Chapter One: Home and Memories
Night had just fallen. The sky was of a deep shade of blue and stars were twinkling at the horizon; the warm breeze gently ruffled the leaves of the frail and thin trees, timidly rising from the ground covered in thick green grass. Vegetation was starting to again conquer the rocky mountains towering over the valley, without yet succeeding in hiding the deep marks still scarring the mountains: great brown burns and black amounts of ashes where old forests had once stood, and deep cracks streaking the grey rocks.
A cat was swiftly and silently making its way in the tall grass. It walked on, ignoring the tantalizing butterflies fluttering just in front of its muzzle, towards the foot of one of the tallest mountains. When the grass finally ended to be replaced by hard, grey stone, the cat abruptly turned to the right and walked straight into a pointed rock, standing isolated at a few feet from the side of the mountain.
Just before it reached the rock, the cat vanished from view.
The cat found itself in a tall, underground passageway; irritably shaking its head — the feeling of going through a rock being all but enjoyable — it headed for the exit, visible at about a half a mile away from where the animal stood.
The tunnel sneaked under the mountain and opened smoothly onto another valley, encased by the tall mountains rising all around it. The magical passageway was obviously the only way to get to the valley without flying. As soon as the cat came out of the tunnel, the sound of laughter and singing reached its ears. It stopped and considered the illuminated village of Hogsmeade that nestled in the valley. People were laughing and calling at each other, almost all of them heading for one of the largest houses.
The cat crept into the village, walking on the side of the Main Street to avoid being trampled by the cheerful crowd. The scent of wet paint and freshly cut wood filled the air; finally, after being destroyed to the last straw in the terrible war that had devastated the wizarding world two years ago, the village of Hogsmeade was reborn.
The cat followed the crowd of wizards and witches to the Three Broomsticks. The pub was the only building that hadn't been destroyed in the war, and it had stood firmly for the last two years, still receiving every evening the former inhabitants who had been forced to live in the nearby Muggle town. Now that they were all back, they were naturally gathering again in the Three Broomsticks to celebrate. Madam Rosmerta, the curvy barmaid, would be without doubt quite busy tonight.
The cat slipped into the noisy and crowded pub, and found a quiet, comfortable place under a table near the bar. There, it lay down on its belly, its head held high and its tail lazily moving up and down, and listened.
"To Hogsmeade!" roared a rounded man, very red in the face and already half-drunk. "To our lovely village finally reborn!"
"To Hogsmeade!" repeated a few people, laughing as the man staggered and spilled half of his Firewhisky over himself.
Madam Rosmerta rushed to the side of the plump man, seized his arm and tugged on it to help him stand up. "Archie, the festivities have only just begun and you've already had far too much Firewhisky," she said reproachfully.
"And to Hogwarts!" bellowed Archie, ignoring her and gripping a table to steady himself. "To the Hogwarts staff and students, without whom the village could never have been rebuilt!"
"Exactly!" shrieked a girl of around eighteen, raising her Butterbeer. "We've given up on our weekends to come and help here for the last two years, people!"
"Maybe you wouldn't have if you hadn't wanted to be able to visit the village again on your weekends," the owner of Honeydukes candy shop pointed out, smiling widely.
"Whatever!" boomed a voice from the entry. "It's so good ter be able ter come here again!"
"Evening, Hagrid!" called Madam Rosmerta from a corner of the room. "The usual?"
"Take yer time, Rosmerta," said the giant, smiling.
The celebrations went on. Madam Rosmerta had to serve everybody and she didn't stop trotting from the bar to every corner of the room, helped by the eighteen-year-old who had just graduated from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
"There you are," said the girl cheerfully, laying a glass full of fiery red liquid on the table under which the cat had settled. "How good is it to be able to drink without worrying about who will be killed tomorrow?" she added with a sigh.
"I'm only starting to breathe again," said a woman, gripping the glass of fiery red liquid. "You don't remember last time, you're too young. We had thought we were rid of You-Know-Who, and he rose again and started killing left right and centre."
