Summary: Post DH, ignores Epilogue. Harry doesn't want to end up like Snape, but it seems inevitable. Even as he dates Ginny Weasley, studies magic, plays Quidditch and argues with Malfoy, everything seems black like love unrequited.
Disclaimer: Don't own Harry Potter.
Warnings: non-graphic het and pre-slash, strong language
A/N: This leviathan of
a one-shot (was supposed to be less than 5 pages, ended up being 25)
starts off after the end of Deathly Hallows (sans Epilogue – which
is a piece of less than imaginative fanfiction if I ever read one)
and follows through the next chaotic term of Hogwarts education.
There is some HGRW as well as initial HPGW, other pairings are to be
I was supposed to be studying for exams, but was writing this instead and… I'm hoping that you'll at least like it. It's a bit different from my usual fare, but then, I'm not sure if not everything I write isn't sui generis (triple negative? What the Hell…). I'm anxious to read your reactions. Please, if you will have enjoyed this story, take a minute to review. Regards,
xWings of the Eagles
Harry stared at the mound of earth, not at all startled when the officiator's final words caused grass to sprout and grow until no dirt could be seen.
It was the… he actually couldn't count the exact number, but he was pretty sure he had been to a couple dozen funerals within the past fortnight. This one was actually rather tame, modest… in the number of guests as well as the ostentation of the ritual. He had a black, bile-raising feeling that, had he not dragged his friends here, perhaps it would not have been happening at all.
It seemed, however, grimly fitting to the man that was being buried. Snape would have sneered at accolades, he would have belittled the mourners and scorned the, possible, grief – if for no other reason, than because it would have made those who survived feel wretched.
Harry couldn't suppress a humourless smile. He understood Snape – now, when it didn't mean anything, anything at all. He had had Life Debts heaped on him by bucketfuls, only to be faced with the raw realization that he would never be able to return the favour.
What an irony.
He took a moment to ponder where he was going from now (aside from Grimmauld Place, which was a given). As he could see it, he had two options. The first: he could follow in Snape's footsteps and become a black greasy eternal antagonist, full of acerbic and virulent diatribes; it would have been a delicious criminal self-pity, aside from wonderfully offsetting his hitherto life-story. The second: he could get back together with the girl standing devotedly to his left.
It would be unfair to her, perhaps. He could give her a lot of things that mattered: money, stability, home, loyalty, children, love… He could not, however, give her happiness, and there was the root of his dilemma.
Ginny deserved happiness.
Harry, very likely, didn't deserve Ginny.
Still, in the course of his life Harry had learnt beyond any doubt that people didn't get what they deserved: therefore he offered his arm. Ginny accepted with a soft almost-smile, and the deal was sealed.
"You know what, Harry?" a creepily inflectionless voice stated seemingly out of thin air. "I don't think I'm going to do it."
The sofa Harry was sitting on dipped and a silhouette shimmered into visibility for a moment. Harry off-handedly cancelled the Disillusionment Charm, forgetting to be startled, and looked into George's face.
George would make a far better Snape than Harry. He was already half-way there, it seemed, while Harry only listlessly moped around Grimmauld Place. Harry opened his mouth to ask what it was George wasn't going to do, but then some half-forgotten brain-cells timidly made themselves known and Harry realised that it was, really, quite obvious. There was no reason to waste words due to stupidity.
Peculiar – if he had understood that earlier, he might not have been sitting here today.
"What made you-" change your mind? "-decide?" he asked eventually, though he listened much more avidly than his tone would suggest. He treasured these little tidbits of knowledge, hoping that, if he put enough of them together, like a puzzle, he might find something that made sense.
George smiled, and for a while Harry wasn't sure whether the man was sane, before he decided that it totally didn't matter. The world wasn't sane nowadays, so nobody could expect the individual people to be.
"I'm going to have a son," George replied simply.
That made sense. Harry nodded, even without asking sure that the boy's name would be Fred and that he would be a prankster – and one day the head of the W.W.W. Emporium. Odd, how out of these broken pieces of lives, something complete and meaningful could grow out.
Kind of like the grass on Snape's grave.
Harry decided quickly that boredom didn't make sense. The idealistic – and pretty stupid – desire to pay homage to a dead man by learning all that he had missed in Potions in the past seven years and ace his N.E.W.T.s popped like a soap bubble, when Harry found Potions still fit under the label of 'boredom'.
On the first of August, feeling useless like Lockhart in the face of Dark Arts, Harry cast a glamour charm on himself and joined one of the salvage teams in Hogsmeade. There had been little left of the village; the few buildings standing – a tavern, a field hospital and the simplest barracks imaginable – had been built since the final battle. The works had progressed from countering and dispelling the remnants of Dark Arts in the air, the Earth, the water – Hell, in all the living things around – to renovating some of the razed houses. They were standing half-built, but to Harry's black-spectacled view they looked simply broken.
When the first house was finished, the ecstatic owner, Mr Flume, bought all the workers a round of Firewhisky, which Harry quickly learnt to like. That night he felt a bit like the world hadn't shattered under his soles, and maybe, in time, things would go back to the way they were before.
Harry learnt a lot about magic that was actually useful, not like transforming hedgehogs into pincushions. He touched on construction here and there, even had an occasional brush with curse-breaking and warding. It was an eye-opening experience.
When he came back to Grimmauld Place for his birthday, he found a houseful of indignant people. He was yelled at, scolded, cried at, slapped and hugged near-to-suffocation. George gave him a congratulatory slap on the back (Harry almost didn't regret the entire experience upon seeing how genuinely amused the man was) and crowed in an uncharacteristically hoarse voice: "Finally growing up, Potter-me-lad, eh?"
He sounded uncomfortably like Mad-Eye Moody, but Harry looked at him – really looked at him – and George was a striking nearly-whole young man with a power behind his eyes that came from facing demons and besting them, power that Harry recognised easily yet didn't possess. There was something hard and austere about George, and Harry for a couple of seconds wondered if he had not chosen a wrong Weasley to court before he remembered that George was living for the promise of a son, and there went that idea.
It was quite a preposterous one, anyway.
It didn't change anything about the fact that Ginny hung onto him as if there wasn't an imprint of her hand on his face, and Harry couldn't help but note that she was beautiful, brave, clever and vivacious, and didn't understand shit.
He stroked her back and whispered that kind of nonsense that is expected of heroes, and observed as Mrs Weasley wiped her tears with a handkerchief before loudly blowing her nose, how Mr Weasley stared out of the window onto the empty square and pretended nothing was happening, and how Ron and Hermione were clutching onto each other and kissing in the corner (only because a full-on snog would have earned them stern admonishments).
Much later that night, Ginny came to his room – once upon a time Sirius' room, the one place in the house Harry wasn't willing to share with everyone else – and made herself quite comfortable in what used to be Harry's sanctuary. She sat in the hideous chintz armchair for a (very short) while then sashayed across the half-mottled carpet and slipped into Harry's bed.
Harry kissed her, loosened her hair to play with and divested her of her tank-top before he realised what he was doing. While trying to keep the encounter within the sphere of light petting, Harry repeatedly issued mental pleas to all entities present within the house to come in and interrupt.
It was hopeless.
In the end he hit her with a nonverbal Sleeping Spell in the middle of a heated snog and carried her over to her (and officially Hermione's) room. The room was empty and Harry knew exactly where Hermione was and what she was doing there, and while he didn't take it ill at all, it left him feeling uncomfortable.
For it being the first birthday without Voldemort, it was pretty lousy.
Harry spent August fending off Ginny's progressively more aggressive approaches and sneaking out daily to Hogsmeade, where he participated in the final celebrations of its rebuilding as a single face in the crowd. It was an experience he thought he would cherish for years to come, and not even the hangover from Hell he suffered the next day managed to throw a shadow over it.
He packed what of his possessions had survived the war, dutifully thanked Charlie and Percy, who had braved the former crater of Diagon Alley to get supplies for all those returning to Hogwarts, and let Ginny drag him through obnoxiously sunny London to King's Cross, where he boarded the repaired Hogwarts Express and tried not to feel abandoned when Ron, Hermione and Ginny excused themselves to go to the Prefect cart. He messed up the crossword in the Daily Prophet and spent an indeterminable length of time scowling at it, before the door to his compartment slid open and Draco Malfoy let himself in.
Harry briefly scowled at him, and then went back to scowling at the crossword.
"Cat got your tongue, Scarhead?" Malfoy asked, and Harry was transported back in time.
His scowl deepened. "Wish one had gotten yours, Scarchest," he bit out and tried to correct one of the words for the third time, only succeeding in making holes in the parchment.
Malfoy must have moved, because his shadow fell over the newspaper, and there was silence while the Slytherin seethed, before he got sight of the mangled crosswords and sniggered.
"Child's puzzle proving beyond your mental capacity. How tragic."
Harry looked up and gulped, because Malfoy was practically towering over him, and while the life-and-death dimension of their rivalry had died with Voldemort, there still was seven years of malice accumulated, just waiting to lash out.
He pushed Malfoy away to renew his personal space, and the train gave a lurch in the exact same moment. Malfoy lost balance and thudded onto the opposite seat, grimacing from either pain or utter lack of dignity.
"Can't stand on your own feet without the gorillas supporting you?" Harry sniped. "Where are they, anyway? Decided they had enough of your poncy prissiness?"
Malfoy stood from the seat, but didn't try to approach Harry again. Didn't try to hex him, either. He just looked at Harry, and sneered, cold, disgusted, superior. Faced with that look, Harry lost whatever advantage the jibe might have got him, and fell far, far behind.
