A/N: This literally begins immediately after the last chapter of Deathly Hallows. We've striven for complete canon compliance up until that point, so if you come across any continuity errors, we'd love to be noted about them. Post DH canon is on a pick and choose basis, so please don't send notes about that. Otherwise, enjoy the story, drop a review, and look forward to what will hopefully become something of a gripping story! This will be at least one book's length long.
Chapter One – Life Will Continue On
It was over at last. Seventeen years and several deaths had brought Harry—and the entirety of wizarding Britain—to this point of utter victory. At last Voldemort was gone, killed by his own rebounding curse once again, and this time for good. Harry stood in the headmaster's office, all the previous headmasters beaming at him in approval, Dumbledore's cheeks still gleaming with tears of pride, and Hermione and Ron stood behind him as they had since the beginning. It was late in the morning, or perhaps early afternoon, and he had done everything he'd set out to do.
With a last glance at Dumbledore's smiling portrait, Harry took Ron and Hermione by the arms and led them out of the office. They closed the door behind them to another round of thunderous applause from the previous headmasters, and Harry felt his exhaustion topple onto him like a giant's fist, and his knees momentarily buckled in response.
"Are you okay, Harry?" Hermione asked anxiously, gripping his arm in turn as he steadied himself.
"Yeah… yeah, I'm just… tired."
"Of course you are! You've been awake all night after all."
"Let's get back to the common room then," Ron croaked, still bleary-eyed from crying over Fred's body. "I fancy myself a kip too."
Slowly, they made their way down the staircase and clambered over the toppled stone gargoyle once again, with a mumbled "Sorry" or two.
"Oh don't mind me," the gargoyle sighed.
The walk to the Fat Lady's portrait seemed to take ages, and was interrupted when an enormous something collided with Harry's body, emitting odd hiccupping and moaning sounds. Before feeling much else, Harry's heart seemed to freeze and crack in his chest. Not another one, not another death—he couldn't bear it—
"Knew yeh couldn' be—'course I knew, but for a mo—really thought you were—why didn' yeh say somethin'!"
"Hagrid—" Harry groaned, though some warmth was coming back into him at remembering Hagrid was alive. His aching body was not taking well to being squeezed by Hagrid's massive arms.
"Let him breathe, Hagrid!" Hermione squeaked.
"Alrigh' then, Harry?" Hagrid stepped back to get a better look at him, teary-eyed, beaming, and sporting a black eye and several other minor wounds. "I wanted ter congratulate yeh! Yeh did it! Yeh really stumped him! Thought I'd let everyone else get a look at yeh, couldn' really get close 'cause o' the crowd."
"Thanks, Hagrid," Harry said weakly, massaging his arm where Hagrid had squashed it against his body. The words came out of his mouth automatically. "Are you alright? What happened? The spiders—"
"Oh yeah," Hagrid choked. "'m fine, jus' a bit… a bit—" He took out his blanket-sized handkerchief and blew it hard, seeming overcome.
"And er, Grawp, he's alright too, isn't he?" Hermione said kindly, patting Hagrid's elbow. "So everything's okay." She cast a worried glance at Ron, as if to make sure he didn't think she was forgetting about Fred. Ron's face was blank and bloodless, a bit like it had looked when his slug-barfing jinx had backfired so long ago. Harry's gut twisted like a wrung cloth and he realized how very ill he felt—dizzy, nauseous, trembling a little. It seemed that he would go mad if he couldn't lie down for a moment and stop thinking, stop seeing faces flash before his eyes….
"Yer right, Hermione, 'course y'are," Hagrid sniffed, and Harry struggled to pull himself back into the present, reminded hideously of how often lately he'd concentrated in this same way to avoid being pulled into Voldemort's mind. "Yeh jus' don' know what it was like, see, watchin' him cast that horrible curse, seein' yeh jus' fall over like that, Harry. How did yeh do it, how did yeh survive?"
He couldn't breathe, so how was it he could still talk? "It's kind of a long story, actually. But I'm just tired now." Harry hoped that Hagrid would understand his need for sleep, understand that he really was sorry that Hagrid had seen all that and had to carry his body back. "You were great, Hagrid. Really great." His legs were trembling. The only thing keeping him upright was the guilt he knew he would feel at Hagrid's panic should he collapse in front of him.
"Nuthin' o' the sort!" Hagrid nearly bellowed, pulling Harry against him again. "'s you all that did it, you three, can't say I'm surprised…."
After Ron and Hermione had pried a gasping and panting Harry free a second time and promised to come visit if they had time, Hagrid was beaming again and mopping his eyes.
"Terrible day, innit, but a great day too, now You-Know-Who's gone. We won after all! An' now Snape's sure ter get the sack, and McGonagall—"
And suddenly Harry felt a chilly tingle sweep through his body, and he found he could control his ragged breathing a little. Remembering Snape's body, still lying in the Shrieking Shack, Harry knew he had one more thing to do before going to sleep.
"Hagrid," he interrupted. "Snape's dead. Voldemort killed him—or his snake did, anyway. In the Shrieking Shack."
