Together by glasscandlegrenades

Summary: "I've had enough trouble for a lifetime," Harry Potter tells his friends after the Battle of Hogwarts. Life, however, is not done with Harry. The Wizarding community is left in chaos and it's up to Harry to fix it, and there's the small matter of repairing his relationship with Ginny, strained after months apart. Will Harry ever be able to settle and enjoy a simple life with the ones he loves?
Rating: R starstarstarstarstar
Categories: Post-DH/AB
Characters: None
Genres: None
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Published: 2017.12.23
Updated: 2018.09.30


Chapter 1: Chapter 1 - On The Nature of Daylight
Chapter 2: Chapter 2 - Next of Kin
Chapter 3: Chapter 3 - Summer Holiday
Chapter 4: Chapter 4 - Ants Marching
Chapter 5: Chapter 5 - Zombie
Chapter 6: Chapter 6 - I Found a Reason
Chapter 7: Chapter 7 - Running Up That Hill
Chapter 8: Chapter 8 - Harness Your Hopes
Chapter 9: Chapter 9 - Time Is On My Side
Chapter 10: Chapter 10 - We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow
Chapter 11: Chapter 11 - Something Soon
Chapter 12: Chapter 12 - Cloudbusting
Chapter 13: Chapter 13 - Needle In The Hay
Chapter 14: Chapter 14 - First Love, Late Spring
Chapter 15: Chapter 15 - Tender is the Night
Chapter 16: Chapter 16 - One Day
Chapter 17: Chapter 17 - This Must Be The Place
Chapter 18: Chapter 18 - This Will Be Our Year
Chapter 19: Chapter 19 - The Kids Are Alright
Chapter 20: Chapter 20 - The Start of Something
Chapter 21: Epilogue - Together

Chapter 1: Chapter 1 - On The Nature of Daylight

Author's Notes: Since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I have been on a personal search for the perfect fanfiction that would somehow manage to cover the nineteen years of Harry’s life between the defeat of Voldemort and the Epilogue. In the last decade, I have read some truly fantastic stories, but have lately found myself becoming more and more difficult to please. I wanted a story that conformed to my exact imagining of Harry’s life, and realized that that was a ridiculous expectation to put on other writers. Thus, this is my personal interpretation of what happens in twenty years of Harry Potter’s life. I’ve tried to stick as heavily to JKR’s canon as possible, and to craft a story that functions believably in the world she with her seven books in the Potter series. I try to respect the canon established by Cursed Child when possible, but allow myself greater leniency. I also pretentiously name every chapter after whatever song I had on repeat as I was writing it. This one is named after the composition On the Nature of Daylight, written by Max Ritcher. Reviews are greatly appreciated, and I hope you enjoy this story.

Harry woke with a start, already sitting up with his wand drawn before he was fully aware of even being conscious. Wondering for a wild moment where he was as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he quickly recognized the hangings of his old four-poster bed in the Gryffindor Tower. Safe, his brain deemed the situation, and his body relaxed.

Breathing deeply, Harry fell back onto his pillow, screwing his eyes shut and allowing the the events of the previous night to play across his thoughts; the memories of Voldemort's own eyes rolling backwards into his head; the sound his body hitting the floor; the screams and cries of his friends and professors, Dumbledore's Army and the Order of the Phoenix. It was over at last.

Harry began to take a deep breath, but suddenly he felt constricted, like someone had wrapped a very large, very heavy chain around his torso, as he remembered the losses of Remus, Tonks, and Fred. A knot formed in his stomach; this victory against Voldemort didn't feel particularly victorious.

He lay there, staring at the top of his four-poster, the last dredges of sleep leaving his body, waiting for the relief he had felt immediately after Voldemort's death to take hold of him again. Even before he learned of prophecy, he hadn't spent very much time thinking too far in the future. Multiple brushes with death at a young age forced a person to take life one day at a time. He had never tried to imagine a future without Voldemort, as he had never really expected that he would be able to defeat the dark wizard, but in times when he wished that he hadn't been born with death hanging over him, he imagined his days would feel euphoric, unencumbered, and free.

But now, in reality, he felt mildly ill. The gnawing knot in Harry's stomach didn't seem as though it was about to abate. For so long his existence had been on a singular track; his fate decided for him: he was to do whatever was necessary to destroy Voldemort. Now, there were questions. Where would he go? What did the world look like now, without Voldemort in it? All Harry had wanted to do was sleep, and he had managed that.

Harry shifted onto his side, dreading the conversations he was sure to be apart of now that he had saved the British Wizarding world: conversations regarding the Ministry and its role in the lives of the magical population; conversations confronting what would become of Hogwarts, after its students had suffered a year of abuse and torture at the hands of the staff; conversations addressing how it would be ensured that no dark wizard would ever grow to command such a following of such maniacal and dangerous proportions again.

And yet, even as Harry's mind wandered, his stomach growled loudly, an abrupt reminder that such abstract concerns could wait in favor of more physical ones. He sat up slowly, wincing as the ache of hours of fighting caught up with him all at once. He couldn't locate a part of his body that wasn't bruised or at least sore. His lips were dry and chapped. He took a moment to appreciate his hunger and pain, as they were proof that his body still full of life and feeling. He pulled back the hangings of his four-poster, hoping Kreacher had heeded his instructions from that morning and that there would be a plate of sandwiches waiting for him.

However, instead of being greeted with the blessed sight of warm sandwiches, Harry found himself face-to-face with Ron.

"Morning," his best friend said simply.

"Morning?" Harry repeated.

Ron glanced at his watch. "It's 9:00 in the morning, Sunday, May 3rd."

"I've slept for a day?" Harry wondered, more to himself than Ron.

"It's probably pretty typical to need a lot of sleep after defeating the darkest wizard of all time. You're the only person I've ever seen do it, though," Ron quipped. "Everyone's left the castle, excluding most of the professors and us."

Harry took 'us' to mean the two of them and Hermione.

"What's going on?" Harry asked, noting the lack of urgency in his voice. It was likely the first time he'd sounded truly calm in over a year.

"What do you mean?"

Harry's mind froze for a moment, and he turned his head, taking in the scene of the dormitory. The absence of Harry, Ron, and Dean during the term had not changed the surroundings in the slightest. Harry's eyes fell on Seamus's 1994 Irish National Quidditch Team banner, fixed above his bed. The Quidditch World Cup he'd attended with the Weasleys seemed a lifetime ago, and yet it hadn't even been four years. He considered Ron's question. What did he mean? He felt disoriented, groggy, and slightly apprehensive of what may have happened or been revealed during his slumber.

Harry was abruptly reminded of when he first learned of the existence of the Order, after Voldemort's return, and all the questions he had then, questions no one was willing to answer. Now he had questions he wasn't sure he wanted answered. He looked back at Ron.

"What have they done with the bodies of the people who died?" he began slowly. "They said Kingsley has been made temporary Minister of Magic. Is there still a Ministry of Magic? Have all the Death Eaters been captured? How is Kingsley going to determine who in the Ministry was corrupt and who was Imperiused? What's going to happen to Hogwarts…"

"Alright, alright, I get what you mean," Ron stopped him. "I'll tell you 'what's going on.'"

Harry nodded, slightly relieved he didn't have to keep going.

Ron took a deep breath. "The Hogwarts faculty and members of the Board of Governors who weren't bloody Death Eaters decided unanimously last night that McGonagall should take over as Headmistress. Guess she was a bit reluctant but Sprout convinced her it was for the best, at least for the time being. It's been decided that term's over, and all surviving students who stayed behind to fight in the battle caught the train to London at eight o'clock this morning." Ron paused for a moment.

Harry blanched at the way that Ron's voice had hardened when he said 'surviving students', attempting to sound casual, but not succeeding in the slightest.

"How many came back after McGonagall evacuated the school?" Harry asked, again not fully sure if he wanted to hear the answer. Ron looked away pointedly, pretending to be interested in something outside the tower's paned window.

"Twenty-five from our year remained. All of us, all of the Hufflepuffs, half the Ravenclaws, none of the Slytherins," Ron said. "And another twenty-five who were underage snuck back through the Hog's Head. There were fifteen casualties from Hogwarts. The youngest was fourteen. Jimmy Peakes. Apparently fifty died altogether."

So Colin and Jimmy had both ignored McGonagall's orders and died for it. For him. The knot in Harry's stomach grew larger. He must've made a face, because Ron looked back at him, glaring.

"I know what you're thinking," he said bluntly. "It's not your fault."

"I don't know why they thought they had to help," Harry said miserably.

"No one had to help, mate," Ron snapped back. "Not me, not Hermione, not my family. We all knew what we were getting into. A thousand McGonagalls wouldn't have been able to keep you from sneaking back to the school when you were fourteen."

"It just seems wrong," Harry sighed, swinging his feet out of bed and standing. "They died for us and now we get to sit here and enjoy everything that they gave their lives for. Remus and Tonks are dead and all I can think of is how much I want a sandwich. And Fred... " Harry trailed off, not knowing what to say.

Ron rolled his eyes. "Don't do that," he frowned. "Don't get all guilty and feel like you have to apologize or act like it didn't happen to you too; like he wasn't your brother as much as mine. I keep forgetting, or not forgetting, but not remembering. I'll walk down a corridor thinking about how badly I have to take a piss, and then I'll remember that Fred is gone, and then I feel like someone is squeezing all the air out of me, like I'll never be happy again, like I'm surrounded by a hundred dementors with no wand. And then I reach the closest loo and stop remembering again. It's only been thirty-six hours. Ginny says she thinks it will be like this forever."

Harry grimaced, wondering exactly how and when Ron had suddenly developed such emotional maturity. "I didn't mean to be a prat. How's your mum?"

Ron softened a bit. "You're not a prat. We're all exhausted. I can tell Mum's relieved that she doesn't have to worry about us all dying tomorrow anymore, but then again, one of us did die, so that's put a damper on the whole thing. She can't stop crying. Bill and Fleur took her home this morning. Do you want me to finish answering your questions?"

"Not really, but I suppose I'm going to find out anyways," Harry replied darkly.

"Most of the bodies have been collected by their families," Ron began again, looking uncomfortable, which Harry imagined was the natural expression when describing people you once knew as 'bodies'. "I've just heard this morning that funerals are being planned for this week. Andromeda Tonks said she'll be doing Lupin and Tonks's together on Wednesday."

Harry nodded again, thinking he may need to sit back down.

Ron shifted his weight from one foot to another, and his look of discomfort deepened. "The thing is, er, I think Hermione wanted to talk to you about it, but she's been helping McGonagall and the other Heads with getting people home. The thing is," he repeated uneasily, "when you asked about all the Death Eaters being captured, well, the straight answer is no. Kingsley's having the ones we've caught held in the chambers of the Wizengamot, and we've accounted for all the dead, but the numbers aren't there. Yesterday morning we realized some had fled, but it seems like it's really quite a few who managed to get away. Dad and Kingsley reckon that some managed to leave the grounds and Disapparate in the chaos between Charlie and Slughorn showing up with reinforcements and you finally killing You-Know- Voldemort, I mean."

The knot in Harry's stomach seemed to drop. "Oh," he said.

"It's not a pressing issue," Ron continued quickly. "Kingsley keeps calling it a 'concern'. He's assembling teams of Aurors now to try and track them down."

Harry was not feeling particularly reassured. "Kingsley's been back here?"

"He's back and forth between here and London every few hours."

Harry sighed. Some of the feeling of listlessness had been lifted. He knew now what he had to do.

"Hermione's in the Great Hall?" he asked.

"Yeah," Ron said. "It's still a bit of a mess down there."

"Seems like it's all still a bit of a mess," Harry replied darkly. "Let's go meet her."

Ron shrugged. "Looks like Kreacher's done your wash."

Harry glanced to the foot of the bed. His t-shirt, jeans, and trainers were folded and stacked neatly where his Hogwarts trunk usually rested. Harry again looked around the dormitory for a moment. Despite the surroundings being unchanged from the six years he spent here, the room didn't have the same warmth or comfort that he was used to. The space had always been what came to mind when he thought of home, but now it felt unremarkable.

"Shame, really," Ron said, eyeing the laundry. "You could've made a fortune selling those unwashed."

"What?" Harry said, pulling on his jeans and not paying attention.

"Er- I just meant, you know, the clothes you wore when you defeated the Dark Lord," Ron replied. "People would pay thousands of Galleons to have those."

"What in the name of Merlin's pants are you on about?" Harry asked, giving Ron a long look.

"Nevermind," Ron said, turning red. "Let's go."

The two made their way down the staircase into the common room.

"It's not so bad in here," Ron said.

Harry looked around. A few of the windows were missing panes, but beyond that, there didn't seem to be any lasting spell damage. Like his dormitory, though, the empty common room seemed cold and uninviting. Harry stopped for a moment, trying to pull happy memories of this place to the front of his mind. He found some: playing Exploding Snap with Ron in front of the fireplace; writing to Sirius by the window; Ginny leaning over his shoulder as he worked on homework. Yet the location of these memories felt disjointed and dissimilar to the room he was in now, like this was a cheap imitation of a place where better times had passed.

The pair stepped through the portrait hole and into the corridor. It was oddly bare; all of the portraits had left their frames, and the alcoves that once housed suits of armor up and down the halls were empty. Ron set off towards the Grand Staircase, Harry trailing behind, trying to take it all in. They passed a gaping hole in one hall, and Harry could see out onto the grounds, spotting the Quidditch Pitch bathed in the morning light. There were scorch marks on most of the walls, with chunks of stone and rubble piled on the floors.

The reached the staircase, and Harry gave a start. It was completely still, and entire steps were missing in several places. Ron caught his eye.

"It's a real pain in the arse," he said. "We tried to charm them back together last night, but McGonagall says that since everything has been blown apart by dark magic it will be more difficult to repair."

Harry wondered for a moment if this was the reason why Hogwarts seemed so cold and unfamiliar. He was used to the school being a place of whimsy, secrets, and curiosities, all under the benevolent eye of Albus Dumbledore. There was darkness at Hogwarts, there always had been, but the school itself had always been bright, full of students, the sounds of laughter, and the smells of delicious food. He had spent little time at the school since Dumbledore's death, and that, combined with the curse damage, seemed to have drained the life out of the place that he had always considered his only real home.

They made their way down the castle, jumping over the holes in the staircase until they reached the Entrance Hall. The last bit of marble step was still blown away, and the damage in the hall was the worst Harry had seen. One of the doors to the school had been forced from the hinge and lay propped against the wall. To Harry's horror, the charred marks on the wall here were still accompanied by the rust-colored stains on the flagstones that he had seen the night of the battle. Quickly, Harry veered left towards the Great Hall. The carved wooden doors were open, and light streamed in from the stained glass windows behind the table which typically accommodated Hogwarts professors.

Harry's eyes scanned the room, finally landing at the Hufflepuff table, where sat two figures. Another two people stood alongside them, deep in conversation. Ron started walking down the Hall, Harry following closely behind.

As he approached the standing figures, Harry recognized Professor McGonagall and Hermione. Hermione was speaking in a low, serious voice, and McGonagall was nodding along, looking equally grave.

"... and I'm not sure that I fully agree with Kingsley, that they will lay low without a leader. I think the Order should be prepared for attempts at retaliation, not necessarily against witches and wizards, but the more marginalized creatures who stood against Voldemort yesterday. Centaurs, house-elves.…" Hermione trailed off as she noticed Harry and Ron. She smiled at him, abandoning whatever she had been saying to McGonagall.

"Harry," she said, and rushed forward, embracing him. He threw his arms around her, allowing himself to feel the happiness of the moment; they were alive, and he, Ron, and Hermione had not seen the last of each other.

"How are you feeling?" she asked, her expression sincere. "Madam Pomfrey is still in the hospital wing, I'm sure she could brew you a Calming Draught if you needed it…"

"I'm fine. Really," Harry added, as she threw him a worried look. "Thanks, though, Hermione, I appreciate it."

She smiled at him again, but the worry in her eyes remained. Harry turned to McGonagall, who was surveying him shrewdly.

"Professor...," he began, but McGonagall held up a hand.

"I'm sure whatever you're about to tell me, Potter, can wait until you've had some breakfast," she said crisply. "Perhaps you will be able to convince Mr. and Miss Weasley to join you."

Harry's head turned sharply and his heart leapt. The moment he had caught sight of Hermione the two seated figures had been forgotten, but as he looked to his right, he realized that the pair was George and Ginny, both sitting in front of untouched bowls of porridge. George's face was blotchy and his eyes empty as they gazed at the bowl. Next to him, Ginny's arms were crossed over her chest as she turned to face McGonagall. The sunlight caught her hair, and as he watched the flames dance Harry felt that he had never been happier to have eyes.

"Really, Professor, it's fine, I'm not hungry," Ginny half-argued, half-pled.

McGonagall's lips were thin, and her eyes rolled momentarily upwards. Harry looked at Hermione and grinned.

"Miss Weasley," McGonagall began, a note of exasperation in her voice, "you were permitted to remain at the castle even after all the other students and your parents departed, because Madam Pomfrey said it helped to have extra hands as victims were transported to St. Mungo's. Nearly all of the injured have now been moved, and I would be remiss if I didn't insist on you obtaining some nourishment."

Ginny's lips pursed so quickly she and McGonagall looked near-identical for a moment, but even she was no match for the newly-appointed headmistress, and so Ginny turned back to her bowl, spooning some of the steaming oats into her mouth, before glancing up at Harry.

"Fancy seeing you here," she said thickly through a mouthful of porridge.

Harry laughed for what seemed like the first time in months. The sound seemed forced and awkward, but all of his anxiety, guilt, and agitation seemed dulled suddenly. The sight of Ginny being so wonderfully herself despite everything was like a jolt to his system, a reminder that all of this chaos, death, and destruction had a purpose. He took a seat next to her on the long bench, and a spoon and bowl of porridge appeared in front of him. Ron and Hermione rounded the table and sat down across from them. They looked at each other silently for a moment, unsure of what to say.

It was Ginny who broke the silence.

"I suppose 'thank you' seems a bit insufficient, given the circumstances," she said, gazing at him at she raised her spoon to her mouth for a second time. He hadn't spoken to her since they were all outside the Room of Requirement, and had only seen her around the Great Hall once or twice after it all ended.

"I don't want thanks," Harry told her quietly.

"I know," Ginny said, a small smile playing at the corner of her mouth. "But thanks'll probably be about all you'll hear for the rest of your life. You should get used to it."

Was she really taking the mickey out of him, now? Harry wondered. Granted, this was the younger sister of Fred and George.

"You aren't hungry?" he asked her.

Her face darkened unexpectedly. "I'm starving, but every time I stop moving, I start thinking. I can't stand it."

"We've all been trying to stay busy, helping Professor McGonagall and the other Heads with repairs and Madam Pomfrey with the injured," Hermione added.

Harry turned behind him. McGonagall had her wand out, and was pointing it at the broken windowpanes behind the professor's table with a look of extreme concentration. As if coming from nowhere, glass was appearing in the panes, twisting and moulding itself until it sealed the broken spaces.

"Why didn't you go back to the Burrow with the others?" Harry asked Ron.

"Well, mate, we were waiting for you to wake up, weren't we?" Ron replied. "Unless you would've preferred to come to alone in the castle with only McGonagall and Peeves for company."

"You lot, then," Harry looked back at Ginny. He didn't feel as though he was able to meet George's eye, but that didn't matter much, as George still hadn't looked up from his bowl.

Ginny frowned. "To sit around with nothing to do but watch Mum's sobbing? Not bloody likely."

Harry felt his face grow hot. Only Ron had addressed the loss of Fred directly, but it seemed to permeate everything around the five of them. Ginny must've realized his discomfort, and she reached out and touched his wrist. Harry felt shivers run up his spine. Some of her usual warmth was still lacking, but it was still Ginny, alive. They fell back into silence, everyone playing idly with their porridge, until suddenly the figure of McGonagall loomed over their place at the table.

Harry made to stand up, but McGonagall brusquely waved him down, gathering her robes around her as she slid onto the bench next to Ron, who automatically stiffened. Harry felt his own mouth open slightly; he had never witnessed a teacher sitting at one of the house tables. It felt rather foreign to see Minerva McGonagall sitting across from him, without a straight-backed chair behind her.

"Harry," she began slowly. "I don't mean to be abrupt, but I wonder if you may be able to explain to me how exactly you managed to defeat Voldemort. People are already beginning to ask questions, and several well-meaning members of the Wizengamot are discussing putting together an official commission, though I believe Elphias Doge is attempting to postpone that delightful venture until the Department of Magical Law Enforcement is running effectively again. Regardless, I've already asked Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger, but they have refused to give me any information other than that your time spent in hiding during the last year was, in fact, partly responsible for his downfall."

Harry looked at Ron, who shrugged.

"Potter," McGonagall said, and Harry nearly smiled as registered her return to the use of his surname. Some things weren't changed by the war, clearly. "Potter, when you were speaking to Voldemort, just before… well, Kingsley, the other professors, and I heard you tell him that there were no more Horcruxes. Professor Slughorn is now convinced that Voldemort did, in fact, create a Horcrux, and not just one, but multiple. Is there any truth to his suspicions?"

"Yes, Professor," Harry said, figuring it was best to get it over with. Ginny was looking between he and McGonagall perplexedly, and even George had stopped staring into the porridge to gaze at Harry. "He created seven."

McGonagall hand flew up from the table to clutch at her chest. "Seven?" she all but gasped. "He split his soul into eight pieces?"

"He made one out of the diary that he used to possess Ginny her first year," Harry began, and Ginny's grip on his wrist tightened. "One was made from the locket of Salazar Slytherin, one from a cup belonging to Helga Hufflepuff, one from Ravenclaw's lost Diadem, one from a ring that was his grandfather's, one was part of his snake Nagini, and one was me."

Though this information was not new to Hermione, she gave a small moan. Ginny looked even more bemused.

"I'm sorry, Potter, but I'm not sure I comprehend," McGonagall said, her voice shaking. "Voldemort turned you into a Horcrux?"

"Well, not intentionally," said Harry, who then explained to her Dumbledore's suspicions about the night his parents died, and his necessary trip into the Forbidden Forest. He did not reveal his use of the Resurrection Stone, nor his dream-like interaction with Dumbledore at King's Cross Station, feeling that neither incident was necessary to understanding the fall of Voldemort. As he described Voldemort's use of the Cruciatus Curse on his body and their march from the forest back to the castle, McGonagall's expression softened and Ginny laced her fingers through his under the table. Harry felt his face grow warm, but pressed on.

Harry described how after Neville beheaded Nagini, he knew he would have to reveal himself soon. He then backtracked, spending nearly fifteen minutes explaining his private lessons with Dumbledore, and Dumbledore's suspicions of which objects were, in fact, Horcruxes. He finally was able to tell McGonagall exactly what he was doing with Dumbledore the night he died, and how Hermione had discovered the ways in which Horcruxes could be destroyed. He explained why the trio had to undertake their well-reported infiltration of the Ministry, the destruction of the locket, their subsequent capture by Snatchers and the flight from Malfoy Manor, the break-in and escape from Gringotts, and their passage through the Hog's Head.

He finally paused, unsure of where to go from this point. Ron and Hermione looked mildly uncomfortable, and Harry understood why; attempting to put the events of the nine months prior into a few blanket statements was a harrowing feat, and required the omission of several key events that Harry didn't feel he would want anyone to know besides the three of them. George and McGonagall both looked simply dumbfounded, but when Harry turned his head to catch Ginny's eye, she was giving him the same hard, blazing look she had when she had first embraced him after the Quidditch Championship, hardly a year ago.

"Forgive me, Potter," McGonagall said, "but I am still confused. Professor Dumbledore told you last year, before his death, that it would be necessary to sacrifice yourself to destroy the Horcrux attached to your own soul?"

"Er, no, not exactly," Harry said uneasily. He had particularly dreaded that he must reveal this part of the tale. "Ron, Hermione, and I, we knew we had to kill the snake for it to be over. So we went to the Shrieking Shack, where Voldemort and his Death Eaters were waiting out the beginning of the battle. Snape was there, and Voldemort killed him. Snape gave me the memories of Dumbledore telling him that I had to die to defeat Voldemort. He was never Voldemort's," Harry told them all, repeating his words to Voldemort from the morning before. "Really, I don't know if we could've destroyed Voldemort without Snape."

McGonagall was now looking at Harry shrewdly, her face set, though Harry could see that her eyes were glistening, and he felt embarrassed for a moment. "I see," she said, her voice firm. "Well, Harry, with your permission, I will inform the rest of the Order of the Phoenix and the staff about your experiences, and will keep the information limited to only the necessary details."

Harry was flooded with appreciation for Minerva McGonagall and his face split into a weak grin. "Thanks, Professor."

She nodded again, before turning to Hermione. "Miss Granger, I must ask your assistance with a rather gruesome task. Colin Creevey's father has just arrived from Kent, and I was hoping you might aid me in explaining to him exactly how his son came to perish at school after spending a year in hiding with his brother. I'm afraid I might falter in maintaining sensitivities to his Muggle understanding of our world."

Hermione paled considerably, but steeled her gaze. "Of course, Professor," she said, and Harry wondered for a moment if he had ever met a witch as brave or strong as Hermione Granger.

