A cool, twilight breeze swept past Harry Potter's still form as he sat outside the Hogwarts grounds. He stared with contentment and relief beyond the great lake where a soft glowing light emanated from the waters creating a beautiful reflection of the setting sun. It was always a sight to see, and each time he would find himself totally lost in its beauty. But even the magnificent view couldn't bring peace to his heart, and he was brought back from his reverie. His right hand subconsciously went up to his chest as he took several deep and shaky breaths.
Ever since the battle of Hogwarts a fortnight ago, he'd started to feel a dull pain between his lungs. It started off as a faint tugging feeling right in the middle where his heart was, which he'd disregarded up until this moment. The feeling never stayed for long, but it would come and go as fast as lightning. Today was different; the pain lingered for several minutes and then was gone again. He knew there was something terribly wrong, and no one knew about this except him. He was adamant in his decision of not telling anybody until he'd gained knowledge of what it was, but then again, he didn't know how to figure out what it was. He could probably read some medical books in the library, but it was impossible to get access to at the moment due to it being blown apart from the battle. Or maybe he could ask his best friend, Hermione Granger's opinion or Madam Pomfrey's, but he didn't want to bother them if he could help it for now.
A soft tap on his shoulder brought him back from his thoughts. He looked up and saw Ginny. Her smile would always render some sort of relief to whatever he was feeling. He smiled back and put his hand down from his chest. She didn't miss the momentary pained expression on his face before he returned the smile.
Ginny placed her hand to his cheek and caressed it gently. Harry instantly closed his eyes to relish her warm touch.
"Are you okay?" she asked, a look of worry etched onto her face.
He opened his eyes and looked at her. He debated whether to mention what he'd been feeling a few minutes before or not and decided the latter was best for the meantime.
"I'm fine, Ginny." He squeezed her hand as he said it, trying to cover his worries with a small smile and hoping that it would suffice.
"Harry, you know I don't buy that answer." Ginny knew him so well that she could tell if he was hiding something. She eyed him anxiously and continued. "You look like you were in pain earlier; you were rubbing your chest."
Harry lowered his head and glanced back at the slowly dimming horizon with a sinking feeling. He didn't want her, or anybody else, to start worrying about him. They'd won the war against Voldemort and all the worries, pain, and hurt they had experienced for all those years had been dealt with. Harry wanted it to stay that way. After all, they each deserved a worry-free and happy life in exchange for what they'd been through, but some things never really ended well in his life. This realization hit him with a heavy heart and there was only one thing left for him: he had to accept whatever his fate was.
"Harry," Ginny called out to him once again when he didn't respond. "Whatever it is that's worrying you… you can tell me and we'll deal with it. You know that, don't you?" she placed her hand on his back in the hope that she could somehow comfort him.
It was a moment before he answered. Ripples of cold undulated over his skin.
"I'm scared, Ginny," Harry whispered. "I -" The suffocating feeling extinguished the end of the sentence; he could not go on.
Ginny looked frightened all of a sudden. "Why? What's wrong?"
Harry's throat tightened instinctively. He tried not to be scared, tried not to think that something bad was about to happen or that there might be a problem he couldn't solve. He felt his fingers trembling slightly and made an effort to control them, but he couldn't.
"Harry, please talk to me." She felt her fear grow with each passing minute.
Harry shook his head. "I really can't say."
"What do you mean you can't say?" she asked. If there was one thing that would worry her too much, that would be Harry's unwillingness to say what was on his mind, especially when things were already getting worse. "Harry… please tell me what's wrong."
Harry was quiet for a long time as he gave the question careful thought. He didn't really want to say anything until he was sure of it, but he couldn't keep Ginny in the dark either. He loved her so much that he couldn't stand not telling her even though he knew it would break her. Harry had always felt that Ginny was a strong girl who was capable of handling situations really well. Her warmth and compassion were also two of the reasons why he wanted to be with her, not only as her boyfriend but as her husband someday if his fate would allow it. He wanted nothing but to make her happy, especially now that everyone was celebrating, but he couldn't do it with the problem he was facing right now. He couldn't do it because of the bad news he wanted to reveal so badly but failed to do so.
