Chapter Eighteen

"No man is rich enough to buy back his past."
- Oscar Wilde

Over the next week, Harry's life falls into a routine as perhaps it should have done when he first returned to Hogwarts.

Hermione speaks, and that is magic in and of itself, though she seems to have little to say to anyone besides him and Ginny. In class, where she would have once been raising her hand, volunteering information for every question the professors asked, she sits silent, her head down as she takes meticulous notes in her neat handwriting.

Ginny's moods flow like water, from wide smiles at him and Hermione to sullen stillness to the rages that she tries to suppress yet occasionally leak out anyway. He has caught her watching him and Hermione with guarded eyes, but she never tells them what she is thinking.

At times Harry's thoughts return unbidden to their conversation before Hermione woke. Every time he tries to think of how he could possibly respond to her, his heart starts beating rapidly like he is chasing the Snitch in an important Quidditch match (back when Quidditch mattered to him), and he blocks the topic from his head.

The three of them are together again, as they should be, but still something doesn't feel right, and it isn't just because of Ron's absence.

Harry knows his other friends can see it; Neville watches them with a worried expression on his face as they sit together for dinner, and even Seamus, who is by far the most talkative of the boys in their year, is cheerfully polite yet says little to them.

Harry watches Hermione and Ginny in his turn, making sure they are both eating, and he sits with them in the library as they dutifully do their homework like the innocent children they aren't. Yet when all his tasks are done he finds himself falling into a gloomy mental state that he can't seem to shake.

With Hermione healed, his purpose is gone – again – and he can't seem to find a new one. Even his obligation to the Purebloods is on hold - Titus Davis seems to be taking his sweet time getting back to him, so Harry is left adrift, waiting in anxious anticipation for something he cannot name.

He even catches McGonagall, who has to be incredibly busy teaching Transfiguration and fulfilling all her duties as Headmistress, looking at him with an unreadable expression in class, as if she is waiting for him to do something.

Something is building; a dam is going to burst soon, and Harry expects he will not like it when it does.

After dinner on Friday night, Harry and Ginny return to the Common Room while Hermione rushes back to the library before it closes, trying to finish yet another assignment to catch up with what she missed while she was in stasis.

Ginny seems much more inclined to share Harry's sentiment that as long as he is passing his exams he is doing fine. As he sits down next to her on one of the long sofas, he notices two girls who look vaguely familiar to him casting Ginny fearful looks from their own cluster of armchairs. He thinks he recognizes them as Ginny's friends, though he hasn't seen her speak to them since coming back to Hogwarts.

The girls stare at Ginny and then whisper and nudge each other, almost as if they want to come over and talk to her but can't work up the nerve.

"Did you have a fight with them or something?" Harry asks her when it is clear that she is not going to acknowledge them.

Ginny looks up from the fireplace and narrows her eyes when she sees where's he looking. The girls flinch and turn back toward their corner. "They don't get it," she says angrily. "They wouldn't fight. I remember them crying. They didn't - " she cuts off and tries again. "They didn't lose anyone. I look at them and – what if they'd fought? They're supposed to be Gryffindors, aren't they?" She looks down, clutching a throw pillow to her chest. "Just… what if we'd made everyone who could wield a wand fight? It might have turned out differently."

"Ginny," he says softly. "We couldn't force anyone to fight for us." Even if it would have saved Ron? Harry's heart clenches just considering the possibility. "It wouldn't have been right, or fair."

"Do you know what's not fair?" she says, and the anger is gone from her voice, leaving a tired blankness that he hates hearing even more than her rage. "Having to look at those two cowards when my brother was worth ten of them! Why do they get to live and he doesn't?"

"I don't know," Harry says honestly.

She doesn't respond, and he wraps his arm around her, wanting to comfort her but unsure how. He expects her to push him away, but to his surprise she rests her head on his shoulder. Eventually, the tension in her frame relaxes.

They sit together, staring at the flames, until the Common Room empties out and they finally leave for their own dormitories.

That night, Harry has another nightmare, one of the worst he's had in weeks. He is running around the castle as it shakes with screams, overrun with Death Eaters, and searches frantically for his friends. Every time he finds one of them – Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Neville, Luna – they die in his arms.

He is breathing hard as he sits up bolt upright in his bed. Wiping his forehead, which comes away with sweat, he opens the his four-poster curtains enough to see Ron's bed still next to his.

He hasn't been able to bring himself to touch it, though he has a feeling it will feel solid under his hands. "Why am I still seeing you?" he whispers to it angrily. Is it supposed to remind him that Ron is dead and never coming back? If so, it's really, really unnecessary. He remembers that every second of the day.

He suddenly can't stand to be sitting in the dark, staring at his best friend's abandoned bed for another second. He throws the covers back and practically runs from the room.

