As the sun broke through the clouds and sent warm light spreading over the grounds of Hogwarts, he knew everything could be, finally, all right again. It was as if he saw light after an eternity of darkness, but it had been a harsh and brutal two years of war, with all the attendant fears and losses. Now that terrible time was past and fading from his consciousness with each new day.
As had become his custom in the past few weeks, he was sitting beneath a tall oak tree on the slope leading from the castle gate down to the lake, thinking of Hermione. What if her injuries from the last battle were permanent? Guilt scored his heart with sharp talons. Bright and clear, he saw Hermione in his mind as she had been before the conflict.
He had had to stop himself everyday from obsessing over the possibilities, the “what if” questions that circled in his brain, but he had been losing ground in that fight steadily over the past three weeks.
So much had been lost in this second war. The hardest losses for Harry were the people who had deserved to live, to be free of fear and to know a world without Voldemort’s shadow. His anxiety over his best friend’s condition had kept him from worrying about what might be in his future. After all, what did Harry’s future matter if Hermione couldn’t be as she was before?
He glanced up towards the castle, watching the glints of reflected light from the many windows before focusing on the medical wing. At this time of day, Ginny was probably visiting her and trying to get Hermione to do her physical therapy. It had been a pitched battle for any of her friends to motivate her to try. He remembered his last attempt and the frustration he’d felt. He ran his hand through his perpetually messy black hair before he stood up and brushed some stray leaves from his scarlet Quidditch robes.
Every other day or so, Ron managed free either Harry or himself from practice so they could spend time to sit with Hermione. Madam Pomfrey kept muttering that it was a miracle that Hermione survived the curse that had been cast on her without any damage to her mind, but she still wasn’t able to walk or even move her arms freely.
He felt physical pain when he saw her struggle to regain her mobility and strength, but he knew he could not turn away from her suffering. He remembered that this girl had once run freely around Hogwarts, twenty books in her bag and her thoughts probably always focused on the next essay or test. That vision of her as she had been before the attack was so powerful that sometimes his own doubts about her recovery faded away like an early morning mist. Hermione was a fighter, and one day she would walk. Despite doubts and guilt, this fragile, hopeful image remained steadfast in Harry’s heart. He sighed and headed up slope toward the school, where Hermione was waiting for him.
While walking, his thoughts turned to his last practice for his last Quidditch game at Hogwarts. Since McGonagall has announced that the Quidditch Cup would be played at the end of the term, the Gryffindor team had trained hard for this event. It would be the first cup without Voldemort lurking about, waiting to strike the Wizarding World and it would also be Harry’s last Quidditch game as the Gryffindor Seeker. This year was a year of many last things; some of these final events hurt to think about while others did not cause Harry any pain.
As he approached the main gate, he could see the castle glowing in the sunlight. It looked the same as the first day he had seen the massive school from this perspective. Though nothing had outwardly changed in the ancient building, Harry could still feel the changes within himself. It should been him who was in the hospital wing right now. It should been him who needed to learn to walk again, not her. Why of all people, did it have to be Hermione to suffer the Cruciatius curse held on her long enough to cause nervous system damage? Sometimes, Harry could still hear the echo of her screams in his mind if his memories strayed into the recent past. He quickened his pace to escape the remembrance.
He reached the Hospital Wing and was about to swing open the door when he heard Hermione yelling, “Come on, Ginny! Give me my book back!”
“No, you have to come here and get it. This isn’t that difficult, Hermione. I know you can do it,” Ginny sounded playful.
“You know I can’t. I can’t even hold onto the book for very long.” As Harry entered the room, he saw Hermione sitting propped up in her bed with her arms crossed in front of her chest. She looked annoyed, an expression that Harry had become very familiar with in the past few weeks. Ginny had determined that they should challenge Hermione to try to motivate her, but for all that Harry could see, it hadn’t seemed to do anything positive.
It seemed sometimes that Hermione was making no progress in her recovery. Harry couldn’t understand her acceptance of what he considered completely intolerable. Sometimes he wondered if she had just given up.
“Hey!” he said heartily as he approached the pair.
“Harry!” she exclaimed happily. Her eyes were shining with happiness now and a smile appeared on her pale face. It still amazed him time and again how she seemed to light up from within when she saw him. Not once had she let him see her sadness or resignation when he visited, though he still sensed it despite her bright façade. But he knew from both Ginny and Ron that Hermione was not herself when Harry was not there.
She played the cheerful one for him, he thought. Warmly he smiled at her before he gave her a tight hug. “How long until the Final game, Harry?,” she asked when he finally let her go.
“McGonagall said it would be held next Saturday,” Ginny answered before Harry could reply.
“So soon? I thought they would wait until closer to graduation.” She looked inquiringly from Harry to Ginny.
Harry took advantage of the small pause to change the subject,
“Let speak about something else other than Quidditch. What about you, Hermione?”
“What about me?” Hermione’s expression grew stiff and her manner guarded. “I’m still recovering, and in the meantime, I’m doing what I can to prepare myself for a life after Hogwarts. Don’t you think this sounds strange? It's scary to think that in one month everything is over. After all these years here at Hogwarts…,” she had begun to speak quickly, one sentence nearly running over the previous one. Harry recognised her nervous habit; indeed, it was as if he was sitting in on the Hogwarts Express and talking to an eleven-year-old girl who had just burst into his compartment and introduced herself. He smiled slightly at this whimsical thought.
