Chasing Shadows by ficexchange
Merry Christmas, LadySugarQuill!
Green eyes meet the grey, prepared, resolute, and unwavering. He holds his arm out in front of him, steady, his wand pointed at the cloaked mass fluttering in the darkness. His stance wavers for just a moment as the creature inches closer, armed with melancholy and turmoil and visions of some of the most horrendous sights Harry had ever witnessed. The words leave him almost instantly, words he no longer needs to think about, to shape or direct. He waits for it—a mist of silver, total brightness to finish off this ‘battle’ before it worsens—but it never comes. Instead, he merely stands there, frustrated and frightened, defenseless as the black finally overtakes him.
He’s standing in the middle of a corridor at Hogwarts, chuckling as twin ginger-haired boys grin at him, showing to him an old bit of parchment (“The secret to our pranking success!” they boast). He’s eleven, thirteen, seventeen, and still, they remain standing beside him, side-by-side, always together and never failing to make him laugh. He eyes the scrap curiously, stretches his arm toward one of the boys, their fingers barely touching, and before he can claim the sheet, the second skin brushes skin, his red-headed friend is falling, illuminated in emerald. Harry’s voice calls out to him, his foot steps forward, but nothing happens. Eyes close, breathing ceases, and that omnipresent laughter echoes in the empty corridor behind him—resounding and resounding, until finally, it would sound no more.
“Harry? Harry? Are you alright?”
He hears Ron in the distance calling for him, but he can’t shake off the sound of muffled laughter still reverberating in the back of his mind. He opens his eyes slowly, uncertain of his surroundings, and fights the urge to black out intentionally as he realizes fifteen pairs of unblinking eyes are glued to his quivering form.
“Hey, alright there?” Ron asks again, hovering over him now, terribly concerned. “Neville told me what happened. He had a bit of trouble with the dementors too. Reckons they’re just stronger because of the time we’ve spent dawdling.”
Harry nods, listening to Ron’s excuses and long-winded commentary—the Ministry should have acted sooner; former Order members didn’t have to all be at Hogwarts rebuilding and re-securing the place; They shouldn’t have taken their time with the trials (“It’s black and white, isn’t it? We saw the death eaters and we know what they’ve done, so why not just chuck them all into Azkaban immediately, round up those depressing little demons and be done with the whole thing?”); They had to deal with so much now. The time off has just left him a bit rusty—but the point of the matter is that his patronus would not come, and he hadn’t felt that vulnerable in a long time.
A young professor, his hair light brown and flecked with gray, nods at him encouragingly, urging him to attempt the charm with patience and faith, two things the boy had scarcely known before. His insides squirm, nerves unsettled and excited all at once, eager to demonstrate that he isn’t weak, that he can excel. The kind man reassures him with a smile, gesturing to the wardrobe in front of them. He doesn’t speak the words, but the boy knows what he means to say. ‘It’s only a boggart. There is nothing to fear.’ Wand at the ready, the wardrobe opens. He waits for the shadows to appear, completely focused. Nothing happens. He waits another second, already mouthing the words he knows he needs to say, but still, nothing will come out of that wardrobe. Questions at the tip of his tongue, he turns to his instructor; however, the sight that greets him is more pressing. Remus Lupin, his strong, clever lycanthropic friend, lies at his feet, motionless except for a single finger pointing toward the opened closet. A long, pale, twisted face laughs back at him from behind the door, boggart nowhere in sight. The boy screams.
Kingsley hesitates sending them, experienced in combat but absolute novices in all other Auror duties, out to round up former death eaters, but insists that they witness some of the trials. Ron groans, wanting nothing to do with any of the cloaked men who had been responsible for dismantling his family (just seconds after they had all been together after so long), but Harry, still frustrated from his previous failure, accepts. He walks quietly into the courtroom, not wanting to draw too much attention to himself, and takes a seat beside a woman he vaguely recognizes from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.
“Auror training?” she questions, already knowing the answer.
Harry nods absently, distracted. Something about this room—this dungeon—makes him uncomfortable. He recalls the dark stone, the dim-lit torches, the many, many benches (having been in this place twice before, once to view a trial in a pensieve and once to experience his own). A minute later, he hears hurried footsteps approaching, the sound of chains and guards and several Ministry officials he’s sure he hasn’t seen before. Kingsley stands in the center of the courtroom, a comforting face in this sea of strangers, and the hearing is about to begin. The chained man raises his head, turning his long, pale, twisted face toward Harry ever so slightly. He sneers, a mangled smile plastered on his face, and Harry swears his forehead is on fire. He fingers his acheless scar, waiting for the stinging, but it never comes. Immediately, the procedure begins and accounts are being presented, but none of this matters to him anymore—he can’t concentrate. A baby boy cries in the distance, strangled and shrill, and little can ease his pain.