"We had thirteen years of peace before that happened, Dolly," answered an old man in a wheezy voice. "And only three years of war. It could have been so much worse."
"And anyway, it's over now, isn't it?" insisted the teenage girl who had brought the drinks.
"Don't be so sure," whispered the woman called Dolly in a dark voice. "He may have not died."
"Codswallop," growled Hagrid, who had just joined the table where Dolly and the old man sat. "Harry Potter said he was dead. So he's dead. Or maybe yeh don' trust Harry Potter's judgment?"
Dolly, mortified, could only mumble "Not at all — would never dream of it —", and the conversation dwelled on less controversial topics.
However, as soon as Hagrid had risen and left — as he had "quite a lot ter do and not so much time ter spend with yeh all" —, Dolly leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, "Hagrid can say anything he wants… I'm not as confident as he is. First, because it happened before; it can happen again. Second… because I'm not trusting a boy —" She suspiciously glanced around before going on, lowering her voice so that those sitting with her had to bend forward to hear. "— a boy who is said to have turned… completely weird."
"What are you talking about?" asked the teenage girl, somehow angrily. "Without Harry Potter —"
"He rid us of You-Know-Who," agreed Dolly, her eyes narrowed and her fingers playing nervously with her glass. "How did he do it? He never said. Why won't he say it? Because he used dark magic, obviously."
"He still vanquished You-Know-Who," said the old man serenely. "If he had to do it again, and if he had to use dark magic to do so, I would give him my blessing without second thoughts."
Dolly looked disgruntled.
"Why were you saying he was weird, anyway?" spat the Hogwarts girl, eyeing her with disgust. "If being brave, selfless and full of incredible charisma, is being weird, then I wish there would be more weirdoes on earth!"
The old man had an indulgent smile, but Dolly smirked unpleasantly.
"My cousin is working at St Mungo's," she said in a self-satisfied tone. "She said Potter suffers from… odd perturbations, since he defeated You-Know-Who. She heard he never sleeps. Never! He hasn't slept for a minute since You-Know-Who disappeared. And he feels nothing either. No pain, no emotion… nothing. He's barely human."
The people around the table exchanged dark looks.
"I can't say I'm surprised," muttered a woman, leaning back in her chair. "We always knew the boy was odd, didn't we? A Parselmouth… and a friend of werewolves and giants… and collapsing all over the place, and having dreams and hallucinations…"
"If he was dangerous, he would have tried to become You-Know-Who's ally, wouldn't he?" said the Hogwarts girl hotly.
"Not if he wanted to become the new Dark Lord himself," Dolly shot back at her, a triumphant smile splattered on her thick features.
"I've heard other things," said the other woman's husband. "He's able to see at night like a cat, and he can sense danger coming. Of course these are only rumours, but still…"
The old man closed his eyes in weariness as he drew a long puff of smoke from his crooked pipe. Now that they had found something juicy to gossip about, they wouldn't stop for the rest of the evening. He wondered if part of those rumours were true. Even if they were, even if the boy was now a little strange, he would be the last to blame him. That was a wonder all those horrible things Harry Potter had had to go through hadn't driven him crazy. The mere fact that he was still alive was a miracle; if he had died while saving the wizarding world, all those people whispering about him would be now wiping a tear at the thought of such a young and brave boy…
When they started maintaining Potter was a werewolf and a vampire who could read minds and kill you just by touching you, the old man decided he had heard enough of this. Getting laboriously to his feet, he grabbed his walking stick and headed for the door after biding Rosmerta goodbye. He didn't see the cat rising from its position under the table, making its way through the crowd and following him quietly.
He was just out of the pub when the eighteen-year-old caught up with him.
"Don't leave me alone with those people!" she said reproachfully, as she fell into step with him. "They're all raving about how we should lock up Harry Potter in Azkaban. Lock up a hero in that dreadful prison! I thought I was going to kill that fat one with her cousin in St Mungo's. The filthy old hag."
The old man smiled. He liked that girl.
"Dolly is just too fond of gossip to let escape such an opportunity. Now she's just glad she found a way to make herself important… She's that sort of people craving for recognition, you know… more to be pitied than anything else."