Ginny cleared her throat to interrupt Hermione’s discourse, “I’ll let you two chat. I have to meet with Luna in a few minutes.” With a jaunty wave, the red head left them.
She had had a mischievous smile that had made Harry a little uneasy. “I could swear they are planning something,” he muttered under his breath.
Hermione could not quite hear him and asked, “Pardon?” Harry, realising he had spoken aloud, just shrugged and shook his head.
“How are you getting on?” Harry was surprised by this question.
He gaped for a moment, surprised by her query. “What?”
Hermione rolled her eyes and shook her head ruefully before she replied, “You heard me. I want to know how you’re doing? I mean, with Voldemort and Dumbledore gone, it has to be difficult for you. You kept saying you … you might not survive Hogwarts, but now…,” Hermione trailed off. Her eyes were sparkling with unshed tears.
He suspected that she was worried for him. He couldn’t answer, his throat closed with emotion, but he could look at her. Suddenly, she smiled again and reached for his hand.
“But you’re here and alive, so tell me, how are you?” she asked once more as she held his hand. Her grip was not very strong, more just draped over his hand. She didn’t squeeze his hand like she had done in the past.
“I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know. I should be happy that this nightmare is over now. But it seems like everything is just stopped, waiting I guess,” he stopped and stared at her hand, still lying on top of his.
“Go on, I’m here, Harry.” He heard her whispering.
Like a dam bursting, he started to talk about everything and nothing in particular. He perched on the side of her bed. The sunlight streamed through the windows, throwing bright fingers across the blankets of her bed and touching her pale complexion with its warm caress. Hermione was so pale. Harry could feel her own burden weighing heavy on her, and hated himself for adding even a feather’s weight more; but once he had begun this verbal catharsis, he knew he had to finish. She had asked for this, she wanted to know and she would never appreciate him trying to coddle and protect her.
Of all his friends, only Hermione wanted to know how he felt, how he was, and what was in his mind. Ron would never ask Harry simply because he was probably afraid to know the extent of Harry’s grief, with his own deeply felt guilt. Harry’s gaze stayed fixed on their hands as he held hers between his own and started to absently to run his thumbs over the delicate skin of the back of her hand.
“I always thought if Voldemort was dead, I would feel free and happy; that I’m able to live my own life now. Maybe have a great feast with all of my friends; secure in the knowledge that everyone I care for is happy and safe.
Just like that I could forget. But the truth is, nothing feels right. You know, I keep dreaming and he comes back and kills everyone who is left. Sometimes I even wish he would and kill me,” he whispered. Hermione gasped in horror at that, but didn’t interrupt.
“Oh, I know this all sounds mad, but I feel like nobody needs me anymore. I mean, in only one month, my life at Hogwarts is over. No more Quidditch, studying in the library or just sitting by the lake. No, instead I need to get my things from Privet Drive and live alone somewhere till Auror training begins. Don’t say it, I know Ron keeps saying we’ll be together like we were here. But you and I both know that isn’t true or even something that’s possible.” Hermione’s hand flexed minutely between his own, stroking his palm comfortingly.
“Ron has his family and his own life, as he should, and eventually we’ll grow apart, only meeting on holidays like Christmas or Easter. But that isn’t the worst; truly not what keeps haunting me. It’s the memory. Everything is crystal clear, I see, hear, all of it like it just happened a few moments ago. I can’t handle this…it’s silly, really,” Harry stuttered into silence again and looked up to meet her gaze. She stared at him with intensity, almost stopping his confession midstream with the dark emotion roiling in her brown eyes. “If it’s quiet, I can still hear your screams,” he murmured, his eyes started to burn. Before he knew she had moved, he felt her arms around him. She held him so tightly; he wondered how she managed it given her weakened state.
He closed his eyes, causing the tears trembling on his lashes to fall onto his cheeks. He held as she choked out, “Everything will be all right. Listen,” she said, her voice soft but urgent as she pulled back to see his face clearly. He felt slightly cold without her. “Listen to me, Harry. I promise you, I’ll be all right and I – I need you to believe me, I really do.” Harry couldn’t understand why her words made him smile, until he realised the familiar determination behind them. That was the Hermione that had been missing for so long.
“Why?” he questioned, smile still in place. Surprise and then amusement showed in her face.
“Why are you, you?” Harry asked her.
“Because I can’t be someone else.”
“Actually, you can.” She swatted him playfully at that. “Hey, that did hurt,” Harry protested, rubbing his injured arm.
“Serves you right. Teasing me about my mistakes.” She laughed as he pantomimed “coughing up” fur balls. Her laughter was infectious, but Madame Pomfrey was not amused.
“Mr Potter! You have stayed long enough here and I expect Miss Granger will need her rest after she takes her potion.” As Harry looked up at Madam Pomfrey, he expected a stern look of disapproval, but she was smiling serenely at both students. Her eyes were shining, something he never seen from the matronly woman.
“I’m off, Hermione. And, thank you.” With that, he did something he had never done before, and kissed her on the cheek. Unable to meet either woman’s eyes due to his blushing, he strode quickly from the Hospital ward.