Harry wakes on the morning of his fifteenth birthday, feeling an unexpected sensation of wellbeing. He is with the Dursleys. He knows that there is another month until he can go back to Hogwarts, go back to his real life, where magic is a part of every day and no less wondrous for all that. Somehow today, the knowledge does not matter to him. For once, it cannot ruin his mood. He can't remember ever feeling this content in this house.
The feeling lasts all through the remainder of the summer, as he obeys his aunt and uncle as dutifully as he can, even tolerating his cousin's petty torments patiently. He manages it, because every few days he removes and re-reads one particular letter from among his school notes (it takes great resolve not to look at it more often). The letter, delivered shortly after midnight on his birthday, which says that from September he is a ward of Hogwarts, under the care of the Headmaster. The letter that says he will never have to return to Privet Drive again, unless he wants to.
He cannot imagine ever wanting to.
He is free.
At the beginning of Harry's fifth year, everyone is informed that no students are allowed to stay at school over the holidays. Before he can wonder about how this fits with not going back to the Dursleys, he is told that an exception is being made for him. It's puzzling, but he accepts it, knowing that Dumbledore must have something planned, as usual.
He bids his friends goodbye for a month on the platform of the Hogwarts Express, and walks back to the school alone. The Headmaster greets him on the stairs. "Come with me, Harry," he says, and leads him to a corridor he has never seen. Harry looks at his guardian and wonders what this is all about, but before he can ask, they are in front of a door.
Dumbledore opens it, motions Harry through. The room is crowded, occupied by rest of the professors, along with other familiar faces - Sirius and Professor Lupin, for instance - and some unfamiliar ones, seated around a large oval table. They turn to look at Harry as he enters and hovers nervously just inside the room. The Headmaster is a bare second behind him, and motions him to the free seat between Sirius and Professor McGonagall before he can get too worried.
There is one chair left, at the head of the table, and Dumbledore takes it. "Let's begin," he says, and everyone snaps to attention. Harry is suddenly reminded that these are all powerful wizards and witches, however ordinary they may usually seem to him.
"Today's business, as most of you know, is to offer Harry his membership." Harry's eyes widen at the statement as the old wizard continues. "Harry?" He nods, and the Headmaster smiles encouragingly at him, as does Sirius. "Will you be one of us, an equal member?"
There's really nothing he can say, except "Yes, sir."
It's more than a little offputting, though, to think of himself as suddenly on the same level as the others - including his teachers.
"You should address all of us by name," Dumbledore says gently. "We are not only equals here, we must be friends." Harry blinks as he tries to comprehend calling his teachers by name. His eyes go wonderingly to Professor Snape, sitting across and slightly up the table from him.
Harry nods blankly in response to the statements, and looks around the table once more. My colleagues, he thinks, my friends? He can't quite explain the sudden warmth that goes through him at the thought. He barely notices Dumbledore - Albus? - asking about other business, and dismissing the meeting.
Afterwards, each person comes up to him and introduces themselves. Even his teachers. Harry tries to be as polite as he can, shaking hands and returning smiles, but it is distinctly weird when Professor McGonagall calls herself Minerva. Not to mention when Snape walks up, says 'Severus', and almost smiles.
Harry can just feel his world crumbling around him already. It is one thing to know that it is 'Minerva McGonagall' and 'Severus Snape', and even 'Albus Dumbledore'. It is quite another to use those names.
Equal? Not until he can use those names without half-expecting rebuke.
Even with his eyes closed, he could still see it. The fire-flower erupting from the side of the school, its mates sparking in a dozen other locations. The frantic plummet to the ground, scrambling off his broomstick before it was fully down. The desperate despair-terror-horror-disbelieving hope in his mind as he registered the location of the original explosion - the base of Gryffindor Tower - and the damage. The school almost ruined with one horrendous blow. The horrifying knowledge that almost everyone who meant anything to him had been there.
Hermione's tear-streaked face. They were the only sixth-year Gryffindors left. The first, largest explosion had been in their tower, and it had decimated the proud House.
He shouldn't have been out there that night. Should not have been unable to sleep, should not have wrapped his Cloak around him and headed out for a midnight flight, desperate for any escape from the reality and anxiety of the war. He should have been there. Should have died there, with Ron and Ginny, with Neville, Dean and Seamus, with Parvati and Lavender... After all, it had been meant for him, the location could mean nothing else.
