Not in the Hands of Boys

Fourth Rose

Story Summary:
Once the final battle is won, life must go on, although it can be even harder to master than death. Back at Hogwarts for his final year of school, Harry tries to cope with everything he's been through. As the world around him struggles for a way back to normality, he is forced to realise that in the long run, living takes a lot more courage than dying.

Chapter 28 - Part 28


The still water of the lake shone like a huge mirror in the golden light of the late afternoon sun. There was no wind to ripple the surface, and the Giant Squid was nowhere in sight - it might, as Luna had pointed out a bit earlier, have got its tentacles tied into a knot again so that it had to seek out the merpeople for help.

Harry still wasn't sure whether she'd been serious. Even after half a year of not-quite-going out together, he sometimes had trouble figuring out which of her remarks were jokes and which weren't. It didn't bother him overmuch right now, though; he felt peaceful and relaxed for the first time in weeks and wasn't going to spoil that. He was sitting in the shade of a huge rock right by the side of the lake, his back against the rough, cool stone and Luna's head in his lap, his fingers idly playing with a strand of her hair. Right next to them, Hermione was curled up against Ron's chest in a way that reminded Harry of Crookshanks. Ron had his eyes closed and seemed half-asleep, but Hermione's expression was a bit anxious, as if she were still not quite over the fact that Ron had bodily pulled her away from her schoolbooks.

They'd all been sitting in comfortable silence for a while when Hermione sighed softly and then said, sounding as if she were mostly taking to herself, "Tomorrow, then."

Ron opened his eyes and gave her a reproachful glance. "Oi, Hermione, remember what we said? No talk about the exams, we're all here to relax!"

"I wasn't -" Hermione faltered, then tried again. "I didn't mean the exams - I mean, I did, but I just thought how strange it is that it seems so normal to worry about exams again after everything..."

Harry almost did a double-take; like most of his classmates, Hermione usually didn't mention last year's events without a pressing reason. Throughout the school year, there seemed to have been an unspoken agreement to let the past lie and concentrate on the future, so much that a remark like this out of Hermione's mouth felt like the breach of a taboo now.

Luna appeared unfazed as ever, but like Harry, Ron didn't seem quite sure how to react. His laugh sounded a bit forced when he replied, "Don't tell me you're seriously worried about your NEWTs."

Hermione paused for a second. "Not really, no," she finally relented, as if she were admitting a personal defeat. "I mean, I did all I could to prepare, so what's the point?"

"Seems Ron is finally rubbing off on you," Harry threw in with a grin, glad of the opportunity to steer the conversation away from touchy subjects.

"Speak for yourself, mate," Ron grumbled. "I am worrying, considering that I need five E's before I'll even get a chance to apply for Auror training! Yes, I know," he added when he saw that Harry was about to interrupt him, "so do you, but I'm not Harry Potter, am I?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Harry asked, bristling; Luna gave him a calculating look that immediately made him feel silly for losing his temper over this.

Ron didn't take the bait anyway; he merely grinned. "Come on, Harry, you know the DMLE can't wait to have you. I bet every prospective Dark Wizard in Britain is pissing himself knowing that you'll be coming after him soon!"

Luna giggled at this, but Harry didn't find the remark all that funny. It must have shown on his face, because Hermione quickly added, "I'm sure you'll have a brilliant career in the Auror Department, Harry. Think of it - a former Auror is heading the Ministry, so the Aurors are bound to play a big role in politics as well, and this job might come with quite a lot of influence. Just imagine the things you'll be able to achieve - we all know that there's still so much about the Ministry that needs to change, and you might be in a position to bring about these changes one day!"

"You'll probably be Department Head and Shacklebolt's right hand five years from now," Ron added with a grin. From his tone, it was clear that he was joking, but Harry couldn't bring himself to smile; he suddenly felt cold and strangely exhausted. So these were the prospects for his future - power that would result in fear, fear that would result in power, and all the impossible expectations and inevitable pitfalls that went with either. Had it really been just three short months since he had told Dumbledore how he was going to start living his own life?

So far, it wasn't turning out quite the way he had imagined.

* * *

It was a bit like a journey back in time to step into the Great Hall and see that the four house tables had been removed and replaced instead with many tables for one, all facing the staff-table end of the Hall where Professor McGonagall stood. Harry felt a little light-headed; he wasn't nervous, but he hadn't slept very well last night, and he'd only nibbled at his toast at breakfast because of the queasy feeling in his stomach that had grown ever stronger as the exams drew nearer.

His classmates didn't look too comfortable either, although most of them appeared more determined than anxious. Hermione's jaw was set in a way that made her look as if she were going to bite someone; Ron was pale but for two red blotches on his cheeks, but he gave Harry a quick grin and a thumbs-up when he sat down at the desk next to him. Ginny seemed about to choose the desk on his other side, but then she reconsidered at the last moment and went to sit in front of Harry instead. Neville took her abandoned desk and busied himself with his quill and ink bottle as if his life depended on it, but he looked remarkably calm.