"Dead, and out of country, respectively," Malfoy hissed, and Harry felt as if somebody dunked him into a tub of icy water.
Time fast-forwarded while Malfoy left, and Harry stared at the mutilated Prophet page, feeling as if he had swallowed lead.
He had forgotten. How could he have forgotten?
He shucked the newspaper onto the floor, gripped the quill and wrote 'HE IS DEAD' in capitals on the back of his left hand, right over the 'I must not tell lies' scar. It wasn't about Crabbe, really. It wasn't about Sirius and Cedric, either, because those two horrors were stale, just as Dumbledore and Dobby and practically everybody who died earlier than last June. It was a bit about Fred and Tonks and Remus, but mostly it was Voldemort.
The black ink spilt down the sides of his hand and dripped on his robe, but since the robe was black, too, it didn't matter. Like it didn't matter that Crabbe and the Lestranges and Snape were dead, not really.
Harry suddenly felt like crying, and he hated it, and hated himself for being such a bloody stereotyping bigot, because what did it matter that Voldemort was dead if they happily continued nursing the same grudges? And he was right up there with the biggest bastards.
There were forty-seven first-years Sorted that Harry didn't clap for, and he felt so wretched that he kept smiling through the Feast. Ron was looking at him oddly, and Harry found it ironic that he could garner a bit of attention, but he had to do something ugly to himself to get it.
Maybe Malfoy and Snape and Skeeter had been right. Maybe he was a spoilt attention-seeker.
He suppressed a giggle – no need to display the bubbling hysteria he felt to the staring masses, and added some roasted tomatoes to his plate, for the simple reason that he couldn't stand them. They were awful and he felt like vomited, but he forced himself to eat three bites before he gave it up as making no sense.
He was becoming a quitter, it seemed. Whatever he didn't feel like doing, he labeled as 'nonsensical' and moved on from.
"Are you going to eat those, mate?" Ron asked, pointing his knife at the roasted tomato in the middle of some culinary prestidigitation he was performing with his cutlery.
Harry felt as if the bench had been pulled out from under him and he gripped the edge of the table so hard that his knuckles went white. His head wouldn't stop spinning, so he tried to ignore it as best as he could, stumbled to his feet and departed so quickly that hardly anybody noticed.
Ginny yelled something, but he decided he was far enough to be able to pretend he didn't hear her.
Classes were boring.
Potions were taught by some Ministry-appointed berk that went at pace three times slower than Snape's and managed to put the slightly more skilled students to sleep. Harry had had to nudge Hermione several times so that she didn't miss a crucial state in her brewing, as she frequently dozed off during the lessons. He positively despised seeing her like that, robbed of her unquenchable enthusiasm for learning, but he did what he could and contented with the glared he was being given instead of thanks.
Afterwards they trudged up to the Gryffindor common room, where Hermione flung her bag down in annoyance, sat into Ron's lap and snoggged him to lift her mood. Harry sat on the other side of the table, pulled out his Potions homework and was promptly accosted by Ginny who demanded the same treatment as Hermione.
Harry did his best and tried to remind himself that Ginny was one of the few skilled enough to pass to the next year even under Death Eater administration, and to pretend that she wasn't Ron's sister and Hermione's best female friend for years and that, from the right angle, she didn't look kind of like his mother.
After the Quidditch tryouts, Harry took a shower and tried to come up with a good enough reason for continuing to play. He dressed and went to sit on the stands, Disillusioned like George tended to be when he wanted people to – for goodness' sake – leave him alone and stop badgering him with their bloody pity. He remained there long until everyone else was in the castle, and must have missed curfew because it was September and it was already getting dark when McGonagall, dressed in flowing green robe and a matching green hat ascended the stairs. Harry didn't have to look; he knew it was her by the soft thumping of her cane.
She sat down next to him and addressed him: "Harry," like he wasn't an errant student breaking rules, but rather like he was adult, old, maybe, old enough to be a friend.
"Professor," he replied, sounding lost and a little sad, despite having aimed for Georgesque tonelessness.
An arm slipped around his shoulders and, against his will, Harry leaned into the embrace. He was bewildered – he had never seen McGonagall treat anybody like this – but then he realised that this woman, this witch he had always believed was harder than stone, was tired and alone and more than a little broken probably, and that she was one of the few that bothered to come to Snape's funeral even though the man had been a bastard.
He slipped an arm around her in return and gentlemanly pretended that there weren't tears sliding down her sickly, sallow cheeks and that with the black hair (that had begun to grey noticeably during the last year) and hundred-miles-stare she didn't look like Snape's long lost sister.
"Thank you, Professor," Harry spoke quietly after a very long while – it had gone completely dark meanwhile. He wasn't sure what he was being grateful for; there were just too many things, not the least of which was her leniency.
"Thank you, Harry," she replied.
Harry figured she would likely never go back to calling him by his surname. He didn't mind. They had little in common, but she understood, and that meant more than he could describe. He was, unexpectedly, filled with fondness and compassion for this woman – this spinster who had dedicated her life to children not her own, who fought like a lioness for them and had done more than her share of mourning for people who were not hers to love: James and Lily Potter, Frank and Alice Longbottom, Remus Lupin, Fabian and Gideon Prewett, Marlene McKinnon and, perhaps most importantly, Albus Dumbledore.
"I have not had a chance to thank you for what you have done. I fear I will not be a good teacher to you this year, for I cannot see you as my student anymore," she admitted a little tremulously. The words had been unnecessary, but Harry recognised that was a typical Gryffindor failing, and he accepted it easily.
"I will not be a good student," he said quietly. "Never was." While that was a matter of opinion, Harry now couldn't think of why it would matter that he study. Who was there to impress? He would not flunk out of school, because he wanted to get a job somewhere in a not-so-distant future, but other than that, who cared if he had straight O's, or scraped by with A's?
McGonagall's smile was thin, as she withdrew her arm, but nonetheless true. "You are not a scholar, Harry, but you are a good wizard, and I would never have it the other way around."
"I forget why things matter," Harry confessed. "I forget." His eyes strayed to his left hand, half-covered by his sleeve. McGonagall followed his line of sight and reached for the hand. Harry allowed her to pull it closer and observe the writing. Even in the fallen darkness, the contrast against his skin was sharp enough to make it readable.
"He is dead?" McGonagall read aloud, surprised.
Harry nodded, looking at the writing that became a part of his daily ritual. It always got washed off, but he always renewed it, always using blue ink, because green was too Slytherin, red looked too much like blood and black blended with the rest of the world.
"I forget," he reiterated.
McGonagall just might have understood, though she said nothing and sent him off to bed, no points taken and no detention assigned. Harry was torn between feeling honoured that she considered him an adult upon whom these rules should not be imposed, and disappointed that he didn't even warrant a chastisement.
Harry wished the stairs to the boys' dormitory were rigged, too, when he once again found Ginny sleeping in his bed on Saturday morning. He watched her be for a while, and wondered what in the world was wrong with him. He should have taken her up on the offer when she practically forced herself on him.
He must have been seriously messed up.
Irritated with himself, he sneaked out of his bed, dressed and went somewhere else, not really interested in where, not giving a whit that when Seamus found Ginny sleeping in his bed there would be rumours of the nasty kind. Ron was the only one of whose reaction Harry would have been wary, and Harry knew Ron didn't care.
Ron's four-poster remained unused most of these days, anyway, since Hermione made the Head Girl.
On an ugly, misty morning, Harry – predictably – bumped into Malfoy. They were in the middle of a random corridor, in a place where the Slytherin had absolutely nothing to look for, and therefore his only purpose was to aggravate Harry.
"Sneaking around again, Scarhead, I see. Wonder who's going to end up in Azkaban this time – or dead?"
Harry stared at Malfoy and this time didn't recognise the scene. It was as if they played by some kind of script and he had forgotten his lines. Malfoy was standing there, rigid like he had been taught to hold himself since he was a toddler, his wand in his hand, eyes squinting like he needed glasses but was too obstinate (haughty) to admit it. He was eighteen, and felt like he was a simulacrum of himself, like Draco Malfoy's life was over already.
Harry wanted to smack some sense into him. So he did.
Except it didn't work, because Malfoy gripped his wrist and hexed him straight into the stomach with something that itched all over. Harry tugged on his captive hand, but Malfoy refused to release it. He read, instead.
Then he cast a cleaning spell on the blue ink, read again, and laughed.
He was laughing so hard that Harry finally managed to free himself and he backed away on all four, staring at the wheezing Slytherin. "Potter! Potter… Merlin and Morgan! Longbottom could at least afford a Remembrall, but you're still all Muggle! I can't believe… I can't believe I wasted… that the Dark Lord…"
Still clutching his stomach, Malfoy staggered away. Harry thought this was a first, and then contemplated why. He considered it possible that he had gotten more pathetic recently, but then it occurred to him that he hardly ever met Malfoy on his own – usually Ron and/or Hermione were with him.
He cast Finite Incantatum on himself, and the itching stopped.
He wasn't even worth a proper hex anymore.
The team was probably the best they had since Oliver Wood graduated, but the players had had no practice in the last year, so they were woefully out of shape. Harry flew circles around everyone else, but he had done so since he had straddled a broom for the first time, so there was little thrill in it. Within half an hour he got bored with the Seeker exercises Ron assigned him and went for a bit of free-form fly, before he was whistled down and glared at by an irate Captain.
"What the bloody Hell are you doing, Harry?" Ron yelled, illustrating how angry he was.
"Flying," Harry replied, because he was still himself. It would have been smarter to keep his mouth shut and look contrite, perhaps, but he had to do too much of that elsewhere.