Ron placed a hand on Hermione's shoulder and looked at McGonagall. "I'm coming too, Professor," he said firmly. "I can wait outside if you don't want to overwhelm Colin's dad."

A small smile formed in the corner of McGonagall's mouth. "Very well, Weasley," she agreed, before turning. Ron and Hermione stood and followed, and Harry couldn't help but notice that Ron's hand lingered at the sleeve of Hermione's jumper, just for a moment. Harry looked down at Ginny's own hand, still entwined with his, and smiled.

"How long has that been going on?" George's voice wondered, and Harry gave a start and looked up. Clearly, despite the blank look in his eyes, George had also noticed Ron's fingers on Hermione's sleeve.

"They kissed during the battle," Harry said.

"Not before?" Ginny asked with a short laugh. "We've entertained ourselves at Muriel's for weeks imagining you playing gooseberry to Ron and Hermione out in the wilderness. I'm pretty sure Fred and George had a bet going on how long it would take for them to shag."

Harry ducked his head, feeling himself blush, but George shook his head. "I never thought they'd be so chaste. Fred was right; he figured even if they had gotten that far, Ron wouldn't have known where to put it."

Ginny grinned and Harry snorted into his porridge. George smiled for just a moment before letting his face fall back into misery.

"I guess I won't have to pay up those five Galleons now, though, will I?" he asked, more to himself than the others. He looked up at Ginny. "I have no idea what I'm doing."

She looked at her brother tenderly. "We all feel that way," she told him. "We're going to be alright."

George sighed, idly picking up his spoon again. "Don't see how, really."

"I know," Ginny mumbled. She pushed her porridge away from her with one hand and turned back to Harry. "Care for a walk?"

"Sure," Harry answered, a bit taken aback. Ginny stood from the long bench, and Harry followed suit. George glanced up at them.

"I suppose I'm not invited on your stroll?" he asked, pretending to sound affronted, though Harry thought he caught the flash of a wicked glint in his eye.

"'Course you are," Ginny replied cooly. George rolled his eyes.

"Have fun, you two," he said.

Ginny turned wordlessly and began walking up the rows of tables towards the Entrance Hall. Harry followed behind, realizing he didn't quite care if George saw that their hands were still linked. The comfort of being near Ginny again outweighed any discomfort that came from the Weasleys being aware of the nature of their relationship.

"Did you ever tell your family about last spring?" Harry wondered. "About us, I mean."

Ginny shook her head as they reached the Entrance Hall. "My parents and Bill don't know. I think Fleur might, but Fred and George just guessed when we were at Muriel's. I panicked a bit after hearing that you lot had broken into Gringotts."

"That was only two days ago," Harry murmured. "It's mad."

"None of this feels real," Ginny replied. "I'm trying to feel relieved but I can't really manage it. I'm trying to appreciate the safety, or the freedom, or whatever it is, really, but even the best parts of all this feel a bit miserable."

They turned towards the great oak doors, and walked out onto the lawn. It was the perfect spring day; warm, with the slightest breeze. Harry closed his eyes for a moment and felt the sun on his face. But as he opened them again, he saw that the grounds, like the castle, bore still the marks of battle. Uprooted trees lay on their sides, bits of stone that had been blown off the turrets were scattered around the grass. Harry saw a lone trainer to his left.

"Let's go to the lake," Ginny suggested, and Harry knew immediately that she wanted to find one of their old spots; that she, like him, was struggling to find familiarity in this Hogwarts that was so tainted with misery and death. It seemed impossible that just a year ago he had been passing lazy afternoons with Ginny on this same grass, where just two nights ago their friends and family had fallen in the war against Voldemort.

The placid water of the lake was glittering in the sunlight as they walked down to the tree by the bank, still holding hands. They found a bit of grass under the shade and Ginny sat down, hugging her knees to her chest.

"I don't know what to do with myself," she sighed, repeating George's words.

"You're telling me," Harry said.

She scooted a bit closer to him, so that their shoulders nearly touched. Harry felt his heart rate pick up. "I don't want to go home," she continued. "I can't face my mother. We were together after the battle, but as everything became less raw, slowed down a bit, it just became heartbreaking. I don't want to think about him."

Harry didn't need to ask who "him" was referring to as he gazed towards the sun, squinting a bit. "I remember feeling that way after Sirius died," he told her. "I didn't want to feel anything, I didn't want to remember him." He thought the letter his mother wrote to Sirius after his first birthday, and the warmth he felt reading it for the first time. He wondered if his mother had loved Sirius like a sibling, the way he cared for Hermione. The loss of Lupin made his parents seem even more distant. Was there anyone still alive who remembered Lily and James Potter?

Ginny took a deep breath. Harry looked away from the sun and idly starting pulling up bits of grass from the ground beneath them. He wasn't sure what to do. Part of him want to embrace her, to hold her, to tell her everything about their time apart. But something had changed; the air around them was different. They weren't the same people they had been when she had kissed him on his seventeenth birthday. He knew he had to say something to her.

"I missed you," he decided, looking quickly up at her.

She looked up, pushing her curtain of hair behind her ear and holding his gaze. "I missed you, too," she said sincerely.

Harry felt suddenly like a weight had been lifted off his chest, and he realized that despite everything he had been through, the Horcruxes, the battle, the deaths of Fred, Remus, and Tonks, he had still held that small, nagging fear that Ginny wouldn't have felt the loss of their relationship as acutely as he did.

He inclined his head back to the lake, inspired by her reciprocity. "Honestly, Ron, Hermione and I, we didn't do much while we were hunting the Horcruxes. It was really dull, at points. I thought about this a lot," he said, gesturing to her, the tree above them, the water. "I don't know if I ever told you, last spring, but being with you here was the happiest I'd been in a long time."

Ginny smirked. "I think you may've mentioned it when you were dumping me, which also happened to be in front of this lake."

Harry felt himself blush. "Er, I just meant it was nice to have those memories, that's all. When there was really nothing else to go on, I mean."

Ginny grinned in full now, leaning into Harry a bit. His heart continued thudding along, but he took his hand from hers and moved it around her back, so that it rested on the ground next to her left thigh. "I was only joking," she murmured lightly. "You don't have to talk about it, if you don't want to. I don't need answers. I'm just happy you're okay."

Harry sat up straighter. "I do want to talk about it," he said. "Just, not now," he hesitated for a moment. "I'm glad you're okay, too."

They fell back into silence, now. Harry kept thinking about what he had to do, how this calmness, reflected by the lake, couldn't last. It felt too similar to last year, and wanting to put off breaking up with Ginny to steal the last moments of happiness that had really never seemed like they belonged to him. He stole a glance at her, still sitting next to him, and found her again wearing her blazing look.

"I know you said you don't want to talk yet," she started, and then seemed to hesitate.

"It's okay," Harry said, though he felt his posture harden and his chest constrict. He didn't think he could bear talking about Fred, or Lupin, or Tonks right now.

"It's just that, you were saying that You-Know-Who's diary, you know, from my first year, was one of those things…"

"A Horcrux," Harry interrupted her.

"A Horcrux, yeah. So that was a Horcrux that possessed me, and it had part of You-Know-Who's soul in it?"

Harry nodded. Ginny looked uncomfortable as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ears and steeled her gaze, staring out into the water. The surface broke and a large tentacle shot up into the air as if waving to the pair sitting on the bank.

"And you, since you were a baby, you've also had a part of You-Know-Who's soul in you?" Ginny pressed on.

Harry nodded again. "It's gone now," he told her. "Voldemort killed the bit of himself that was a part of me."

Ginny looked back to him, and Harry remembered how difficult it was to gaze at her when she was being so direct, not unlike staring into the sun.

"When he possessed me with the diary, after you saved me, and it was over, I remember finally feeling like I had my head back. I think about it all the time, how he was in there, how I was him. And it was only for a school year."

Harry looked away. "I know," he said. "I don't know what it'll be like, being me without being him."

Ginny took his hand again. "I'm sorry," she murmured. Harry knew she wasn't apologizing because she asked an invasive question, or because she felt pity for him, but because she knew exactly what he was facing, and it upset her.

He gripped her hand back. "I'm glad you're okay," he repeated softly.

They sat like that for awhile, hands linked, Ginny's head resting on Harry's shoulder, staring out at the water. Harry tried to take count of all his extremities, but was still unable to find a body part that wasn't sore or bruised. He forced himself to appreciate the beauty of the day; the feeling of the sun on his face, the gentle breeze that was making Ginny's hair tickle his arm. It wasn't easy, but he felt calm and peaceful as a sudden shadow crossed over them from behind.

Harry grimaced, expecting fully to be told off by Ron for holding hands with Ginny, but as he turned he was greeted with the imposing sight of Kingsley Shacklebolt, newly-named Minister of Magic.

"Kingsley!" Harry exclaimed. Ginny also shifted, using her hand to shield her eyes from the sun as she looked up at Kingsley.

"Harry," Kingsley greeted in his slow, deep voice. "George told me I'd find you down here. It's good to see you."

"You, too," Harry said appreciatively. The appearance of Kingsley energized him. This was the person who he needed to speak to, the solution to the listless feeling in his stomach. He stood. "How're things?"

Kingsley sighed. "Compared to a week ago? Better. Unfortunately, the task of getting the Ministry running as a functional and just government has not proven easy in the slightest. The Galleon has completely depreciated, and now Gringotts goblins are threatening to call in the loans of several prominent families in the name of reparations for the abuse they've suffered in the last nine months."

"Well, what's wrong with that?" Ginny asked curiously, standing as well.

"Morally, not much, I suppose," Kingsley allowed. "But if I were to guess conservatively, I would assume that at least half of Wizarding businesses operate with some kind of credit from the Gringotts goblins. It would mean a total shutdown in the British Wizarding economy. On top of that, no other nations have wanted to do trade with us since Voldemort took over, there's no tourism, and other European Quidditch teams won't compete with us. We're completely isolated. Anyways, I came to see if Bill might be able to help me make some progress with the goblins, but George told me he's already left."

Harry surveyed Kingsley without speaking, feeling frustration bubble in his stomach. Was this really what should be prioritized right now, when there were still Death Eaters on the loose? Kingsley gazed at him shrewdly.

"I know what you're thinking, Harry," he said in his reassuring voice. "We have the situation completely under control. The Death Eaters have no point of unity; families are still in their homes, safe. All the protective enchantments are still in place. We already have Savage and Williamson forming search parties within the Department of Magical Law Enforcement."

"Oh, so Savage and Williamson weren't loyal to the Ministry during the last year when the lot of them were rounding up Muggle-borns to feed to Dementors?" Harry wondered sarcastically. Ginny's eyes narrowed.

"Savage and Williamson were sympathetic to the Order," Kingsley said, and Harry was unnerved by how calm the older wizard could remain. "People were terrified, Harry, and if I can only rely on those who were in open opposition to Voldemort and are still alive, I'll be running the Ministry with the help of about fifteen people."

"Better fifteen good witches and wizards than hundreds of cowards," Harry spat.

"Harry…" Kingsley began.

"I want to help," Harry interrupted. "I want to work alongside the Ministry, or in it, whichever. I want to help round up the rest of the Death Eaters, determine who was corrupt, do whatever needs to happen to make sure this doesn't happen again."

"Harry, look… Arthur, Minerva, and I are already discussing how we can rid our society, press, economy, and government of the remnants of this blood purity ideology. It's not going to happen overnight and it's absolutely not something you need to concern yourself with right now…"

"Because I'm 'too young', I suppose?" Harry challenged. "Well, that didn't seem to be much of an issue yesterday morning when I killed Voldemort."

Kingsley regarded Harry again, his expression soft. Harry saw Ron and Hermione over his shoulder, walking down the hill from the castle towards where they were standing.

"No," Kingsley said quietly. "Not because you're too young. Because you've already done enough."

Harry fell quiet.

"Give yourself a break, Harry," Kingsley continued. "Rest. Finish your education. Live your life."

Ron and Hermione reached the party by the lake, both wearing subdued expressions. Kingsley turned to them.

"Did Minerva arrange the Portkey?" he asked them. Ron nodded.

"It leaves in twenty minutes," he said.

"Portkey to where?" Harry asked.

"The Burrow," Hermione answered, her eyes still creased with worry as she looked at him.

"We're going home, mate," Ron said.

Harry turned to look at Ginny, his one last ally against this madness. How could he be expected to go to the Burrow, as if he was leaving for any other summer holiday, when there was so much that had to be done? Her expression was hardened, but as he caught her eye she raised her shoulders in a small shrug of defeat. He understood immediately that she wasn't happy to be leaving either, but that this moment would've come eventually no matter what.

Harry gazed back up at the castle. Could he heed Kingsley's suggestions? Could he finish his education? Could he start to live his life as if Voldemort had never existed? He felt Ginny move closer to him.

"We'll figure it out," she murmured, so quietly only he could hear. He clasped her hand a final time, her touch perhaps his only real comfort since he had awoken.

Ron and Hermione had turned back to the castle, marching hand-in-hand back up the hill, and Kingsley followed closely behind. Harry looked down at Ginny, standing next to him and staring straight ahead.

"We will," he said, taking a step forward. "Together."

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Chapter 2: Chapter 2 - Next of Kin

Author's Notes: God, where to begin. This chapter was a real pain to write, as I struggled enormously with attempting to convey the post-War conflicts that would plague our beloved characters after the defeat of Voldemort. The grief and trauma inflicted by three years of terror would obviously be mingled with incredible relief, and I think the challenge was really to show how these mixed emotions would play out amongst the trio and Ginny. I believe that Harry's experiences at the end of Deathly Hallows would leave him more enlightened with regards to his understanding of love and death than we as readers had previously known him, but that he would still have that typical Harry streak of survivor's guilt and tend to close himself off a bit. I also never read Harry as a character with a ton of emotional maturity, which I guess accounts for how I'm working out his relationship with Ginny right now. I'm not fond of this chapter, I find my writing dry and repetitive, and I feel that maybe I'm not doing the most wonderful job of articulating what Harry is going through. My roommate called the first chapter "boring" (lol) and I think that's kind of the point? The intent of this fic isn't really to be plot plot plot driven but rather show how Harry changes and matures after the war? IDK this is all too much, but I hope that those of you who have written such lovely reviews of the story continue to enjoy it. I don't know how to write from the perspective of a seventeen-year-old boy at all. Also a chunk of this chapter takes place several days before the rest of it and like wtf is there an English version of the passé simple? This author's note is a chapter unto itself. Oh ALSO this chapter is titled after the song Next of Kin by Alvvays.

The Friday after what the Daily Prophet had began to call the Battle of Hogwarts, Fred Weasley was buried on the edge of the Burrow's apple orchard, overlooking both his home and the village of Ottery St. Catchpole.

The funeral had taken place late in the afternoon, hastily rescheduled from that morning, for the Wizengamot had abruptly announced that it would immediately be making the first inquiries into Voldemort's puppet government. Kingsley had owled the Burrow with the news that Pius Thicknesse was to be questioned within the hour, and Percy and Mr. Weasley had been forced to rush off, with those remaining at the Burrow tasked with owling the incoming mourners to inform them of the change in schedule.

Now the event had passed, and as the guests moved from the orchard to the house, where Mrs. Weasley had set out a smorgasbord of refreshments, Harry remained in his chair a bit longer, feeling the day's last rays of sunshine melt over his face.

He glanced beyond the front row of seats, where an hour before Fred's casket had rested on the soft, early-summer grass. Now, a simple headstone occupied the spot, featuring an epitaph that read Fred's name, his year of birth, and his year of death. Bill and Fleur, who had done most of the planning for the service, had asked Molly and George if they had wanted anything additional carved into the stone. Both had declined.

Harry felt a chill run down his spine as he thought of the Weasleys, Mrs. Weasley in particular. At their return to the Burrow, she had been concerned, to the point of being overbearing, about his wellbeing, forcing him, Ron, and Hermione to eat several hearty meals a day, attempting to send them to bed before the sun had even set.

"You need to regain your strength," she had said again and again, and Harry had acquiesced, but his guilt at imposing himself on the Weasleys during their time of grief was becoming increasingly severe. After the first several days of this treatment, it got to the point where he could hardly stand to look Mrs. Weasley in the eye.

This was just as well, however, because as the week wore on and the second Friday of May approached, Mrs. Weasley had left her bedroom less frequently. In fact, Harry had seen considerably little of the family since their return to the Burrow.

Bill and Fleur had retreated to Shell Cottage, only Flooing into the home to discuss further arrangements with the family. Ron and Hermione spent most of their days taking very long walks through the hills and fields surrounding the house, and Percy and Mr. Weasley were working long hours with Kingsley in London every day. Funerals were quickly becoming the only time Harry encountered any of the family.

Most of the mourners had made their way into the house now, and Harry stretched in his seat, taking in the scene around him. Fleur had made everything look quite agreeable; there were lilies and chrysanthemums along the rows of seats and around the headstone, and the yard and garden had been trimmed and pruned to perfection. It was a tranquil spot, though it wasn't very reminiscent of the sprawling Burrow that Harry was used to. He couldn't help but think that Fred would think it was all a bit overdone. Harry remembered with a pang Bill and Fleur's wedding, less than a year ago, when Fred had told the lot of them that when he got married, they could all wear what they liked, and he was putting a Body-Bind curse on Mrs. Weasley until it was over.

Such offhanded comments about eventuality now seemed like a slap in the face given that Fred would never marry. Harry shifted again in his robes, another wave of guilt washing over him. All the witches and wizards he had been encountering over the last few days had felt obliged to remind him that this world was what they had all been fighting for; what Fred and fifty others had died for. He should relax, they said, implying that he had to find a way to enjoy this new reality.

How was he expected to "live his life", or find happiness, or do anything at all when so many others couldn't? He had no idea what to do with this second chance at life, having never really imagined that he'd survive the destruction of Voldemort, and now he felt almost that he was living on time taken at the expense of those who had died. All he wanted was to help track down the remaining free Death Eaters, to alleviate the idleness and self-reproach that had plagued him for the last week.

This guilt had perhaps reached its worst at the funeral of Lupin and Tonks. Two caskets sat side by side, in the garden of Tonks' childhood home, next to a small stone that commemorated Edward Tonks. It wasn't a grave; the Snatchers that had murdered Ted had likely disposed of the body on their own, and in the midst of the war there had been no funeral.

Harry had sat several rows from the front, with Ron, Hermione, and Ginny. Hermione had wept quietly on Ron's shoulder through the service, and Harry had been slightly embarrassed to feel tears welling in his own eyes, even as his thoughts were clouded with irritation at the the small, tufty-haired wizard presiding over the event, who spoke of finding happiness even in grief at the thought of two lives well-lived.

Lupin had finally found happiness, Harry had thought wretchedly, with a family who loved and accepted him. Now he would never see his son grow up; how could that be a life well-lived? His thoughts strayed from the funeral back to the unfairness of all of it… he could hear Ron and Hermione in his head, telling him that it was of no use to dwell, but the remorse was stifling. Could he have acted sooner, made better choices? He wasn't so opposed to his own death, if it meant Lupin and Tonks' child would have another day with his parents, that George would have his twin back….

And then the tufty-haired wizard had finished speaking, and everyone was rising from their seats, walking towards the drive, for there were to be drinks and refreshments at the Leaky Cauldron for the mourners. Harry had straggled at the back of the queue with Ron, Hermione, and Ginny, hoping to avoid more of the people he had encountered all week long, people who would want to shake his hand, thank him, hug him, or (the very worst) cry on his shoulder, when he had felt a hand on his arm and turned suddenly, his reflexes still unwilling to acknowledge that there was no longer anything to fear.

Harry had wondered as he looked her over how Andromeda Tonks had ever reminded him of Bellatrix Lestrange. The woman in front of him seemed slight, as though a strong breeze might blow her away, with none of the haughtiness Harry had remembered of their last encounter. And yet, she met his eye with a sincerity he could not return, for his shame was too great, as he stood here surrounded by his friends, safe, unharmed, alive. Mrs. Tonks had lost her husband, her only child, her son-in-law. All she had left was…

"I suppose you'd like to see him," Andromeda had remarked simply, and for a moment Harry couldn't think of anything he'd like to do less. Still, his sense of obligation overpowered his hesitation, and as he trudged towards the house behind Andromeda, he tried to recover the feelings of elation he had that night at Shell Cottage when Remus had announced the birth of Teddy, who had been a small beacon of hope when it seemed that all was lost.

They reached first the sitting room, exactly the same as Harry had remembered from his time in the house last July, and Andromeda turned down the small hall. He had wondered briefly if he'd ever have an encounter with Mrs. Tonks that didn't send waves of guilt rippling through him; the last time he was here, he was sure that her daughter had perished in the attack during his removal from Number Four, Privet Drive. Tonks had survived that particular battle, but Harry thought bleakly that it made little difference, given that she had died ten months later, brought down by her own aunt.

And yet, as Harry followed Andromeda into the small bedroom off the hall and she gestured to a small cradle in the corner, he had to admit it did make quite a bit of difference.

"Thank you for sitting with him, Hestia," Andromeda said quietly, and Harry gave a start as he saw Hestia Jones stand in the opposite corner, wearing deep black robes and carrying a small, leather-bound book.

"Don't worry about it, Andromeda," Hestia had told the older witch warmly, though her eyes were glassy. "Anything for Tonks, you know…." Andromeda nodded crisply.

Hestia smiled at Harry as she made her way from the room. "It's good to see you," she said earnestly. "Thank you for everything."

Harry tried to make a gracious face, but he felt it probably looked more pained than anything. He didn't know how much longer he could handle the constant thanks. Luckily, Hestia possessed brevity, and she left without saying another word. Harry looked back to Andromeda, intentionally trying to avoid letting his eyes drift towards the cradle in the corner.

"I didn't think it was appropriate to bring him down," Andromeda said softly. "Something about children at funerals… it doesn't seem right."

She faced him again, and Harry felt himself blush. "Did you go to your parents' funeral?" she asked curiously.

"Er, I don't think so," Harry had said uncomfortably. "I don't even know if they had one, but I would've been with my aunt and uncle by then."

"I'm sure they must've," Andromeda mused, but her attention had wandered back to the cradle, from where small gurgling sounds were beginning to emit. She gestured again to the corner, and Harry made his way around the bed and peered into the cot.

Teddy had looked unchanged from the baby Harry had seen in Lupin's photograph, not a week prior, from the small tuft of blue hair to the chubby little face. His eyes were shut, but it was clear that he was waking, for his small tongue was pushing out from between his lips and his hands were flailing to his face.

"He's hungry," Andromeda had told him briskly, as she plucked him up from the cradle.

"Oh," Harry said lamely, as he prayed this may have signified his cue to leave. However, his hopes were quickly dashed.

"Would you like to feed him?" she'd asked. Harry's heart sank, but he'd reached out, and Andromeda had placed little Teddy Lupin, another orphan of the storm, into his arms.

He'd never held a baby before, and he was sure he looked terribly stupid, but as he looked into Teddy's face, he relaxed, only for a moment. Andromeda guided a bottle into the baby's small mouth and gestured for Harry to take it from her hand, and as Teddy began sucking furiously, Harry found a small smile spreading across his own lips. It was short-lived, however, as the baby's eyes quickly popped open. They were dark, the way Tonks' often had her own, but as he looked at his godfather, they suddenly turned the most emerald shade of green.

"He can control it already?" Harry had yelped. Andromeda nodded. Harry's face grew hot again and he suddenly felt he was going to be sick. He reached his arms out and Andromeda plucked up her grandson.

"I'm sorry," said Harry. "I'm sorry, the Weasleys are waiting for me. I've got to go."

Andromeda sighed, but Harry was already backing out of the room. He couldn't leave fast enough. Returning to the lawn, he'd ignored the questions of Ron and Hermione, and Apparated quickly back to the Burrow.

He had been expressly avoiding thinking of his tiny godson for the remainder of the week, and now he felt guilty not only for the deaths of Lupin and Tonks, but for shirking his responsibilities to their child. Wasn't he doing exactly what he had criticized Lupin for all those months ago, in the basement of Grimmauld Place?

But still, he had no idea how to be someone's godparent. Sirius had come into his life like a fast friend; more like a brother than a father. He'd cared for Harry's well-being, to be sure, but Harry hadn't been helpless like Teddy; he could walk, talk, feed himself. Harry sighed. He knew what Sirius would say if he was there now: all Teddy needed was another person in his corner, someone he could look to as he grew up. But, Harry thought, it not as though Teddy was stuck with the Dursleys. Andromeda Tonks clearly loved him and was competent at caring for him….

His graveside brooding was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Hermione. She was pale, but wore a look of determination that Harry couldn't help but shy away from.

"Are you coming up to the house?" she asked gently, sitting down next to Harry in one of the folding chairs.

"In a moment," Harry muttered. "I've just been thinking. It's peaceful out here."

"It is," Hermione agreed. "Bill and Fleur chose a lovely spot."

Harry looked away. "How's Mrs. Weasley?" he inquired.

"Running on empty, I think," Hermione replied. "She's made all of these hors d'oeuvres and is going around a bit mad making sure everyone is fed."

She fell quiet for a moment, but Harry could sense her itching to speak again. It didn't take long for her to choose her words.

