The Shrieking Shack
Disclaimer: None of the people or places belong to me, having been crafted more excellently than I could ever do by the brilliant JK Rowling. The plot alone I can claim as my own.
Ginny had been looking for him for almost two hours. She wasn't the only one, either. The entire Weasley family, Hermione, and Hagrid were scouring the Hogwarts grounds for their truant hero and friend. Not that anyone was really surprised he had disappeared again. The tension around Harry had been steadily increasing since the final battle, and everyone had known it was only a matter of time before he collapsed or broke down in some way. And that was precisely what had happened. They had all been enjoying a relaxing meal after a day of hard work rebuilding the school, when a volunteer at another table made an off-hand comment about the curse on the Defence teacher position.
"They just don't last, do they?" the man said, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of roasted veal. "And it's not even as if they just quit after a year, you know? Things happen to the poor sods. Just in the past seven years, they've had one lose his mind, another get carted off by centaurs, and the rest are all dead, aren't they? Not that those ones were promising, anyway, with a werewolf and an ex-death eater among 'em. Don't know what business Dumbledore had in hiring folk like that. But then, he was always a bit of a crackpot…"
The man probably would have continued talking, but at that moment his glass splintered in his raised hand and Harry stormed from the Great Hall, leaving a shocked silence in his wake. He had apparently taken the Marauders Map and his Invisibility cloak with him, because when Ron ran to retrieve them, they were gone. No one knew where Harry had run off to, and after all of the likely places had been investigated, the seekers spread out and began a methodical search of all the land surrounding the ruined castle. It had begun to rain as they did so, but Ginny hardly noticed, or cared. She pulled her own cloak tighter around her slight form and continued resolutely forward. She didn't bother to call his name, as she knew he wouldn't answer anyway - not if he was really set on being alone.
"Stupid prat," she muttered to herself, blowing the rain from her cold lips and blinking her eyes to relieve her lashes of the collected moisture. Ginny had been waiting to sit and really talk with Harry since the final battle, but, as was to be expected of him, Harry had withdrawn into an impenetrable shell of icy indifference and staunch denial, preferring to brood within the confines of his troubled mind, throwing his weight behind massive shovels and rocks, rather than confide in anyone about anything at all. She hadn't had a genuine smile out of him, nor a word of encouragement or comfort, except a brief exchange the day before and a murmured apology for frightening her with his "death." It scared her a bit, seeing him like this. Losing Fred had been horrible beyond imagining, but then she had seen Harry dead on the ground, rise and fight again, and just when she thought there was a chance, he shut himself away, out of reach of even her most timid approach.
Even Ron and Hermione hadn't been able to get him to open up. They'd been with him when he went to speak with Dumbledore's portrait, and at that time it had seemed like he would recover, like he would go on with his life and discover what it was like to live without a shadow of dread over his shoulders all the time. Then, he had gone up to the tower to sleep, and when he finally woke and came down, near lunchtime of the next day, his face was pale and blank of all emotion, his manner detached and silent, and all attempts at communication had been deflected by an intense shield of apathy and emptiness. Ron had tried to coax him out with chess and Quidditch talk, and even tried to draw out some sympathy be mentioning Fred, and Hermione would just sit with him when he wasn't working and either tell him how proud everyone was of him and how glad they all were that it was over, or she would join him in his silence. Ginny hadn't really had a chance to try anything, as he seemed to be avoiding her.
But he wouldn't avoid her anymore. She was determined of that. When she found him, he was going to stick around and listen to what she had to say to him, and say something back, even if she had to hex him to make him do it. Of course, she had to find him, first.
The rain was coming down even harder now, and Ginny could no longer deny the numbness in her toes or the burning in her fingers. She needed to warm up and dry off somewhere. Squinting through the gray sheet of wet that surrounded her, her eyes finally locked on a large, sprawling object some hundred or so feet away. It was the Whomping Willow, listless and charred from the battle, tilted precariously to one side and drooping all the way to the ground. As she ran toward it, a memory stirred in the back of her mind – something about his third year, and an adventure the trio had had with this tree. It was as good a place as any to look for Harry, and she could get warm at the same time. She skidded to a halt just out of reach of the bulbous, club-like limbs and ran her eyes around the base of the tree, looking for a way in. There was a good-sized hole under the roots on the left side, and she made a dash for it, bracing herself for a retaliatory attack from the tree. She needn't have worried. It no longer seemed much concerned with trespassers.