"Snape? Dead?" Hagrid paused. "Why would he be in the Shrieking Shack? Runnin' away, was he? The coward!"
"No," Harry said. "No, he was called there on Voldemort's orders. It's complicated—but he was on our side until the end. Things would have been even worse at Hogwarts if he wasn't. Just… make sure he gets a proper burial."
"But that—Harry, he killed Dumbledore!" Hagrid looked about to burst into tears again.
"I know it's confusing, I'll explain it all to you later if you want—" Harry looked at him desperately. "But please, someone has to go get his body. We can't just leave him in there."
Perhaps the expression on Harry's face reflected his feelings well, because Hagrid finally stepped back and said, "Alrigh' then, if it's important ter yeh… 'course I'll do it, Harry. Now go get some rest, yeh look terrible!"
"Thanks," Harry sighed in relief. "Really, thanks a lot. I'll see you later, then."
"Take care you three. 'Bye," Hagrid replied gruffly, and they all waved and turned to continue up the corridor.
"By the way, Harry," Hermione nearly whispered. "What did you see in Snape's memories? That is what it was, wasn't it?"
"Yeah." Harry wished she hadn't asked. Thinking of Snape now was horribly disorienting, but for a moment his mind was relieved to fixate on a single person rather than the dozens dead in the Great Hall. He had spent so many years hating and detesting the man, wishing him nothing but ill will. The Pensieve's narrative still felt convoluted as Harry sifted through the pieces in his own memory. He hadn't given it much thought immediately after witnessing it, being maximally distracted by the revelation that his death was a necessary element to Voldemort's downfall. What was Harry supposed to feel? No matter the greater point of it all, no matter that Snape's role had been one of the most difficult of all, Snape had still spent a considerable amount of energy making sure that Harry's time at Hogwarts was miserable. Even if Snape was ultimately looking out for Harry's well-being, he had a really foul way of showing it.
"He grew up with my mother," he said finally, wanting to keep it short. "He was the one who told her she was a witch; it looks like they were friends at Hogwarts."
"And his Patronus is really a doe?" asked Ron skeptically.
Harry nodded. "I think part of why Snape hated my dad is because he was jealous, since my dad ended up with my mum, but he really was into the Dark Arts, Snape, my mum got after him about it."
"'Course he was," Ron grumbled. "How d'you know he was on our side?"
"He overheard the prophecy, but when he told Voldemort and realized he was after my family, he told Dumbledore to protect my mum. Then he became Dumbledore's spy. He didn't really want to kill Dumbledore, but Dumbledore was dying anyway and wanted—"
"Dumbledore was dying?" Hermione whispered. "He seemed to be as lively as ever, except for that blackened hand, I suppose."
"Yeah… he was cursed by one of Voldemort's Horcruxes, and I guess that it was irreversible. Anyway, Dumbledore had Snape kill him to make sure Voldemort would trust Snape so he could watch over Hogwarts and… and he also thought if he let Snape kill him, the Elder Wand wouldn't belong to anybody and wouldn't be as powerful."
"Oh," said Ron, and Harry could tell he had only half-followed his poor explanation. "He did all that 'cause he fancied your mum? Mental…."
"Yeah, a bit," Harry agreed, not really thinking about what he was saying.
"You'd think he'd be a bit more decent to her son, wouldn't you?" Ron muttered. "If you ask me he went a bit overboard with the act."
Harry didn't bother responding. Snape's interest in his mother seemed of little importance, nothing more than an interesting detail; she had been right to cut ties with a man fraternizing with the Dark Arts and Death Eaters. He had made his choice. He had chosen Voldemort. Just because Lily became a victim of the overheard prophecy did not mean that Snape would have felt any remorse had it been anyone else. He would not, Harry thought with anger, have cared whether it was the Longbottoms who were Voldemort's targets. In Harry's mind, Snape hadn't done enough to convince him that all of his good deeds weren't simply acts of selfishness and obsession.
They were within sight of the Fat Lady's portrait when an ice-cold flood swept through Harry's body, and for a moment he thought there might be some Dementors left over from the fight, hiding just out of sight—he shook violently with dread, he felt too weak to summon a Patronus again—but then he heard a familiar voice in his ear.
"Oh no, I'd heard you'd died! I was so excited." The cold sensation lifted and Harry stepped back to look at the pearly form of Moaning Myrtle, pouting at him in great disappointment. It seemed she had been pressing herself against him in an extremely uncomfortable embrace.
"I bet Voldemort and his Death Eaters were pretty put out, too," said Harry, and made to keep walking.
"I was just hoping, you know," she moped, "that if you had died, you'd remember how I said you could share my toilet with me."
"I reckon you'd think it was romantic, wouldn't you," Ron muttered. "Since you both would've got killed by Tom Riddle and all."
Myrtle shot Ron a sulky glare, but then turned back to Harry, her expression suddenly much more pleased. "Do you know anyone else who might have died? I saw in the Great Hall, there were loads of them, but I haven't seen any new ghosts around yet… it does get awfully lonely in that bathroom. Maybe they're hiding."
She was nearly giggling. Ron looked suddenly sicker than before.
