Eyes flicker open. Flicker shut. Open. Open. Open. He sees her face hovering above, barely there, ever-changing. She is nothing but light, and yet she is everything. The pain undulates throughout his body, large swells and a dying current, but he pretends he cannot feel, and suddenly that is the truth. He knows what is wrong. He knows what happened, but it is impossible, and pretending that he feels no pain is easier than admitting his best friend is dead.
She does not say anything. There is no smile; there is no warm touch. There is only a sigh of exhausted relief before she slumps away, out of view. He will not turn his head. He will not succumb to the pain.
He stares up at the never-ending white. It blinds him, but blindness is good. It is a distraction, a distraction from the memories that seem to tumble from the sky and sit heavily on his chest, clawing their way through to his lungs until he cannot breathe.
A flash of green. A scream. Death on the grass. No blood.
Her hand seeks his on the blanket. It is not a firm grasp, but it is enough. It is enough for now and now is all that matters to him. The past has gone, rushed by without a word of sorrow, without a glance of remorse. The truth is harsh, and it is unforgiving, but her hand is soft and warm and here.
Eyes flicker shut.
The time has come to leave. He does not see this as good. It is hell in disguise and he wants to stay, but she is waiting for him by the door, his trunk hovering at her side. He sits back down on the bed and turns away. The room is empty. The room is clean. The room holds nothing but recovery. The world outside frightens him because it is not empty or clean or full of recovery; it holds memories and death and a sharp cry of terror that echoes at every window and every door.
He knows he is safe. He knows he is safe from deadly spells and evil tyrants, but his best friend is dead, and that doesn’t make him feel very safe at all. He looks up at the ceiling and remembers when he first awoke. He had thought it would be easier. He had thought every moment would see an easing of the pain, but the longer he lay awake the harder it became to pretend. He hates that every time he breathes in, something else seems to die. It is a miracle his heart is still beating, because it feels dead. It feels numb. He cannot feel that calm, comforting beating within.
He wonders if the memories took it. Perhaps they really did claw through his chest and rip out the muscle, the sinewy flesh and heat.
He can hear her breathing by the door. She has not said a word, and he knows that she will remain silent. It is not a comfort. Sometimes he just wants her to scream, because then at least one of them will feel. The constant struggle between feigned ignorance and the pain is tiring, and he knows it will be worse once he leaves. The real world will open a new and more real pain. Because he is not out there, he will never be there. Each passing moment sees a new clump of mud and dirt and death falling into his chest.
He cannot bring himself to think the name. There is a glimpse of red. A laugh. A fumbled apology. A friendship.
She walks over to him and takes his hand. She always takes his hand. After those few moments of waking, it seems that all she can do is take his hand. He stands up and she leads him from the room, from the sacrosanct sterility of St. Mungo’s.
He takes a breath. Something dies.
The fire is burnt out. The dying embers send a ghostly red light flitting about the walls. He sits alone, a glass of Firewhiskey in his hand. He has not taken a sip. He does not want to take a sip. He puts it down upon the carpet at his feet.
She is in the kitchen; he can hear her talking to Kreacher. It is strange to hear her voice, the familiar intonation, a vibration of waves sent hurtling into nothing. They haven’t said a word to each other since his waking. It is almost like a treaty, a silent pact, as if they have agreed to remain mute until it no longer hurts to breathe. He can hardly imagine a time when it won’t hurt to breathe and wonders whether they will ever speak to each other again.
She has stopped. He can hear her footsteps on the stairs, climbing closer and closer until she is knocking lightly on the door. He doesn’t say anything. He is not allowed. She opens the door and walks over to the sofa. She stands before him in her nightgown, a cup of tea in her hand. He takes it from her, his eyes unseeing, and she sits down beside him, against him, her arms stretched out across his chest. He takes a sip of the tea.
He can feel her eyes on his face, but he continues to stare at the wall. She sniffs, and he tightens his grip on the cup. It is scalding hot, but he does not care. The dying fire leaves the room chilly even though it is nearly summer. Perhaps the room is not cold. Perhaps it is only them. He wonders if he’ll ever feel warm again. He wonders if he’ll ever want to feel warm again.
She sniffs again, and he can feel her tears hot upon his chest. They fall and fall and fall but he is still cold. He looks down at her. She is unfamiliar. He does not know this woman, and yet he does. He can recall the curve of her shoulders, the frizz of her hair, the soft protrusion of her lips. He unwinds her tight grip on him and places the tea in her hands. She looks up at him in surprise. He closes his eyes.
Her hands tremble as she lifts the tea to her mouth, and he can feel her whole body shaking against him. He realises that she can see them, too. She can see the three sleeping bags on the floor before them, the three sleeping bodies, the two hands locked in gentle embrace.
Her breath is at his neck, quick and shallow. She takes his hand, but he cannot be there. He cannot be there with her and the faint moment of hope. He stands up quickly and walks from the room.
Firewhiskey seeps from an overturned glass into the carpet.