Being inside a tree was nothing like she had imagined it would be. Not that she had spent much time thinking about it, but as a young child she had always pictured a warm, cozy hole filled with leaves and a musty, earthy smell. It was always very pleasant. But this was very different. The air was just as cold, though a great deal more stale than it had been outside, and the rain dripped down between the roots, leaving murky puddles on the dirt and dead insects that were strewn over the ground. The smell was far more unpleasant than she had pictured. It was dark and sour, and left a strange tangy aftertaste on her tongue and in her throat. And it was dark, but that was easily remedied.
"Lumos," she murmured, and at once had to close her eyes at the bright light that emanated from her wand. When she opened them again, she saw a tunnel leading further down and forward, and hesitantly stepped closer to it. It was very dark and damp inside, but there was the tiniest hint of warmth in the air coming from it, and so she held her wand ahead of her and began cautiously walking along the path. It did indeed get warmer as she went, and the scenery began to resemble more closely her previous ideas of being underground. The walls here were drier, and the ground was soft and squishy with mossy material. The air became clearer the longer she walked, and the smell became sweeter, more of dust and antique furniture and books that have been stored in boxes for a very long time.
The tunnel ended abruptly in an open space, like an entryway of some sort, and there were doors to either side and a long staircase heading crookedly up to a rickety landing. She pushed one of the doors open and found what might have been a larder of some kind, with shelves and cupboards and an empty box in one corner. The other little room held a few wooden chairs and an old stone fireplace, nothing more. Ginny noted with some interest the presence of a half burned log on the hearth, and stuck it into the fireplace and lit it with her wand. The warmth eased some of the cramping in her hands and feet, and she draped her cloak over one of the chairs to dry. It had repelled much of the water, so her actual clothing was little more than damp. She sat in front of the flames for a little while, and let her mind wander back to the previous day, when she had spoken, however briefly, to Harry.
He was shirtless, hauling enormous rocks out of the entryway so the builders could repair the walls. He had made it clear from very early on that he was determined to work with his bare hands rather than his wand. He seemed to need the physical labor to keep him focused, and nobody had complained, especially once they realized that the stones were already so laced with ancient magic that their own simple spells didn't work as well on them. The safest and most precise way to move the rubble was by hand and with tools, not magic. And then there were a select few among the volunteers who also vividly remembered Harry digging a grave for a fallen friend using nothing but his own two hands and a shovel. They let him be.
Harry had tied his shirt around his head to keep the sweat out of his eyes, and had rolled up his trousers to cool his legs. Ginny would have been right there with him, but loathe as she was to admit it, she wasn't strong enough to lift these stones – at least not as many and as quickly as was needed. She marveled that Harry could, but nobody tried to stop him, even if they had doubts. There were other tasks she would be able to do, but this was not one of them. Even Harry had been relegated to the outer limits of the rubble, and Ron wouldn't even go near the area. He was helping recover usable items from the less damaged places. Hermione was, of course, salvaging books. Ginny had been helping her until someone had mentioned the heat and how thirsty those working at the front of the castle must be. Ginny, her mother, George, and a few other people had volunteered to bring water out to them.
Ginny stood and stared at Harry's back as he strained to lift a particularly stubborn rock and move it out of the path. He turned towards her, and for a moment she saw his eyes, tired and sad, before her own were drawn downwards to his chest. She gasped. There, in the center of his ribcage, was a dark black bruise, about the size of a football, and slightly compressed into his skin. It was obvious that his ribs had been permanently crushed in by something. As he breathed, the sweat shimmered over his chest, and the bruise seemed to swell and diminish with the motion of his lungs. She sensed his eyes on her and looked up self-consciously. For all her talk of tattoos and such in her fifth year, she had never actually seen his bare chest, and seeing it now was a bit of a shock, especially considering the state it was in. She wordlessly handed him a canteen, which he took, just as silently, and drank deeply from it.
"Does it hurt?" she asked him suddenly, mentally kicking herself for not thinking of anything better to say.
He looked at her for a moment, and then shrugged. "A bit," he said. "Less now than it did."
She nodded. "When did you get it? I don't remember seeing you fall or anything."
This time he didn't look at her at all, but after a brief pause, raised a single finger and gestured to the forest. Understanding dawned.