Harry caught Luna's eyes over several rows of desks; she smiled and blew him a kiss, then pointed to her neck where the paper clip necklace he had given her for Christmas was glittering against the dark fabric of her robes. Harry grinned back and raised his bright blue Fwooper quill; he had never used it in class so far, but it had seemed appropriate to bring her Christmas present for good luck today, even if it did look a bit silly. An all-too familiar snicker right behind Harry confirmed that Draco thought so too, but today it almost felt welcome in its comforting normality. Or perhaps, Harry thought with a wry smile, it was just the knowledge that the git wouldn't constantly be around him much longer.

Then McGonagall said, "You may begin" and turned over the huge hour-glass on the desk beside her that Harry remembered from his OWLs. The blank parchment on his desk rippled like the surface of a puddle for a second before a list of questions appeared - Professor Flitwick had obviously wanted to add an extra touch of magical finesse to their Charms exam. Harry took a deep breath, tried to clear his head of all thoughts that weren't NEWTs-related, and read the first question.

* * *

Harry's practical Charms exam in the afternoon began with a surprise. When his name was called (NEWT students were tested by the whole board of examiners, not just by one of them like OWL candidates, so they weren't called in in groups of three this time), he found himself facing Minister Shacklebolt who was sitting between Professor Marchbanks and a tiny, balding wizard who looked like Professor Flitwick's older brother. Harry stopped short on the threshold, but the Minister merely grinned at his astonished expression.

"Hello, Harry, it's good to see you again. Don't mind me, I'm only watching."

"Just my exam, or everyone else's too?" Harry couldn't help asking, and although he knew it wasn't his place, the question came out rather sharply. Professor Flitwick, who had called Harry in, seemed about to say something, but Kingsley smiled - a tad too indulgently for Harry's taste.

"I'm here for all the practical NEWT exams. We're recruiting, after all; there are still plenty of openings at the Ministry, and I'd like to see for myself what we can expect. Just pretend I'm not here, all right?"

"Fine." Before Harry could say anything else, Professor Marchbanks cut him off - or perhaps she was just too deaf to have heard the whole exchange in the first place.

"Mr Potter, is it?" She glanced at a sheet or parchment in front of her, then looked at him over the rim of her thick glasses and smiled. "Ah yes, of course it is. Very well, my dear boy, let's get started, shall we? I just noticed that Professor Tofty here is wearing mismatched socks again, so would you please use a Protean Charm to resolve the matter?"

"I can't believe you're still doing the socks thing," Shacklebolt murmured under his breath, but Professor Marchbanks either hadn't heard anything, or she chose to ignore him. Harry bit back a grin and raised his wand.

* * *

That evening, there was much speculation in the Gryffindor Common Room about the Minister's unexpected presence, but Harry barely listened to any of it. Hermione was quizzing him and Ron about the finer points of object-to-animal Transfiguration, and while it would have driven him up the wall two years ago, he found it strangely soothing now since it gave him something to focus on. Ron, who usually did his best to escape Hermione's attempts at last-minute revision, was in such a good mood tonight that he played along without complaint. Professor Marchbanks had clapped her hands in delight when he'd made her pocket watch sing Auld Lang Syne in Celestina Warbeck's voice, thus giving Ron hope that he'd secured the first of those five E's he needed for getting into Auror Training.

"I'm just glad that I'll be done by the end of the week," he said while Hermione rifled through her Transfiguration textbook in search for another detail she might have missed, "I can't imagine what it must be like to have another round of exams waiting for me next week - eh, Hermione, were you saying something?"

"Oh, shut it," Hermione murmured without taking her eyes off the page she was reading, "just because you're content with five NEWTs doesn't mean everyone is."

"Harry is, though," Ron pointed out good-naturedly. "We need just five NEWTs to become Aurors, what would we do with more?"

"Yes, God forbid you learn something unnecessary," Hermione replied tartly. "Arithmancy would have done you a world of good, it's a truly fascinating subject..."

Harry tuned out their bickering with practised ease as he let his head fall back against the backrest of the couch and closed his eyes for a moment. Like Ron, he was glad that it would all be over in another four days, and he knew he hadn't started off badly. It was a bit disconcerting that the queasy feeling in his stomach still wouldn't subside, and he couldn't help wondering why his nerves were acting up like this now when he'd managed to live through so much worse - but then he had to smile at the thought what McGonagall would say if she knew that his subconscious obviously found Transfiguration scarier than Voldemort.

