Disclaimer: J. K. Rowling and associates own these characters. I am writing this story for fun and not profit.
Pairings: Harry/Draco eventually (mostly pre-slash), Ron/Hermione, mentions of Harry/Ginny and unrequited Snape/Lily. Gen relationship between Harry and Snape.
Warnings: Angst, violence, torture, AU after the last chapter of DH, 'eighth-year' fic.
Summary: After the war, Harry thinks he can finally focus on his friends and the dead instead of the whole world. But an enemy-turned-potential-friend and the dead coming back to life change his mind. Learning how to draw the line between selfishness and selflessness is only one of the things Harry's going to learn.
Author's Notes: This is a mostly-gen fic, despite the listed pairings. It will likely be pretty long and relatively slow in pace, though I hope to update it regularly.
Chapter One—A Summer Spent in Slowness
George's real collapse didn't come until after Fred's funeral.
Harry had been one of the people watching George anxiously all through the funeral itself. He had thought for sure that George would break down sobbing and need someone to put a comforting arm around his shoulders. Or he would just stand up and walk away from the gravesite, the way he had when they buried Remus and Tonks, and need someone to go after him. Harry had done that for a lot of people so far. He was mourning, but he hadn't lost a twin brother, or a daughter, or a son. It was different for people like the Weasleys and Andromeda Tonks.
But George just sat in his chair all the way through the funeral, his eyes so bright and glittering that they made Harry uneasy. Still, he didn't rise and storm and shout about and make a scene. So that part of it went better than Harry had expected.
The wizard reading out the funeral service was a witch in somber dark robes, who kept glancing up from her scroll at each of them, as if trying to figure out how sorry they were. Harry noticed that she couldn't keep her eyes locked on George for very long; each time, they would dart away, and she would have to clear her throat before she went on. Harry snorted. Yeah, well, George wouldn't throw a fit just to oblige her.
Then she left, and everyone started shifting chairs around so they could rise from the solemn ceremony on the Burrow's lawn and go inside for a breakfast that Mrs. Weasley had spent all night cooking. Ron dealt with his grief by playing lots of Quidditch, Harry thought, rubbing the broom-calluses that had formed on his hands for a second; Mrs. Weasley dealt with it by cooking. He had already tasted lots of things yesterday, but he would eat more today, because he knew that would make her happy.
Harry whipped around. He'd half-expected this ever since he saw the witch was looking at George, and he cursed as his stupid black formal robes tripped him up. He hated wearing them, but Mrs. Weasley also wanted the funeral to be all black, and Harry would have done a lot more than that to oblige her.
George was walking away from them, his hands held out in front of him. At first, Harry didn't see what had made Ginny scream. Then he realized that George was making a sawing motion of his wand back and forth in front of him, and that some of his skin on his arm was flaking up and burning away with each motion.
Mr. Weasley was the closest, but he'd got tangled up with his chair and would be slow getting there. And Mrs. Weasley was second closest, but she stood with her hands to her mouth and her eyes wide with horror. Harry knew she would probably overcome her anxiety and move soon. It might not be soon enough to do George any good, though.
That left Harry.
He jumped over the nearest chair, ignored the sound of his formal robes tearing (good riddance), and grabbed George. George struggled against him, especially when Harry snatched his wand from him and threw it away, but all that made Harry do was tighten his arms around him in a bear hug.
He started talking to George, not knowing if he could hear him, but sure that it was still a good idea to try and reach him. "Come on, George, this isn't really what you want to do," he whispered, while they rolled on the ground and he got a mouthful of grass in his open mouth. Harry spat it out and went on talking. "Fred would want you to live and play all the jokes and flirt with all the girls that he can't. He'd want you to take care of your mum and—ow!" George had hit him in the ribs with his elbow hard enough to hurt. Harry grimly tightened his arms and shook his head. George would find out that it wasn't as easy as shaking Harry off and expecting him to trudge away in defeat. "He'd want you to take care of Ron and remind him that he isn't any lesser than the rest of you, and he'd want you to welcome Percy back to the family. You have two people to live for now. Don't be stupid and fuck it up."
George paused and stared at him, but Harry didn't know what it was that made him do it until he whispered, "I'm never going to welcome Percy back to the family until he apologizes for being a right git!"