Snape, Flitwick and Hagrid, the only surviving teachers still at the school, had gathered the remaining pupils and somehow hurried them away in some semblance of order. Harry had wanted to stay, look for more, despite the assurance that the three professors had searched thoroughly. He rather thought he'd fought, until Hermione had dropped him with a Stupefy hex. The seventh-year Ravenclaw she'd been dating for the last year and a half wasn't among the survivors. The next day, she'd shown Harry her ring. He hadn't even known they were engaged.
The teachers had hurried them to 'safety', to the Ministry, where Dumbledore and McGonagall had been visiting. There would be no safety for the thousand bodies left like so much rubble.
Harry could see them behind his eyes when Hermione forced him to try to sleep. He could almost pray that they took him with them when they left.
The clock chimes twelve, announcing to the world that it is now the thirty-first of July, 1997. Harry Potter rolls over in his bed, giving up on sleep for the moment, as he greets his seventeenth birthday. It isn't what he'd expected at all. After last year's letter, he had thought that he'd be able to spend this birthday with his friends.
He would never spend another day with Ron, and Hermione was with another group of would-be Aurors, her location just as secret as his. No, he has no doubt that after all his expectations this birthday will be the worst ever. He shifts restlessly under the thin sheet. Even after three months, he isn't yet accustomed to the lumpy, uncomfortable mattress, so different from the one he had used at Hogwarts.
Hogwarts, ruined. Hogwarts, where the bodies of people he had known, and not, doubtless still lay under the rubble. There was no time and no one to spare to search for them, not when there were living people to try to protect.
He has somehow managed to live for seventeen years and he has no one to celebrate with, does not even feel it worth commemorating.
There is a tap on the door, quiet enough to not disturb him had he been asleep. "Come in," he calls. There are no locks on their doors, and he does not bother with wards. He refuses to admit, even to himself, that he does not think himself worthy of the effort.
The door slides open, and a dark-robed figure is briefly outlined against the corridor's light before the door closes again behind it. "Severus," Harry says, reaching for the wand on the shelf above his head. "Lumos," he whispers.
"I thought you might be in need of some company," the man - no longer professor - replies, offering neither congratulation nor commiseration.
"Thank you," Harry says, and means it.
Harry lay in the dark once more, eyes burning with tears that he couldn't shed. He'd cried too much over the last two years, he thought he had been wrung dry of all expression of sorrow. Surely when you had so much experience with grieving, with surviving when better people died, it should be easier than this?
He was glad it wasn't easier. At least this way he knew he was still human, still alive, not, as he sometimes felt, some sort of unknowing ghost.
Mentally he added two more names - Albus Dumbledore, Minerva McGonagall - and a host of unidentified bodies to the catalogue he had begun to keep after Hogwarts. They stared at him accusingly from the shadows in his mind, and he didn't have the energy to resist their blame. He deserved it.
It was a truth he couldn't deny. He had made the mistake. He should have known better. He should have been there, figured it out sooner. He should have done something.
He lay there, face turned to the wall and mulled over all of the names he knew.
Harry Potter. What was he really? A failure. A disappointment. A boy, pretending he was good enough to do a job that the greatest wizard in the world had just died attempting.
A survivor. When he thought that word, it sounded like a curse.
For J.Lynn - A Christmas in the 'Amator et Vir' universe. Merry Christmas, and thank you.
"Harry, wake up." He awakes suddenly and completely, as he learnt to do too early, looking at me questioningly.
"It's Christmas," I say to him, urging him out from under the too-thin, too-few blankets and directing his gaze to the other side of the single room that is our home until we are forced to move. Beneath the pine branch that represents the tree that we would have had, were our circumstances better, I have laid a single paper-wrapped parcel. He looks at me with surprise and gratitude in his eyes, and I nod. He needs no further encouragement.
He looks so young in this moment, tearing into my offering with all the eagerness of the child he never was. Ripping through wrapping paper, he seems as innocent and carefree as if he has not spent the better part of his too-full twenty-five years running and hiding. Looking at him now, as he lifts the box free with triumph written in every line of his face, you would never think that he had tasted defeat, let alone drunk that bitter cup to its tainted dregs.
