Faced with the griffin knocker at the top of the spiraling stairs, Harry paused. Still invisible, he decided to consider what he had just discovered rather than rush into a confrontation with Dumbledore's Porcrux. Testing his abilities he conjured an invisible chair, felt for the arms, and collapsed into the seat.

"You were a coward!" accused his mental self. "You were right there and you did offered neither warning nor help; and when the final moment came you weren't even man enough to face 'timed' away!"

Harry had no response for his own mental excoriation.

"You've led your friends on a merry chase, play-acting adults in a silly orchestrated production. But when you bang the facts right out on the table, you see your own cowardice. Treylon Baskin was right about leadership. You're no leader! You didn't even lead yourself into battle when it was your parent's lives in the balance! You'll never be a're not even a worthy son! Even when it was safe, you didn't try to warn your own godfather. You left him to thirteen long years in Azkaban ..."

Harry's mental berating was interrupted by a soft click, click, click. Roused from the self-abuse, he looked for the source of the sound.

His heart lodged in his throat. Capricio had enlarged to nearly fill the landing. The clicking sound came from the dragon's neck frill. Each click was a section of frill locking into a stiff fan of dragon armor around Capricio's neck.

Harry fought his panic. Not since the days of battle in the Chamber of Secrets had Harry seen Capricio like this. He knew that this manifestation of Capricio's persona meant only one thing...the dragon was preparing for mortal combat.

"Capricio no..." began Harry but he never finished.

As the last frill locked into place, the dragon's black eyes rimmed red. Harry had only a split second to bring up defense before the dragon fronted a terrific flame.

Harry caught up the flame in a golden orb, but immediately realized that in the tight confines of the landing, he was only going to be able to use that defense one more time.

Capricio attacked again. Harry saw the facility of the dragon's neck ruff. The impervious dragon scales on the ruff directed the totality of the flames forward, none bypassing to the dragon's rear. He encapsulated the flame and cautiously set it aside.

"Don't let the orbs touch," he thought desperately.

The space on the landing was now almost entirely filled with dragon, orbs, and one invisible, panicked wizard.

"Don't let the orbs touch," continued Harry in his head as he prepared to fight the battle down the stairs. He quickly considered the mirr panel. "If Capricio isn't playing; and I'm certain he isn't, as much as I hate it, capital measures will be necessary."

"Don't let the orbs touch," thought Harry for the third time when another avenue presented itself to his mind. "We always perfect the weapons we most fear. A dragon uses flame as his primary weapon. I have resorted to the orbs, yet I fear the consequences. What if I intentionally use both weapons?"

Trusting to the castle's protective spells, Harry levitated the orbs and brought them crashing together. At the moment the shock waves began to compress his eardrums, he removed the orbs and released the fiery onslaught. He wordlessly produced a shield charm, and at the last possible instant, surrounded both himself and Capricio.

The flames and pressure dashed them about, and consumed his chair, but the shield charm held.

When the tumult subsided, Harry was immediately ready to resume battle. He found Capricio wrapped protectively in his wings in a corner of the landing.

"Truce!" said Harry forcefully.

The dragon unfurled its wings. The wyvern's eyes, no longer rimmed red, had returned to bottomless ebony pools.

"What was that about?" asked Harry.

Capricio looked at Harry and their minds met. In an instant Harry understood.

"You interpreted my empty, lonely feeling and thought I was about to give up?" validated Harry. "Not likely!" Then he reconsidered. "I was feeling ultimately alone. I just watched what transpired the night Voldemort killed my parents; and I did nothing! I remember Treylon Baskin's comments about a leader being able to send followers to their death. I see my parents and Sirius as heroes who were willing to give their very lives for their cause. Still, I could have intervened and I did not. That thought will always haunt me." Harry paused to still a shudder, then continued, "But truly, my mental state had nothing to do with giving up or cracking under Slytherin's pressure."

Capricio made a sound deep in his throat that Harry understood as an apology.

"Very well," said Harry, "now that we have mended fence, let's take a minute to eat, and then we will see if we have resource to answers in the Head's office."

Harry became visible and produced a meal that was consumed in short order. When all was cleaned up, he faced the griffin knocker.

"I've assumed that Headmistress McGonagall is not in her office, otherwise she would have been here to wad my wand about the ruckus; but it's safer to knock."

