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Blood of the Covenant

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They make a deal.

Sometime after the wedding but before they storm the Ministry, sitting around the table after dinner at Grimmauld Place in a heavy sort of silence that can only come from six years of friendship and two of wartime comradery, an unknown number still ahead of them. They’re all a little lost in their own ways, but they’re still here, together.

Hermione is the one who breaks the silence, saying, “Do you ever think about all the things you’d like to do before you die?”

Ron seems shocked, briefly, by the question, but then he’s nodding, just a small inclination of the head. “Sure,” he says. “I always thought I’d have kids before I died.”

Hermione raises an eyebrow at that. “Really?”

Ron flushes. “Er, well, a bit. I dunno. I think I’d like it, being a father. It’s not like I had names picked out or anything like that. Just the...idea of it. That’s all.”

Hermione’s lips turn up, just a bit. Not quite a smile but definitely not a frown, either. “I guess motherhood sounded sort of nice. But I’d want a really good job first, something that doesn’t necessarily pay well but that matters, you know? And if having children would get in the way of that, then I’m not sure I’d want them after all.”

They watch each other for a moment, considering, and then they both turn to Harry, the same question in their eyes: Well? What about you?

He opens his mouth, but no words come out. A bit frustrated, he looks up toward the ceiling, worrying at his bottom lip. He can’t say he’s ever thought about things like that. Sure, he’s thought about dating. He’s thought about it quite a bit, actually. But marriage? Parenthood?

But this isn’t the question they’re asking, not really. A job, Hermione said. Something that matters.

He’s thought about that too, but, then, did he really? He thought that being an Auror would be a cool job, but now he’s had a few of those fights that always gave the job its allure and he’s not so sure, anymore. Well, he might need to go that way anyway. He doesn’t know how long it’ll take to bring down Voldemort and all of his Death Eaters, after all.

“Well,” he finally says, lowering his gaze, “I guess I’d’ve liked to finish school.”

Hermione nods sympathetically. “Me too,” she says. “But it’s no good dwelling on that, Harry. We might still be able to, when all this is over.”

If it’s ever over, she doesn’t add.

“Maybe,” he concedes.

“I always wanted to get a bit drunk,” Ron confesses after a moment of silence. “Mum never let me drink anything stronger than Butterbeer, and there’s not much anybody can sneak into the common room for parties, is there?”

Harry shudders at the thought, thinking of what his uncle was like when he would come home from a long day at work and root through the alcohol cabinet. Not to mention the things he and Aunt Marge started to say with a bottle of Christmas wine or three between them.

“I don’t really see the appeal,” he admits. “Drinking makes people...I dunno. Act different. Doesn’t it?”

Hermione taps her chin thoughtfully. “Well, yes. It lowers one’s inhibitions. But generally anything someone does under the influence is something they do actually want to do, as far as I understand it. It might seem like it for some people, but it doesn’t really change someone’s personality.”

“Still,” Harry mutters. “I rather like being in control of what I do, thanks.”

“It’s just something to experience.” Ron shrugs. “One of those things I reckon everyone does at some point in their life.”

“I’m not sure if I’d like it much, either,” Hermione says. “Those things never interested me much. I always thought people were rather stupid for drinking a lot.”

Harry doesn’t know if he agrees. On some level, maybe. But as a kid, he thought his parents had been those sorts of people, and he’d never believed them stupid, had he?

“I would want to travel more,” Hermione continues. “I mean, Europe is very nice, but I would like to see more. I’ve always wanted to travel to Africa, or maybe South America. The cultures there are very different than ours.”

“I suppose it might be interesting,” Ron says in such a way that Harry has no doubt he doesn’t think it could be interesting in the slightest. “I’d like to see more live Quidditch matches. Real ones. See the Cannons, maybe. Hearing the scores on the wireless just isn’t the same.”

“When I was a little girl,” Hermione says, “I wanted to write a novel. I don’t know what it would be about, but sometimes I think that might still be something I’d like.”

“I’d like to own my own house,” Ron says, nodding, warming to the topic Hermione has brought to the table. “Not just renting, or borrowing. Really own it.”

Hermione’s eyes light up at that. “I always wanted a home with a library in it,” she enthuses. “A study, too, somewhere to just get things done.”

“I’d like to prank Fred and George, just one time.” Ron laughs. “Payback for seventeen years of torture, more by the time I get around to finding a way to really get them.”

“I want to go on a date to the beach.” Hermione sighs, smiling lightly. “Or something as romantic, at least. Sunsets, and long walks, and deep, meaningful conversations.”

Ron snorts at that. “And here I was just thinking I don’t want to die a virgin.”

Hermione gasps, slapping him lightly on the arm. “What? You never slept with Lavender? Really?”

“No need to look so pleased about it,” Ron grumbles, but he looks rather pleased himself. “Nah, we never got that far. She didn’t seem that interested in doing more than snogging. I reckon she just wanted someone to, I dunno, coddle her, or something.”

“Wow.” Hermione glances across the table at Harry, but her smile fades as soon as their eyes meet. “Harry? What’s the matter?”

He swallows, uncomfortably aware of both their eyes on him. “I… Nothing’s wrong. I just...I dunno, I never really thought about any of it anyway.”

Hermione looks pained, suddenly. “The prophecy. Oh, I didn’t even think, I’m sorry, Harry, really—”

“Before that, even,” he interrupts, feeling his cheeks heat slightly. “Before I went to Hogwarts, or any of it. I never thought about living. Just surviving.”

“Oh.” Her voice is very small. “Harry, I…”

“You can think about it now, then,” Ron says, shrugging. “We don’t know what’s coming, any of us. So? There must be something you want.”

Something he wants. He frowns, thinking hard, and then slowly shakes his head. “Nothing, really,” he lies. “There’s not anything I really want, no.”

“Well, you must have wanted something with Ginny,” Hermione points out, earning a dirty look from Ron that, for her part, she ignores completely.

“I guess.” He had, yes. He’d thought of being in love with her for a very long time. Not marrying her, not really, but...loving her. Until he died, maybe. He doesn’t have much hope that he’ll live to be old, after all.

But Ginny hadn’t wanted that. He knows that now. If she had, she wouldn’t have given a damn about her safety. If she loved him the way he was trying to love her, she would have told him no.

“Listen,” he says, his chest suddenly constricting rather painfully, “I don’t think it matters much. I’m just glad that we’re all still here, y’know?”

“We’re not going anywhere,” says Ron, as if Harry should know that already. “Anyway, we’ve got a long time left, don’t we?”

“Yes,” Hermione says, a bit too quickly. “I guess everything’s just got me thinking about it. I used to have a list, a long time ago. A bucket list, I mean. Things I wanted to do at some point. Some things… Well, I’m not so interested in all of it anymore. But I still think about it sometimes. I’d like to cross some things off of it.”

Harry used to have something like that too. Just one thing on it, though: Get away. From the Dursleys, that is. But sometimes he thinks he’d like to get away from all of this too. Only fate, and duty, and grief keeps him stuck here.

“Oh, yeah.” Ron leans his elbows against the table and considers her, thoughtful. “Ginny used to have something like that, I remember. Mum always thought it was—er, well, she’d say adorable, I reckon. But I thought it was kind of silly. I guess, though...well, we’re not getting any younger, are we?”

“We’re hardly old, either.” Hermione rolls her eyes. “I’ve just been thinking about it quite a bit. I thought...when all this is over, won’t you help me cross some things off my bucket list? Both of you?”

“Not a romantic date on the beach?” Ron teases.

She flushes. “Well…”

“Sure,” Harry says idly. “When all this is over. If it’s ever over.”

Hermione looks pained. “It will end, Harry.”

“But we don’t know we’ll live through it,” he points out.

“Then we’ll do some things now.” Ron looks between them uncertainly. “There must be some things, right?”

“Romantic dates on the beach might be out,” Hermione says. “But, yes. I’m sure there are things we can do now. As long as it doesn’t distract from what we’re really meant to be doing. Right?”

She’s looking at Harry. As if he has answers.

Of course he doesn’t have answers. Nobody ever told him anything.

He says, “If that’s what you want, I don’t see why not. We can’t exactly spend every hour of every day looking for Horcruxes.”

Ron nods. “It’s not about doing the things, anyway,” he informs them. “Just about living. Yeah?”

“Living,” Harry echoes.

“Gives dying purpose,” Ron says wryly. “Not that any of us are gonna die, of course.”

“Then, I promise to live a little with you both, before we all die,” Hermione says, lifting a hand and sticking a pinky out. “Though that will be at least a hundred years from now, I’m sure.”

Ron grins. “How old are you planning to get, then?” But he leans towards her and locks their pinkies together.

Harry shrugs, and does the same. Pinky promises aren’t exactly meant to be made by three people, but Hermione shakes their hands together and they all pull apart, and the deal is made.

“And the second most important part of living,” Hermione says, “is dental hygiene. So, go on, then. Go brush your teeth, and let’s get to bed.”

Ron chuckles and glances at Harry in amusement. But Harry finds himself looking at Hermione, considering her words.

“What’s the most important part, then?” he asks curiously.

She smiles. It is an almost sad look, one that doesn’t even meet her eyes, let alone Harry’s. “Feeling,” she says softly. “I think it’s feeling.”

Feeling.

Only later, when they have all settled in to sleep for the night, does Harry wonder why Hermione thinks the most important part of life is the most painful one.

*

There’s a mirror in the washroom by the master suite of the house.

