PROLOGUE: Cheers

Nights were the worst.

Of course, nights had never been good to Harry. He'd had bad dreams for years … so many, in fact, that he'd become almost blasé about it. There were the usual horrifying images, the screams, the shakes, and the sweat. It was hateful and disturbing, but at least it happened with some regularity. He knew what to expect: two or three nightmares in the course of a weekend, and perhaps one on a Monday. He had only "stupid dreams" the rest of the time, or none at all.

But ever since the chaos and the … passing … at the Department of Mysteries, and Dumbledore's sad revelation, sleep, even the screwed-up version of sleep Harry was acquainted with, had become almost impossible. It made the summer holidays doubly hard. He dutifully wrote his friends, filling leaves and leaves of parchment with kind, passive words that meant absolutely nothing. He dutifully wrote the Order, and told them he was okay, even though he wasn't. He dutifully slaved away for the horrible Dursleys during the day, attempting to keep his nose clean and their hedges trimmed.

And at night, he dutifully went to Hell, where Sirius waited, and Cedric, and his parents, ghastly apparitions with chalk-white faces and black stains for eyes. But what Hell would be complete without awful visions of deceased schoolmates? Soon there were terrifying images of Hermione and Ron, she disemboweled on the floor of the Great Hall and staring lifelessly up at the ceiling, he hanged from a lamp in the library by his own belt. Reasoning with the horror was useless. He repeatedly asked, "What would Ron be doing in the library?" but it did nothing to make the image disappear.

Hermione was even worse than Ron. Sometimes she would stare blankly while he knelt at her side and brushed her blood-soaked hair off her face, and sometimes she would talk. Well, perhaps "talk" was stretching it. She droned at him, spouting strings of nonsense with not enough prepositions and too many four-syllable words. After seeing it for the sixth time he'd managed to be slightly clinical and made an attempt to understand her, while swallowing the nausea burbling inside him. The first time, though, he was … unprepared. He'd woken up screaming, gasping for air and soaked in sweat, and realized that he'd pissed himself.

Nights had gotten very bad indeed.

Frequently during the day he would slip into a quiet depression. Again, this was nothing new. The Dursleys were not his favorite people and he wasn't interested in talking to them, particularly not about what had happened. But it had been so damn painful to lose Sirius, and it cut deeply that no one in the Order, not even Lupin, had attempted to talk to him about it. He didn't know if they felt it was for the best to let him get through it on his own, or if they'd been told to shut up. Either way, it hurt.

And talking to Ron or Hermione was out of the question. Back in June, their conversations had all begun with Hermione timidly asking him if he wanted to discuss … "you know," and Ron answering for him that he didn't, even the few times that he actually had. Separated from his friends for the summer, it was all he could do to write letters that wouldn't send them into a panic. He couldn't even talk to Hedwig. She'd spent as much time away from Privet Drive as possible, hunting and doing whatever else it was that birds did to amuse themselves, and frankly he couldn't blame her. He knew he wasn't very good company.

But Harry knew something else, something a bit more profound than "I am not good company." The thought was ugly and hazy and buried under lots of others, and he didn't know whether to despair of the truth of it, or laugh at the irony. Despite Voldemort's legendary Legilimency, the dark wizard didn't have to do a damn thing to him. He was slowly destroying himself, bit by scrappy bit, all on his own.

It showed. By the end of the holidays his normally bright eyes were dull and ringed with dark circles. His relatives, threatened quite nicely by the Order, had resigned themselves to feeding him properly for once, but he couldn't bring himself to eat much. He was skin and bones by the end of August. No amount of showering made him feel clean, for some reason, and he remembered the first thing Hermione did upon seeing him at Platform 9 and three-quarters was gasp. Then she pulled him into a crushing hug, which he returned, but with a lot less force.

Now, however, two weeks into term at Hogwarts, it seemed that things were finally turning around for him.

The first fortnight of school had been its usual monumental fit of madness, naturally. There was the increasing workload (his year was starting their marathon run to N.E.W.T.s) and the hysteria this had instilled in Hermione. There was Quidditch. His ban had been lifted, so now Ron was Captain and Keeper and he was Seeker once again. There were days full of pretending to be normal. And there were the hard, scary nights.

Not for long, though.

Harry was leaning against the side of Greenhouse 2 at morning break, alone under a grey sky. He had deftly shaken off Ron and Hermione at the library and doubled back around the grounds to get to this spot. He was standing on his right leg, as his left foot was planted on the greenhouse wall. The leg attached to it was bouncing madly to siphon off some of his nervous energy. He played with the cap on a brand-new silver hip flask, knowing full well he was toying with something essential about himself. The thought both excited and worried him.

Finally, after two weeks of putting this together, he had product. But he was still a bit apprehensive. Should he do it? Should he dump it? He only had a few minutes to make his choice before the bell, and after all, nothing was risk-free … particularly something like this.

Harry snorted. Honestly, he didn't know why he was even vacillating. He'd made it. He was competent. It was safe. And with one mouthful, his troubles would disappear.

"Cheers," he said to no one in particular, and took a quick drink.

Most of it slipped sweetly down his throat, but three drops of violently purple liquid clung to his lips. He licked them away and took a deep, easy breath.

Then he smiled, really smiled, for the first time in months.

Free at last.

Chapter One is on its way. :D R and R, si vous plait.