He let the heavy brass knocker fall. As he suspected, no one answered.

He turned to the dragon. "Back me up in here. This could get a little tense."

Activating the mirr panel, he stepped into the familiar, but somehow now foreboding, office.

Harry was surprised to see the lamps burning. Dumbledore, indeed all the portraits, were alert and attentive. It appeared everyone knew there was a cauldron simmering.

Rather than leap into the inquisition, Harry took his time. He arranged a chair and made himself comfortable. Then he waited.

Dumbledore finally broke the silence. "So it has come to this?" he said with sadness.

"You know what I want to talk about?" asked Harry, barely in control of himself.

"I have made an educated guess," responded Dumbledore. "Although I never actually saw my rescuers at the Gaunt's cabin, I caught a single shouted name and enough of the conversation to conclude that Miss Granger, Mister Weasley and you were my salvation. I never breathed a word of my conclusion, because I assumed you had to make the decision on your own in the future. The skill set exhibited in my rescue was formidable."

"That doesn't answer my question and you know it," said Harry in a failed attempt to sound dispassionate.

"I am aware that I have not answered your question," replied Dumbledore. "I was merely building my case for a conversation I had hoped we would never engage."

"You have never told me everything," accused Harry. "Even when you have told me you would withhold nothing."

Several of the portraits gave low hisses.

"Now my friends," said Dumbledore chastising the other Headmasters and Headmistresses, "this young man actually has cause for hostility toward me."

"You know my question?" asked Harry flatly.

"Indeed," said Dumbledore. "I have known you would confront me since you saved my life."

"Possibly we are talking about two different things?" offered Harry as a way out.

"No," said Dumbledore. "You want to know why I abandoned your parents. Why I allowed them to be killed by Voldemort. You want to know why I did not protect them more vigorously. Is this not your question?"

Harry got up from the chair and paced the office. He worked his mind until his agitation was controllable, then he sat back down.

"How did you know?" demanded Harry.

"Once I understood that you had become comfortable in time travel; comfortable enough I might add, to violate Wizard law, I knew it would only be a matter of time before you went back to that night. You would see that I had not been there to protect your parents. I understand the draw, the attraction. I also knew the questions that would be stirred in your mind."

"How so?" preempted Harry forcefully.

"You were not cavalier in my rescue. You covered your magic so completely that when I recovered, I could find absolutely no trace. When I discretely inquired of the Ministry, I found they had ascribed the incident to a meteor strike. I considered the time had to garner considerable skill, you had to share that skill with your friends, you had to trust them completely, you had to be comfortable enough with time travel to be willing to violate law..."

"I...we," Harry corrected, "never intended to arrive while you were at the cabin. Our intent was to arrive earlier and attempt to defeat the masking magic we were sure guarded the Peverell ring..."

"In that case it becomes even clearer to me," said Dumbledore.

Harry noticed a tear slip down Dumbledore's long nose and drip into his lap. Unmoved, he continued, "How does that make it clearer?"

"If you did not come with the intent of rescuing me," explained Dumbledore, "you could have simply left and trusted me to my own abilities. I would have never been the wiser."

"We...I couldn't leave you," said Harry. "I've seen what masking magic is capable of doing. Attempting to overcome it alone is doable but very risky..."

"I suppose you believe your skills more potent than Albus Dumbledore's?" interrupted Phineas Nigellus in a sneering voice.

"Phineas, please. We have had this discussion..." started Dumbledore.

"All the same, it rankles me to see this jack-a-napes think himself better than his elders!" Nigellus arose from his seat and strode from his frame.

"I am sorry about that," began Dumbledore, motioning to the empty frame.

Harry cut him off. "You've talked about this confrontation?"

"I had hoped it would not be a confrontation," said Dumbledore sadly. "I loved your parents very much."

"Then why did you leave them!" snapped Harry viciously.

Dumbledore bowed his head momentarily. When he looked up, tears glistened on his face. "I live that night over and over in my mind," explained Dumbledore. "I saw the fulfillment of Sybil Trelawney's prophecy in Neville Longbottom, not in you."

A great wracking shudder shook Dumbledore.

"It's all my fault, all my fault," sobbed Dumbledore.

