In The Hours That Followed
A snake emerging from the head of an old woman…The screams of his best friend piercing his heart like a dagger…The ghosts of his parents in the Forbidden Forest…A flash of green light…The blood warm on his hands as he pressed them against the lacerated neck of his old professor…Red slits for eyes and a high, cold laughter that froze his core to the bone—
Harry started awake with a yell. In one movement, he sprung up, wand at the ready, a thousand spells running through his brain. He was panting as if he had just run a race. Sweat coated his brow. His left hand was shaking in a clenched fist by his side. Harry stood like that, his chest heaving, for a whole minute before he fully realized where he was and what he was doing.
He looked around. The dormitory was deserted. He was alone in his four-poster bed in the Gryffindor Tower and he could not hear any movements close by. With a shaky breath, he thrust his wand back into his robes and placed a weary hand against his forehead. His head was cold and clammy. As much as he tried, he could not push the dream away. The images clouded his mind, the sound of screams and of destruction filled his ear drums as if the Battle were happening all around him…right at this very instant…
All at once, he was overcome with such strong emotions that he had to sit back down. He tried to steady his breathing, tried to reason with himself. Voldemort was dead, for good this time. No more Horcruxes. No more evil soul inside him.
But Harry had murdered a man. In the end, Tom Riddle was only a man. And the knowledge that he had now taken someone's life, no matter how evil, ate at him like maggots in his stomach.
The images of the people lost in the Final Battle swam in his vision like a sick mirage and he felt like throwing up. Is this was victory felt like? How could he approach his friends now? How could he talk to anyone who had ever known him with the knowledge that he had been the cause of so much agony?
Lupin, Tonks, Dobby, Colin…Fred.
His hands were shaking.
He did not feel like a hero. He felt like a pawn, like he had been used and thrown about, and in this game he had destroyed the players around him because they got in the way. Harry bent over so his chest was flush against his knees, and grabbed at chunks of his hair with his fists. What he would give to sleep for a thousand years. What he would give to never have to see the Weasley's, to never have to explain to them why Fred had to die. Because the truth was that Fred didn't have to die. No one had to. Harry had led the battle to them because it was convenient. Because he didn't think before he had done it.
In a moment of vulnerability, he let out a small gasp—a fraction of the turmoil he felt inside that he could no longer hold in. Crying wouldn't help. Crying wasn't enough. He wanted to scream and break things and dissolve into a million pieces. What was he supposed to tell Teddy when he was older?
Harry jumped at the sound. Ten seconds to collect. He brushed off his robes and stood up, trying to make it seem like he had just woken up. Particles of dirt, rubble, and blood flaked off of him and onto the floor.
It was Ron.
He looked tired, tired beyond belief. His eyes were red and swollen. For a moment, they just stared at each other. Suddenly, Harry felt extremely dirty. He wished he could wash out all of the grime covering him. Ron had already done so.
"Ron…" croaked Harry. It felt like he hadn't spoken in days. Maybe he had been sleeping for that long…
"You're in a right state," he said.
Harry swallowed, feeling more unclean than ever. He looked down at his knuckles stained in blood and rubbed them on his cloak, but the blood stayed. He rubbed harder. Still nothing.
"I'm fine…I'm fine…" he muttered.
His skin burned. He wanted to leave his body behind, let it crumple to the floor. It was a thing of disgust to him. King's Cross Station was so much cleaner, so much more pure. Why hadn't he chosen to stay there? It would have been so much easier…He frantically tried to rid the blood and dirt from his hands. He felt like a maniac, out of control, chest heaving—
And then Ron was there.
"Harry—Harry, it's all right. Everything is fine. Just…just sit down for a bit."
A guiding hand gently pushed Harry back onto his bed. Harry was conscious of the way his hands were shaking, and tried curling them into fists under his robes to control them. Out of respect, Ron pretended not to notice.
Ron gazed at him with sad eyes. "Harry, I know what you're thinking. You've got to stop it now. This is not your fault."
Harry fought with all his might to stop the shaking, but it was like his body and his mind were separated by a wall.
"You don't understand. H-how I feel...it's—"
"Actually, if anyone understands, it's me. You won, Harry. The war's over. It's time to let it go."
"I can't—I'm trying…I can't."
"Yes, you can. You're a hero. You can get through it—I've seen you do it before. Harry…Ginny is waiting to see you."
A morsel of warmth entered Harry's heart. For Ron to endorse the two of them was significant enough. And the thought of Ginny brought hope, dim though it felt through all of the layers of darkness pressing in on him.
"Y-You and Hermione got on, then?" said Harry, slowly bringing himself under control.
Ron turned a little red. "Yeah, we sort of did, I guess. Pretty unexpected. But…she started it, you know. She's down with the house elves right now, trying to fix up the kitchens." He smiled with subtle pride. "She never did get over that house elf thing, that Hermione."