Harry took her hand and held it tightly. "I'm sorry, Ginny, but I need more time to know what's really going on before I tell you. I don't want to plunge in headfirst and tell you something I am not sure of."
Ginny let out a deep sigh. "I always admired your bravery, Harry. You always keep things to yourself and deal with it on your own. Whatever it is you're scared of, I'm sure you can get through it like always, but there are times when you have to let people in to help you out."
Harry didn't say anything. He didn't want them to worry, and it made him so desperate to find the answers before it was too late. Before anyone else found out. At least knowing what it was firsthand wouldn't hurt, and dealing with it later would surely break him, but he wanted to have a normal life and now was the chance to do just that.
He held on tightly to Ginny's warm hand as though it was the only thing that gave him hope. Despite the years that had passed since he'd first seen her, the effect she had on him had only grown stronger, and he didn't want to let it go.
Even though Ginny didn't have a clue on what was going on in Harry's mind, she completely respected his silence. She sat next to him as he watched her bring her hand to his face once again and held his gaze. Harry knew that she wanted to reach out to him, to let him know that she cared deeply for him. He'd been through so much already and she wanted to take his pain away. Very slowly, Ginny leaned toward him and gave him a soft kiss knowing that it was what Harry needed at the time. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her back. After a moment, they pulled back but continued to hold each other, wanting nothing more than to make this last forever.
Harry stayed awake that night while the rest of his Gryffindor friends slept silently. Another faint throb in his chest meant he had trouble sleeping. It'd happened twice now today and although it didn't linger for long, he knew he had to do something.
He stood up and walked quietly out to the common room. He watched the dying embers in the fireplace for a while before he strode out of the portrait hole. It was probably too late in the evening to talk to one of the professors, but he couldn't wait any longer. He had to confirm his suspicions while he was still at Hogwarts.
He walked through the cold dungeons until he found himself standing at the door. He knocked and waited. Harry had been slightly worried that his professor might be asleep, but he answered his office door at the first knock.
A rather bleary-eyed, bald, old man with an enormous, silver, walrus-like moustache stood in front of Harry. He looked like he'd been awoken from a deep sleep, but when his eyes focused and he saw Harry, he immediately smiled and greeted him, his sleep gone in an instant.
"Harry! What a surprise."
Harry hesitated and said quietly, "Professor Slughorn, I'm sorry if I woke you at this hour."
"Not to worry, my boy. Come in!" Horace Slughorn stepped aside and gestured for Harry to come inside his quarters. The fire crackled as he entered and instantly gave him some warmth.
Harry had been inside his office before, and his last visit was highly unpleasant seeing as Ron had swallowed an oak-matured mead with poison.
Professor Slughorn closed the door and made his way to his cabinet to grab some drinks. "Please do sit down, Harry."
Harry sat gingerly in one of the chairs across from the fireplace while Slughorn poured the drinks into two separate goblets.
He made his way to Harry and offered the drink as he sat down opposite him. Harry couldn't help but eye the drink tentatively and reminded himself that it was safe.
"Now, what can I do for you, my dear boy?" Slughorn asked.
Harry took a little sip of the butterbeer and brought the cup down onto the table. He honestly didn't know where to begin.
"Professor, I…" he hesitated for a moment. He could very well remember the last time he asked about a certain subject that hadn't ended well for either of them and opening it up again... he could only hope his professor would understand. He was getting desperate.
"Professor," he tried again. "I was just wondering if you can talk to me again about –" he took a deep breath, his heart hammering fast. "– Horcruxes."
His professor was clearly not expecting this and he choked on his drink. He eyed him nervously and waited for the inevitable.
It was a moment before Professor Slughorn spoke in a soft voice, and Harry was more surprised when he looked at him with concern instead of yelling at him and telling him to get out.
"Why do you ask?"
"I was just curious, Professor."
Professor Slughorn narrowed his eyes at him. "That is an odd thing to be curious about, Harry."
Harry didn't speak.
"What do you want to know?" Professor Slughorn asked when he thought Harry wasn't going to explain himself any further and instead was only looking at him intently.
Harry's hands were trembling slightly. He hid them in his pockets and took another deep breath.