As he walks down the stairs toward the Common Room, flickers of light from a low-burning fire in one of the fireplaces catches his eye. He finds Hermione sitting on the floor, her back braced against a sofa, textbooks and notes spread out in front of her.

"What are you doing up?" he asks, stopping beside her. She had barely stopped to wave at him and Ginny when she'd gotten back to the Common Room that evening, and she is wearing the same jumper he saw her in then. "You haven't gone to bed at all, have you?"

She barely glances at him. "I couldn't, Harry - I have so much catching up to do." She flips through the pages of the spell book in front of her with manic speed. "I have no idea how I'll have time to get in enough studying before mid-terms."

He watches her for a long moment, her head bowed and her shoulders tense. "Are you alright?" he asks after a moment.

She stills, and her head comes up. "What do you mean?" she asks guardedly. "I'm fine. I'm healed, remember? I'm perfectly healthy."

He shakes his head, not sure what he's trying to ask. "You just…I dunno, you're not acting like someone who just woke up a few days ago from attempted murder. Or–" he clears his throat "–like you were before that."

To his shock, Hermione's eyes fill with tears. "Please, tell me how I'm supposed to act, Harry!" she says acidly, pushing her textbook away from her. "My – my boyfriend, my best friend – is dead. Then I was almost murdered because my parents – who, I might add, are living a happily childless life in Australia – had the audacity to be born without magic." She wipes her eyes. "And it hurts. I wasn't talking before because it hurt too much, but it seems so childish now."

She runs her hands through her hair, evidently forgetting it is tied back, and strands fall back into her face. "And you're…not right, and Ginny's not right and I don't know how to fix that, either! Show me the book that tells me how to deal with that, Harry! Point me in the right direction."

"I can't," he admits, sitting down heavily beside her on the floor. "I don't know what to do myself, Hermione."

"Make it up as you go along, Harry. That's what you do best. Lead and I'll follow." She reaches for her stacks of notes, distractedly sorting them into piles. "Just…I'm lost. I don't know where I'm supposed to go from here. But if it's going to feel like this forever, then I want nothing to do with it."

"It won't," he says desperately, not sure if that is true but determined to make it true for Hermione's sake. "We're going to get through this. We'll come out the other side."

She drops her head to his shoulder wearily, and when she speaks, her voice is muffled. "I want to believe that, Harry, I really do."

He helps her gather her books and notes. "Believe it," he says, holding his hand out to help her up, and she lets him lead her to the base of the girls' stairwell.

"Hermione-" he hesitates, not sure what he wants to say next. "Get some sleep," he says finally. I can't lose you again, he wants to tell her, but it seems so needy and pathetic that he can't bring himself to say it aloud.

"I'll try," she says softly. "You, too."

"Yeah." He turns to go. "I will."

Harry manages to fall back into an uneasy sleep, but he wakes again as daybreak is barely streaking across his dormitory.

The first thing thought he is aware of upon waking is the sudden realization that he has another ally, someone he had once trusted with his life – he had gotten so out of practice at thinking of him as someone he could talk to over the last year, and he'd forgotten that all the previous headmasters had portraits at Hogwarts.

He'd forgotten that he could talk to Dumbledore.

Before he can talk himself out of it, he hurries down the stairs and out of the Common Room. A few hallways from the Headmistress's office, he catches McGonagall coming around the corner, already dressed for the day.

She stops when she sees him and raises an eyebrow. "All is well, I hope, Mr. Potter?"

He takes a deep breath. "Professor, would it be possible for me to talk to Dumbledore?"

She doesn't look surprised. "I was wondering when you would ask," she says with a heavy sigh. She gestures him in front of her. "He has been asking about you."

Harry doesn't know what to say to that, and they walk back toward her office in silence.

McGonagall taps the gargoyle guarding the entrance with her wand, and it springs away, revealing the circular stairway leading up to her office. "You know the way, Harry. I have several meetings this morning, so there is no rush."

"Thank you, Professor," Harry says.

She gives him one more penetrating look before nodding and turning to go, and he steps onto the moving staircase.

At the top, he takes one more calming breath and pushes the door open.

His eyes go straight to where Dumbledore's portrait hangs across from McGonagall's desk. Unlike the last time Harry was in this office, Dumbledore is in his picture frame, wearing midnight blue robes and staring directly at him.

"Hello, Headmaster." Harry says it quietly, even though no one is around to hear him.

"My dear boy," Dumbledore says somberly, taking off his half-moon spectacles and peering down at him. "I have no words to express how very sorry I am for your loss."

For some reason, the headmaster's words penetrate the ever-present shroud of grief that Harry has carried around with him since the day that Ron died more deeply than almost anyone else's has. Perhaps it is because they share the burden of guilt for inadvertently leading someone they loved to their death.