Ron looked at him as if he didn't recognise him. "Harry, you haven't sat on a broom for a year! How do you think we're going to win if our Seeker doesn't give a crap about the practice?!"
Harry felt a cold shiver down his spine. He stared upwards into Ron's blazing eyes and, though his lip quivered imperceptibly, he was a little elated. Ron hadn't looked at him like this since… he couldn't remember. He was scared, at the same time. And sad.
"If you want to replace me, I'll stand down," Harry said solemnly, meaning every word. He was perfectly willing to give up Quidditch, especially if it meant that the Seeker would be someone of whose conduct the team Captain approved.
A large sweaty hand grabbed the front of Harry's Quidditch robe and tugged him forwards and upwards, until he stood on his toes, but still he wasn't on level with Ron, spite the fact that Ron bent lower.
"Are you nuts, Harry?" he asked, descending into conversational volume. "You're the best damn player on the team; don't you dare quit! But you need to practice!" Ron let go of the robe and jabbed his finger in the air. "Get on the broom!"
Harry tried to, but his hands were shaking, and his neck ached. His broom almost slipped through his fingers, and he decided it wasn't worth it. If Ron was that mad at him… the worst that could happen was that Harry would be kicked off the team regardless of being the proclaimed best player.
"Where are you going? Harry?" Ginny yelled after him.
He turned and pointed to the locker rooms. Ginny rapidly changed direction and flew over to the Beaters, who were being coached by Ron, undoubtedly to snitch.
Harry turned back and plowed on.
Pondering Hogwarts and classes and Malfoy obviously going unhinged and generally doing anything but what he was supposed to do (Charms homework), Harry was easily sneaked upon and assaulted in the corner of the common room. Ginny gave him an unusually restrained peck on the cheek and plopped down on the arm of his chair.
"Is everything alright, Harry?" she asked, fingers ghosting over his wrist, presumably in search of pulse-point. Harry always thought his hands malformed, and especially with the double writing on the back of the one Ginny was currently in position of, he did all he could to recover it.
"Am I off the team?" he asked dully, noting that the entire team had returned, with the exception of Ron, who was nowhere to see. Hermione came down the stairs from girls' dorms and strode straight for the portrait exit, not sparing Harry and Ginny a glance.
"Of course not," Ginny said gently, carding her fingers through Harry's hair. He closed his eyes and for a moment let himself drown in the sensation. His childhood and youth left him craving the simplest physical affection. Ginny guided his head to the crook of her shoulder and breast and suffused him with her warmth. "Are you sure you're okay? You should let Madam Pomfrey check you out…"
It was easier to just sit there and let himself be lulled to sleep.
After another of Ginny's heavy-handed attempts at seduction that Harry had dodged only just, he was in so foul a mood that he snapped at Neville, who showed no restraint in snapping right back and huffing off after his Hufflepuff. Instantly becoming the target of uncountable disapproving looks – Neville was a war hero, after all, and who was Harry to treat him with less than wide-eyed worship? – Harry decided for once to go with his Slytherin instincts and sequester himself in the library rather than face a pissed-off pride of lions.
He hadn't quite counted on Hermione already being there and waving him over as soon as she spotted him. Since it was too late to escape, Harry obediently sat down across from her and bit his tongue, unwilling to say something nasty to her. Hermione wordlessly pushed a book about theory of combined enchantments at him and Harry – obediently – opened it and read.
It was dry, but better than Potions.
He managed to fight through three and half a chapter, before Hermione couldn't keep herself silent anymore.
"You ignore Ron and me," she said, with the minimum amount of reproach, vastly overwhelmed by regret. She sounded sad, like Harry sometimes did. Apparently, the curse of Harry Potter marked every damn life it touched. Hermione wasn't unhappy because she had lived through a war – she wasn't even unhappy now because she lost friends. She was unhappy, because the ball and chain of the Boy Who Lived were still attached to her ankle.
"I don't," he replied in a passable imitation of George's tone.
Being one continuous brain-hurricane, Hermione couldn't accept that as the final answer. "Are you angry with us? I don't understand, Harry…" She reached out to him, and Harry practically glued his eyes to the page, pretending he didn't see the gesture. He wasn't happy that Hermione paid attention to him, even though he had believed that was what he wanted. He didn't want comfort and kind words from her. He didn't want to be this close to her. It wasn't… real. Albeit some people failed to notice, too much had changed.
He was dead. The question remained, however, just who was the relevant 'he'.
"Why are you pushing us away?" Hermione insisted.
"I'm not," Harry said with a shrug and stood, taking the book with him to check out and read in privacy.
"Then… what is happening?"
He paused and turned back for a moment to regard her. Her hair was in a tie, half-tamed, still bushy like it had been back in first year. For what felt like Harry's entire life, Hermione had been there, had been important. She was still, and always would be important.
Her eyes implored Harry to tell her something, to assuage her worries, but a wave of arctic, Snapish cruel truth swelled inside him and prompted him to say: "There's no room for me in your lives anymore, Mione." He turned away and set out towards Madam Pince's desk, doing his best to ignore Hermione, who stood up from the bench and yelled at his back.
"That's not true! That's not true!" Her voice rose high, and everyone in earshot stared at her. "That's bullshit, Harry James Potter!"
"Miss Granger!" Madam Pince gave the Head Girl (who must have been supremely upset to voice a profanity) the evil eye. "Ten points from Gryffindor-"
Practically shivering with dread of the next Quidditch practice, instructed by a note, Harry knocked on the door of McGonagall's study at minute past seven. The door opened for him and he slipped inside, closing it behind himself and trying not to think of the many well-deserved scoldings he had received in this room in the past. The number was going to rise today.
"Harry," McGonagall said in lieu of greeting, beckoning to the empty chair opposite her.
"Professor." Harry sat down and silently accepted a cup of tea and a biscuit. The brew smelled of honey and meadows and summer, and Harry took a moment to just take in that smell, thinking of all the memories he was never going to make. He smiled.
McGonagall left him cavorting off with the pixies for much longer than would have been prudent, but away inside his head Harry found tendrils of joy that might have shown on his face, and he imagined that would have been sufficient incentive for her to leave him be for a while.
When he finally opened his eyes again and met hers, she spoke: "I have heard of your argument with Hermione." Hermione was probably another person, who would ever be called by her first name. "Forgive the banality of the question, but do you wish to talk about it?"
"Yes… I think so," Harry replied, with nigh on no hesitation. He wanted someone outside his head to tell him that what he saw and felt and thought wasn't completely cut off from reality. He needed to speak to someone whom he could trust, but who wouldn't be hurt by his observations, which ruled out… almost everyone.
After a while of contemplation, which McGonagall left him to, he asked: "Have you talked to her?"
The Professor nodded. "Yes, I have. She was confused. She does not understand what is happening, and feels both hurt and afraid that she is hurting you."
So very much like Hermione – with all the observation skill and logic at her disposal, it was necessary that she came as close to the truth as possible. There always was a margin of error, but it was caused by human failure and irrationality. He squashed down the laughter that threatened to break out (he wasn't amused by Hermione's pain and that was what it would have seemed like) and shrugged. "Well… she's right. She usually is." Still, a few vague pictures and an abstract want that seemed to rule Harry's life lately wasn't nearly enough motivation for him to disrupt his friends' lives more than he already did. "But it's not her fault, Professor, and there is nothing that she can do to change it. There's nothing anybody can do."
McGonagall, unsurprisingly and aggravatingly, proved herself to be too shrewd to not see through a smoke screen. "Are you… in love with her?" she asked carefully, as if Harry was so fragile that a few hard words could break him.
He smiled. It was a wide smile, with perhaps a hint of desperation, an expression that had a life on its own, independent of Harry's mental state. "I wish it were that simple… no, Professor, I'm not in love with Hermione." It was perfectly true. He and Hermione would never fit together that way.
Continuing in the same train of thought, McGonagall reversed the point of view and made an assumption about her idea of jealousy-issues tearing the Golden Trio apart being correct. "Ah… Is it… Mr Weasley, then?" Odd, how Ron didn't share the same first-name priviledges.
Harry continued smiling. "No. I'm not in love with Ron." For once he felt genuinely amused. The riddles were fun, especially as McGonagall was clever, and kept shooting very close, but she wasn't thinking out of the box enough to find the solution. Harry could continue sitting there, smiling serenely, twinkling and she would guess and guess and never guess right. In that instance, he was almost like Dumbledore.
"Then what is the problem?" McGonagall pressed on, impatient with obstinate males that were insistent on reticence. She had worked with one since 1956, after all.
"Nothing that can be helped, Professor," Harry reiterated. That would have to be enough for her. He felt better for having gotten off his chest the mere fact that he had a problem and was suffering because of it. The mere compassion was all he wanted. "Thank you for the tea… and for caring enough to inquire and listen."
He stood and went for the door, but paused when she addressed him.
"Harry…" With his hand on the door-handle he turned and met her eyes. She was attempting (unsuccessfully) to give him an encouraging smile. "Hermione inquired – and she wanted to listen," she reminded him.
Harry shook his head. "I'm hurting her enough as it is. There is no reason to destroy what little good remains in this world."
Ginny broke the kiss, panting, and her fingers slid down Harry's chest and started pulling on his pyjama bottoms. He gripped her hands and scowled.
Somehow, even in the dusk, Ginny saw his face. She froze, then lifted herself on her knees and stood up. Her own expression turned ugly and she hastily collected her t-shirt and pulled it on. "You don't want me," she stated and hopped off the bed, remaining just within the sphere of the Silencing Spell.
