Chapter 1 : Forgetting Alone
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He wasn't sure how long he'd been lying there when the shadow fell over him. He didn't think anything of it at first, having not heard any footsteps, and assumed it was simply a cloud blotting the sun.
The shadow didn't move, and Harry thought he did hear a sniff. But he kept his eyes closed, pretending to shift in his sleep against the tree trunk he was leaning on, hoping whoever it was would take him for being asleep and not bother him. He'd spent the entire afternoon surrounded by celebrating Weasleys, Delacours, and guests, finally managing to steal away after Bill and Fleur had Portkeyed off to an undisclosed honeymoon location in an explosion of cheering and silver-and-gold fireworks (courtesy of Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes). This was the first real quiet he'd had in... well, he couldn't remember, and that alone was more than enough excuse to look for it.
In the four days since Harry had arrived here with Ron and Hermione after they'd picked him up from Privet Drive, no one - not even them - had mentioned
(Dumbledore is gone)
the events at the end of last term; there was so much else going on at the Burrow, which the Weasleys and their guests had almost overeagerly thrown themselves into, especially once the husband-and-wife-to-be had arrived. But Harry could feel it, in everyone's need to be busy with some sort of activity, as if fearing what would rush in to fill those voids when the activity stopped. It was in the heavy silences that pinned down the ends of abruptly-cut-off sentences, once their speakers had realized just what territory that sentence would go into if they were to continue it.
There seemed to be a lot more of those whenever Harry entered a room.
Except when he entered a room where Ginny was, anyway. That was a different silence entirely. She'd been trying to catch his eye ever since he'd arrived, but he hadn't yet acknowledged it; the one accidental fleeting eye contact that had occurred hadn't left Harry with much desire for it to happen again. Nothing he'd told her had changed. He couldn't stay at Hogwarts, and she certainly couldn't go with him.
Depending on what time of day one talked to him, Harry still wasn't sure if he should be angry or comforted that so soon after Dumbledore's death, people were able to act like nothing had happened. There were times - especially those silences when he walked in a room - where he'd wanted to shout why the hell are you pretending he was never here?; there were times he was relieved at the idea that if no one else was ready to talk about it openly, they certainly wouldn't be bothering him to. Every night he relived the sight of Dumbledore falling like a broken doll over the side of the Astronomy Tower, felt the scream tearing inside the throat it had been unable to escape -
(Why didn't he let me help him? Why did he just let Snape - )
He'd forced himself not to think of Snape - whenever the man's face flitted in his thoughts, the intense desire to reach through his memory and use Snape's own Sectumsempra spell on him overwhelmed Harry, the intensity of the moment leaving him shaking for several moments afterward. The time would come where he'd have to be able to think level-headedly about Snape, but he had absolutely no intention of even attempting that a single moment before he needed to.
The celebratory mood around the Burrow had become so infectious, though, that on the afternoon of the wedding even Harry had not found it difficult to be genuinely happy for Fleur and Bill during the ceremony. He hadn't even really minded when Hermione had painfully squeezed his arm when the processional music had begun, or when Ron had whooped loudly in his ear when the new marrieds had kissed. (Though he'd quickly become interested in a nonexistent scuff on his dress robes when Ginny had come down the aisle next to fellow bridesmaid Gabrielle Delacour.)
But now that everything was settling down, it would be a lot harder to sidestep... certain issues. Those silences would become even more pronounced, the whispers more frequent. And Ginny would not tolerate his ignorance act for much longer.
Perhaps it would be best if he, Ron, and Hermione packed it up for Godric's Hollow sooner than they'd planned. The desire - well, need was perhaps more accurate - to visit his parents' graves had not left him, and Hermione already had a theory about the location of one of the Horcruxes, that it might be far closer than they'd realized. (She hadn't been able to go into detail; the three of them were seldom able to find thirty seconds alone together without one or a dozen people suddenly interrupting.) Harry was in no real rush to begin that particular journey, knowing one of two outcomes lay at the end of it, but another part of him simply wished to get it over with, to have the burden of Voldemort finally off him one way or the other.
In the meantime, he'd settled for simply trying to steal a moment of real quiet. Something hard enough to come by in the Weasley household even under everyday circumstances - a silence that was actually empty. He suspected all too soon, they would be scarce again.