"Professor, you once explained that Horcruxes are a piece of a person's soul, right?"
"Yes, that's correct."
"Could you explain to me what happens when a Horcrux invades a person? What happens to that person's soul when the Horcrux is destroyed?"
Professor Slughorn frowned, thinking.
"I haven't ever heard of such an act, to tell you the truth," replied Professor Slughorn. "Mostly the person creating the Horcrux would then hide it in a non-living thing, but I would only assume that the host's lifespan would shorten drastically if for some reason it did invade another person."
Harry shook rather uncomfortably in his seat, looking deeply worried now.
"But what if it wasn't intentional? What if it's just an accident that he created a Horcrux and it latched onto another soul? Would it still affect that person's soul after it was destroyed?" He was gazing at his professor with intense fear.
"Well," said Professor Slughorn after he drained his cup and set it aside on the table. "Regardless of whether or not it was intentional, once a Horcrux invades another soul, that soul is already tainted."
"Meaning that person's soul will also die even if the Horcrux is destroyed?"
"Yes," said the Professor simply.
Harry was beginning to feel a little ill. All the information he was getting was starting to make him feel hopeless. "Is there a way to fix a tainted soul, Professor?"
Professor Slughorn felt uncomfortable, his suspicions rising gently. He had talked about this with Albus Dumbledore but wasn't entirely sure as he had not read a book stating that fact. Albus seemed to know something he didn't.
"That, I am not aware of," he said to Harry. "The creation of a Horcrux is evil enough that all information about it was banned to the public, so I would presume that there is no such reference as to how to mend a soul under those circumstances. After all, as far as I know, no one has attempted to do it but only -" he stopped, looking uneasy.
Harry knew that Slughorn was going to say "Tom Riddle". He had seen the memory with Professor Dumbledore and was well aware of how much Slughorn regretted his action.
"Would you know then, Professor–" Harry was sweating profusely now, his voice quivering slightly. "How – how long could the person live with a tainted soul? You said the lifespan would shorten drastically."
"A few months, but I can't really say how long for sure," said Professor Slughorn. "I can only assume that it's slow and excruciating and that you'd prefer to die quickly as time passes by."
Terror washed over Harry, his heart was beating fast. He felt weak all of a sudden. Professor Slughorn glanced at him when he saw his worried expression.
"Are you alright, my boy?"
Harry looked up. "Yes. Thank you. I have to go, Professor... I -" His breath came slow and deep, and his mouth and throat were completely dry.
Harry stood up shakily and went out of the door before Slughorn could even say another word.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Harry ran as fast as he could until he reached the bathroom. He fell to his knees in front of the toilet, gripped the rim with both hands, and threw up everything he had eaten that day. He could feel himself shaking so badly. He held on to the walls of the cubicle as he lifted himself up from the ground.
He returned to Gryffindor Tower feeling miserable and exhausted. He climbed up to his bed and felt his tears start even before his head hit his pillow. His soul was tainted and he was at a loss as to how to fix it. He didn't want to feel hopeless. He didn't want to think about how much pain he had to go through until he couldn't take it anymore. He was frightened and scared about what was going to happen. He thought he could live his life normally now after destroying the Horcruxes, and Voldemort had destroyed his own Horcrux inside him. But he was terribly wrong. Harry realized now that there was no hope for him to live in this world and it pained him to even think about it. He didn't want it to end like this. He didn't want to die. He wanted to do so much more in his life, but now he couldn't. It was like his life and soul had been snatched away from him, and to think that he only had a few months left was already killing him inside.
The morning sunlight poured through the window. It was their last day at Hogwarts and soon they would be riding the train back home. Harry was looking forward to going back and staying permanently with the Weasleys, but his high spirits died down when he remembered the talk he had had last night with Professor Slughorn. He was in a daze when Ron made his way slowly in front of his bed and called out to him.
Harry turned to look at the blurry outline of Ron.
"Wake up, sleepyhead." Ron handed him his glasses, which he took gratefully. "You look terrible as hell, mate."
Harry chucked his pillow at him, but Ron evaded it quickly.