"Oh yeah! Yeah, we know loads of people!" he cried, with voice and fists trembling. "I'll send them all your way, shall I? Why don't you just go ask my mum if she minds you marrying the ghost of my brother you miserable little skank!"
"Maybe I will!" Myrtle shrieked, and flew through Ron, turning at the end of the corridor.
"See you later, Harry." She batted her eyelashes at him.
"No, Myrtle—wait, don't—"
But she was gone.
"What'd you go telling her that for?" Hermione groaned sadly, but didn't go on—Ron was rubbing vigorously at his eyes and muttering between watery, drawn-out sniffs.
"She's just as bad as a Death Eater, stupid little—thanks Hermione." He took the handkerchief she'd dug out of her bag and wiped his face with it. "Being happy people died—! Can you believe that?" He swore under his breath.
"Just ignore her," Harry advised, taking Ron's arm again. Myrtle's visit seemed to have left him literally numb. "C'mon, lets—"
But as the Fat Lady came edging back into her portrait grudgingly, having been off watching the progress of things elsewhere in the castle, Harry remembered he did not have the password.
"Any chance of letting us through?" he asked desperately.
She looked down at the three of them, stern at first, then smiling.
"From all I've seen and heard this morning, you certainly don't belong in any house but Gryffindor!" she said proudly, and swung open to let them through.
"Thanks," they all said fervently, though Ron's came out a little muffled by the handkerchief. They climbed into the common room, and it was like stepping into an alternate reality. It all looked almost exactly the same as Harry had left it at the end of his sixth year. Ron immediately headed for the boy's staircase, and Harry turned to Hermione, who gave him a small smile.
"Get some rest, Harry," she said, throwing her arms around him. "You were brilliant."
"No, you were," he said, and his voice cracked a little with exhaustion. "You and Ron… I couldn't have finished him if you hadn't destroyed the cup for me. If you hadn't…" his throat closed off, it was too difficult to think of how easily they might have been lying among the dead in the Great Hall. "I'm glad you're okay."
He could see she had more she wanted to say, but she shut her mouth and drew back, patting his shoulders, nodding. "Let's all get some rest while we can."
"Yeah," Harry said, trying to force a grin—his face felt stiff and heavy, like the rest of him. "I'll see you later." Sensible girl, Hermione, he thought gratefully.
Ron was already in bed when Harry came up, and Harry was tempted not to bother changing, but his clothes were dirty and probably smelly after everything that had happened. He wrapped the Elder Wand in one of his Weasley sweaters at the bottom of his rucksack, placed his own beloved holly wand on his bedside table, and exerted one last bit of effort to get into his pajamas before crawling into bed. It felt wonderful. He had meant to have Kreacher bring him some sandwiches, but it could wait. The bed felt more comfortable than it ever had before, and as soon as his eyes closed, he felt himself sinking into blessed sleep.
Harry woke slowly from a dream in which someone had been talking to him in a familiar voice, but one he couldn't place. He lay with his eyes closed, focusing on the dream, trying to recall who it was, but slowly other thoughts began to crowd it out, memories of the night before came cascading like a landslide, the losses and moments of terror pummeling him so that a small noise escaped before he could hold it in. Next, he became aware of a sharp pain in his stomach, and then various other aches began to manifest. Needing to reassure himself of where he was, he rolled over and saw Ron sitting up in bed, watching him. The windows were dark. They must have slept all through the afternoon and into the night.
"What is it?" Harry asked, searching for his glasses. "Was I talking in my sleep again?" The voice in his dream brushed across his mind and he tried to grasp it, to remember who it had been….
"No," Ron said.
Harry sat up and took a closer look. He could tell Ron had something to say.
"What's the matter?"
Ron squirmed a little, fidgeting. "You don't… don't reckon Fred might… y'know."
"He'd probably think it was funny, coming back as a ghost, right?"
Harry wondered if his stomach would ever stop aching. "I asked the same thing about… about Sirius when he died. Nick said most people don't decide to become ghosts because then they can never go on."
"Go on where?" Ron's face was screwed up miserably.
"I dunno exactly. But they've got to go somewhere, haven't they?" Harry looked at Ron. Harry had only gotten as far as recounting Voldemort casting Avada Kedavra, before they had reached Dumbledore's office and the story got interrupted. Ron was looking at him doubtfully now, and he wasn't sure he felt like explaining—it would probably sound stupid, and he was feeling too despondent himself to tell it appropriately.
"Yeah… I s'pose," Ron muttered, swallowing. "Should we go down to dinner then? What time is it, anyway?"
"Dunno. I'll just have Kreacher bring us something up here."
"Excellent." Ron flopped back onto his pillows.
Kreacher appeared the instant Harry called him, looking alert and attentive.
"Are the young masters hungry?" Kreacher asked eagerly.
"Starving," said Ron said at once.
"What shall Kreacher bring? Sweet treats, nice drinks, steamy meat pies?"
"How about some of everything that was for dinner?" Harry suggested.
Kreacher bowed low and disappeared with a crack.
"Where do you reckon the others are sleeping if they're not here?" Harry wondered.