The girl let out an exclamation of disgust.
"More to be kicked in her fat bottom than anything else! I resisted the temptation to cast her a good silencing charm. Pity I'm so lousy in Charms."
The old man chuckled softly. The girl had a shy smile and, upon noticing he had trouble keeping up with her quick pace, slowed down. They were walking along the Main Street of Hogsmeade, their shadows stretched out at their feet and grotesquely distorted as they went past the glowing orange streetlamps.
"Which house were you in at Hogwarts?" the old man asked pleasantly.
"Gryffindor," she answered with something like fervour. "Harry Potter was in it, too. Two years above me, and the Quidditch star of the whole school! I used to fancy him. He must have thought me so stupid… I even tried to have him drink a love potion!"
The old man laughed again. "What is your name, young lady?" he asked.
"My name is Bernard Olibrius. I live in that house," he added, showing the brand new and tiny house with the tip of his walking stick. "If you have nothing to do one day, you may come to see me. You'll be always welcome with a nice cup of tea."
"Thank you sir," said Romilda Vane with a huge smile. "I'll be glad to come."
The cat, that had been quietly following them since the Three Broomsticks, sat on the cobblestones and watched as Olibrius slowly climbed the steps leading to the threshold of his house, and as Romilda Vane walked away.
The cat stayed unmoving where it had stopped, as if thinking about what it should do now. In the heavy silence, broken only by the distant singing and the murmur of the breeze, a voice suddenly spoke.
"Fancy seeing you here, Professor McGonagall."
The cat spun around to face whoever had spoken; there was a faint popping noise, and one second later the cat had disappeared. Where it had been stood now a tall, severe-looking witch wrapped in a travelling cloak. She couldn't see anybody behind her, yet she didn't need to see to know who had spoken. She knew that voice very well.
"You should learn, once and for all," she said briskly, "that it's quite rude to start a conversation when you're wearing an Invisibility Cloak, Potter."
For a second the air trembled in front of her, as if a hot gas was clouding it, then the outline of a man appeared out of nowhere as he took off a long silvery cloth of his body.
"Good evening, Professor," said the man as he moved into the orange glow of the streetlamp.
Harry Potter had changed. That fact would strike anybody who had known him as a Hogwarts student, as forcefully as a stone received fully in the face. However, few were able to say what exactly had changed in him. He had the same tall and thin stature, the same thin face surrounded by untidy black locks, the same big green eyes behind round glasses, and the same thin scar on his forehead. He had earned several other scars since the war, but his face had remained whole and untouched.
"Good evening, Potter," answered Professor McGonagall, not showing the shock she had experienced when she had seen him. She just couldn't get used to that strange boy Harry Potter had become since the end of the war, and she was irritated to feel like a stranger to him whereas, technically speaking, he looked exactly as he had always had.
"Do you want to stay at Hogwarts for the night?" she asked with a gesture towards the distant grounds of the school.
"I'll be very glad to," he said, unsmiling.
They walked silently along the road heading for the gates of Hogwarts. "Were you in the pub?" asked McGonagall after a few minutes.
Harry nodded. "Yes, I was. Just beside the table under which you had hidden."
"So you've heard everything they said, haven't you?" she said sharply, surveying him closely. He showed no sign of emotion.
"Oh yes," he answered nonchalantly. "I was rather curious to hear what people truly thought of me actually. That's why I went to the Three Broomsticks wearing my Invisibility Cloak. I've been doing that a lot lately, it's very instructive."
Professor McGonagall sighed. "You're going to make me think those stupid rumours are true if you go on like that, living alone, barely seeing your friends, wandering in the oddest places at night," she said severely. "Your behaviour makes of you the ideal topic for half-witted gossiping people."
Harry Potter abruptly stopped and turned to face her.
"What if the rumours are true?" he said bluntly.
Professor McGonagall stared at him in shock. The moon had risen and its white, ghostly light drained Harry's face of all colour. The pupils of his eyes were so extended from the lack of light, that they almost completely hid the green of his irises.