He stood up and a dizzy spell hit him. He swayed a little bit and held on to his curtain to stop himself from falling.
"Woah," said Ron as he grabbed Harry's arm, steadying him. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I think I stood up too quickly," he lied. He wasn't really feeling well today, probably because of last night. All his energy was drained, even though he'd slept through the morning.
The majority of the students had gone home the day after the battle at Hogwarts, and the few who had remained to help with repairing the school were packing their things and stowing them in their trunks. Only Harry and Ron didn't have anything to pack since they hadn't come back for their final year, only to finish the war with Voldemort. All of their things were tucked inside Hermione's beaded bag anyway, so they headed out to have breakfast in the Great Hall, which looked quite empty. Harry wasn't really looking forward to it, but he had emptied his stomach last night and now it was protesting.
He ate a little bit of toast while Ginny eyed him worriedly across the table. Harry smiled at her and looked down at his half-eaten toast.
"Is that really all you're gonna eat?" she asked.
"I'm not really that hungry." It was the truth. He could only manage to eat a small amount before his stomach turned wildly again, and he couldn't risk throwing up right now in front of everyone.
Ron and Hermione raised their eyebrows, but they didn't say anything. Despite the fact that the war had ended and everyone else was in a joyful mood, Harry couldn't help but feel extremely dispirited. Ron and Hermione thought that they totally understood his lack of enthusiasm because they too were grieving all the friends and loved ones who died two weeks ago, but neither of them knew yet what Harry was really going through.
Harry tried to be cheerful on their behalf and told them that he would eat more once they were back home at the Burrow. After all, who would want to be yelled at and force-fed by Mrs. Weasley every day, anyway? That earned him some satisfied nods from all of his friends.
After breakfast, he excused himself from them saying that he needed to go to the bathroom. He stood up and left the Great Hall. Instead of going to the bathroom, however, he turned another corner that would lead him straight to the library.
He saw Madam Pince reading at her desk when he entered what remained of the library. Most of the books that had been scattered across the floor or blown apart had been fixed and put back on their usual shelves. She had cleaned the entire library in no time without any help, but some renovations were needed that could not be done with a spell, much to her dismay. Madam Pince was always deemed an obstacle in Harry's student years. She was a very strict witch who was extremely reluctant to let any book leave the confines of the library. Harry had no choice. He needed to take some books before leaving Hogwarts in a few hours.
Slowly, he made his way toward her and asked for books relating to souls.
Madam Pince furrowed her brows. "There are many kinds of books about souls, Mr. Potter, some of which you have no access to in this library as they are for staff only."
"I only need books that I can borrow and take home with me during the summer."
"Your last term in school ends today," she said quite sternly. "Tell me, why the need to borrow books right now?"
'Because it's none of your business,' he wished to say out loud but thought better of it. He went for the one obvious reason Hermione would usually give.
Madam Pince huffed. "Light reading?" she repeated.
"Yeah. I don't want to bore myself at home." Harry excused, hoping it would work. "I'd rather read."
She looked at him rather suspiciously. "And why do I find that very hard to believe? You hardly ever come here, Mr. Potter."
"That doesn't mean I don't like reading." Harry reasoned out.
Madam Pince contemplated. Harry was starting to doubt that he'd be allowed to borrow a book. She had a point; it was his last day. He had almost made a move to leave when she finally spoke.
"Very well. You'll find the books you're looking for on that row." She pointed at the far-right corner in the library. "You have half an hour before your train leaves."
Harry nodded and made his way to where she'd indicated.
Ginny sat beside Harry on the train back to London, where she held his hand and stroked it gently. Ron and Hermione sat silently across from them. They were all looking at Harry, who was fighting off sleep and failing miserably. He was feeling exhausted by just staring out the window. Ginny shifted her position and let Harry lie down on her lap, which he did gratefully. He cast a worried look at Ron, who disapproved of the act and threw Ginny a look that she ignored completely.
When Ginny was sure that Harry had fallen asleep, she glanced at the other two, who couldn't help but look worried.
"I haven't seen him look so depressed before," Ron started.
"How can you be so insensitive, Ron?" said Hermione. "We are all grieving."