Harry tapped his Gryffindor heritage and faced her directly. "I don't want to sleep with you yet, Ginny. You, for some reason, don't respect my wish."
Ginny laughed, harshly. She turned away, so that she didn't have to look in his eyes, and Harry couldn't begrudge her the disappointment and contempt she felt at that moment. "He was right… even Malfoy saw this." The silence in the room was resounding. Ron's snoring would have been welcome to shatter it, but Ron was where he usually was at night and the other guys routinely Silenced their own beds. Harry wished Ginny would at least look at him, at least show some contrition about talking to Malfoy about him. Malfoy, for goodness' sake! The bleached ferret once again found a way to meddle in Harry's life and strike where it hurt, like a Slytherin, with words in the correct ears. "The war… affected you. You need help."
That must have made so much sense to Ginny. Their summertime affair didn't immediately turn into hot physical love, because Harry was 'mentally disturbed'. "Is this your explanation to why I refuse to sleep with you?" he asked, aware that he was wasting words again, but sometimes wasting words couldn't – or shouldn't – be avoided. Sometimes it was the point.
"What else?" Ginny counter-questioned. "Unless you lied to me. You said you loved me." Did he? Harry couldn't remember, but he supposed it was possible. Still, Ginny was far from the only one, and Harry didn't want to have sex with everyone he loved… if with anyone at all. He was somewhat behind his years in this, mostly due to the constant pressure of war that he had been under practically since he set foot in Hogwarts. However, a little leeway was too much to hope for, when his girlfriend was legally adult and eager for hanky-panky.
"I do," he assured her. He would die for her. "But you need proof?"
She shook her head. "I don't understand you, Harry."
"Yes, and that is the problem." Also, Ginny didn't really try or want to understand him, which also wasn't conductive to an ideal relationship. Finally, Ginny apparently didn't trust him.
"And you don't even try," she said. Harry felt eerily as though she was speaking his words for him. That was how he felt about her, wasn't it? "I'm still here, Harry, if you decide to change your mind, but I won't be forever. Come talk to me when you figure out what you want… or I might just give up on this." She walked away and Harry fell back into his pillow, staring at the canopy and pretending not to notice that the curtain of Neville's four-poster fell back to its proper place when it was released.
He felt hollow, but at the same time liberated. He decided that ending up like Snape wasn't going too bad. He was already somewhat skilled in sarcasm, all he had to do was train his choleric attitude (which was going to be easy) and pre-design some acerbic comments.
He experimentally tried to sneer.
Harry was holed up in the Room of Requirement, hidden among piles of parchment and books. He was seriously getting into his project. He sorted out his old assignments and found everything marked by Snape: the comments were a well of well-articulated belittlements. He had a dictionary at hand, of course, because he had never been much of a reader, and his vocabulary was pitiful compared to the master of vituperation.
He had been at it for hours and already finished the fifth rant – each was prepared for a different occasion – and several comebacks, when the door let in one of the few people Harry didn't mind seeing… unless they were there to harp on him.
Neville approached cautiously, and when the Room (prompted by Harry) provided a chair for him, he let out a resounding sigh of relief and seated himself. Harry finished comparing the use of adjectives on pop-quizzes results and looked up.
Neville smiled, a little nervous. "I came to see how you were doing after… you know. Yesterday."
Harry realised he didn't care that Neville watched the scene with Ginny (mostly because he didn't feel like he did anything to be ashamed of) and therefore decided to waive the apology he would have otherwise expected.
"I've had far worse," Harry said with the kind of indifference that came from having had incomparably worse. This just… barely registered.
Neville shook his head, not to disagree, but because he was still startled by the collective idiocy of humanity. "Don't mind them, Harry. Everyone knows you're a hero, but they don't know the real reasons why. Ironically, even most of the D.A. don't get this." Neville's face darkened and his, usually kind, eyes turned sharper. There was a faint tinge of disgust in both his expression and his tone when he spoke again. "They overcame their fears, they rebelled… and they felt like they won something big and important. They don't understand what it's like to do the ugly things, to let yourself be hurt… they don't see that while they won… we've lost."
In the following silence, Harry mused about his friend's indignation. He supposed there was a bit of truth to his accusations, but Harry himself had never taken the time to ponder these things. He did what he did for the abstract Greater Good that Dumbledore brought him up to worship, the Right as the opposite to the Easy, and he had learnt long time ago not to expect gratitude. He was glad that McGonagall had saved him from Ministry and Press hounds in the aftermath, but other than that, he felt like nobody cared that he had 'vanquished' Voldemort.
"You're being melodramatic, Neville."
Neville grinned. "Yes, but it got the point across. That's why you and Ginny split, isn't it?"
Harry blinked and thought back to last night – yet another disastrous Halloween. "I'm not sure if we've split. I don't really get what's happened." Ginny told him that she still wanted to be with him, but apparently that wasn't true, because being with him wasn't what she wanted. She wanted to be with him who didn't act like him, and there was something funny with that logic.
He mentally berated himself for using the adjective 'funny' and reached for the dictionary to find a better-sounding synonym.
"I saw it, Harry," Neville continued like a man on a mission. "It wasn't my business, and I'm sorry, but, I don't agree. Ginny didn't have it all that bad here at Hogwarts. We were all scared, yes, and her brother was killed, but… she wasn't responsible for other people. She didn't go out there and let them cast Crucio on her so that some other kid didn't have to feel it." Neville's breath caught and Harry lifted his eyes to see the pained faraway look on the man's face. He felt wretched again. While he was off, gallivanting across the countryside and vacationing in nature, Neville came head to head with Death Eaters on daily basis and carried away the scars. No wonder Gryffindor practically worshipped him. "That kind of thing leaves a mark on you." Neville reminisced for another moment, and then came back to present and grinned again. "That's what I like about Hannah. Even if she doesn't exactly understand, she accepts it."
Harry envied Neville the ability to not pity himself. This man was a true leader, someone like everybody had expected Harry to become – someone like Harry resoundingly failed to be. "That's not exactly my case-"
"Harry," Neville cut in, exasperated, "you were responsible for all of us. Fuck me, I took care of a couple dozen people, but… the whole world? I don't want to know what you had to do, but thank you. Until the day I die, you can count on me, mate."
Harry wanted to argue, but he could see there was no point. Neville was more obstinate than himself. In the end, he offered a smile and a "thanks, Neville."
"You're welcome," the man replied easily, standing and brushing nonexistent dirt off his robes. "Don't let Ginny get you down."
Still amazed at his own skill to reduce first-year Hufflepuffs to tears (he hadn't meant for it to happen, he had just misjudged the viciousness of his comment), Harry continued sneering and sniping at everyone and everything. Neville laughed at some of his comments and scowled at others, and Ron and Hermione treated him the same as always after Pomfrey declared him unaffected by either spell or substance, but the rest of the student body steered clear of him.
It was, frankly, glorious: all the little people knew him, and nobody wanted anything from him. Plus, his vocabulary was rapidly improving.
Ginny, disgusted with his behaviour, didn't speak to him. Harry tried, a few times, especially during Quidditch practices, but she either ignored him, or responded with gelid civility when disregard was impossible. He didn't do anything about it, and within a few weeks it stopped hurting.
The morning after a snow-storm, Harry had the first out-of-class encounter with Malfoy since the time Malfoy had stumbled away from him, laughing hysterically. It seemed that whatever knot the Slytherin had had in his underwear had been untied, because he showed no restraint in sneering at Harry, who was busying himself with making a circle of snow angels – the Muggle way.
"Now, now, Potter, try to restrain yourself. Much as we would love to see you carted off to St Mungo's, it might just break McGonagall's heart, and we wouldn't want that." The little crowd trailing after Malfoy didn't laugh (it really wasn't that funny, especially as they had heard it hundred times before), but they did expectantly watch Harry to see his reaction.
Harry stood up, took a deep breath, positioned his voice as low as it got, and spoke the pre-written monologue he had learnt by heart: "Mr Malfoy. I have been subjected to your childish tantrums for seven years already, and whatever feeble effect they might have had in the beginning has long since been lost. You have summarily dashed all the hopes that you might one day mature into a respectable member of the wizarding society, and I regret to inform you that your less than imaginative insults detract what little dignity or elegance your name and money had secured you. As it is not within my power to point out your social lapses by detraction of points, I will have to settle for informing your House mates that you remain a blemish on the cunning and ambitious face of Slytherin.
Good day, Mr Malfoy."
Doing all he could to keep his sneer in place (and not burst out in laugh like several of the observers), Harry pivoted and strode off to the castle, even managing a little flap of robes. The crowd parted for him, and shocked little voices repeated "Snape?" from many directions. Malfoy gaped like a fish.
It was a resounding success.
Paradoxically, Harry was constantly near the top of the class in Potions. The snail-slow pace, that made all the better students lose interest quickly and make banal mistakes, suited Harry perfectly. However, it came with an unforeseen consequence.
He woke up in the hospital wing, feeling like he had suffered several blows to the head. He didn't remember what happened to land him there, but he wasn't given the chance to deliberate upon it, because there were more conscious people than himself in the room and they were having a row.
"…of your conduct! These are hardly the actions of Gryffindors!" McGonagall seethed. When he turned his head, Harry could see the edge of her robe in the space where the curtains weren't drawn quite together.
"B-but-" someone stammered.
"But what, Mr Sloper?" McGonagall asked coldly.