Rather, there is a linen closet just outside this washroom. Kreacher keeps the towels and sheets within clean for them. There are no shelves, though, except for one that is too high for anyone but Ron to reach anyway.

Harry walks by it every day, but only once or twice has he had to open it. Today, he finds that he does. The mirror in the washroom is, after all, a very normal mirror. It steams up when the shower is running, and reflects the wall across from it truthfully. There was a towel hanging on the rack on that wall. It’s not there anymore. That’s fine, though, because there are towels in this cupboard.

The thing is, Harry doesn’t really like this closet. It’s rather stupid, he thinks. It’s irrational. But sometimes he walks by it and he thinks of the cupboard under the stairs, and he wonders if his aunt would have stored towels and sheets in it if she hadn’t had to store Harry there instead.

Stupid, he thinks. Irrational. But he can’t help wondering.

When he retrieves a towel from the closet and returns to the washroom, the mirror is foggy with steam from the shower he started running before realizing the towel was gone, but he can still make out his own misty figure in it. For a moment, he watches, and then he turns abruptly and hangs the towel.

And then he turns around again, and he thinks about closets and mirrors and all the stupid, irrational things they represent, and he punches the mirror.

As his fist connects with the glass, it makes a small, splintering sound. His ears roar over top of it, drowning it out. There is a feeling rising up inside him that he cannot name, and so he punches it again. And again. And again.

At some point, he hears someone calling his name, sounding worried. And then there are hands at his waist, pulling him back. There is blood between the cracks in the mirror, but it is nothing compared to what coats his hand.

“Harry,” Hermione is saying, her voice a frightened whimper. “Harry, Harry.”

He falls back against her, and she lowers them both to the floor. The shower continues to run behind them, but Harry is about as aware of that as he is the pain in his hand. He can’t spread his fingers out, but, dazedly, he isn’t completely sure why.

“Hermione?” This is Ron, who is suddenly standing at the door. He is blurry, like Harry has lost his glasses somewhere between here and the linen closet. “Harry? What’s the matter?”

Harry blinks, and he clears suddenly. With his uninjured hand, he reaches up and finds his cheeks wet. He doesn’t know when or why he started crying. He’s not even sure he ever did, though the evidence seems rather damning, considering.

Ron sits down on his other side. Hermione asks, “Harry, what were you thinking?” Things are starting to clear up again, vaguely.

“I don’t know,” he admits. “I just thought I wanted to break it.”

“The mirror?” Ron frowns. “What did it ever do to you?”

“Dunno.” Harry looks down at his hand, wincing. Blood has dripped down from the cuts on his knuckles to the leg of his jeans. The lower part of Hermione’s sleeve is covered in blood too. He’s not completely sure why that is, but he knows the blood is his.

“We should heal this,” Hermione frets. “It must hurt.”

Harry shakes his head. “I don’t even feel it,” he says honestly. He doesn’t really feel anything, actually. Whatever brief rage had overwhelmed him when he slammed his fist into that mirror, it’s gone now. The linen closet seems a distant memory. There is nothing about mirrors, not even broken ones, that matters now. Sirius is still dead. Harry is halfway to him.

“It still needs healed,” she says firmly, and Ron nods in agreement. “Come on, let’s go back downstairs. If we don’t go out today, it will be okay. Let’s take care of this.”

She says “this” like she means more than Harry’s bloody hand.

He doesn’t think he could explain to her, though. To either of them. He’s not even sure if he could rationalize it to himself. One moment, the mirror had been whole. Now it is broken. But it’s still there. If he were one to think in symbols, as Hermione sometimes does, he might find that ironic. That it has some deep, complex meaning. But, really, it is just a mirror. It is broken. Later today, one of them will remember and come up here and fix it.

Hermione is the first to stand, making her way to the doorway before glancing back at them. Ron gets to his feet too, then, and reaches a hand down to help Harry do the same. Harry stumbles as he rises, and his legs feel shaky as Ron wraps an arm around him and guides him toward Hermione. They don’t speak as they head downstairs, and then Hermione disappears upstairs again while Ron sits with Harry at the table.

“Can I see?” Ron asks. Harry suspects he just needs something to do, but he drops his mangled hand on the table between them anyway.

Hermione returns shortly, and she passes a wet cloth to Ron, who begins to clean the blood off of Harry’s hand. Harry’s sure they all know a magical way to heal this, but finds himself oddly touched by the Muggle-ish approach. Nobody has ever done this for him before, he thinks, though he can recall many times that he was hurt much worse with the Dursleys and had simply had to deal with it on his own.

“I’ll make some tea,” Hermione says after a moment, and then disappears again.

In her absence, Ron finishes cleaning Harry’s hand, and then asks him if he can move his fingers.

“No,” Harry says, not even bothering to try. “Can you heal that?”

“I’m not very good with healing spells,” Ron admits. “Hermione might be able to. I can fix the cuts, though. Unless she has a potion or something that will work better. Those are less likely to leave scars, I think. Mum always used things like that sparingly. They’re expensive,” he adds, as if he cannot bear the thought of silence right now. “I reckon that’s why Hogwarts has its own Potions Master. My dad told us once that potions on the market sell for a lot more than it costs to make them. But he’s pants at potions, he said. And Mum’s too busy. Besides, ingredients aren’t cheap, either. So we just use spells. Reckon it made us a bit more careful, so we wouldn’t wind up with scars.”

“I don’t care about scars,” Harry mutters, though of course he does. Ron knows that as well as he does, but neither of them say so. “Just use the spell.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. It doesn’t matter.”

Ron looks uncertain, but he draws his wand and does so. Almost immediately after, Hermione reappears with a tray of tea. She makes theirs, and then passes the cups toward them. Harry is warmed to find she has put in a little more sugar than he would usually take. Given that this is Hermione, he can’t help thinking it was probably intentional.

“Harry says he can’t move his fingers,” Ron reports. “They’re swelling quite a bit, too. Can you fix them?”

Hermione frowns. “Well, I can try. Sorry if this hurts, Harry,” she adds, drawing her wand and muttering an incantation as she points its tip towards Harry’s knuckles. There is a sharp pain, as things seem to realign themselves, and then it fades into a dull ache again. He flexes his fingers, finding them a bit stiff but flexible enough. He nods gratefully to her, then focusses on his tea again.

For a moment, they let him do so, and then Hermione makes a small noise and asks, “Harry?”

He looks up. “Yeah?”

“We should talk about this.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” he denies. “I was angry, but I’m not now. I don’t really know what happened. Maybe—”

“I don’t think so,” Hermione says, silencing him immediately.

“We’ve seen when You-Know-Who gets in your head,” Ron reasons. “And vice versa. You’ve definitely never done anything like...er, like that, before.”

Harry knows they’re right. Of course he does. The truth is that he has done things like this before, and it never had anything to do with Voldemort. Not directly, anyway. He certainly hadn’t still been possessed by Voldemort when he’d torn apart Dumbledore’s office.

Dumbledore. He pushes that thought away, irritated. He doesn’t want to think about Dumbledore.

“You’ve been through a lot,” Hermione says gently. “It’s okay to get angry sometimes. But you should talk about it, instead of…”

Just like Ron, she can’t name it.

Harry can, though. “Hurting myself,” he supplies. “That’s what you think I did.”

“Well, didn’t you?”

“No. Not intentionally.”

“But you did.” Hermione leans forward, hands wrapped around her teacup. “We’re worried about you, Harry. Something must have upset you, right? Was it one of us?”

“No!” He’s rather offended she would even think so.

“Then, what?”

He scowls. “I don’t know, that’s what I’m saying. I don’t know!”

“But when did it start?” she presses. “If you were angry, when did you start feeling angry? You said you aren’t now. What changed?”

She’s so rational about everything. That’s Hermione. Rational. She just wants to understand.

But Harry doesn’t think he should tell her. She’s rational. He’s not. All of this is so wholly irrational that he can’t help thinking she would scorn him for it. Maybe even Ron would, he thinks. Besides, how could they understand? They’re—well, they’re normal. And isn’t Harry aware—has always been aware—that he is anything but? Even before he knew anything about the Boy Who Lived, he was a “freak.” His relatives labelled him as insane. People never seemed to have any problem believing it, either. Disturbed. Dangerous. Even the wizarding world had believed it, for a while. Maybe some of them still do.

He knows it’s not true. But sometimes he feels a bit mental, maybe. Especially in the past few years, since Voldemort’s return. Since Cedric died and Harry thought he would die too and then he didn’t.

He says, “It’s gone now,” as if that will make it okay.

Harry.” She sounds pained. “Harry, this is— It’s part of living! We promised—”

“Feeling,” he says, and then he wants to laugh, so he does. “Well, I’m done feeling, all right? I was, and now I’m not, so it doesn’t matter anymore.

“You can’t just...you can’t just stop feeling.”

She says it so earnestly. She really believes this, he knows. But right now, there is an emptiness within him, eating him up from the inside just as it has eaten away his anger. When he was younger, before he held the weight of the world on his shoulders, the emptiness didn’t exist. Then, it had simply been pain. Anger. Fear. And then, for a while, true happiness.

But that was a long time ago. The void within him exists to swallow those emotions as soon as they come, as it swallows everything else.

He is, he knows, barely even a person anymore. He sometimes wonders if he ever was. To Dumbledore, at least, he suspects he was only a sort of tool. An instrument of war. Nothing more.

“Y’know,” Ron says, sounding awkward, “after...erm, after my dad was attacked, it helped to—talk about it. For all of us,” he adds. “And then Bill, too… I know they, er, they didn’t die, but maybe you could, er…talk about this too? You think?”

