moments you think about letting your adulthood fall to the floor like an unclasped cloak and just fighting it out, throwing away your wand and driving your elbow into his stomach and raising bruises on his skin, knocking that far-away misery off his face and forcing him back into the brutal present moment, here, with you.
But in the real world Malfoy looks at you with narrowed eyes, a thin ghost wrapped in dark fabric and his own preoccupation, and then passes you in the corridor without changing expression.
It just figures that on the one evening you're doing nothing more than standing in the hallway, leaning against the wall and collecting yourself, you get punished for it. Dragged in front of the eyes of the uninterested elite and presented as a disobedient novelty. It takes a lot of effort for you to grit out, I was gatecrashing, and the ease with which this excuse is accepted makes you want to scream. As though you aren't far, far too proud to go anywhere near a party to which you weren't invited; as though your pride isn't all you have left, now.
Filch gives you a little shake before he releases you and you hate him, hate him, for being so impotent and so involved in his own little world and so blind as to assume, when he found you, that the only thing you could have been doing was hoping to be here in Slughorn's room full of people with a Future.
There won't be a future. Not for them. Not for anyone. Not for you.
This is the first time you've admitted that to yourself. You shove it down, away, as fast as you can.
Of all the well-dressed well-fed contemptuous crowd, Potter looks at you with unflinching suspicion, and isn't it just fucking ironic that Harry Potter of all people should do you the courtesy of disbelieving your grudging lies.
That night you work on the Cabinet until past midnight, and when you sleep you dream of being trapped in a giant birdcage while Nagini slithers around the outside with her fangs bared and Potter sits on the other side of the cage twisting his wand in his fingers, eyes closed, unconcerned.
Do something, you snap at him. Get us out.
Potter opens his eyes and smiles at you, the fast unthinking smile that he gives when he's inflicting pain and ignoring his own hypocrisy. It's safer in here, he says.
Time is running out. There's something you have to do and you don't know what it is but you do know that you can't do it while you're stuck in this cage.
Potter hisses something and Nagini hisses something back and you wake up with a dry mouth and crawling skin, trying to hide from a phantom bite.
Do you want me to...let him?
Yes, Dumbledore said, and at the time you searched his eyes for an apology but that was probably a lost cause.
When you were nine or ten you used to spend hours in the library because it was free of Dursleys, and some of the books you liked to read were about spies. They were thin paperbacks crammed full of self-contained adventure, glamorous lies told to further the greater good, dangers and two-dimensional death and neat endings for the heroes. You liked that. You folded your hands around your legs at night, for warmth, and dreamed about running away to a great future in the spying industry.
You never though it would be like this. Hooking information out of an old man who lives in the frames of other people's photographs, whose eyes dart fearfully and who has deception and pettiness but no true evil in him. You'd like to think you know the difference by now.
Submerged in Slughorn's memory -- and how did Dumbledore come by this collection of bottles in the first place? -- you see Tom Riddle as Slughorn remembers him, flawless and compelling. Riddle plays Slughorn like a fine instrument; you can almost find it in yourself to admire his technique. He knows how to use people. Even before Dumbledore tells you that the memory was tampered with, you can sense the wrong note: Riddle was winning, and Slughorn was falling into his sweet snaking words, so the outburst -- the refusal -- makes no sense at all.
It's difficult, but you try to isolate your opinion of Tom Riddle from all that you know about Voldemort, even from the mocking shade that almost killed Ginny. You consider the boy of other people's memories, separately from what you know of his past and his future.
In one memory, Dumbledore sits and twinkles and explains to an eleven-year-old boy that he is not a freak after all; that the things he can do are the key to escaping a lonely, unfriendly life.
In another, someone's fingertip strikes the hourglass and the snakes twitch in sympathy.
Slughorn turns to you with a genuine smile underneath the tired lines that frame his eyes, and you're sorry, but you've got a job to do.
You open your mouth and Tom Riddle's words come sliding off your tongue.