"At least soon, everyone will be able to eat properly," said Harry. His stomach grumbled. It felt like he hadn't eaten in days. He glanced at the window. The dim light coming through the curtain was ambiguous.
"It's about eight at night," said Ron, answering his unspoken question. "You slept for about fourteen hours. I woke up about an hour ago. I guess our sleep schedules are all off now, eh?"
"Yeah," said Harry.
"Do you…want to go downstairs?"
Harry frowned. "To the common room?"
"To the Great Hall."
Harry shook his head, unable to speak. Images of the bodies strewn across the rubble in the Great Hall swam to the front of his vision. He could feel the gasping coming up in his throat again—it seemed to barely take anything at all to trigger it. Why was so hard to contain?
"Harry," said Ron, gently, "you can't hide away forever, you know that. Everyone thinks you're a hero. They want to celebrate you, not blame you."
"I can't…I can't…" he whispered. Then he looked directly into his best friend's eyes. "Ron, what do I say to them…I can't put it into words…"
"You don't have to say anything. I promise you, it'll be all right. My family, they want to see you. They're worried about you. The longer you stay up here the more they're going to worry. C'mon, mate…"
Harry stared at his hands. They had stopped shaking. His nightmare was fading slowly into memory. Briefly, he pressed a hand to the lightning bolt scar on his forehead. It did not pain him at all.
"I need to get myself clean, first," he said finally. "And then I'll come down, I swear."
"You solemnly swear?"
The corner of Harry's mouth turned ruefully upward. "Solemnly swear."
With clean robes, a clean face, and glasses that weren't clouded by dirt, Harry descended into the Great Hall. He could tell from outside the double doors that massive amounts of rebuilding had already been done. Tons of rubble had been moved, and he could hear many voices inside. He approached the doors, heart pounding madly through his chest. Harry had fought dragons and inferi and the Dark Lord himself, and yet, the thought of walking into a hall he had been in a thousand times terrified him.
He took a deep breath, not knowing what to expect, and pushed the doors wide open. It took a few moments for the crowd gathered to realize who had just entered, which gave Harry enough time to survey the Hall.
The stained glass windows had been repaired, and sunlight was seeping away as the last vestiges of the day disappeared behind the mountains. Four tables had been moved into the center of the room, but there were no house colors above any of them. Instead, the banner of Hogwarts hung over every table. Small piles of rubble were clumped in the corners, and large quantities of rock were being vanished away by various volunteer wizards and witches. A few plates of food were scattered across the table, mostly finished except for a few crumbs and extra sandwiches. Families and friends were huddled together. And then, from somewhere amidst the crowd, someone began clapping.
Harry paused in the doorway as, in a massive wave, the people in the Great Hall rose to their feet, yelling and cheering in joy…for him. The applause was raucous; the rest of the castle had to have heard. He put on a strained smile, embarrassed. He could feel his face heating up. At the front of the Hall he saw Ron waving to him and Harry took immediately towards them. As he walked down the isle, people patted him on the back, offered him words of congratulations and thanks. He could only mutter a few awkward words and a sheepish smile until finally, he arrived in the arms of a familiar family.
Mrs. Weasley buried him in her arms, sobbing hysterically. Harry patted her on the arm, trying to console her.
"Harry, we're so p-proud of you!" she cried. She held him at arm's length and studied his face. "Look at you," she said. "A g-grown man…a hero! This family owes you their lives."
Harry felt knots forming in his stomach, overwhelmed as he never knew he could be. Mr. Weasley was next. He couldn't speak at all, only gazed at Harry through a mask of tears while squeezing his arms so hard it burned. And then the rest of the Weasley's followed. Charlie, Bill, Percy…George.
Harry looked into George's eyes, really looked. He was pale beyond belief. Something was missing from them, a certain spark was gone. Harry could see George trying to smile at him, trying and failing to find the strength to do so.
"I'm so…George, I can't—" began Harry.
But George shook his head. "You don't have to say anything, Harry," he said croakily. "He'd be proud of you."
Harry let out a shaky breath, feeling relieved and terrifyingly saddened. He didn't think he could last many more days with this kind of sadness inside. He didn't think he could bear the thought of George sitting alone, missing his own reflection, missing his best friend. The agony inside of him was so consuming, he could barely breathe—
He looked up. Someone had stepped in front of him. Her red hair was long and tangled. She was wearing clean robes and he could smell the flowery scent around her as if they were back in sixth year, joking about Pygmy Puff tattoos and planning the next Quidditch match. Burning eyes met his, and suddenly the weight in his chest lifted.
"Ginny," he whispered. "I really missed you."