"I'm don't blame you for not wanting to go into the house, Harry," she began, and Harry felt himself fill with dread, for he knew what she was about to say. "But Ron needs us. Both of us."

"I know," Harry said, more forcefully than he meant to. "It's only - I'm tired of it. I've been to a funeral almost every day this week, and I don't know what to say to anyone. 'I'm sorry?'"

"He's your best friend," said Hermione quietly. "You don't have to say anything. Just be there for him."

"I don't understand," Harry said miserably, finally meeting Hermione's eye. "I don't understand why they're all gone, and I'm here. I mean - I understand, I understand that I could've just as easily been killed in that explosion, or hit by Dolohov's curse, or whatever, really, but I can't stop feeling so terrible, not that I didn't die, but that I get to live. Lupin and Tonks' kid has no parents; Fred's family has been torn apart. It's not like anyone's lives would've been destroyed if I had gone instead… I feel like I owe it to all of them to be doing something, anything, but Kingsley won't budge, and -"

"Harry," Hermione interrupted, an edge to her voice. "You don't really believe that, do you?"

"What?" Harry asked. "That Kingsley is insisting I stay here? I told you what he said to me when we left Hogwarts…"

"No, not that," Hermione interrupted again. "That no one's lives would've been destroyed if you had died…. Do you not realize what it was like for us, when we realized you had left the castle? When we saw you in Hagrid's arms?"

"That's not what I meant," Harry said impatiently. "I'm not someone's parent; I wouldn't have left anyone behind. Or… I don't know, Hermione, if I'd died no one would be without their child, like Mr. and Mrs. Weasley are right now."

Hermione blinked at him. "Mr. and Mrs. Weasley would be devastated if you'd died. We were devastated. It felt like the world had ended."

Harry looked down, embarrassed. "I just meant -"

Hermione sighed, and her expression turned more sympathetic. "I know what you meant," she said. "But I don't think it's wise to go around trying to figure out who is most deserving of life, or who would be missed the most if they died. You'll never be happy again if you let yourself think like that, Harry. It's terrible that Fred is gone, and Remus, and Tonks, but you're still here. I'm still here. Ron is still here. Ginny is still here."

At Ginny's name, Harry looked up again, over Hermione's shoulder to the house, where his ex-girlfriend surely sat amongst her brothers, as a steady stream of relatives and friends offered their condolences for the loss of Fred. Harry felt another uncomfortable pang somewhere around his navel, because, despite his telling Ginny that they would face these difficult days together, he had made no real effort to see her since their return to the Burrow. She had quickly retreated to her bedroom, appearing only briefly at mealtimes, and though Harry had told himself that he was giving her space to grieve, he knew that in reality he simply couldn't face her when she was upset. Harry looked back at Hermione, feeling like the world's greatest coward.

"Is she alright? She's barely left her room since we've been back," Harry said, knowing immediately that Hermione would see straight through his question.

"It's hard for her to see her mother so distressed. Why don't you ask her if she's alright? She's not going to come to you, Harry," Hermione said sagely.

Harry grimaced. "I don't know what to say to her," he admitted. "I just want… I don't know. Part of me wants to act like nothing's happened; just pick back up where we left off. But I know that's impossible."

Hermione put a hand on his arm. "That's how it is for all of us, Harry. We're all just dancing around each other right now. No one knows what to do or say, so we try to go through the motions of what we remember normal to be, but it all feels off." She paused for a moment. "Do you remember when you thought you were being possessed by You-Know-," Harry flashed her a stern look, "oh, sorry, Voldemort? During our fifth year, I mean?"

Harry nodded, a bit startled by her sudden change in topic.

"Ginny was the only person who was able to get through to you, then. She's always understood you, I think a bit more than you'd like to admit, because of the connection you both had to him. Maybe try to reach out to her. You've known loss like this before. She hasn't. Help her figure it out."

Harry must've made a face, because Hermione threw her arms up, exasperated.

"You killed Voldemort but you can't face Ginny Weasley? You're worse than Ron!"

Harry's face reddened. "I am not!"

Hermione stood. "Get up. We're going to the house. I don't care if you talk to Ron about Wonky Faints or Mrs. Weasley's treacle tart or what a bloody bother I am, but I'll be damned if I watch you mope in this garden for the rest of the day. I think a greater insult to Fred than your living and his dying would be your decision to spend the rest of your life feeling sorry for yourself. Alright?"

"Alright," Harry agreed meekly, a bit dumbfounded by Hermione's outburst. He stood and followed her up the path towards the house. He knew Hermione was right, of course, but he still couldn't explain to her the nagging feeling that followed him everywhere he went, or that it seemed as though there were six Harrys in his head, each arguing with one another over which thoughts were rational and which weren't.

His feet dragged as he made his way through the front door, wishing silently that he had his invisibility cloak, for the moment that he passed the threshold into the sitting room several pairs of eyes fixed themselves on him. Harry's own eyes scanned the room as he looked for the telling glint of red, landing first on Percy, and then Bill, before finally they found Ron, staring at his shoes and trying to remain inconspicuous next to the old wooden wireless.

Harry hesitated for a moment, knowing that his approaching Ron would blow his best friend's cover, but Hermione quickly shoved him forward. Ron looked up as Harry advanced, and nodded briefly before his gaze returned to his shoes. Harry stood next to him, leaning on the wall, and Hermione positioned herself at his shoulder and gave Harry a pointed look.

"Er - sorry I didn't come in earlier," Harry said feebly. "Lost track of time in the garden."

"It's alright," Ron said with a shrug. "I'm hiding from my mum. She's on the bloody warpath and has somehow managed to convince herself that there's not enough food for everyone. Ginny's gone to help her make more."

Harry stared at the long table that had been set up on the opposite wall of the living room for the occasion. It was crowded with all kinds of cakes, puddings, biscuits, and tarts, enough to make Harry's mouth water with a single glance. Even as he watched, though, Mrs. Weasley bustled out, wearing her best black witch's hat, and placed a plate of meat pies on the very corner of the table, where it balanced precariously. Mrs. Weasley surveyed the room briefly, taking in the sight of the various mourners talking in small groups over drinks, before quietly making her way back into the kitchen.

Ron breathed a sigh of relief, as he had gone apparently undetected. Slumping against the wall again, he closed his eyes, before again acknowledging the others.

"I think this is the most fucking useless I've ever felt in my life," he said irritably.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "You'd think," she said, "the way the two of you were carrying on, that we hadn't spent the better part of the last year sitting in a tent trying to hunt down parts of You-Know- ugh, sorry - Voldemort's soul. Ron, all you could talk about last fall was wanting to be here, in your own bed, with your mother's food-"

"Yeah, well, that was before Fred died, wasn't it?" Ron grumbled. "And half of those miserable sods that were around that wall when it blew up are still running free. Percy told me this morning that Yaxley didn't give anything up when they dragged him out for questioning today. Just sat there, apparently the only thing he said was that he was being "illegally detained" as Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement." Ron scoffed contemptuously before continuing. "And I doubt Kingsley has any leads on where the Lestranges are, or Thorfinn Rowle."

"And you do?" Hermione whispered. "What do you really want to do, Ron?"

"I want to kill Death Eaters," Ron said, his voice so quiet that a shiver ran down Harry's spine.

"I know," Hermione sighed defeatedly, and Harry realized suddenly what they must've been discussing on their long walks together. It hadn't occurred to Harry that Ron was as eager as himself to leave to relative comfort of the Burrow, to make himself useful, to round up those who were the reason that they had been to eight funerals in fewer days. Perhaps if he hadn't shut himself off from his best friend so often during the past few days….

Ron shifted his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other.

"Suppose I'll just have to do my N.E.W.T.s. If I can make it to Auror training Kingsley won't have a choice but to let me after the Lestranges," he said sullenly. Harry nodded. It was maddening to watch problem after problem bubble up in the vacuum left behind by Voldemort, while Kingsley and Mr. Weasley and Bill and Percy and everyone else kept encouraging them to take the summer to recuperate and prepare for their final year at school. The defeat of Voldemort hadn't brought the same gratification that would come from hunting down his followers, those who carried out his terrible orders, and Harry was itching with the desire to do something reckless.

Hermione sighed, and Harry thought bleakly that she looked much older than eighteen. "Kingsley," she said quietly, "is not the enemy. He only wants what's best for us."

"We're of age now," Harry argued. "It's not for Kingsley to decide, especially after the last year…."

"Well, have you even bothered to tell anyone that you don't want to go back?" Hermione asked.

Harry's face reddened, but was saved from Hermione's question by Lee Jordan, who unexpectedly appeared at his side, looking far more cheerful than anyone else in the room.

"Ron, mate," he said amiably. "Remind me, which room is Fred and George's?"

"Second floor, first door off the landing," said Ron, his eyes narrowing. "Why?"

Suddenly Harry was thrown off balance as a second person crashed into him. A pair of hands grabbed onto the front of his robes and dragged him back up haphazardly.

"Sorry," Angelina Johnson giggled, brushing him off. "Got a bit excited." She looked to Lee, and Harry heard a loud clank come from the depths of her robes. "I found some! Mr. Weasley didn't seem to mind parting with it."

"Nice," Lee said appreciatively. "Ron's just told me where the room is. Have you lot seen George?"

Harry, Ron, and Hermione must've looked quite the sight with their matching expressions of shock. They shook their heads in unison, eyes wide as they took in Lee and Angelina, practically bouncing with enthusiasm before them.

"No," answered Hermione shortly. "What are you two up to?"

"We've decided," Angelina said theatrically, and Harry caught a whiff of a fruity aroma that he had often associated with Aunt Marge's visits to Privet Drive, "that this funeral needs a little brightening up. Something to really celebrate Fred's life, you know?" Harry, who'd known Angelina quite well during their time on the Gryffindor House Quidditch team, didn't think he'd ever seen her in such a bubbly mood, which, given their dour surroundings, was particularly notable.

"We have almost everything we need for the grand event," Lee said. "Once we get into the room, that is. Angelina, why don't you go and find George." He paused for a moment, thinking. "And probably Ginny, too. She'll want to see." He turned towards the trio. "Come on, then."

Angelina started towards the kitchen, while Harry, Ron and Hermione apprehensively followed Lee to the rickety staircase. The reached the second floor, and Lee pushed open the twins' door unceremoniously.

In the two years since Fred and George had moved into a flat above their shop in Diagon Alley, it seemed that their bedroom at the Burrow had still been repurposed into a makeshift storeroom for various Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes products, which lined the walls on tall, precariously stacked shelves, covered the two beds, and took up most available floor space. This seemed quite in line with Lee's expectations, as he clapped his hands together, muttering "Excellent" under his breath before setting to work shuffling through the various cardboards.

"Er - what exactly are you looking for?" Harry ventured carefully.

"Do you remember," Lee began distractedly, sticking his hand blindly into a box that proceeded to make a very loud shrieking sound, "at the end of our seventh year, when Fred and George decided to go into open rebellion against Umbridge?"

Surprisingly, Harry felt his face split into a grin for the first time in days, knowing that he would never forget the circumstances of Fred and George's premature departure from Hogwarts, and also realizing exactly what it was Lee was looking for in the jumbled mess of the twins' room. Stepping forward, he began peering in boxes alongside Lee, while Ron gave a chuckle and a shrug, walking towards the shelves on the opposite wall. Hermione, however, hung back.

They had only searched for a moment when Ron gave a low whistle from the corner of the room.

"Found 'em," he said, a hint of reverence to his tone. He stepped back and Harry saw a large box, emblazoned with the Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes logo. Sticking out of the open top were dozens of rockets, Catherine wheels, firecrackers, and sparklers.

Lee hurried over. "These'll do, don't you think?" he asked the others.

"How're we meant to move them past that lot?" Harry wondered, jerking his head in the direction of the sitting room.

"Hermione can do that," Ron said.

"No, I can't," said Hermione, blushing suddenly. There was a soft rap at the door, and Angelina walked in, with Ginny trailing behind her, looking rather bewildered. Harry's breath caught in his throat, as it did almost every time he had seen Ginny since she had fallen through the Hog's Head passage into the Room of Requirement. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her face blotchy, but still Harry couldn't help but abashedly admire how beautiful she looked in her black dress.

"What's the issue?" Angelina asked them, looking around the room. "Did you find any? We've got George waiting downstairs."

"We found them," Lee said. "We've just been trying to decide how best to move them to the garden."

"Hermione, look, would you just put them in your bag?" Ron asked, clearly quite warmed up to the scheme at this point, while three pairs eyes belonging to Ginny, Lee, and Angelina traveled down to Hermione's beaded bag, hanging limply from her wrist.

"It - well - it doesn't seem appropriate, does it?" Hermione squeaked. "Setting off fireworks in the middle of a funeral?"

Angelina's gaze turned sharply, looking Hermione straight in the eye. "No one'll force you to come," she said, not unkindly. "But I don't think anything about Fred Weasley being dead feels appropriate, do you?"

"Hermione," Lee said, more gently than Angelina, "we'll go to the far end of the orchard… it won't disturb anyone. We just want a chance to say goodbye, one that fits the Fred we knew. I spent every free moment at Hogwarts following him around, and to sit listening to that little bloke up there talk about his 'droll personality' and 'entrepreneurial spirit' and whatever else… it just didn't cut it."

Hermione bit her lip, still clearly unconvinced that the idea was a good one. Still, she reached her arm out to Harry, who snatched up the tiny bag, wrenching it open as Ron grabbed several fireworks to pack in.

They emptied the contents of the box quickly into the bag and moved out of the room single file, Lee leading the way. Harry thought briefly that they would never make it out the front door without arousing the suspicions of Ron's family, but as they entered the sitting room, he realized he was quite mistaken. It was clear that most of the mourners were still too shrouded in their grief to take much notice of anything. The room was still full to capacity; Percy and Charlie were quietly speaking to several Hogwarts professors, including Filius Flitwick, who had wept quietly throughout the funeral. Hagrid was taking up an entire corner of the room himself, sniffling loudly into his tablecloth-sized kerchief. Bill was slumped in a chair nursing a glass of Firewhisky while Fleur sat next to him on the arm of the chair, her own arm around his shoulder, and Harry could hear Mr. and Mrs. Weasley arguing about something in the kitchen. Their raised voices, even from afar, made Harry flush again with guilt.

George stood by the door, looking half-human, as though his limbs themselves had no agency, but rather someone had propped him up and left him leaned against the doorframe to wait. Harry hadn't heard him speak since their return to the Burrow, and he found himself wondering what exactly Angelina had said to convince him to come along.

George straightened slightly as they approached, and the group of seven made their way through the door and into the garden, setting off quickly for the orchard. Harry trailed at the back with Ron and Hermione, clutching Hermione's beaded bag. He felt excited, not necessarily for the fireworks themselves, but because of this feeling, of having something to do, of being in on a secret…

Hermione slowed for a moment in front of him, hanging back. As Harry reached her he could see that she was biting her lip again.

"There's something else I was meaning to speaking to you about," she said softly.

"What's that?" asked Harry, bracing himself.

"Well, I - well, we, actually - Ron and I, that is - we are going to Australia. In June."

Harry's heart sank. "Australia?"

"To find my parents," said Hermione. "To reverse the memory charm I placed on them. I - I should be going sooner, but with Fred of course... and we have to make sure Mrs. Weasley's alright, and I can tell that Ron isn't eager to leave the country with so many Death Eaters still on the loose. But it hardly matters, I expect a few weeks won't make much of a difference with the memory modification anyways."

Harry felt defensive and slightly betrayed. After all he, Ron, and Hermione had been through, it stung that they had made plans to travel halfway around the world without him. Why hadn't Ron mentioned that when he was going on about wanting to kill the Lestranges and Rowle?

"We want you to come, too," Hermione finished, as though reading his mind.

Harry frowned. He didn't much like the idea of being left behind while Ron and Hermione went off to recover her family, but he, like Ron, didn't want to waste even more time on another continent while there was still so much to be done in Britain. What if the Lestranges struck out, and he wasn't here…

Hermione was looking at him hopefully, but Harry was saved by Lee for a second time, who shouted out from the front of the group.

"I think this is the spot!"

The had reached the far end of the orchard. The sun had finally set, and the sky was clear over the tops of the trees. Lee surveyed the area, nodded briefly and gestured for Harry to hand over the bag. He and Ron started removing the fireworks, again one-by-one, until they had amassed quite the pile there on the grass.

From behind him Harry heard another, this time louder, clank and turned to see that Angelina had extracted a large bottle of Ogden's Old Firewhisky from the depths of her robes and had passed it to Hermione and Ginny, the latter of whom was finishing off an impressively sizeable swig. She turned, reaching out to Harry, who took the vessel from her hands, his fingers brushing against hers.

"Thanks," he said.

She nodded, gazing at him candidly, and though she did not smile, Harry thought he saw a small twinkle in her chocolate-colored eyes. It was blind, dumb hope, perhaps, after he'd acted over the past few days. He raised the bottle to his lips, letting the warm burning sensation trickle into his stomach, where, combined with Ginny's kind look, it bubbled into something near-happiness.

"Right," said Lee, surveying the mess of whiz-bangs on the ground in front of him. "What's the best way to -"

But before he could finish, George had pointed his wand lazily at the pile of fireworks and a trail of bright orange flame burst from the tip, covering the pile easily. Harry reached out for Ginny's arm, yanking her back as a high-pitched wheezing sound emitted from the flames. It lasted only a moment, and then dozens of sparks flew upwards in every direction.

Harry stared opened mouth as a great, green, blazing dragon flew out of the flames and roared over the tops of the trees, emitting massive bangs from its sparkling snout, while no fewer than ten rockets shot off the direction of Ottery St. Catchpole, silver and gold sparks flying behind them. The sounds were magnificent, roars and bursts and explosions all around.

Harry wondered for a moment if they should've gone further down the pasture, for he worried they were risking the trees catching fire, but even as he watched the fireworks grow larger in the sky above them, the leaves were doused with colorful light, and suddenly looked as if they themselves were fireworks, and Harry felt that he had exited reality, and that the world had transformed into somewhere bright and innocent and good.

A sparkler flew above Ginny's head and began twisting itself in the air, leaving a trail of letters in its wake. Harry smiled, remembering the swearwords casting themselves over the halls of Hogwarts, but as the phrase "Merlin's Nuts" fixed itself over the skyline, Harry thought perhaps there were, to quote Angelina, better ways to brighten up this commemoration to Fred. Raising his wand, unsure of what counter-charms Fred and George would've put in place over their creation, he took aim at the words lingering over the treetops.

But it was remarkably simple to transfigure the letters above them, and as Harry worked quietly he saw, out of the corner of his eye, the heads of his friends turn to watch what he was doing.

Harry lowered his wand, admiring his work for a moment. The glittering letters were not nearly as neat as the ones initially left by Fred and George's sparkler, but now, rather than a testament to Merlin's bollocks, the group gazed up at the words "Mischief Managed" illuminating the night over the orchard. Lee, Ginny, and Angelina all looked again bemused, but Hermione stepped a bit closer to Ron, weaving her fingers through his.

Harry swallowed.

"My dad helped make the map," he said quietly, meaning for only George to hear, but he felt Ginny stiffen beside him, and realized that she too was listening.

He saw, out of the corner of his eye, George's head turn away from the sparklers to gaze intently at Harry's own face. Harry kept staring resolutely at the words, which were now spelling themselves over and over again in the sky above the orchard.

"I never told you or Fred," he continued, attempting to express what he had realized that night, in the forest. "It was my dad, Lupin, and Sirius. They were Prongs, Moony and Padfoot, and now they're all gone. But they're still a part of me. They're not here, obviously… but they're never really that far away either. They're just… they're just beyond where we can see, I guess."

George was still staring, and Harry finally worked up the courage to meet his friend's eye. He couldn't think of a time he'd been so open with someone before; maybe when Sirius had died, and Luna had explained the veil to him…

But then George made a very odd croaking sound, and before Harry's brain could race through all the terrible causes, choking and poison and sickness, George's shoulders began to shake with silent laughter.

"Was it really?" he asked through chuckles. "Was it really Sirius and Lupin, all that time?"

Harry nodded and George laughed even harder. Lee and Angeline turned, wide-eyed. Ginny looked between the two, utterly confused. Hermione was smiling sadly, though it quickly changed to a look of terror when one of George's laughs transformed quickly into a loud sob. The lone twin covered his mouth quickly with his hand, but another came, and then another, and the others all stood quiet, unsure of what to do or how to respond.

Ginny stepped away from Harry, about to go to her brother, when suddenly another person strode past her, and when Harry looked back, it was Angelina Johnson who had wrapped her arms around George's shaking figure, and George's head fell onto her shoulder as he wept.

Harry stared at Ron, who mouthed quickly over Hermione's head, "What's that about?"

Harry shrugged. He looked back over the tops of the trees, watching the great dragon circle the orchard. He didn't see what was really so funny about the identities of the Marauders, but George's laughter, in spite of his subsequent tears, had lightened him somehow. Perhaps they would be alright after all.

That night, Harry had a rather peculiar dream. He was laying on a beach in Australia with Ron and Hermione. He kept insisting they put on suncream, but both were laughing and reminding him they wouldn't burn but simply tan. Ron had even rolled his eyes and insisted that Weasleys were well-known for their sun-kissed complexions, which Harry had seriously doubted. He had finally given up when two loud cracks sounded across the dunes, and suddenly masked and hooded Death Eaters were standing in front of them, the tide lapping at their robes. Harry stood up, wand raised, but Ron and Hermione remained supine.

"There's nothing to worry about, Harry," Hermione told him, using her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. "You-Know-Who is gone. You killed him, remember?"

Harry had opened his mouth to argue, when suddenly one of the Death Eaters raised a bony hand to remove his mask, and underneath were not the blank eyes of Rodolphus Lestrange, but red slits on a pale face. Harry's blood ran cold, as Voldemort raised his wand.

"Avada -"

Harry jerked awake in his camp bed, breathing heavily and drenched in sweat. He blinked rapidly, as if checking that the orange ceiling of Ron's room wouldn't suddenly turn into the face of Voldemort.

He looked around, making sure that he had not awoken Ron with his nightmare, but Ron was nowhere to be seen. Harry sighed. He was happy that Ron and Hermione had finally worked out their feelings for one another, but them sneaking off to be alone every minute of the day was making him feel lonelier than he'd ever care to admit. Throughout the entirety of his adolescence, they had always been Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and he wasn't sure if he was ready for his best friends to go off without him.

He stared at the ceiling for a few more moments, but sleep did not retake him. Rather, he was feeling increasingly restless. He half-debated going to find Ron and Hermione, probably tucked away somewhere in the garden, and again venting all of his anxieties and frustrations to them as punishment for leaving him on his own, with all of these terrible thoughts.

He stood from the camp bed, which creaked terribly under him. Though still only May, the heat of summer was already stifling, and Harry had taken to sleeping only in a pair of his pants, so he kicked through his and Ron's dirty laundry until he unearthed a t-shirt and pyjamas.

He pulled open the door to Ron's room quickly and looked down the stairs. Each landing seemed to be empty, though he figured if he met anyone he could use the age-old excuse of needing the loo.

But he didn't stop at the toilet on the fourth floor, or the one on the second. He only halted as he reached the first floor, and it was then Harry realized that he had been moving without really knowing where his feet were taking him. He hesitated, only for a moment, before reaching out and knocking lightly, just once, on Ginny's door.

The moment the rap echoed across the landing, Harry's nerve failed him. He pitifully considered for a moment bolting back up the stairs. But then he heard a creak from within, and from the crack under the door saw a light go on within the room. It was too late, and then the door was wrenched open and Ginny stood in front of him, wearing only a very large t-shirt sporting the Holyhead Harpies logo and holding a small purple flashlight.

"Harry?" she asked, blinking several times and turning off the light. "What's happened? Are you alright?"

He blushed immediately, not intending to have worried her. "Er- yeah. I'm fine, I just - well, I needed to talk to someone."

"You needed to talk to someone?" she repeated in a whisper. "It's three o'clock in the morning."

Harry gulped. "Yeah, I know, I'm sorry. It's just, well, I suppose I don't really need to talk to someone… I need to talk to you."

She sighed, but then smiled slowly, as though having a private joke with herself. Harry's heart pounded nervously. She reached out and gestured for him to enter the room, gently closing the door behind them, before walking slowly over to her unmade bed. Harry couldn't help but notice that her shirt rode up as she moved, revealing the bottom of her blue cotton knickers. He swallowed loudly again, fixing his gaze on the Weird Sisters posted tacked on Ginny's wall.

Ginny sat down heavily on the bed and took a deep breath. "What do you need to talk about?" she asked.

Harry turned back to face her. "I- erm- well, I'm sorry. For Fred, but also for not coming up here sooner. I just - I didn't know what to say, and Ron and Hermione have been driving me a bit mad; I thought I wanted to be alone, but I don't. I want to be with you."

Ginny surveyed him calmly. Harry took a moment to wonder if anything he said could ever take her by surprise. She seemed to really know him, sometimes in ways that it felt like even Ron and Hermione couldn't appreciate, and he felt overcome with shame at how he had kept her in the dark about so much over the last couple years. But even now, as she looked at him softly in the dark of her bedroom, he knew that she understood. He took a step closer.