"He means, Professor, Ma'am," said Seamus' voice (apparently, there was a whole conspiracy), "that Professor Waspeye already took twenty points from each of us, and that you need not stress over it. How 'bout a cup of tea? I'm sure the house elves-"
"Shut up, Mr Finnigan," McGonagall said, hardly louder than a whisper. Harry actually shivered despite knowing that she wasn't cross with him. "You assaulted your House-mate, injured him enough to require hospitalisation, and tried to excuse yourself with ridiculous allusions to possession. That is not to mention the fact that your victim was Harry Potter. Aside from being a decorated war-hero and a household name even without our nation, I am particularly fond of him. I suggest you rethink your defence. Quickly."
"But he's really possessed!" Jack, who ever had more muscle than brain, apparently didn't grasp that McGonagall's attitude changed since the war, and she had become more protective – and more vindictive.
"I assure you that Madam Pomfrey performed several tests, and there is no presence controlling Mr Potter, dead or otherwise. He is not being possessed by Severus Snape… and I think I know just the thing to convince you. Mr Sloper, Mr Finnigan, Miss Vane – detention for the next two weeks… and Mr Sloper can add two more nights, due to my personal dislike of impertinence."
The shocked silence was followed by mutters of 'yes, professor', and Romilda's whisper that, unfortunately, carried too far: "Do you think Snape possessed her, too?" to which McGonagall reacted by extending her detention as well.
While not happy to be in the hospital wing, Harry found himself smiling, before the curtains parted and Pomfrey, with an intimidating beaker of some kind of steaming potion in her clutches, appeared.
Oddly enough, she seemed to be… smirking?
"Enjoyed that, did you? I imagined you might. Try not to land here so often without a Dark Lord after your skin, Mr Potter."
Harry was shocked enough to drink the potion without a word of protest.
With House-mates unconvinced about Harry's being in possession of his own body but too intimidated by lioness McGonagall to try anything, Harry apparently needed a new problem to pop up. Conveniently, Mrs and Mr Weasley sent him the third letter, in which they alluded to the break of his and Ginny's relationship and urged him to find a solution acceptable by all sides.
Harry got the feeling that Mrs Weasley completely missed the point, and convinced herself (or was convinced by Ginny, which Harry would prefer not to be the case) that he was leading Ginny on and pressuring her into something she didn't desire. How the situation got turned on its ear in the post, he didn't understand, but the looks Ginny was sending him while he bent over the parchment were too suspicious for comfort.
"Did Mum write something important?" she asked when the curiosity finally got better of her. Ron and Hermione temporarily abandoned their game of chess (in which Hermione wasn't being trounced nearly as resoundingly as she would have been a couple of years ago) and directed her attention at Harry. The rest of the common room followed – as if everything there was actually common. Harry contemplated being incensed, but didn't muster enough enthusiasm.
"Mr Weasley tells me to clean up my act and treat Ginny better," he said in imitation of George, masking the sarcasm underneath.
Hermione scowled, though what it was she disapproved of, Harry couldn't begin to guess. Ron, on the other hand, glared at the chessboard and muttered something like: "…treat friends better…"
Harry long and arduous search for a placating response to Ron was interrupted by Ginny relocating from the circle of Exploding Snap players to the arm of Harry's armchair and asserting herself with a, nearly classic, proclamation of: "You just need to straighten out your priorities, Harry. I'd be happy to help you. We can fix our relationship and, in July, we'll even enter the Auror training together-"
Ron choked. Harry folded the letter with shaking hands and decided to burn it as soon as its contents would become redundant. He stowed it away in the pocket of his robe and stood up, pretending fairly well that his legs didn't feel like they were made of jelly even without a hex. Ginny stood up as well, uncomfortable when her advantage of altitude had been countered.
"You know, Ginny, I think your mum's in a way right," Harry spoke in a patently fake pensive tone. Ginny's face lightened with a smile just short of ecstatic… and then she had the gall to look surprised when he finished with: "I'm not a good boyfriend to you. You should find someone better."
It took her – and the rest of the room – a few seconds to figure out that he was actually definitively breaking up with her, and since Harry's Slytherin preservationist tendencies kicked in right in time, he was already half-way to the seventh year's dormitory by then.
Ron came in much, much later, as the last one, and Harry cursed his guilty conscience for having prevented him from going back to sleep, because he would have very much liked to avoid this confrontation.
"I suppose you're obligated to at least deck me now?" he mumbled weakly, squinting in the dim candlelight to gauge just how angry Ron was and whether that was because he wasn't spending the night with Hermione for a change or because he was forced to defend his sister's honour.
Ron huffed, chucking his robe onto the floor. "Mate, I talked to Hermione. She told me you weren't happy. What else is there to talk about?" Ron shrugged, and went about getting ready for bed with his typical oblivious kind-heartedness.
Harry turned away and buried his face in his pillow. He felt like sobbing his little black heart out, but it was too early to put a Silencing Spell around his bad, and the other guys hearing him was the last thing and wanted and, honestly, what did he have to cry about?
He was just pathetically drowning in self-pity – yet again. He bit down onto the cotton and promised himself that he would stop this, that he would grow past all the insignificant excuses to draw attention to himself and become the true cynic: one that gave much better than he got.
Well aware that he was breaking curfew, but too agitated to feel compunctions about it, Harry leaned against the white marble and counted seconds until it would start to rain.
His concentration was disrupted, however, when a person dressed in a generic coat with a hood stepped out of the castle's door. They came down the road at a fast pace, driven by the biting cold. For the longest while Harry believed that they would not notice him, but that hope was dashed.
The hood was pulled off and revealed McGonagall, for once hatless, before she came within hexing distance – an ambiguous gesture that might have complimented Harry's hexing skills as well as label him potentially aggressive enough to attack on sight. She crossed the expanse of snow between them and touched her gloved finger to the side of the tomb, reverent.
"Barmy old codger…" she whispered, smiling.
"He was, wasn't he?" Harry replied, amused. "I would say 'too focused on the Light ahead to notice he was wading through a cesspool', but I don't think you would fall for it." Dumbledore was perfectly aware of the cesspool, and even added to in on regular basis. He had been basically what passed for a 'good man' among wizards as powerful, but he had the ability to create corpses easily and often.
McGonagall didn't get it. For her it was easier to believe that the man she looked up to smelt of roses all his war-torn life. She chuckled and traced a rune into the frost covering the marble. "Yes, I have heard rumours about you becoming more and more like the late Headmaster – although not the one I would have wagered on," the witch said with a hint of admonishment, as if Harry wanted to be anything like Dumbledore. Snape, at least, had come to terms with his own wretchedness and found a way to deal with it. Dumbledore just pretended it wasn't there and let it fester.
With regards to gossip about himself, Harry had a rehearsed response: "Minds so pathetically small are hardly worth listening to."
McGonagall burst into laughter, free and wild, the kind that teacher shouldn't rightly let their students see, because it showed off their human side. "My goodness! That sounded almost authentic."
Harry shrugged. "I have done my homework." It was a fact and he felt neither self-conscious nor proud about it.
"Quite literally, I suppose," she inquired.
"Albus always had a special place in his heart for that man," McGonagall said, smiling as if she hadn't chased Snape out of Hogwarts that god-damned day, wand-a-blazing.
Harry gaped at her incredulously. Hers was a ridiculous notion, and while a Gryffindor student might have been taken in by the illusion of cordiality, a colleague should have known better. "Dumbledore despised Snape – and envied him," Harry corrected. McGonagall looked like she was going to argue, but Harry had seen the memories Snape had left him: memories of cruelty aimed at a wounded man, who might have objectively deserved it, but could have been forgiven long before he died. "Snape was the embodiment of how Dumbledore felt. Can you imagine that amount of rage, hatred, bitterness and sarcasm compressed and hidden under a kindly, Light exterior? He must have been boiling inside."
McGonagall was gaping at him. Harry realised he shouldn't have told her. It was long past the highest time he should have shut up. She was also hurting, and taking away the fond memories she had was supremely cruel of him. He hoped she would choose to disregard his words and go on revering the image of Albus Dumbledore she had constructed in her mind.
"I am not holding you from something important, am I, Professor?" he asked, averting attention from his ill-advised rant.
Haltingly, she answered: "I am on my way for a little – well, maybe a bigger now – glass. It would not do for 'Professor McGonagall' to be seen drinking…" The humour was weak, but Harry obediently chuckled. "There is a quaint tavern in a Muggle village not so far from here. Their single-malt is the true Scottish."
"Are you looking for company?" he said, focusing all his meagre experience with flirting, and was gratified to see her laugh. Mission accomplished. "I have acquired quite the taste for whisky when we were rebuilding Hogsmeade-"
"'We'?" she cut in. "So that is where you have hidden yourself over the summer…"
Harry confirmed the assumption. It was odd, for the only person he had shared this information to be his Head of House and Transfiguration teacher, but she was quickly becoming his confidante, so it also made sense. "I needed to find something constructive to do with my time," he explained.
"You are a marvel, Harry," McGonagall said, incredulous, impressed and somewhat exasperated. "Nevertheless, I think I'll decline your offer of company – today."
Harry wasn't disappointed. As a matter of fact, he wasn't in the mood for drinking or socialising – hence his night-trip to see Dumbledore's tomb – and didn't mind not spending the next hour or two in a Muggle pub. "Have fun, Professor."
"Thank you, Harry," she replied, and like a responsible adult added: "Go back inside before you freeze your toes off."
Another letter from the Weasleys caused Harry's mood to plummet, along with his marks and whatever feeble motivation to present himself as a social being he might have possessed. The frigid November weather only compounded his mental state, and he became a veritable walking cloud of depression, snapping out of his funk for just long enough to deliver a biting remark (many of which were, in fact, spontaneous!) to the occasional unfortunate person who crossed his path.
