Harry had never been in so much pain. Liquid fire was racing through his veins, scorching him from the inside out. He thought it would never end, but then suddenly it did, as smoothly and unexpectedly as falling asleep.
The next thing Harry realized was that he was lying down, and he was actually very comfortable. He shifted slightly, trying to get even more comfortable so that he could drift off into a well-earned sleep, but then he remembered.
The graveyard. Voldemort. Hermione.
Harry's eyes snapped open, his tiredness gone. He didn't know what had just happened, but he had to make sure that she was okay! They had to get out of here!
He sat bolt upright, and was immediately hit by a wave of dizziness. Where… where was he? The graveyard at Godric's Hollow was inexplicably gone, and in its place was what seemed to be a living room, with two plump sofas on either side of a low wooden coffee table. This didn't make any sense. He must have lost consciousness, and then Hermione must have grabbed him and the Portkey and taken them both back to Hogwarts, but this wasn't any part of Hogwarts he'd ever seen. He peered at the picture frames that sat on a shelf at the far end of the room, hoping that they might offer a clue as to where he was, but without his glasses he couldn't make out any of the faces.
Where were his glasses, anyway? He stood up, expecting to see them hiding amongst the sofa cushions, but they were nowhere to be found.
"You won't need them here, Harry."
His mother was standing in the doorway, smiling and holding a small platter of tea and scones. Harry's father followed her in. They sat on the sofa opposite Harry, with the tea set on the table between them. They looked so real, as if they had been plucked out of one of the photos Hagrid had given him, but that was impossible. He was dreaming, that had to be it. This whole night must have been one long dream, from the Triwizard maze to the graveyard to Voldemort's return. He was sure he would wake up in his bed in Gryffindor Tower any minute now, and it would be the morning of the final task.
"We're both so proud of you," James said. He poured Lily and himself a cup of tea, but nothing for Harry.
"Proud of me?"
"For what you did in the graveyard," Lily explained. "Sacrificing yourself for Hermione. You were so brave, Harry, and so selfless. We know being raised by Petunia and Vernon was difficult, but in spite of that you've grown into a wonderful young man, and a wonderful son."
"But that was just a dream," Harry said. His heart swelled from the praise, but he knew it wasn't real. This was nothing more than his own brain patting him on the back for something he hadn't even done.
Yet as Harry thought back over the events of the dream, he realized that he remembered them in surprising detail. He remembered having a long conversation with the Runespoor inside the maze before it agreed to let him pass. He remembered being tackled by Hermione as he touched the Triwizard Cup. He remembered the swirling, oily black smoke that had risen from the cauldron as Voldemort had been reborn. He remembered seeing a flash of bright orange and shoving Hermione out of the way, and then the fiery pain that had engulfed him.
"It… it was a dream, wasn't it?"
"I'm afraid not, son," James said, the smile gone from his face.
His father's words were like a heavy weight pressing into Harry's chest. If everything that he remembered had actually happened, if he really had been caught by Voldemort's Blasting Curse...
"But this conversation is a dream, right?" Harry asked quickly. "I'm sleeping in the Hospital Wing right now. I must be."
Yet even as Harry said that, he somehow knew that it couldn't be true. He often had vivid dreams, but they were always about wild chases or epic Quidditch matches or being lectured by a thirty-foot tall Snape as he suffocated in a mountain of overdue homework. They were never as ordinary as this.
"I know this must be a shock, Harry," his mother said.
"No, this can't be right! If that was all real, then Voldemort's back. I can't just leave everyone like this. I have to do more, I have to keep my friends safe! I don't even know if Hermione made it back to Hogwarts safely! People might die because of me, because my blood brought him back. I can't—"
His father gently interrupted him.
"Harry. Harry. Nothing that might happen is your fault. And you've still got the chance to do so much more."
"I'm sorry," Lily said. "We haven't explained this very well. We don't understand it much more than you do, but you're not dead, Harry."
"No. Voldemort's curse destroyed your body, and it's for that reason that your soul is now here, at the border between the worlds of the living and the dead. But you haven't crossed that line, thank Merlin. There must be something that still ties you to the world of the living, Harry. Whatever it is, it's anchoring you, stopping your soul from being pulled any closer to death. For now you're stuck here, in limbo."
Harry felt a rush of relief, but then he realized that being here was awfully similar to being dead. As he thought about it more, though, he wondered for a second if being stuck here would be so bad after all. Maybe this place wasn't quite real in the way that other things were, but some part of him selfishly wanted to enjoy it for as long as he possibly could. He hadn't seen his parents this clearly since using the Mirror of Erised during his first year at Hogwarts, and he was amazed by how young and healthy and alive they looked. They were looking at him with such genuine joy in their eyes. They couldn't have been more different than the imitations that the mirror had shown him. This was the first time he'd ever had a conversation with them. This was a moment from a childhood that he'd never had. He wanted to capture the feeling of this moment forever, to store it so deep within his mind that it could never be forgotten. If he could do that, he knew he'd never struggle with a Patronus Charm again.
