A thousand apologies for the delay. Life got incredibly (and unexpectedly) busy and I wasn't able to give this much of my attention until the last few days. Major angst ahead. Major "Just to Be" spoilers ahead. Major apologies and an explanation at the end.
Enjoy and thank you for sticking with this :)
Ginny wiped the tears from her eyes as she approached the door. She hadn't wanted it to come to this. She hadn't wanted to involve anyone else, for her sake as much as Harry's. But things had got far worse than she'd imagined, and she couldn't do this alone anymore. She thought of calling on her own family to help, but they were still healing themselves. Things hadn't been quite the same since losing Fred. They probably never would be. It had forever changed the Weasley family dynamic. Still, if she called them, they would come. And that was the problem.
Harry had no family of his own, and had been the eighth Weasley child for most of Ginny's memory. For them to come, to rush to his aid, to see him like this… it would destroy Harry more than the drugs or the drink ever could.
She couldn't do that to him. But she also couldn't let him go on like this.
So with one last ineffectual swipe at her tear-filled eyes, she opened the door to find her own face mirrored in that of her fiance's best friend. Hermione Granger.
They hadn't spoken much since Hermione and Ron had broken up. The break-up hadn't really surprised Ginny, but it hadn't left her unaffected. Add to that Harry's confession about his and Hermione's… liaison while alone in that tent and, well, this was a bit awkward. Still, if Hermione was willing to put all that aside to help Harry in his hour of greatest need, so was Ginny.
Ginny would tell Hermione enough. But not everything. People could handle the idea of Harry Potter drinking. The idea of Harry Potter drowning out the pain with hard drugs… that would stay private. Hermione being Hermione, she would likely figure that part out. But there was no need to dishonour them both by spelling it out for her.
Hermione followed Ginny silently through the corridor and up the stairs to the master bedroom at Grimmauld Place. They found Harry sitting on the edge of the bed, clothes rumpled, hair even messier than it normally was, head in his hands. Hermione cautiously approached him, as if he would attack her. She could smell the drink from even this distance. When she reached him, she knelt before him, cautiously lifting one hand and lightly touching his shoulder.
She burst into tears when he lifted his head. She could see the yellowed skin and bloodshot eyes. She could see the shame in his expression, and positively feel the terror radiating off of him. Without a word, she pulled him into her arms, and he fell to the floor. They clung to each other and just sobbed.
"Please," he choked. "Please don't hate me."
"Never, Harry Potter," Hermione said through her own sobs. "Never. I'm here for you. Ginny's here for you. We're all in this together."
"Never wanted," he whispered, "to disappoint you."
"You will never disappoint me, Harry." She rubbed soothing circles on his back. "Remember what you said to me? What brought me back from the edge?" She knew she wouldn't have to elaborate on what she was specifically talking about, and with Ginny standing near her, it probably wasn't a good idea to do so anyway. "That goes both ways, and it still applies: I'm not going anywhere. Ever."
Harry collapsed into even harder sobs as Hermione clung to him.
Ginny had been a bit scant on the details. Hermione guessed that it was more than drink that was causing Harry's problems, but for once in her life held her tongue and declined to ask any questions of them. She knew they wouldn't deny her answers, but she thought she at least owed them the illusion.
Taking him to St. Mungo's wasn't really an option—the headlines of the Boy Who Lived going into rehab would be too much for him to handle. Hermione doubted that the Wizarding world would handle it well, or him well. They all knew how public opinion could sway at the slightest push. At the same time, she didn't know how to help Harry. Wasn't sure if this was covered in any book. She wouldn't be able to study to prepare herself, and she had no choice but to perform perfectly. She wouldn't let her friend down. She would help him become the man—the husband and father—she knew he wanted to be.
"Come on," she said, helping him up. She gestured for Ginny to come over.
"Please," he whispered to Ginny, "don't tell Ron. Or your mum. Or your dad. Or…"
"Hush," Ginny said. "This doesn't leave this room."
"We're all in this together," Hermione said. "We won't let you down."
She smiled as she said it, but had a feeling that this would be a difficult promise to keep. She also knew it would take a very, very long time to accomplish anything. And, deep down, she knew that Harry possibly would never overcome it.
Severus jerked awake as the voice taunted him. His sleep had been irregular, light, and tormented.
He had been surprised to realise that less than a day had passed since walking out. It already felt like a lifetime.
He rubbed his hands along his sweat-soaked face and through his cruelly short hair, feeling as if something was missing after the strands slipped through his fingers after only an inch or so. He knew he could magically regrow it in a moment if he chose. He chose not to. He was already hiding. It wouldn't do to add a layer.
Severus sat up in bed, the thin blanket sliding down to settle over his thin hips.