The notable exceptions were his friends – Ron, Hermione, Neville – and the staff, though Harry deliberated a lot about suspending the exception in the cases of 'DADA teacher' Waspeye and 'Potions teacher' Timbumple. Ginny seemed to mysteriously disappear whenever he entered a room.
The one person that definitely was a repeated and unteachable subject of Harry's new-found denigrating skill remained Malfoy, who, no matter how many times he was insulted, didn't get the point that Harry wanted him to bugger off. The only reason why Harry still reacted to the Slytherin at all was that there were always dozens of witnesses to the exchange… and Harry's reputation as an accomplished bastard grew with each of those encounters.
It might have been the pre-Quidditch match nerves that made Malfoy actually stand up and intercept Harry as he was coming to dinner, and announce for the entire school to hear: "Why do you keep showing your mug in here, Potter? Did you miss the memo? Nobody actually wants you here. Even Weaslette sent you to Hell-"
"Sometimes, Draco, I regret saving your life," Harry said with patience of a mountain – a façade for his apathy. "Then I remember that your mother is actually a decent human being, and merely feel pity that Fate dealt her the plague of progeny of your kind." Harry was becoming used to these shocked, sputtering silences in the wake of his Snapish remarks – he guessed it paid to rehearse.
The next day Gryffindor trounced Slytherin in Quidditch, and Harry obediently received his Captain's pat on the back for a job well-done and scarpered as effectively as one could without the utilisation of an Invisibility Cloak or Apparition, wondering when the Hell all joy of the sport had evaporated while he rushed off to shower before he had to report for detention – quite possibly the first detention in Hogwarts history assigned for 'grievous insult of a fellow student'. Odd, how these sorts of rules lay dormant while it was free season on Harry's festering wounds (his parents' deaths, Cedric's death, Sirius' death…) but popped up the moment Harry dared to mock back.
Waspeye and Timbumple joined forces and had the Slytherin Prefects inform them on Harry's sarcastic putdowns, resulting in averagely two detentions a week for him. Hermione tried to persuade him to stop, but Harry imagined that a proper bitter curmudgeon in the face of adversity became a worse adversity, so he declared open season on the teaching staff, too, sparing only McGonagall, Flitwick, Pomfrey and Sprout.
That measure finally earned Harry the dreaded scrutiny of Headmistress Sinistra. Without his presence, the higher-ups democratically decided that he was calling out in his pathological need of attention, and it was all McGonagall could do to stop them from curbing his behaviour in a more radical way. Harry got 'invited' to his Head of House's office for tea and biscuits and to reassure her that everything in his life was peachy keen and he had had no intention to offend any of the numerous complainants.
It was actually hilarious, in a desperate, pathetic way.
Sitting in front of McGonagall's desk and sipping a drink that had had enough time to cool down to room temperature, Harry dedicated a moment to introspection in the effort to find out why sarcasm was allowed to some people and forbidden to others. It had nothing to do with age, obviously, or experience, political opinion, social status, religion or House-affiliation…it couldn't have had anything with merit, either, because, really, Harry had vanquished a Dark Lord – who had done more?
"Tell me, Professor," he spoke, smiling at her as if the situation wasn't dire, "why do other people have the right to express their opinions of myself, but the reverse is not true?"
McGonagall set her cup onto the silver tray, narrowed her eyes and gazed into its depths, hopefully not far enough gone to look for tea-leaves formations. It was more likely that truth was hidden in wine than in tea, anyway. Eventually, she looked up and irately slammed her palm against the desktop.
"You're right, Harry," she said, effectively stunning him. "This affair is entirely ridiculous." She reached into the corner behind her cabinet and recovered her cane – a long, thin, polished stick that added copious points to her intimidation effect.
Harry was almost sorry for the Governors, before he remembered that 'sneer and belittle' was his chosen way of life. He stood and, the tiniest bit smugly, went for the door, when he was stopped by a nifty little spell that had him sitting in his former place faster than he realised that McGonagall had spoken an incantation.
"Ma'am?" he asked, going for the picture of innocence, which didn't work because he didn't have the face for it, McGonagall knew him too well, and because he was already much too entrenched in the cynicism to imagine what that kind of blithe naivety felt like.
"I appreciate that you have lived through difficult times, Harry, and it was unfair of us-" Harry didn't like that plural there, he didn't like it at all, "-to expect you to come out of that experience without trauma." She was trying to be gentle, but to Harry her halting manner seemed simply insincere. Abstractly, he was glad that there was someone who wanted to help him but after ten years spent as the Dursleys' house elf he wasn't able to do anything about it. He didn't know how to accept this kind of help; he didn't want this kind of help. He wanted to be left alone, but people just couldn't take a hint!
"It has little to do with the war, Professor," he told her, continuing in his reckless disclosure of uncomfortable truths from the night they met by Dumbledore's tomb. "How much do you really know about my life?"
McGonagall's eyes fell to her fingers interlaced around her cane. Harry could read the silence easily: she knew as much as the next owner of Daily Prophet subscription… and was ashamed of it.
Harry didn't really care all that much, but he needed to put his history into perspective for her if she was to have a chance at fathoming the reasons for his inability to conform. "I spent my pre-Hogwarts life re-enacting the younger years of Cinderella, and my Hogwarts career as a mixture of a soldier, a celebrity and a political scapegoat. Now, after everything is said and done, the society expects me to miraculously turn into a reasonably well-adjusted adult." That was about enough, as concerned the general outline, and Harry stood up and backed away, feeling more claustrophobic than he ever had felt in the locked cupboard under the stairs. There was nothing he could do to make his escape seem more dignified, so he finished by saying: "I'm sorry, but my quota of miracles was filled by offing Voldemort for you," and hightailed out of there.
Harry didn't cry because bastards didn't cry, though he sure felt like it. He buried deeper into the cushions and thought about his mother: if she had been holding him in that moment, he might have reconsidered. There was something, well, magical, about being touched. Maybe it seemed to him that way because he had come to know friendly touch just a bit after he had come to know magic, and that had created an association in his mind.
It was going to be a rotten Christmas – his worst one since the last one he had spent with the Dursleys.
He had come to the conclusion that Snape, Malfoy and the Governors were all correct about him: he was a shameless attention-seeker. He would have liked to explain it away simply as making a particular person notice him to make them touch him, but that sounded stupid even inside his head, so he simply sequestered himself within the Room of Requirement and waited for the atmosphere of cheer and joy to dissipate before he asphyxiated on it. It wasn't like anybody missed him out there…
Of course, had that been so, there would be nobody invading his little cell cum holiday inn.
Neville, Hannah, Ginny, Dean and Seamus were there, carrying brightly coloured packages. Harry almost sent them packing. The only one who, upon seeing his expression, spoke to him was Neville, trying to divert Harry's attention while Ginny tiptoed around to deposit the presents under the rhododendron (which had, apparently, been deemed a sufficient Christmas tree).
Deterred by Harry's continuous silence and glare, they left straightaway. Neville clasped Harry's shoulder, looking sad and helpless, and they were all gone. A clock materialised on the opposite wall and informed Harry that they had twenty minutes spare before they would have to go down to Hogsmeade to catch the Express. They did all have some family left to spend Christmas with, after all. Very few people were staying at Hogwarts for holidays, unless they didn't have anywhere to go…
Harry pulled a cushion to his chest – it was as close as he got to a hug nowadays – and closed his eyes, going back to not crying. He decided to think about happier things, and that was enough of weakness displayed in his opinion. He had, once upon a time, considered moving to Godric's Hollow, maybe renovating his parents' house… but that house was as much a memorial as it was a ruin, and there was no closure to be found there. He wondered if there were other town with mixed wizard-Muggle population, whether he would have liked to live there and, if he decided so, what would he do for life? Somehow, being on beck and call of a politician (any politician) didn't seem like a career he would do well in. He was just too bloody headstrong.
Well, if nothing else, he could always come back to teach. There was no way he could have been any worse than Waspeye.
New Year was there, and Harry hadn't cut his wrists yet (or drank a poison, or even jumped off a broom), so there was really no reason for Hermione to send a letter pleading for proof of Harry's physical well-being. He snorted upon noticing Ron's signature on the parchment – either the blockhead was forced into contributing it by his girlfriend, or he was bullied into agreeing with her.
It made no difference to Harry. He responded with a generic reassurance about his continued survival without Pomfrey's contributions, and laced it liberally with sarcasm that hopefully would make them feel their query wasn't appreciated.
Even if it was. Sort of. Harry liked that someone cared enough to inquire, but he was quick to confront it with the fact that he was staying alone at Hogwarts (for the first time) and he was having possibly the worst Dursley-free holiday ever. Even searching for Horcruxes had been better, regardless of all the recriminations and endless arguments.
He sent the letter back with Pig and skipped dinner, reminding himself that bastards didn't miss their friends, no matter the season. Bastards sucked it up and flipped the world off.
When January came and with it the end of the holidays, Harry braced himself and went about in his asocial routine. He was forced to another talk with McGonagall, but this one was finished yet faster than the last one, because McGonagall had informed him of the affair about him insulting people being swept under the table right off, and Harry felt there was no reason to linger.
The Professor didn't like it, of course, even tried to make him go to the Head's office and have a chat with Dumbledore's portrait, but he figured he would have just ended up in an insulting match with Snape while Dumbledore twinkled on, and there was no reason to kill time such an uncomfortable way.