Harry laughed despite himself when he heard that. He didn't know if it was the best thing to do, but it was his honest reaction. He stood up, holding his hand out so that George could take it, and George took it and stood up, giving the rest of his family a half-defiant look. Mrs. Weasley grabbed him and held him, sobbing, before he could say anything. Harry noticed that one of George's arms, the one he'd hurt, was dangling out from her hug. Bill came up and started quietly healing the skin he'd scraped off.
Then someone else grabbed Harry. He jumped and looked around, half-thinking that he'd need to fight again. It was Ron, though, and he beamed at Harry as though he'd personally rescued all of Ron's family or something. His grip was almost painfully tight. "Thanks, mate," he whispered.
Harry smiled back and gave a little shrug. "I knew that he couldn't really want to die," he said. "Not with Fred to live for."
George overheard Harry, and gave him a piercing glance. Harry stared back, his eyebrows raised, and after a few seconds, George looked away. Harry nodded. George wasn't suicidal, or at least Harry didn't think so. He was just hurting, and he'd hurt so much that he'd thought he should take the pain out on himself.
Harry had been there a time or two.
Someone else grabbed him. It was Hermione, and she hugged him hard enough that Harry let out a little whoof of air and shook his head at her. "I don't promise miracles," Harry said, when he could get his breath back. "Just common sense."
"What you did is wonderful," Hermione said, and beamed at him. She had tears in her eyes, but they hadn't fallen out.
Ron cleared his throat. His face was bright red, Harry saw, and he was looking at Hermione's arms where they hugged Harry as if he wished that he could set her on fire. Or possibly Harry. Harry let her go and jumped away.
"Oh, honestly, Ron," Hermione said, and looked at him so hard that Ron shuffled his feet and his red face seemed to mean something else. Only then did she relent and hug him. "Yes, you're wonderful too," Harry was sure he heard her say into his shoulder.
Harry smiled and stood back for a minute, looking around at them all: the whole Weasley family, including Fleur, who was pregnant and looked more gentle and sorrowful because of it; Hermione; and him. It was a sad occasion, but Harry thought he could see threads running between each of them, shimmering, invisible threads that bound them and would make sure that they survived the funerals and what they would do to them otherwise.
They were strong. The Weasleys were strong, and he and Hermione were part of them.
It was wonderful.
But Harry still slipped away from them that evening, after everyone had reached the stage where they were telling stories about Fred and toasting him and telling George that of course he was going to open the joke shop again as soon as he could. It wasn't that Harry didn't want to hear the stories, but he knew that he'd heard the best ones already.
And there was something about the way that Ginny and Mrs. Weasley looked at him sometimes that made him restless and uneasy, and…he wanted to be alone more than he wanted to sit around and mourn Fred just now.
He stood with his hands in his robe pockets, head tilted back as he watched the stars wheeling above him. There were so many of them, so many more than he usually realized at Hogwarts, where he was in the school and asleep by this time. And of course the Dursleys weren't big on stargazing, and his little barred window in their house hadn't let him see them anyway.
There was something in his head, some thought about stars and distance and the way that they contrasted with the bright fire and the light in the Burrow, but Harry didn't know how to phrase it. He stood there worrying over it and trying to figure it out until another thought came along and shoved that one clear out of his head.
He'd jumped up to help George, and people had thanked him for it. But that was just nice, ordinary thanks and a nice, ordinary thing to do. Nothing like the big fake smiles on the faces of the reporters who asked him how it felt to save the world, or the quiet almost-worship that some people at Hogwarts gave him after he defeated Voldemort. He was sure that the Weasleys loved him and that was part of the reason they were more sincere, but there was something more than that, too.
It was what he wanted to do.
The realization came to him quietly, as though his head was a big scary place and it was a kid trying to travel by itself. Harry sat down on the grass, stretched his legs out in front of him, and then folded his hands behind his head so he could lie back and watch the stars in something like comfort. His thoughts were ringing like a gong.
Was that it? Was it really all that simple? He could do what he wanted for the rest of his life by rescuing people like George?
No, not really, he thought after a minute, when he tried to imagine himself rescuing someone else after a funeral and it made him just feel resigned, tired, and dirty. He didn't want to make a career of acting like an idiot hero. He wanted to help his friends. His family. He wanted to go to Australia with Hermione and find her parents, or at least help her look up the spells that she would need to reverse the Memory Charm. (He sometimes thought she didn't really want company when she went). He wanted to show Ron that he was a hero, too, and that lots of people who would look up to him after the war and respect him wouldn't do it just because he was Harry's friend. He wanted to get George living again, and learn what Bill and Fleur were going to name their children, and work with Charlie at Dragon-Keeping some time.