Harry glances sideways at him, incredulous. “Talk? Are you kidding me?”

“It helps a lot,” Hermione puts in quickly. “Ginny and I talked loads after what happened with the Chamber of Secrets. It was really good for both of us. But, um…”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Harry mutters, looking down at his tea again. “I’m sorry I broke the mirror, all right? I really don’t know what came over me, but it won’t happen again.”

“You don’t know that.” Ron’s voice is very quiet, as if Harry is some sort of animal that will be easily startled if he raises his voice. “There’s something you aren’t saying, mate. We’ve known you too long not to know when you’re lying about something.”

Harry knows that isn’t true—he lies about a lot of things, after all, that they never so much as raise an eyebrow at—but the words warm him anyway. The reminder that they are here, that they have been here, that even though Ginny let him leave her, Ron and Hermione won’t do the same.

“You can tell us anything,” Hermione says earnestly.

He wants to believe it, so he takes a leap:

“The closet,” he says.

“What?”

“Upstairs.” He gestures vaguely past her, towards the stairs. “It made me think about my aunt.”

He doesn’t miss the look Ron and Hermione exchange at that.

“What about her?” Hermione asks carefully.

He shrugs. “Nothing, really. I just thought—”

But suddenly what he thought seems quite ridiculous. He ducks his head, embarrassed. “Never mind,” he mutters. “It’s stupid. Really.”

“I don’t think so, mate,” says Ron, leaning forward a bit to try to see his face. “‘Sides, we’ve all got things that make us”—he gestures vaguely—“you know.”

Harry almost laughs. No, he wants to say, I don’t think you know. Because of course they wouldn’t understand. How could they? Harry barely understands it himself.

Instead, though, he just shakes his head. “Drop it,” he says. “All right? There are more important things we should be thinking about than where Aunt Petunia liked to store things.”

“We have a plan,” Hermione says gently. “I think you’re a bit…um, overwrought. We should stay here today anyway, so you can rest a bit. And I think…I think you’ll feel better if you tell us what’s going through your head right now. We can’t make you, but…” She stops and meets Harry’s eyes across the table. It’s like she’s begging him, he thinks. Begging him to talk to her, as if this isn’t completely backwards, as if it should not be him holding on to her hand, looking as if the world is ending all around them.

“Why?” he asks, glancing briefly between the two of them.

They don’t need to ask what he means.

“Well, we love you,” Ron says. “And, er, we’re always worrying about you. We just want to help, mate.”

“Our love isn’t conditional,” Hermione adds. “No matter if you say something horrible or ridiculous—which, anyway, I don’t think you’ll do—we’re not going to be disgusted with you or anything like that. We’ll still be here, right through it all.”

They make it sound quite compelling, attractive, something that really will solve his troubles.

But…

“I don’t think I should,” he says. “Sorry. It’s not you—”

“It’s you?” Ron cracks a grin at that, but it fades just as quickly. “Blimey, Harry, just—I dunno, say it, whatever’s on your mind. Whatever bothers you bothers us too, y’know.”

He doesn’t think it’s meant to, but a deep sense of guilt rises up inside him, too large to be swallowed up by the emptiness residing in his chest. He sets his jaw, tries to push it down again, but can’t.

Finally, he snaps, “I just wanted a family, all right? And sometimes I remember I fucked it all up every time, and I get angry, and—and that’s all. Okay? But I know,” he adds, voice rising slightly in both pitch and volume, “I’m an adult now, so it doesn’t matter and I shouldn’t think about any of it. I don’t even want to think about any of it, but sometimes I just… It doesn’t matter,” he says again, and looks away from Hermione.

He doesn’t need to be looking at her to see the expression on her face, though.

“Oh, Harry,” she says, and he loathes her for it, loathes her for making him say all that and then saying this, like he’s a wounded puppy she’s found on the streets.

“But,” Ron says. Stops, seeming to turn the words over in his head a few times. “But, mate…you do have a family. And you haven’t fucked it up. We’re still here, aren’t we?”

Harry’s eyes sting. Irritated, he blinks fiercely until they stop.

“That’s right,” Hermione says earnestly. “We’re not going anywhere.”

“You don’t know that,” Harry mutters. “None of us know that.”

“We won’t die,” Hermione says firmly. “We won’t, Harry, and we won’t just leave you, either. I know…I know it might be hard to believe for you, because…well, because of everything, really, but—”

“Don’t,” he says, sharp, ragged. “I don’t want to talk about this, so just drop it, all right? I won’t do it again, and I won’t think about it anymore. So I don’t want you two to, either.”

“But, Harry—”

“All right,” Ron says over top of Hermione. He says it so easily, as if it isn’t eating him alive from inside, the way it is Harry. As if it is just a small matter. As if any of this feels small.

But Harry can’t disparage him for it. This is, after all, what he asked for. And yet he remains, feeling betrayed and confused, thinking that if they really cared about him, they should not just drop it. But that’s ridiculous, of course; it’s just like with Ginny. He told her, didn’t he, that he had made his choice? And yet when she went along with it, he felt wronged, somehow.

“But,” Ron is saying, “it still matters, y’know? I mean, we will still think about it. ‘Cause we care about you, so…”

“Yes,” Hermione whispers. “Of course. If you’re not ready to talk about it, then…then that’s all right. But we’ll still be here when you are? All right?”

And the feeling clears away. Suddenly much lighter than he has been all day, he looks up again, shares a small smile with the both of them.

“All right,” he agrees.

And so it is.

*

They get the locket, but they lose Grimmauld Place. It takes a toll on all of them, but, most of all, Ron. For a while, they manage, until they don’t.

He is the one who tells Ron to go. He should know by now that, when he tells people to leave, they will. It is just like with Ginny, and he finds himself furious that he ever let himself believe Ron would be different.

Hermione, though, true to her word, does stay. But she is focussed on Ron, nearly obsessive about it, and Harry wants nothing more than to forget Ron ever even existed, to erase Ron from their lives completely.

He could not say how it happens, exactly. He has been thinking about her “bucket list,” about the things that might be on it that she never told them. He can’t quite bring himself to ask, but it sits with him for some days, a burning curiosity, almost painful in its strength. She stayed, he thinks, when she could have gone with Ron. She stayed, even though she didn’t have to.

Ron was the one who brought up sex before. Harry’s never thought much about it himself, has actually always been a bit repulsed by the thought of being so vulnerable with someone, but he suspects Hermione has thought about it. She was sure, after all, that Ron had slept with Lavender. And Harry suspects, though neither of them will say it, that she wants to sleep with Ron, that she was, in fact, pleased to learn he had never slept with anyone before at all.

It is a way to get one over Ron, then, maybe. Or a way to prove to Hermione that he can be vulnerable, that he can open himself up to her.

He doesn’t know, and he figures he shouldn’t think too hard about it either, but it is he who initiates the thing. Never with any innocent intention, surely, and Hermione is sad enough over Ron’s departure, still, that when he kisses her, she does not push him away.

When he removes her shirt, she whispers, “Harry, we shouldn’t,” but he says back, “Please, Hermione,” and she does not speak again, does not argue with any of it, lets him touch her even though she must know this is not how things are supposed to be, even though she must know that Ron is still between them, that he never does quite disappear from either of their minds. Harry hates him, but she loves him, and when it is all over, they both remain trapped within their own guilt.

They don’t talk about it, though, and it quickly becomes a habit. They become reckless, ignoring watch duty in order to fit in these moments. He asks for control and she gives it to him, and he relishes in the way she moves beneath him, the way she moans when he touches her here or there, and thinks, often, that Ron would hate him too, would hate him for taking this from him like he has taken everything else.

It is not all about Ron, though. Harry had never really realized before quite how attractive Hermione is. Sure, he has thought she was pretty many times in the past few years, but never like this, never with a sense of longing. He imagines what it would be like, just them, for their rest of their lives—Hermione, the only person who always stayed, the only person who never gave up on him—but he knows it is a ridiculous notion, knows that she will always love Ron, because he is Ron and Harry is Harry and this is how it was always supposed to be, isn’t it, with them and him?

So, they don’t talk about it, but they know each other well enough to be aware that they are using each other, that this is not “love” but rather a fervent recreation of it. Maybe they will both die tomorrow, and so today they will use this pitiful attempt at feeling something to make it all worth it. That’s what Ron said, all those months ago—living, that it gives dying purpose. This does not feel like living, but it is the closest thing, now, that Harry can get to it.

There is his parents’ grave, too. Feeling, Hermione said, is the most important part of living, but what does one do when they feel that living is too much, that they would give anything to just make it all stop? He dares not ask this of Hermione, knowing that she would be disturbed by this line of thought, that she would be angry with him for thinking something so morbid, but it remains fixed in his mind. Oh, sure, he’s thought about dying before. Has known, for some time now, that his destiny is literally either kill or be killed, and Voldemort is a much better wizard than he is, far more capable of such a feat. Besides, Harry probably doesn’t have the heart to kill another person, no matter how unhuman he is. He doesn’t think about this often, though, and never in more than an arbitrary sense, a vague acknowledgement that he might die, and then that will be it.

But in the graveyard in Godric’s Hollow, he can’t help but wonder about it, about what might happen when he does die. Will he see his parents again? He doesn’t know if he really believes in an afterlife, though he supposes he has brushed with both sides of death already. He talked to his parents, after all, though they were not ghosts, though they remained quite decidedly dead when all was said and done. And the existence of ghosts must mean something, that there is a place to “pass on” to. If there weren’t, then everyone would come back as ghosts, wouldn’t they, except that he doesn’t think he would. Maybe an eternal darkness would not be so bad. He is sure, sometimes, that such a thing exists within him already, that emptiness, a void that always seems to overwhelm him in the end.