"I heard McGonagall saying that students whose parents were staying the night could sleep with 'em, wherever they end up. Mum said she might stay—didn't think I'd sleep so long, I'd've gone with her…."
A moment later Kreacher returned bearing a tray full of steaming dishes, complete with glasses of pumpkin juice, bowls of ice cream and a bit of Treacle Tart just for Harry.
"You're a saint, Kreacher," Ron said through a mouthful of bread and soup.
"Yeah, thanks a lot," Harry said. Kreacher bowed again, so low the locket he wore hit the floor, and then he disappeared with a crack.
Harry's nauseous stomach battled with his desire to eat until finally he forced himself to take a few spoonfuls of soup, and then proceeded slowly through the rest of the meal. By the time they were done, the sky was getting a little lighter, but Harry felt too emotionally drained to get up. Instead, noticing a board lying abandoned by one of the beds, he asked Ron if he felt up to a game of chess. Ron agreed, but it was clear his heart was not in it—Harry managed to beat him for the first time he could remember.
"Another round?" Harry suggested.
"Maybe not." Ron got to his feet. "Mum might be wondering where I am."
"You think she's awake?" Harry asked. "Wait, I'll come with you." He hurried back to his bed to change his clothes, and together they went down into the common room, which was empty.
"Hermione must still be sleeping," Ron mumbled, looking briefly toward the girl's staircase before heading out the portrait hole.
The castle was very silent, and the Great Hall looked gloomy and surreal without the light of the floating candles when they peeked inside. The bodies of the fallen had all been moved—Harry was glad, but wondered where they had gone.
Ron looked worried. "Do you think they all went back without me?"
"Dunno," Harry said. "I don't think so. They might be sleeping somewhere else in the castle."
They moved along, and Harry felt, for a moment, almost like he was a young student again, out of bed after hours, expecting Filch to swoop down on him. But Filch most likely had bigger things to worry about, like the caved-in corridors on the lower floors. They walked aimlessly without speaking for a while, until Ron said, "Maybe they're all sleeping in an empty classroom or something."
So they started trying doors, but they had gone through over two dozen before they saw anything of note. Ron immediately backed away after opening the last one, and Harry saw why—bodies were laid in rows with their arms at their sides like toy soldiers. He saw the unmistakable face and hair of Bellatrix Lestrange, among others. A draft of cold air came from the room and made the hair on his neck stand up—he closed the door without searching the faces.
"They must be keeping everyone from the other side in here," Harry said. "I expect they've set some sort of charm to keep the room cold until they're buried."
"Buried?" Ron's voice had shot high. "Them? You think they deserve some kind of funeral?"
"Of course I don't…." Harry said. He wondered if Voldemort's body had been moved here as well, or if it was still in the chamber off the Great Hall.
Ron was staring at him, waiting for more.
"What would you do with them?" Harry asked him.
Ron grumbled something that sounded like "chuck 'em to Buckbeak" but Harry couldn't be sure, as Ron was walking away when he said it.
They didn't speak of the bodies again, but wandered around making feeble conversation about how long it might take to fix up the castle. As the sun broke over the trees they ran into Ginny, who had come to try and find them and bring them to the rest of the family. There Harry learned that after he and Ron had gone to sleep, the families of the dead and injured had arrived to identify their loved ones and, if possible, had taken them away. Fred's body had been moved somewhere closer to the Burrow, and Lupin and Tonks had been taken by some members of the Order to be buried near where Tonks's mother lived.
"It's better this way, dear," said Mrs. Weasley when Harry expressed his guilt at not being there for the burial. "Poor dear, she's in no fit state to worry about a thing like that, she's l-lost everything except little Teddy. We've agreed it's better if we all just… just pay our respects separately when we can."
By the end of the day, Harry barely knew or remembered how it had been spent. It was all just a dull impression of shaking people's hands, answering questions, and joining parties of workers who levitated crumbled bits of wall and ceiling to clear the blocked corridors, hoping they wouldn't find more dead bodies under the rubble. The strongest memories of the day were simply the company of people—the people who, by some wonderful bit of luck, were still alive—and the constant struggle against the urge to curl up and cry.
Neville, Luna, the Weasleys, the teachers, even people like Ernie MacMillan, he was glad to see them all, and it felt wonderful to be able to thank them for risking their lives, though really Harry felt like thanking them simply for surviving, for not adding to the weight of the dead in his chest. It pressed down especially hard that night as if someone heavy were sitting on him, and more than once he woke out of his fitful sleep expecting a heavy stone to shift away when he rolled over, the echoes of the explosion that killed Fred still sounding in his ears. Or else it was magical ropes, or Nagini, squeezing him….
It was a relief to wake and go down to breakfast.
"Harry..." Hermione looked at him over her toast and marmalade.
He broke out of his thoughts. "Hm? What is it?"
Ron stopped slurping his pumpkin juice to pay attention.
"Well, I was wondering about the... the Elder Wand."
"Oh..." Harry chewed slowly. "Er... you want to know if I've returned it yet?" He had been enjoying the illusion of having no daunting tasks particularly assigned to him now, focusing only on being with others and rebuilding.