He even, Harry admitted to himself after a long and silent struggle, wanted to apologize to Percy for the things he'd sometimes said to him. Only some of them, though. Others, Percy had deserved.
He might want more than that. But he didn't know what it was yet. And surely that was enough to start with.
He found his answer to what else he could want on the day that he went to Godric's Hollow.
Ron had suggested it, but the day that Harry wanted to go, Ron was sort of busy with comforting Hermione. Hermione had been determinedly and relentlessly cheerful about her ability to find her parents for weeks, but that morning the pressure had got to her and she'd broken down. Harry had peered into Ron's bedroom, seen Hermione sobbing in Ron's arms, and quietly pulled back. This was the kind of thing that they'd want to be left alone to deal with, he was fairly certain.
He made his way down the stairs in a thoughtful mood, Apparated from outside the Burrow—they still had the anti-Apparition wards from the war up—and appeared in Godric's Hollow, next to the statues of his parents. He knew that he would never forget what those really looked like, even though there were small flowers growing all around them now instead of the snow draping them.
But looking at himself in the statue gave him a queer feeling, so Harry tugged his fringe low over his scar and kept his head bowed as he walked down the street. Most of the residents didn't pay him any attention. He was grateful for that. He'd come here for reasons that had nothing to do with his fame.
Well. It sort of did, now that he thought about it. It just didn't have anything to do with him. Harry was sick to death of things that had to do with him.
He found his parents' graves without effort, now that he knew what he was looking for, and stood in front of them with his head lowered for a long time. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. That phrase fit into his mood as he stood there, thinking, and blended with it until Harry finally knew what he'd come for.
And what else he wanted, besides spending his life making his friend's and family's lives as comfortable and happy as possible.
Harry slid to one knee and reached out to touch his mother's name, then his father's. Then the birth dates and the death dates. Then the phrase on the tombstone. All the while, the conviction grew in him, and he finally was able to nod and accept that, yes, it was this he'd come for.
He'd never mourned the dead the way he should, except maybe for Sirius. Dumbledore's death had been complicated by everything he'd learned about him later. When he went to Remus's funeral and Tonks's, and even Fred's, he was still kind of numb. His parents had died while he was still too young to properly remember them.
Except for my mother's scream with the Dementors, and that's no proper kind of memory.
So. He would teach himself how to mourn, and think about the dead, and then move on when he wanted to. He had the rest of his life to do that. No one was ever going to need him to save the world again. By the time the next Dark Lord came along, Harry thought he'd probably be dead or too old for anyone to expect him to do anything about it.
Peace flowed over him. Yes. He had the rest of his life. He'd survived, and it was time that he started living.
Harry stood up and smiled at his parents' tombstone. "I'm going to learn more about you," he told them. "I know a little about Mum from Snape's memories, and a little about Dad from Sirius and Remus, but there must be other people who knew about you. McGonagall. I can talk to her. I'm going back to Hogwarts in the autumn, did you know? They've been working on the school all summer. I think people needed to, to point out that Voldemort couldn't destroy everything. I'll talk to her, and Professor Flitwick, and—the others. Hagrid, even. He could probably tell me things I never even thought to ask."
Why hadn't he thought to ask?
But the next moment, Harry shook his head stubbornly. He recognized the tone of that thought; it was blaming, and scolding, and saying that he should have done all these different things instead of whatever else he had done. And, well, that would be stupid, when what he'd been doing instead was playing Quidditch to stay sane and struggling through school to stay a student and fighting Voldemort to stay alive.
No. He wouldn't get upset with himself because he had forgotten those questions, or forsaken those questions, until now. That wasn't the way he wanted to play this. He wanted to live a different life. So he'd ask, and if the people he'd already thought of couldn't tell him anything satisfactory, then he would ask someone else, and so on.
Until he finally made peace with the dead.
He reached out and let his hand rest on top of his parents' gravestone for a few minutes. Then, as he turned away, with a silent promise to visit more often, he thought of someone else.
Someone else dead, who he really should make his peace with.