Killing splits the soul but you're trying, you really are, and when your hand closes around the box containing the necklace, the neck of the poisoned bottle, you imagine you can already feel something like a slender fissure forming underneath your clothes, just over your heart. Even when your plots fall into ruin and you start to realise, with horror, that you might have to complete your task with your own hand and your own wand, you can feel the crack. Another scar to keep covered.
The Room of Requirement must work by strange laws because there's a lot more in there than you'll ever need to complete your assignment. Whenever you hit a dead end you go exploring, digging through piles of odd equipment that send up clouds of dust and the occasional burst of neglected magic. Red sparks that give you hiccups for an hour and a puff of something cold that settles behind your eyes and lets you see the true colours of things for about five minutes. There are shelves stacked with old books in languages you don't recognise, and tangled tubes, and hundreds of other things that call out to be studied and catalogued and understood.
You wonder if the castle is trying, gently, to distract you. But this is Hogwarts, and no matter how loudly you complain about it, it keeps providing you with this Room. It feeds you and teaches you and shelters you even while you're bringing about its ruin. In morbid moods with your back against the wall and your teeth slicing guiltily into yet another ruined apple, you're reminded of an owl that your Aunt Bella trained over the summer. She fed it with tasty morsels, dead mice, little sweet pellets, and tickled it and cooed to it until it loved her with the simple unconditional devotion of animals. Then she stood on one side of a cursed room and called it to her, and laughed as it struggled to reach her even as the glowing whips of magic stripped its feathers and its life.
This is how you feel every time you push aside the tapestry of the unicorn, those creatures that can be caught and killed as long as you fool them with innocence. Hogwarts is older and stronger than you, than the Dark Lord himself; if you stop working on the Cabinet, it might yet protect you. The only way anyone can get at you here is through your own actions.
From a certain perspective it's almost like you have control over your own life.
In your dreams the Half-Blood Prince is annotating the margins of your life; his sarcastic ink trails after Malfoy's restless feet, leaving a stain, and Malfoy looks at you with his eyes fierce and clear and he whispers, I solemnly swear I am up to no good.
And all you can say is, I know, I know.
In class you substitute wasp wings for bee wings and rummage through Slughorn's cupboard until you find a crystal spoon to stir with. You filter the rosewater through a handful of dragon scales and then add four drops of it, not seven, and when the steam starts to rise from your cauldron you stir the whole thing widdershins until it turns blood red.
Slughorn says, Oh, very good, my boy, and his hand comes down hard on your shoulder and you blink up at him and smile Tom Riddle's perfect smile.
You're getting so very good at this.
You preferred your battles when they involved giant snakes and angry duels, but Dumbledore says that the fate of your world is hanging in the balance and you trust him because he's trusting you.
But the book is yours. Something secret. You and the Prince, allies against the fact that sometimes you wake up dry-mouthed and with charcoal terror dancing in your chest. Sometimes you're drawn in by the personality trying so hard to come through these strict black scrawls, like the aching shadows of your father and Sirius that dwell within the Map, the sharp mind that understands magic in a way you never will; you, whose power has always been instinctual and fierce. Reading through the book at night you wonder what it would be like to have that assurance and daring, to take up a pen and amend the instructions that have been given to you by a higher authority.
In Charms Hermione teaches you to create a swarm of tiny white birds and send them wobbling awkwardly about the room, and when one passes in front of Malfoy's face he flinches with a violence that surprises you.
In Transfigurations you learn that dualism is the only safe way to think about the world, because as soon as you start fragmenting your ideas you can't hold them steady enough for any kind of change to take place.
In Potions you watch Malfoy's face crease with a distant worry while you decipher the Prince's words and follow them to the letter. Maybe with a bit of effort you'd be able to learn why these changes make your potions come out perfect every time, but you're distracted and all you have the energy for these days is obedience without question.