Professor McGonagall had realised long ago that his eyes were what had changed in him; they were what made him look like a person completely different from the boy who had attended Hogwarts. Those eyes used to be bright, expressive, and always betraying his emotions; now all she saw whenever she met his gaze was cold emptiness.
"What do you mean?" she barked irritably, tearing her eyes from his and walking on. "Last time I checked, you weren't a vampire reading my mind."
Harry gave a quiet, humourless laugh. "No, I'm not yet," he answered, catching up with her. There was a kind of detached amusement in his voice. Two years ago, he would have roared with laughter, thought Professor McGonagall sadly.
"But I was surprised to hear how accurate that hag whose cousin works in St Mungo's was," Harry went on. "I should have a word with St Mungo's Head Healer. He's not supposed to let slip information about his patients."
"You're ill," snapped Professor McGonagall. "It's not as if you were —"
"Barely human?" Harry finished coldly. "Quoting that Dolly, or whatever her name is? I appreciated that formulation. So dramatic."
It was Professor McGonagall's turn to stop dead. "Potter," she said threateningly, "sometimes I wish you were still at Hogwarts, so that I could give you a good long detention for uttering such nonsense. I just came back from a long trip, during which I spoke to countless people, all of them on the whole fabulously uninteresting. I'm glad to see you again and I'd rather you don't spoil it all by whining about what a wreck you are."
For a second, she thought she saw the old youthful gleam in Harry's eyes again. His voice was certainly much warmer when he answered.
"I'm really sorry Professor. It won't happen again. I'm very glad you're back as well."
They hardly talked as they made their way through the gates and towards the castle. The stigmas of the war were still visible here. One of the mountains had suffered so many spells as the Death Eaters forced entry into Hogwarts, that the top of it had finally exploded, sending huge pieces of rocks flying in the air. The mountain still stood, beheaded, and some of the rocks could still be seen, lying on the ground like defeated stone giants. The biggest of all was firmly planted in the middle of the lake, half of its impressive mass emerging from the dark water. The grass was only beginning to cover the ground, infertile and burnt from the countless spells that had bounced off it during the battles. The castle was still the same, no charm being able to destroy the thousands-year-old architecture. Yet the inside of the castle had been rebuilt almost completely, after being ravaged by a terrible fire.
Professor McGonagall and Harry Potter stood side by side in front of the oak doors, blackened and scorched.
"That school wouldn't exist anymore if it hadn't been for you," said McGonagall evenly.
"Just as it wouldn't exist if you weren't there yourself, Professor," answered Harry in the same indifferent voice.
Professor McGonagall didn't make any comment and led him through the doors and up the marble staircase.
"Do you wish to sleep in your old dormitory?" she asked as they reached the top of the stairs.
"No thanks," said Harry, "one of the guest rooms is good enough for me."
As he bid her goodnight in the doorway of his room, Professor McGonagall noticed something else in his gaze — something she hadn't noticed before. It was exhaustion.
She couldn't recall a time when Harry Potter had looked so drained out.
Harry sat on the window ledge, his gaze drifting on the grounds. He wasn't feeling as empty, as numb as usual. Hogwarts always had this effect on him: bringing out emotions from his past — how distant that past felt, when it had been a mere two years ago —, a feeling of peace and calmness he didn't experience anywhere else.
Harry distractedly played with the candle burning on his bedside table. The burning-hot wax flooded on his fingers, reddening the skin. He watched as the wax cooled and coated his fingers, and he smiled at his childish behaviour. The wax would have burned anybody else. But his fingers were only slightly red from the burning contact.
Harry returned his gaze to the grounds. He could see the Quidditch pitch in the distance, and he vaguely wondered how it would feel to fly here again. Flying hardly brought him any comfort, but then he hadn't flown at Hogwarts for the last two years.
