Chapter 1: Ridicule
Gazing out at the assembled mass of excited students, Harry Potter tugged nervously at the collar of his shirt. They knew what was coming as well as he did. Behind him the large trunk thumped as if in agreement, and he flinched.
Now or never, Potter. He straightened up, feeling the stiffness in his muscles as he did so. He hated this. Life may have conspired to make him the centre of attention anywhere he went in the wizarding world, but it hadn't seen fit to also equip him with the necessary tools to deal with it. Not for the first time, he wished for some of his father's oft-cited arrogance. He winced again, this time internally. Thinking of his father was too dangerous right now, as it led his thoughts directly to-
With an effort his wrenched his mind back on to safer tracks, but couldn't stop his eyes flicking through the crowd, seeking out the figures now inextricably linked with the most recent tragedy to befall him. He chastised himself for the selfish thought, even as he made them out. To take the loss of - his mind shied away from the name - as a tragedy solely reserved for him and him alone was to do a disservice to the friends, new and old, who mourned the man too.
Ron and Hermione looked steadily back from their place near the back of the crowd. Since the night - well, that night, their concern for him had deepened to beyond the need for words. After all, what good would words do?
Nearby, Neville was listening patiently as Luna, evidently putting forward her latest wild theory, read aloud from a copy of The Quibbler. Harry blinked. Was it his imagination, or was she reading it the right way up for once? As if aware of his curiousity, she glanced up, then deliberately turned the newspaper upside down, her face still serene.
That only left one person in the small group of people he knew he could trust, quite literally, with his life. Ginny was, as always it seemed, sat with Dean Thomas. He was talking animatedly whilst she returned Harry's gaze, a slightly quizzical expression on her face.
With a start, Harry realised that he had been silent for far too long, and hurriedly refocused his attention on the assembled crowd. He cleared his throat. "Well," he began awkwardly, "another great session I reckon."
The students buzzed happily at his praise, and Harry felt the familiar slow tide of mortification rising up his neck. He glanced at Hermione, who gave him an impatient flick of her head. Go on.
Managing a weak nod in return, he tried again. "However," he said, and his voice rang out as the crowd hushed expectantly. The trunk rattled menacingly in the background. "Conjouring a Patronus in here is good - great, really - but not the same as when you're actually facing a Dementor." He shook his head irritably as his voice cracked on the last word. He resisted the urge to shiver. Not the same at all.
He turned, indicating the trunk on the dais behind him with a wave of his wand, then cringed as he was uncomfortably reminded of Professor Lockhart. Behold, for my next amazing demonstration, I give you... He looked at Ginny again, forcibly reminded of his second year. She was staring at the trunk with an expression of grim determination, as if she fully expected Tom Riddle to pop out at any minute.
Harry paused in consideration. It was entirely possible that she might be correct, he realised belatedly. When he had heard about the captured Boggart, he had naturally assumed that it would be a useful end to his lesson on the Patronus Charm. After all, every other time he had faced one it had become a Dementor.
With a sinking feeling, he thought about how much had changed since then. Voldemort could easily step out. He felt his face drain of colour. Given his thoughts of a few minutes ago, it could easily be someone else entirely.
The rising noise level brought his attention back to the audience. His closest circle of friends were frowning, attuned to his changing mood, but the rest of the crowd were just getting impatient. His eyes fixed longingly on the exit, but it was no use. There was no way out of this.
Reluctantly, he turned to the trunk. "Even a fake Dementor can significantly affect your concentration." His voice sounded remote and detached, he realised with surprise.
Maybe if he tried to imagine himself as Professor Lupin he could keep himself together for the last few minutes of the session.
The trunk rattled as he approached haltingly, each step more difficult than the one before. The muscles in his back and arms seemed to have turned to stone, so rigidly were they tensed. The wand in his hand felt like a lead weight as he slowly lifted it. Dimly, he was aware that the Room of Requirement had fallen silent as the tension mounted. Even the trunk had become still, as if the Boggart within were holding its breath along with the others.
His heart was hammering in his chest and he could feel the pulse thudding rapidly in his neck. Traitorously, his hand, so practising in casting the unlocking spell, had begun the gesture before he even had a moment to compose himself. With a loud click that echoed through the silent chamber, the lock sprang open.