"Professor," Harry whispers to the floor when he thinks he can speak without crying. "Did you ever get over losing Ariana?"

He thinks he already knows the answer, but he waits as the headmaster gives him a look full of old pain. "Time heals all things, Harry," Dumbledore says slowly, "but her death left scars on me that did not fade."

Harry nods and has already turned to walk away when Dumbledore speaks again.

"Her death also altered me for the better, Harry. I changed the course of my life after she died, and I determined to be a better man because of it."

"But she was dead," Harry says uncomprehendingly as he turns back to the portrait, not caring if he sounds rude. Why does nobody seem to understand that what he does now doesn't matter, when Ron is already gone? "So it's not like it could have mattered to her."

Dumbledore inclines his head. "Perhaps not. But she would have been delighted to think that something positive had resulted from her death, and that means something to me. And whether or not she could have known it, which I daresay is a discussion for another time, I am arrogant enough to believe that my change of heart also impacted many of the living for the better."

Harry nods slowly, accepting the words. "I think it did, Professor," he says truthfully.

He realizes suddenly how very much he misses Dumbledore. He had grieved for him, but the past year had been so nerve-wracking, so traumatic that he never really had the chance to stop and think about how awful it was that Dumbledore was gone forever from the world.

"I saw you, after Voldemort killed me," he tells Dumbledore. "Though it could have been a dream, or a hallucination, I suppose, and not really you." Harry run his hands through his hair, frustrated that he can't adequately explain his bizarre memory of being dead. "Though you're not really you, either, are you?"

Dumbledore seems to know what he means and shakes his head. "I am but an impression and a shadow, Harry. My soul has passed on to wherever it is souls go after this life."

Harry is struck with a terrible, wonderful idea. He'd been so upset after Sirius's death that he'd only thought to ask Nearly Headless Nick, but if anyone would know, surely it was Dumbledore.

"Professor," he says. "Is there any way-"

But Dumbledore is already frowning. "Do not think on it, Harry. There is no true window between this life and the next. To experience the afterlife is to walk through that door yourself - dead. Anything else is a lie, in the same way that the Resurrection Stone and portraits are lies."

"Then what's the point of them?" Harry says bitterly, not really expecting an answer. What's the point of a castle that has moving staircases, of using broomsticks to fly? It's just the way magic is.

To his surprise, Dumbledore answers him seriously. "They are aids, Harry, tools – nothing more and nothing less. They help the living hold on to the knowledge the deceased possessed, and sometimes they give the living the opportunity to say goodbye to those they have lost."

Goodbye. The word echoes in Harry's head, and he realizes there was never a goodbye for his best friend. There was only a wasn't there anymore and my chest hurts why does my chest hurt and why god why couldn't it be me instead of him?

"People die all the time in the Muggle world, though," Harry says, trying to talk himself out of something he's not entirely sure he's really considering. "They don't have any magical way to say goodbye, and they turn out alright."

"Muggles adapt quite remarkably well to death, this is true," Dumbledore agrees. "Yet I highly doubt a tenth of them have lost someone close to them in a scenario such as yours." He nods toward the far side of the room, where an ornately-carved wooden cupboard stands. "My Pensieve is still there, Harry. Headmistress McGonagall will lend it to you, I am certain."

"I-" Harry's mouth goes dry. "Professor, I can't-"

"You can, Harry." Dumbledore's voice is firm. "I told you in your fifth year, when I informed you of the prophecy concerning you, that I would treat you as a man. And so I will not presume to tell you what you should do - only that my advice, freely offered, is that you will be better for confronting your memories. What you discover may surprise you."

Harry is scared – no, he is terrified. He feels like he is looking over the edge of an endless abyss, and he doesn't know if he will survive the fall.

But he doesn't have to do it alone.

It all falls into place - Hermione and Ginny need to be there, too. They all must confront the past that has haunted them for months if they are to move forward. They will support each other.

His heart pounding in his chest, Harry makes his decision. "Thank you, Professor."

He turns and walks away.

Harry tells them at lunch.

Ginny pales, her knuckles tightening around the fork in her hand. "No," she says immediately.

"Ginny-" Harry starts, but she is already pushing away from the table and storming out of the Great Hall, her back rigid.

He doesn't follow her. He is learning – he thinks he is learning – that sometimes Ginny just needs space. She would hate to hear him say it, but she is so much like Ron in this way. He will talk to her when she's had a chance to calm down a bit.

Instead he turns to Hermione, who still hasn't moved, her expression blank.

"What do you think?" he asks her.

She shakes her head as if to clear her mind and turns to him. "I think-" she hesitates. "I think it sounds horrible, honestly. I think I'd rather be attacked by Blast-Ended Skrewts. But I also know I'm probably not in the right frame of mind to judge what's best for me right now. And-" she swallows. "And I trust Dumbledore and you, Harry. And if you both say we need to do this, then I'll do it."