* * *

In spite of Harry's subconscious, Transfiguration on Tuesday went well enough. There was no way to be sure about the written exam, of course, but he had a feeling that he hadn't done too badly on it, and the practical part turned out to be way easier than expected. Ron seemed content afterwards as well, and although Hermione kept going back and forth over the question whether she hadn't transfigured her flowerpot into a polecat instead of the marten she'd been asked to produce, Harry could tell that she wasn't that worried about it.

He ran into a small problem during his Herbology practical on Wednesday when the blossoms of the Venus Fairytrap he was supposed to de-fang tried to eat each other, but he was able to stun most of them before they could do much harm. That evening he snuck out of the Common Room and went to find Luna. It took some persuasion to lure her away from her books - Luna was taking eight NEWTs (Hermione, who was taking seven, still wasn't quite over it), and although she handled the stress with unfaltering cheerfulness, Harry was convinced that she needed a break as much as everyone else. He took her for a walk along the lakeshore, and they ended up under one of the gnarled old trees that grew there.

They watched the sun set over the hills behind the lake, and Luna snuggled up to Harry as the air grew cooler. He held on to her, enjoying the warmth of her hand in his and trying not to think of the fact that it was a matter of mere days now until she would be gone from his life, when the year of respite he'd been granted was over and he would have to face a future that he was a lot less certain about than he'd once been.

He slept badly that night again; his dreams took him back to the hours after the Battle of Hogwarts, when he'd been wandering around between the dead and wounded in the Great Hall. He woke groggy and disoriented, the image of Tonks and Remus' still forms on the bloodstained floor still at the back of his mind, and it took him a moment to get his bearings. He was quite grateful that today's exam would be Defence, not Potions; even with his head pounding as if it were about to explode, he probably wasn't going to fail a subject that he'd always excelled in and that he had now co-taught for the better part of a year.

As expected, the written exam wasn't much of a challenge. When he handed in his parchment, Harry wondered fleetingly who was going to mark it since he and Draco could hardly be asked to mark their own NEWT exams. Perhaps Professor Tofty would read them to Snape's portrait, if he ever managed to repair his glasses which Neville had accidentally spelled opaque during the Charms practical.

Even though he knew he had little to worry about, Harry felt inexplicably wary when he was called in for his practical in the afternoon. The board of examiners had just finished with the previous candidate, Draco Malfoy, when Harry entered; Harry caught the expression on the face of Kingsley Shacklebolt, who was looking Draco over as if he weren't quite sure what to make of him. Given what Harry had seen of Draco's knowledge on the subject throughout the year, it seemed unlikely that he had done badly on his exam, and Harry couldn't help wondering if there was something more to Kingsley's thoughtful look than just surprise.

His thoughts were interrupted by Professor Tofty, who gave a cough as if he were about to launch into a speech. "Ah, Mr Potter - we're finding ourselves at a bit of a loss with you. It seems rather strange to ask you for a demonstration of your defensive skills when you already managed to defeat the most dangerous Dark Wizard in history..."

There were nods all around, and Harry felt an uncomfortable blush creep up his cheeks. His stomach seemed to be trying to tie itself into a knot, and for a second he had to fight the mad urge to turn around on his heel and march out of the room without a word.

He was saved by Draco of all people, who made a great show of rolling his eyes as he turned away from the board. "Should we levitate you onto that pedestal, Potter, or is your head inflated enough by now to float up on your own?" he whispered as he passed Harry by on his way to the door, and Harry felt an odd rush of relief; insufferable git or not, right now it was reassuring to know that there was still someone who was always willing to bring him down a notch or two.

"I defeated Voldemort with Expelliarmus," he said tersely as soon as the heavy door had fallen shut behind Draco. "Somehow I don't think that the fact I can manage a Disarming Spell should be enough to get me a Defence NEWT, Professor."

Professor Tofty seemed taken aback, but Professor Marchbanks, whose deafness couldn't be quite that bad after all, cackled as if he'd cracked a hilarious joke. "You have a point, my boy. Minister, you probably don't want to risk complaints that your star Auror wasn't properly trained, do you?"

Your star Auror? Harry shot Kingsley an accusing look, but the Minister raised his hands in a gesture that clearly said he'd kept his promise of not announcing Harry's career plans to anyone. Of course, Professor Marchbanks might already have heard about them during Harry's OWL exams two years ago.

Which meant that whether Kingsley had really kept quiet or not, the whole Ministry knew at this point. You'll probably be Department Head and Shacklebolt's right hand five years from now...

"Well then!" Professor Marchbanks exclaimed, looking strangely excited. "Let's see a few NEWT-level Anti-Jinxes, shall we?"

* * *

Harry barely touched his breakfast on Friday morning. By lunchtime, after the written Potions exam, the queasy feeling in his stomach had developed into full-blown nausea, and the mere thought of food made his throat close up. He decided to go back to his room and take a nap instead of lunch, but sleep just wouldn't come. After two hours of staring at the ceiling and replaying his practical Defense exam in his mind over and over again, he felt even worse than before.