An electric blue eye whizzes in its socket, focusing upon the boy, who has yet to realize the impact this man, this legend, has left upon him. Harry hasn’t known him long, but he admires his courage, his bravery, his daring, and he couldn’t imagine why someone with so many missing limbs, deep wounds, and enduring battle scars would look to him, a mere teenage boy, with so much esteem. "You're going to do great, kid," he promises, urging him to take the broomstick, and freely fly into the starlit sky. Harry reaches for it, prepares to lift off, but the second he's off the ground, the second his mentor urges him on ("CONSTANT VIGILANCE, Potter!"), the ground he had just been standing upon vanishes. "Moody!" he cries. "Moody, where are you?" Nothing. The sky stretches outward, a star slowly fades, and in its absence, an electric blue eyeball whizzes in the darkness.
“What do you think is wrong with him?” he overhears Neville ask Ron as they finish their first proper Stealth and Tracking lesson.
Ron watches him carefully, choosing his words so that he doesn’t offend his friend, but even Harry knows that there is probably loads more the ginger longs to say, but doesn’t out of… tact? Loyalty? Understanding? “He just needs some time, Nev. I’m starting to think that Mum was right. We shouldn’t have jumped into this too soon.”
Neville laughs, halfheartedly shrugging, though it’s obvious in the awkward silence settling between them that he’s holding back his words as well. “After the war…” He glances at Harry suddenly, as if he thinks the word would offend him.
It hangs in the air between the three of them for a while, and Harry almost groans at the implications of that statement. After the war… what? Do they think he’s lost his magic? Do they think he needs to be told that things change after war? That he still needs the practice? That the shadow of darkness, that reign of terror, might have finally been driven away, but he seems to have lost something—his focus, his strength, his ability to conjure a damn ball of light—in the struggle, and now it appears that he is haunted? Is everyone talking about “famous Harry Potter” and how his one magical talent has just stopped working for him?
(Had this happened before? Why couldn’t he remember?)
“…Professor McGonagall talked to a lot of us about our options. Everything we had done as the DA last year showed her and all the Aurors here that we all really do have ‘what it takes to be an Auror,’ and that’s probably why they didn’t care so much about N.E.W.T.s—I mean, you guys didn’t even return to Hogwarts and you did so brilliantly—but she kept emphasizing how easing the qualifications didn’t mean that we should all go out and be Aurors. I didn’t really get it then. I mean, so many of us went through so much in the last few years, and my parents were Aurors and Gran always wanted this for me, so why wouldn’t I be one, you know? But I’m starting to think that she was right.” He sighs, hesitating to throw the remainder of his thoughts out there, as though he could, in that one second, still come to terms with whatever this epiphany is. “I can do this—I know I can do this—but I’m not really… enjoying it,” he finally confesses. “I think I’m going to give it a go for another week or so, and then, if I still feel like there’s something else I should be doing, I’m going to ask Kingsley to let me go.”
Ron ponders his words, noticing that a lot of other guys are uncomfortably exchanging glances, having eavesdropped on the conversation. As he turns to look at Neville and mention that maybe he really should try his hand at something else before committing, Harry closes his eyes, half-berating himself for jumping to conclusions, for forgetting.
Sometimes it didn’t feel like anyone else had been there. Sometimes it was easy to forget that so many others had suffered as well.
He doesn't understand it: this man, with his sallow skin and his large, hooked nose, in spite of the fact that he obviously can’t stand the sight of him, has actually saved him, Harry, the boy "famous for merely existing.” He eyes the unpleasant man in the Great Hall, half-wishing to express gratitude for thwarting Quirrell, for un-jinxing his broomstick and saving his life, but the other part of him, frightened of this professor he doesn't really know, opts out. Years pass, more misunderstandings arise, and sometimes, he feels the need to say something, anything, to break the ice, but the history (and stubbornness) between them simply will not allow it. Harry finally finds him, seventeen and in dire need, but now, it's too late. A serpent surrounds them, an attack prepared, and before he can act, before the words some part of him has always wanted to say are out, the Slytherin is no longer breathing. Green eyes find the black just as the light finally leaves them and the shell of (probably) the bravest man he ever knew.
Some girl from Beauxbatons, one of Fleur’s cousins who has just moved to England (Adèle, Adrienne, or Amèlie), taps her foot impatiently, waiting for him to charge into the fury. They’re standing on an abandoned Muggle street, a wreck of twenty or so vacated houses lined on either side, waiting to lead a swarm of dementors back to the Ministry. Harry sighs, wishing Ron had been allowed to come with him instead, but their new instructor, after hearing about his first failed attempt (and probably the several other ones he tried privately, off duty), absolutely prohibited it. (“It would be good for you all to partner with other people, to work on your own strengths and take advantage of each other’s.”) Sound advice, perfectly reasonable, but still failing to ease Harry’s nerves.