A sudden longing for his old explorations of the castle and the grounds took him completely unawares. He almost laughed aloud; what a strange effect this place had on him… He felt nearly normal, all of sudden…
Harry abruptly rose, pinching the wick of the candle between his thumb and his index to extinguish it; he didn't need its light anyway, he could see in the dark almost as well as in broad daylight. He smiled again, thinking of how his strange new abilities would have been useful a few years ago, when he used to set off for long walks around the castle and the grounds, in the middle of the night.
He pushed his window open, and the chilling breeze caressed his face; he hardly felt its touch, though, and didn't pause to consider the dropping temperature. Hauling himself up on the window ledge, he stayed crouching on it for a moment, his hands gripping the stone lintel above his head. Then he swiftly turned around and hung from the window ledge, only holding on by his fingers gripping the cold, hard stone.
He didn't waste time searching blindly for projections; the stones of the wall had been polished by time, wind and rain, until they were as smooth as a mirror. He managed to grab the nearby stone gutter that ran down the tower, and let himself slide down it to the next window ledge. Each of his gestures was quick and precise, and although his palms should have been burned as they slid down the smooth stone of the gutter, nearly supporting his full weight, he didn't seem to notice.
He didn't have to go down very far before he met a roof; finally letting go of the gutter, he turned around to stare at the moon rising from behind the beheaded mountain. It was almost perfectly round. It would be full the following night.
Harry didn't have much trouble getting down to the ground. He jumped from one roof to another, until he reached the square tower of Ravenclaw house. Gargoyles were sprouting every few feet on the ridge of the tower, making a sort of ladder he used to go further toward the ground.
The last gargoyle was suspended about twenty feet above the ground. Harry jumped off it and landed catlike, on all four, on the earth ground. He straightened up and was surprised to feel his left leg giving way beneath him. Examining it closely, he found he had twisted his ankle. He hadn't felt any pain.
Taking out his wand, he pointed it at his ankle and muttered a quick spell. His ankle glowed in an electric-blue light for a few seconds; he cautiously leaned on his left leg, which seemed to be working again perfectly. Without thinking further about it, he set off at a quick pace.
The grounds were dark and peaceful. Harry went everywhere, visited every place he had ever been in, never lingering anywhere. He ended up entering the Forbidden Forest, which seemed to be recovering exceptionally fast from the treatments it had suffered during the war. Young trees had already replaced the trees burnt or cut, and the hundreds-year-old trees in the depths of the Forest had remained untouched.
Harry walked on, toward the wild core of the Forest — a place no living wizard, except him, had ever been in. After about an hour of walking in a total silence, he caught the sound of a twig creaking under a hoof. He paused, waiting for the creature that had made this noise to show itself. He didn't feel anxious. He didn't even feel curious.
The hooves stopped; the creature hiding in the shadows of the trees was at a mere few feet from Harry, and it seemed to be pondering its next move. Harry took a few steps forward so that the moonlight fell on his face.
The creature slowly moved into the patch of moonlight.
"Magorian," said Harry, recognizing the centaur.
"Harry Potter," he answered, slightly bowing in acknowledgement.
"Did I disturb your star-gazing?" Harry asked, holding out his hand for the centaur to shake.
"The stars are always there for those who desire to read their message," said Magorian, unsmiling. "Nothing can disturb their celestial dance. Firenze has been asking for you lately."
"I'd like to see him again."
"I'm afraid you won't be able to," Magorian said in the same deep, even voice. "Firenze is still suffering greatly from the wounds he received in the last war. We keep him in the Centaurs' Clearing, where no wizard will ever be allowed to stand."
"Will he survive?" asked Harry, frowning. "Those wounds are cursed, you should allow him to be cured by wizards."
Magorian surveyed him severely, his eyes boring into Harry's.
"No wizard," he said slowly, "is as skilled as a centaur in the art of curing and healing. This is an art the men learned from us, Harry Potter. And I'd add no wizard has been able to cure your own wounds in the past years."
"I am not wounded."
"The centaurs' art of medicine doesn't only apply to physical wounds," the centaur softly went on. "And I can see you have been injured more deeply than any human I have ever met before. Maybe, before long, you will call for the centaurs' help. And, given what you have done for our kind, maybe it won't be denied to you."
