True to his word, Harry quit his lessons, much to the dismay of Hermione. Ron’s alarm at Harry quitting the Quidditch team struggled against his joy at being made captain, and he contented himself with giving Harry the occasional odd look as he stroked his captain’s badge.
“You’re mad, you are,” he said, holding the gold badge up so it caught the light. “I dunno how you could’ve given this up.” Harry shrugged, turning back to the books he had spread over a table in the common room. It was a Friday afternoon a fortnight after Dumbledore’s death, and most students were in lessons. Apart from Neville, who was reading, and few other sixth and seventh years who had free periods, the common room was quiet.
“What’s that you’re reading, Harry?” Hermione asked kindly, turning the book over to see the front cover. “The Complete Anthology of Ancient and Evil Curses. Oh. That looks interesting. Can I help?”
“You’ve just lost my page, Hermione,” Harry said tiredly. “And no, thanks for offering, but you can’t help. This book is pretty useless anyway. It calls itself a ’Complete Anthology’ and yet it doesn’t even mention Horcruxes…not once.”
“What are you trying to find out?” Hermione asked, handing him back the book.
“How to destroy them,” Harry said impassively. “Dumbledore never told me how to do it.”
“Maybe I can help?” she suggested gently.
“Nah, it‘s okay. I’ve got it.”
Hermione paused. “It’s not a problem, Harry. You know I like finding out about things. Let me help you. If you won’t let me help you properly, at least let me look at some books for you.”
Harry ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “Yeah, okay. Thanks. Maybe you could try to do a bit of research about what the other Horcruxes might be. Dumbledore thinks….thought…one was Nagini, but he wasn’t so sure about what the other one could have been. He thought it was something of Gryffindor’s, but he didn’t know what. D’you think you could try and find anything out?”
“Of course!” she beamed, standing up. “I’ll go down to the library right away!” She hurried out of the room.
“Well,” Ron said slowly, “she’s happy now.” Harry grunted. “Harry…well, is there anything I can do? You know, to help?”
“No, Ron, there isn’t. Really, I mean it. At the moment I just need to find out what the Horcruxes are and how to destroy them.”
“Well, maybe I can help with that too?”
“Nah, Hermione’s on it. It’s fine, Ron.”
“Okay,” Ron said resignedly. “But you should really…you should let us help you.” Harry said nothing. “Harry…what happened with you and Ginny?”
Harry looked up, startled. “What d’you mean?”
“Well, she won’t tell me anything, and nor will Hermione…she said if Ginny wanted to tell me she would have. But…I’m her brother. I have a right to know. What’s going on?”
Harry sighed. “We broke up,” he said briskly.
“Yeah, I got that far,” Ron said wearily. “But why? It was you, wasn’t it? You broke up with her, didn’t you?”
Harry paused. “Yes.”
Ron was silent for a while. “You’ve really hurt her, you know, Harry.” Harry looked back down to his books. “She tries to hide it, but I know how much you’ve hurt her. Harry, would you stop reading! This is important!”
Harry snapped his book shut loudly. “More important than this?” he said icily, nodding to the pile of books spread out in front of him.
“Yes!” Ron said indignantly. “D’you remember when you told first told me about you and Ginny? D’you remember how you said you said you wouldn’t hurt her? And I said that if you did, I’d kill you?”
“Yes, Ron, I remember,” Harry said edgily. “But I wasn’t expecting things to turn out like they have! You know I would never intentionally hurt her. It’s for her own good.”
“For her own good?” Ron echoed in disbelief. “I can’t believe how thick you’re being, Harry. And how selfish.”
“Selfish?” Harry repeated, his face darkening. “Selfish? How am I being in any way selfish? I think it’s the complete opposite; d’you think I don’t want to be with her? D’you think I actually wanted to break up with her?”
“That’s not the point, Harry,” Ron said testily, shaking his head. The other people in the common room were beginning to sneak glances over in their direction.
“Yes, it is the point!” Harry said, standing up. “People who are close to me get used against me, Ron! They die! You know that. You saw what happened in our second year, and that was just because she was your sister! I am trying to keep her safe!”
“No, you’re not. You’re pushing people away! Like you always do!” Ron said loudly, standing up too.
“For their own good!” Harry practically yelled. The seventh years were gawping shamelessly, and Neville’s eyes were round.
“No, it’s not for their own good! It’s for your own good! For your peace of mind.”
“Well, what’s wrong with that?” Harry snapped.
“Because you’re not thinking about us! You’re not thinking about what you’re doing to us!”
“I’m thinking of nothing else!”
“This isn’t just about you, Harry!” Ron shouted, his fists furled.
“It IS about me!” Harry yelled, his face red. “How do you think I’d feel if someone else died? You, or Hermione, or Ginny? I’m trying to protect you!”