“Let’s go!” she urges again, her wand already out to say the incantation that will help them succeed.
Harry nods, fumbling with his wand in his jeans’ pocket, dawdling. She eyes him then, a glance mixed with curiosity, skepticism, and pity, and he is instantly reminded where he is, who he is, and what he should be doing.
“Come on,” she shouts. “You’re supposed to be the ‘Boy Who Lived’—why aren’t you moving?!”
He breathes in deeply; a second passes; the dementors advance toward them. He wants to act quickly, he desires to face them head on—a thousand dementors and his reliable, resurrected wand, but he doesn’t know what to expect anymore. What if it doesn’t work this time? What if he fails them all again—these people who, while he may not know each of them well, depend upon him. Just like the girl just said—he is the Boy Who Lived. He always will be the Boy Who Lived. He has a legacy, a reputation, a name to live up to. This failure—these failures—have to stop. Too much is at risk, and he refuses to act cowardly.
“Well?” His partner looks over her shoulder, ready to call anyone else from their team to her aid, but Harry stops her. He closes his eyes, wand now facing outward, and signals her to charge headfirst into the murky abyss.
“Expecto Patronum!” The cry escapes his lips before he can properly think, before the thoughts—organized, planned, expected (the way he had learned when he was thirteen)—can fully settle into his mind. However, before he can contemplate this or even try again, he sees it—a silver gleam of light, vigorous and unrelenting, driving away the shadowy figures. Mouth agape, he can’t help but stare, feeling the way he had when he attempted this charm for the very first time. Did he do it? Did it come? Had he succeeded?
He searches the grounds for it, waiting to see the creature reveal its form, evidence that his previous attempt had been a bluff, that he wasn’t completely useless now.
His French companion shakes her head sympathetically, gesturing to an older boy right behind him and the radiant badger at his side.
Harry’s shoulders sag. His stag had failed him once again.
The entire school avoids him in the hallways, fear etched upon their faces, and he has never felt more alone. He concentrates on Quidditch, the snitch, flying in general, but Harry can't shake off the feeling that he's dangerous, that there is something to fear about himself. It's three years later, and he's older, less frightening, but now his peers are convinced that he's barmy, a total loon. He's still lonely, having to face false rumors and raging insults daily, without losing his cool too much (otherwise, it will only convince them all that he really should be locked up in St. Mungo's, a hazard to himself and others). In the midst of it all—the fiend-fire, the lies, the ridiculous things they say about him that causes all the students to keep their distance—this little mousy-haired slip of a boy, his brown eyes glowing in excitement and respect, waves to him, claiming him as one of his own, an actual friend. Hands glued to his camera, the boy moves to take a photo of the outcast, his hero in spite of anything anyone says. A click and a flash later, however, his body is left frozen upon the ground, unmoving and petrified, and ("Colin!") once again, Harry is forced to realize that perhaps he really is frightening, perhaps they should have avoided him all along.
The remarkable castle, newly refurbished, stands as it always has under a fresh blanket of snow, its pristine turrets and towers soaring toward the stars. It’s difficult to imagine that this place, the only place he has truly considered his home since he was eleven-years old, could have ever fallen privy to such turbulence and disarray. Distorted images of wounded bodies and fallen corpses come to the forefront of Harry’s mind, but he brushes them away, trekking through the snow. He doesn’t want to think about the nightmares right now, not here in his childhood sanctuary, grounds meant to insinuate calmness and safety.
(“Do you understand now?” a coarse voice hisses through the fog. “He was nothing, ever, but a boy who relied on others to sacrifice themselves for him…”)
Sighing, he stops near the lake, eying the marble tombstone he had last revisited months ago, right before summer… after the war. Brushing the cool surface with the palm of his hand before sighing once more, Harry turns to the monument only a foot away, a plaque scrawled in names and dates marking the deceased, those who had lost their lives in the struggle. He reaches out for one, Nymphadora “Tonks” Lupin, tracing the name with his finger, before a pair of arms encircles his body, pulling him away.
A wave of vanilla and honey hits him immediately, and he almost smiles, his first in months. “Ginny.”
She holds him for a moment, resting her head upon his shoulder, and the two of them just stand in silence, fingers entwined. Airy flakes of snow flicker upon their faces, the wind growing colder, and still, they do not move. Harry is about to suggest that she leave him for a while, head back inside where it’s warm until he’s ready to join her, Ron, and Hermione for a ride back to the Burrow, but she, knowing that he’d make the ‘sensible suggestion,’ drags him back to the marble plaque.