"Was that where he… you know… the spell?" she stammered.
"Did that hurt?" Another mental kick, and a visible wince at her sudden insatiable curiosity.
"No," he said. "Not at first. After."
He took another long drink from the canteen and handed it back to her, wiping his mouth on the back of his grimy hand. She wondered if he even noticed he had smears of dust on his face. "Thanks," he said, and turned back to the pile of rocks. She watched him for a moment more, but couldn't leave without asking one final question; the one she needed answering most at the moment.
"Harry," she said, and he stopped moving but did not turn back around. "You haven't told anybody what happened, not really. We just know he did… that spell. Why won't you talk to us?"
There was another pause, longer than any before it, and Harry threw some smaller rocks off into the distance, his back still resolutely turned. Ginny was about to give up and walk away when she heard his voice, quiet and somewhat choked.
"It hurts too much," he said. And that was the last he spoke to anyone.
Ginny poked at the fire with a stick and watched the sparks fly up the chimney. The room held onto warmth very well, and it hadn't taken very long at all for the chill inside her to seep out of her and into the wet puddles on the floor. She stood up and walked over to the fireplace to smother the flames before she left to keep hunting, but as she bent down she noticed something etched into the wall next to the stone mantelpiece. She leaned in closer and blew some dirt away from the lines, finally picking out letters – initials, in fact. It read MWPP HQ 1975. Underneath it, scratched much more recently, she could read HP & co 1993. And finally, so new it could have been left there that very day, In Memoriam, RL SB.
Ginny felt her eyes tear up just a little as she ran her fingers over the familiar initials. She spent so much time grieving Fred that she tended to forget just how much Harry had lost in this war. And nobody had really ever tried to help him through any of it. After Sirius had died, there was awkwardness, and then it was never mentioned. Dumbledore's death had been shocking to everyone, but nobody had taken the time to notice that Harry had actually seen it happen. The same could be said for Cedric's death. And now, he had lost so much more than any of them, and he was still alone. Ginny stood up abruptly and walked out of the little room and up the stairs. She needed to find him. She needed to be with him, even if he didn't want her there.
As she walked, she saw deep gouges in the walls, made by the claws of some large animal, and dates carved next to some of them – March, 1976, a rough night; Mooney killed a rabbit tonight, and we tried to make Padfoot eat it; Wormtail got stuck in the wall tonight – she marveled at how many of them there were, but nothing she found carved anywhere shocked her as much as what she saw on the lintel of the door at the top of the second staircase in rickety old building she was exploring. In deep, careful letters, someone had written, Severus Snape, Potions Master of Hogwarts and Loyal Spy for the Light, was here murdered at the hand of Lord Voldemort on the day of the final battle at Hogwarts School, May of 1998. The floor in one corner was stained a deep brown, and there were marks in the dust of something heavy being dragged away.
Ginny tore her eyes away from the sight, and looked toward the only window in the room, which was obscured by a tall, slim shape of a man, hunched over and still as the air surrounding him. Harry's hands were curled around the windowsill, clenching so hard his knuckles had turned white and there was a tiny drip of blood beneath his fingers. He was breathing slowly, but with the focus of someone who was still trying to stop the tears from falling. He leaned down and put his head in his hands, letting the wind and rain from the open window play across his face. Ginny desperately wanted to go to him, to say something to ease his pain in some way, but it felt somehow wrong to disturb his solitude at this moment. She knew where he was, and that he was safe. Wasn't that enough? But she knew it wasn't. It never had been, no matter how hard she had tried to convince herself otherwise. And yet she stood there, motionless, eyes on the floor, as minutes passed.
At long last, Harry stirred slightly, and spoke. "I know you're there, you know," he said quietly.
"I wasn't hiding," she responded, a little too sharply.
"I know." Harry turned around and looked at her. "What are you doing here, Gin? Shouldn't you be at the castle?"
"Everyone's worried about you," she said, coming into the room a little. "We've been looking for you for ages."
Harry nodded slightly. "Well, I guess you found me, then."
"We should let everyone else know you're alright," said Ginny, tentatively. "You know how Mum can be, and with everything that's happened recently…" she trailed off as his expression darkened.
They stood in silence for a little while, and then Ginny spoke again. "Is this really where it happened?" she asked. Harry nodded, and looked blankly at the bloodstains in the corner of the room. "Are… are you okay?"