"I want to be with you," he said again, surprised by his own candor.

"I know," she said.

He moved closer to the bed, emboldened.

"I'm sorry for how things ended last year."

"You shouldn't be."

"I'm really sorry for not coming to see you sooner," he said again.

Ginny sighed dramatically, and Harry knew she was about to tease him. "I did want to be alone as well, really," she said in her best posh voice. "I'm sure Hermione told you that we witches like to be comforted when we're brooding but I actually prefer-"

"I want to comfort you when you're brooding," Harry interrupted, taking yet another step. Ginny's breath hitched in her throat, and she was suddenly serious.

"Don't feel guilty," she whispered. "It's going to take time, for both of us. I can't even begin to understand what it was like for you…" she trailed off, unsure of herself. "I want to be with you too. But we can't fool ourselves into thinking it's going to be like it was before. I thought when we were at the castle that if we just acted like nothing had happened... but then we got back and being here makes it all feel so much more… real."

Harry nodded. He had taken a final pace, and her room was small; he was mere inches from her now. She was still sat on the bed, but had to look up to see his face. He sank down to his knees, and for a brief, mad, moment he thought he must look a complete tosser, but Ginny didn't seem to mind, for now that they were level she reached out and gently placed her hand on his face, reaching out to brush her thumb against his scar.

"Does it hurt?" she asked. The electricity in the room was tangible.

Harry shook his head. She moved her other hand to his face, leaning forward slightly so that their foreheads were touching. He wrapped his arms around her waist. He knew he should probably make a move, but he was still inexplicably nervous, and his mouth opened again, ready to spew more senseless conversation.

"D'you remember when we first kissed?" he asked her stupidly.

"No," she said sarcastically. "Remind me about it, will you?"

Harry laughed, and Ginny chose this moment to pull him into her. His mouth was open from chuckling, and as she brought his mouth to hers their teeth clicked together, but Harry didn't even care about this awkward lapse, for as their lips met and one of his hands found their way back into her hair and he found that he didn't care about anything, only Ginny, her laugh, her smell. She was so perfect, he thought blissfully.

He couldn't have said how long they had been locked in their embrace when she suddenly pulled away, drawing a shaky breath.

"It might not be any of my business," she began, her lips puffy and eyes unfocused. "But, Harry? Don't - Don't go to Australia, alright?"

Harry pushed himself up from his knees so that he too was on the bed, leaning over her.

"I'm not going anywhere," he said, grinning.

Back to index

Chapter 3: Chapter 3 - Summer Holiday

Author's Notes: This chapter came together much more quickly than my first two, both of which took over two months each to write, edit, and publish. This bad boy only took about three weeks. This is really the first time I dive into writing Harry and Ginny together, and it was quite daunting. I enjoyed it though, and wonder if perhaps this is why I was about to write faster. I’m still struggling with conveying all those messy emotions, and I don’t know if any of my characters are acting in ways that are true to their nature in canon. Alas. I feel like so much of my chapters are becoming devoted to weird backstory because I’m skipping so much time in between chapters, but I really want this story to cover a pretty large amount of time, so that’s necessary. Also please forgive the sex. The chapter is called after the song Summer Holiday by Wild Nothing. I also was inspired by a few movies, both recent and older, in my writing of this chapter. See if you can find them :)

"Are you pretending to be asleep?" a voice called curiously, quite close to Harry's ear.

"Definitely not pretending," he yawned, pulling his quilt further up to his chin. He felt hot breath on his cheek, and his nostrils were suddenly overcome with a sweet, floral scent as a curtain of hair tickled his face.

Ginny's lips were soft on his, and he instinctively turned towards her, eyes still closed, his mouth opening slightly. But she broke away quickly, nuzzling her face into his neck before he felt the bed creak as she stood up from beside him.

"When you feel like waking up," she said softly, "I think we should go to Diagon Alley. You need a broomstick, and I want to see if I can't find you something for your birthday tomorrow."

Harry cracked one eye open. The sun was streaming in in beams around Ron's bedroom, making it look even more vividly orange than usual. Ginny was smiling down at him expectantly, already dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.

"You're not going to make a fuss, are you?" he asked her wearily.

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Definitely not. I'm actually quite vexed that you've made it to eighteen. I was sure my gift for your seventeenth was going to be the last one I ever gave you, so I tried to make it unbeatable. Then you had to go and live another year," she huffed in mock frustration.

Harry sat up and stretched his arms, yawning again. "Sorry to inconvenience you."

Ginny shrugged. "Get dressed, will you? I didn't realize you'd sneak all the way back up here just to fall asleep again."

Harry threw the blankets back and stood, using his wand to summon his jeans and shirt from the pile next to the camp bed. Since Ron and Hermione had left for Australia, Harry had commandeered Ron's bed for himself, though he hardly ever slept in it.

Rather, he and Ginny had developed quite the new routine over the last few weeks, in which Harry would wait until eleven o'clock every evening, when he knew Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were asleep for the night, before sneaking down the four flights of stairs under his Invisibility Cloak to Ginny's room. As the summer wore on, this journey had become considerably easier, for the only door that he had to pass silently was her parents' room on the fourth floor.

The rest of the family had quickly retreated to their own homes after Fred's funeral, and after Ron and Hermione's departure during the first week of June, it was only Harry and Ginny who remained at the Burrow with her parents, though Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were rarely to be seen.

Mrs. Weasley had taken to bed the morning after Fred's funeral, only appearing on the house's ground floor once or twice a week. Mr. Weasley spent nearly all daylight hours at the Ministry in London, where little progress had been made in rounding up the remaining Death Eaters that had escaped after the final battle. Posters requesting information on the Lestrange brothers, Rowle, and several of Voldemort's known affiliates were scattered across the various institutions of the Wizarding world and the Daily Prophet.

Harry had given up on trying to offer aid to Kingsley and Mr. Weasley, as it was soundly rejected each time. Though several Death Eaters and many of their accomplices still ran free, Kingsley had spent the last two months ensuring that the Ministry was free of pureblood ideology amongst its officials. Each employee of the government was subjected to a hearing, after which it was determined if they could be held complicit in the capture, imprisonment, and often murder of Muggle-born wizards during Voldemort's regime.

Despite his Imperiusation, ex-Minister Pius Thicknesse had been deemed partially responsible in the wrongful executions of no less than one hundred and fifty witches and wizards at the hands of Snatchers and Death Eaters, and therefore stripped of the ability to hold a job within the Ministry. Dolores Umbridge, a decidedly willing offender, had already been exiled to Azkaban. Kingsley's method of weeding out blood purity fanatics seemed to be thus far successful, and according to Mr. Weasley, efforts were now being made to intentionally fill open government positions with various magical beings and creatures that had previously faced discrimination under the old regime.

Harry was still desperate to be useful in Kingsley's new government. His frustration at returning to school in just over a month still quietly saturated his every thought, but Harry had to admit that it was not difficult to distract himself now that he and Ginny were so wonderfully alone; free to spend their long days nearly however they pleased.

There were some responsibilities, for which Harry was grateful; he never wanted to feel the same creeping idleness he had felt in Perkins' tent last fall. Harry and Ginny had taken over most of the household work, but without the usual population of the Burrow stretching the place to its limits, the necessary time spent cooking and cleaning was negligible. Which, of course, left time for other, more pleasurable activities.

Harry pulled up a leg of his trousers, thinking about the previous night, when, amidst their quiet laughter and kisses, Ginny's hand had found its way from his arm, down his torso and into his pants. Her ministrations had left him swearing and panting, and it was with the greatest reluctance that he had left her bed hours later to sneak back up the Burrow's staircase before Mr. Weasley had left for work.

He straightened up, doing his belt buckle, and found Ginny watching him intently, her eyebrows raised suggestively. He knew that she too was reliving their brief tryst, and grinned at her cheekily. She crossed the room again, placing her hands on his chest before kissing him soundly. Harry reached up to weave his hand in her long, fiery hair, but she broke off before he could pull her closer.

"Come on," she laughed, grabbing his hand and pulling him from the bedroom. They made their way down the many flights of stairs and into the kitchen.

"Why the hurry?" Harry asked, slightly blindsided by Ginny's apparent excitement.

"I've been waiting for you to come down for ages," she said, taking a pinch of Floo powder from the flowerpot on the mantelpiece. "George says he doesn't mind if we come 'round the shop today."

Harry nodded in understanding. For nearly the entirety of the summer, Harry and Ginny had been offering to help George reopen Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. The twins hadn't been able to board the place up before being forced to flee into hiding at their Aunt Muriel's after Harry, Ron, and Hermione's escape from Malfoy Manor. Thus, most of the shop had been terribly ransacked by the war's end. George had moved back into the flat over the premises shortly after his brother's funeral, ostensibly to begin the process of picking up his business, though Harry and Ginny had privately suspected that it was to avoid witnessing the rest of the family's grief and, by extension, avoiding his own.

Indeed, Harry and Ginny had traveled to Diagon Alley at least weekly for the majority of the summer, and little progress seemed to have been made in repairing the damage done to the joke shop. George would see them reluctantly, often over a pint at the Leaky Cauldron, after which he would retreat back to his humble residence while Harry and Ginny would peruse the various shops, many of which were still lacking in the various goods and wares with which they were so familiar. Still, trips into town were still preferable to remaining around the quiet Burrow day after day.

Ginny threw the pinch of powder into the fireplace, releasing Harry's hand to step into the green flames. "Diagon Alley," she said clearly, and then vanished.

Harry took his own pinch before following after her. The sensation was as terrible as it had been when he was twelve. He watched the various fireplaces fly in front of his face, shrouded in green flames, before finding himself falling flat on the rigid wooden floors of the Leaky Cauldron.

"Still not used to it?" Ginny asked, offering him a hand.

"I'd prefer flying, honestly," Harry admitted as she caught him in her grip and yanked. "But it would be nice if someone was able to Apparate."

"Two more weeks, Potter," she said lightly. "Though I must say, it would also 'be nice' if someone was proficient enough at Apparating to be able to take his girlfriend by Side-Along."

Harry blushed, and not at the slight about his poor Apparition abilities. Though it had been over two months since their kiss after Fred's funeral, this was the first time Ginny had actually referred to herself as his girlfriend.

She must've noticed his embarrassment, for when he met her eye again, she looked slightly crestfallen. She recovered quickly, however.

"Wonder when the Ministry'll catch on that you've been Apparating all summer without your licence?" she asked lightly, giving his arm a prod. He grinned.

"I'm sure they have already," he replied in his best Percy voice. "But generally when someone defeats the darkest wizard of all time, he's afforded certain allowances."

She laughed. Harry felt relief wash over him. He'd yet again avoided the inevitable conversation about the exact nature of his and Ginny's relationship. He knew he wanted to be with her for as long as possible, but he didn't know what it would be like for them when they returned to school. 'Or,' his thoughts voiced treasonously, 'if you return to school.'

Harry shook his head. He had to go to Hogwarts to finish his N.E.W.T.s. Kingsley had made it abundantly clear that he would not be permitted by the Ministry to aid in the tracking of the Death Eaters still at large until he had obtained Auror qualifications.

Ginny was now brushing soot off the front of his t-shirt. She surveyed her work approvingly before turning towards the door. Harry smiled at Tom the toothless bartender before following her into the alleyway behind the pub. She stepped back so he could reach out his wand to tap the correct brick, and took hold of his hand again as the wall shifted itself into the shape of an archway. Together they passed into the once-again bustling streets of Diagon Alley.

All of the shops dedicated to the Darks Arts that had been founded during Voldemort's regime were now closed, and though several storefronts were still empty, business was returning, both new and old.

In the first weeks after the war, witches and wizards had waited in hours-long lines for once-simple errands; obtaining gold from Gringotts had to be scheduled weeks in advance, and basic potions ingredients were sold out in nearly every shop. Now, however, it was again becoming possible to buy leisure goods, and Ginny had been itching to get into Quality Quidditch Supplies since it had reopened the Tuesday prior.

They made their way down the narrow cobblestone street, eyes following them curiously from windows and doorways. Harry had gotten quite used to this, but was still rendered rather uncomfortable when a stout little wizard ran out of Flourish and Blotts and insisted on pumping his hand excitedly while offering his profuse thanks.

Hoping to avoid further painful interactions with strangers, Harry kept his gaze on the ground in front of him, allowing Ginny to drag him down the street towards the sporting shop. He didn't look up until she gave an audible gasp in front of Madam Malkin's robe shop.

"Harry, isn't that Tonks' mum?" she asked. "In the shop there?"

Harry looked up to see where Ginny was gesturing, and indeed, through the seamstress's front door, he could see the figure of Andromeda Tonks, bending over a pram. A tiny hand was waving up at her over the side of the carriage.

Harry's face felt as though it was on fire, and he immediately jumped away from the store.

"Let's go, Ginny," he said hurriedly.

"Don't be ridiculous," Ginny replied. "You were just telling me yesterday that you still feel terrible for how you acted at the funeral, and look, she has the baby with her!"

"She's just trying to do her shopping," Harry said, panicked. "I'm sure she doesn't want to be bother- Ginny!"

For Ginny had already wrenched the door to Madam Malkin's open, the bell jangling behind her.

Several of the shoppers looked up interestedly at Ginny as she entered, their eyes widening with excitement as Harry followed her across the threshold. Ginny paid this little attention as she strode purposefully up to Andromeda and her pram.

"Hello, Mrs. Tonks," Ginny said. "I'm Ginny Weasley. I was a friend of -"

"Yes, dear, I remember you from the funeral; Arthur Weasley's daughter," Andromeda interrupted, seemingly unperturbed by their sudden appearance. "Nymphadora always spoke very highly of you."

Ginny was clearly pleased. Harry walked up to stand just behind her as she peered keenly into the pram.

"Oh, he's so sweet," she exclaimed. "What do you think, Harry? Does he takes more after Remus or Tonks?"

Harry, who had been pretending to be particularly interested in a bolt of velvet just above Andromeda's right ear, looked back with a start at his name.

"Oh, er, well, Tonks, I suppose," he said, gazing at the turquoise-haired baby. Teddy was notably larger than the last time Harry had seen him, and though Harry's immediate reaction was to guess that Teddy looked more like his Metamorphmagus mother, as he looked closer, he saw that the child bore the same facial characteristics as his late-father, even surrounded by his baby fat: the triangular jaw, the high cheekbones. Unlike Remus, however, there was nothing in the slightest about this child that could be described as wolfish.

"How is he?" he asked Andromeda.

She looked at Harry shrewdly, as though she couldn't decide what to make of him. "He's alright, given the circumstances," she said. "He sleeps well; he eats well. He laughed for the first time yesterday."

Harry nodded, feeling fleetingly surprised at how happy that bit of information made him. Teddy laughed. Teddy, who had no parents, whose great-aunt murdered his mother, whose great-uncle's wanted sign was gazing blankly down at him from a shelf at this very moment, was happy. Ignorance was truly bliss, Harry supposed.

Harry peered at Teddy again, who threw up his chunky little fists towards his godfather and smiled brightly. Harry, almost without realizing what he was doing, reached out his hand to clasp one of his godson's. He ran a thumb over the tiny knuckles, and felt a smile spread easily across his face.

"I'm sorry about how I acted at the funeral," he said abruptly to Andromeda. "I… it's been a long summer." He looked up and saw that her gaze had softened.

"Yes, it has," she said simply.

Harry released Teddy's tiny fingers.

"Maybe I could come by sometime," he continued. "To your house, I mean. To see him."

The corners of Andromeda's mouth turned upwards, just slightly. It was hardly a smile, but it was certainly promising.

"I think that would be fine," she said, and Harry grinned.

"I'm proud of you," Ginny said as they walked through the door of Quality Quidditch Supplies. "That was brave."

"Courage hasn't been my strong suit lately," Harry mused, "if the bravest thing I can do is make tentative plans to stop by for tea with an old woman and a baby."

Ginny turned back from a display of broom-handle polish to look at him, but said nothing.

"Since the war ended everything just makes me feel so… uncomfortable, I guess. I don't know," Harry finished. Ginny still didn't speak. Suddenly Harry felt a hand at his elbow. He turned sharply, hand flying to his wand, resting snuggly in his jeans pocket.

"Harry Potter!" a mousy-haired witch squeaked from about a foot beneath his line-of-sight. "It is such an honor! I never-"

"Hang on!" Ginny said behind him, inexplicably. "That's not Harry Potter! That's my cousin, Barny Weasley!"

Harry turned back to Ginny, who was standing squarely with one hand on her hip, hair tossed over her shoulder. He grinned.

"Oh," the little witch chuckled nervously, clearly not believing Ginny's outlandish claim, but still startled by her interruption. "Yes, well anyways, Harry, I-"

"Have I not just said that he's Barny Weasley?" Ginny asked arrogantly, swatting Harry's shoulder with her hand. "Harry Potter saved the lot of you from Voldemort, and Barny here gets all the praise? Come on, Barn. Let's go!"

And with that, she stalked off to a wall of Cleansweeps. Harry made an apologetic face to the bemused old witch and went to stand next to Ginny.

"That was a bit rude," he said, though he couldn't help but smile broadly.

Ginny's eyes were narrowed. "No more rude than her badgering strangers trying to do their shopping," she said.

"Isn't that what you just did to Andromeda?" Harry asked, laughing.

"That was different. Teddy's your godson," she sighed, before turning to look at Harry. "I'm sorry. I just don't know how you put up with it. The things you've gone through in the last year… and then everyone acts like they have some kind of claim to you."

Harry put an arm around her shoulder. "They don't understand," he said quietly. He looked up at the Cleansweeps.

"Need a new broom, then?" he asked lightly. "I don't know if these'll do for the Captain of the Gryffindor team."

"There's no way I'll make Captain now that you're back. Besides, I'm so out of practice; I haven't played in a real match since the night we beat Ravenclaw last spring," Ginny said.

"What are you talking about?" Harry asked. "You didn't play last year?"

Ginny shook her head. "I thought I told you," she said. "I hit Blaise Zabini with a stinging hex our second day back, after I heard him saying some disgusting things about Muggles outside of Transfiguration. Snape gave me a 'lifelong' Quidditch ban for that."

"Snape did?" Harry asked, surprised.

During their long nights spent curled together on Ginny's tiny bed, Harry had slowly revealed to her so much of what had happened to himself, Ron, and Hermione since the night of Bill and Fleur's wedding. Horcruxes, Hallows, the Ministry break-in, Malfoy Manor, and even Ron's departure had been the topic of many evenings. It had been greatly therapeutic to reveal so much of himself to Ginny; he felt that they had gotten to know each other better over the last six weeks than the six years prior that he'd known her.

Ginny, in turn, had detailed for him her time at Hogwarts the previous term; painting horrible images of attempting to rebel against the Carrows with Neville and Luna, but always being thwarted by Snape. She was hardly impressed by Harry's description of Snape's bravery, but had noted that Snape had been surprisingly known for doling out less-severe punishment than the Carrows. Harry was now startled to hear that she received such a strict sanction for magic in a corridor; such infractions were typically penalized with a loss of House points.

"Yes, Harry, Snape did," Ginny said, a bit peevishly. "Anyways, I have a broom that works perfectly fine, thanks. You're the one that we need to be shopping for. Do you think you want another Firebolt?"

Harry thought miserably of his old broom, a Christmas gift from Sirius. He didn't know if he wanted another one; he knew it just wouldn't feel the same having not come from his late godfather. Still, he supposed he had to have something, and there wasn't a better racing broom in Europe. He turned to the wall of Firebolts, seeing that there were now quite a large stock of them, compared to years ago, when he had been one of the first wizards in the world to own one. He beamed suddenly with pride, remembering the feeling of unwrapping Sirius' gift for the first time, feeling the handle of the broom vibrating softly under his grip.

"Harry! Ginny!" a voice called out, breaking Harry out of his reverie. He and Ginny turned to see Neville Longbottom making his way towards them through the packed shop. He reached Ginny first, pulling her into a massive hug before in turn throwing himself on Harry, who received him with a cry of joy.

"How are you, Neville?" Harry asked, stepping back and looking him over. His friend looked nearly-returned to his pre-War robustness; no more scrapes or bruises covered his face, and he had gained back some of his jolly coloring and plumpness.

"Can't complain," Neville shrugged. "I had to get some new dragon-hide gloves for Herbology, and Gran's just bought me an owl for my birthday."

"That's right!" Harry said. "Happy birthday!"

"Happy birthday," Ginny murmured.

"Thanks," Neville grinned appreciatively. "Any plans for yours?"

Harry shrugged. He hadn't seen much of Neville since the week after the battle, when most members of the Wizarding world were running into each other at various funerals. He had figured Neville was with his grandmother, taking the summer to recover after her time spent on the run and his year of beatings and torture.

"Herbology? Are you going back to school, then?" Harry asked, trying to sound casual.

Neville nodded. "Don't really want to, but I'm realizing there's not much I can do without having done my N.E.W.T.s. Doesn't help my mood much either, that those two are still on the run," he said, indicating a large poster of Rabastan and Rodolphus Lestrange, hanging in the shops window. "But I am completely unprepared for examinations. We didn't manage to actually get much schoolwork in last term, did we, Ginny?"

Ginny shook her head, looking slightly uncomfortable. Harry grabbed her hand, brushing his thumb over her fingers. He knew it was difficult for her to talk much about the school year with the Carrows, and she still hadn't been sleeping well. It worried him, honestly, especially just after her reaction to his comment about Snape. Ginny was a fairly resilient person, but she had changed after the last school year and the death of her brother. She was a bit quicker to anger, a bit quieter, and a bit less mischievous. Harry had found that one of the most difficult struggles of the past few weeks was Harry and Ginny acknowledging to each other that they were no longer the same two people that had spent hours lying by the lake at Hogwarts over a year ago.

Neville seemed to notice Ginny's discomfort. He stepped towards her, his face sincere.

"Look, I don't think I've had a chance really, to say that I'm sorry for what happened to Fred. And I know it'll be brutal, going back to Hogwarts, after everything that happened last term, but it's not going to be like that again. McGonagall's Headmistress, and I know she won't just sweep last year under the rug. Everything with the Carrows… we shouldn't act like it was some normal thing to happen during a war, you know? We all suffered, we can't pretend otherwise."

Ginny's eyes were wide, but she still steadfastly met Neville's gaze.

"Thanks, Neville," she said, before throwing Harry a strangely penetrating look.

Neville nodded for a second time. "I've got to get back to Gran, but I'll see you two around," he said, smiling kindly.

He left the two of them standing there, holding hands. Harry didn't know what to say to her, but Ginny broke the silence quickly.

"You know what?" she said. "I really think you should get a new Firebolt."

"You do?" Harry asked.

"Yeah," Ginny said, smiling. "But mostly because I want you to to let me have a go at it."

Harry ended up choosing a random Firebolt from those stocked at Quality Quidditch Supplies. It was a Firebolt, but not his Firebolt, he couldn't help but think as he slid his Galleons across the counter. It just didn't feel the same, and Harry was beginning to suspect that nothing ever would.

Ginny was sullen again as she and Harry Flooed back into the Burrow. The trip to see George had hardly gone as planned. They had arrived at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes to find George surrounded by unpacked boxes, staring idly out the window.

"Been waiting for us to start, have you, you lazy arse?" Ginny had asked playfully, but as George had turned to face them, Harry could see that it was not laziness that hindered George from unpacking the merchandise, for most of the shop had finally been repaired, but something else entirely.

"I don't want to do this without Fred," George had said, looking at them desperately. "Verity brought in boxes today; we got our first shipment of Slug Belchers, inspired by Ron of course. Fred and I thought them up before the war, and he never saw them past the prototype, and now they're here, and I - I just can't."

Ginny sighed, and crossed the room to speak with her brother in hushed tones.

Harry was left to begin sorting the Belchers, setting up the display stand with a quick "Erecto" and levitating the various boxes onto it, frowning as Ginny and George's voices became louder and louder. Fearing that he would be dragged into whatever dispute it was, he proceeded to assemble the rest of the stands and displays, soon aided by Verity, who had returned from her lunch break.

They had stepped back, rather impressed with their own work, when Ginny grabbed him suddenly by the arm and dragged him from the shop towards the Leaky Cauldron. She didn't say a word until they had stepped from the fireplace into the Burrow's kitchen.

"He can't give up the shop," she huffed, grabbing a pot off the rack and setting it over the stove. "It's the only thing he has now; it was his whole life's work. What will he do without it?"

"Maybe it was only what he wanted to do if he could do it with Fred," Harry suggested as Ginny began chopping onions without magic. "What are you making?"

"Soup," she said, tossing a square of butter into the pot before scraping the onions off the chopping board in after it. "I don't even know if he could do anything else. He's got no N.E.W.T.s and only three O.W.L.s!"

Harry thought that Ginny sounded quite like her mother when she spoke like this, but refrained from voicing this opinion.

"And do you know what he said to me?" she asked, dumping a can of stock over the onions.

"What?" Harry asked.

"He said that if the family wasn't going to be supportive of him closing down the shop, he had other people who could help him figure out what to do next. What do you think that means?"

Harry's mind flashed to Angelina Johnson, but again kept his mouth shut.