"Yes. I'm not... I'm not trying to rush you or anything like that, I mean I know you intend to put it back—" She suddenly looked embarrassed and stuffed her mouth with the remains of her toast, then began drinking from her goblet.
"Blimey, Hermione, give Harry a chance. It's only been two days," Ron said.
Harry stared into his reflection on the golden breakfast plate. He didn't want to admit it, but he was a little bit intimidated to open Dumbledore's tomb, especially since it had already been defiled once. He didn't feel right asking anyone else to do this though, and part of him trusted only himself to handle the Wand.
"You're right, Hermione," he finally said. "I'll go do it now."
Harry got up and cast one eye over the long tables. He knew Ginny had gone with the Patil twins and Luna to visit Lavender Brown in the recently reconstructed hospital wing, who was still recovering from her run-in with Fenrir Greyback. Part of him wished that Ginny could join him as he returned the wand, and then perhaps they could continue the walk for a while; they hadn't had a good moment alone yet. The rest of him thought it was best to do this task by himself, so with heavy feet, he headed toward Gryffindor tower.
Harry turned to see Professor McGonagall approaching him.
"Harry, how are you doing?" She looked at him pleasantly, and seemed to have inherited Dumbledore's twinkling eyes along with the position of Headmistress. He noticed that whenever she looked at him now, she seemed to swell with pride.
"I'm... I'm alright." He swallowed.
"I know I've said this already, Harry, but if you need to talk to anyone, my office..." She paused and Harry knew they were both thinking it still felt more appropriate to refer to it as Dumbledore's. "My office is always open to you. I imagine that school is the last thing you're thinking about right now, but if you need any advisement about how to continue your education, please come to see me."
"Of course, you can always just come by for a biscuit."
"Thanks. I'll do that."
McGonagall squeezed his shoulder and headed toward the Great Hall as Harry continued up a stairway.
He could barely think of his future. For years he had been prepared for the possibility of having no future at all, and especially this past year, his life had been consumed by the hunt for Horcruxes and destruction of Voldemort. His old aspiration of becoming an Auror seemed hazy and he wasn't even sure that he wanted to spend the rest of his life hunting dark wizards. Now that he knew firsthand what kind of life it was, it didn't seem like what he wanted. Not only that but he had missed his seventh year of school and had no N.E.W.T.s. While he thought that destroying the most nefarious wizard in living memory had to count for at least an O in Defense Against the Dark Arts, there was no getting around the fact that he still lacked experience in his other subjects, especially Potions after his fortunate but ultimately unhelpful year's direction from the Half-Blood Prince. Another painful twang of confusion vibrated through his ribcage at the thought.
Harry crossed the empty common room and went to the boys' dormitory. Opening his rucksack, he dug amongst his remaining earthly possessions—the invisibility cloak, the empty snitch—and pulled out the Elder Wand from the sweater. This was the first time he had really looked at it properly. This wand, the "Deathstick," had saved his life. He had no particular fondness for it, especially after seeing it wielded by Voldemort, but it was still strange to think that if things had been different, if Voldemort really had been the possessor of the wand, their shared blood or whatever it was that Dumbledore had said protected him may not have been enough to stand against the unbeatable Wand of Destiny.
Hiding the wand in his inner robe pocket, Harry left the common room. Students, teachers, and parents were leaving breakfast and dispersing throughout the castle to continue with repairs or help with any of the other chores that had popped up since the battle, such as recasting damaged charms or herding nifflers which had hidden in small packs throughout the castle back toward the forest.
"How's it goin', Harry?"
Harry briefly waved or nodded as people sent greetings his way. Finally he was at the front doors and descended the stone steps. The sky was overcast and there was a slight breeze as he made his way toward the white marble tomb where the former Headmaster lay. He noticed Professor Flitwick and a group of Ravenclaws and their parents levitating stones and shingles back into their previous positions. There was no doubt that things were coming along. Hogwarts still looked like it had seen better days but at least it was no longer obvious that a giant had punched a gaping hole in the 7th floor corridor.
Before he knew it, he was by the side of the tomb. Harry fingered the wand nervously. The knot in his stomach that had begun with his earlier thoughts of Snape was back and tighter than ever as his thoughts strayed unbidden to what he might find upon opening the tomb. He knew that Voldemort had removed the purple cloth wrapping when he had taken the wand, but Harry couldn't recall the state of the body. Would there be nothing left but a bearded and bespectacled skeleton? It had been a year after all. Or would it be, even worse, something half rotten? But surely he would remember if it had been like this, he had seen Voldemort take the wand after all.
No... even if it was perfectly preserved, Harry didn't think he could stand the sight of the man he had loved so much laying there cold and empty. He had seen too many dead bodies this week, more than he had ever seen in his life, more than he hoped to cumulatively ever see again. Lupin, Tonks, Fred... He didn't want to think about this right now.
He put the wand back in his robe. What was the rush? He wasn't leaving Hogwarts yet. He'd do it before he left... er... for where ever it was he would go next. Whenever he left, he would be in a better state of mind for this kind of thing.
Harry pushed the doors to the castle open upon returning and walked into a protruding belly.