He shook his head. He hadn't fled out of cowardice. It had been out of self-preservation. Severus would die before admitting it, but he was an emotional man. He felt things, and felt them deeply: pain, disappointment, anger, resentment, fear. On the rare occasions fate had blessed him, he had also known sporadic periods of great joy and love. But he had learned early on in life that the exquisite pleasure of good feelings were not enough to weather the crushing pain of bad ones. In his life, the bad had far outnumbered the good.
He hadn't been lying when he'd told Potter, all those years ago, that people who wear their hearts on their sleeves and indulge their feelings were weak. It was a weakness, to indulge in such things. It left him quivering and exposed.
So he had mastered his feelings the same way he had mastered potions. Occlumency. It had been a godsend. Had allowed him to tamp down on the maelstrom that was his heart and allow him to do what was Necessary.
Before, it had been necessary. Now, it was essential. He still hadn't re-formed the shields. He'd made some progress, but not nearly enough. The pain he'd seen down there, in there… it had been far too much to stomach.
It had been far too much to do alone.
He shook his head again. Severus never liked to leave a project unfinished, and never accepted anything less than perfection. He never started something unless he knew he could do it well. This one had been a mistake to undertake. In his current state, he had no hope of finishing it. Or helping them. Really, it was better for all involved.
He let out a growl of frustration and began pacing the room, the cold of the floor biting his bare feet. He'd been given an impossible second chance, surviving an attack that should not have been survived. The only person besides Harry bloody Potter to survive after the Dark Lord had decided that he should die. He didn't want to waste his time, didn't want to live in service to others, didn't want to climb the fucking hill over and over for all eternity.
You can't always get what you want.
He snorted. Truer words had never been spoken. Wizarding rock had nothing on the Stones, and never would. Absently, he began humming the rest of the song to himself, both to drown out the voice that had been taunting him and to calm himself down. Absent Occlumency, it was the only thing that usually worked.
"But if you try sometimes, you just might find… you get what you need."
He needed so many things: stability. Peace. A purpose. Love. Things he didn't deserve and would never have anyway. But right now, he needed to get out. Much as he wanted to hide, he felt trapped. He'd always been able to hide in plain sight. Tonight, he would do that again.
Ron sat staring at the wall of his room at the Burrow. The house was quiet. It had never been quiet. Ramshackle, dirty, clean, crowded, busy, and hidden. But never, ever quiet.
It was quiet all the time these days.
Life would probably never be the same in this house. It would always be short one person. The fact that his mum hadn't gone completely mental when Ginny announced she and Harry were moving in together had confirmed that life, as he knew it, and his family, as he had known it, would never be the same.
Mum wasn't even thinking about their upcoming wedding. Ginny said it would be small, probably just the family and Hermione in the garden.
Boy, hadn't he cocked that one up right good. Cocked up things with Harry, too. One bloody mistake made in the heat of the moment under an unthinkable amount of stress had cost him his two best friends.
He hadn't lost Harry, not really. But his best mate had been distant, hidden. Ginny came over to the house without him more often than not. He suspected Harry was not only upset about the fact that things had broken down with Hermione, but probably also felt a little uncomfortable around him. He'd walked away from them in that tent. He'd left them to die. He hadn't known he had the instrument in his pocket to return, and he'd done it anyway. He supposed he deserved it.
All actions have consequences. He supposed this would be his.
He wouldn't lose Harry. Harry would be his brother-in-law someday; they'd always have that connection, regardless of whatever else happened. And they'd reconcile, as they always did. But deep down, Ron knew that things would never be quite the same again.
And Hermione… well, he really didn't want to lose her in his life. He loved her, and always would love her. He would never forgive himself for letting her go. But he also knew that he couldn't try to win her back. She had made her decision. He knew she had made the right one. She always had. In the tent, she had chosen correctly, and he had chosen incorrectly. He had been forgiven, but it would never be forgotten.
He thought of going down to the kitchen for a nightcap. But the thought of seeing the clock with only eight hands bearing the faces of eight Weasleys on it…
Ron suppressed a lump in his throat. Not tonight.
"I have to go back, haven't I?"
He'd muttered the words as his body had lay dying in the boathouse, as his mind had struggled desperately to preserve itself while the blood flowed freely. He'd sworn he'd seen Lily as he'd faded into the coma that would save his mind, his memories, and his life. It hadn't been a true vision, not like the kind Potter had reportedly seen of Dumbledore. It had been fleeting, really. The thin face. The soft hair. Those eyes. He'd reached out to touch her, just once, like he had during that glorious afternoon in the Room of Requirement. But she'd pulled back and shaken her head.
Wherever he was, he wasn't staying. Wherever she was, he wasn't going with her.
"I have to go back, haven't I?" he'd asked sadly.
Lily had only nodded. The next thing Severus knew, he was lying on the floor of the boathouse, the blood from his neck congealing beneath his torso on the cold stone floor. Alone.
It probably had been a hallucination, but Severus really, really wanted to believe it had been real.
Now the words rushed back to him as he sat here on his bed, leaning against the window. A long walk down Cokeworth High Street had done nothing to clear his head. Neither had a long walk along the dirty canal. Only one thing would settle his mind.