“You don’t need to protect us!” Ron shouted. “We’re not your responsibility! If we die, it’s not your fault, just as it’s not your fault that Sirius died, that Cedric died…that Dumbledore died!”
There was a silence. Harry and Ron glared at each other. The Harry shook his head and sighed, his shoulders drooping.
“I’m going for a walk,” he said quietly. “I’ll see you later.”
“Harry,” Ron began, as Harry stepped away. “Harry, look -”
“No, it’s fine. I just want to be…I just need some space, okay? I’ll see you later.” He walked across the common room and out of the portrait hole, ignoring the stares he was receiving from the other students.
It was a dark and miserable day, and the rain was pouring down, but Harry needed to get out. He walked down the entrance hall and across the grounds, enjoying the feel of the rain against his skin, and ignoring the ominous storm clouds that drifted heavily above. He walked in a straight line towards the place where Dumbledore’s tomb was, underneath a large oak tree. The funeral had been a week previously, and although Harry was allowed to attend, he had wished in the end that he hadn’t. An old man - supposedly a work colleague and friend of Dumbledore’s - had spoken about him, but Harry had found it strangely impersonal. There were many people there, most of whom Harry didn’t recognise, although the Minister of Magic was there, who Harry spent most of the service trying to avoid. The barman of The Hogshead was there also, and Harry noticed that he kept shooting him little looks when he thought Harry wasn’t looking. He seemed to be about to walk over to Harry when the service had finished, but Harry hurried off; he was not in the mood to talk to anyone. He trudged across the wet grass, enjoying the thought that he was the only person out there, and that no one could see him. He reached the tomb and stopped, running a hand over its smooth white surface and brushing off a few leaves from the top. It was strange knowing that Dumbledore was inside it. Harry sighed, resting his head in his hands.
“Well, I’m trying, sir,” he said softly, “but it’s hard. I can’t find anything out about Horcruxes or how to destroy them. I wish you’d told me. I haven’t found anything out about what the sixth Horcrux could be…there’s no record of any items belonging to Gryffindor, apart from the sword. And if the fifth one is Nagini, I haven’t got a clue how I’m going to manage to find her without getting myself killed. And now Ron’s angry with me for breaking up with Ginny, even though I had to. He doesn’t understand. I don’t really think anyone does, anymore.” He was silent. He stood next to the tomb for a long while, oblivious to the rain soaking through his robes, and plastering his hair to his head.
Harry was wrong when he thought no one could see him. Professor McGonagall had watched him leave the castle and cross the grounds, and she sighed. She knew where he was going. She watched him for a little while, and then turned back to her marking. When she had finished, half an hour later, she looked out of the window again. The boy was walking slowly back to the castle. Had he been there the whole time, in this pouring rain? She shook her head. She needed to talk to him. She crossed her room and hurried down the stairs, almost bumping into him as he came through the entrance hall, drenched through to his skin.
“Potter!” she said, trying to inject a bit of surprise into her voice. She knew he wouldn’t like the fact that she had been watching him. “You’re soaked! Where have you been?”
“Just outside,” he said, gesturing out of the door, where the rain was coming down in torrents.
“Why were you out there in this weather? What were you doing?” she asked, wondering if he would tell her the truth.
“Just…just walking,” he said casually.
“Walking?” she asked crisply, annoyed that he hadn’t admitted where he was. “In this weather?”
“Yeah. I was really…I was really hot,” he said unconvincingly. Professor McGonagall looked at Harry, her annoyance fading. His wet hair, as always, was tousled and stuck up at the back, and a faint smile crossed her lips as she remembered how James’s hair had done exactly the same thing. Harry looked so much like his father. Her smile faded quickly as she took in the rest of Harry’s face. His bright green eyes had lost their youthful sparkle, and where there was once mischief and warmth reflected in them, there was now only pain and sorrow. He was tall now, taller than his father had been, but James had never carried the cares Harry did, and the difference showed on Harry’s face. For all his strong features, his pale face looked fragile; as though it could crack if he as much as smiled, and the raindrops that trickled down his face reminded her of tears. Professor McGonagall sighed as she realised it had been a long time since she had seen the boy smile.
“Harry,” she said softly. “Let me help you.” Harry looked at her intently, and she felt strangely uncomfortable under his penetrating gaze. This was not the look of a boy who was not yet seventeen. “Harry, what has happened to you?” she said quietly.
“What do you mean, Professor?” he said dully. His voice conveyed no curiosity, no warmth; it was monotone and uninterested.
“You’re not the boy I used to know,” she said sadly, looking up into his face, noticing the dark shadows that streaked cruelly under his eyes. “You’re different, Harry.”
Harry looked at her a little longer, and then a wry smile crossed his face, and Professor McGonagall winced at the pain masked behind it. “I‘m different?” he echoed calmly.
“Yes, you are. You‘ve changed.”