Harry looked up and held her gaze for a moment before turning away and walking out the door of the room. "Follow me," was all he said.
They walked, Harry first and Ginny behind him, back down the stairs to the room with the fireplace. Harry didn't look surprised to see Ginny's cloak or the remains of the fire she'd lit, but walked over to the wall with the initials carved into it.
"I saw those," said Ginny. "Did you put them all there?"
Harry shook his head. "Just the last one, actually. I think Sirius carved the second one in during the time he was on the run. Don't know when he had the time to come here, but I can't say I'm surprised." He gently touched his godfather's initials, and a ghost of a smile crossed his lips. "He loved taking stupid chances. Made him feel alive, or something." He looked around the rest of the room with the look of someone who was re-examining old haunts of a childhood long past. "Made them all feel alive. I think my dad and Sirius would hole up in here sometimes when Remus was changing. They'd just keep an eye out for him when he was tired after wandering around all night."
"Did you see these?" He walked over to the far wall that Ginny hadn't really noticed. It was full of little pictures, drawn in charcoal. There was a snitch with the letters LE drawn on it, a large pawprint by a smaller hoofprint, and a series of cartoon like drawings of four animals rampaging through the forest and terrorizing a little amorphous blob labeled "Snivelly." On one side, there was a large box that was left bare, with a label at the top and five curly signatures inside it. "For the next generations to sign," Harry read aloud. He leaned up against the wall where his own name was written, and looked back at Ginny.
"This is the whole story, right here," he said. "This is all of them. This is all of the important things, all in the same place. There's a little bit of everything here." He started pointing out particular images on the wall to her. "There's my mum, or at least the little doodle my dad always drew when he was thinking about her. And of course my dad was Prongs, which you know because I told you in sixth year, and they both died on Halloween. Both dead. Then there's Sirius, the dog, and the pawprint, and I met him for the first time in this place. I wanted to kill him because I thought he betrayed my parents. He died, too. That's three down. Then Peter died, of course, and I met him here as well. Saved his life, bastard that he was, and he tied me up and slit my arm open."
Ginny was staring by now. Harry hadn't said this much to anyone since his monologue to Voldemort just before he ended the war for good. She wasn't entirely sure where he was going with this, but she wasn't about to stop him. So she turned her attention to the wall and listened to him.
"Remus. I didn't meet him here, but I met more of him here. I found out he was a werewolf, I found out he and Sirius were friends, I saw them threaten Peter – when did I start calling him Peter? – and I saw a little bit of what life might have been if things were… different. Now he's gone too. All those people, I felt closest to here, because they spent so much time here. This was their place. There's nobody left to use it now. The Whomping Willow isn't doing anything anymore, because it no longer has a purpose. The person it was planted for is dead." Harry wiped his sleeve across his eyes. Ginny hadn't even realized he was crying, but looking at him now, she could see the redness around his eyes and the streaks on his face, and wanted more than ever to run to him. But now wasn't the time.
"It's like having a little piece of them, isn't it?" she said, gently touching his shoulder.
"No. It's a reminder that I don't have them at all. That I never really knew them, because there are so many stories and things that I didn't even know existed until I was thirteen." Then he laughed a little. "I have some memories here, too. I remember Sirius dragging Ron into the tree, Hermione telling me about what Remus was, I remember the three of us being here, but even though that happened, and there are stories of my own in this place, they all have Sirius or Remus in them, and they're all…" he waved a hand in the general direction of the inscriptions by the fireplace. "They're all connected, and they're all stuff that ends up in my nightmares now. Stuff I can't get rid of, no matter how hard I try."
"Do you really want to get rid of it?"
"Some of it. Mostly the stuff involving Sn – Professor Snape. He was here too, you know. He showed up and got in a fight with Sirius. He wanted an excuse to kill him, his old childhood nemesis. And he ended up dying here instead." Harry's eyes burned into Ginny's when he looked at her again. "He died here too. He was murdered here, and I saw it happen. I saw it happen right in front of me, Ginny. I saw them all die, except Remus, and somehow just skipping that step and seeing him all laid out there was even worse.