It eats up these feelings too, and by the time they have gotten away, to safety, he is numb, unfeeling. Hermione asks him, many times, if he is okay, and he reassures her that he is. He is almost surprised, himself, to find that he means it. When he sleeps, he replays the scene Voldemort planted in his mind, that day his father and mother died, all of it happening through his own eyes. If he let himself feel this, it would hurt too badly, so he simply does not. He spends a lot of time in Hermione’s bed, and he thinks she knows why he is there, but neither of them say it.

None of this matters, though. Not really. There is a part of him that thinks, if he keeps doing this to Hermione, she will leave him too. But she does enjoy it, at least as much as Harry does, and whether she is imagining he is Ron when he is inside her or not doesn’t really matter, because she never does speak anyone’s name but his own.

Ron doesn’t stay gone forever, though. And when he saves Harry and then destroys the Horcrux—the Horcrux, showing him this image of Harry and Hermione together, something far from a fiction indeed—Harry can’t bring himself to tell the truth.

“She’s like a sister to me,” is what he says, but he still thinks about the way her face screws up and then relaxes into pure ecstasy when she climaxes, the way her skin feels beneath his fingers. Ron smiles at him, though, relieved, and he knows that this is for the best, that Hermione will not want to tell Ron either.

And, as it turns out, Hermione doesn’t even want to speak to Ron. But Harry is overjoyed at his return. He thinks he has never loved someone so dearly, has never felt so close to any other person, as he does Ron. All those months of hatred disappear entirely. He needs no apology. All that matters is this: Ron came back.

It is more than anybody else has ever done.

*

By the time Ron and Hermione are on speaking terms again, the topic has become so awkward there is no way to bring it up. Ron notices something, a strange new hesitancy between Harry and Hermione, but he never says anything though Harry can tell he wants to. They become reinvested in their mission, now that they have retrieved the Sword of Gryffindor, and Harry can’t find himself to be too beaten down by anything. Ron came back. Hermione is still here, even though something has shifted drastically between them. It doesn’t matter, any of it, because no matter what he says or does, they are here, and he is sure, so sure, that they will not leave, that they will never leave.

They never talk about it, though, not until they arrive at Shell Cottage. Harry finds his own amicability fade away with Dobby’s life, Hermione’s screams echoing between his ears. This is his fault, all of it. They are hurting because of him, and the next ones who die will be Ron and Hermione, he knows it. Ginny had the good sense to listen to him when he told her it was too dangerous to associate with him, but Ron and Hermione did not do the same, and, now, they will surely wind up paying the price for it.

He puts their mission above his feelings, though they are loud, though they are overwhelming. This is what Dumbledore asked of him, but Dumbledore left him too, used him, even. Every day it becomes harder to think about, and, now, he finds he hardly can, and it is after Hermione has woken up and Ron has recovered from his own shock that they find Harry sat on the floor of the guest bedroom, hands pulling tight at his hair, wishing more than anything that he could make all the feelings just go away, that he could banish them to that void within him but they are too big, too numerous, and they are overflowing.

“Harry?” This Hermione, tentative, perhaps a bit fearful.

He can’t look up at her, cannot respond. There is too much, it is all too much. Perhaps the end is near, but he has a feeling, deep inside him, that this will never end, that there is, maybe, something irrevocably broken within him. He is not like Ron and Hermione, and he doesn’t deserve them either, not when he has dragged them into all of this, has put them through hell just because, selfishly, he wanted to feel loved.

There is a hand against his, and he pulls back, feeling stung at the contact as his hands drop down to his knees. When he looks up, he meets Ron’s bewildered gaze, and guilt floods through him once again, much stronger than it was even two minutes ago.

“Sorry,” he gasps. “I’m fine, I just—”

“You’re not fine,” Hermione says, crossing her arms over her chest. “And that’s okay, really, Harry, you don’t have to be fine.”

But he can’t look away from Ron, from that look.

“We were sleeping together,” he blurts, and then burns with shame, with terrible humiliation. He turns his head to the side so he doesn’t have to see their reactions, already knowing that it will be bad, that he has betrayed them both and this time they will not be so forgiving.

Ron is quiet for a moment, seemingly shocked. And then, a little dazed-sounding: “You…what?”

Harry cannot bring himself to elaborate. He feels dirty, awful, the worst friend—worst person—in the world.

“While you were gone,” Hermione says quietly. “Quite a few times,” she adds in anticipation of his next question.

“Oh,” says Ron, and Harry’s eyes begin to sting painfully, blurring with emotion.

“That’s it?” he demands. “You’re supposed to get angry—both of you, you’re supposed to be upset with me, because I ruined everything—”

“But you didn’t,” Hermione says, and she is suddenly kneeling right in front of him, one gentle hand coming to guide his eyes back to her face. “You didn’t ruin anything, Harry. We both made the choice, and I don’t regret it, if that’s what you’re thinking. And…and Ron doesn’t have a—claim on me, or anything like that, so if he was angry—which he’s not—he would be in the wrong. Not you.”

It is somehow both what he needs to hear and the thing he most desperately does not want to. Suddenly beyond his control, he begins to cry, and he feels all at once like a very small child and far too old to be so ridiculously emotional.

“I’m not angry,” Ron finally says, lowering himself down beside Hermione. “Er, I guess it would’ve been nice if you’d told me before, but I…erm, I get why you didn’t. I mean, I guess I’m a bit surprised, but, really, mate, that’s hardly the worst thing you could do. And,” he adds hastily, “Hermione made her own choice, and it’s not really any of my business anyway, so—”

“But,” Harry says, then stops, swallows. “But she must have—wished, I mean, Hermione—you must have rather had—?”

“No.” Her voice is firm, a bit sharp. “My God, Harry, is that what you thought the whole time? I love you both very much. I wouldn’t rather anything. Really.”

This only makes it worse. He opens his mouth to respond, but instead chokes out a painful sob and promptly shuts it again, wishing desperately to make this all stop.

“I reckon that’s how things are supposed to be,” Ron says. “The three of us, not just two. Yeah?”

“I don’t know why you stayed,” Harry says furiously, voice scratchy and uncomfortable in his own throat. “Nobody else does.”

Hermione leans forward and grabs his hands so tightly his fingers begin to ache. “We promised,” she says, and she is always so fucking earnest, means everything she says, would never dream of meaning anything else.

“People break promises,” he mutters. “They promise they care, or they’ll look after you, and then they leave. Or they die. It doesn’t matter, you’re still alone.”

“Well, we won’t do either.” Ron puts his hands over top of Hermione’s, making a strange sort of sandwich with the three of them. “I know I left before, but…I’m not going anywhere now, mate. Never again.”

None of them say anything for a long while, not until Harry’s tears have subsided in full. Finally, once he is sure he won’t choke up trying to get the words out, he asks, “Do you really think that?”

That could mean anything. To be honest, he isn’t completely sure what he means himself. But Ron and Hermione, who know him better than he perhaps even knows himself, understand.

“Yeah,” Ron says. “I mean, it wouldn’t be worth it, not without both of you. I reckon, anyway.”

Hermione nods in hearty agreement. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, Harry, and I don’t really think it’s about wanting or anything. Or, um, you are attractive, but I mean—we need each other, don’t we? All of us?”

“I don’t think I’m supposed to need anyone,” Harry admits.

“Bollocks,” says Ron. “Everyone needs someone, damn the prophecy. It didn’t scare us away before, and it won’t now, either.”

It is like all the nasty, painful feelings have washed away completely. It doesn’t matter, does it, if they are in danger? Doesn’t matter, because they care more about him—him, Harry, not the Boy Who Lived or the Chosen One or any of that rot—than they do about their own safety. It is the thing Ginny could not compromise for him, and, for many long months, he hated her for it, then just as quickly moved on to hating himself, wondering how he could be so awful to wish she would put her life in danger just because it would make him feel a little happier.

Ron and Hermione, though, will give him that happiness. Won’t they?

“I’m sorry,” he says again, rather pointlessly. “This is just like with the mirror. I just…”

“We don’t blame you.” Hermione leans even closer to him, so close he can feel her warmth as if they were cuddled up together.

“Yeah,” Ron says. “I mean, really, mate, if anyone has a right to get upset about all this, I reckon it’s you.”

“That’s not true.” Harry pulls his knees up tighter to his chest, but Ron’s and Hermione’s hands do not stray from his; instead, they move closer to him to maintain the contact.

“Isn’t it?” Ron hesitates for a moment, and then continues with, “I mean, it’s not like it’s been a walk in the park for us, or anyone else, but, I dunno, you’re kinda… Well, you’ve seen a lot of stuff, and—you know, you never even really told anybody about it. Or, you did, but not how you felt—feel about it.”

“You’re not really the feelings type,” Harry points out, trying for a light tone but failing rather miserably.

Ron laughs anyway, though. “Yeah, I’spose. But you know, I dunno if I’ve ever seen you cry before, or not for long, anyway, if you did. And—hell, Harry, we had to break you out of your own house, and all you did was thank us for it and move on!”

“But that was normal,” Harry protests. “Or, not normal, but—I expected it, or—I didn’t expect you. It’s not like anybody else had come to rescue me before, you know.”

“Then all the more reason to be upset about it, right?”