The tree Harry was lying under was at the edge of the Weasleys' property where it met up with the forest, a good half kilometer or so from the dwindling festivities at the side of the large pond behind the Burrow. No one had seemed to miss him, and until now, no one had come to find him. Only Hermione had seemed to look his way questioningly as he'd slipped away from the reception, politely nodding and shaking a couple of hands as he went, but even she - probably at Ron's persuasion - hadn't pursued him.
The shadow did move, and Harry heard a single scrape on the trunk next to him, then silence again. He almost opened his eyes, stifling the curiosity about what had made the sound. No more sound came, and Harry was on the verge of slipping into sleep again when he felt an odd prickling on his skin - like someone was watching him. He tried to ignore it, pretending to shift in his sleep slightly again, but the feeling remained, and Harry felt a sinking when he realized just who was probably most likely to seek him out.
He opened his eyes, slowly - and jolted so hard his glasses nearly slid off his nose. The eyes that were staring at him were not a bright brown sharpened with anger, but a wide, calm silver. They were also upside-down.
Three feet from his face, Luna Lovegood hung upside-down, her knees wrapped around a low tree limb, her long hair a dark blonde curtain falling all the way back down to the ground, wand peeking out from behind one ear. The outer layer of her silver dress robes fell like a waterfall around her, pooling in the grass near Harry's wrist. She was swinging lightly back and forth, bits of grass catching in the ends of her hair, eyes never leaving Harry. With any other person, Harry might have considered this rude - he was too aware that even now people still had a tendency to gawp at him (or his forehead, rather). But he knew Luna wasn't gawping, simply observing in that open way she always had. Like usual, she didn't seem to blink as often as most people, and Harry felt an odd heat rise in his cheeks as she continued to stare - no, look - at him.
"Hello," she said warmly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be hanging upside down from a tree, talking to him - and, considering this was Luna, perhaps it was. He wouldn't have been surprised, he thought, if she simply pulled a copy of The Quibbler from her robes and began to read it right there; almost unwittingly he felt his lips turn upward at the image.
He'd caught sight of her and her father in the crowd before the ceremony (the silver robes had been hard to miss) and had politely returned her eager wave when she'd spotted him, but hadn't seen her since then. It occurred to him that he'd come here to try to get away from people, but a moment later it also occurred to him that seeing Luna now had somehow knocked that right out of his mind.
"I was waiting to see if I could catch sight of a purple-tongued billywig," Luna said as if that explained everything, brushing aside a length of hair that had fallen in her face. "They're supposed to be more common this time of year, and they love nesting in this type of tree. But you're awake, so I probably won't now."
"I - what?"
"They generally prefer to sneak up on their targets when they're sleeping," she went on, and, evidently misinterpreting the source of Harry's bewildered expression, added with a glowing smile (even upside down, the thought flashed in Harry's mind, it was a nice smile), "Oh, don't worry. You wouldn't have felt anything. They're harmless."
"I - " Somehow the image of her simply hanging there, perfectly at ease, drove out any wonderings of just what exactly these billywigs would have done. He thought he remembered something about normal billywigs (or was it puffskeins?) sticking their tongues in people's ears (noses?), and decided he didn't want to think further on it anyway. "It doesn't hurt doing that?"
"No," she replied, shrugging. "It's really relaxing, I think. Sometimes I get bored feeling things under my feet all the time, so I do this and pretend I'm walking on the air instead. And if I spread my arms like this -" she stuck her arms out to the sides, her sleeves draping like silver wings - "it feels just like flying."
Oddly enough, Harry found her words making a strange sort of sense. It was in Luna-speak, but it didn't sound too different than the need he sometimes had to simply - well, leave the ground, soaring high on his Firebolt. Somehow it was always a lot easier to forget things when there was a hundred feet of air between him and them. Like they can't reach me up there, he thought randomly, not really sure what or who they referred to. He wondered if Luna had ever tried her hand at Quidditch, aside from her memorable stint as commentator last term. "How long were you, erm, watching me?"
"Not long. I left after you did; I think Ronald's brothers were about to pull a very messy prank on the other guests with their leftover fireworks and the bowl of punch," she replied, shrugging. "I decided I'd rather keep my robes clean; I've become very fond of them. I had a lot of fun with you that night."