"Harry, m'boy! Gone for a walk, have you?" came the voice of Horace Slughorn.
Harry made a noncommittal noise and shrugged halfheartedly.
"Care to accompany me to the greenhouses? I've got to pick a leaf of Poko Poloxi for Madam Pomfrey's brew of Grief Relief. We're really flying through it."
Thinking that Slughorn looked much too cheerful while sharing this tidbit, but nevertheless being grateful for a distraction from his thoughts, Harry uttered a "sure."
"I missed having you in my class this year, Harry. No one else quite like you, I must say. But of course, I look forward to having you next year! Between you and me, I think the Headmistress is looking to write this last school year off as irretrievably corrupted, so everyone would be redoing the year, not just you. And I would love to have the pleasure of having your inspiring intuition back in my classroom!" Slughorn chortled.
"Professor, the truth is, I—"
"But Harry! You don't mean to tell me that you aren't coming back? There's nothing for it, you have to have N.E.W.T.s if you want to succeed, and you do want to succeed, don't you? You may have done away with You-Know-Who singlehandedly but if you can't transfigure a turnip or—"
"No, that's not—!"
"But Harry! I would have expected better of you. Such a promising potioneer."
"I cheated!" Harry finally exclaimed while Slughorn was busy tut-tuting.
Slughorn caught his rotund self after a nasty jerk. "Ch-cheated?" he spluttered, blinking rapidly. "But don't be modest, you can't have. I was watching you all the time!"
"It was the book. I never returned the one I borrowed. The one I gave back was a different one."
The Potions Master stared uncomprehendingly. "The book?"
"It was annotated by the previous owner. It...every potion had several alterations and hints at how to make it more easily."
"I... I can't recall ever having a student who excelled to that degree," Slughorn said weakly, looking desperately hopeful that Harry would tell him he was just joking.
"Well... you did. I can't tell you who it was, they used a nickname." Harry stared at his feet. They had stopped walking so Harry started toward the greenhouses once again.
"Bring me that book won't you? Then we can clear this up. I'm sure it's not as serious as you think, a hint here or there never hurt anyone." He put a hand on Harry's shoulder as he pushed open the door of Greenhouse Two.
"I don't have it anymore."
"Don't have it?" Slughorn grunted.
"No." Harry thought with a pang about what a waste it was that it was gone, not only because it was so useful but also because it was probably the only possession of Snape's he would ever have owned.
"Well what happened to it, boy? Something like that!"
Slughorn grumbled and grumped as he plucked a few red leaves from the Poko Poloxi which purred at his touch. He seemed to have finally accepted that his star pupil's talent at potionmaking was in question.
"Well I still want to see you in my class next year," he muttered.
Harry didn't really know what to say to that, not wanting to commit right away to coming back, though it seemed very likely as there was no realistic alternative at this point.
"Hey Professor, I just remembered something I have to do," he said and slipped out at a brisk pace. He wanted to go hide away with his friends, maybe play some chess or Quidditch, pretend for even only an hour that things were normal even though nothing could be farther from the truth.
When he came back into the Great Hall, it was much emptier but he was relieved to see Ron, Hermione, and Ginny in a huddle talking with Neville and his stern-looking grandmother.
"Hey," he said as he popped into the group.
"Well! Hello, Mr. Potter," Neville's grandmother said. "You keeping well?"
"Where were you, Harry? Poor Lavender, her and Bill now look like a right pair," Ginny sighed and folded her arms around herself as though she were cold.
Harry noticed Ron and Hermione were looking at him out of the corner of his eye. "I was just taking a walk... and then I ran into Slughorn who wanted a word. Lavender's getting better though, is she?"
"Well, she'll live." But he saw that Ginny smiled despite herself. "Ron, you should really go visit her. She is your old girlfriend after all."
"Oh... right. Maybe." He didn't look too excited at this prospect.
"Well she's at least your friend, isn't she?"
"Yeah. You're right. I'll see her sometime today."
"How about now? You lot can go see her together. She really loves getting visitors. Come on Harry." Ginny grabbed his hand and led him out of the Great Hall, leaving the others to make their way toward the Hospital Wing.
He and Ginny kicked around the hallways for a few minutes before she finally spoke up. "Harry," she said, looking at the floor, "have you talked to Mum lately?"
"Yeah, I talked to her this morning."
Ginny sighed. "She looks awful, doesn't she?"
While many of them had been having their grief interrupted by moments of relief or even relative cheerfulness, Mrs. Weasley was in a continuous state of upset. It seemed that her eyes hadn't dried once since learning of Fred's death. The other Weasleys were dealing with the tragedy in different ways, the most noticeable theme being trying to keep life moving in a positive direction. George seemed to have a shadow across his face even when trying to joke, and it was still jarring to see him on his own.
Harry could tell Ginny was expecting a reply. "Well, she... she's looked better, yeah."
"Did she tell you? Her and Dad decided to have the funeral on Saturday."
"Er... no. She didn't. Is it going to be here?"
"No. Our family has been buried in a wizarding cemetery in Plymtree for several generations, so we're going to do it there. That's southwest of Bristol."