It was a stupidly underwhelming thing to say, but she had already leapt into his arms. He buried his face in the side of her neck, kissed her skin there, felt his problems dissolve to dust in the warmth of her breath and the smell of her skin. They didn't speak. In silence, they stood in an unbreakable embrace, reveling in a closeness they had been denied for so long.
When she pulled away, she looked up at him and wiped the wetness from his cheeks he hadn't even known was there.
"I missed you, too," she said. And they didn't need to say more.
Ron was clinking his glass loudly at the end of the table. The chatter in the Hall dimmed.
"A toast!" shouted Ron. "To my best mate, Harry Potter!"
The crowd in the Hall cheered enthusiastically and drank together. Somewhere, a drink was shoved into Harry's hands, and he took a sip eagerly, remembering how thirsty he really was. It was Firewhiskey. Harry shuddered as it went down aggressively and took another sip.
Ginny was holding his free hand as they sat down at the table together. He squeezed it firmly under the table. For now, it was his only anchor.
"Hermione, blimey, what happened to you?"
Ron was gawking as Hermione clambered through the portrait hole of the Gryffindor Common Room, covered in black soot, a piece of her hair smoking at the tip. The common room was completely empty except for them. The rest of the Weasleys were still in the Great Hall together.
Hermione laughed nervously. "The House Elves, they…they're in a state. There's no one to really order them around, you know, so they don't know what to do. I…well, I tried to get them to cook some things for the Great Hall since there are so many people there, but the kitchen's nearly destroyed. I've been trying to fix it with them, but they wouldn't even wait for it to be done while they were cooking and—" She huffed. "—there were some kitchen blunders, let's say that."
Ron raised his eyebrows at her. "You mean you didn't try to free them?"
Hermione gave him a dark look, although Harry was sure he saw her blushing. After all, it was conversations about House Elves that sparked some daring actions on Hermione's part not too long ago. "I didn't try and free them, Ron. I tried to help them. They're just having a hard time doing anything right now with everything that's been going on."
Harry began to get out of his chair. "Let's go."
Ron and Hermione looked at him curiously.
"C'mon," said Harry. "To the kitchens. We can fix it, the three of us."
"I just got back, though," said Hermione, looking at him strangely. "They're fine now, Harry, I'm sure of it. When I left they were starting to get things together."
"They could probably use our help," he said. "I mean, you never know. There are lots of people in the castle right now and they need someone to order them around—"
"Harry, what's gotten into you?" said Ron. "It's nearly one in the morning. The kitchens are basically closed now."
"Technically, we're already past curfew," added Hermione.
"Curfew?" said Harry, laughing. "Seriously, Hermione? You think they're going to enforce curfew on the school now? C'mon, I don't like sitting here."
"Harry," said Hermione, so sternly that Harry stopped in mid stance and sat back down again. Hermione peered at him through a face full of soot. "What's the matter? Don't think you can hide it from us when something's bothering you. Not after all we've been through."
"Yeah, spit it out," added Ron.
Harry collapsed in his armchair. There wasn't a fire going so there was nowhere for him to focus his sight on. He stared at his fingernails instead.
"Dreams," he whispered.
"What?" said Ron and Hermione together.
"I…I'm afraid I'll have…" he tried. "Last night—or morning, whatever—I had these dreams…"
"Nightmares," said Hermione slowly.
"Yeah," he said shakily. "I just…I don't want to…have them. Ever again."
"What kind of dreams?" said Ron, worriedly. "Like…You-Know-You dreams?"
"No, no, nothing like that. My scar doesn't hurt. It's just…" He took a deep breath. "I don't want to see any of…any of yesterday ever again."
Hermione smiled ruefully at him. "Harry, you've been through this before. I know you can do this. Voldemort can't get into your mind anymore. These are just nightmares—nothing more."
"Yeah, and it's not like we're going to bed any time soon," said Ron. "We got up about six hours ago."
"It's just that I'm…I'm tired of being…"
Ron and Hermione looked at each other.
"Afraid," finished Ron, with finality.
Harry looked up at him and they made eye contact. "Exactly."
"Look, mate," said Ron. "I don't know a lot about bad dreams, but I know that now that everything is over, we don't have to be afraid of them anymore. Just think about that. We don't have to be afraid."
"But how do you know?" pleaded Harry.
Ron shrugged and looked knowingly at Hermione. "I just know," he said. Hermione caught his gaze, and they stared at each other for a moment before breaking eye contact, a smile frozen in their eyes.
Harry looked at the two of them together, looked at the way they sat near each other, together and apart at the same time, and suddenly understood. He rose quickly from the arm chair. Ron and Hermione looked up at him warily, unsure of what he was about to do. But Harry ignored them. He checked to make sure he had his wand, the invisibility cloak, and a piece of parchment. He had all three.
"Thanks, guys," he said, distracted. "I'll be back later."