"I have to go back," he whispered out loud. "Haven't I?"
He didn't want to. It wasn't the life he wanted for himself. It wasn't peaceful, or progressive, or practical, or anything else. It wasn't something he was any good at doing, or anything he would hope to succeed at doing, mostly because there was no real goal. What was his purpose there? Get them ready for Hogwarts? Adulthood? To be able to interact with another human being without losing it?
Diving into a project without a clear goal in mind was never a good idea.
But the guilt was there, eating away at him, and it hadn't even been a full day. It wouldn't go away, it would keep taunting him. Gnawing at him. Eating away at him. And that damn voice would not leave it be. He knew it. Every choice he made was the wrong one, according to that terrible voice. No matter what it was, it would be wrong, and it would destroy him.
He might as well suffer through that for doing the right thing.
He leaned against the dirty window and caught a rare glimpse of the stars through the clouds. Absently, he placed his palm on the glass.
Hermione accepted Ginny's offer to stay in a guest room on the first floor. She hadn't wanted to; she'd wanted to give them their privacy, and give herself some space. But Ginny had offered, and wouldn't have done unless she truly thought it was best, so Hermione had accepted.
She wiped her face and tried to keep her sobs silent. It broke her heart to see Harry this way. There really wasn't anything she could do to make him stop. There was no potion or charm to cure an addiction. She could only hope that her presence would make him more willing to work with Ginny to stop.
She leaned against the window and looked down at the courtyard below. It was deserted, and the fog was creeping in like long, skinny fingers across the cobblestone. It wasn't much of a view, but she could make out the outlines of the trees and buildings. She caught a glimpse of some stars.
Absently, she placed her palm on the glass.
When he returned, it was as if he'd never left. No one seemed to notice or care.
He never saw the Rosiers with their lockets. The lockets were gone. Taken.
He noticed. He cared.
When he came out of the fog of drink and drug that had been his mind for the past months, he felt the excruciating pain of it all. Without substances to numb the memories, it was all too much.
But he welcomed it. It was better this way. Even if it felt much worse.
When she walked into the Ministry to perform the same rote tasks over and over, she knew that it was beneath her capabilities. But a routine made her feel like she was moving on. If she was performing mundane tasks, life was getting back to normal. So she continued.
The first time one of the children met his eye, his own eyes softened.
The first time one of them spoke to him, he had been lost for words.
The first time one smiled at him, he wanted to cry.
The more he felt, the more he rebuilt his tattered shields. But he didn't use them very often.
When he held his bride in his arms, skin to skin, eye to eye, heart to heart, he thanked God that he'd been given yet another chance at life.
He'd received one as an infant.
He'd received another as a teenager.
He'd received yet another from her.
He had a feeling he would not receive another if he needed it. He resolved to not need it.
She supposed this was life now. A broken women with a broken heart in a broken world.
She focused on her work. Her work had always saved her in the past, had always given her meaning. Whether depressed or angry or desperately lonely, the Work had always given her salvation. Had given her life meaning. Had dulled the pain.
So she worked. She'd forgotten how to play.
They got together every so often, the Golden Trio. The Masters of Death.
They would always be friends, always be family. Just not quite the way they had been before.
He rubbed his eyes. Months had passed. It was always two steps forward, one step back.
But at least he was moving forward this time.
One day one of them crawled into his lap. And just stayed there. Just sat there, resting against his chest, listening to the rhythm of his heart.
One of them trusted him.
So he stayed. And would continue to stay, as long as it took. And he would work. Toward what goal? He could not say.
Perhaps it was that peace that he craved so badly. If they found it, he could find it, too. It was a low bar. Just to sleep through the night. Just to trust others. Just to walk in the world without fear. Just to be.
According to Pottermore, Cokeworth is the name of Petunia and Lily's hometown, which also makes it Severus's hometown.
Between some overseas travel and starting a new job, I didn't have much time to work on this. I had finished a draft that involved Severus walking through Knockturn Alley, seeing a brothel, seeing a former student in there, and resolving to do something about it. But it didn't quite work right. "Of course it isn't working," Severus sneered at me. "That's not how it happened. You gave me enough stupid epiphanies in 'JTB,' the last thing I need is another one. You won't leave my character much room to grow in JTB if it happens here. Not everything comes to me as a realization, you know. I am perfectly capable of doing the right thing." "Then how did you change your mind?" I asked. He didn't answer me. He didn't answer me for WEEKS. Finally, he enlightened me: "I came to my senses and realized it was the right thing to do. I'm not a monster; I didn't stay away for long." "Guilt, that's it?" He nodded. "That's not very dramatic!" I said. "No, but it's real," he said. I whined. He just gave me the Standard Issue Glare and I gave in. He was right: it worked better this way. Tosser. So when you're hurling rocks at me for the delay, throw a couple tomatoes at my Hero too. Diva wouldn't cooperate.