When you catch sight of Katie Bell you force yourself to breathe past the hitch; you say Mudblood Mudblood in your head, trying to capture your father's confident dismissal, but then you remember that you don’t know anything about Bell. You don't know if she's a Mudblood at all, she was just the right person at the right time, she was just -- there. You didn't want to think about it too hard, or at all, in fact. You cast the Imperius with your eyes almost closed and your voice wavering, which is probably why she was able to emerge from it just enough to open the package of her own accord. Your weakness almost killed her, and somehow her death would be worse than Dumbledore's because it would mean nothing in the eyes of the Dark Lord, it would just be another of those small steps along the way. It would not save you. It would not save your mother.
Katie Bell is talking to Harry Potter, and all of a sudden you are stifled in your own skin, about to break.
You run. You can't breathe. You're too hot and too scared and you're sixteen and when the water hits your skin you think, I can't, I can't do it, and when you stare at yourself in the mirror you think about everyone who's ever told you that you have your mother's eyes, or your father's chin, or any other proof of the blood, and you know that you have to do it anyway.
And then: Potter.
Knowing your luck, you probably should have expected this.
For a little while you're almost enjoying yourself, because this is the kind of fight you actually enjoy, the rush of blood through your veins and the thrill of dodging a curse and the cold cloud clarity of spells whispered and delivered. For a little while you feel more alive than you have all year, but it doesn't last, because Potter shouts something that you don't recognise and then you're on your back in a pool of water thinking isn't it typical, isn't it just perfect, that Potter has murdered you and it’s you that will be split apart, the edges of your chest falling open along that invisible fissure.
The world constricts and becomes the walls of this room, the clammy feeling of your white shirt against your back, and this strange kind of ringing rarified fear, slippery tiles and wet death coming at you from within, the pain and the bubbling sound of your breath echoing against the polished surfaces. The surprise is in how tempting it is to stop struggling, in how much of a relief it is to let go of your worry and focus your attention on death's intimate nudges. You're drowning in your own pure thin Malfoy blood and for a few wonderful moments before unconsciousness you're unbidden, and untouchable, and free.
It takes you a moment to recognise the grey cliffs and the pounding sea as the image pinned to a corner of Tom Riddle's life, but by now you know that Dumbledore doesn't show you anything without reason. No, he drags you into memories so that you know how to fight his battles, and he drags you into caves so that you can tug boats to the surface and so that you can follow orders, to the end, despite it all.
As he drinks the first scoop of the potion you tell yourself again that you trust Dumbledore because he trusts you. It's an honour to be here. It had to be done by someone and you can be glad it was you, because you wouldn't wish the task on anyone else.
Dumbledore falls to the ground and you close your eyes.
State of mind is the strongest component of many, many forms of magic, and you've never forgotten that a Patronus can only be conjured through the power of a happy memory. It doesn't even have to be in the present moment. Just -- the existence of happiness, somewhere in your past. Not too much to ask.
So as you stumble across the rocks, back and forth, dipping the shell into that liquid that smells like brackish petrol, you pretend. You think about watching Tonks kiss the tips of Lupin's fingers, and about snowball fights, and Luna's dress and Hermione's smile and Ron's arm holding you steady and Ginny's lips against yours, warm like a promise, and somewhere in between Dumbledore's moans and your own half-grimace you think about how much of a fucking joke your life is, that you can be kissing such a girl one day and doing this the next. It seems like a betrayal of her, to be using her memory as a shield against the atrocities that you are committing -- just as you used your mother's name to manipulate Slughorn for your own ends -- but she'll forgive you. That's what people do. The ends justify --
You coax another scoop full of liquid down Dumbledore's throat, murmuring something false, holding the world steady in your mind. It's this or it's failure. You have no choice.
Lying in bed you can feel your clothes chafing against your skin. Your feet are cold and your eyes are warm; smarting, still, with the tears you've hated and yet somehow welcomed all year, the tears you let out only because you thought you were alone or dying or both. But you're alive and the Cabinet is complete, and this is it. The final test.