Watching the life and laughter in his eyes, you would not think he had seen more death than an army. Would not believe that he has wept for almost everyone he has cared for, necessity forbidding him even to stand by their graves to show his care.
It is all to the good, then, that I am not easily fooled by appearances.
"Thank you." Gratitude fills his voice and overflows as a single tear.
Still, I think, the danger to obtain the gift was worthwhile. For the most fleeting of seconds, hope has returned to him.
It is the best present I can remember receiving.
Harry stared at his reflection in the mirror. Twenty years of fighting, in secret and in a fiercely, if almost silently, contested war did leave their mark on a man. Every year, on this date, he did this. Looking at the changes another year had made. Wondering what people saw in him, that made them look at him as if at a saviour, a hero.
Especially today, the anniversary of his greatest failure.
A hero, despite the fact that almost everyone he'd cared for was dead. A hero, despite the fact that Hogwarts lay in ruins, Hogsmeade a ghost town, the Forbidden Forest razed. Even the formidable Whomping Willow gone without trace.
A hero, despite the bags under his eyes and the lines at their corners. A hero, despite the scars over his body, visible marks of his failures, despite the limp and the missing finger. A hero, even though all he seemed to do was run and hide, taking sanctuary from any who would offer it. A hero, although he had lost every battle he had fought in the last decade.
A hero, because of an accident, because his mother had died.
He had accepted, long ago, that he would never be the hero they wanted. Needed. Still, he would hold that place until someone better appeared. He owed that much, at least, to Ron, Hermione, Albus, Hagrid, the other Weasleys, Minerva… the litany went on his mind. The names of the people he had failed would cover scrolls of parchment, a whole library of faces loved and known not at all.
He stared into his own eyes and wondered how the others could fail to see the weariness, the despair in his gaze.
He didn't notice the figure rise from the pallet on the floor and approach, but he felt arms slip around him, let himself relax into a warm, familiar, embrace.
"What are you looking at, Harry?"
He lifted his eyes to meet his partner's. "My hero."
The room was so different from the ones he had spent the last twenty years of his life in. He had grown too used to simplicity, he thought, too used to walls that enclosed a room barely big enough for two, and to the demands of an unsettled, unpredictable life in the midst of war.
He was no longer comfortable with such surroundings as these. He could not fall asleep with any ease in the heavy four-poster bed with its soft feather mattress and its tapestried curtains. Could not be comfortable with the hangings and rugs and overstuffed chairs that softened the heavy stone walls or with the more than generous fire that blazed in the hearth, ruthlessly stripping the chill from the air.
It was too warm. Far too hot who for someone whose only true warmth in the last two decades had come from the arms of his partner as they shivered together under a blanket not wide enough to cover them both fully, not long enough to cover his lover's feet when pulled up to their necks. It had been a time when he was grateful to be short, not like now when he felt lost in the expanse of the bed they shared, as if perhaps one morning when he woke he would not be able to find the way out.
The room did have a mirror, though. He had insisted on that. It was a small touch of familiarity in the unsettlingly large room, although it was little like the unframed near-sliver of glass that he had used before.
He stared at his reflection in its faithful surface, ensuring that he was presentable - after all, the Chief Warlock had a reputation to uphold, particularly on the day of his investiture - and tried not to see the changes there. Tried not to notice the lack of the scar on his forehead and the one that had replaced it along his cheekbone. The scar from the curse Voldemort had cast as he died.
Because if he did notice them, if he allowed himself to realise that he had finally proved himself the hero that everyone else thought he had always been…
If he did that, then it would mean that all the despair had been for nothing. And it would mean that he really had failed everyone who died. Because if he had been able to do it that day two months ago, then he should have been able to do it that day at Hogwarts twenty-three years ago. And it meant that Ron, Hermione, Albus and Minerva should all have been alive, and that it was his fault, more than ever, that they were dead.
It meant that Hermione should have married her Ravenclaw, and that Ron should have been Head Boy and Quidditch captain and all the other things that he had seen in the Mirror of Erised that first Christmas. That he should never have had to see anyone but Voldemort die.
It meant that Severus should not have to rely on his magic for sight.
"What are you looking at, Harry?" The question was familiar, routine. His answer was not.
"Nothing," he said quietly. "Nothing at all. Let's go."
Then he turned away from the mirror, and caught Severus' hand in his. They walked together out of the door to face the new world they had made from the ashes of the old.