"Hmm. Who's all going?"
"Well, besides our family and you guys, George has invited their friends. I think that Mum and Dad wanted it to be small but there's no way. Fred was so popular and friendly, he wouldn't want it like that. All of Dumbledore's Army and the Order will probably show up, and who knows who else? George says the more who come, the better."
Harry sighed and looked out the window. It was sprinkling now. He thought of Tonks and Lupin's hasty, lonely burial. Tonks's mother had lost her husband and daughter in such rapid succession. At least she had Teddy. Godfather though Harry may be, he knew it was a much better arrangement right now for them to be together.
"Thanks for letting me know."
"What are you doing this summer? You don't have to return to those muggles now, so you're going to come straight to us, right?"
"Yeah. I don't have anywhere else to go really, do I? And besides, it's... it'll be nice to be there for a while."
"What about Hermione?"
"Well, she'll be wanting to go retrieve her parents from Australia."
Ginny stared. "Australia? Wh..."
"Why don't you ask her?"
"Okay, I will. Are you alright, Harry? Everything'll be okay now. Things can only get better from now on."
Ginny's reassuring smile gave him an immediate dose of strength. He squeezed her hand and knew it was true. Things were difficult now in the immediate aftermath, but this would eventually be little more than a bad memory. Ron and Hermione had survived, Ginny was still there for him, and many of his other friends had managed to pull through the fight as well. Repeating these thoughts to himself over the last few days had kept him going, sustaining him like sparks of warmth. Best of all, Voldemort was gone. Harry could live a normal life. He wouldn't have to constantly worry for the safety of everyone he loved. He wouldn't have to feel as though simply knowing them put them in grave danger.
A sharp knock on the hut door made Harry jump from his seat, spilling half a large mug of Hagrid's best nettle tea all over his lap. He only just stopped the mug from rolling off and crashing onto the ground.
"Sit down, don' worry about it," Hagrid chuckled. A huge flowery napkin was thrown under the table. "Jus' mop up the spill while I go answer the door, will yeh? Alright, who is it?"
Harry had come to visit Hagrid on his own today—Ron had been called aside by Mrs. Weasley to discuss funeral arrangements, and Hermione had needed to talk to Professor Flitwick about how to safely remove memory charms. Hagrid had been telling Harry about his days hiding up in the hills after Snape had taken over, then had fallen to reminiscing about their trips into the forest throughout the years, discussing Grawp's progress in becoming civilized and also how the Centaurs were friendlier all of a sudden. Harry was glad to just listen and sip the warm tea.
"Professor McGonagall! What a pleasure! Come in, have some tea!"
"Thank you, Hagrid," she said politely. "But perhaps another time. I thought I might find you here, Harry. Did you not hear that a delegation from the Ministry was coming today?"
Harry bumped his head in his haste to get out from under the table. "Um, yes, Professor" he said, wincing. "I just…didn't think it had anything to do with me. It doesn't, does it?" he added anxiously.
"Well, your presence is requested, if not required. I think our new Minister wanted your opinion on what to do with Professor Snape's body, after what we all heard you say the other day."
Of course—Harry had revealed Snape's betrayal of Voldemort in front of the entire school, more or less. "He wants my opinion?"
"Of course. I daresay that you'll find Kingsley Shacklebolt to be a much friendlier Minister toward you than either Scrimgeour or Fudge were."
"Oh yeah. So he's Minister for good now?" Harry found himself grinning a little at that. The thought of a Minister that wasn't set on slandering him or else using him as some kind of puppet was very cheering indeed.
"Yes, he is." McGonagall raised her eyebrows at him. "Have you not been keeping up with the news at all?"
"I've sort of been cut off from the wizarding world this past year," Harry said. "I'm sure I can get someone to lend me their copies of the Daily Prophet, though."
"I reckon I better be doin' that too, now I think on it," Hagrid commented, wringing out the napkin he'd retrieved from under the table. "It'll be good ter read some good news fer once."
"Shall we go then, Harry?" McGonagall asked, a smile dancing on the edges of her thin lips.
Moments later, they approached the delegation inside the entrance hall.
"Mr. Potter," said Kingsley's deep, calming voice as he shook Harry's hand. "You're well, I take it?"
"Well enough, Minister," Harry said, and another brief grin found its way onto his face. "How are things at the Ministry?"
"Let's just say… there's a lot of cleaning up to do." Kingsley glanced over the cracked flagstones of the entrance hall. "I had a question for you."
"About what to do with Snape's body?" Harry asked. "I think it should be buried properly."
"Are you sure about that?" Kingsley asked seriously. "He did kill Professor Dumbledore after all. That much convinced all the rest of us—" Harry knew he referred to the rest of the Order of the Phoenix "—that he was working for the other side all along."
"I'm positive," Harry said firmly. "Before Snape died, he gave me some of his memories to put into Dumbledore's Pensieve. Dumbledore planned for Snape to kill him—he was dying anyway because of a curse, and otherwise Draco Malfoy would've had to do it."