Harry recognized the words and was filled with compassion. "I know you think it's all your fault...but it's not."

With his own words, Harry began to heal.

"I know this is one of your greatest regrets," said Harry in a rush. "The night in the cave, you drank the potion from the basin. In addition to Voldemort's Debilitating Draght, Regulus Black bonded a Misery Minder potion. The two together would have brought up your worst memories and locked you into reliving them over and over."

"You know this because..." prompted Dumbledore through his sobs.

"I've acquired and broken down the potion," said Harry. "I was there and I saw what it did to you. You used the same words in your anguished state that you just used. I know you regret the loss of my parent's lives. But you can't be everywhere."

"Oh, but that is the whole point, that is the rub. I could have used the Time-Turner. I could have been in both places!" exclaimed Dumbledore.

Harry's anger rekindled. "Why didn't you use the Time-Turner?" he demanded.

"I know I did wrong," responded Dumbledore. "I tried to tell myself that I was just mistaken about Voldemort's target. He was so thoroughly prejudiced against all but pure-blood wizards. It stood to reason he would choose to kill Neville. The thought would not hold. I finally realized that I protected the Longbottom's because I had known them longer, they had not caused me the trouble your father had, and I...I liked them better. I did not use the Time-Turner because of my arrogance."

Dumbledore broke into more sobs.

Harry took quick stock of the friendships stored during Dumbledore's willy reading and it became clear. Dumbledore was telling the truth. He had liked the Longbottoms better than the Potters. I was also obvious that Dumbledore was sincerely sorry for the outcome of that decision.

Harry thought about his friends. He tried to put himself in Dumbledore's predicament. He tried to choose between Neville and Seamus, between Ron and Ginny, between Hermione and any member of the D.A. He found he couldn't.

"I understand," said Harry and his mental wound closed. "You did your best and I'll not fault you for that. If it makes it any easier, Voldemort intended to kill Neville also. He would have been there later that night, if my mom hadn't..." Harry's throat restricted.

"It would make sense," offered Dumbledore, sniffing. "I had considered a comment made by the young Tom Riddle in one of my Potions classes. He opined that potions brewed on specific days of the year and under a full moon would be more magically potent. Because of that snippet, I had been with the Longbottoms every full moon since I had heard Sybil's prophecy. At the time of Voldemort's attack on your parents, the Longbottoms were hidden in Iceland. Voldemort could have intended on killing you and then apparating to Iceland and been witness to the full moon rising again."

There was a profound silence as the two worked out pent-up emotions.

Finally Harry intruded on the moment. "I consider myself a coward for being right there...right at my parent's house...and doing nothing. At least you were protecting someone."

"Ah, my second regret," injected Dumbledore. "When Hagrid signaled that he had taken care of your parents, and that he had you safe and secure; I gave him instructions to take you to Little Whinging. I left the Longbottoms and sped to meet him there. After I left Iceland, the Death Eaters found the Longbottoms. I surmise that they were awaiting the return of Voldemort and Pettigrew...when they were overlong, the Death Eaters went to the last place Voldemort had said he was going...Iceland. They never found Neville, he was in the house protected by the Fidelius charm. Neville's parents however, were outside in the back garden. They were captured and tortured into madness. My failure was complete." Dumbledore hung his head.

After several long minutes of silence, Dumbledore looked down at Harry. "So do not be so harsh in adjudgment of your actions," said Dumbledore quietly. "You knew the outcome of that night. Forgive me, but you knew your parents fought the fight freely, and were willing to pay the price of their lives. You also knew I survived the encounter at the Gaunt cabin. You actually used your deduced knowledge to establish an appropriate reaction to each situation. You are a good man Harry Potter."

Harry felt a modicum of relief in the sentiment that someone thought him good.

Harry straightened and swept the portraits with a glance. "When I face Voldemort, and I will face him, it will not be with the spectre of my parent's deaths looming in my mind," he said with commitment. "I will make him pay for everything he has done. It won't be for revenge, it will be for justice."

Harry gathered Capricio, and before he left the circular office, he once again looked at the framed portraits. "I have two important things to finish before I leave Hogwarts, but I will come back one last time to say goodbye before the train leaves tomorrow morning. Thank friends!"

« Chapter 39 - Hangleton and Hollow   Chapter 40 - Last Things Last »


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