The upcoming term also brought back the rest of Gryffindor upperclassmen, and they were all red-cheeked, holiday-energised barrels of laughter. Even Hermione seemed constantly high. Harry gave up on his routine then – faced with the first signs of adversity, like a proper Slytherin coward – and scarpered. He couldn't get too far, though.
They caught him quickly, in the oppressively silent dormitory, suddenly serene and sheepish, judging by the way Ron was futilely trying to hide behind Hermione's back. Harry's sneer chose that moment to fail, and he remained sitting at the side of his bed, staring at them with wordless challenge to speak and try and explain why the last vestiges of their past as the infamous Golden Trio were gone.
Hermione's eyes pleaded him to listen, to forgive, but there wasn't anything to forgive because they had in no way been obligated to provide presents – or attention. They were 'friends', yes, but what did one have to do as a 'friend'? Was there a textbook that explained it? Had Hermione read it? Did she write an essay on the topic of friendship? Was there anything about presents in it?
Harry, brought up in curious poverty considering the fact that he owned a vault full of gold, had never cared that much about material possessions. He didn't give a damn that he didn't get a present for Christmas from some of the people he – almost automatically – assumed would be getting him one. It, inexplicably, hurt. It shouldn't have, but he wasn't as good yet at the unfeeling routine as to forget being forgotten or disregard being disregarded.
It wasn't that bad: he had incinerated a whole pile of useless rubbish sent to him by people he had never met, and deposited a bigger pile in the common room for anyone to grab anything they liked. There was no reason whatsoever to feel brokenhearted if the nation worshipped him, was there? He was lucky, wasn't he?
"We wanted to give you to him before he left, but he hadn't made it in time…" Hermione spoke quietly.
Ron finally stepped out from behind her back, and there was a tiny mousey-grey creature in his joined palms. He came forwards and Harry, subconsciously, extended his hands to take it. It was an owl – and it wasn't nearly as small as it had seemed because Ron's hands were huge.
"He's one of the survivors of the Final Battle, actually," Hermione explained. "According to Hagrid, he's walked all the way from Hogsmeade to his hut with a broken wing."
Ron smiled wryly and tried to stroke the owl's head with one – oversized – finger, getting pecked. "You've got to admire that kind of determination."
Harry did. He couldn't imagine what it must have been like for the bird, but he understood the will to live and do all that was needed to survive. He had duelled Voldemort, repeatedly, for the same reason.
The owl glanced up at him with two huge yellow eyes, and Harry appreciated that it looked nothing like Hedwig. He had loved Hedwig and hadn't even considered replacing her, but, perhaps, having an owl wouldn't necessarily mean replacing her. It was still just a chick, anyway, without an owl mum to take care of it. Harry knew too well what it was like to go hungry to wish it on any child.
Ron shifted nervously and Harry looked up to see why. "Well, Grubbly-Plank has been taking care of him, down in Kent, but…" He shrugged, hung his head and muttered: "…we thought you two might like each other?"
Harry smiled. The expression was so practiced and came so easily that he noticed only afterwards that it wasn't genuine. "Thanks, guys. What's his name?"
They shared a look that told Harry clearly that whatever the little guy was called, he wouldn't be learning it. Either Hagrid had continued with his tradition of the most ridiculous names, or it was something Ron and Hermione thought would upset Harry.
Moments later he was proved right when Hermione grinned and suggested: "Why don't you give him one?"
The owl chose that instance to take off and relocate from Harry's hands to the windowsill, staring outside onto the snow-covered grounds. There were only two things out there that Harry knew were worth such a stare.
"Roch," he said, not really thinking about it.
"Roch?" Ron asked.
Hermione looked just as befuddled. Harry tried to remember if he had ever made a reference she didn't get, but then dismissed the line of thought as inconsequential. With another not exactly sincere smile he turned away from the window and faced his friends, finishing the conversation with a civil, but palpably not cordial: "I just saw it somewhere in a book…"
Few more minutes of keeping up the act were more than the couple could withstand, and so they departed, dispirited and crestfallen.
Quickly, before anyone saw him, Harry opened the window. The owl looked gazed at him quizzically, waiting for direction.
"Roch died in prison, you know," Harry told the bird, not dismissing the possibility that it could understand. "I'll feed you whenever you come to me, but I won't take away your freedom."
With a flutter of wings, Harry was the only one left in the room. He figured it was probably right that way.
"… second Killing Curse to the head messed you up, Potter, because it's obvious you forgot how to use a shampoo," Smith sneered, knocking Harry into the wall, not even having the wherewithal to try and make it look like an accident.
Smith's girlfriend, Gertrude or something, followed him, though she kept herself as far from Harry as possible, grimacing. "You're greasier than Snape, Potter," she snapped, leaning onto Smith as if in great distress from encountering Harry.
"Five points from Hufflepuff, Miss O'Donnell," McGonagall announced, and received about fifteen glares from all the amassed Hufflepuffs. She shooed them off to dinner and Harry was nearly fast enough to slip away.
Unfortunately, before he ducked into the secret passage under the tapestry, a hand clamped down on his shoulder, and he was forced to face the music.
"Hello, Professor," he said, hardly loud enough for her to hear.
"Harry," she replied warily, forgoing the niceties, "I am doing what is in my power to make thing easier for you, but you absolutely must show some willingness to adjust. I understand your lack of interest in socialising, and I understand your resorting to sarcasm – but, for goodness' sake, don't give up on hygiene, too."
Startled, Harry glanced up and met her eyes. She was wearing possibly the most candid expression he had seen in what felt like years, and it, if nothing else, convinced him to nod and mutter a promise that he would shower tonight and wash his hair – now that its state had been pointed out to him, he noticed how oily it felt when he ran his hand through it. It must have been weeks since he had last washed it with anything but water… before holidays started.
Compared to other things – like moping and loathing the very things that made other people happy – washing his hair had seemed rather unimportant.
Clean squeakier than a rubber-ducky, Harry stepped out of the stall, cast a Drying Charm, and pulled on the clothes he had picked out earlier. He had never been gladder that the school uniforms were black. The colour fit him better than anybody could have anticipated.
He looked into the mirror. It reflected a thin, speccy boy. Nothing to sneer at and nothing to belittle, and it was just Harry and his own wretchedness sneering back into his face. He never thought it was going to be like this. Maybe he really was that much different from Snape or, somewhere along the way, he had actually managed to disregard that it would hurt him more than it would hurt anybody else – more than it would hurt the world he wanted to get back at.
He pulled off his glasses and the world blurred, and he tried to convince himself that to the rest of the world he seemed just as blurry. It didn't work. He had lost the focus he had selected for himself; it crumbled when confronted with logic and reason. He was back where he had started so, so long ago, in a dilapidated shack on the night of his birthday, before Hagrid came for him. For every single thing he had gained along the way, he had lost something more precious. Irrationally, or maybe to squash his hurt under a worse hurt, he walked out of the bathroom and through a series of generally unknown passages made his way to the staircase of the Astronomy Tower – and up.
The afternoon was late, windy and so cloudy that the sun couldn't be seen. Everything – the sky, the mountains, the castle itself – was dark grey. It couldn't have been a different colour. Grey fit. Grey like dust, like ashes, like all that remained of Harry's already damaged sense of belonging.
Over the years they had been a team. If either of them had been missing, it wouldn't have worked – they wouldn't have survived. Now one of them was missing, and it worked. Harry was selfishly glad Ron and Hermione hadn't gotten together before the war was over.
He would go elsewhere and start anew, he supposed. He had already done so once, and he knew he could do it. The problem was: he knew this would happen again and again, and in the end he would die alone… and even that didn't matter, because he already felt like he was dying.
Tears that he couldn't have stopped if he gouged his eyes out streamed down his cheeks and he sobbed and sobbed and sobbed so hard that he choked and then he cried harder because he was just too weak to even cry. He bit down onto his wrist to stop the pitiful sounds, but it didn't work – he was so numb that the pain penetrated only when he mangled his own flesh and even then it was merely a fact compared to the pain he felt inside. A loud, desperate, keening wail sounded into the night, and he realised that it was himself, huddled and rocking and shaking and wailing and… it made no sense.
He still couldn't stop it.
The door burst open; two darker shadows sprinted to him, and he curled up so that they couldn't see his face. He didn't know who they were, but he didn't want anybody see him like this. He wished he had the Invisibility Cloak, but twin cries of "Harry!" informed him that even that wouldn't have helped him.
They were breathing hard – obviously had been running up the stairs. Ron skidded on his knees and landed next to Harry, eyes wide and fearful, hands outstretched. One landed on Harry's sternum, the other on his back, and he was forced to uncurl enough so that they could see his tear-streaked face.
"Are you hurt, Harry?" Hermione questioned, kneeling on his other side.
Harry shook his head, then thought better of it and presented his teeth-marked wrist. Hermione choked and without a word Healed it, knowing perfectly well that it was himself who had inflicted it.
He shook his head again, although it was patently obvious that he was hurt much worse than a bite that hadn't even pierced the skin.
"Talk to me, Harry?" Hermione pleaded, reaching for his hand and clasping it between hers. Ron stood up and Harry, in blind panic, gripped the folds of his robe and refused to let go.
"Mione is better at this, mate," Ron tried to convince him, but Harry would have none of it. He pulled onto the robe and the sobs were starting again, uncontrollable. Hermione searched her pockets for a handkerchief and, pointlessly, wiped his face off tears, before trying to press the cloth into his hand so that he could blow his nose. Harry didn't care that he could hardly breathe, not when he would have to let go of either Hermione or Ron to change the state.
