Harry slept fitfully that night as always, his dreams haunted by innumerable fears, horrible memories and a consuming feeling of guilt. He woke to the pale light of dawn creeping across the ceiling as though it was unsure of whether it would be welcome or not. Harry cared neither one way nor the other. He lay on his back, mummified in sheets from his tossing and turning during the night, refusing to reach for his glasses. It had become a game with him, to see how long he could tolerate the blurriness. Maybe it was just the one small part of his life he could control right now. But he didn't need to see to think the thoughts he was sure to be thinking, anyway.
As always, first thing in the morning, Harry felt quite sure that he should be dead, and would be, if only there were not so many blasted people willing to put their lives on the line for his sake. Furthermore, if it were solely up to him, he would've turned himself over to Voldemort two weeks ago, when he was quite desperate to be reunited with Sirius. Harry grimaced.
Those first weeks back on Privet Drive had been, in all honesty, hell. Though he'd been miserable at school, at least there had been a cushion of distraction and companionship in misery there that had made it somehow bearable. That had been stripped away at Privet Drive.
The Dursleys were terrified of treating him wrongly, but that fear only made them hate him all the more. For his part, he had stayed away from them. In fact, those first few days, he hadn't even stirred from his bed. They had left him alone until it was time to send off his first wellbeing-check note to the Order (every third day), and in the void, Harry's thoughts had descended into a frenzy of guilty self-examination.
He had feverishly thought through his actions over the year, starting with last summer's events and the trial by the Ministry in which he was a pawn and ending with the revelation of the prophecy which again reduced him to a pawn and led to that horrible frenzy of emotion in Dumbledore's office. Most of the recollection was simply fodder for the blaze of self-incrimination and hatred that consumed him. How could he have made so many mistakes? How could he have been so stupid? And now, how could anyone expect him to carry on, to do anything at all, much less do the impossible—kill the most powerful Dark Lord in hundreds of years?
For thirty-six hours, Harry had not eaten; he had not slept. He had only staggered to the loo when his body would not leave him alone. Over and over again, he desperately re-hashed the events, trying to see what he could have changed and how many different ways he could have ensured Sirius' survival, if he had only known . . . .
In the end, it made no difference whether he understood what had happened or not. The fact was that Voldemort knew Harry and had used his love for Sirius against him. It was a simple plan, one any fool could come up with. And despite his vehement self-loathing, Harry found that he could not unwish his love, nor could he undo his mistakes. He would give anything—anything— to have Sirius back, but it was impossible. Whether he wallowed in self-pity, destroyed himself in self-hatred, or simply floated along in numbness, Sirius would not be coming back. Ever.
So it was that after thirty-six hours, as Vernon had banged on Harry's door to threaten him with bodily harm if he didn't come to breakfast, Harry resigned himself to the fact that all he could do now was vow not to let the same mistake happen again. He had chewed his food painfully, trying to get his stomach to accept food again, as the Dursleys stared at him unendingly. For the first time, Harry had been glad he didn't love them, and glad they had never loved him. No one could use them to get to him. Anybody else he cared about was liable to be used that way. After all, Voldemort knew it had worked once . . . .
Harry returned to the present. This train of thought crashed at the same point every morning. He was setting himself an impossible task. If he was "the One", then he had to fight Voldemort and kill him, or be killed and let the world perish. This time, he vowed he'd be ready; and this time, he'd do it alone rather than risk anyone else again. How else could he protect those he cared about? It simply had to be done. Harry sighed and sat up in bed, fighting to disentangle the sheets. I have to do this.
He reached over to the bedside table and grabbed his glasses, placing them onto the bridge of his nose as he shucked the last bit of sheet from his body. His stomach growled, but it would be several hours before breakfast. Lunch yesterday was a long way away. He stood, scrubbing at the stubby hairs on his chin and stretching to full height with his arms over his head. Several joints popped and a wide yawn took him over completely. He stumbled to the bathroom still in his pajamas.
He hadn't replied to Ron's last letter, or to Ginny's first. He'd only written to Hermione to request books on Occlumency and Potions. Neville and Luna's letters lay unopened on his desk. Guilt ate away at Harry every time he picked them up. They had risked their lives for him, only to walk into a trap. He owed them an apology before he cut them loose. All of them.
And today was the day. He'd finished his essay. Now it was time to clear his conscience, at least by a little.
After showering and shaving—he had discovered after three forays into that world that stubble was among his least favorite things—Harry dressed and sat back at his desk. He'd write Ron first. That one would be the easiest. Hermione . . . well, she might misunderstand. He wasn't good at putting stuff like this into words. Hedwig hooted approvingly as soon as his quill started scratching.
I hope you are feeling much better after the attack. At least now you have scars. (You did always want one, you know.) Maybe people will forget to notice mine now—
Harry crossed that line out, then crumpled up the parchment and started over. "Prat," he mumbled at himself.
I hope you are feeling much better after the attack. At least now you have scars. (You did always want one, you know.)
I am writing to say thanks. You've been a great friend and all I've done is get you into trouble over and over again. I'm not quite sure why you've stuck with me. But there you have it. You have, even when it involved prats like Malfoy, giant three-headed dogs, convicts— evil or otherwise, and even Death Eaters.
I am sorry—terribly sorry for dragging you to the Ministry and for all that happened there. Really.
Harry signed it mechanically and rubbed at his stinging eyes. "One down, four to go." There was an uncomfortable lump in his throat that would not go away, and it grew as he contemplated the next letter—Ginny's.
I hope you are feeling completely recovered now. I've had some time to think—actually, I've had a great deal of time to think—and I've remembered what you said about being, well, possessed by Tom. Do you mind me bringing it up? If it is terribly insensitive of me, please skip this and go to the bottom part. But I just had to ask, because—
Harry stopped writing. The words were just begging to be written, but was it safe? Was it wise? His thoughts whirled, but he could not halt the words. He continued:
—because at the end of Tom's duel with Dumbledore, he possessed me completely. I have never felt such pain in my life, far worse than the Cruciatus. I wanted to die. I wanted to be with Sirius, with my parents. And then, somehow, those thoughts made Tom leave, something about how I felt.
I just have to ask: did you ever feel that? Did he hurt you like that, too? It's difficult to ask, but I should have before.
I don't mean to pry.
One other thing, I am sorry for dragging you to the Ministry and putting you in danger. It was foolish of me to go and irresponsible as well. I'm surprised your parents are still speaking to me. I am sorry, terribly sorry.
Harry put down the quill, feeling sick and unable to continue. Why had he dredged all that up? Why had he asked? He'd never be able to send the letter now. It was too personal. He folded it, anyway, but put it away in a drawer. He didn't have the heart to refashion it just now. The bed was beckoning.
Harry walked over and fell on the rumpled covers, slipping his glasses off and laying them on the table. He rubbed at his eyes and the wetness there. Would it never go away—the memories?
That moment suddenly came back to him and swallowed him up. He felt again the searing pain, and the assurance that he'd never been closer to death . . . that if he only reached out, he would feel the other side of the veil and those he loved. The burning desire to join them overwhelmed him and he turned over to bury his face in the mattress in agony. He didn't have the will to move again, and fell asleep with his face in a damp patch.
"BOY! Breakfast is ready!"
Harry started and found himself still lying facedown on his bed. He hadn't dreamed. Had he really been asleep? He stumbled downstairs, feeling his stomach come alive at the smell of bacon. His mouth watered but he forced himself to walk into the kitchen warily, never quite sure what he would find when he got there.