"They're all here, though. They're all HERE, Ginny!" He ran his fist into the wall. "All of them! You can see them everywhere you go! You can almost hear them talking and laughing in the next room! And you can feel death here. You can feel pain, and you can feel excitement and playfulness and all this other crap they thought about when they were kids. But they're all GONE! They're GONE, they're DEAD, and they're NEVER coming back, so why in HELL does this stupid tree and this horrible old excuse for a building get to still be here? Why do they get to be here when the people don't? Why do I have to see this thing every single day, and why do I always expect to see someone come out of it? I hate it!"
He crashed both his palms against the drawings and slid down until he crouched in front of it, his forehead resting against the stone. Ginny lowered herself next to him and placed a hand on his back, rubbing soothing circles over his shirt, trying to think of something to say. Words just didn't seem appropriate anymore. Ginny had never felt this sort of helplessness. When Harry had left, she had felt lonely and scared, but determined. When she had believed him dead, she had felt despair. When he had clammed up, she had felt worry and sympathy, but now that he was finally open, she didn't know what to do to heal the wounds. So she just sat there, while Harry shook and cried, and tried to be the strong comforting presence her mother had always been for her.
"Why did you come here, though?" she asked finally.
"I can't stay away. It draws me, somehow. It's always here, mocking me, telling me over and over and over again how I could have died but didn't, so many times, and how it only took one shot for each of them. For Fred, too, and Tonks and Colin, and everyone else who died. I hate it! I HATE it!"
Ginny wrapped her arms around him and held him, and to her surprise, he didn't pull away from her. Instead, he seemed to melt into her embrace, and his sobs gradually quieted until he was left breathing heavily and hiccupping softly into her robes. Ginny realized that she was crying as well, and released one arm to wipe her face. Harry moved and sat up as she did, keeping his own face hidden in embarrassment.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
"Don't be. You obviously needed it," said Ginny, trying to smile reassuringly through the dried salt on her face.
"I just… I just wish there was something I could do, to make this go away." He smiled a little wryly. "That sounded really childish, didn't it?"
"I didn't think so."
They sat there together for a while, just grieving and thinking their own thoughts, but this time the silence was companionable rather than tense. Ginny curled her fingers around Harry's, and was secretly elated when he squeezed back. Maybe it would all be alright, soon, and they could go back to how things were. Maybe… but she knew it didn't work that way with Harry. Harry would keep his distance from her for a while, trying to get used to a life without Voldemort, a life with a future, before he returned to romance. But she could wait for that. She had a feeling it would come eventually, and when it did, she would still be ready for him.
Footsteps and voices were heard somewhere in the tunnel, and Harry looked up sharply, drawing his wand from his back pocket.
"It's alright," said Ginny. "I recognize my dad's voice. Oh gosh! Everyone is probably still looking for you!" She stood up and ran to the door. "We're here! It's alright!" she called, and then turned back to Harry, a thoughtful look on her face. "You know, Harry, I think there is something we can do…"
Later that evening, the Weasleys, Hermione, Harry, and the remainder of the Hogwarts faculty were gathered around the Whomping Willow in a somber silence as Harry stepped forward. "To everyone who died in this war, both before and after I was ever a part of it, we wish you peace, wherever you are and whatever you're doing. This is in your honor." Then he lifted his wand, pointed it at the base of the tree, and shouted, "MAXIMUS INFLAMARE!" With a whoosh of air and heat, the Whomping Willow caught fire and blazed high and bright into the night sky. All faces turned expectantly towards Hogsmeade, and there on a hilltop, the Shrieking Shack began to burn from within, and became a beacon on the horizon. There was no danger of the village burning. The correct people had been notified, and there were people gathered there to watch as well, having placed their own offerings and remembrances around the foundation of the historic building. This bonfire was a memorial big enough to honor every family that had lost someone, and would burn throughout the night and well into the next day to honor and immortalize the heroes of the Dark War, as it was soon to be known.
As the fire burned merrily in front of them, Harry slipped his hand into Ginny's and squeezed it gently. "Thank you," he whispered, "for everything."
Ginny looked up into his face, and saw peace and rest there for the first time in over a year. As the remains of his own battles burned away, life was rekindled in his eyes, and he reached an arm around Hermione and pulled her close on his other side. She promptly burst into tears, and everyone standing nearby turned to see what was happening, and of course noted the change in Harry's face. Ron turned to Ginny and mouthed "thank you," and everyone else leaned over to pat Harry on the back, or hug him, or whisper a few words in his ear. He responded with smiles and thanks, but all the while he was turned from her and speaking with everyone else, he never once let go of her hand.