“I’ve missed you,” Ginny finally says, meeting his gaze. “It hasn’t really been the same without you—neither of these two years.”
“I’ve missed you, too,” he starts to say, but the golden inscriptions catch his eye once again. His hand reaches forward, as if in a trance, and instead of questioning him, Ginny only sighs, fingers reaching to brush his as they graze its cool surface. Colin Creevey. Severus Snape. Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody. Remus John Lupin. Fred Weasley.
“Harry…” She holds his hand in hers, removing it from the stone before he can plaster it against the marble once more, name by name, relentless. “It isn’t… it isn’t your fault about the dementors.” He turns away, ashamed, but she forces him to face her. “You aren’t responsible for these deaths.”
(“Stupid boy, always hiding behind the skirts of wizards and witches far more powerful than himself, allowing them to lay down their lives for his own… Stupid boy, always hiding.”)
Harry clenches his eyes shut as the mangled forms of his deceased friends call out to him from the grounds: Colin on the Quidditch pitch, Mad-eye in the sky, Remus in his classroom, Fred (and George) practical-joking in the corridors, and Severus Snape, distant but always, always watching closely. So many names, so many people no longer living. How can he possibly respond to her?
“Harry,” she urges, noting the look on his face, “just tell me.”
So he does, recounting his irritation, his disturbances, the voices he still hears in spite of the fact that his scar is fine, his body is whole, and the war is over. He chokes while mentioning the specifics, even without actual details, but something about the way she is looking at him, the way her fingers brush against his forehead so softly, reminds him that she understands (not because she’s lost a brother, not because she fought as well, but because she understands him in a way that no one else ever could). “They died because of me, Gin,” he whispers into her hair. “And now, I can’t even help anyone else. I’ve been completely useless. I don’t even know why Kingsley—”
Ginny allows him to lean against her, squeezing his hand gently. He doesn’t need her to tell him what he already knows, that these men and women put down their lives not because of him, but because they wanted to do what was right, to defend their families and those they loved, much like the unsuspecting bespectacled boy in her arms right now who had somehow found himself in the middle of it. Heroes and battles, death and destruction—a costly cycle. It always frightened her what would become of them, what they had found themselves in the middle of, but she never doubted that she wanted to be there with him, doing the same thing all these other people had done—what Harry, without a question, would do again, if ever necessary. “They’d want you to let go,” she murmurs against his shoulder. “To stop dwelling.”
“Are you—alright there, Harry? I’m.. I’m Colin Creevey, in Gryffindor like you. I think you’re the coolest.”
"Well, none of us really fancy it, Harry… Imagine if something went wrong and we were stuck as specky, scrawny gits forever!"
“You know, boy, you’ll truly make a great Auror one day.”
“I was trying to make a world in which he could live a happier life.”
“After all this time?”
The two of them grow silent once again as Harry wraps his arms around Ginny, gazing upon the marble one more time and mulling over her words. Though he could still hear the deafening shrieks, still see the immobile corpses left cold upon the ground, Ginny’s voice frees his thoughts from the darkness, reminding him of everyone who had gone on, of the way they had been before—and while it isn’t enough to mend his every internal wound completely, it’s a start.
“Ready, mate?” Ron calls out to him as he prepares to charge into the fray.
Harry nods, wand held firmly and all set to go.
His headmaster smiles at him, just seconds before his descent from the lightning struck tower. (“I’m not worried, Harry. I am with you.”) A snowy white owl falls to the floor of its cage like a broken marionette, once his only companion. A brave Hufflepuff prefect, loyal and fair, leads him to claim the victory cup, not knowing that he would soon lie lifeless. (“A tie for Hogwarts? You’re on! Together? One...two...three...”) Innocent tennis-ball eyes fade as the pillow-case clad body collapses. (“Harry Potter, Dobby has come to rescue you. Harry... Potter...”) His godfather’s body, before he even realizes what is happening, falls back into the arch, laughing hysterically. (“You are truly your father’s son, Harry.”) A door bursts open with a cackle of high-pitched laughter (“Lily, take Harry and go! Run! It’s him, I’ll hold him off!”) and always, a mother cries as she blocks the stranger from her sleeping son (“Not Harry! Not Harry! Please... I’ll do anything!”).
He concentrates, willing the voices from his head to his heart. The memory of wispy snow and light fingertips propels him forward (“Expecto Patronum!”), and finally, a gloriously lit stag emerges, illuminating their surroundings. The dementors retreat, one after the other, finding their places back in the Ministry and in Azkaban, as Harry finds himself smiling.
The dreams may always be there, a part of him as the very people who had shaped him, but the way he chooses to commemorate them, through thoughts of grins, laughter, the words they uttered and the advice they offered, he’ll be able to move forward, chasing away the shadows—gradually—until eventually, only the light remained.