It took most of the afternoon for Ginny's concoction to simmer into something edible, so she and Harry spent the rest of the day traipsing around the garden, kicking gnomes about and reminiscing about two summers ago, when they played two-a-side Quidditch in the very place with Ron and Hermione. At one point, Ginny sank down under a nearby tree, curling into a ball as she stared out at the hills where the Lovegoods lived.

"I miss my brother," she mumbled, and Harry had sat next to her, pulling up bits of grass and wondering sadly which brother she was referring to, though he had a clue. He had kissed her then, not sure if it was to make her or himself feel better.

They didn't speak much through dinner, and Mr. Weasley came home shortly thereafter. While Harry asked him about his day at the Ministry, Ginny tiptoed quietly upstairs to ask her mother if she wanted anything to eat. Mrs. Weasley declined.

"That's the third dinner a row she's missed," Ginny muttered worriedly as she walked back into the kitchen.

Mr. Weasley rubbed his eyes.

"Don't worry about your mother, Ginny. It'll take time, but she'll be alright," he said wearily, but Harry privately thought that he too had been looking rather peaky.

They chatted a bit longer about Arthur's work and Harry and Ginny's trip to Diagon Alley, before Mr. Weasley gave them a small smile and trudged up the stairs to bed.

Ginny followed first, and Harry cleared up the dishes, taking a moment to feel proud of his newfound ability to do household magic. He wasn't very good, but it was a definite start, he thought, washing the sponge rotate itself over a plate. He smiled, remembering the first time he met Tonks, who had eagerly attempted and failed to charm his socks into folding themselves into his school trunk as she stole him away from Privet Drive when she was fifteen.

And then it was Harry's turn to make his long journey up to Ron's room, where he would change into pyjamas and wait until he knew Mr. and Mrs. Weasley would be soundly asleep.

He occupied himself tonight by reading Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches, though he was sorry to see that there was no chapter on how to help the witch you want to charm adjust to the trauma of losing her older brother and several classmates in a battle against the darkest wizard to ever live.

He normally tried to wait until a few minutes after eleven before sneaking back downstairs, just to be sure the Weasleys were certainly, positively asleep, but today had been so difficult, and he was so tired, that after the clock struck Harry waited nearly half-an-hour before yanking the Cloak over himself and making his way to Ginny's room.

He slipped inside her room and pulled off the Cloak. Ginny was sitting with her knees pulled to her chest again, staring at him.

"I'm worried about you," he said, not bothering with any pleasantries.

"Why?" she asked.

"I can't keep up with you," Harry told her, crossing the room and sitting down on the end of the bed. "You're swinging all over the place, from upbeat to miserable to bitter..."

"It's called being a person, Harry," she said drily. "You've never been notorious for your consistently good moods, either."

"Yeah," Harry said. "Yeah, I suppose your right. Can you just... will you just tell me, please, if there's anything I can do to help you? Half the day I've just felt like I've been getting on your nerves and I - I don't want that. You're pretty much the only good thing in my life right now. I want to be that for you, as well."

He could see her soften a bit, and she untucked herself, crawling across the bed towards him. His heart thudded as she rested her head on his shoulder.

"Alright," she said, pausing for a moment before continuing. "I want to talk to you about the battle."

Harry stuck a finger under his glasses, rubbing his eye. He had been expressly avoiding that particular conversation for nearly six weeks, out of a terrible fear that she would ask him what it was like the moment that Fred had died.

"We were both there," he reminded her weakly. "I'm sure we experienced most of it the same way."

She rolled her eyes at that comment. He didn't blame her.

"Harry, look," she said, drawing a long breath. "I just want you to tell me what it was like for you, when you thought you were going to - to die."

Relief flooded through him. It didn't seem that she was going to ask him about Fred after all.

"Oh," he said. "That."

"What did you think I was going to ask you about?" she wondered.

"Nothing," he said with a grimace. He pulled her down with him so they were cradled in each other's arms, the moonlight pouring onto them from her window. He didn't know where to begin.

"I'm not trying to upset you," she said, snaking an arm across his chest and laying her head next to it. "I just - I can't stop thinking about it. How terrible it must've been for you, all alone, even with the Resurrection Stone, and I - I…."

"It was terrible," Harry said, interrupting her gently. "I can't even tell you what I thought about, honestly. I think, after I learned what I had to do, I was mostly running on sheer adrenaline. None of my thoughts were too clear, I just knew I had to get to the forest."

She pressed her lips softly to his shoulder.

"I knew I couldn't see Ron and Hermione," he said. "If I saw them, I didn't think I'd be able to go through with it. What I remember most of all was this really overwhelming desire to live. I remember feeling my heart thudding along and thinking that it was ironic, that I was still so alive, but marching towards death."

"And then I saw you."

He felt Ginny freeze beside him.

"You saw me?" she asked him.

"You were helping a girl on the grounds. She was injured, I guess."

"Vicky Frobisher," Ginny said, her voice weak. "She was in my year, shared my dormitory. She died there, on the grass. I went out because I couldn't stand being in the Great Hall anymore, being around Remus... and Tonks… and Fred. I wanted to find someone to help, and I did. And then she died while I held her hand."

Harry didn't know what to say. "I'm sorry," he told her, running his hand up her arm. "I'm so sorry, Ginny."

Ginny didn't speak, so he pressed on after a moment. "I remember wanting to call out to you, wanting you to convince me to go back… but then I realized there was nowhere to go back to. If I didn't go then… There was never any life for me, beyond Voldemort.

Ginny gave a watery chuckle. "I wouldn't have tried to convince you to go back," she said. "I would've gone with you, though. I would've gone with you to the very end."

Harry looked down to see her staring up at him, and was surprised to see tears in her eyes. He knew she cried, of course, especially in the days after the battle, when her eyes were rimmed with red nearly every time he saw her. But he didn't think he'd ever actually witnessed her in the act of crying, apart from when they were very young.

"I know," he said. "I know you would've." And he did. He knew Ron and Hermione would've never let him go, would've insisted he keep fighting, but that Ginny would've understood; that Ginny always understood.

He knew then another thing, something that he wondered suddenly if he'd always known, maybe from the first moment they kissed in the Gryffindor common room. Something he wanted Ginny to know, too.

"I - I - you…" he began, losing his nerve as quickly as he had discovered it. How did he phrase the words he had never heard said to him, never expected to hear, never said himself.

"You were the last thing I thought of before - before I was hit by the curse," he blurted out, deciding this was easier.

"I - what?" Ginny said, looking up at him again.

"Before Voldemort cast the Killing Curse," Harry said. "I thought of you, and your eyes, and what it felt like to be kissing you."

"Did you really?" she asked, sounding almost amazed.

"Yeah," he said, praying she would understand what he was trying to tell her, without him having to say more.

She shook her head, as if trying to dislodge the memory of Vicky Frobisher from her brain. Harry let his hand move from hers onto her thigh, where he traced small patterns on her skin. Would there ever be a time where touching her didn't cause butterflies to erupt in his stomach?

She suddenly reached for his left hand, raising it so they could read the numbers behind the battered glass of his wristwatch. It was eight minutes past twelve.

"Happy birthday," she breathed.

"Thanks," he said, pressing a chaste kiss to her crown. For a moment they lay still, facing each other on Ginny's tiny bed. But then Ginny hooked her leg around Harry's, drawing him further into her. She kissed him gently on the lips, and Harry responded in turn, pressing his tongue to hers as she opened her mouth slowly. She broke away, smiling.

"Are you ready for your gift?" she asked him, her eyes glittering.

"Sure," he said sleepily, rolling onto his back.

Ginny sat up, hovering over him for a moment before taking his hands and raising him as well. They sat on her bed facing each other, Ginny still holding both of Harry's hands in her own.

"I couldn't think what to get you," she said. "Everything in Diagon Alley was crap."

Ginny looked rather nervous, and Harry's curiosity was getting the better of him. Ginny looked back down at their linked hands.

"Oh, fuck it," she said, and released her grip on Harry to pull off her t-shirt. Harry's heart thudded as she tossed the fabric off the bed and turned back to him, her pale breasts illuminated by the glow of the moonlight from her window.

"Happy birthday," she said again, before weaving her hands through his hair and kissing him again, not slowly this time, but passionately, thrusting her tongue into his mouth as she pressed her naked chest onto his shirt. His arms flew up as he pressed his hands to her ribcage, brushing his thumbs across her nipples as he had done countless times this summer, though always through her shirt.

"Ginny," he said out of the corner of mouth as she continued to assail him. "What are you doing?"

She leaned back. "What do you think I'm doing?"

"I mean, er, do you really want to do this? Are you sure?"

Her dark eyes blazed as she looked at him, and she tucked her hair behind her ears. "Yes," she exhaled, sliding off his lap and rolling towards the space where her bed met the wall.

Harry turned so that he was hovering over her. Ginny pushed her knickers down and kicked them off her feet. Harry gulped again, his eyes feasting on the sight of her. Her body was so familiar to him after these last few exploratory weeks, and yet he had never actually seen all of her at once like this. She was so lovely, covered from head to toe in freckles, her hair fanned out on the pillow beneath it. She was breathing heavily, her breasts rising and falling rhythmically.

He paused for a moment. 'It's just Ginny' a small voice said in the back of his head. 'Tell her, tell her now.'

But now Ginny was reaching down, towards his own bottoms; the old pyjamas that he'd had for the last year, since his time in the tent, when lack of privacy had made modest sleepwear essential… and suddenly his hips were free, and the pants had slipped down his legs, and then Ginny was looking up at him, and words were lost to him, all except one.

"Ginny," Harry whispered.

Minutes, hours, maybe weeks later, Harry collapsed on top of Ginny, who pressed a kiss to his temple as he murmured sweet nonsense in her ear, not entirely sure what had just happened. It took him a moment to fully grasp what he'd just done, pushing himself up to look at her.

"Oh, fuck, Ginny, I'm sorry!" he cried, as her body began to shake with laughter.

"It's alright," she said, giggling uncontrollably.

"Are you mad at me? I didn't mean to… I really wanted you to... " he trailed off, looking her over. She continued to laugh, tears beginning to leak out of the sides of her eyes. Harry groaned, collapsing back on top of her as she wrapped an arm around his neck, sniggering in his ear.

Harry took a deep breath and rolled off of her, onto his back, smiling.

"What's so funny?" he asked, though he was laughing himself now.

She couldn't answer through her chortles, she just shook her head. Harry snorted.

"Oh, leave me alone," he told her, but he grabbed her waist and pulled her to him, kissing her again. "Fuck, that felt good."

She buried her face in his chest. "It did," she agreed. "Maybe next time you'll manage to last more than sixty seconds."

"Oi!" he said, but already, less than thirty minutes in, his eighteenth birthday had probably been the best of his life.

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Chapter 4: Chapter 4 - Ants Marching

Author's Notes: Another odd little chapter. I think I have too much fun writing little bits of banter between the core characters that my plot suffers. I have been reading up quite a bit on how governments restructure themselves after oppressive regimes, so much of Kingsley's monologue was inspired by a lot of actions taken by South Africa's government post-apartheid and Denazification and lots of other depressing Muggle world examples ;) I'm sure I'll get crap from the ending of this chapter, but something has to happen. This chapter is called after the song Ants Marching by Dave Matthews Band. I wish I could lie and say I didn't listen to such a ridiculous song while writing this chapter but I told myself I would honestly name each chapter after whatever I was listening to as it was composed. So thanks Dave Matthews; Chapter Four goes out to you.

The second Sunday of August, Harry hurriedly set six places at the table, his heart pounding with excitement. Tonight, finally, Ron and Hermione were returning to the Burrow after nearly two months in Australia, her parents' memories recovered and their identities returned to them. They had all been back in Britain for a day already, but Hermione had insisted on helping them settle into their old home, after an arduous aeroplane journey half-way across the world. According to Hermione's last letter, Ron, much to Mr. and Mrs. Grangers chagrin, had not enjoyed the sensation of being encased in a metal tube in the sky, and had gone on a rather loud rant somewhere over Iraq about how there were far better ways to fly, attracting the attention of some of their travel companions. Beyond that, however, the journey had gone without incident, and Harry was ecstatic to see his friends again after such a long separation.

Ginny had whipped up some kind of soup (her only speciality), and Harry had optimistically set enough places at the table for the entire family to join them for their dinner. He was slightly concerned that Ron had not grasped the extent of Mrs. Weasley's despair from his letters, and was expecting quite the fanfare upon his return, complete with a hearty feast to bolster them after their travels. Ginny shared many of her mother's more formidable traits, but some of the warmer ones, including mastery in the kitchen, were lost on her.

But Harry was reminded that Ginny was warm in other ways as two small hands slid around his chest from behind. He leaned back and felt her lips press into his neck, and he smiled gratefully.

"Are you happy?" she asked him.

"I missed them," Harry admitted. "But it'll be different, won't it? Us, I mean, being together with them around."

He felt Ginny laugh into his back. "We'll probably just have to be sneakier," she admitted.

Harry turned so he was facing her, weaving a hand through her hair and tilting her head up so he could see her bright, beautiful eyes.

"But what if I don't want to be sneaky?" Harry asked seriously. "What if I want to shout from the rooftops, 'I'm shagging Ginny Weasley!'?"

He raised his voice dramatically for the last bit, and Ginny, most likely fearing her mother would hear from several floors above, swatted his chest.

"Merlin, Harry," she whispered. "You really have a death wish, don't you? You have to be more careful. Remember what my mother did to Bellatrix Lestrange for trying to kill me? Imagine what she'd do to you for managing to get in my knickers."

"I'm sure she has some idea," Harry said. "I mean, it's just been the three of us cooped up in this house all summer. Your dad may be more clueless, I think, but your mum has raised seven children. Surely she knows when one of them's…"

"One of them's what, Harry?" Ginny asked lightly. "Dating someone? Sleeping with someone? Seeing someone?"

Her eyebrows were raised even after she finished speaking, and Harry knew there was a silent option, the one neither of them seemed able to voice. Harry felt, several times over the past week or so, that Ginny had been steadily prodding him to say the three little words that would change everything, that would most likely make everything better, but that Harry couldn't help but fear would make everything worse. He couldn't shake the feeling that his relationship with Ginny was something that didn't belong to him, that eventually someone would realize how happy she made him and come take her away.

And yet, on the surface, he felt rather grumpy that she was unwilling to say these stirring words first if she felt that way as well; it would be much easier to follow after her, say them in reply, but deep down he knew that she wanted him to do this on his own, and not necessarily for her, but for himself.

"We're together," he replied, after a moment of thought. She sighed, but smiled again slowly.

"We're together," she repeated, before grabbing the knives and placing one at each setting around the table.

"Two more days," she said excitedly. "Two more days and I'll be able to use magic for all of this."

"It'll be brilliant," Harry said, grabbing her by the waist and pulling her into him for a kiss. She threw an arm around his neck and he pressed his body closer to hers, using this leverage to lift her by the hips and set her on the table, so she could wrap her legs around his back. She sighed throatily, biting Harry's bottom lip. He groaned in turn, when suddenly two loud cracks sounded in the garden. Harry leapt back from Ginny as if struck by lightning. She smirked mercilessly at him, crossing her arms over her chest.

The door to the kitchen burst open with a loud smack as Hermione flew in, launching herself straight into Harry's arms. He patted her back awkwardly as he looked over her shoulder to see Ron, sunburnt and grinning, standing in the doorway. Harry's own mouth exploded outwards into a massive smile, so happy he was to see his best friends.

"How're you?" he asked Hermione, who stepped back to look him over.

"You're taller," she assessed definitively. "I'm good. Well, alright. My parents are hardly speaking to me, but I'm sure we'll sort ourselves out in time. It's quite upsetting, really, but I'm so relieved to be back I've hardly noticed."

"You explained everything to them, then?" Ginny asked, still sat on the table. Ron entered the house, making his way to her perch to give her a brief hug.

Hermione nodded. "They don't really understand," she chirped, as Ron came to stand by her. "And they feel quite violated, which I understand. I don't mean to speak too highly of myself, but I did the spell rather well. It was a real pain in the arse to reverse, and I don't think I did as thorough a job as I could have. My dad still calls Mum 'Monica' occasionally."

"Well, don't praise yourself too much," Ron said irritably. "They weren't in Adelaide like you intended at all, were they? No, they were parked in the middle of the ruddy Outback, living in a bungalow surrounded by kangaroos and the whole thing. It took us bloody weeks to find them."

Harry, who had already been apprised of this fact via Ron's disgruntled letters tried to make a commiseratory face. Ron, however, had taken a closer look at Ginny.

"Why're you sat on the table?" he asked her, eyes narrowing. "Mum'll have your head."

"I haven't even seen Mum downstairs in nearly a week," Ginny retorted. "It's been fucking terrible, honestly."

"Where is everybody? Did you not tell them we were coming back tonight?" Ron asked, craning his neck around as if to check that Charlie or George wasn't hiding behind the china cabinet.

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Yes, Ron, we wrote them all. Bill and Fleur might stop by later. Charlie's happily back in Romania, as you know, George is off doing Merlin-Knows-What with Angelina Johnson, and Percy spends every minute he's not at the Ministry sat in his flat, reading up on Wizarding legal theory, so I'm not sure if he'll fancy making an appearance."

"Angelina Johnson?" Ron asked curiously. "Really?"

Harry shrugged, and Hermione quickly changed the topic. "Your mum really isn't any better?" she asked, sounding quite concerned.

Ginny shook her head. "When you lot left we were hoping it was just the shock of the whole thing, maybe exhaustion too. But she's only gotten worse. I go see her a few times a day, bring her tea and food, and they just pile up on the nightstand. I told her you were coming back today and I think it hardly registered at all."

Ron cringed, his eyes traveling towards the ceiling, where Mrs. Weasley's bed was located, almost directly above them. "How's Dad?" he asked.

"Better, than Mum, I suppose. He leaves for work before the sun rises and comes back after it sets. He'll sit and chat for a moment and then head up to bed."

"Well," Hermione said in a falsely chipper voice. "It's almost sunset now, so we'll be seeing him soon, I expect. Are there any Butterbeers, Harry?"

Harry, trying to ignore Ron's troubled face, summoned four bottles. In the small window of time between himself and Ginny getting together after the funeral and Ron and Hermione departing for Australia, Harry had kept his nighttime visits to Ginny's room quite secretive. He knew already that the nature of his relationship with Ginny made Ron a bit uncomfortable, even if he begrudgingly accepted it, so he and Ginny had refrained from informing him or anyone else of their rekindled feelings for each other. Now, however, that things were more serious, Harry knew that he and Ginny had to find a way to gently reveal their affection to Ron without inducing his ire.

Harry thought he caught Hermione gazing knowingly at him over the lip of her Butterbeer, and he blushed and turned away. Luckily, though, he was saved by a third loud crack from the garden. He glanced at his watch. Mr. Weasley had made it home early tonight; it was only five minutes to eight.

The door opened again, slowly this time, and Mr. Weasley meandered in. He took in the sight in front of him, and his face registered surprise for only a moment before falling back into its now-typically beleaguered expression.

"Ah, yes, Ron, Hermione, Harry had told me you'd be returning today," he said kindly, walking over to the table to clap his youngest son on the back and give Hermione a one-armed hug. Ginny surreptitiously slid back to the floor.

"How are your parents?" Mr. Weasley asked Hermione sincerely.

"Well," she said. "They're settled in at home now, probably sleeping off the jet lag."

"Jet lag?" Mr. Weasley asked curiously, a sudden spark of his old flare returning. "What is jet lag?"

Ron stepped forward. "It's when your sleep is affected because you've traveled across Muggle time zones in an aeroplane," he said promptly. Hermione rolled her eyes.

"An aeroplane?" Mr. Weasley said, positively unable to contain himself. "You went in an aeroplane, son? Really? Well, sit down, sit down, and tell me all about it! I must know how on Earth it manages to stay in the air. Quite ingenious of Muggles, I think. Thank you for cooking, Harry and Ginny."

They opened wine, and spent a fairly pleasant evening listening to Hermione explain various intricacies of the Muggle world, air travel in particular, Harry chiming in when needed. It was easy, perhaps, for them to all feel more relaxed, less grief-stricken, when they were talking about a world that seemed far off, almost imaginary, from the confused space they were currently occupying. Princess Diana, whom Hermione was now discussing, could've been a character in a fairytale for all her demise impacted Harry's life.

Mrs. Weasley did not show herself during their meal, but the candles burned low, and Mr. Weasley stayed on the ground floor much longer than usual. At nearly ten, Bill and Fleur appeared, bearing more wine. Bill hugged Ginny and Hermione while Fleur kissed Harry and Ron on each cheek. They settled in again, generous measures of mead being passed around the table, when Hermione gave a great cry.

"I nearly forgot!" she said, pulling several wrapped parcels out of her beaded bag. "We've brought presents!"

"We stayed in Woollongong for a while when we hit a bit of a wall in tracking down Mum and Dad," she said, handing each of them a parcel. Harry tore his open, finding inside an orange and black scarf emblazoned with the image of a warrior on one end. The rest of the family was pulling out their own various black and orange merchandise, looking it over as Hermione bit her lip anxiously.

"Thanks, Hermione!" Ginny said first, holding her t-shirt up and admiring it. "I've actually been trying to teach myself the Woollongong Shimmy all summer; I reckon it'll really throw Vaisey off his game in the fall if he makes Chaser."

Fleur regarded her knit hat with an air of apprehension before smashing it kindly on her head.

"Eet is so thoughtful!" she said, and Harry found himself rather impressed with Fleur's newfound ability to hide her blunt nature. He smiled at Ginny, who winked in return. The days of Phlegm seemed very far away.

Still, Bill and Fleur hadn't meant to stay long. They departed after only an hour, with Ron voicing his opinion that they probably had a year of being newlyweds to make up for, in less decent terms. Mr. Weasley had gone up to bed shortly after their departure, leaving Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny to do the washing up.

Hermione had levitated the dishes over to the sink, where she and Ginny were muttering quietly about something. Ron enchanted a rag to run itself back and forth over the already-gleaming tabletop while Harry idly had sparks flying out of the end of his wand.

Ron turned to look at him rather seriously. Harry stopped drumming his wand against his thigh.

"So," Ron began, uneasily. "So, are you and my sister…."

"What?" Harry asked, surprised Ron had managed to catch on so quickly.

"Hermione reckons you've gotten back together," Ron said quietly.

Harry realized he should've known Hermione would've figured it out and said something to Ron.

"Well, yeah," Harry said. "Yeah, I suppose we have."

"Right," Ron said, the tip of his nose going a bit red. "Right, well, just don't, you know-"

"I'm not messing her around," Harry said abruptly, loudly enough that Ginny and Hermione both looked up from the sink.

"I didn't say you were," Ron said, having the decency to look even more embarrassed.

"What about you and Hermione?" Harry asked.

"What about us?" Ron asked.

"Are you together?"

"Oh," Ron said, relieved. "Well, yeah, we are. I thought that was obvious."

"Well, I'm not sure how, since the two of you have barely said ten words to me since May," Harry retorted irritably.

"You haven't made it easy, mate," Ron said. "Look, I know you're not chuffed about going back to Hogwarts, I'm not either, but come on, I know it'll be easier than the last year, and once you've done you're N.E.W.T.s you can figure out what it is you really want to do. I mean, we have our whole lives…"

He looked at Harry earnestly, and Harry softened.

"Sorry," he said. "I'm happy for you and Hermione, really. I'm glad you're back, too. It's been weird being here without you."

"This whole place seems a bit backwards, doesn't it?" Ron asked. "I can't believe Mum didn't come down. I haven't got a clue what we're supposed to do about that."

"Ginny thinks she just needs time," Harry said quietly. He wished he and Ron could simply talk about something stupid, like a couple of regular blokes.

He thought about Dean and Seamus their sixth year, lounging in the common room chatting idly about girls and Quidditch. He could hardly reveal to Ron his newfound sexual prowess, given that all of his experience had been shared with Ron's sister. Nor did he really care to hear about Ron's own experiences with women.

Harry's mind suddenly wandered far, far, from the Burrow to the Australian Outback, where he wondered if Ron and Hermione had become intimate in the way that he and Ginny had. The thought not only sickened him but also made him feel strangely lonely. No, he thought decisively. Even if it was a bit immature, sex would have to be an off-limits topic between him and his best friend. Which, of course, left only Quidditch.

Ron still hadn't replied to Harry's observation about Mrs. Weasley. Harry took this as his cue.

"I can't imagine the Woollongong gear was your idea," he said with a smirk.

"The Warriors?" Ron shuddered. "Yeah, right. A bunch of wankers if you ask me. We saw them play in an International Cup against Montrose when I was eight. That Shimmy is easily the stupidest thing I've ever seen done on the pitch. But we were in the city and Hermione spotted a Quidditch shop and got all excited. I couldn't really rein her in. She wanted you lot to think that she knows what's up with the league, you know."

Harry chortled. "Fleur seemed to like her hat."

"Yeah, well, we're all fortunate that Fleur's learned to keep her opinions to herself," Ron said, but he grinned. Ginny turned from the sink.

"I'm going up to bed," she called, a twinkle in her eye. Harry could hardly imagine what she and Hermione had just discussed over the dishes.

"Yeah, we should too," Ron said. "Where's everyone sleeping?"