"Stay…" he managed, in between the sobs.
Ron exchanged a glance with Hermione and then sank onto the stones, next to Harry, and leant against the rampart. Harry let go of his robe and clutched onto his hand. He ignored Ron's stare, only half-aware that Ron eventually decided to return the sentiment and ignore Harry's grip.
Hermione tried to talk to him, but eventually gave up and sat against the rampart with him and Ron, shoulder to shoulder and shoulder to shoulder, with Harry in the middle holding onto both his friends' hands.
They had been sitting there for a long time, maybe even an hour, until Harry's desperation subsided and only few calm, after-storm tears were left to cry in an orderly and quiet manner. He let go of the hands and scrambled to his knees, shaky, bracing himself on the rampart. Ron and Hermione followed closely, and Harry cherished their presence and their affection, filing this – otherwise horrible – time into his mind, associating it with the scent of tea, honey, meadows, summer and memories he was never going to make. He smiled.
"I love you, guys."
He was fairly sure he had said it before, even repeatedly, but for some reason Hermione's eyes widened and she gasped, gripping Harry's shoulders to stop him from standing. She searched his face, and he was so ashamed that he had to look down – and that was as good as an admission.
Hermione groaned and her forehead thunked against Harry's collarbone. "I'm so stupid!"
"What?" Ron asked, uncomprehendingly. Harry chuckled bitterly and gave up to Hermione's attempts to embrace him. He liked it, and he was too exhausted by his earlier emotional display to feel depressed about it.
"I didn't want you to know," Harry said, stroking her hair. "I didn't want you to feel bad for me, or even to…" mess up her relationship with Ron because she pitied him.
"I should have seen it!" Hermione cried. "How could I not? You're a lousy liar!"
"What's going on?" Ron snapped, while Harry retorted: "I got better."
Silence followed, as the line of conversation got knotted thoroughly, and Harry wondered if it was more important that Ron wasn't hurt by the knowledge, or that he had the right to know. After a while of deliberation, Harry came to the conclusion that, aside from having the right, Ron would have found out sooner or later anyway, because Hermione wouldn't just let it be.
He gulped, looked Ron straight in the eye and repeated: "I love you, guys." He could virtually see how the statement ran through Ron's head and the wheels turned and turned and then there was a soft clink and the little light-bulb above Ron's head lit up as it all came into perspective.
Harry was prepared for anger or uncomfortable apologies, even, though he didn't really expect it, for calm reasoning. Ron, however, simply came to a complete halt. He stared at Harry, unmoving, with a tiny frown-crease on his forehead, half-hidden behind red bangs. Hermione eventually looked up from Harry's shoulder, and glanced at Ron curiously, trying to glean what was going through his head (if anything at all).
Then Ron moved, slowly, with deliberation that must have overridden his turmoil. He leant forwards and – while Harry wondered if he was going to be hit – sneaked a hand behind Harry's neck and… kissed him. It was tentative, just trying out what it was like – Harry had never kissed a male and, as far as he knew, neither had Ron. It was a little odd. Harry liked it, but he wasn't sure where Ron was going with it (or if he had some aim at all), so he remained passive.
Aware of Hermione's gape, Ron slipped his free arm around her waist before he licked Harry's lips and Harry deepened the kiss. It was perfectly normal, though nervous and uncertain, but to Harry it felt incredible – because he couldn't believe he was kissing Ron. He never thought… never imagined…
Another hand, smaller than the one on his neck, wound in Harry's hair. Hermione shifted, coming closer, and Ron pulled away, for once understanding perfectly without explicit instruction. Hermione took her turn without the tentativeness, once having decided certain of her actions. It wasn't any less incredible than with Ron.
"Holy cricket…" Ron breathed.
Hermione laughed into Harry's mouth, then broke the kiss and gave one to Ron, brief and well-practiced. Then she settled against Harry's chest and rested her face against his nape.
When the shock and elation faded, Harry was gripped by mind-numbing fear. Ron and Hermione noticed him stiffening and exchanged worried looks, before Ron slipped a hand around Harry's back and Hermione moved over so that they could talk.
"What's going to happen now?" Harry asked, searching Hermione's eyes for a reassurance.
"We're going to the Head Girl's room – all three of us," Ron said resolutely, and Hermione, after a moment of bethinking it, nodded.
It didn't help Harry relax at all. The fear intensified and, combined with exhaustion and the frigid weather, Harry was beginning to shake.
Hermione promptly cast a warming charm over them, but it helped only marginally. "Don't worry, Harry," she placated, "we're not going to jump you or anything."
"You trust us, right?" Ron added.
Harry let them pull him up to his feet, and walked closely by his sides to make sure that he didn't take a header down the Astronomy Tower staircase.
Harry had occasionally been to Hermione's room – well, the 'Head Girl's room' – before, of course, but this was the first time the place scared him. It was hardly different from the dorm, except that it was smaller, there was only one bed there and enough books to fill a small library. It fit Hermione perfectly, but Harry would have expected Ron to go crazy there…
But Ron had already gone crazy, hadn't he? And he pulled Hermione over the edge of insanity with him. This was a very stupid idea and many people were going to be hurt for it.
As soon as the door was closed, Harry ducked under Ron's arm and backed away into a corner, hopeful that the topology of the room wouldn't allow them to come too close and use some underhanded tactile tactic to sway his judgment. It was already precariously unreliable as it was.
This situation was moderately familiar, he thought. Now they were supposed to make themselves comfortable on the bed, wrapped in each other, and Hermione would attempt to make conversation all three could participate in for a while before it dissolved into a snogging session between them and Harry making himself scarce. Regardless of a couple of ill-advised kisses, it was as he had told Hermione months ago: there was no space for him in their lives.
It didn't play out that way, though.
"Sit down, Harry," Hermione ordered, pointing at her bed. He wasn't going to obey, but then she aimed her wand at him and said: "Sit or I'll hex you!" and it was easier to keep his mouth shut and do as told. A pair of – big – arms caught Harry from behind and he was on the verge of panicking for a split second, before Ron pressed his face into Harry's nape and his nose was so cold that Harry chuckled despite the mood. His hand rose on its own volition and carded through the mop of red hair, touching softly as if afraid that Ron would disappear.
He was squeezed tighter, retaining just enough breath to ask: "What's going to happen now? With us?" before Ron became a veritable boa constrictor. Ron mumbled something unintelligible, and nobody bothered to ask him to reiterate, because when Ron wanted to make a point, he made it loud and clear and usually with lot of gesticulation and some profanity.
Hermione transfigured an empty chocolate frog box into a tabouret and sat with her knees touching Harry's. "We've been close for a very long time – the three of us," she said, tapping her lip with her index finger. "We all love one another in some way. Love is flexible."
"'sides," Ron spoke up, nuzzling Harry which, frankly, was bloody weird, "Mione and I talk about… things. If we ever invited anyone to join, it would have been you."
Still not quite over the shock of them kissing him, Harry wasn't sure he would ever be able to accept that Ron and Hermione had talked about including him in their sex life. It was disconcerting. He couldn't even feel happy that they seemed to like him like that, because that was the part of relationship least interesting to him right now, and he was pretty sure the entire idea was going to blow up due to this. "I… I want to be with you, if you'll let me, but… I don't want it to be just for a while and…"
"You don't want to have sex yet," Hermione finished for him knowingly. She chewed on her lower lip and Harry heard Ron's breath hitch. There still was no snogging happening, though.
"I know, Harry," Hermione stopped him. She looked like she did know, and Harry decided it was not worth being surprised, because sooner or later she knew everything, anyway. "It makes so much sense in hindsight – why you dated Ginny and also… well, she complained to me a lot…"
Harry shrugged, self-conscious, but not ashamed. He couldn't have had who he wanted, so he had got as close as he could to them. That Ginny wouldn't accept his decisions was something he hadn't expected.
"You never shagged my sister, did you?" Ron grumbled, loosening his hold and leaning over Harry's shoulder far enough to be able to see Harry's face. "Because that would be weird… it is already weird-"
"Ronald!" Hermione cried, more exasperated than angry and pulling on her hair in a manner that suggested she was ready to start tearing it out.
Harry chuckled again. "Mione, he doesn't have to impress me with his manners. I've known him for seven years." Ron couldn't have convinced him he had any manners whatsoever, so it was entirely pointless to chastise him. There had been enough fall-outs between them in the past for Harry to know perfectly well how to react to Ron's lack of emotional depth and decorum. There were more pressing thing happening, and he didn't know how to act about those. "I still can't believe…"
"Me neither," Ron offered freely, content with his – admittedly par for the course – cluelessness.
"I think…" Hermione said tentatively, "I think, if we could make it work…"
"It would be wicked," Ron filled in, unabashed.
Hermione covered a snort and expressed her opinion: "Magical."
Silence followed and Harry, effectively trapped between Hermione's quizzical look and Ron's snaky arms, realised they were waiting on him to say what he thought about the arrangement. He thought it was crazy, but it made sense. It definitely wasn't going to be boring, it would piss off a lot of people and disappoint even more, perhaps insult a few and scandalise the majority, but they seemed to be willing to face that much adversity for him… at least Hermione did, because Harry was never sure when was Ron being brave and when oblivious.
He closed his eyes and hoped it wasn't going to break all their hearts. "I love you, guys."
A/N: Liked it? Hope so.
Apropos, when I was mostly done with the fic, I got thinking about
what to call it. A song popped to my head: Nickelback's Hero. The
lyrics are ironically appropriate, I think…
Btw, I passed all my exams, despite the slacking off. I'm happy.