Harry turned his eyes away from the centaurs' keen ones. "I thought the centaurs kept to themselves," he murmured, staring at a path sneaking away in the shadows, without really seeing it. "I thought they didn't trust wizards. Dumbledore accomplished for your kind much more than I ever did. Would you have offered him such help?"
He returned his gaze to the centaur, eyeing him sharply, curious to see Magorian's reaction.
Magorian stayed silent for a few seconds.
"Dumbledore," he said slowly at last, "never needed the centaurs. The centaurs needed him, though no one in our herd would ever admit it. Dumbledore was a wizard. You were right to say centaurs didn't trust wizards; indeed they don't. Dumbledore was an exception. The only exception."
Magorian turned his back on Harry and slowly walked to the edge of the small moonlit clearing. Just as he seemed about to disappear into the shadows of the Forest, he turned around again to face Harry.
"But do you still consider yourself as a wizard, Harry Potter?" he asked softly. "The centaurs doubt you are so. The Forest thinks you are not. The trees are hardly ever mistaken."
Magorian's gaze trailed away from Harry, to the path he had been absent-mindedly watching a minute before. Harry stared at the path, too. He knew it was leading to the old heart of the Forbidden Forest.
Harry heard the centaur quietly walking away and disappearing among the trees. Automatically, he took a few steps toward the path. It was almost invisible, hidden here and there by a fallen branch or an invasive bush. But it would reappear, a thin white thread on the dark ground, winding between the thick trunks.
Harry found himself following the path before he had time to think about it. His feet carried him deeper and deeper in the Forest, until the trees closed completely over his head, forming a thick roof of leaves and branches the moonlight couldn't pierce. He remembered the last — and only — time he had walked along that path. He had been running, blinded by pain, bumping into trees and rocks, without any idea of where he was heading, just running forward, trying to escape the terrible pain tearing at his insides and burning in his veins.
Harry pushed aside a branch blocking his way, and stopped. The path ended here. Now he was in front of a barrier of immensely old and thick threes, so close to each other there was no way he could thread his way between them. He raised a hand and ran it across a trunk, not feeling the splinters of wood digging into his palm. He knew he had been further than this last time. He couldn't remember how he had got past the barrier.
He slid both hands into the narrow crack between two trunks and reflexively pushed on the solid wood, in an attempt to widen the opening. Just as he realised how foolish this action was, a sound like a light breeze filled the air and the trunks unexpectedly gave way to his pressure; he stepped back as the opening between the trunks widened, revealing an alleyway formed by two columns of hundred-year-old trees. The alleyway was bathed in an eerie green light, as if the summer sun was shining through the roof of leaves.
The sound of running water reached his ears. If he walked on, he would find the river. The river he had crossed last time, the river in which he had almost drowned.
Harry stood, motionless, at the entry of the deep core of the Forbidden Forest. Suddenly he felt unable to face the memories that would assault him if he went in there once more. Turning around, he walked away, ignoring the strangely appealing sound of the river and the inviting serene light bathing the alleyway. Behind him, he heard the trees closing once more.
Harry crossed the whole Forest; the morning was near, and the birds started singing in the trees. Their chirping and twitting soon rang from every bush and every branch, filling the air with shrill tunes. As Harry walked round the deep hollow in which the Acromantulas had settled, he heard a familiar voice grumbling, a few feet ahead. Smiling, he quickened his pace, and soon came out of the dark trees onto a small clearing. As he expected, Hagrid was there, busy ridding a Thestral of the ticks clinging to its skin.
"Hey, Hagrid," he said, coming to a halt beside the gamekeeper.
Hagrid started, frightening the Thestral that bounced forwards and dashed away among the trees.
"Merlin, Harry!" Hagrid exclaimed, drawing Harry in a rib-cracking hug. "So good ter see yeh again! Where've yeh been all this time?"
"Travelling," Harry answered evasively. "Sorry for scaring your Thestral away."
"Yeah, yeh wanna be more careful with that," said Hagrid gruffly. "Jumping on people on that hour of the mornin'… What a racket," he grunted, wincing as another bird added its voice to the already loud chorus.