The room is full of noise. There are at least ten other people, and he cannot stand it. He wants silence. He wants calm. He wants to be alone, with her, and with their only comfort, the pain. He no longer pretends it is not there. He welcomes it. It is another distraction. If all he needs to focus on is the pain, then nothing else exists for him. That is what he wants.
He cannot stand the worried faces, the hands on his shoulder, the food and the drink and the words of concern. He cannot stand the invitations to dinner or the offers of help around the house. He wants to be alone, with her, and with their pain. That is all.
He knows it is selfish. He knows that they are not the only ones to feel loss. He knows there is another family suffering through everything as well, but he does not want to think about that. That creates another feeling, another pain. Guilt. He cannot feel grief and guilt at the same time; it would destroy him. It would destroy her, and that makes him want to vomit.
He cannot stand the noise. It reminds him that he is starting to feel warm again. Everybody is surrounding him, and it is impossible to feel cold. The cold helps the pain, it fuels the pain, and now he isn’t cold all the time.
He wants to feel the pain. He wants something to die when he breathes in.
He is so very warm. Every time he wakes, a slow, hard darkness smoulders on the surface of his skin. He is being punished, and he knows why. Because, in that moment before sleep, in that moment before waking, everything feels okay. For one solitary moment, the world continues to spin and the memories fade to white.
And so he is punished. He is not allowed to feel anything but guilt and grief and pain. He should not feel as if life could be normal—not at the moment, but at some time in the future—and he should not feel that tomorrow may be lighter, freer.
Those moments make each day harder to bear. They make it harder for him to succumb to the pain. It’s as if the cold is melting away, melting away to be replaced by the warmth of a noontime sun. He doesn’t want it; he doesn’t want anything but his best friend, his first friend, and that is the one thing he cannot have. He only has her. She has to be enough for him now.
He sits on the couch staring at the wall. It is a nightly ritual. The glass of Firewhiskey is held loosely in his hand, soon to be replaced with a cup of tea. He can hear her talking to Kreacher in the kitchen. He can hear her on the stairs. He can hear her walking carefully along the hallway. He can hear the small intake of breath before she opens the door. And then she is there, in front of him, placing their cup of tea on a small table.
She is so small. She does not eat. But there is something different tonight. There is something different in her eyes as she looks down at him. He knows what it is. He knows what is coming, but he looks away and continues to stare at the wall. She sits down beside him, her hands creeping across his chest until they are locked together.
The fire is dead, but the heat within is not.
It burns. He does not feel the cold. Summer has been and gone, and the golden days of autumn now peek through each window of Grimmauld Place. And, although the Muggles who walk past the hidden house are wrapped up warm against the growing chill, Harry has never been so warm.
He sits and stares at the wall opposite and feels the blood pounding through him, spreading the warmth, the heat, the life he does not want to feel. She is still beneath his hands, her chest pressing against his side in a slow swell. Everything is calm, except for the fire raging under his skin.
He looks down at her. Again. Her eyes are closed and her lips are parted slightly. Her skin is cool and dry and feels so good.
Suddenly, he is flooded with a memory, a memory of the lake and Ginny and the way he tentatively slid his hands across her bare skin. He closes his eyes, and it is like he is there, back at Hogwarts when the future was bleak and yet the present was perfect. It is a comfort to pretend. He can feel the grass beneath him; he can feel the girl beside him, her skin, her smell, her subtle movements. He can feel the heat of the sun beating down upon them and the gentle breeze from the lake.
No, there is no breeze. There is no sun or grass or lake. It is merely a memory that cannot be caught again within the eons of infinite possibility. But she is real. Hermione is real. His only friend, his only reason, his only purpose.
He dips his head. She opens her eyes. Everything is on fire.
Eyes flicker open. The white ceiling gleams with blinding rectangles and the overcast morning sends cascades of light through the heavy curtains. Harry flinches away from the brightness. As he turns, he feels her move beside him, skin on skin. Her hair is beautifully unkempt. Her skin is flushed. He licks his dry lips and twists around until her lips are on his. Her eyes flash open and then slowly close again as they descend back into their scorching red darkness.
Not for long. She pushes him away and sits on the edge of the bed. He watches as her shoulders slump into practised sobs, silent. He reaches out and traces wide circles across her back. He stops and moves towards her in an awkward shuffle, and something inside him bubbles to the surface - something other than cold or pain or heat. He does not recognise what it is, but in his mind anything would be good. Anything would be a change from the minimalist life he has been leading.
She leans across and grabs her wand. A tissue flies into her hand, and she wipes away her tears. She does not speak until he does.
“Hermione,” he whispers.
It is not an answer. It is a statement. In one word, she tells him all he needs to know. There is no other way forward. There is no other feeling or expression or plain, honest fact that can change what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. He can feel everything at once for the first time in what seems like an eternity of nothing.
There is the grief, the guilt, the shame and the heat. There is the pain and the cold, the irritation and the loneliness. There is the lust and the love. The lips and hair and skin and sweat.
She turns around, crosses her legs and reaches out to take his hand.