There was a brief pause, in which Harry could almost feel the air becoming thinner as the assembled crowd took a collective breath in, before the Boggart erupted from the trunk. Its swirling, amorphous form moved purposefully across the room, as if sniffing for the most fearful person to feed upon. Like a frightened shoal of fish, the crowd melted away as it approached. With nothing else left to do, Harry steeled himself, then darted forwards, interposing himself between the creature and the other students.
Silently urging it to become a Dementor, Harry stood firm as the indistinct mass began to take a form. A ragged cape and stick-thin arm began to coalesce, and Harry breathed a silent sigh of relief - which cut off as the Boggart froze, then shifted to take on a new form.
Harry could feel the silent pressure of the crowd building as the curious crowd surged forward once more. Whatever it was going to be, it certainly wasn't a Dementor. As Harry stared on, unable to move or think, the Boggart finally resolved itself.
It wasn't a Dementor. It wasn't Lord Voldemort. It wasn't even the silent, accusatory figure of a dead Sirius Black.
It was worse.
The breath was punched from his lungs as Harry stood in frozen terror, gazing wide-eyed at the lifeless figure of a woman with long, red hair lying in a pool of rapidly spreading blood. He registered distant pain signals as he fell to his knees, eyes burning with the weight of unshed tears.
"M-mum?" The voice of a small, frightened boy.
He reached out a trembling hand, desperate to see her face, even in death. The long hair formed a curtain, obscuring her features, which he drew back as gently as he could.
He rocked back, stunned to his very core. She was beautiful, he thought numbly, his mind whirling with shock and disbelief. There was a ringing in his ears, growing louder with each passing second, punctuated with a low, keening noise that quickly drowned it out.
A shadow loomed overhead and he felt strong arms jerking him around, away from the figure. He fought back, resisting the unknown person. Didn't they understand - he had to see, to know why. More hands joined the first, and he was wrenched round. From a great distance, he could hear Hermione casting a spell, and the thud of the trunk lid as it slammed close.
The dreadful keening noise, which Harry realised now was coming from his throat, cut off abruptly. He opened his eyes, then closed them again hurriedly.
The entire crowd was staring at him in stunned silence. Slowly, a low murmur swept across them as they began whispering urgently to each other.
"Class dismissed! Get out. Now." A man's voice. Loud. Authoritative. It brooked no refusal, and the murmur slowly grew more distant. Harry felt gratefulness wash over him and opened his eyes once more. The anxious face of Neville Longbottom looked down from where he stood, facing the last few remnants of the crowd.
Harry, aware that he was still being held down, shifted as embarrassment mixed with anger. The grip instantly vanished.
"Sorry mate." Ron.
Picking up his wand from where it lay, discarded, on the cold floor, Harry avoided Ron's gaze as he muttered a quiet thanks. He caught Neville's gaze, who nodded once in reply.
Hermione, white-faced, was sat firmly on the trunk as if worried the Boggart would make a sudden bid for freedom. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it again. Harry shot her a hard look as he turned to face the rest of the room.
To his relief, the last few students were being ushered out of the room by Luna and Ginny. As he looked, Ginny shut the door firmly in Dean's disappointed face and Luna cast a silent locking charm, sealing the room off. They turned back towards him and he averted his eyes.
Ron broke the silence. "Well, mate, that was..." His voice trailed off and he looked down, shifting his feet.
Moving jerkily, feeling as if his feet were encased in concrete, Harry took a few steps towards the door, his face burning with embarrassment. He halted, realising that there would undoubtedly be a large and eager waiting committee on the other side of the door, and looked wildly around. What he needed was-
A door appeared on the wall nearest to him and Harry headed straight for it, moving more quickly now. All he wanted to do was to get away from them, from their well-intentioned sympathy.
"Do you really think it matters?" The calm voice cracked like a whip across the silent, almost empty room. One hand on the door, Harry halted, frozen to the spot.
Ron hissed something behind him and the person replied neutrally, voice loud enough for him to hear clearly. "I won't Ron, he needs to hear this."
Light footsteps drew near as he stood, unable to move. A small hand crept over his shoulder and pulled insistently. Helpless to resist, Harry turned to face his tormentor.
"Do you really think it matters, Harry?" Ginny Weasley's face was intent and serious, but Harry couldn't see a trace of the expected, and unwanted, sympathy. He gaped at her, unsure of her meaning.
"After what we all went through in the Department of Mysteries, after Sirius-" Her face twisted then, grief flitting across it, before becoming composed once more. "Do you really think that you need to be embarrassed, or ashamed of that-" her hand waved in the general direction of the trunk "-with us?"