“I think so too,” Hermione says quietly. “We don’t really know what your aunt and uncle and cousin were like, but we do know whatever you went through with them wasn’t good. And—and it’s not like you’ve had much of a break in the past seven years, either. Just—when this is all over, then…then I think you deserve to rest, too. And if it’s hard until then, then…that’s okay too. Right?”

No, Harry thinks, but he cannot say so, not when she is looking at him like that, with her brilliant shining brown eyes. She loves him, and suddenly that is very clear to him, in a way it never has been before.

And when he looks over at Ron, he knows the same is true of him as well. Yes, they were not meant to be a duo plus one. They are a trio, one entity, always. And if one part of them breaks away, then, inevitably, it will come back.

They are, after all, the only people who always do. He is beginning to think he could say anything, do anything, to them and they still would not leave him, would in fact not even be hurt, because perhaps they know better than he does that he doesn’t really mean those things, that even when he hates them, he still loves them.

Finally, he musters a small smile for her. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “I guess it is.”

They both settle down on the floor on either side of him, close enough that they are all are touching. For a long moment, none of them say a word, and when the silence finally does break, it is from Ron saying, “So one of you will help me lose my virginity, won’t you?”

Harry snorts, and Hermione cannot quite keep herself from laughing, either.

“Ask a little more nicely,” she advises. “Then maybe we’ll consider it.”

It is so easy for her to speak for Harry, as if his thoughts are an extension of her own. Perhaps, in a way, they are; that spending so many months—years, even—so close together has given them this ability, to always know what the other is thinking, what the other needs, what the other wants. Ron was always between them, yes, but never for any reason other than that he is always between them, and Harry is always between Ron and Hermione, and Hermione is always between Harry and Ron. There is still a part of him that is doubtful of all this, that thinks asking Hermione for something like that was a massive overstep, but, then, maybe it had really just been a step, and any one of them could have taken it first.

Whatever they are to each other doesn’t really matter. Maybe Ron will think on it and will feel betrayed on Ginny’s behalf, will wonder how Harry could leave her like this, as if she was not the one who left him first—but that is not true, not really, because he asked her to leave. And he has been asking Ron and Hermione to leave for years now, but here they are, still glued to his sides. They’re going to break into the most secure bank in all of Britain in just a handful of days, and it is insane, definitely, possibly suicidal, but they will not leave, will not even let him ask them to again.

It is a luxury he has never had before. Not at the Dursleys, certainly, where he was always an afterthought until something terrible—or “freaky”—happened and then he became a metaphorical—literal, on the very rare occasion—punching bag. And while he knows it wasn’t through any choice of their own, his mother and father and Sirius were only in his life for a measly two years, even less in his parents’ case. Dumbledore’s death, too, had not been an abandonment by choice, but, then, he has often felt in the past year that he didn’t really know Dumbledore at all, that in fact the Dumbledore he had looked up to so fiercely had been as much an illusion as the vision of Sirius he saw in the Department of Mysteries. Maybe Remus could have stayed, but, as with Ginny, Harry pushed him away, told him to leave and never left them space to argue. It is not their faults they did what he wanted and, in the process, left him feeling lost and empty. He is often doing this, saying things and, much later, realizing that he meant something else, that it should have been obvious.

Ron is not so quick as Hermione is, but they seem to hear the things he isn’t saying. Maybe, to them, he is still a small, underfed eleven-year-old wearing ratty clothes that swallowed him whole, with broken glasses he has had since he was very small, which he has never had replaced. Maybe, to them, he is not really a saviour or a hero or any of it. He is the boy from the cupboard, who lost something in the darkness of it and never did quite get it back.

Anything could come tomorrow, but today, right now, they are still together. And so it is that they go over it again, their promise, the list, and, finally, he tells the truth, the one thing he really does want, that he has wanted his whole life:

“Someone who stays,” he says, and they grip his hands in theirs and they both say, “We will, we will.”

And so they do.

*

There is a feeble sort of irony to it all. Harry, who does not have a bucket list, who has only asked for one thing, now, in his entire life, because he learned long ago that those who ask never do receive. The boy from the cupboard, the Boy Who Lived, and this is how it will end:

He will die, and he will leave them behind.

So many years he has built up to this, this asking, this genuine desire to really live—to take long romantic walks on the beach, to own his own house (though, technically, he already does), to have a library and a study and maybe even children. But he has always been fundamentally different, abnormal, and so it is that he should not be meant to have a normal life, that when the final dusk falls upon them, the first new dawn just below the horizon, he will not be there to see it.

Two months ago, he would have done anything to use the Resurrection Stone, to see his loved ones again, to reside in his eternal misery over all those who have died for him, because of him, who have left him here in this horrible land of the living.

But today, it is different. Today, he leaves Dumbledore’s office and he knows that this is his end, that, truly, his death will be better for everyone else. He cannot seek out Ron and Hermione, who would surely tell him that it isn’t worth it, but, firmly, he thinks that this will be good for them too, that perhaps they could learn to be a duo instead of a trio and they will not have to deal with him anymore, with his dangerous life and his unstable self. Without them there to tell him otherwise, he will simply have to believe in this, in what he thinks they ought to think even though on a deeper level he knows it to be false.

The Stone was one of Dumbledore’s clever machinations, much like his own death had been, like Harry’s entire life had been. Harry cannot quite bring himself to hate the man for any of it, for never telling him. If he had learned the truth any sooner, he would not have discovered that brief moment of living. But now, dental hygiene has never been less important to him, and he dares not let himself feel a thing, knowing that it is only the emptiness within him and this one, singular determination that lets him walk into the Forbidden Forest and turn the stone thrice in his hand.

They are his ghosts. It has never quite occurred to him before, just how young his parents had been when they died. He can count the years between them, now, on one hand. If this were not his final day, he would be eighteen in a mere three months, and then only three years would separate them. One day, he might have grown older than them. Older, even, than Sirius or Remus, who is now immortalized in time as well. Once he, too, is dead, though, they will stop following him. They will not be able to haunt him anymore, will not be able to keep him up at night drenched in his own sweat, wondering what went so wrong with him for everyone who dares to love him to suffer quite so much as they have, as they do.

They do not tell him to reconsider his choice. They have found peace in death, and they will welcome him to it with open arms. Finally, he might know bliss, or happiness, or perhaps just a more peaceful version of the emptiness inside of him. As his heart stops beating, after all, surely his feelings—which have always been large, messy things—will slow and stop too?

And so it is that he drops the Stone and moves on, knowing it will only be a matter of time before he sees them again anyway.

But he doesn’t see them.

Oh, this place he does wind up in is peaceful, calming. There is a certain appeal to it, and yet Dumbledore suggests he ought not go on from here. More lives might be saved, he says, if Harry goes back. And here, in this odd, white and empty recreation of Kings Cross Station, Harry finds again that he cannot be angry with Dumbledore, that there is no grudge to be held because, after all, he really did love Harry, still does, and isn’t that enough? Enough to know that he cared, that even in death he has thought of Harry, has spent all this time waiting to ask for his forgiveness?

Guilt swims through him at the prospect of more people dying because he could not save them, and he suspects Dumbledore knows this—that, indeed, this is why he said it at all—and it is not a subdued feeling in the slightest, even though he has died. But, then, has he died? Dumbledore doesn’t offer a perfect explanation, not really, and maybe it is so that Harry is better off not knowing.

It is difficult, though, to convince himself not to go on but to go back. He is tired, his life just one long series of misfortune, and he doubts that it is solely because of the piece of Voldemort that was dwelling within him. Has he not earned this? And, if not for him, then what about the others, the people he did this to protect?

That is the crux of it all, however. People he can protect, more people he can keep safe if he goes back. He trusts that Dumbledore is being truthful about this, and so, though Dumbledore says he has a choice, he knows there is really no choice at all. Another day, another day. He could still die again before the next sunset.

It is only when he comes to, face down in the Forest, that he thinks of Ron and Hermione, of a promise that they made each other eight months ago, a promise he has broken today with no consideration whatsoever. They will be angry with him, will maybe even hate him, or perhaps they will realize, finally, just how much trouble he is, that there is a part of him—and it is still there, he is sure of it—that has longed for the end for a very long time. Now that he has gotten so close to it, he doesn’t know if he can come back completely, if he can really say, as they want him to, that he is living at all.

He hears their voices above all the others when they see him, and an emotion he can’t name threatens to overwhelm him, but he cannot think about that now, cannot dwell for a second longer on Ron and Hermione and what they will think of him, or what they are thinking now, seeing this public declaration of his betrayal of them.

Hermione says that people cannot just “turn off” their feelings, but as Harry lies limp in Hagrid’s arms, waiting for his chance, this is exactly what he endeavours to do. The emptiness inside him has never been so large, so all-consuming, and he lets it spur him onward, unfeeling, in order to end this thing once and for all.

He does not kill Voldemort himself, not technically, but even so, once the Dark Lord’s body hits the floor and the people around him begin to cry and cheer, there is a slight roaring in his ears, the knowledge that a lot of people have died today and it is most assuredly his fault, because he was selfish, because he did not offer to die sooner.

Ron and Hermione are the first people who get to him. They are not angry, not exactly, but they are upset. They do not stop touching him after that, as if they need the reassurance that he is not merely some ghostly spectre, that he is here and he is real and he is living though of course he is not, is still caught somewhere between here and there, a broken promise and too many sacrifices to count.

He tells them the truth, at least as well as he can. He is careful not to let their reactions affect him, keeping his gaze far away from their faces as he explains that he was a Horcrux all along, that he needed to die. And when he has explained himself and he has spoken to Dumbledore’s portrait about the Hallows, one last time, and they return, in a heavy sort of silence, to Gryffindor Tower, Hermione finally says, “We should talk about this.”