You're exhausted. As soon as you close your eyes you'll fall asleep, you can tell, there's that familiar melting feeling of your limbs sinking into the sheets, and in the space between the painful inhale and the shuddering exhale you entertain the notion of -- not. Not getting up. Not opening the door. Just sleeping and letting other people deal with the horrible, huge, frightening reality that is your life. Just lying here with your head against the pillow and imagining Fenrir Greyback slamming himself against the doors to no avail, caught perpetually on the wrong side of your school's defenses. Just assuming that Dumbledore will turn up as he always does and fix everything, as he always does, and Potter will do something heroically idiotic and Gryffindor will win the House Cup and you'll drink pumpkin juice at the feast and glare at him across the tables and Hogwarts will be safe and your family will be dead.
The floor is warmer than you thought it would be, against your bare feet.
You close your eyes outside the Room of Requirement and think, I need to let the Death Eaters into Hogwarts, just to see what the words feel like, and the unjudging magic of the unicorn tapestry lets you through. This is it. This is --
You look at the black mist swirling out of the Cabinet and reach inside yourself for the pride, the victory, but there's nothing there. You're drained and you're sick of it all and you're mixed up in a game with stakes that are higher than you've ever been able to afford.
You think of the Muggle playing cards and their strange kings that remain the same no matter which way up you turn them: smiling, and silent, and still.
You have nothing left to gamble with but you swallow it all down and think, just pretend.
When the fire spreads out above the water you've got no idea what's happening, at first. It's been a while since you took a breath and you feel lightheaded with pounding pain, the cold pressure of the water, the arms around you like slick chains, and the fire is just another explosion. Life seems to offer you an exit every now and again, a friendly nudge towards a darker and less complex place, and by now you know better than to entertain the possibility of accepting.
Sure enough, the thin grip around you spasms away, and you fix your stinging eyes on the glowing hell that's above you, not below, and you start to swim.
When your head breaks the surface you're exultant with the feeling of trust repaid; Dumbledore is fine, he's the greatest wizard in the world and when you're with him you're entirely safe. The raging fire makes you feel eleven years old again, ducking letters and gorging yourself on new wonders, loving Hogwarts and loving your abilities and loving the strange old man whose twinkling eyes promised you more than you'd ever imagined.
There was a price, of course, but you're pretty sure it was worth it.
Dumbledore says, Take my arm, and you even manage to smile a little as you do it.
When your feet touch the Astronomy Tower you hope that there might be time to rest, but for a man who reveals himself so slowly Dumbledore can move at a terrific pace. It takes you a second to realise that this particular adventure isn't over, that the dangers have begun to overlap, but Dumbledore is half-strong and half-reeling, and any other year you'd have called him entirely certain of what's going on. But this year you've learned the value of pretending.
Severus. Nobody else.
You've also been obeying authority all year; much more consistently than you ever have before, in fact, and under Dumbledore's commanding gaze you can't decide if this is an argument in favour of defying him now, or keeping your feet on the path.
Dumbledore says, Trust me.
If anything Dumbledore's understanding infuriates you; you didn't expect fear, you didn't expect him to plead, you know he's a great wizard and the fact that he let you disarm him was frightening enough to pull the tears into your eyes again. But he could have been angry at you, at least. This quiet disappointment is so anticlimactic, so parental, that your grip on your wand steadies and you wonder if maybe it'll be easier than you feared.
Dumbledore says something about choices and you want to hit him. You want to tell him that there really are some situations in which choice is no longer a factor. The hot urge of violence is a surprise but in the end it's useless, because you're surrounded by Death Eaters and your arm is shaking, searing, and nobody's going to let you charge across the tower and punch the old man in the face a few times just to make you feel better. No. It comes down to this. Death or failure.