"You must be glad the Forest is recovering so quickly, though," Harry pointed out with a smile.
"Yeah, I am fer sure," said Hagrid, beaming. "Those good ol' trees have already seen much worse than a bunch o' Death Eaters."
"Like yer father and his friends, for a start," answered Hagrid, his eyes twinkling as he looked down at Harry. "It's a wonder the Forest survived ter seven years of Marauders roamin' around. An' the Weasley brothers weren't too bad, either."
"Hagrid," said Harry, suddenly remembering something the gamekeeper had once told him. "Have you really been in every part of this Forest?"
Hagrid straightened up, smiling down at him as he tucked his thumbs in his pockets. "Yeah, I guess I have," he answered proudly. "O' course I can't go in the spiders' pit anymore, now that Aragog's gone…" His smile faded and tears swelled up in his eyes. He pulled out his spotted handkerchief and noisily blew his nose.
"I guess I won't find that Thestral now, yeh scared him out of his wits," he went on loudly, his voice a little hoarse, as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "Better go home. Wanna share a cuppa tea with me?"
"I'll be glad to."
As they headed for Hagrid's hut, Harry voiced aloud the doubt still lingering in the back of his mind.
"Have you really been everywhere?" he insisted, twisting his neck to look up at Hagrid's face.
Hagrid stopped dead in his tracks. "Why're you askin'?" he said suspiciously.
Harry looked at him in the eyes. "Have you ever been near a river in that Forest?"
Hagrid stared at him for a long moment. Then he abruptly turned away and walked on towards his hut, his enormous hand grabbing Harry by the arm and dragging him along.
"Let's not talk about that outdoors," Hagrid said in an answer to Harry's puzzled look. "Not good."
It wasn't before they were settled at Hagrid's table, great cups of tea steaming in front of them, that Hagrid resumed their conversation.
"There's no river in the Forbidden Forest," he said, drumming his fingers on the wooden table. "Not in the Forest I know, mind. The Forest… it doesn' like wizards, Harry. It has grown accustomed ter 'em, but it doesn' like 'em. The trees are hostile. But they're only ordinary trees."
Hagrid heaved a sigh that blew through Harry's hair like a forceful wind. "Yeh'll find that, if yeh walk deep into the Forest, the trees like yeh less an' less," he went on, smoothing his shaggy beard in a distracted gesture. "The heart o' the Forest is the most bizarre place o' Hogwarts, an' that's saying somethin'. I've never been able ter go in there. I always stop at the edge. Yeh found the barrier o' old trees, didn' yeh? I found it too. I heard the river yeh were talking about, behind the trees. Couldn't go past 'em. Didn' want to, anyway. There are queer things beyon' that barrier. That's the oldest part of the Forest, that is. That's where all the dislike thing is comin' from. The trees that are there — they hate us. They're more alive an' more dangerous than the good ol' trees of the rest of the Forest. Don' try ter go that way, Harry."
"I went that way," said Harry quietly.
He took a long sip of his boiling hot tea, feeling Hagrid's astounded gaze on him.
"I went through the barrier," he went on, raising his head and locking eyes with the bearded giant. "Two years ago. Just after the Death Eaters' victory, when I was hunted down by the Lestranges and Nott…" He closed his eyes, the gleeful cackles of Bellatrix Lestrange's laughter still ringing in his ears. He had heard that laughter mixed with the sound of blood pounding in his head, as he had run in the Forest, his whole body on fire.
"The trees let yeh in?" Hagrid asked in a strangled voice.
Harry opened his eyes. "Yes. And they didn't have the time to close again before the three Death Eaters followed me inside."
"What happened ter them?"
Harry's hand curled on the table, gripping the tablecloth as a gruesome image flashed through his mind. "They never got out of the core of the Forest. They were killed."
Hagrid stayed motionless for a few minutes, looking at Harry in astonishment.
"Is that where yeh were las' night?" he finally asked.