“About what?” he asks wearily. “I’ve told you everything, honest—”

“That’s not what I mean,” she says firmly, and comes to a halt in the middle of the common room, looking as serious as he has ever seen her. Ron is by her side, but he seems more fatigued, more worn down. He doesn’t look at either of them, but Harry can tell he is listening.

“What do you mean, then?”

Suddenly, she looks tearful, the way he often remembers her looking when his temper would get the best of him and he would lash out at her, trying to drive her away from him.

“Harry,” she says, “you—you walked to your death.”

Here it is, then, he thinks. “Yeah.” His voice is short, clipped. He will not be emotional about this, no matter how emotional Hermione herself is looking right now. “I already told you why, didn’t I?”

“It’s more than that,” Ron finally speaks up. He sounds tired, too, like he wants nothing more right now than to sleep. “I dunno… We should talk about it once we’ve all gotten some rest, I reckon.”

“There’s nothing to talk about!”

Ron looks at him now, an alarmingly sad look, like there is something he knows that Harry does not. Or perhaps he—and Hermione too—are finally seeing Harry for what he really is, this pathetic imitation of a real person he has tricked them into loving.

“There is,” Hermione says quietly. “But…yes, we’re all exhausted. Shall we have something to eat? Someone has already brought something.”

Indeed, three plates of simple sandwiches have been set out by the fire, and Harry is briefly struck by how much it seems like something Dobby would do, but, of course, Dobby is dead, really dead, not this in-between thing Harry is. He surmises that, rather, this food has been brought by Kreacher, who must have anticipated their return here, perhaps along with the other house-elves from the kitchens. Hermione doesn’t seem too bothered by this, however, and so Harry can do nothing but go along with all of it, eating along with his friends before finally one of them grabs his arm and pulls him in close, and the other leans in from the other side, closing him between them in an uncomfortable and nearly suffocating pile on the couch in the common room.

He thinks to protest, but just as suddenly there is a hand running through his hair, another removing his glasses. All at once, his own exhaustion catches up with him, and there is no chance for him to fight against any of it before he is falling asleep.

*

They sleep for a long time, but once they are all awake, have had a chance to shower and redress, Hermione is again insisting there is something they need to talk about. She walks up to their dorm room, which has, apparently, not been used much at all this year, given Dean’s situation and Neville’s as well. Once there, she locks the door, casts Mufliato, and then turns to Harry and says, “I don’t know how we’re supposed to talk about this.”

She has that look on her face again, so terribly sad, possibly on the verge of tears.

“Just say it,” he tells her. “If you’re trying to spare my feelings, don’t bother, I already know—”

“Know what, mate?” inquires Ron. It is not a challenge, exactly, but it sort of is.

“Well.” Harry stops, frowning, trying to figure out how in the world he can explain their own feelings to them. “Well, you’re angry with me, aren’t you?”

“Angry!” Hermione is standing directly before him in an instant, wide-eyed, somehow looking even more upset than before. She wraps her arms around him and buries her face in his chest, not pulling away even when he stiffens at the contact.

Ron puts a hand over her head and then glances up to meet Harry’s eyes. “Not angry,” he says. “We’re worried, that’s all. Er, we’ve wondered before, you know, and I guess—well, I reckon it was wrong of us to never do anything before, but we didn’t really know what or how, and—well, it doesn’t really make sense to us, does it?”

Harry stares at him. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he manages after a long moment.

Hermione tightens her hold on him. “Nobody could walk to their death,” she says, voice muffled by his shirt, “if they didn’t really want to die.”

And then she is crying, tears soaking into his clothes. He barely even notices, though, mind suddenly moving as fast as his heart is beating.

“Oh,” he says, feeling small.

Ron gently pries Hermione away from him, then guides the both of them to sit on the floor. Hermione hides her face behind her hands, sniffling, unable to catch her breath.

“We thought being there for you was enough,” Ron says, like it is a terrible confession. “I s’pose we thought it’s something that being loved can cure.”

Harry shudders, bringing his knees up to his chest. He looks straight ahead, at the wall, unable to face those sad looks head-on. “So, that’s it?” he asks, voice dull, flat, lifeless. “You see now I’m not worth it, and that’s the end? You won’t do this anymore?”

Hermione lets out a loud, painful-sounding sob. “No!” she cries. “No, o-of course not. Harry.”

Despite himself, his eyes sting a bit. He scowls, wishing they would not.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Ron says. “We just, er, want you to talk about it. You can tell us, you know, anything? But…erm, clearly not talking about it was the wrong thing to do, so…”

“What’s there to talk about?” Harry asks harshly, swinging his head around to meet Ron’s eyes. They are so very blue, a weight within them that no eighteen-year-old should be burdened with that serves to dim their beauty. This is Harry’s fault. This is something he has done to Ron, has taken all his own jagged, broken pieces and used them to hurt Ron too.

“What you were thinking?” Ron suggests. “Feeling? I dunno, mate. Just help us understand.”

“There’s nothing to understand.” He drags in a deep breath. There is a pain in his chest, spreading down to his gut, up to his throat, and soon it will overwhelm him but he will fight it back before it does, will not let his vision blur now, will not let himself give into childish indulgences. “It’s not like I’m planning to off myself, you know. If I hadn’t done what I did, Voldemort would still be here!”

“We could have found another way,” Hermione whispers, seeming to have gained back the ability to speak, though her voice remains thick with emotion.

“There wasn’t one,” Harry denies. “It made sense, didn’t it? I should never have lived in the first place, I shouldn’t be alive now—”

“You are, though,” Ron interrupts as Hermione lets out a devastated sort of whimper. “Sure, your circumstances are a little… Er, but—you’re still here anyway, aren’t you? But right now we don’t really know…well, we can’t really say you will be for long, can we? We don’t… I mean, I’ve worried about it before, you know, that maybe something was, I dunno, wrong, but…”

“We love you,” Hermione says. “We love you. We don’t want you to die.”

Harry looks away from them again. This is not how things were supposed to happen; the words are rising to his lips before he can stop them: “I wanted you to leave,” he snaps. “I wanted you to go, and you still won’t and now you know, don’t you? That I wish I could have died with my parents or maybe in the Chamber of Secrets, or in that graveyard with Cedric.” He stops, breathing hard, then ploughs on, too caught up in the words to make them stop, “And I don’t even know why I bothered to come back, ‘cause I knew you would hate me for it and it would’ve been so much easier than all of this, if you lost me first because I don’t think I can lose you, all right? So what was I supposed to tell you? What am I supposed to tell you now? Everything I do and think and say, it all just hurts you! Both of you! And that’s the last thing I want to do, you know, so—”

He stops, his breaths coming to a stuttering halt, as Ron reaches over top of Hermione and puts a gentle but firm hand over his cheek, turning his head back around. His eyes are still sad, but they are blazing too, a sort of determination Harry remembers seeing all those years ago when he directed them in that giant chess match, the same look he had on his face standing up to Sirius in the Shrieking Shack.

“Do you even hear the way you talk?” he demands. “Merlin, Harry, I dunno how many times we have to tell you we aren’t going anywhere before you really believe it, but we’ll just keep saying it ‘til you do.”

“But—”

“We know,” Hermione cuts in. “We know it’s hard, Harry, and we don’t care about that. There’s no war anymore, not one you need to be in the middle of, anyway, but even if there were we would go through it all again and again if it was the only way to keep you with us. We love you.”

“Then you shouldn’t!” Harry erupts, pulling away from Ron’s touch and getting to his feet, glaring down at both of them. “What have I done but make your lives miserable? Go on, tell me! There isn’t anything, I just used you—”

“Used us!” Hermione is on her feet too, eyes wide, not quite angry but close to it. “You don’t get to speak for us, Harry! We made our choice and it isn’t because you made us—actually, you always sort of stood against us on the whole thing, you know, and I don’t think you ever even realized it! And you’re doing it now too, trying to get rid of us because you think there’s something wrong with you, but there isn’t!”

She begins to blur slightly and he blinks, hard, furious with himself. “Isn’t there?” he demands. “That’s not normal, people aren’t supposed to walk to their deaths, you said so—”

“But anyone would, I reckon,” Ron puts in. “If they’d been through what you have. I mean, I’m no expert, mate, but it’s not exactly, er, an uncommon issue, way I understand it.”

“And it’s not something wrong with you,” Hermione adds. “It’s just—it’s just one more thing you’ll have to get past, and you can say whatever you like or—or throw things at us or try to hex us, it doesn’t matter. When it’s all over, we’ll still be here and we won’t hate you for it, either. We never could.”

All at once, his anger seems to drift away, his shoulders slumping as it goes. He was not really angry at them; he never is, not really. It is, after all, something far more internal, a battle he must fight with himself, because indeed there is a part of him that is tempted to tell her what she’s saying is completely mental, of course they’ll hate him—after all, he often finds that he hates himself quite a lot, and sometimes it makes him do foolish things like punch mirrors because he likes the way the glass stabs into his skin when his reflection breaks apart—but it is a part of him, not a part of them, and so he doesn’t.

Sometimes, Harry grows frustrated with Hermione, for always knowing everything, particularly when he does not know it himself. But the truth is quite simple, really: Hermione does know this, and, as usual, Harry must begrudgingly admit that he was wrong, all along, and she is right. And, for once, Ron is on her side instead of his, which makes it so much worse, so much more damning.