Then, taking out the invisibility cloak, he whooshed it around himself, disappeared, and made his way out of the portrait hole.
The moonlight seeped into the torn walls of the school where he walked. There was still the low din of noise coming from around major areas of destruction as witches and wizards continued their tireless efforts to repair the damage. Harry had expected this. That was why he was invisible. Out of his pocket he pulled out the piece of parchment, flicked his wand at it, and said, "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good."
The Marauder's Map revealed itself before him. He stood in the hallway, just east of the grand staircases, and peered at the hundreds of little dots under the dim illumination of the lamps on the walls.
"There you are," he said. "Mischief managed."
He took off in the direction of the Quidditch pitch, the wind whipping the invisibility cloak behind him. The pitch was far off and eventually, he found himself running. When he arrived, part of his heart dropped to the floor. His beloved Quidditch Pitch was in an utter state of demolition. Four of the soaring hoops were split completely in half, their other parts lying like crumpled twigs on the grass. The stands were burnt and still smoking. The flags of the four houses were torn and shredded.
Suddenly, a flash of light zoomed nearly an inch away from his head. He jumped out of way. The purple light surrounded one of the hoops still lying on the ground until the fissures along the pole were healed up. Harry looked around, and there was Ginny, all by herself, casting charms and enchantments on her beloved field in order to repair it.
Harry was so delighted, he threw off the cloak in one gesture. His sudden appearance shocked her. Her heard her scream a spell, and suddenly, he was knocked off his feet. The world inverted around him, and he realized he was hanging completely upside-down by an invisible hook on his ankle.
"Ginny! It's me!" he shouted, as the blood rushed to his head.
She ran to him and shouted, "Lumos!"
A warm light from her wand illuminated the two of them. When she saw that he was indeed Harry, she bit her lip. "Sorry about that," she said. Then with a flick of her wand, she let him down.
Awkwardly, he got to his feet and brushed the grass off his robes. "I shouldn't have surprised you like that."
"Well, I definitely didn't expect Harry Potter to just suddenly appear in front of me like some sort of ghost."
"So…you're fixing the pitch," he mused, looking around at her handy work.
"It's no one's priority right now," said Ginny seriously. "I thought I'd get a head start. Or just finish it on my own. You should've seen this place when I got here."
Harry moved closer to her. "I'll bet it was terrible."
Ginny took his hand in hers. "It really was. Could barely make sense of anything. Good thing I'm pretty decent at charms…"
She was very close to him now.
"I'll help you finish," whispered Harry. "If you'd like."
"It'll be much faster with two, yes," she replied coyly. "Or…we don't have to work at all."
Harry leaned in. "I was hoping you'd say that."
Harry and Ginny lay side by side on the Quidditch Pitch, watching the stars turn in the sky. It was three in the morning and the air was warm and the breeze was perfect. The Quidditch Pitch wasn't any closer to being fixed than it had been two hours ago. But they didn't mind.
"What are you going to do now?" asked Ginny, her eyes glazed over.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean…are you going to go back to school?"
Harry laughed dryly. "No, I don't think I could do that. I've put in enough…extra curricular time, don't you think?"
Ginny sighed. "I guess I was hoping you'd come back, just so…so we could see each other."
Harry turned to look at her. She was staring determinedly up at the navy sky.
"We'll see each other," he said. "I promise you. There won't be another year like this last one, I'll make sure of it. No more secrets. No more disappearing." He paused, trying to figure out how he wanted to say it. Then: "I have no intention of leaving you, Ginny."
She squeezed his hand. "You're cute sometimes, you know. I just mean that we've spent so much time apart that I really just…I just want to know that you're not going to go on some heroic quest without me again."
Harry frowned and propped himself up on his elbows to look at her. It stung that she didn't seem to believe him the first time. "I promise you," he said, making sure he was giving her his full focus. "I won't keep any part of myself from you. It's you and me now."
"You and me?"
Ginny rolled over so she was on top of him. The stars were obscured from Harry's view. He smiled up at her as her hair surrounded his face like a drape.
"I'm going to kiss you again," she said softly.
"Okay," he whispered.
"And when I do, it's going to make up for all of the ones we should have had together while you were off fighting You-Know-Who. Does that sound fair to you?"
Harry put a hand against the side of her face. In his heart he truly believed that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
"More than fair," he whispered.
Then she kissed him.
And it was like honey and roses and Firewhiskey and flying all once. It was the wind and the moon and the sun that burned so hot he thought he would burn up on the inside. He felt something wet on his face—thought maybe for a moment that it had begun to rain—but opened his eyes and saw tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. Real tears—happy tears. He brushed them with his thumb, appreciated them for their beauty. Kissed them where they trailed. Kissed her soft lips again and again and again. And above them the stars twinkled and the wind brushed against their skin, and the Quidditch Pitch remained broken.