There is something so fragile in Hermione's expression that Harry hates to see. She has always been so strong. He wraps his arm around her shoulders, and she leans her head on his shoulder wearily.

"How soon can we do it?" she asks after a couple minutes. "I just - I'm not going to be able to think about anything else until it's over."

"Soon," Harry promises. "I just need to get Ginny to agree. I think Dumbledore's right - all three of us need this."

"I believe you," she says. She lifts her head and gently slides out from under his arm. "Go talk to Ginny, Harry. I think she'll have calmed down enough by now."

He rises but doesn't step away from the table. "Only if you come, too. We're in this together, right?"

She opens her mouth to protest, but he keeps his expression calm and implacable. "Alright," she says finally. "Together."

They find Ginny outside the castle a few minutes later, sitting on the stone steps leading up to one of the side entrances to the Entrance Hall. Her knees are drawn up to her chest and her eyes are far away, and she doesn't say anything as Harry and Hermione sit on either side of her. Harry stays silent, wanting her to speak on her own terms.

It's a beautiful autumn day, the sun bright overhead but not hot, casting a warm glow over the verdant Hogwarts grounds. The bright copper strands of Ginny's hair catch the sunlight like fire, and even Hermione's chestnut brown hair glitters in the sun.

"I can't do what you want me to, Harry," Ginny says abruptly, her expression pained as she turns to him.

"I know that you can," Harry tells her truthfully. He's convinced that Ginny can do just about anything she puts her mind to, from sheer force of will alone. "I wouldn't ask you if I didn't believe you were strong enough."

Ginny tucks her chin to her knees, her shoulders slumping. "I don't understand what purpose reliving it will serve," she mutters.

"Dumbledore thinks it will give us a chance to say goodbye."

"I don't want to say goodbye," she snaps.

On Ginny's other side, Hermione speaks up, her voice gentle. "I think that's exactly why we need to do it, Ginny."

Harry nods. "We're not…we're not handling this right, Ginny. I think we've got to go back so we can go forward."

Ginny presses her lips together. "I'm scared," she admits finally, and Harry knows how hard that was for her to admit. He takes her hand, and she lets him interlace her fingers with his.

"I am, too," he admits, staring down at their clasped hands. Hermione murmurs agreement on Ginny's other side and takes her other hand. "But we've got each other, and that counts for something."

McGonagall summons the three of them to her office that evening after dinner. "Thank you for coming," she says, pinning them all with her piercing gaze as they file into her office. "I suspect you know what this is about. I spoke with Headmaster Dumbledore's portrait this morning. I have also consulted with Professor Baggins. She has seen great success at St. Mungo's using Pensieves as tools for her patients to confront traumatic memories."

She looks at each of them in turn, and something in her expression softens. "We are all agreed that what you may gain from observing that terrible event when you lost someone who was so important to each of you will outweigh the pain of the experience. However, know that I will not try to force you. You are all of age, and your decisions are your own."

"We've discussed this, Professor," Harry says, his voice sounding distant to his ears as it dawns on him how very close this is to happening. "We'll do it." Hermione and Ginny give tiny nods of agreement.

McGonagall rises. "Very well," she says, and she gestures them through a door that connects her main office to a small room that Harry has never been into before. The Pensieve, with its otherworldly silver glow, sits on a low table at the center of the room, across from two small sofas and a wooden desk in the corner.

The Headmistress flicks her wand, and there a large covered food tray appears on the desk. "There will be food here, and as much rest and companionship as you need, until you are ready to face your past. I will not disturb you - take as much time as you need."

Harry nods, his throat tight.

McGonagall looks at them like she wants to say something else, but then she nods once and sweeps out in a flurry of robes. The door clicks firmly shut behind her, and Harry, Ginny and Hermione are left alone.

They stare at each other in silence, standing awkwardly in the middle of the room. Harry is tempted to curl up on one of the sofas and try to fall asleep to postpone what he knows he must do, but there is no point in delaying the inevitable.

He brings his wand to his temple, his hands shaking, and drops the silver memory of that awful day into the Pensieve. It dissolves into the vaporous mist that swirls in the basin.

"Alright?" he asks Hermione and Ginny, and his voice has an embarrassing quaver in it. Hermione bites her lip as she always does when she's nervous, and Ginny stares at the Pensieve as if it holds a live adder.

Finally, Ginny steps forward, reaching out to clutch Harry's arm tightly as if she's not sure she can take the steps without help. Hermione, looking like she might faint, comes to stand on his other side.

Together, they bring their faces to the basin, and before Harry can take another breath, they are falling into the past.

The next chapter will follow very shortly. The Pensieve memory is actually one of the very first scenes I wrote in this story – over three years ago now, wow.

Thanks for reading/reviewing.