Ultimately, though, he knew that he'd have to settle for that. He had somehow escaped death yet again, and he had to take advantage of that opportunity. If there was a way back to his friends, he had to find it. He owed it to every one of them, for everything they had given up for him. He owed it to Ron, who had willingly sacrificed himself in that enormous chess game so that Harry could continue on. He owed it to Sirius, who had risked coming to Hogsmeade and had lived off of rats just so he could try to keep Harry safe. He owed it to Hagrid, who had always been there for him, and who had been the target of Rita's cruel quill because of that. Harry would never have even made it to fourth year without them, and he couldn't abandon them now.
"I need to go back," Harry finally said. "There has to be a way."
"We know, son," James said, a twinkle in his eye. "We can give you a nudge in the right direction. That's what we're here for, really."
"We should have told you right away," Lily apologized. "We were worried about overwhelming you the instant you arrived. If I'm honest, we also wanted the chance to be with you for a moment before we helped you go back. It's… it's been so very long."
She smiled at Harry, a lone tear running down her cheek, and then she and James stood up. Harry knew he had to go, but part of him still didn't want to let this come to an end. This was what Voldemort had taken from him. He had never known what it felt like to make a parent proud, or to love and be loved unconditionally. It felt wonderful, and realizing what he had missed stoked a righteous anger within him. He was going to stop Voldemort before he could tear that away from anybody else, no matter what it took.
His father walked over, putting his hands on Harry's shoulders. Harry could feel their warmth. Somehow he hadn't expected that.
"We'd better not see you here again for a very long time," he said lightly, before tousling Harry's hair.
"We love you, Harry," his mother said. "Now and always."
She hugged him for what could have been a moment or an eternity, and for the first time in his life Harry felt truly safe.
"Mum, Dad, I love you both so much."
He was choking up, but he had to get the words out. He might never get this chance again.
"I've… I've always hoped that I can live up to the sacrifice that you made for me."
"You do that every day, son," James said. "Now get back there and keep making us proud."
He stepped forward, put his palm on Harry's chest, and pushed. Harry began to fall, but not in any direction he could point to or name.
"And Harry – when you see Voldemort, you tell him that he'll never get the best of the Potters."
The living room slowly faded to black, and then from that blackness rose the trees and tombstones of the graveyard.
Harry got to his feet and started looking around frantically for any sign of Hermione.
Then he realized that he didn't have feet. He didn't have any body at all. When he held his arm in front of his face, all he saw was a pale outline of his hand and fingers. He could see right through them. When he tried to walk, he found that his feet glided over the ground as if it was ice, but that no matter how hard he tried he was agonizingly slow.
There was a loud crack from somewhere behind Harry, as if someone had stepped on a twig. He spun around as fast as he could, hoping beyond hope that it was Hermione, but there was nobody there. He tried to call out, but quickly realized that he had no voice.
Harry swore as loudly as he could inside his own mind. He was a ghost. No, less than a ghost. At least ghosts could speak. He was alive, if his current condition could even be called that, but how was he ever going to get back to Hogwarts? How was he ever going to get back to Ron and Hermione? They were probably hundreds of miles away, and he didn't even know in which direction. Maybe Hermione would try to come back for him, but she had seen him get blown up right in front of her, hadn't she? She had no reason to think he was alive.
Harry moved around the graveyard, hoping to find some indication that Hermione was safe, but there was no trace of her, nor of Voldemort or any of the Death Eaters. The only evidence that anything had happened here at all was a crater in the earth that was maybe four yards across and two deep. He quickly decided against looking at it any closer.
Harry finished his circuit of the graveyard, but he was still no closer to finding any answers. The Triwizard Cup was gone. Maybe that meant that Hermione had used it to go back to Hogwarts, or maybe the Death Eaters had simply disposed of it after killing her. There was no body, but Merlin only knows what they might have done to it if they'd killed her.
Harry looked up at the stars, trying not to let despair overwhelm him. He had to believe that Hermione was safe, because the thought that she might have died because she'd entered the maze to try and save him, that she might have died because of him, was too awful to be true.
No, he refused to believe that someone so smart and loyal and brave could be gone from this world. He refused to believe that the moments they'd shared over the last few weeks were the last that they'd ever have together. Harry closed his eyes and thought back to their night in the Room of Requirement, and as he remembered the butterflies he'd felt every time he looked at her, and the unbridled joy in her eyes as she'd told him about her favourite childhood books, and how free he had felt finally sharing how he felt with her, he finally found himself brimming with hope.
He was the Boy Who Lived, damn it. He might be living a half life, but he was still living, and he was going to see her smile again.
Even if he had to cross all of Britain to get to her.
A/N: Apologies for my slight misdirections in previous ANs: Harry will be featuring prominently in upcoming chapters, and at its core this is still absolutely a story about him, Hermione, and their relationship. That story just might not be as straightforward as some others.
On a separate note, I'm hoping to be more active with writing and updating moving forward, and one thing that I'd like to do is keep you all more informed about what's going on with the story. I don't really know what other authors typically do, but would there be any interest in something like a Discord server where status updates and maybe occasional bonus content get posted? I'm very much open to other suggestions too!