"I'm taking Percy's room," Harry replied. "We put Hermione's camp bed in with Ginny, if you're alright with that."

Hermione nodded. "That would be fine," she said gracefully.

"Right," Harry said, looking to Ginny. "Night, then." And he was the first to ascend the stairs, making his way to Percy's old bedroom.

Though he would never tell Ron or George, Harry quite liked Percy's neat little bedroom. It had a large bed and a simple desk and dresser. The window overlooked the garden, and Harry stripped down to his pants while idly watching a gnome uproot some of Mrs. Weasley's cabbage.

He climbed under Percy's starched sheets, taking time to appreciate that Ron's older brother had done laundry before returning to his flat in London. His head had just only touched the pillow when suddenly Ginny was there, climbing in beside him.

"You fell asleep!" she accused, pressing her cold feet to Harry's shins.

"I-dinnin," Harry mumbled, drawing her closer to him.

"Hermione left and I waited for nearly an hour for you to come down!" she laughed. "But, you know, Perce's got a much bigger bed; I reckon we could have a lot more fun up in here. You're not too tired, I suppose?"

Harry sighed, and then grabbed Ginny, rolling her over and pinning her down to the bed beneath him. She gave a cry of delight.

"Absolutely not too tired," he said, kissing her soundly as he situated himself between her legs. Her fingers flew to his hair, running through the messy mop again and again.

Harry grinned against her lips. "Why do you do that?" he asked.

"Because you look really fit when your hair's all over the place," Ginny said. Harry snorted.

"What did you and my brother talk about?" Ginny asked.

Harry sighed. "You and I dating."

"He and Hermione are shagging," Ginny said, making a face like she was going to be sick.

"Christ, Ginny, way to kill the mood," Harry said, rolling over onto the bed and flopping down next to her.

"Sorry," Ginny admitted. "I can't stop picturing it."

"Urk!" Harry cried. "Did you tell her about us?"

"Yeah," Ginny said, and then threw her arms up at Harry's dark look. "She asked, Harry, what was I supposed to say? She was being all clinical about it too, asking about which charms we use and how long it lasts and if I…"

Harry shuddered. "Why are we having this conversation?"

Ginny laughed. "I don't know," she admitted. "Everything feels so different, doesn't it?"

Harry shifted in the bed so he was facing her, drawing the covers up over both of them. "I suppose."

"You don't want to…?" she asked, surprised.

"I can't get the image of Ron and Hermione surrounded by all the bloody kangaroos out of my head," Harry said, using his wand to dim the lights. Ginny giggled and sidled up next to him, kissing him softly again and again. Harry was surprised when she spoke again.

"Do you - do you think they're in love?" she asked him quietly.

Harry's palms felt suddenly sweaty. "I don't know," he replied. Ginny was silent again, and Harry thought hopefully that perhaps she had fallen asleep.

"Harry?" she asked, her voice thick.

"Yeah?" he said.

But her breathing had slowed, and Harry knew she had drifted off.

Harry had worried that the new developments in their romantic lives would have made it uncomfortable for him to be around Ron and Hermione on their return from Australia, but their first day back at the Burrow proved his concerns unfounded. In fact, for the first time all summer, Harry felt truly that things were starting, in some small way, to get back to normal, or at least would become a new normal that he could embrace.

Himself, Ginny, Ron and Hermione spent the day playing two-a-side Quidditch on the Weasley's orchard, as they had in the days before Voldemort had taken over the Ministry, before their days in hiding, and before Fred's death. Ron and Ginny took turns on Harry's new Firebolt; it was still giving Harry trouble. It was odd for him to have bought his own broom; his first two had been gifts, and Harry wondered sometimes if what had made the brooms fly so well for him was the connection they brought to other people in the world he held so dear.

Still, he could hold his own on one of the Weasleys' old Cleansweeps, and as he watched Ginny chase Ron across their makeshift pitch on his Firebolt he felt his heart swell with pride and adoration; their Hogwarts letters had come that morning, and Ginny had been named Captain of the Gryffindor Quidditch team.

Harry made a particularly clean shot past Ron, serving as Keeper, that flew easily between the two trees they were using as goalposts. Harry soared back down to earth, feeling elated. He imagined playing Seeker again, and for a moment was nearly able to relish the thought of returning to school.

Ron had expressed some ire that the Hogwarts cohort of 1991 had been passed over for various House responsibilities - both Head students and all team Captains were from Ginny's year - but flying under Ginny's captaincy sounded fantastic to Harry. He wasn't eager for any added responsibilities on top of his N.E.W.T.s, and he knew from the comments she'd been making all summer that Ginny hoped to be scouted professionally. Her chances of being drafted to a team were far better if she was in a leading position on the pitch.

Ginny and Ron landed with gentle thuds beside him as Hermione gracelessly wobbled back down to earth.

"I don't think I'll ever get the hang of that," she said good-naturedly, brushing grass off of her jeans.

"You're excellent," Ron said unabashedly, and Harry caught Ginny's eye and smirked. "Right, Ginny, I'm starving. What'll it be tonight?"

"What?" Ginny said, gaping at him.

"For dinner," Ron clarified. "What are you making?"

"Why am I making dinner?" Ginny asked. "Because I'm a girl, I suppose?"

"No," Ron said, turning red as he realized his error. "Harry just said earlier that you've been doing most of the cook-"

"Well, that's because Harry cleans, isn't it?" Ginny snapped. "What did you expect, to sit at the table and watch while I bustle around, catering to your needs?"

"He did this last year, too, Ginny, don't pay him attention," Hermione said, rounding on Ron, who had thrown up his hands in surrender.

"Well, that's fine, then," Ginny said, though she gave a peal of laughter. "Ron can make dinner tonight."

And so, as the sun set around them, casting a warm glow over the fields and house, the four friends found themselves sitting in the Burrow's kitchen, eating scrambled eggs over toast. Ron had unearthed a dusty bottle of wine from a cabinet above the stove, and the drink poured freely, Hermione pointing her wand at the bottle each time it began looking dangerously low.

"Don't you think you've had enough?" Ron asked Ginny as she went to refill her goblet. "You're not of age yet."

Ginny made a rude gesture at her brother. "Watch it," she said warningly. "I've got about five more hours and then you'll be at my mercy."

"One of the things you'll learn as you mature into adulthood, dear sister, is that you can't hex people just because they annoy you," Ron said condescendingly. "Society has rules for a reason and- urgh!"

Ginny had flung a bit of egg across the table, hitting Ron squarely in the eye.

"Sorry," she said as Ron wiped bits of egg off his face. "What was that last thing?"

Harry and Hermione howled with laughter, but were interrupted as the door opened and Mr. Weasley stepped into the kitchen, his bald head gleaming in the low light. Ginny hastily shoved her glass across the table.

"Celebrating early, are we?" asked Mr. Weasley, noticing this. Ginny smiled at her father, who stepped further into the house to make room for Kingsley Shacklebolt to follow him through the narrow doorway.

"I've brought Kingsley for dinner!" Arthur exclaimed enthusiastically. "Though I see we're doing things a bit less formally tonight," he finished, regarding the large pile of eggs and toast in the middle of the table.

"Ron's done the cooking," Ginny said, taking another bite of toast. "I fancied myself a break."

"No worries, I've not had breakfast today," Kingsley said with a chuckle, sitting down next to Harry, who shook his hand. Despite his frustration at not being allowed to join Kingsley in his reformation of the Ministry, he still quite liked the older wizard. Ginny handed Kingsley a plate and a goblet, and Kingsley began piling on eggs.

They passed the evening merrily, and Harry was happy to see that Ron's return had brightened Mr. Weasley's spirits for two nights in a row. He was jovial and talkative, and he and Kingsley joked lightly about what a disaster the Ministry still was. The wine warmed Harry's face, and Ginny held his hand on top the table, seemingly uncaring towards her father's presence. Harry smiled easily as he thought of her birthday gift, stowed away in Ron's room, that he'd ordered from Diagon Alley earlier in the week.

The candles had burned low when Kingsley refused another glass of wine, clearing his throat before looking around all of them, sitting at the table.

"I must confess," Kingsley said, leaning forward, "that I have an ulterior motive for joining you all tonight, and that I speak to you now with my tail between my legs."

Harry flashed a glance at Ron, who looked as perplexed as he felt. Hermione's brow was furrowed, and Harry could almost see her mind attempting to work out what Kingsley was about to say.

"You know, not only from our conversation here tonight, but I'm sure from Arthur and Percy as well, that we've made great progress in reconstructing our world. Luckily, all the physical damage has been repaired; Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, and Hogwarts are all operating in their pre-war state. In terms of the Ministry itself, we've removed the influence of many of the oldest wizarding families by opening up Ministry positions to all magical creatures, not just witches and wizards. We're no longer using dementors in any government capacity, and we've managed to work with Gringotts to feed enough gold into businesses that our economy is no longer on the verge of collapse. We've frozen the assets of families like the Lestranges and redistributed them to families who lost relatives and income in the war, like Andromeda Tonks."

Harry nodded, unsure of where Kingsley was going with all of this.

"The issue truly comes in, then, with finding the remaining free Death Eaters and bringing them to justice. We are faced with a dilemma, in the sense that we're tasked with determining who was operating truly with the intentions of eradicating Muggleborns from our society, and who were merely aiding and abetting them out of fear or coercion. I'm afraid that we've largely failed in this task thus far. Our entire Department of Magical Law Enforcement is in chaos. We have no leads on the locations of the Lestrange brothers or Thorfinn Rowle, and now there have been rumors that they are again beginning to recruit those collaborators who are easily swayed and influenced yet again. Until we have those big names, if you will, removed from liberty, average witches and wizards will still be wary of their threat, and make choices that you or I would consider… morally questionable."

Harry's head was starting to feel a bit muddled. Beside him, Ginny had stiffened in her seat, her hand tight on his wrist.

"I am operating with very few Aurors at the moment," Kingsley continued. "John Dawlish has proved completely susceptible to interference from Dark wizards, leaving me with a team headed by Gawain Robards, who was always a bit too unquestioning of the Ministry's motives, in my opinion. Savage and Williamson comprise the rest of the Auror Department at the moment, and have been tasked with protecting various vulnerable magical communities from potential revenge attacks. This leaves me with no force with which to track down those remaining members of Voldemort's inner circle that are still at large."

Harry's heart had picked up a rapid pace at this point.

"I have long believed," Kingsley said, "that one of the few redeeming qualities of the Ministry as it operated before Voldemort's regime was that the training processes for many of our fields were incredibly thorough. Our Aurors have long been regarded as some of the best in the world, and I was reluctant to consider a new method of introducing recruits to the field. But the times are different, and I am here now to tell you that I will allow any student who fought in the Battle of Hogwarts during their seventh year of school to join the Ministry without obtaining N.E.W.T. qualifications. So," he finished, looking calmly from Harry to Ron to Hermione, "what do you say?"

Harry couldn't help but grin. It felt as though his deepest desire had not only been recognized, but placed neatly into his lap. This feeling of being relegated to the sidelines would be no more: he'd be useful, for the first time since May. He couldn't answer quickly enough.

"Of course," Harry exclaimed, Ron nodding alongside him.

"Excellent," Kingsley said. "There'll be an announcement in tomorrow's Prophet. The actual training camp will begin in London in a week's time, but you'll be formally informed of your acceptance to orientation by owl post."

Harry looked from Ron, who was grinning and reaching again for his goblet, to Hermione, who was biting her lip uneasily.

"I don't think I can accept," she said slowly. "I'm quite determined to sit my exams, actually."

Kingsley nodded in understanding. "I thought you might say so," he said sagely. "There will always be room for you at the Ministry, if you so desire. I firmly believe that we need you, Hermione, to help reform how wizarding society treats non-human magical creatures."

Hermione blushed at this comment, but Kingsley had already begun to gather his things from around them. Ron looked to Harry excitedly.

"What do you reckon, should we get a place in London? Bill moved there just after he finished school, his flat was brilliant, right over Flourish and-"

"Bill was working for Gringotts, Ron," Mr. Weasley said practically. "He was bringing home more gold than you or I can probably imagine. A flat in London is expensive."

"Yeah," Ron said dreamily, "but we'll be Aurors. We'll need to be in the thick of it, right where all the action is."

Hermione rolled her eyes. They all stood from the table, following Kingsley to the door. He shook each of their hands again before walking into the garden, where a loud crack indicated that he'd Disapparated.

The door slammed shut and Harry grinned massively. He felt so energized, better than he had since May, since that cold, terrible body had hit the floor of the Great Hall. He wanted to leave now, to Apparate directly to the Ministry; he was willing to start this minute, not next week.

"Ginny, what do you think, should I-" began Harry, but as he turned he realized she was no longer stood beside him. He caught sight of a flash of hair rounding the corner of the staircase. He glanced at Ron and Hermione, who were wearing inexplicably concerned expressions, before following Ginny up the stairs.

The door to her room was shut. Harry knocked before letting himself in.

Ginny was walking back and forth across her small bedroom, tossing clothes into her open Hogwarts trunk.

"Are you going somewhere?" Harry asked her.

"I don't want to be packing like mad when it's time to go back to Hogwarts," Ginny replied, an edge to her voice.

"We've got weeks," Harry said quietly.

"I've got weeks," she told him. "You - I don't know, you've got, what, a week before you're due in London? You're really the one who needs to be getting your things ready."

"I guess I thought-" Harry began, but Ginny cut him off.

"You thought you'd stay here while you trained?" she asked. "That's a good plan, yeah. Definitely better than Ron's idea of going to London. You can take my room if you want."

"Ginny…," Harry began.

"Do you have any idea," she said, cutting across him again, "what it's like for me whenever you go off without me? When you leave with Dumbledore to find some stupid locket and bid farewell to Ron and Hermione, but not me? When you break things off with me because you're too dangerous to be with, but turn around and have Ron and Hermione join you on your secret mission?"

"I'm not going off without you," Harry said cautiously. "We'll just be in different places for a bit. Come off it, Ginny. It's not like I don't want to be with you."

"Sometimes it certainly feels that way," Ginny said darkly.

Harry sighed. "It's never been easy for me to leave you. I remember thinking - this time last year, I mean - I remember thinking you had this whole life ahead of you, you could get married, have a career and a family and all of that, and all I had was Voldemort. I didn't want to go, it's just what I had to do."

"Oh," Ginny snapped. "Oh, I had a whole life ahead of me last year, did I? A whole life of being tortured by my bloody teachers and harrassed by Blaise fucking Zabini and forced into hiding with my parents? You weren't the only one who suffered last year, you know!"

"I know that," Harry said. "Ginny, you've been the only thing that's helped me…. I don't know what I'd've done without you these last few weeks."

"Then why are you leaving again?" she cried.

"You've got to understand…. You told me, when I ended things between us last time, that you knew I would never be happy unless I was hunting Voldemort," Harry reminded her. "I don't see what's changed."

"You don't see what's changed?" Ginny asked incredulously. "Well, for one, Voldemort is dead. I understood when it was urgent, when he was murdering people left and right and no one expected to survive the year-"

"THIS IS URGENT," Harry roared, his temper getting the better of him. "The Lestranges, Rowle, they're all at large! The Ministry is in shambles. Kingsley said anyone who fought in the Battle could join up and help…"

"Funny, because I seem to have missed Kingsley's invitation," Ginny spat.

"Well, no one can force you to go to back to Hogwarts if you don't want to," Harry remarked coldly.

Ginny's eyes widened. "That's not fair," she uttered, sounding genuinely hurt. "Don't make it seem like I'm the one who's choosing not to be with you. I'm frustrated. It's frustrating to always be left behind while you and my brother and Hermione go off and save the day. I want to help, too!"

"I don't get you," Harry said, exasperated. "After Dumbledore's funeral, when I told you I couldn't be with you, you understood perfectly. Why don't you see that I have to do this?"

"It's not that at all!" Ginny cried. "I understand why you're doing this. But with Voldemort, it could only be you, it had to be you; I knew that before you ever told me about the prophecy. The entire year, I held onto this desperate hope that you would survive, and that we'd be able to be together again, be together without any bloody dark wizards in the way. And you did survive, against all odds, and all summer I've felt as though we've been picking up the pieces, and we're finally not tied to time, with death and destruction hanging over our heads at every moment. But now it's like after Dumbledore's funeral again, and you're putting me on hold again…"

"I never said I wanted to put you on hold again," Harry interrupted again. She threw him a dark look, but continued.

"I'm not trying to be unreasonable," Ginny said, and her voice softened a bit. "You're going to be a fantastic Auror, and I'm proud of you, I really am. I love that you feel this need to fight against dark magic and blood supremacy. And I know you've been struggling all summer with feeling directionless. I know that, Harry. I guess I'm just starting to feel like I want to be prioritized a bit. It's always been Voldemort and Ron and Hermione and now the Ministry. I've always been patient; I've never minded. I thought that maybe you were willing to feel bored and listless for a bit if it meant we could be together. You told me the night of Fred's funeral you weren't going anywhere. So I suppose I feel let down. And I'm not sure I want to spend my final year at school pining over you again."

Harry blinked. "What?"

Ginny sighed, and turned to look out the window onto the sunny orchard. "I'm tired," she muttered. "I'm really tired of waiting to catch up with you lot."

"What happened to 'I never gave up on you'?" Harry asked her desperately.

"I'm not giving up on you, Harry, and I'd really appreciate it if you stopped quoting me back at myself. Look, so much has happened since Dumbledore's funeral and even since May. Maybe the timing just isn't right."

"I can't believe you're saying this. Merlin, Ginny, I love you," the words, so long on the tip of his tongue, had finally fallen out and landed smack in between the two of them with a note of terrible conclusivity.

Ginny turned back towards him, her hard, blazing look trained on his face. "I love you," she said, and her voice broke. "That's what makes this so difficult."

"You really don't want us to be together anymore?" he asked.

"Harry, all I've ever wanted is for us to be together," Ginny said, and he saw the traces of a smile reach her mouth. "That's the problem. I just think it'll be for the best if I go back to school and figure out what I want that isn't you. I know this is what you have to do, I understand, and I support you. But we're going to be busy, me with N.E.W.T.s and Quidditch, and you with your training, and it doesn't seem fair to either of us to cling to a relationship we don't have time for. It would be different if I were in London, or you were going back to Hogwarts for your exams, too. Clearly, that's not the case."

"How can you be so calm about this?" Harry demanded. But even as he asked her, he knew that she wasn't. Ginny Weasley had simply never been one for histrionics. And he did understand her, more than his pride would ever let him admit. He knew it would be hard for him if she was always running off with her other friends, putting herself in danger, disappearing for months on end. But she had always accepted that was part of who he was, often with grace and humour. He had never realized there would be such a limit to her patience.

Ginny managed to smile, but it didn't reach her eyes. "I don't think I could've made it through this summer without you," she said quietly. "Losing Fred, Mum taking to bed, Dad working so much; it just being you and I here helped a lot, I think."

Harry felt like he had been punched in the esophagus, but he raised his wand and wordlessly summoned the long, thin package down from Ron's room. It flew in gracefully, landing on Ginny's bed with a small thud.

"Happy birthday," he said to her softly.

"You shouldn't have," she said, her eyes wide as she took in the package, knowing what it was without needing to open it.

"I wanted us to ride them together," Harry told her. "You're going to be brilliant as Captain. I'm - I'm so proud of you."

"We can still ride them together, can't we?" she asked, and for the first time Harry heard a true note of distress in her voice.

"I suppose," he told her casually, trying his best to save face. It was hardly easy, this experience of being dumped.

And so, with that, he turned from the room, leaving Ginny and her new Firebolt behind him.

Back to index

Chapter 5: Chapter 5 - Zombie

Author's Notes: A/N: I hate this chapter lol. I don't think I fully considered the difficulties of splitting Harry and Ginny up or what kind of development I hoped would come from it but I already have this story mapped out so it kind of needed to happen without scrapping the whole fucking thing. I'm so grumpy right now but appreciate anyone who is still sticking along with me. I promise it won't be this shit forever. Also I wrote it in the shadow of Dolores O'Riordan's death - hence all the references to the Cranberries. Edit on the Author's Note: Your reviews have all been too kind. I am still struggling with how I want to round things out from here but I am a lot less grumpy about this chapter than I was when I finished it at like one o'clock this morning. Thank you all xx

The images swirled around him, engulfing him fully, as if he were at the center of some grotesque panoptic cinema; first his father, falling in the foyer of the cottage at Godric's Hollow; then his mother, begging and pleading as a wand was pointed at her chest; Fred Weasley, his brown eyes staring without seeing in a rubble-filled Hogwarts corridor; Ginny, standing next to her bed, her expression anguished as Harry let her door swing shut behind him.

And suddenly he was on his knees, panting heavily as the cold flagstones of the training room pressed into his shins.

"Alright, up you get, Potter," a rough voice said from above him. "I'm not going to pretend that wasn't a bit pathetic."

"I've told you, Savage," Harry grunted. "I've always been a shit Occlumens, it's never mattered before…"

"Yes, Potter, I've read all about how you used your connection to You-Know-Who's mind to your advantage," Savage said with a sneer. "But You-Know-Who is dead, and since you'll be safeguarding Ministry secrets and highly classified information in that thick head of yours, its important that you know how to adequately defend it. Longbottom, forward!"

Harry slunk to the far wall of the room, where Ron sat, lazily practicing Patronuses. A Jack Russell terrier trotted happily around Harry as he sank down next to Ron.

"I could hex Rita Skeeter into oblivion for that bloody Horcrux article," Harry grumbled. "I fully intended to live the rest of my life without anyone knowing that I had part of Voldemort's soul stuck to mine for seventeen years."

"Yeah, well, Savage is pretty fucking savage if you ask me," Ron muttered darkly, handing Harry his canteen. Harry splashed cool water on his face. "He didn't have to say that."

"He's better than Snape was," Harry admitted. "I just can't figure out what it is about Occlumency that I can't get the hang of."

"Maybe you've just got a lot of feelings, mate," said Ron, a smile playing in the corner of his mouth. Only last week Ron had managed to close his mind to Savage's well-trained Legilimency. Kingsley's new government, which had split the Wizengamot into a separate court and parliament, had recently registered the use of both Legilimency and Veritaserum unethical in legal proceedings, but Aurors were still fully expected to master Occlumency in the event of encountering practiced Dark Legilimens in the field.

"Anyways," Ron continued, "you'd think Savage would appreciate being called off Giant detail to come train us for a bit."

"He's worried that those Patrols that Robards sent in to cover him will catch the Lestranges trying to recruit the Giants before he can," Ernie MacMillan conjectured, wandering over to where they were sitting and squatting down.

"Why do we even think the Lestranges will go for the Giants? Aren't they all in Siberia?" Ron asked, stifling a yawn behind his hand.

"Belarus," Harry answered quietly.

"Giants can be easily persuaded," Ernie said. "Some speculate the Lestranges still have wealth to offer, despite the Ministry seizing their gold."

"It doesn't help that no one's seen them in seven months, either. They could be anywhere," Padma Patil chimed in, twirling her wand idly as she joined their huddle.

Harry gazed around at his fellow apprentices. Five of them had signed up in response to Kingsley's announcement in the Prophet, and they had been in close quarters since late-August, when their training began.

The usual three years of Auror training had been condensed into less than nine months, as it was Kingsley's goal to have this batch of trainees in the field by April. The date could not seem farther away, however, as more and more days dragged by without a sighting of the Lestranges or Rowle. It seemed as though the missing Death Eaters were laying in wait, holding out for the perfect moment to strike.

Harry had been frustrated, at first, to not be allowed directly into the fray, given his experience, but he had to admit that Kingsley's taste for form had resulted in his magical skills becoming much more refined. Now, in late December, Harry was totally competent in nonverbal spells, could cast a Disillusionment Charm perfectly, and had managed to quickly brew antidotes to several common poisons. Most of this was thanks to a tiny witch with an eyepatch named Libba, who, up until a week ago, had been conducting most of their training. Apparently, however, Libba's Legilimency skills were rather subpar.

The four of them watched quietly as Savage brought Neville, too, to his knees. Harry had been trying his best not to let feelings of superiority shroud his willingness to learn over the last few months, but this had to be the final straw. Did Savage not realize that Neville had faced Voldemort head-on less than a year ago, when he was likely sitting in a cushy cubicle waiting for more Muggleborns to transport to Azkaban? Who was Savage, really, to be belittling them this way?

Neville made his way over to the rest of the group, where he collapsed in a sweaty heap. Harry passed him the canteen, which he refused. The inability of the Department to make any advancement in tracking down the Lestranges had perhaps hit Neville the hardest; the brothers were partially responsible for torturing his parents into permanent insanity.

Savage loomed over them. "Right," he huffed, apparently making a lame attempt at a rousing speech. "Let's see some improvement over the holidays, all right? Weasley, if you feel like taking the time over break to show the rest of this lot how it's done, I would be most indebted. MacMillan, I need your mockup arrest reports on my desk by six."

Harry was tempted to wipe the smug look off Ron's face with a cruel comment about how it must be easy to close one's mind when there's nothing in there to begin with, but he held back. It wasn't Ron's fault Harry was struggling. His frustration at being forced through these bureaucratic exercises was almost worse than the dread he had experienced that summer, idly waiting to return to Hogwarts.