Harry shook his head. "No. I couldn't go in. The door opened, but — but it would have reminded me of too many things I'm trying to forget."
Hagrid rose heavily from the table and seized Harry's empty cup to put it in a bucket full of water. "Yeh'll have to go back in there one day," he said gruffly, his back to Harry as he washed the cup. "That part o' the Forest hasn't stopped intriguing me from the beginnin'. Knowin' yeh, I would be very surprised if yeh weren' curious about what hides in there."
Harry rose, too, and said: "I should go and see Professor McGonagall now, Hagrid. Thanks for the tea."
"Anytime," said Hagrid, looking taken aback by this sudden departure. "By the way, what did yeh see behind the barrier of —"
"Bye, Hagrid," said Harry firmly. As he opened the door and stepped out, he called back over his shoulder, "I'm not curious about anything, anymore, Hagrid."
He then hurried towards the castle.
The sun had just properly risen, sending floods of warm light through the high windows of the Great Hall, when Harry Potter pushed the doors open. Professor McGonagall looked up from her plate and raised her eyebrows at him when she saw the scratches on his face and the dust covering his shoes and trousers.
"What happened to you, Potter?" she said in her usual sharp voice.
Harry looked mildly surprised at her question. "Nothing whatsoever," he answered before sitting next to her in front of the plate that had been set for him.
"You look like you've been spending the entire night outside," Professor McGonagall pointed out.
"I have," said Harry, picking up a toast in his plate and chewing it unenthusiastically. "I felt like walking."
"An old habit of yours," she said dryly. "You should have gotten some sleep instead, you looked tired last night."
He shrugged. "I couldn't sleep."
"You sound like a child. Why didn't you ask for a Sleeping Draught? Madam Pomfrey has some."
He looked at her straight in the eyes. "I can't sleep," he said again.
"I heard you the first time, no need to repeat —"
"You don't understand what I'm saying, Professor. I can't sleep."
Professor McGonagall's fork stopped halfway to her mouth. She looked inquiringly at him, suddenly worried. But Harry seemed unaware of her questioning glance. He had closed his eyes and leant back in his chair, the summer sun bathing his pale face and making the white scar on his forehead gleam dully.
"Why can't you sleep?" Professor McGonagall asked bluntly.
Harry's eyes snapped open and without warning he stood up, leaving his toast unfinished on his plate.
"Thank you for letting me stay here, professor," he said. "I'm always happy to spend some time at Hogwarts. But now I must go, I promised I would be at the Ministry this morning, and I'm already late."
Professor McGonagall nodded, knowing it would be useless to try to question him any further. "You will always be welcome at Hogwarts, Potter," she said stiffly.
He extended his hand to say goodbye; Professor McGonagall shook it, somehow awkwardly, but something she felt against her palm made her frown and look down at Harry's hand.
"Potter — what in the name of Merlin have you been doing?" she uttered slowly, as she disbelievingly stared at his palm. Long splinters of wood had dug into the flesh; blood had filled the holes created by the bits of wood and was now beginning to spill out and run down his wrist in small, slow drops. Professor McGonagall's grip must have pushed the splinters deeper into the flesh, causing the bleeding. It looked awfully painful.
Harry's eyes widened as he saw the damage.
"Wow, not pretty," he idly commented. Drawing his wand, he pointed it at his hand. The splinters slowly came out of his palm, tearing his flesh a bit more in the process. The bleeding intensified.
"Problem solved," said Harry in the same unconcerned voice, picking the splinters and throwing them aside. "Sorry about that, Professor. Now I really must be going… Goodbye."
Professor McGonagall mechanically answered him, and she watched as he strode away from her, through the doors and out of the castle in the bright sunlight.
She looked down at her right hand, on which thin trails of Harry's blood could still be seen. She cleaned her hand with a wave of her wand, thinking about Harry's expressionless features. No wince of pain, no sign of emotion.
She remembered what she had heard last night in the Three Broomsticks, and she shuddered in spite of the warm temperature.
She should watch that boy closely.
A/N: Thanks Lorien for beta-ing the first chapters of this story.