Your star Auror. He knew that three years ago he would have been ecstatic, but now he felt as if invisible hands were tugging at him from all sides, dragging him down the path towards a future that had already been mapped out for him, no matter whether he still wanted it or not. And then there were those who stood aside, careful not to cross him because they were afraid...

Harry thought of Mr Blumburg's grovelling letter and found himself wondering how long it would take until he got so used to this new, casual kind of power that he no longer thought twice about using it. Dumbledore's admittance that he wasn't to be trusted with power had never resonated with him before, but now he felt as if he understood for the first time what the late Headmaster had meant by it. Yet Dumbledore had still gone halfway down the very path Harry saw ahead of himself now - he had refused official political authority, but he'd carefully held on to his share of actual power, and had wielded it ruthlessly whenever he'd considered it necessary. It had turned out for the best in the end, but Harry couldn't help thinking that for every Albus Dumbledore out there, there also was a Tom Riddle who wouldn't stop halfway.

Just imagine the things you'll be able to achieve, Hermione spoke up in his mind, but somehow it blended together with the memory of the bitterness in Ron's voice when he'd said, many months ago, for the greater good. How did you deal with the realisation that your biggest fear was that you might one day be willing to do the things you were capable of?

By the time he had to get up and get ready for his Potions practical, Harry had another pounding headache on top of everything else. He met a bunch of tense-looking classmates outside the Great Hall; the practical Potions exam took time, so they'd all be tested together instead of one after the other. A wide circle of worktables with cauldrons, scales, and potion kits awaited them once they were called into the Great Hall. Harry spotted the telltale flicker of Shield Charms between the tables, probably to prevent students from spoiling another candidate's work if their cauldron exploded. In the centre of the circle, another, much bigger table was laden with ingredients.

Professor Slughorn, who had ushered them in, clapped Harry on the shoulder when he passed him by and boomed, "Good luck, Mr Potter - not that you'll need it!" in a voice that rang through the whole Hall. Harry winced and threw a quick look in the direction of the staff table, where the Minister sat with the examiners. Shacklebolt didn't seem bothered by Slughorn's unconcerned display of favouritism; he grinned and winked at Harry when he caught his eye. Harry half expected a snide remark from the direction of Draco's table, which was right across his own, but none came; Draco already had his nose buried in the parchment containing the instructions for the exam.

Harry's own instructions asked him to brew Amortentia. He stared at the letters on the parchment for a second, wondering whether this was Slughorn's idea of a joke, before he remembered that the choice had likely been the examiners'. It meant he should probably brace himself for endless teasing about Professor Marchbanks having designs on his virtue, but right now Harry didn't feel like laughing. Amortentia was fiendishly difficult to brew and highly volatile during the brewing process, so there was a good chance that he would be the one to test those Shield Charms before long.

There was nothing for it, though, so Harry gritted his teeth and set to work.

Soon the bubbling of boiling liquids and the sounds of chopping and stirring filled the Hall. Harry was trying to concentrate on his work, but the sickly sweet smell of the liquorice roots he was crushing made his stomach turn, and he had to take a step back to gulp in a few breaths of fresh air before he could continue. None of his classmates paid any attention to him, but out of the corner of his eye, he noticed how everyone on the board of examiners was surreptitiously watching him. Slughorn was whispering something to the Minister without taking his eyes off Harry; Shacklebolt merely nodded, his expression tense.

Harry quickly turned back towards his cauldron, but his hands were shaking when he reached for the jar of powdered ashwinder eggshells. It was seriously bad timing since he had now reached the trickiest part of the brewing process; ashwinder eggshells were extremely unstable and had to be added slowly and very carefully in tiny quantities if he didn't want his potion to end up on the ceiling. He unscrewed the jar and scanned the surface of his worktable for the smallest measuring spoon to make sure...

His hand froze in mid-move when an idea struck him. It wasn't really a conscious thought; it felt like something that had come straight out of his guts without any interference from his brain. The choice between what is right and what is easy, Dumbledore's stern voice resounded in his mind, but Harry knew by now that it had been just so much window-dressing for the fact that none of the choices that had shaped his life had ever been his.

If that was the thing that made you a hero, it was probably time to remember that for the first time, he had another option now.

Slowly, as if he were waking from a dream, Harry raised the open jar over the cauldron. The sound of frantic coughing from the examiners' table startled him, and he only just managed to avoid dropping the jar into the potion. He looked up from the simmering liquid for a moment and found Draco watching him over the circle of tables. When he caught his eye, Draco quickly shook his head once - a tiny movement, but the meaning was clear. Harry, taken aback, gave a small nod back in acknowledgement; then, with a fluid twist of his hand, he tipped the jar's contents into the cauldron.