"Draco Malfoy and his parents are being put on trial," Kingsley said. "I expect they'll be sent to Azkaban. You say Dumbledore meant for Snape to kill him?" Harry could hear the subtle tones of shock in his voice.
"I'm sure of it, sir," said Harry. "The memory's probably still in the Pensieve if Professor McGonagall would let you go to her office to look at it."
It felt a little strange, offering Snape's personal and private memories for other people to see, but if it meant giving Snape a fair chance at redemption, it was worth it. Cruel as he had been to Harry, Harry didn't want to be the only one who knew of the indispensible part he'd played in the end. Once they had seen it, Kingsley and McGonagall could decide for themselves whether Snape was truly good or not.
"Well then," said Kingsley, turning to McGonagall, who nodded. "I may have more questions for you when I come back."
"I'll answer any that I can," Harry said simply, and watched them walk away after Kingsley had given orders to the other Ministry officials to go and retrieve the bodies of the enemy forces from the empty classroom.
Harry caught himself looking, illogically, into the crowd on the off-chance that Tonks would be among them as an Auror. Then he felt the jolt of reality again. Tonks would never be someone he could just run into again, never someone who would just turn up and surprise him with her shocking pink hair, or wearing some new appearance he'd not yet seen. If the Order of the Phoenix were to meet, then her place and Lupin's beside her would always be empty. It was amazing that he could forget for even a split second.
Trying to ignore the emptiness, he went into the Great Hall and looked for the Weasleys. They weren't there, so he drifted toward Luna when he spotted her reading an issue of the Quibbler.
"Hello, Luna," he said, to announce his presence, and she looked up at him with her dreamy, unblinking stare.
"Oh… hello, Harry. Daddy's editing his paper again." She lifted the issue for him to see. "It's very short, because he's still not feeling very well, but he says it makes him feel better to write. You look happier today."
"I suppose I am feeling a bit better," Harry said, gazing down at the headline. "Azkaban Prisoners Subject to Horrifying Experiments? That's not exactly good news, is it?" He didn't believe it, especially since the Dementors weren't likely to be returning to Azkaban now that they had proven impossible to control in a crisis.
"We've got to keep our eyes peeled, haven't we?" Luna asked, her own eyes seeming unnaturally wide above her solemn look. "Sometimes good news is like a lot of Wrackspurts. It gets in your ears and makes you forget things you should be thinking about. Then other things can sneak up on you…."
Harry thought this was all a bit more ominous than Luna's usual unsettling comments, but settled for saying, "I'm glad your dad's okay. He was really worried about you, you know, we went to visit him. We didn't mean to make things worse for him."
"I know," Luna said simply, and her usual vague smile crept across her face. "I'm still your friend, and Daddy doesn't mind you coming now that we're both safe. You can drop by for dinner sometime this summer if you like."
"Er… thanks, Luna," Harry said, remembering his experience with her dad's Gurdyroot tea.
"You're welcome," she said brightly, and went back to reading the paper.
Kingsley came back after a while and nodded to Harry, who met him halfway across the hall.
"Well, Harry, I can't say I understood everything, but it seems none of us really knew the man at all."
"I know what you mean."
"It is possible for memories to be falsified but I'm fairly certain these are authentic. I will strive to clear Severus Snape's name of the more serious charges if nothing else. Thank you for your assistance in this matter. Now, if you will all come with me," he turned to the other Ministry officials behind him. "We're going to remove the last body."
They moved toward the room off the Great Hall where Harry knew Voldemort's body lay. Driven by some sort of twisted curiosity, Harry followed them. He had seen Voldemort's body, of course, seen it moments after the life had left it, but the reality of his death still seemed too good to be true. The threat of Voldemort had hung over him since the day of his birth, had followed him through every year at Hogwarts, and now he wanted to reassure himself, as irrational as he knew any fear was.
The room was dark and the same cold gust of air came out as from the room full of dead Death Eaters. Kingsley lit the candles along the wall with a flick of his wand and advanced with a few others. Harry waited by the door for them to lift the lifeless lump on the floor and bring it out. He saw Voldemort's hands as the first visible bit of flesh, those awful white, spider-like hands that had touched his face in the graveyard, had lifted a wand to kill or torture so many times. Harry felt an unexpected shudder rack his entire body and took a step back before stopping himself. He would not be afraid of a dead body! Then was Voldemort's face, harmless now, frozen in a slight expression of shock even with his eyes closed.
A horrible nauseated feeling slammed through Harry, as if his insides were trying to force their way out of him, and he broke out in a cold sweat, barely registering Kingsley's words.
"We'll be taking this to the Ministry for protection until a decision is reached on how to best dispose of it. We don't want any followers in hiding getting hold of it…."
There was a rushing sound in his ears, and Harry wrenched his gaze away from the body he could barely believe was lifeless. He left the Great Hall, and didn't stop walking until he found an empty classroom in which to gather himself.
What was going on? What was wrong with him? He put a hand to his head out of habit, but his scar was fine, his head was fine, and he blew out a great shaking sigh, knowing it had only been a momentary reaction, a residual surge of hatred for the man who had ruined his life, and the lives of so many others.
A/N: Thanks for reading, please review!