He had thought, when Voldemort had first been defeated, that he'd want to be left alone, that he'd want peace and quiet; he knew himself better now. He'd never be able to take the backseat, and as his training wore on he became more and more frustrated with his own inaction; what was stopping him from going after the Lestranges on his own?

It was near-exclusively respect for Kingsley and his idealistic attempts to reshape the Ministry that kept Harry motivated through each day of training. Harry had never considered Kingsley to be particularly ambitious, but he'd been rebuilding the institution single-handedly for the last few months, severely limiting his own power in the process. There were hopes that the parliamentary body of the Wizengamot would have its first open elections in the coming year, while Kingsley would continue his role as Minister by overseeing the actual departments of the Ministry themselves.

The five of them gathered their things, Ernie clapping Neville enthusiastically on the back.

"Padma and I are going for a drink at the Leaky," he said boisterously. "Any of you want to join?"

Neville, who'd regained some of his coloring, looked blissful at the thought of a warm Firewhisky.

"Alright, then," he said, leading the group towards the door.

"What do you think?" Ron asked as they made their way out of the training room and through the halls of the Ministry. "Do we have time to stop by the Leaky Cauldron before the train arrives?"

Harry shook his head, holding up Fabian Prewett's battered watch for Ron to see. It was nearly six now, and Hermione would be upset if she had to wait. She's written about fifty letters to Harry articulating just how excited she was to see their new flat, how proud she was of them, and how much she'd missed them. She and Ron would be spending the first few days of the holiday at the Burrow before returning to the rooms in Soho that they had let that September.

Though Ron had been disheartened to learn that there had been few housing options in Diagon Alley, Harry rather preferred living in Muggle London. They were close to Charing Cross Road, but he received virtually no stares as he navigated the colorful streets and shops of his new neighborhood, and their rent was next to nothing thanks to the Confundus Charm he'd managed to place on their landlord. Hermione had called this decision "unethical", but the man was unpleasant and did something in finance, and Harry was certain that he would be well-off even without extorting thousands of Muggle pounds from Harry and Ron each month.

They'd nearly reached the Atrium when a door opened to Harry's right. Harry and Ron turned to see Kingsley step out of a conference room, surrounded by several harried-looking witches and wizards in plum-colored robes. Harry spotted Elphias Doge walking among them.

"Harry! Ron!" Kingsley greeted happily, clearly quite pleased to see them. "Training just let out for the holidays, then?"

"Yup," Ron nodded, gazing curiously into the room behind them.

"No such rest for us here, I'm afraid," Kingsley said good-naturedly. "Actually, Harry I was rather hoping to have a word. Ron, I'll be seeing you on the twenty-fifth, but enjoy your break."

Before Ron could object, Kingsley had beckoned Harry back into the meeting space, closing the door behind him.

"I apologize for being so abrupt," Kingsley said, taking a seat at the head of a long meeting table and gesturing for Harry to take the spot immediately to his left. "But I spoke with Savage this morning, and he seems concerned that-"

"Look," Harry said quickly, trying to make his voice apologetic. "I'm sorry about the Occlumency, I'll work at it more over the holidays…"

"What?" Kingsley asked sharply. "He hasn't said anything about your Occlumency skills, only that he believes you to be insubordinate. Harry, I'm going to be very frank with you. This process with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement is going to take years, and I want your input the whole way up; your's and Ron's and Hermione's. We have no established system for arresting individuals, holding trials, anything really. But we need to keep up the appearance that you are paying your dues, so that when it's time for Robards to step down, you are the obvious choice for his replacement…"

"Well, I'm not sure why that can't happen now. I haven't heard of a thing Robards is actually doing to find the Lestranges, and Savage keeps going on about how much he's doing, which is absolutely nothing."

Kingsley regarded Harry with a very genuine patience.

"Harry, I can't just sack people who have been working in the Department longer than even myself because they weren't openly fighting Voldemort. I'm trying to make this transition as seamless as possible. Right now, we have the support of most of our world behind us, but if I start replacing trained Aurors with eighteen-year-olds that don't even have their N.E.W.T.s, people are going to start questioning my judgement. Entire communities have been destroyed in the aftermaths of wars that weren't as severe as this one."

Harry knew this, but Savage was frustrating enough that he still struggled to find a counter to Kingsley's speech. He couldn't, and shrugged, smiling in spite of himself.

"Have a nice holiday, then," he told the Minister.

"You won't be at Molly and Arthur's?" Kingsley asked, surprised. "Arthur told me the whole family was using the holiday to bolster Molly's spirits; Bill invited me weeks ago."

Harry shook his head. "I told Andromeda Tonks I'd spend Christmas with her and Teddy."

"I'm surprised Fleur didn't invite them to the Burrow," Kingsley said, giving Harry an appraising look.

"She did, but I think Andromeda'd rather keep it quiet," Harry said, looking at his feet. Kingsley nodded understandingly and gave a small wave of his hand. Harry stood from the chair, quickly leaving the room and running to catch up with Ron.

They made their way into the lift, where Harry described his conversation with Kingsley to Ron, who looked unsurprised.

"Savage has to know that his job's at risk once we all advance," Ron said with a shrug. "Likely why he's always such a massive arsehole."

The lift thudded to a stop with an unearthly clanging sound and the pair made their way into the Atrium, walking to the center of the vast room before Disapparating with two loud cracks.

They rematerialized outside of King's Cross Station, where they quickly ducked into a telephone box to remove the robes that covered their Muggle street clothes. Harry could see Ron beginning to itch with impatience to see Hermione. Her last Hogsmeade weekend had been at the end of November, and it had been nearly three weeks since she and Ron had seen one another.

Harry felt almost entirely the opposite. It had been quite easy, these past few months, with Ginny out of sight, to keep her out of mind. Her name popped up occasionally in Hermione's letters, but beyond that he had not seen or heard from her since their disastrous break-up the day before her birthday. Harry had exiled himself to Percy's room for the remainder of the summer. He and Ron had moved into their flat shortly after Ginny and Hermione had returned to school.

The clock in the station struck six, and now Ron was practically bursting with excitement. They flew through the vast entrance of the station, launching themselves through the barrier between platforms nine and ten, only to collide with roughly half of Dumbledore's Army, who gave a great rallying cry at their appearance.

"There you two are!" Terry Boot cried excitedly. "Right in time, we're all meeting Neville at the Leaky Cauldron before heading home!"

Luna Lovegood, standing next to him, raised up her gold Galleon happily, indicating how Neville had summoned the group to the pub. Harry laughed and pulled her into a hug, his mood lifted considerably.

"You look well," he said.

"I've been moisturizing my skin with crushed fairy eggs," Luna said dreamily. "I believe it gives me a rather incandescent glow."

"Right," Harry said, only meaning that all of her cuts and abrasions from her time spent in the cellar of Malfoy Manor had finally completely healed.

"There you are!" a voice called from behind Michael Corner, who jumped in surprise. A bushy head of hair was pushing its way to the center of the gaggle that now surrounded Harry and Ron, and then Hermione was there, flinging herself onto them.

"It's good to see you," Harry said uncomfortably, extracting himself from her grip. Several passing lower-years were ogling at Ron and Hermione curiously, as they were now embracing each other quite intensely. Hermione made no attempt to reply, and Harry could see that her and Ron's lips had met.

Harry had stepped away, trying to ignore the wolf-whistles and chuckles when a voice interrupted his embarrassment from somewhere around his elbow.

"Oh, that is just so upsetting," Ginny said with a peal of laughter. "I'm going to have to wash my eyes out with soap."

Harry leapt, surprised to see her so close to him, and perhaps even more taken aback that she seemed to be talking to him. He turned away from her, shifting his gaze towards some vague point in front of him. Did she not remember their last exchange, back in August, when she had effectively pulled his heart from his chest and kicked it across her tiny bedroom? Harry knew that she was right; that it had to have stung to have not been consulted about his decision; but he still couldn't help but feel betrayed at how easily she had cut their ties.

"Are you coming to the Leaky Cauldron?" she asked him curiously, clearly unperturbed by his lack of response to her last comment. Harry couldn't bring himself to meet her eye, and in a desperate attempt to redirect himself instead chose to stare at Parvati Patil, who looked tragically lonely without being accompanied by Lavender Brown. Harry's heart sank slightly, remembering the final moments of Ron's first girlfriend, brought down by Fenrir Greyback. The Battle of Hogwarts was still incredibly raw, brought to the forefront of his mind by the sight of all of his old classmates.

"We're taking Hermione back to our flat to show her around; maybe after though," Harry said, crossing his arms across his chest and finally chancing a glance at Ginny. She looked incredible, wearing one of her red sweaters, her mane of hair flowing wildly around her shoulders. It was madness to Harry that she could be so close to him and he was unable to touch her.

"We should probably go, actually," Ron said, and Harry turned to see he and Hermione had detached themselves from one another. Ron checked his watch. "They're expecting us at the house tonight, and if we're going to get a drink it'll be ages before we can get to Devon."

He gallantly lifted Hermione's trunk and dragged it off the platform. Harry gave an awkward wave to Ginny, who had now been joined by Luna, and followed Ron and Hermione through the barrier.

They made their way from the station and Disapparated quickly once they reached the pavement, reappearing in the hall outside their flat. Ron dropped the trunk with a loud thunk, pointing his wand at the door, which gave a little click and swung open.

Harry led the trio indoors. He and Ron had tidied before leaving for the Ministry that morning, but it was hardly impressive. They hadn't bothered to find a bookshelf for the sitting room; spellbooks and Quidditch texts were piled in the corner behind the beige settee. They'd forgotten to turn off the wireless; the croons of Celestina Warbeck were being projected around the room. Harry silenced her with a wave of his wand.

"Where's all of your furniture?" Hermione asked skeptically.

"This is it, isn't it?" Ron said anxiously, gesturing at the sofa and the small table and chairs to its left. "We've got a sofa, a table, beds. We don't need much."

"You haven't got any art," Hermione said, looking at the bare whitewashed walls.

"Art?" Ron asked, taken aback. "I've got a Cannons poster above the bed."

"Oh, fantastic," Hermione breathed. Clearly deciding that it was time to take matters into her own hands, she waved her wand at the corner, where an imposing wooden bookshelf appeared, and with another flick, the mess of books inhabiting the space on the floor had arranged themselves, alphabetically by genre, no doubt, onto the gleaming shelves.

"Er, thanks," Harry said.

"No problem," Hermione said. "Let's see the rest of this place."

They passed a few moments showing Hermione around the flat. She opened her trunk, tossing her things into Ron's room, muttering something about having nothing to wear to a bar.

"The Leaky Cauldron's hardly a bar," Ron said. "I mean… there's no need to dress up for that toothless nutter who runs it, is there?"

Hermione ignored him, pulling a fresh skirt from amongst her things.

Harry sat on the sofa, idly checking his watch every few moments. He dreaded seeing Ginny again, and he still couldn't fathom why she'd be so warm to him on the platform after breaking up with him so suddenly in August. He had come to agree with her assertions that their relationship was something that they didn't have time for; he barely could manage to do a load of wash during the week, he was so busy with Auror training. It was intensive and exhausting, and most of his precious little free time was spent regaining sleep.

"Are you ready?" Hermione asked from above him. She'd decided on a floral dress and looked rather pretty, Harry thought, gazing up at her. Ron stood by the door, wand in hand.

"Oh, let's not Apparate," Hermione said, noticing this. "We'll have so much more time to catch up if we walk."

"It's freezing," Ron pointed out.

"We'll cast warming charms on our things. It's just around the corner," Hermione said decidedly. And so they made their way to the street, scarves wrapped tightly around their faces and hands shoved deep into their pockets.

Harry was still lost in thought, continuing to contemplate Ginny's happy attitude towards him. They had barely turned onto Wardour Street when Hermione dropped back from her place next to Ron to confront Harry.

"I want to talk to you," she said, her brow furrowing in concern.

"Not now, Hermione," Harry said, shoving his hands deeper into his pockets.

"Ginny feels terrible, Harry," Hermione said earnestly. "You two are both so passionate; her pride was wounded. She's said so many times she can't believe she shut you down after you told her you loved her-" Harry scowled at this, upset that Hermione was aware of this humiliating tidbit, "- and I think she's feeling much more secure now that she's been scouted by Holyhead; maybe you two could give things another go-"

"What?" Harry interrupted rudely.

"I think she'd be open to trying again with you; she hasn't said as much to me, but she talks about you constantly and I know she feels-"

"Not that, the - the bit about Holyhead," Harry said, excitement bubbling in the pit of his stomach.

"Oh, well she's been drafted by the Harpies for next season, as a Chaser, of course," Hermione said. "But you'll already kn-"

"I didn't know," Harry interrupted again.

"Ron knows!" Hermione exclaimed. "Why didn't you tell him?"

Ron turned from several feet in front of them.

"Because every time I mention my sister he makes a face like he wants to hang himself," Ron said irritably.

Harry ignored them, feeling happiness course through him. Ginny was going to fly for Holyhead. Ginny was going to fly under the Captainship of Gwenog Jones, her hero. Harry couldn't believe it. She would be brilliant; she was already brilliant. His heart was beating rapidly, thinking of her flying around a Quidditch pitch in front of hundreds of cheering fans. Young witches and wizards would have posters of Ginny hanging in their bedrooms. It was fantastic.

"You're beaming, mate," Ron said loudly.

Harry was broken out of his revery to realize that he, Ron, and Hermione had stopped in the middle of the pavement. He crashed suddenly back to Earth. Ginny had been scouted by Holyhead and she hadn't told him. They hadn't spoken in months. It wasn't his happiness to share. She wasn't his girlfriend. She wasn't his anything.

His realization must have splashed across his face, for Hermione touched his arm softly.

"Harry?" she said tentatively.

Harry quickly decided that he wanted to be as far away from Ron and Hermione as possible, and that he definitely didn't want to go see all of his classmates at the pub. He sighed deeply, turning away.

"You two go on," he said quietly. "I'm going home."

"Harry," Hermione said again.

"Happy Christmas," Harry said, hugging Hermione briefly and nodding at Ron. "I'll see you in a few days."

Hermione looked as though she was going to protest, but Ron nodded back at Harry and grabbed her by the elbow, pulling her down the high street.

Harry stared at his shoes for a moment, before turning back up the street towards home.

"That's got to be really advanced though, doesn't it?" Harry asked excitedly, watching Teddy pull himself up on the coffee table and reach for Andromeda's teacup. It was Christmas morning, and they had just finished helping Teddy unwrap a large mountain of gifts. Harry had let his affection for his tiny godson get the better of him while he was doing his Christmas shopping; Teddy was certainly in competition with Harry's cousin Dudley for highest number of presents received in a single day.

"It's typical, actually," Andromeda replied, smiling fondly as she used her wand to vanish the tea and saucer, effectively ending her grandson's quest. The baby fell back to the floor with a huff, but recovered quickly, rolling over happily onto his back and grabbing at his feet, encased in their pajamas.

Harry scooted forward from his spot on the floor, stacking some of the toy blocks they had just unwrapped in front of Teddy and patting the floor enticingly.

"Can you knock them over, Ted?" he cooed to the baby.

Teddy eyed him curiously, and Harry poked at the blocks again. Teddy rolled back onto his belly and crawled over to the blocks, using a chubby fist to send them crashing back onto the rug.

"Smart boy!" Andromeda cried dramatically. Teddy smiled at the praise, reaching out to Harry, who plucked him up and sat him in his lap.

"He's much easier than Nymphadora was at this age," Andromeda sighed sadly. Harry blushed and forced himself to look at her in the eye.

"Is he?" he asked kindly.

"She was an early crawler," Andromeda reminisced. "And so clumsy. She'd pull anything on top of herself, and she was constantly falling over. Ted and I had to cast cushioning charms over everything."

She took a deep breath and looked to the window for a moment. Harry knew she was gazing to the garden, where her only child and Lupin were now buried.

"I feel terribly old," she said.

"You're not," Harry said automatically.

She looked back to him and smiled shrewdly. Harry had always been a bit intimidated by Andromeda, their first meeting darkened by the fact that he'd mistaken her for her sister, Bellatrix. But he'd realized now that she actually was quite warm underneath her patrician exterior, and had a wonderfully dry sense of humour.

"It's difficult without them," she said. "But I'm glad you're here. It's important, I think, for Teddy to know who his family is."

Harry nodded in agreement. "I would hate for him to feel as lonely as I did," he said. "I didn't realize until I was eleven that there were people who knew me… who cared for me."

"Like my cousin?" Andromeda asked, smiling more widely now.

"Yeah," Harry grinned. "I was actually meaning to ask you; would you let me buy Teddy a broomstick in a few months' time? Sirius bought me one for my first birthday…"

Andromeda let out a barking laugh that reminded Harry so much of Sirius he froze.

"Why doesn't that surprise me at all?" she chuckled. "Of course Sirius Black bought a toddler the most dangerous birthday gift imaginable. I don't mind, but you'll be the one supervising him."

Harry smiled, secretly delighted. He was surprised at how much he enjoyed watching Teddy grow. He still felt that he didn't know much about babies, but he certainly knew a lot about Teddy; which toys he favored, how just to pat his back to get him to sleep, the foods he would eat ravenously and the ones he would refuse. Caring for Teddy made him, for reasons he couldn't fully grasp, feel closer to his own father.

He looked up from Teddy in his lap to see Andromeda staring at him rather intensely. He cocked an eyebrow at her and she leaned back, smiling.

"I sometimes wonder," she said softly. "If it was all worth it."

Harry didn't speak. He got the sense he wasn't meant to. Andromeda waved her wand at the side table and another glass of tea poured itself. She summoned it easily.

"I was meant to go abroad," Andromeda continued. "After leaving Hogwarts. My family was becoming increasingly enthralled with Lord Voldemort, and I wanted nothing to do with any of it, so I had arranged to train as a Healer in Austria."

"I didn't know you healed," Harry said, impressed.

Andromeda smirked. "I never did," she said. "I had Outstanding N.E.W.T.s in Potions and Herbology, so I assumed I would be well-suited. I wanted to do something good in the world. I was clever, and I wanted to leave my mark. But then I met Ted. Well, I didn't meet Ted. I'd known Ted my entire time at school, but we Slytherins kept rather to ourselves."

Harry nodded; little had changed amongst Hogwarts House relations in the thirty years that separated his and Andromeda's times at the school.

"I was on the train home at the end of my seventh year, and the compartment door slid open, and who stumbled in but Ted Tonks. He had been celebrating in a compartment with a group of Hufflepuffs and a bottle of firewhisky, and he got confused heading back from the toilets."

Harry grinned.

"We talked the rest of the train ride home, and exchanged letters all summer. And when

it was time for me to leave… I couldn't go. I told my parents why I wouldn't be leaving and we never spoke again. I never said goodbye to my sisters. Ted and I were married the next summer. And here I am, thirty years later, wondering if it was worth it. Not leaving my family. Bellatrix was always a lost cause and my parents were terrible. Narcissa lacked any genuine moral character. But now, all these years later, I'm starting to wonder if I should've gone on and become a Healer. Lived a life of solitude, doing what was important to me. Helping people." She sighed heavily.

"It is always a great risk, isn't it? Loving someone?" she asked him. "Of course, when things are going right, it's the best feeling in the world. But now all I can think of is how much I sacrificed. Not just Healing, necessarily, but the fact that I loved my husband and daughter so much, that in the moments they died, I also sacrificed my ability to be truly at peace, likely for the rest of my days."

She paused, and gave him the same searching look she had when Ginny had accosted her at Madam Malkin's robe shop. Harry had never mentioned Ginny to Andromeda, nor had she to him, but now he was beginning to suspect that she had caught on to the nature of his and Ginny's relationship more than he had initially noticed.

"And so I wonder," she repeated, "if it was all worth it. No parent should outlive their child, but I had always thought… I had always thought if it came down to it, after she became an Auror, that I would have Ted beside me in my anguish. Was it worth it? And yet, it is easy to forget, in our grief, that the freedom to take the risk of love is why we all embarked on that terrible endeavor to defeat Lord Voldemort in the first place, wasn't it?"

Harry looked down at Teddy in his lap, hearing Andromeda's unspoken words; that the victory against Voldemort was hardly a victory if their fear of greater suffering left them unable to form new attachments.

He already knew as much; his time in the forest had hardly left him a fool, but knowing something and putting it into practice were two very different things. Still, he thought, running a hand over his godson's tuft of turquoise hair, it wasn't always difficult to love.

He met Andromeda's steady gaze.

"It was," he answered.

"Where exactly are we?" Harry asked as they made their way down the tiny high street.

"Kenmare," Hermione replied, checking her watch.

Harry looked up and down the road. From where he was standing he could see almost the entirety of the tiny village. His heart thumped with anticipation.

"I always knew Seamus supported Kenmare," Ron grumbled from beside them, "but I never knew he was from this sorry little place."

"Yes, because Ottery St. Catchpole is so cosmopolitan," Hermione replied. "Anyways, it's rather interesting: Kenmare's a well-known Wizarding settlement, but it was actually Seamus' father, who's a Muggle, that grew up here. His mother is from Dublin."

"Thanks for the unabridged biography of Seamus Finnigan," Ron snapped, causing Harry to privately wonder if his friend had perhaps skipped dinner that night. He could think of little else that would put Ron in such a terrible mood.

"Which one do you think it is?" Harry asked Hermione.

"If I had to guess, I'd say that one," she said, smiling and pointing to a side street that Harry had not previously noticed, where sat a tiny cottage. The bottom floors were alight with a dim, multicolored glow, and as the trio approached, Harry could hear the loud beats of the Weird Sisters pumping from within the walls.

For tonight was Dean and Seamus' 'Holy-Fuck-We've-Made-It-To-1999' New Years Eve party, happily being hosted by Seamus at his childhood home. Some, namely Hermione, had objected to the party's name, thinking it openly insulting to the unspeakably high number of people they knew who hadn't 'made it to 1999'. Harry, surprising himself, found that he rather appreciated the blatant irreverence of his peers. They had perhaps spent too much time being painfully aware of death in the last few months.

There were other things on his mind, though, as he, Ron and Hermione pushed their way through the front door of the house to be greeted, as always, by a raucous cheer. Cups and goblets of mysterious, throat-burning liquids were forced into their hands, but Harry paid the party little attention as his eyes scanned the room for the tell-tale mane of flaming hair.

He had to find Ginny, he had to tell her that he wanted them to be together again. After his conversation with Andromeda he felt bold, he felt reckless; he would give up being an Auror and move to Holyhead that very night if she asked him to.

But Seamus' house was tiny, and even full of people, Harry could tell even from a cursory check of the rooms on the ground floor that Ginny was not yet present for the nights' festivities.

Harry returned to Ron and Hermione, talking quietly in the corner with Neville, who clapped Harry on the back form of greeting.

"Nice holiday?" he asked.

Harry nodded. "How was yours?"

Neville shrugged. "Same old," he replied. "Spent the morning with Gran, saw my parents in the afternoon."

Harry brought his glass to his lips.

"Watch it," Ron said. "It's a Rusty Nail and you never drink; it could be dangerous."

Harry shrugged. He wouldn't mind some liquid courage at this point. He suddenly found himself wishing he had a tiny bottle of Felix Felicis with which to align the stars in his pursuit of Ginny.

Harry felt his face grow hot as he continued chatting idly with Neville, and the knot in his stomach slowly unclenched. The night wore on, slowly at first, when Ron and Hermione wandered off somewhere. Suddenly Harry realized that Neville had gone too, and he was in the middle of an impassioned debate between Seamus Finnigan and Cho Chang, of all people, about whether Muggle music had any redeeming qualities.

Seamus's stereo system had been blaring The Hobgoblins for nearly an hour when Cho had decided to take matters into her own hands and used her wand to conjure a record by a Muggle group that she had happily directed under the needle. Much to Seamus's ire, the party was now accompanied by the crooning sounds of The Cranberries.

"Look," Seamus was saying loudly to Cho, as Harry's head followed back and forth as though he was watching a tennis match, "me Dad's a Muggle. I know all about Muggles. I know about the Rolling Stones and the Beagles. They're all terrible. I don't think a single one of them plays the lute."

Cho rolled her eyes. "You're being close-minded," she said patiently. "I think one of the first ways wizards can get over all this blood-purity nonsense is realizing that Muggles have arts and culture that are just as engaging as ours. It's elitist to think that just because something comes from wizards, it's inherently better. If you just listened to the Cranberries-"

"I'm Irish!" Seamus exclaimed. "Of course I've listened to the Cranberries! Harry likes the Weird Sisters, and he grew up Muggle, right Harry?"

Harry, deciding that he had very little to contribute to this conversation, drained his glass. He was shocked to see it refill to the brim almost immediately.

Seamus grinned. "Neat trick, eh? Dean enchanted them all to do that."

"Yeah," said Harry with a smile, by now was feeling particularly mellow and feeling less and less concerned with finding Ginny. He took another large swig, while Seamus looked concerned for a moment.

"I haven't seen Dean in hours, actually," he said, standing on his toes to peer over the heads of his guests. "He was outside smoking his pipe the last time I saw…"

Laughter escaped Harry's lips before he could fully comprehend what he found funny. "Dean smokes a pipe?" he asked.