Harry looked again at her robes again, and realized they were the very same ones she'd worn to Professor Slughorn's party with him last December. In the shadowy light under the tree they seemed to exactly match her eyes.
"Though honestly, I came to watch for the billywigs, not you," she said, and he felt a flutter of something like indignance. "Not that you aren't interesting yourself," she added almost as an afterthought, eyes scanning him appraisingly; he fought the urge to try to smooth his perpetually-unruly hair. "You do have very pretty eyes - " Harry felt his cheeks warm - "I can see why Ginny likes to look at you so much."
An invisible needle seemed to deflate whatever mood Luna seemed to have interjected with her arrival, bringing back the memory of the world beyond the shadow of this tree, which he had never felt disappear. "She seems to miss you quite a lot."
Harry mumbled noncommittally, closing his eyes again and turning away from her. Suddenly he wished Luna would just stop talking - or at least stop talking about Ginny. She was from a different time, a different - she doesn't belong here. "Luna, I really did come here to be alone - "
"No, I don't think you did," she said.
Harry felt himself bristle, and he let out a sigh, short and sharp. "Luna - "
"If you really did, why didn't you tell me to leave when you saw me?" she asked, silver eyes surveying him curiously.
Harry opened his mouth to reply - then realized he didn't have one, turning away from her again and staring moodily back towards the Burrow. What was he supposed to say, that he'd forgotten all about what he'd come here for when he saw her? He had the odd feeling she already suspected something close to that, anyway.
"In any case," she went on, lips actually turning up (well, down, from his point of view), "if you were really trying to be alone, you'd have done a more convincing job of trying to look asleep."
Harry shook his head, not wanting to expend the energy to argue. Luna would believe what she wanted to anyway, regardless of any protest he might have made. Somehow, though, that idea didn't frustrate him.
Some things ought to stay the same.
"I guess I've never been a great liar," he said.
"Yes, I've seen better," she replied with a quickness that made Harry look sharply at her. She wasn't looking back at him, her attention seemingly focused on polishing her fingernails - also silver, with what looked like bits of glitter - on her gown.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of," she continued, almost as if in response to his thoughts, switching to polish her other hand. "The problem comes when you do get really good at it."
Harry said nothing, nodding absently.
"You're leaving soon," she said suddenly.
He looked up in surprise. She'd stopped polishing, and was now very much looking back at him. He hadn't told Luna a thing about his plans, but it didn't occur to him to lie now. "Er - yeah."
Something hard seemed to flicker in her wide eyes, like a momentary ripple in a still pond. It was gone in an instant; he'd have missed it if he'd blinked. There was a rustle of movement like sunlight on water, and in one fluid motion Luna was rightside up again, dropping from the tree and sitting lotus-style in front of him, picking the grass out from between her toes, which he saw were bare. For a moment he stared in amazement at her seeming effortlessness, but averted his eyes quickly when he found her staring back, surprised to feel a bit of heat in his cheeks again. Harry wished she'd stop looking at him.
"It's not really hard to tell if you look," she said, coiling and uncoiling a lock of hair around one finger. "You, Hermione, and Ronald always off whispering somewhere and stopping whenever someone enters the room. You and Ginny not looking at one another. And of course Professor Dumbledore being gone," she added quietly, and Harry felt something sharp slide into his chest via his ribs. "You're not going to be able to fight You-Know-Who while sitting your NEWTS, after all." She frowned thoughtfully. "Well, you might, but I can't imagine it going very well."
There was a silent, almost eternal moment where his eyes remained locked on hers. She absently fingered one of her silver earrings, which Harry noticed were in the shape of little lightning bolts. Something lifted in him, for an instant. "Yeah," he said uncertainly, not sure if he was supposed to say something comforting or not, and wondering why he should feel the need to comfort Luna. He felt the need to tell her something, anything about what he was getting ready to face, but realized he didn't know where to begin. That there wasn't time.
"It's okay," she said with a smile a shade dimmer than her usual, "you don't need to say anything if you don't want to."
"It's definitely not because I don't want to, Luna," he said, and her smile seemed to widen just a bit.
"It'll be a lot less interesting at Hogwarts without you," she went on.
