Prologue

"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break."

William Shakespeare

It's been ninety-one days, and the pain is still there, still ever present and looming with every breath. It gives a faint blackish tinge to the whole world, lurking like a wraith and striking with razor-sharp grief every time his thoughts approach something resembling normal, or, god forbid, happy.

Harry slouches down, pulling his toboggan further down on his head to cover his scar, which resisted all of Hermione's attempts this morning to cover with charms, and the last thing he wants is attention. Chattering students are crowding around Hogwarts Express like nothing unusual ever happened at their school, like life is normal, hugging parents and dragging baggage into their chosen compartments, but fortunately no one gives him a second glance.

He hasn't given interviews to anyone except a few written statements that Luna published in the Quibbler for him, but already Rita Skeeter is writing a biography of his first 18 years on the planet, and reporters haven't stopped pestering him since the Battle at Hogwarts, asking him what he was doing all those months while he was on the run, how he feels about everyone who was killed.

He stops in his tracks, and Mrs. Weasley almost runs into him with the luggage cart. He cannot think about that day, so he forces his mind to go perfectly blank, concentrating on re-forming his mental stone dome, smooth, sans blemish, and impenetrable. After a few seconds, he can breathe again.

His emotions shielded once more, he turns to Mrs. Weasley, not quite meeting her eyes. "Sorry, I thought I lost something, but I haven't." Only he had. Mrs. Weasley nods briskly, and gestures for them to continue.

Sheer necessity borne out of desperation and sweating, sleepless nights has taught him Occlumency; wouldn't Snape have been shocked?

The train looks just as he remembers it, which is silly, of course it should - it's only been a little over a year since he last rode on it. But Hermione is staring at the gleaming Express also, taking in the noise and cheerful bustle as students crowd on with rapt attention. She's probably taken note of a half-dozen things already that he would never have noticed.

Ginny looks pale, the freckles dusting her cheeks standing out vividly as she clutches the luggage cart. Death Eaters took Luna from this same train last Christmas - was Ginny witness to that? Somehow Harry has never asked her. He isn't sure he wants to know - there is only so much pain he can bear at once.

Mrs. Weasley claps her hands together, drawing their eyes back to her. Her eyes look a little watery, but determined. "Come children -" she pauses. "No, none of you are children anymore. Come get your trunks, my dears, and enjoy your last year at Hogwarts."

Harry nods numbly and reaches out to grab his and board the train, but Mrs. Weasley grabs him into a hug before he can step away. "I love you, my dear," she says as she squeezes him tightly. "Have a wonderful year at Hogwarts."

Stunned, Harry steps back, fumbling for the handle of his trunk. How could she say something like that? She is already reaching for Hermione, though, whispering something that makes Hermione's eyes fill with tears as she hugs back, before nodding and grabbing her own trunk. Ginny is last, and her mother holds her for a long moment, Ginny looking distinctly uncomfortable, before her mother takes a deep breath and lets her go.

Without looking back, the three of them trudge onto the train, dropping their trunks off at the baggage compartment before standing in the middle of the aisle, receiving annoyed looks from students who have to squeeze past them in the narrow corridor. Harry doesn't know how long they stand there until he realizes that they need to find a compartment.

He starts walking, keeping his eyes down to avoid making eye contact with anyone, and Hermione and Ginny fall in line behind him. He has a vague intention to head for the back of the train, lock the compartment, and sleep until they arrive.

Passing by full compartment after full compartment, he starts to doubt his plan. It seems like there are more on the train than in the past, but he's probably just making that up out of frustration. Purely by luck, Neville comes crashing into them a few minutes later, in desperate pursuit of someone heading in the opposite direction. "Sorry, Harry," he pants, pulling him off the floor effortlessly. "I should have been watching where I was going, but some punk came in here and threatened Luna, and I sort of lost it." He shrugs one broad shoulder. "I can deal with him later though."

He looks like he's waiting for Harry to respond, but there doesn't seem to be anything to say. After a moment, something indecipherable crosses Neville eyes, and he turns and heads back from the compartment he had come barreling out of, and Harry follows.

Luna, Seamus, and a younger Gryffindor girl he vaguely recognizes as an acquaintance of Ginny's are sitting in the far corner. Harry sits down across from the others and holding his bowed head up with his hands, feeling Ginny and Hermione sit down on either side of him after a moment, and a silence falls over the group. Even Seamus, who had been playing with the Gryffindor girl's hair while she giggled, stops flirting and stares at the newcomers.

After a long, awkward moment, Neville opens his mouth to speak. He might not always look it, but he is extraordinarily brave at times, but Harry is not in the mood. "No, Neville," he says quietly, causing the other's mouth to snap shot as if spelled. "No, I did not have a good summer, and no, I don't want to talk about it."

He isn't being fair, he knows that - Neville is extremely considerate of other people's feelings, but the part of himself that would feel something as human as guilt is long dead. Hermione shifts against his right side - probably wanting to reprimand for his rudeness - but she is fairly lacking in social graces these days too, and he ignores her. He closes his eyes and brings up his wall again, mentally fortifying it with steel framework.

The younger Gryffindor girl, of all people, looks like she is going to ask something next, but Ginny speaks up. "No, Amanda, I'm not okay," she hisses, her voice breaking. "My brother is dead, how could I be okay?"

And there it is - their wound is bleeding raw in front of everyone. Harry can't hide a flinch as Ginny rises without a word and leaves the compartment, slamming the sliding door behind her. Neville, Seamus, and Amanda watch with open mouths. At his right, Hermione clutches her shaking arms and cuts little crescent moons of red into translucent skin.

Returning to Hogwarts is a mistake, just as Harry knew it would be. He leans his head back, ignoring the dull pain as it thuds against the wall. The cart is silent as death for the rest of the ride to Hogsmeade, but Harry can't bring himself to feel badly for the clinging atmosphere of despair they have brought to their other friends.

Ron Weasley is ninety-one days dead, and Harry has found that nothing much at all matters anymore.