And as his mind lingered on those thoughts, he discovered another way to do it.
Harry coughed and stood downwind of the fire, hacked as he tried to clear the smoke from his eyes and throat. He hadn't realized that lighting a fire that burned on actual wood, not magic, would be so messy. He wondered for a second if that was appropriate. Snape had hated messes.
Then he shrugged. Snape had also hated magic that used a lot of wand-waving, or at least that was what he had said in the first Potions class Harry ever attended. So there were some ways the fire was right, and other ways it wasn't. Once again, Harry wasn't going to spend a whole lot of time wondering whether he had done something wrong or not. He had already had more than enough opportunities to do that to himself.
He was a distance from the Burrow, in the middle of a field that he'd warded, both so no one could see him and so the fire wouldn't get out of control. Ron and Hermione had offered to come with him when they found out what he was doing, but Harry had wanted to mourn Snape alone. Or have a kind of funeral for Snape, he decided. They hadn't found the body, just the place where it had lain. Harry was afraid Death Eaters had returned and taken it, or some beast out of the Forbidden Forest had come and carried it off.
Well, it didn't matter. You could have a funeral without a body.
Harry cleared his throat and looked around, wondering if anyone else was listening. Probably not, because of the wards, but the witch who had officiated at Remus and Tonks's funerals had said something about the spirits of the dead being called when someone felt strongly for them. Teddy Lupin, she had said, nodding at the squirming infant who sometimes sat in Andromeda's arms and sometimes on Harry's lap, would feel the presence of his mother and father throughout his life whenever he needed them most.
Maybe Snape would show up, if only to see who was disturbing his sleep and why someone he hated was holding a celebration like this.
Because I'm the only one who really cares, Harry thought sadly. Except maybe McGonagall. She had said something about wanting to make sure that Snape was honored, and stared out the window of the Headmaster's office for a few minutes after she said it. But she was busy rebuilding the school, and so they never did have a ceremony like that.
"So," Harry told the night. "This is to honor the bravest man I ever knew, the man who spied for years and risked his life each time, the man who hated my father and loved my mother, the man who was a really good Potions master and not a bad Defense teacher." He reckoned he could say that much now that Snape was safely dead and couldn't be smug at him about it. "He gave me some of his memories, too, and without his memories, I would never have known what I had to do. He's the reason the world is saved."
Harry had spent a long time trying to think about what else should be in the ritual, besides fire. He knew that fire purified and clarified, but he wasn't sure what the appropriate gifts to give to the fire were, and he had spent hours with Hermione's books and still found nothing.
So, in the end, he chose what he thought should go into the flames, and stopped worrying about it otherwise.
You get to make your own decisions now. Not as many concerns about whether you're doing the right thing.
Harry held up a potions vial and turned around in a circle, so that anyone watching could see it. He felt a little silly, but also very solemn, and the stars seemed very bright.
"This is to represent the potions he was good at," Harry told the night, and threw the vial into the fire. It sparked and sizzled, the glass beginning to bubble. Harry followed that with a stirring rod and then picked up the last thing, the tattered photograph of his mother that he knew Snape had stolen from Grimmauld Place. McGonagall had sent it to him, telling him they had found it in Snape's quarters when they finally managed to break past the constricting spells that guarded the place.
It had taken Harry a long time to decide to sacrifice that picture, but, in the end, he did. He had others, plenty of others. He might even find more. And this picture had mattered enough to Snape for him to sneak back into a place where he had to know that he would find no welcome.
"And this is because he was friends with my mum," Harry said softly, and tossed the photograph into the flames.
It seemed to him that the picture burned brightest of all, although of course he couldn't be sure about that. But he no longer needed to be absolutely sure.
Harry shuffled back towards the Burrow once he had put the fire out and lowered the wards. He felt content, the way that he felt after eating some of Mrs. Weasley's cooking and playing a game of wizard's chess with Ron. He thought he would sleep well tonight.
He was learning to say good-bye. For a first try, it wasn't bad.
Of course, Harry's life never worked out the way he wanted it to. He would think of that good-bye later, and snort bitterly.
On the other hand, at least he had advance notice that his life wasn't going to be as simple as he'd like the very first time he stepped on the Hogwarts Express to go back to school. Because Malfoy was there. And Malfoy's friends.
But mostly Malfoy.