Harry shook his head, feeling his face warm for some reason. Only a skinny boy with what Hermione had once called a "saving-people thing" stood between Voldemort and his control of their world, the greatest wizard in that world was dead, and Luna was talking about things being boring. He couldn't decide which bewildered him more - that being surrounded by a war would be boring, or that her biggest concern during a war was being bored. But Harry knew she intended it as a compliment, and mustered a half-hearted smile for her benefit.
There was a small twig still in her hair, and without thinking he leaned over and reached out to remove it. He halted mid-movement, realizing what he was doing, but Luna didn't appear to mind. On the contrary, she watched with something like fascination, and Harry caught that odd flicker in her eyes again when his hand pulled away.
"Here," she said abruptly, pulling something out of her pocket and placing it in his palm. Her hand was warm and seemed to shake a moment before she pulled away, though it might have been just an itch.
Harry stared down at the tiny radish earrings. He opened his mouth to say something in reply, but - again - realized he hadn't a clue how to.
"You don't need to wear them," she shook her head. Her voice became very serious, her eyes suddenly losing their dreamy quality. "Just keep them with you. You-Know-Who's known to keep an army of Wrackspurts around him at all times, to addle his foes' minds. These will ward them off. Each of his Death Eaters keeps a pair hidden on them."
The image of Voldemort and forty of his most loyal followers walking around with radishes in the pockets of their cloaks was too much. Still staring at the earrings, he began to hear an odd sound - which he quickly realized was him laughing. Not boisterously, but a quiet trickle that came steadily, and definitely the most genuinely he had done since before -
(the lightning-struck tower)
- since he'd decided what he had to do.
The laughter died, but he felt his mouth still in the shape of a smile. "And what about you?" he asked, bemused.
"You need all the help you can get," she said quietly, her misty eyes going so wide Harry almost fancied he could see right into her. He blinked, shaking the image away. "And you can return them to me when you get back."
Harry didn't reply. At best he had a fifty-fifty shot of coming out of this the victor, let alone still breathing, but he didn't have the heart to take the hopeful expression from her face.
"Maybe we could go do something when you get back," she went on, eyes shining again. "As friends, of course," she added quickly. "I think I'd like that."
Harry wouldn't yet allow himself to contemplate anything that could happen to him, if there still was a him left for things to happen to, after he fought Voldemort. But in the end, he went for the truth, even if it wasn't the whole truth. "Yeah... yeah, I'd like that too."
Her smile widened - and as he looked at her, it occurred to Harry then that it wasn't the radishes or even the Wrackspurts that mattered - but that she believed they would. She didn't know that he'd come back, any more than she had proof of purple-tongued billywigs or Crumple-Horned Snorkacks - but she believed it. The sky could be green tomorrow, and Luna would probably say it had always been green, it was just that no one had seen it. If he did somehow return, she wouldn't be surprised.
He wondered if there was anything that surprised her.
Luna began to get up, and something like mild panic seemed to spike in him; he reached out for her wrist, thinking nothing further than halting her. Her pulse fluttered beneath his thumb. She didn't seem surprised, but did look curiously at the spot where his hand touched her, then back up into his eyes. Harry pulled back quickly, embarrassed, though he wasn't quite sure why. "I - thanks, Luna."
She shook her head. "No," she said, standing up.
"No?" he repeated, trying to remember that Luna probably wasn't insulting him, but somehow still feeling stung nonetheless.
"Because by 'thanks' I know you mean 'goodbye.'"
Harry quirked a corner of his mouth. "It also means 'thanks,' Luna."
She nodded, and returned the half-smile. "I need to be going," she said with no preamble. "Dad's probably already left and he needs my help editing the next Quibbler to go out tomorrow morning."
"Do you want me to walk you home?" he asked, starting to get up himself, the question coming as abruptly as the impulse to ask her to Slughorn's party last year had. Only this time, he wasn't half-hoping she'd turn the offer down.
But she shook her head. "No thanks. It's just a short walk, and I think it's good for us to leave it here."
"Right." He coughed, not sure how else to fill the silence. "Well... have a good evening, Luna."
But she had already turned and headed back down the hill. Harry watched the sunset play off the bobbing head of blonde hair as it disappeared down the slope, an odd weight seeming to lift somewhere in his chest as he slipped a small pair of radishes carefully into the pocket of his robes.