Dumbledore is looking at you as though he knows what you've known all year, the fact that has been mocking you from Katie Bell's sober face and Potter's intense scrutiny and Snape's tight concern: you can’t do it. Not even with your mother's face held firmly in your mind and the screams of the Dark Lord's victims ringing in your ears -- you can't.
But as your shoulder surrenders to your cowardice, the unthinkable occurs: salvation. Someone steps in to remove you from danger, whisking you out of the spotlight, and for a long starlit moment find yourself thinking about chess; about the way a castle can save a king by switching places with it.
Dumbledore falls to the ground and you close your eyes.
From there it’s all acceleration, someone's hands shoving you down the winding stairs and Aunt Bella's voice in your ear, I saw you, I know you couldn't do it -- must be the Malfoy blood in you, the Blacks wouldn't be that weak, so the safe finality you'd hoped for is just as far away as ever. You hear your feet beating against the ground and you feel your hand curled uselessly against your wand and you know that from here on it will be just as hard, and just as horrible, and you will pretend if you have to -- beg, if you have to -- one foot in front of the other until the world settles once more.
Bellatrix gives a high delighted laugh and the dining hall falls to pieces as you watch. You refuse to look up because the ceiling is enchanted and you're afraid of what you might see should you lift your eyes. A plate spins wildly and embeds itself in the place where Pansy usually sits when she's teasing you and making faces at the treacle pudding, and you barely notice the windows shattering because your blood is roaring in your ears. You've slowed down. You force yourself to continue, leaving behind the destruction of six years' worth of memories, ducking debris, dodging fragments of the past. Shards of glass and wood and metal that belong to someone else's life.
On your back, gasping for breath and staring up at the stars because it would hurt too much to move your head, you wonder if you're a terrible person for enjoying the chance to rest. The anger is still there, enormous and wrenching, but Snape blasted you onto your back and then walked away as though you weren't worth the effort of killing, and now you need time to think. A few moments.
In the face of all the tragedy, all the betrayal, it seems absurd that this one should be at the forefront of your mind, but there it is. The Half-Blood Prince. This year's one comfortable ally has turned out to be the person who killed your protector, leaving you without a guiding hand and without the assurance of safety within your home. If Dumbledore can be killed within the walls of Hogwarts then anything can happen, anything at all.
The air is cool against your skin and more than anything you want to be told what to do. You want a set of inked instructions: go here, do this, maybe even kill this person, anything at all dictated by someone who isn't sixteen and scared and wishing he'd never been chosen for this war.
You breathe in, and out, and by the time your heartbeat calms you're ashamed of yourself. Dumbledore sent you out of the way so that you could live to keep fighting, even past his own death. There is the light and the dark and when the time comes to make a choice, you do it without flinching.
So you hold your head high as you enter the courtyard. You don't look up, just forward.
If you learned anything from Albus Dumbledore then it was how to use the sympathy and the assumptions of others for your own ends, so nobody tries to hold you back as you walk towards the corpse. And even as grief rises in your throat like a wave you can feel your own hand moving to pick up the locket, stowing it in your pocket before anyone else can see.
There will be names for you in the history books and they will be wrong. Because no matter who is left standing, no matter who reaches into the past and colours it black and white and bloody with the power of their words, they will not know what manner of person you are; how can they, when you do not know yourself?
Perhaps you will be called a pawn, but there is a shaking certainty within you now that this, too, is wrong; you were never going to reach the other side and come into your power, because there is another kind of piece that only moves one step at a time, and that's you. Led by voices buzzing like honey telling you that you're important, and you are, and how sweet that is for the few brief seconds before it dissolves into salt. All it means is that you're helpless; weak. All around you powerful figures sweep and switch and protect, protect you, for what?
Behind your eyes you can still see the Dark Mark screaming above the castle whose stones you have loved, and the mark Voldemort left on you is burning a triumphant coldness into your skin, and here you are at the beginning of the end pretending that you are not tired and raw and terrified to your very bones.
People press on either side of you and the sky opens up into the soft, pale promise of death.
You are alone.