“Well…I’ve had to, haven’t I?” he said flatly. “Professor, if you don’t mind…I’ve got things to do now.” He stepped around her and walked down the corridor, his shoulders squared and tense. Professor McGonagall watched him go, her eyes strangely bright. She shook her head and sighed.
“Oh Albus,” she whispered softly. “I wish you were here. You’d know what to do. I’m afraid…I don’t.” She stood where she was for a minute longer and then shook herself. She pushed her glasses further up her nose, tucked a tendril of hair that had escaped from her tight bun back into place, and strode down the corridor to her next class.
* * *
How are you? I didn’t get a chance to talk to you after the funeral - I think you were avoiding me. I know you’ll hate to hear this, but we’re all very worried about you. Molly wanted to come up to school to see you but I persuaded her that you would not thank her for it. If you do not reply to this letter, however, I may be forced to agree with her.
I spoke to Professor McGonagall last night, Harry, and asked her how your lessons were going. She told me that you had dropped out three weeks previously, and was very surprised that you had not told me. I must say that I was rather hurt that you had not. You know you can talk to me - even if I do not approve, I will not try to stop you doing what you think is right. I am here to listen and to help, if you will let me.
Professor McGonagall also admitted that she too is very worried about you. She said that you look very pale and tired, and she has not seen you with Ron, Hermione or Ginny lately. Have you fallen out with them, Harry? Or are you just distancing yourself from them, as I know you are prone to do? We all care for you a lot, and we are here to help. Whatever you are doing, whatever the mission that you and Dumbledore had was, we want to help you. You cannot possibly do this on your own. I am not asking you to tell me what it is. I am simply asking that you accept the help that is being offered to you. I am here to assist you, to guide you. Your father and Sirius would never forgive me if I did not, so please do me a favour and let me.
* * *
Thanks for your letter. I’m fine, really. REALLY. I’m getting along okay with what I’m doing - Hermione’s been helping me a lot, which of course is very useful. She’s found out loads of really helpful stuff, so I‘m doing okay there. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about stopping my lessons. I just didn’t want you to worry. I’m sure you’ve got enough on your plate already.
No, I haven’t fallen out with Ron or Hermione. We’ve just been doing different things. They’re still going to their lessons, aren’t they? So it’s not surprising that McGonagall hasn’t seen us together, is it? Honestly, I really don’t need any help. Hermione’s doing loads, I really don’t need anything else. But I’ll let you know if I need any, okay?
I hope you’re okay, say hi to the Weasleys for me. And tell Mrs Weasley there’s no need to worry about me.
Harry tied the letter to Hedwig’s leg, trying not to think how many lies he’d just written to Remus.
“Here you go, girl. Take that to Remus.” Hedwig hooted and spread her wings, gliding smoothly out of the owlery. Harry watched her go, and then walked slowly down the stone steps. It was a bright Thursday morning, and Harry decided to go for another one of his increasingly common walks around the lake…maybe pop in and see Hagrid if he wasn’t teaching. He walked unhurriedly around the perimeter of the Forbidden Forest, rubbing a hand over his scar, which had begun to twinge. It had been doing it a lot lately. He stopped and stiffened as a twig cracked from within the forest. He listened carefully, fingering his wand in his pocket, but there was only silence. He sighed and shook his head. “I’m getting as paranoid as Moody,” he muttered to himself, beginning to walk again.
Not ten yards away, hidden behind the dense groups of trees, four hooded figures crept forward. Their faces were obscured by masks, and all had their wands out, pointed at the black haired boy. He stopped and listened, then muttered something to himself, before moving on again. Two of the figures crept out of the forest, stealing up behind him.
“Oh, Potter!” one of them sang, and the boy whirled round, drawing his wand out from his pocket. The two Death Eaters shot stunning spells from their wands, but the boy conjured up an impressive shield, which quickly deflected the curses. The two figures shot spell after spell at him, but his shield held, and they were forced to duck their rebounding curses. Meanwhile, the other two Death Eaters had crept up in the opposite direction, and were approaching the boy, their wands outstretched. The boy had his back to them, but something must have warned him they were there, for he spun around, wand raised. He was too late. By the time he had turned, two stunning spells were shot at him. They hit him directly in the chest, and he collapsed heavily onto the grass. There was a pause.
“Levitate him,” one of the Death Eaters ordered, in a harsh, sneering voice. The boy immediately floated into the air. “Now go,” the Death Eater commanded. They hurried briskly out of the grounds, the boy floating along beside them, unconscious. The Death Eater who had spoken remained where he was. His cold black eyes searched the surroundings, and when he was sure there was nobody around he removed his mask, beginning to walk after his fellow Death Eaters. He had long, black hair and a hooked nose, and a sneer spread across his face as he watched the limp figure of the boy in front of him. “You will never learn, Potter,” he said nastily, stowing his wand with a smirk.