"I am too!" Ron said defensively. "But this is different. I feel like there's something wrong with Harry."
Hermione gazed at Ron curiously. "I have to admit I kind of think there really is something going on."
They were silent for a moment while they looked at Harry's sleeping form. Even while he was sleeping, he brought his hand to his chest and they could see his pained expression, but then after a while, he looked peaceful.
"That's weird," said Ron, his eyebrows raised. "You think he's having a nightmare?"
No one answered him. Instead, they just continued to stare at Harry.
"He said he was scared," Ginny said suddenly.
Ron and Hermione looked up at her.
"Scared?" Hermione asked, looking puzzled. "Of what?"
"Why?" asked Ron.
Ginny shrugged. "He said he couldn't say until he was absolutely sure. He was shaking when he told me."
"When did he tell you?" Hermione asked quietly.
"No wonder he looked so terrible this morning," said Ron. "His eyes were all red and puffy."
"Is he not feeling well?" Ginny asked him. Even though she had seen Harry at breakfast that morning, she couldn't help but feel that something was really up with him.
Ron shrugged. "I dunno. He lost his balance when he stood up from his bed… said he did it too quickly, which I doubt."
The rest of the train ride was uneventful. They didn't bother waking Harry, thinking he needed a lot of rest, so they busied themselves with some more silent conversations and, all the while, staring out the window to pass the time as they neared the station.
A loud whistle woke Harry with a start as the train slowed down. They had reached London. He was shocked to find that he'd slept through the majority of the ride and his friends hadn't woken him up. He sat up and looked at them as they got ready to leave the compartment.
"How are you feeling?" Ginny asked as she squeezed his hand. Ron and Hermione looked at him.
"Well rested," he said. "I didn't mean to sleep all the way here."
"The moment the train left Hogwarts you were out of it, mate," said Ron.
They stepped off the train and onto the platform. Ron's parents were there and hugged each of them while Hermione bid them goodbye and waved before disappearing into a corner with her parents. Harry, however, walked over to the other side and looked around, as though waiting.
"Come now, Harry!" Mr. Weasley called out to him.
Ron went over to him when he made no move. "Harry, what are you doing? We're leaving. Everyone's waiting for you."
Harry looked confused. "What are you talking about? I'm supposed to wait for my uncle to pick me up."
Ron gave a small laugh. "Okay, Harry, stop with the jokes. Come on, let's go."
"What are you on about?" Harry asked, feeling totally confused now. They all knew that his uncle was picking him up, but they were all acting as though he was going home with them.
"What are you on about?" said Ron, his smile fading slowly.
"I'm spending the summer with the Dursleys, remember?" Harry explained. The rest of the group walked toward him. Ron looked at Harry, perplexed.
"What are you talking about? You live with us now, Harry."
"Li–live with you?" Harry's head was pounding with confusion. "But why? I thought—"
"Harry, dear," Mrs. Weasley said as she walked in front of him and brought her hand to his cheek. "Are you alright?"
"Harry," Mr. Weasley stepped forward, his face gentle as he stared at Harry. "Don't you remember what happened when you turned seventeen last year?"
Harry looked at him blankly. He shook his head.
Everyone looked shocked. Ron's mouth was hanging open. Ginny clearly looked bewildered and Mrs. Weasley brought her hand to her chest.
Mr. Weasley gently placed his hand on Harry's shoulder and said softly, "Harry… you said your goodbyes to the Dursleys at Privet Drive before they left to go into hiding for their own safety. And you agreed to live with us from now on."
Harry slightly backed away from Mr. Weasley. He looked at everyone else as though asking for confirmation, but they just stared back at him with odd expressions. He brought his shaking hand to his head. He tried to remember, but everything was jumbled in his head and it was giving him a massive headache.
"Why – why can't I remember, Mr. Weasley?" Harry's voice was quivering.
"You've been through a lot, dear," Mrs. Weasley answered for him. "I think you're still in shock after the war."
Harry lowered his head. As much as he tried, he couldn't remember anything. It was like someone had obliviated him in his sleep. He could see flashes of memories, but they were all confusing him in some way. There was only one reason for this, of course, and he was starting to get really scared.
To be continued...