Harry's face darkened, and Ron muttered warningly. Ginny shook her head impatiently, not taking her eyes from Harry. "Well?"
Slowly, grudgingly, Harry shook his head. His grip loosened on the door handle. "No." It was almost a whisper.
"I'm not sure they all heard you." Ginny's voice was softer but still demanding.
He lifted his head, looking directly at her for a moment. "No." Louder this time. He looked away, glancing in the general direction of the others as they stood watching. "Sorry."
Ginny nodded approvingly, releasing his shoulder. "Good," she said crisply. Her head tilted appraisingly. "Quidditch pitch?"
Harry stared dazedly, his mind still whirling from the shock of recent events. "How did you know-"
Her voice softened still further. "Just go, Harry. We'll tidy up here."
Just managing to restrain himself from a full-out run, Harry bolted for his bag, threw the door open and shot through. As he emerged into the chill twilight air, blinking back tears, he took a deep, shuddering breath. It was going to take more than a quick fly around the Quidditch pitch to regain his shattered composure.
Two hours later, Harry circled high above the pitch in a desultory manner, his mind on other things. Flying, as always, had given him a temporary respite and relieved the immediate shock of the event, but could provide no answers. It all made no sense. Why her? Why now? And what was it supposed to mean?
His head throbbed with exhaustion and he realised that it had been hours since he last ate. Spiralling lower, he made his way back to the broom store. As ever, his heart sank when his feet touched the ground and he glanced up wistfully. He couldn't spend his whole life on a broom, however much he wished for it.
He shouldered the broom resolutely, jogging towards the castle. He needed help to figure out what it all mean. And when you needed to find answers there was really only one place you could start.
"Is all this secrecy really necessary, Harry?" Hermione Granger's nose wrinkled as they hunched close together under the protective cover of the invisibility cloak. "And couldn't you have taken time for a shower first?"
He cast her a wounded look, but kept tugging her onwards through the dimly lit corridors.
She tried again. "What about Ron – shouldn't we get him?"
"No." Harry's voice was flat and definite. He could feel her frown as she digested the implications of his terse reply. She didn't speak again until he had found an unlocked classroom and bundled them inside. Ignoring her puzzled expression, he quickly sealed the door behind them and cast a quick muffliato.
Hermione's frown deepened. "No guessing where you got that from," she said acidly, her arms folded. Harry sighed impatiently. There was no time for this.
"Look, take it if you're so bothered," he growled. Rifling through his bag, he pulled out the battered text book and shoved it, none too gently, into her hands. Taken by surprise, she almost dropped it.
"Harry?" Anxiety replaced puzzlement in her voice. She set the book aside, searching his face with her eyes. "Is this about - earlier?"
He threw his hands up in frustration. "What else?"
She took a tentative step towards him, confusion playing over her expressive face. "But, didn't Ginny explain-"
He snorted hysterically, and she looked positively alarmed. "Exactly," he said. "And that's precisely the problem."
Her hands closed on his and she gave him a long look. "Harry what do you mean?" Her voice had become softer now.
He waved his hands wildly. "You saw Hermione. You were right there – you saw, right?" His voice had risen with each word. "I need your help, can't you understand? Why wasn't it a Dementor, like it should have been?"
Slumping down heavily on a desk, he buried his head in both hands and groaned. "I've been thinking about it all night," he admitted quietly. "I just can't…" He grasped for the words, but had to settle for a frustrated sound deep in his throat.
Enlightenment dawning over her features, Hermione cast a quick cleaning charm on the opposite desk before sitting down composedly. "Well," she said calmly, settling into lecture mode. "I would have thought it quite obvious really, Harry-"
"Yes?" Hope coursed through his veins like a shot of Firewhisky. This was what Hermione was best at – of course she would know the answer.
She looked taken aback at his enthusiasm. "Boggarts show people their worst fears, their nightmares," she said quietly, uncertainty slowing her normally brisk speech. "It makes perfect sense that, for you, one of your biggest nightmares must be-"
Barely keeping himself from hexing her, he snapped impatiently. "Yes?"
Hermione's eyes looked slightly teary. "Well," she said gently, "Your – your mother, Harry."
His breath froze in his chest. Staring at her in disbelief he replied in a broken whisper. "You – you didn't see?"
She shook her head, genuinely at a loss for words.
He ran both hands through his hair savagely, as it trying to dislodge the memory, before looking up again. "Hermione, it wasn't my mother." He swallowed thickly.
"It was Ginny."