And so it is that he already knows what they will say, but he asks anyway: “Why?”

“Because you’re you,” Hermione says, like it should be obvious.

“And we like you,” Ron adds. “Love you, even.”

This is something he is a little less sure about, something he thinks they are not entirely sure about yet themselves, either, but he has to ask this too: “Love me how?”

They look between each other, and then turn back to him, both wearing expressions he doesn’t think he could even begin to describe. With a gentle tug of his hand, Hermione guides him back to sitting, and this time he falls in between them, and they are both touching him—a hand on his arm, on his leg, at his neck—like they can’t bear to not be in contact with him.

“Love you enough to go to war for you,” says Ron quietly.

“To promise the rest of my life to you,” Hermione puts in, just as soft, as gentle.

“To do stupid things with you.”

“To tell you when you’re about to do something stupid, and then do it with you anyway.”

“To talk about awkward things.” Ron makes a face at this, and Harry almost laughs, would have laughed if not for the lump in his throat, the burning from his cheeks to his eyes.

“To talk about less awkward things, too. Like Quidditch, even though it’s dreadfully boring.”

“It’s not,” Ron argues. “You just don’t get it like we do.”

“To put up with both of you when you’re being idiots,” Hermione remarks after a moment, smiling a bit.

“To let you copy my homework,” Ron suddenly declares.

“Even though it’s rubbish,” says Hermione, and Ron scowls at her.

“To share my Chocolate Frogs with you, then.”

“To give you the time to apologize when you say things you don’t mean. And to know that you don’t really mean them.”

“To help you out when you have nightmares.” Ron grimaces. “Because I don’t think that Voldemort is where those end.”

Mutely, Harry shakes his head. He fears that, if he spoke now, he might begin to cry, and he thinks that they have already seem him cry too many times, that he really should not cry so much anyway. He cried at Shell Cottage, too. And at Grimmauld Place, in the washroom with the broken mirror and the shower running behind him. They did not ridicule him for it, of course, but it does not make it any less humiliating, any less a show of great weakness.

“To take long, romantic walks on the beach with you,” Hermione says wryly. “If you wanted to, that is.”

“Oh, but you know,” Ron says, “sand gets everywhere, that’s what my mum says. You can never wash it out, even with magic. It’s got a magic of its own, she says.”

“Then we’ll wear close-toed shoes.” Harry isn’t looking at her, but he can practically hear when she rolls her eyes. “It’s just a walk.”

“I’m just saying.”

“Well, fine then.” Hermione huffs. “I wasn’t asking you, anyway. I was asking Harry.”

“Oi!”

Harry tries for a smile, but it fails rather spectacularly. Just the small movement of his lips feels painful, like he is forcing something that simply cannot be. He still gets the feeling like there is a sob hiding just beneath his tongue, that if he opens his mouth now he will expel it and he will not be able to make it stop. All at once, the past few days seem to shift into clear focus. He sees the bodies of the dead, watches Snape die and give up his memories and then watches him come alive all over again, just to tell Harry that he is not supposed to be alive, either.

Was there another way? He never did stop to consider it, but he doesn’t really stop to consider much of anything, does he? For a person like Hermione, his choice would seem absurd, but, then, perhaps it shouldn’t. She did, after all, research the Horcruxes more than any of them, found all the ways to destroy one and never did she find something that could suggest a way to rid a human of a soul fragment like that. If it was so simple, it would have gone when he was bitten by the Basilisk all those years ago, wouldn’t it have?

But it is not just Hermione. Ron, too, does not seem to understand, cannot understand. He doesn’t have a perfect life, no, but he has a family and he has goals and he has Hermione, too, and maybe he should have Harry but Harry barely even feels like a person anymore, which is, perhaps, the most ironic part of it all, that he feels less of a person now that the piece of Voldemort that resided inside him is gone than he ever did when it was still there.

“What are you thinking, Harry?” Hermione asks, soft and kind, coaxing.

The compulsion to answer her is stronger than his determination not to cry; he opens his mouth and there it is, that terrible, aching sob, large and painful, from his chest to his stomach to his throat. But it does not stop, and then there are tears too, and he is gasping out an apology neither of them can understand but still, it does not stop, and this is so very unlike those times before at Shell Cottage and Grimmauld Place or even at the graveyard in Godric’s Hollow, more like a culmination, something he has held on to for a very long time, maybe his whole life.

He remembers being very young and trying to earn his aunt’s affections the same ways Dudley did. He showed her his schoolwork—which he worked hard on, at first, in an attempt to impress her—and he tried his very best not to grow visibly upset when she tore it up and threw the pieces in the bin while Dudley’s work went on the walls or the fridge or anywhere, really, where she could point it out to visitors, so they, too, could croon about Dudley, how very cute he was. She told him, once, that he needed to stop trying so hard on his homework or she would lock him in the cupboard and never let him out. Dudley, she said, is the smartest child in their form, and so Harry constantly trying to show him up was pathetic and infuriating. After that, Harry stopped bothering to do it at all, and his teachers grew to despise him as much as Dudley and his friends did, as much as Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon did.

He did a lot of things for his aunt, thinking that, this time, it would make a difference. By the time he was ten, it seemed mostly pointless, but he never said no when she bossed him around and he never brought up things like his birthday anymore, or about the fact that Dudley got forty presents for Christmas and Harry got an old pair of socks he likely would have gotten later anyway, as they were worn and ready to be thrown away.

Learning about magic changed things, but it was an entirely new role he suddenly had to fill. Harry Potter was a big name, with massive and frightening connotations. At first, he thought it was not so bad, but there were times he wished to regain the anonymity of being the Dursleys’ freakish nephew, the little boy they had to keep in the cupboard under the stairs because they simply had no room for him, because he took up too much space, because they never asked to be burdened with him.

Those two people, the boy from the cupboard under the stairs and the Boy Who Lived, are vastly different from each other. But with Ron and Hermione, he finds that he can be both, or he can be neither, and they will still love him either way.

He isn’t sure, exactly, who he is, or who he is supposed to be. These tears have been sitting inside of him since the beginning, the first time he did something “freaky” and his aunt told his uncle that she didn’t want to see it anymore, that he should do something about this, whatever strange affliction he had that made him so very difficult to love, impossible to love. Sure, he learned the truth eventually, but for the ten years before that, there is only confusion, an apathy, the beginning of this emptiness inside him that serves no purpose but to remind him of his own lack of purpose. And he has served his purpose now, hasn’t he? Has died, has seen this thing to its end, has come back and now here he is, and he does not know who he is or why, not exactly.

There is a head leaning against his chest, bushy hair tickling his jaw. There is an arm around his shoulder, its hand resting on Hermione’s. She must be able to hear the way his heart is beating—because it is beating, he knows, though for a while he is certain it was not—and he wonders what she hears in it, if she can hear the way it echoes within his chest cavity, surrounded as it is by this all-consuming emptiness?

He is not empty now, though. He is full of seventeen years of pain and grief, all of it welling up inside him at once, a torrent of things unsaid and forced down, of all the emotions he has felt but not been allowed to feel, things he has locked away as he once was continually locked in the cupboard under the stairs, and here they all are, endless and excruciating in their weight, too much and yet somehow not enough, like he will never be able to mourn enough for that boy or perhaps even for the man he has become, this person who is afraid of living because life has already been too cruel.

He could cry for his parents. For Dumbledore, or the man Dumbledore became. For Sirius or Remus and Tonks, for poor little Teddy Lupin who will grow up parentless, as he did. He could cry for the fifty or more bodies that littered the floors of Hogwarts before the sun rose upon them again. He could cry for Severus Snape or for Tom Riddle, who were no happier than he was, than he is.

But these tears are not for them. These tears are for Harry himself—Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, tragic orphan condemned to a cupboard for ten miserable years and locked inside a bedroom that would never be really his even after the fact, the Chosen One, Undesirable Number One, the person they are already hailing a saviour, the one who walked into a forest clutching the hands of the dead and looked forward to the moment those hands would solidify and hold him, keep him, protect him. Death is supposed to be absolute. It is supposed to be the end of it all, where every path in life finally converges and there are not supposed to be trains or talk of the living or any feelings. Peace, eternal.

Ron and Hermione are alive, in a way Harry never has been. Only days ago, he thought—really thought—that he could be like that too. For the first time in his life, bar perhaps those first months after he discovered he was a wizard, he even wanted it. But now there is a deep pain within it, something that runs so deep it has left a permanent crack in his soul, and it is nothing to do with the piece of Voldemort’s that had lodged itself there for so many years. This is his, a wound he has never truly noticed before but notices now, with an awareness that perhaps it will never heal, perhaps this, too, is just another scar, but one that, thankfully, others cannot see.

No, that isn’t true. Ron and Hermione can see it. He thinks they must be able to, or they would not have chosen to talk to him about this, would never have taken his hand and healed his bloody knuckles and certainly never would have made a promise to live together as long as they are all alive. There are things they know about him that even he does not know about himself, and that thought both terrifies and exhilarates him.

By the time his tears have stopped and he has reclaimed his voice, he is beyond drained, exhausted in a way he wasn’t even after Voldemort finally fell. This weight is his own. He has carried it far longer than he has carried the knowledge of Voldemort, of all the guilt and the grief that would come from their complicated relationship. He has carried this from the cupboard to Hogwarts, to his parents’ grave and to the Burrow, again and again to Privet Drive and again and again to Hogwarts, baggage that he has always been carrying but has never noticed. There is a freedom in noticing it, though, the sudden realization that he has the power to lighten this load. That it will be difficult, but perhaps not so impossible after all.

“Okay?” Hermione is asking. She’s holding his glasses, though he can’t quite remember taking them off. He rubs tiredly at his eyes and takes them back anyway, grateful that she held them for him at all.

“I’m not really sure,” he says in a low, overused-sounding voice. It hurts to speak, but he suddenly feels he cannot hold anything back now, that something has tipped over inside of him and it will not right itself until it has spilled out all its contents.

“Well, that’s hardly a first,” Ron jokes. It is as though Harry has not just been crying for many long minutes, as if the howling pain within him has been released but has somehow, miraculously, not tainted the air around him, the air around Ron and Hermione.

“You’re hardly one to talk,” he complains, but he smiles.

“Seems like you’re feeling better,” Hermione says. She is still very close to him, one hand resting on his chest, but now she has pulled away enough to meet his eyes.

“Yeah,” he agrees, then hesitates. “Listen, I…I didn’t really—think, I just… It seemed like the best thing to do, at the time, and—it’s what Dumbledore wanted, so I thought, well…he wasn’t wrong about any of the rest of it, was he?”

Suddenly, Hermione looks furious. “And that’s okay, is it? That he wanted you to die?”

Harry winces. “I think—he did what he could, I mean—to make sure I’d be able to return. Didn’t he?”

“But you might not have,” Ron says, very quiet, not a trace of amusement left in his voice. “Nobody else comes back from the dead. Well, ghosts, but that’s a little different, isn’t it?” His arm around Harry seems to tighten, then, just a bit, as if to reassure himself that he won’t just pass through him.

“It just…I dunno. It made sense. I thought…”

“But you said yourself,” Hermione reminds him, and she, too, is speaking very softly indeed, “that you had wanted to die before. Hoped for it, a bit.”

“But I never did,” Harry points out weakly. “I still used the sword, or the portkey, or whatever else—”

“It’s okay,” Hermione interrupts. “It’s okay, Harry, really, to feel like that. You don’t need to pretend for us, or anything. We…we aren’t angry, and we aren’t disappointed in you or anything like that, either. We’re happy you’re here, but we don’t want to ever feel like…”

Ron is nodding his agreement, but Harry frowns.

“I don’t know what you’re saying.”

“We thought you were dead,” Ron mutters. “We never want to feel like that again. The way we felt, thinking you were dead.”

Harry’s blood goes cold with a very belated sense of horror.

“Oh,” he says, feeling small. “I didn’t… I’m sorry—”

“It’s okay,” Hermione says again. “It’s just one more thing, just one. You’ve been through a lot. We all have, really. We can get through this too, Harry, I promise.”

He cannot quite share her certainty, her earnestness, but he nods anyway.

Ron says, “Just, er…promise us, all right? That you won’t go running off to die again anytime soon?”

“I didn’t run,” Harry protests feebly.

“Still. If you feel like—whatever you feel like—”

“Suicidal,” Hermione supplies.

“I’m not suicidal!”

“But if you feel like you are,” Hermione insists.

“You should tell us,” Ron finishes. “‘Cause that’s what we’re here for.”

“To tell me not to be suicidal?” Harry asks faintly.

“No, just to remind you we’ve still got a lot of living to do.” Ron grins at him. “I mean, really, Hermione’s list will take at least three more decades, I reckon—”

“Oh, come now, it’s not that long.”

“Well, vacations aren’t short,” Ron points out. “Takes a while to write a book, too, I’d think—but of course I’d never do something that mental, so I couldn’t really say—”

“Well, at the rate you’re going, it’ll be at least three decades before you lose your virginity!” Hermione says, sticking her nose up.

Harry can’t help it; he laughs. There is a kind of familiarity in this. It is not all the same, no, but they are still here, still bickering about the same things they were just days ago, months ago.

Ron, looking very pleased, laughs too, and then he says, “Well, I didn’t say it had to be you, did I?”

“Implied,” Hermione says, sniffing. “Who else would there be?”

“‘Who else would there be?’” Ron mocks. “Well, Harry took your virginity, couldn’t he take mine too?”

Harry flushes while both of them dissolve into uproarious laughter. He can’t quite be angry about it—it is true, after all, and while he can’t say he has ever really thought about Ron that way, he always was a constant presence when he was with Hermione, so perhaps he has thought about Ron that way after all—but it is terribly embarrassing, to suddenly have this sort of attention on him. He is no more experienced than Hermione is, after all, and certainly not experienced with other men.

“Maybe we could do the vacation first,” he suggests weakly.

Hermione’s eyes light up. “You know, I’ve been thinking, what about Greece? It’s not so far as other places but still far enough, I think. I’ve always wanted to see the Parthenon, I can’t believe I didn’t think about it before.”

“And beaches,” Ron muses. “And we wouldn’t need to camp.”

Harry shakes his head, amused. “Well, there are things we’ll have to do before we can do something like that, I reckon.”

Surprisingly, it is Hermione who waves the dismissive hand. “Who cares?” she asks. “They’ve asked enough of you already. I say we stay for the funerals and the memorials and then we leave before the press can come hounding us for details about the past year.”

Harry hadn’t even thought about that, honestly. His mind had been on rebuilding Hogwarts and the Ministry and all the trials they would surely be expected to be present for, perhaps even to testify at. But those do not seem to be very appealing options, either, and surely they are not the only ones who can speak for or against those who have been, or will be, detained? With the exception of Snape, perhaps, but he is dead anyway. He could insist on having his portrait hung in the Headmaster’s office, or demand that the Wizengamot awards him Order of Merlin posthumously, and of course, as there is a body, he will surely have a funeral, so long as Harry tells them he ought to.

But, even as he thinks it, he realizes that there are not many who would be in attendance. Harry isn’t sure, exactly, what Snape thought of him towards the end, but he suspects, nonetheless, that the man would have been most displeased if the only person at his funeral were Harry Potter. Probably, he would say that it would be better just to not have one at all.

Seeming to sense the direction of his thoughts, Hermione leans over and grabs his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.

“It’ll be all right,” she says, and it is an absolute, a promise.

A promise.

He sighs. “I broke our promise, you know?”

She looks mildly surprised at that, but it is Ron who says, “You’re not dead yet, mate.”

He’s as good as, Harry wants to argue, but the words will not come. They are both watching him closely again, though they probably already know what he is thinking, what he would say if he could just open his mouth and say it.

“We have the rest of our lives,” Hermione says after a long moment. “So if the whole ‘living’ thing gets hard, then we’ll be here anyway.”

“Or we’ll be in Greece,” Ron adds. “But you’ll be there too, ‘course.”

“I think he really does want to go to Greece,” Harry tells Hermione, lips twitching.

“He wants long, romantic walks on the beach too,” Hermione responds in that wise, all-knowing voice she uses so often. “He just doesn’t know it yet.”

“Well, as long as it’s with you,” Ron says, “I s’pose it couldn’t be so bad.”

“Ah, but knowing you two, someone would end up in the water,” she teases.

“I’ve never been to the beach,” Harry admits. “I don’t even know how to swim.”

“Well,” Hermione says, thoughtful, “we could teach you, couldn’t we? Better than Gillyweed, don’t you think so?”

It becomes more than an idea thrown out to ease the tension, then. They stay there for quite a long time, the rest of their conversation not forgotten, certainly not behind them, but no longer at the centre of their thoughts. In the beginning, the list might have been rather arbitrary—there are some things they managed while they were on the run, but Harry will be the first to tell Hermione that she didn’t really learn how to cook—but at some point it became a goal, something to continue on for. The promise they made was not really about the words with which they invoked it; rather, it was the verbalization of something far deeper, a different sort of pact.

When Harry was a child, he was frequently left behind. When circumstances dictated that he could not be, he was certainly not a welcome addition to an otherwise perfect family. He does not think he ever loved his aunt or uncle or Dudley, but if he ever tried to, he was punished for it just the same as he might have been for being disrespectful, for undermining their control over him. Leaving Privet Drive for Hogwarts was better, but now he understands that he left the Dursleys’ control to instead be put under Dumbledore’s—rather, he had been under Dumbledore’s control the entire time, well before he even knew who Dumbledore was.

He doesn’t really know what freedom is, or could be like. There is a part of him that longs for control, but another part of him that similarly yearns to give it up entirely. A part of him that has been an adult his whole life, and a part of him that is still quite childish, that needs to be touched and reassured and is prone to frustration because the rest of the things he feels are simply too complex, too massive, for him to understand any other way.

But there are other feelings he understands. He understands that, sometimes, he loathes Ron and Hermione. Wishes they would see things the way he does, would not stay or perhaps would not go (though, now, he is certain that they will not go, that they will never go again), would let him get away with more or would let him get away with less. He does not really loathe them, though. That is something else altogether, a fear he has held on to for something like fifteen years, something that says it is safer to hate them than to love them and watch them leave. Again and again, he watched it happen. If they did not walk away from him, then they died, and those often feel like the same thing, like death is just the best way “out.”

And it was, for hm, in those last moments. He can still feel that, too, does not know if it will ever go away. It exists within the empty part of him, fools him into thinking, sometimes, that maybe he is whole after all, but it is a hollowness of its own. One cannot live beyond death, and the simple truth is that, many months ago—perhaps even longer, if he really thinks about—he made a promise that he would live.

He is certain, now, beyond certain—Ron and Hermione will not leave him, will never leave him.

And so, he will not leave them. After all, they have a lot of living left to do, and they will do it as they have done everything else before:

Together.