Seamus didn't seem fazed by Harry's amusement. "Picked it up on the run, I guess," he said. "He's a new man."

Harry laughed again, shaking his head. He raised his glass at Cho, who smiled in return, before turning back to the crowd, hoping again to catch sight of Ginny. He had been assured by Ron that she meant to be here, and Harry couldn't fathom why, as midnight ticked closer and closer, she had yet to appear.

The din of the party seemed to have increased exponentially since his arrival, and he wanted to find Ron and Hermione. He quickly located Hermione standing in the doorway to the tiny scullery, speaking with Parvati Patil over another one of Seamus and Dean's self-refilling drinks. Harry's face, already hot, flushed happily as he approached her.

"He can be quite the pain sometimes," Hermione was saying animatedly, bringing her cup to her lips. "But I've never been able to help how much I adore him."

Harry grinned broadly. He still felt a bit of a gooseberry when he was alone with Ron and Hermione, but it was wonderful to see his best friends so happy.

Parvati smiled kindly. "I'm glad to hear he's doing well. He was always so funny," she said. "I remember how he would get cooped up in the dormitory and start running about screaming and spitting. I always wondered how you put up with him."

Harry's smile faltered for a moment, as he struggled to remember a time that Ron had run around the Gryffindor common room screaming and spitting.

"I've started letting him outside more, which has helped" Hermione said. "He is getting rather old, though…"

"Who are you talking about?" Harry interrupted rudely.

Parvati looked over from Hermione, who turned from her ale.

"Crookshanks, of course," she said. "Who did you think I was talking about?"

"Er, no one," Harry said hastily. "Look, do you know when Ginny's supposed to be showing up? I'd really like to talk to her and-"

"Ginny?" Parvati interrupted. "Ginny's been here for ages. She helped Seamus and Dean set this whole thing up."

"What?" Harry asked. "Why'd she do that?"

Hermione looked suddenly uncomfortable. "Oh, damn," she said, in a tone that Harry did not find comforting at all.

Parvati continued, undisturbed by Hermione's utterance. "She and Dean have been outside with everyone for hours now," she said, before giving Harry a quick once-over. "Why are you looking for her?" she asked curiously, a twinkle in her eye.

Harry felt a familiar sensation erupt somewhere under his chest, an old monster once again aspiring to rip Dean Thomas limb from limb. 'No,' Harry thought to himself, when a door slamming behind him caused his head to jump up, and then he saw them; standing in front of the tiny entrance to the garden, snow on their shoulders and cheeks flushed from the cold.

Dean leaned down to say something into Ginny's ear, and Harry watched her face light up as she laughed in response, and then Dean's arms were around her, pulling her in closer.

"Harry," Hermione said urgently, tugging at his sleeve. "Harry, it's not what you think. It's nothing. They're not…."

But Harry had already yanked himself away from her, desperate to be out of this terrible house. Ginny would rather spend time with Dean then him? Dean drove Ginny mad half the time. He pushed past a group of people and into the loo, not sure whether he wanted to go back to the scullery and murder Dean or Disapparate from the very spot. He slammed the door shut behind him and fell onto it, closing his eyes and breathing heavily.

"Harry, what are you doing?" a voice called from in front of him.

Harry cracked one eye open. Cho Chang was peering curiously over him, evidently just finished with washing her hands. A countdown had began on the other side of the door.

"Ten, nine, eight…" ambiguous voices cried.

Harry nearly laughed, but as his stomach lurched with the humour of the situation, he felt bile rise in his throat. Before he could stop himself, his mouth opened and a stream of vomit projected itself all over Cho's shiny black shoes.

"...four, three, two, one, HAPPY NEW YEAR," the voices cried from the other side of the door as Cho sank down next to Harry with a mixed look of disgust and pity on her beautiful face. She gathered up her skirts to avoid letting them trail in the sick.

"You always knew how to make a girl feel special, Harry," Cho said, patting him kindly on the back.

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Chapter 6: Chapter 6 - I Found a Reason

Author's Notes: Hiya everybody. I’m sorry for such a long delay for such a short chapter. I typically do most of my writings on the weekends, but two of my best friends are getting married on Saturday and so my last few weekends have been filled with bachelor/bachelorette party trips, dress fittings, venue tours, and all that crazy adult life stuff. I’m still struggling with the status of Harry and Ginny’s relationship at the moment; I still think I made the decision to split them up a bit rashly and didn’t think through enough where I was going with it. Oh well. These authors notes are certainly becoming the place where I voice all my insecurities about my writing. Thank you, as always, for reading and reviewing. This is also my first time ever (even in, like, high school creative writing class) writing an action sequence, so let me know what you think :) (unless you hate it then please spare me). chapter titled after a song by the velvet underground (but i was listening to the cat power version whilst writing).

"Hermione's not coming," Ron said, looking up from the letter he'd just received. He was sitting at the table in their tiny flat, already fully dressed in his best set of robes, despite the fact that it was not yet eleven.

Harry straightened the tie on his own dress robes. "Big surprise," he said, inspecting himself in the mirror hanging over the fireplace. "Exams are in less than a week; I doubt she'd leave the library even to eat."

Ron grimaced at the thought, shoving Hermione's letter out of the way.

"Is it too early to start drinking?" he asked Harry.

"It's not going to be that bad," Harry said, though he hardly sounded convinced himself.

Ron shook his head. "We've been in the field a week and they've called us back for some stupid unveiling ceremony. I can't decide if I'm more concerned about how terrible it will be to watch all those families accepting the Orders of Merlin or that the Lestranges movements will be unsurveilled while we're sitting there."

Harry countered with a grim laugh. "Unserveilled?" he repeated, trying out this made-up word. "As if we have any bloody clue what they're doing. They're clearly aware that we're monitoring virtually every Wizarding settlement in Europe. They're not stupid; we're sitting ducks whether we're here or in the Hebrides."

For the Scottish archipelago was the last place anyone had reported seeing the Lestranges, though that was in February and from a source that was disreputable at best. It was late-April now, and Harry and Ron were preparing to attend an event that was both an unveiling of the Ministry's new Remembrance Memorial and ceremony awarding Orders of Merlin to the deceased, accepted on behalf of their grieving families. Harry had already brought Teddy Lupin, newly turned one-year-old, to his childminder's house the previous night. Andromeda was preparing to accept awards on behalf of her husband, daughter, and son-in-law and had decided that such an event was hardly an appropriate setting for her young grandson.

Ron stood from the table. "I still don't like it. Putting everything on hold for such a well-publicized event? Wouldn't it make us an easy target?"

"We've got security all over the thing," Harry reminded him staunchly, though he too shared in Ron's fears. "Robards thinks that they'll be too smart to try anything, but if they do, they'll be walking into a trap."

Ron sighed, removing his wand from the pocket of his robes and twirling it around in his hands.

"I'm glad Hermione's not coming," he said finally.

Harry was unsurprised. He knew that Ron's instinct was largely to be overprotective; Hermione had told Harry that Ron had lasting anxiety from her encounter with Bellatrix Lestrange the previous spring.

Harry, too, was struggling not to let the creeping paranoia take hold of him. He knew that fear of Death Eaters, and by extension, a fear of the lingering influence of Voldemort, was exactly what gave them their terrible power. He knew that Kingsley, Proudfoot, and Robards would collaborate to make sure the event was secure, and that it was important to show a united front of both acceptance and reunion to avoid further ideals of blood supremacy bubbling up as they struggled to reconstruct their society.

The Remembrance Memorial itself had become the physical representation of this goal; a massive slab of black marble resting in the center of the Ministry of Magic's Atrium. Replacing both the Fountain of Magical Brethren and the "Magic is Might" Monument, it bore the names of every being, Wizard or Muggle, human or otherwise, killed in the Second Wizarding War. The great sculpture was being unveiled at the beginning of the ceremony, which would culminate in the awarding of Orders of Merlin to those who died fighting Voldemort in both the Order of the Phoenix and the Battle of Hogwarts.

The Wizengamot had offered to bestow the same honor upon Harry, Ron, and Hermione. All three had declined in order to revert attention back onto the deceased. Harry was already dreading watching poor Andromeda take the stage three times; he could hardly bear to think about how terrible it would be to hear Kingsley stoically read the citation of Fred Weasley's Order in front of his grieving parents.

"Is your entire family going?" Harry asked, attempting to sound casual.

"Ginny's not going if that's what you're asking. I don't think Charlie's coming either, though you probably don't care as much," said Ron, stifling a yawn with his hand. Harry caught sight of himself again in the mirror as a creeping blush rose steadily up his face. Ron seemed to notice, and continued.

"Dean will be there," he said with a smirk. "I hope you have a few good jinxes up your sleeve."

Harry narrowed his eyes. He was already fully aware of Dean's impending presence at the unveiling ceremony, and that Ron was taking the piss out of him.

Harry had, as of yet, been unable to remove himself from the unfortunate shadow cast by his reaction to seeing Ginny and Dean together at Seamus' party. Cho Chang had kindly summoned Ron and Hermione to the bathroom, where they had found Harry in a puddle of his own vomit, sincerely regretting ever being born. It wasn't much longer before they had bundled him up and Apparated back to London.

It was the next morning that, while sitting at the foot of his bed as he fought a vicious hangover, Hermione had relayed to Harry that Dean and Ginny were little more than friends. Apparently, during their time spent at Shell Cottage during the war, Dean and Luna Lovegood had grown rather close, and Ginny had been assisting Dean in wooing the rather aloof Luna, explaining their closeness at Seamus' party. Which, Hermione had remarked, she would've told him had he not run from the room in a fit of angst.

Though Harry found this explanation annoyingly simple, Hermione had also pointed out that Harry had neglected to tell Ginny he would be attending Seamus' bash, and, given his absence from Christmas at the Burrow the week prior, it was a bit foolish of him to expect her to be anticipating his arrival. Also, Hermione noted, he probably should've looked outside when he first arrived.

But then, as Harry squinted to see her in the oppressive light, Hermione had asked him the question he was certain now he didn't want to hear.

"What are you going to do about it?" she'd wondered.

Harry didn't know. He knew he didn't want to be with anyone who wasn't Ginny. He had headed to Seamus' house intent upon winning her back that very night. But seeing her, he faltered. It was easy to be with Ginny around the Burrow; it always had been. It took little effort to stomp around the orchard all summer, discussing everything and nothing as the sun lingered high in the sky. But now they had responsibilities; how would Harry feel if he knew their time spent together would cut into her training, or her schoolwork?

And there was the fact that he was still a marked man. He couldn't help but assume that if the Lestranges were to lash out again, it would be at him or someone close to him. He would always be a target for Dark wizards, and he didn't much like the idea of Ginny having any proximity to such dangers, not that he would ever admit that to her.

Hermione looked unconvinced as he relayed these worries to her. Harry had begun to care very little for her opinions, though, as his head pounded and his stomach churned. He was never drinking again, he promised himself.

"I think you're making excuses because you know being with Ginny will never be easy," Hermione had voiced reproachfully, looking down at him with a mixture of disapproval and pity.

"Look, Hermione, she's got all of these things going on for her; she's athletic and intelligent and popular," Harry had reminded Hermione. "She needs to be with someone who has the time to prioritize her. She was right about that when she broke things off with me."

Hermione had rolled her eyes at that. "How many times do I have to tell you that she said those things because her pride was wounded? In exactly the way that you're saying these things because your ego is wounded right now. You're both so ridiculously stubborn, and frankly I think that's the only reason neither of you have attempted to figure this out yet."

"I was going to try at the New Year's party," Harry'd said moodily.

"Well, you didn't try very hard, did you?" Hermione shot back. "Anyways, Ginny doesn't want someone who prioritizes her, or puts her on a pedestal. That was a huge part of why she and Dean broke up, if you recall."

"She told me when she ended things that she wanted to be prioritized, Hermione!" Harry cried, exasperated. It had been months, he was tired of beating this dead horse. "Why would she say that if she didn't mean it?"

"Because she thought you were going back to school with her to rebuild your lives together!" Hermione said. "And then you decided run off with Ron and become an Auror without asking her how she felt about it!"

"Ron didn't ask you how you felt about it!"

"Because Ron already knew that I thought it was the right choice for him!"

"Well, I thought Ginny would know the same," Harry said.

"She does," Hermione said. "But you and Ginny are different than myself and Ron. Ginny wants to be asked. Ron and I have spent nearly every waking moment of the last seven years together. You and Ginny need to learn how to communicate. Ginny wants to feel like you're a unit, that she has a role in the decisions you make."

"Sure, yeah, which is exactly why she hid from me for the entirety of the party. Not because Dean's gone and given her a role in all the decisions he's making; maybe that's why he's making out that he fancies Luna, so they can plan together… get close again-"

"We've all gotten close again!" Hermione cut across him. "Dean's one of the only ones who really understand how it… what it was like, Harry. Of course he and Ginny stick together…"

"Slick git," Harry said. Hermione rolled her eyes.

"You know, Harry, I don't believe that you really dislike Dean. You were very happy to see Dean, if you recall, a year ago when we were all on the run and thought we were going to die and none of this nonsense mattered. It still doesn't matter. We survived Harry. Won't it have all been for nothing if you and Ginny can't figure this out?"

"I don't want to talk about this anymore, Hermione," Harry said, crossing his arms and staring at the ceiling of his bedroom.

Hermione sighed, but gave a small shrug of defeat and stood. She'd made it almost all the way to his bedroom door before turning, needing, in a typical Hermione fashion, to have the final word.

"You love Ginny," she'd said. "Please don't act like you're doing her any favors by acting like you don't."

"It's not that simple-" Harry had started, but Hermione cut him off again.

"It is, Harry," she'd replied. "I miss Ron everyday, and sometimes I resent him so much for not returning to school with me, but I love him. Don't wait for something terrible to happen before you realize that Ginny is what you want; more than you want to find the Lestranges or save the world or whatever it is that you think you need to do."

Harry closed his eyes, feeling his headache growing stronger by the second.

"Please, Hermione. Can you please just go?"

He didn't reopen his eyes, but heard the door open and then shut again. He had burrowed further under his blankets, hoping to sleep for the majority of the day.

It seemed that he had just drifted off when he was awoken by the sound of raised voices coming from the hall outside of his room. It was already dark in the flat, and Harry had rose from bed, wondering if they had anything he could turn into something resembling dinner. As he had made his way to the door, he caught what Hermione was loudly saying to Ron.

"I don't understand it!" she was saying loudly. "I don't think either of them can give me a reasonable explanation as to why they've ended things."

"You're going to wake him," Ron had said quietly. Harry heard a shuffling of feet and peeked out of the crack of his door.

"They're both acknowledging that they want to be together but can't discuss it with each other for the most pigheaded reasons!" Hermione cried in a heightened whisper, clearly having moved away from his door towards the living room.

"They're stubborn people," Ron replied calmly. "It's easier for Harry to keep her at arm's length than to confront how much he actually needs her, and she's never going to admit that she overreacted about him deciding not to return to school until he discusses it with her first. The only thing they need is time."

Hermione huffed, and then there was silence. Harry retreated back into his bedroom, thinking of something Hermione had once said about him and Ginny many years ago, when he had thought Ron and his sister were avoiding him because they had thought him possessed by Voldemort.

"Maybe you're taking it in turns to look and keep missing each other," she'd told him, nearly laughing. Harry knew now she was quietly mocking the two for not being able to acknowledge their feelings for one another. She had been right about them for so long.

Harry knew Hermione was right now. He did love Ginny. He wanted to be with Ginny. But he couldn't help thinking about all the things that could go wrong again. What if they didn't have time for one another? What if something happened to him? What if something happened to her, because of him? He didn't think he could bear to put it all out there again to have it not work out. He'd gone to bed for the second time that day, attempting to push all thoughts of Ginny Weasley as far from his head as possible.

He'd largely succeeded, in the last few months, from getting too worked up about the events of Seamus' party. Full-time training was rigorous, more so than Hogwarts had ever been, and Harry spent most of his days completely exhausted. They had given the Auror Department a long weekend for the ceremony, but Harry felt that it was completely irrelevant if he had to be up and in dress robes long before noon.

"D'you reckon we should leave now?" Ron said. "I've no idea how busy it will be."

Harry frowned at his reflection for the final time before turning to Ron.

"Let's get this over with," he said.

They'd decided to Floo directly into the Atrium, and Harry stepped forward first into their narrow fireplace. Their flat was old and Muggle; the tiny fireplace hardly had room for a young man to stand upright.

Harry hunched over, picked up some Floo dust and clearly called "Ministry of Magic."

A moment later, coughing up ash and nearly overtaken with nausea, Harry tumbled out into the vast Atrium. He bumped immediately into one of the many Hit Wizards stationed around the fireplaces; the tall man looked him up and down and waved his wand briefly before nodding. Harry didn't take this invitation to step forward, though.

Rather, he glanced immediately to his right, where he knew the memorial would now be in place: the great slab of marble was already encased in a swath of purple velvet at the far end of the hall.

Hundreds of golden chairs had been laid out in the hall, facing towards the monument, in front of which a stage had been erected. Dozens of witches and wizards were already milling about, looking at the tiny placards on each chair that denoted where each person was assigned to sit.

Harry already knew that he and Ron had spaces in the frontmost rows, sitting with the Weasleys amongst most of the Wizengamot and various high-level Ministry officials.

Ron had already commented on the way the war had largely risen his family's place in the Wizarding world. Fred was being bestowed an Order of Merlin, First Class, for his bravery and sacrifice in the battle, and the family was being heavily reported on for their selfless involvement in the fight against Voldemort. Arthur had been reassigned to the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes, and was now heading the Office of the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee, working with the Muggle Minister in the attempt to sufficiently explain the seemingly inexplicable random acts of murder, terror, and violence that had plagued the Muggle community for over two years.

Before Harry could move out of the hearth, a great force shoved him forwards and he tumbled, only just catching his balance.

"Sorry," Ron huffed, grabbing him quickly by the front of his robes and righting him so he stood upright. "Merlin, there are so many people."

Harry couldn't help but agree. Gesturing to Ron, he began to push his way up the aisle between the rows and rows of chairs, steadfastly ignoring each and every person who attempted to call out to him in thanks, congratulations, or any other foolish comment, the likes of which he'd been besieged for what was nearly a long year.

It was easy enough to find their seats: one blonde flanked by three redheads three rows back from the stage. Harry slid in next to Percy, who greeted him with a wry smile. George sat next to him, with Fleur to his right and Bill beside her.

"Where're Mum and Dad?" Ron asked wearily, sitting next to Harry.

"Your muzzer has taken eel again," Fleur replied, reaching a hand over to clasp Harry's kindly. Bill nodded towards them from beside her, but his smile was more painful than anything.

"Dad'll have her here soon," Percy said reassuringly. "And one of us can always accept if they can't."

He turned and looked expectantly at George, who glared back in response before fixing his gaze on the golden symbols flying across the ceiling of the Atrium. Harry too, turned away from the Weasleys before their squabbling increased, staring across the hall hoping to find a familiar face. It wasn't long before he was rewarded.

"Alright, Neville?" Harry called, gesturing to the blonde wizard a few rows from him.

"Been better," Neville smiled, rolling his eyes.

Harry glanced down at the empty chair bearing a name card reading Hermione Granger, and then back up at Neville.

"Come sit with us, mate," he said, gesturing to the empty chair. Neville hesitated for a moment, before shaking his head and grinning. Seconds later he was sliding into the empty seat on Ron's left.

"Your grandmother coming?" Ron asked casually, leaning back as a sudden crack sounded to their right. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley appeared on the opposite aisle nearest Bill, the former seemingly supporting the latter. Neville watched them curiously for a moment as Mr. Weasley guided Mrs. Weasley into one of the gilded chairs, before looking back to Ron.

"She said she had better ways to spend a Friday morning," he said with a small smile.

"Can't say I disagree with her," Ron said, rubbing his nose. Harry sidled down in his chair, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible.

` They passed several moments in silence, waiting for the seats to fill up. Harry gazed around curiously at all the witches and wizards, wondering what they could have possibly done to merit being invited to this event. He still struggled with feeling that the vast majority of the Wizarding population had waited out the war in relative safety. The whole world couldn't be divided into the brave and the cowardly, could it?

Finally, finally, the Atrium filled and the chatter quieted. They all sat in silence, unsure of what to expect, when Kingsley emerged from a small anti-chamber to the left of the stage. He took the stage somberly, with little fanfare. He pointed his wand at his throat, murmuring something quietly, before looking out pointedly across the amassed crowd.

"We sit here, nearing the first anniversary of the end of the Second Wizarding War," Kingsley began, his voice magically amplified. "We sit here, unveiling a memorial to those who fell in the fight against Lord Voldemort from his return in June of 1995 to his ultimate demise in May of 1998. Three long years of death and destruction, in which some of the best of our community sacrificed their lives in the fight for what they knew was right; for goodness, for kindness, for love. We stand here today in honour of their sacrifice, and with this memorial, we pledge to never forget, even in our victory, the principles for which they died. Let us always emulate their courage and valor; let us treasure the gift of their sacrifice; and live always with the intention to love fully."

Harry leaned back, smiling in spite of himself. He heard traces of Dumbledore in every word of the short speech, and took a moment to appreciate that likely every member of the Order of the Phoenix had been fighting both for their own purposeful designs but also the large ones of the Machiavellian headmaster.

On the stage, Kingsley turned to watch the great shroud of velvet behind him. The corners began to lift, as if pulled by imaginary birds, and the bottom of the great marble structure became visible. The velvet continued to lift and lift until the entirety of the memorial was exposed; the cloth then vanished as if it had never existed at all, leaving the attendance of witches and wizards facing the imposing monument.

Ron let out a low whistle. "Three years of casualties, I suppose?" he said in a low voice, clearly attempting to sound more relaxed than he actually was.

Harry stared. "I never knew," he said.

The names on the monument had to number in the high hundreds, if not thousands. Harry supposed that the majority of the names had to be Muggles; decent and unsuspecting people who had the misfortune to find themselves easy game to the preying Death Eaters, for whom killing was mere sport. The Wizarding population of Britain alone was not enough to support such a terrifyingly large list of names.

"Goblins, too," Percy said, leaning over to Harry, as though he had read his mind.

The short din that had accompanied the reveal quickly subsided, and Kingsley turned to face the group for the second time, smiling sadly.

"And now, I will summon those accepting the highest Order of our kind, the Order of Merlin, on behalf of their loved ones, to the stage. The family of Abigail Abbott."

Harry saw Hannah Abbott and a man that was presumably her father rise from the opposite corner of the room and make their way to the dais. As Kingsley read the citation on the Order, Harry remembered miserably the day in Herbology that Hannah had been told of her mother's murder. Harry wasn't sure exactly what Mrs. Abbott had done to make herself a target of Voldemort and his cronies; it was hardly a difficult task to accomplish.

Harry found it was much easier to let his mind wander as the citations were read than to actually pay attention to what Kingsley was saying, however disrespectful that may be.

Harry hadn't seen Andromeda arrive, but she was present to accept the golden plaques commemorating her daughter, husband, and son-in-law. She and Harry had had a brief discussion regarding whether she wanted him to accept Lupin's Order on his behalf, but Andromeda had quickly decided it would by far be best for the two Lupins to have their awards collected by the same person. Harry had to admire that her taste for decorum overcame her reservations for her late son-in-law; Harry still suspected that it was largely the existence of Teddy that kept the memory of Remus in Andromeda's good books.

It took the better part of the hour for Kingsley to get through all of the citations, however brief they were. It was nearly a quarter past noon when the family of Fred Weasley was called up onto the stage.

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley walked slowly, Mrs. Weasley looking dazed, as though she was unsure of where she was. Mr. Weasley leaned forward to whisper something in her ear, and she nodded softly. They took the stage together, pale-faced and somber, as Kingsley began the citation.

Harry could tell that this one would be longer than the rest. Kingsley spoke personally and passionately of his three years knowing Fred, and though his words did Ron's brother the justice he deserved, Harry couldn't help but feel uncomfortable at the raw emotions they brought up. He knew he was in good company; Percy was picking at a loose piece of wicker on the chair in front of his and Ron swore quietly and began to scuff the soles of his shoes back and forth against the marble floor.

Harry let himself close his eyes for an instant, wondering if he could find anything else to hone in on to avoid thinking about Fred and his final moments; the terrible smile that would haunt Harry's dreams for months, the memory of Ginny's blotchy face as she looked down upon the shell that was once her beloved brother. Harry cracked one eye open.

Kingsley was still reading the dedication on Fred's Order of Merlin. Mrs. Weasley was pale-faced; Harry wasn't sure how much longer she'd be able to remain standing.

"Hurry it up, Kingsley," Harry muttered under his breath, sitting up and looking around.

Harry noticed a sudden movement from the corners of the hall. He turned, his reflexes heightened by the sheer misery of the event. A pit had formed in his stomach, silently telling him that this was not a safe place to be.

It took him a moment to figure out what was going on, but when he did, he realized that the movement he had noticed were the Hit Wizards stationed around the perimeter of the event quietly leaving their posts, disappearing into the lifts surrounding the hall. The pit in Harry's stomach grew larger. Kingsley was still reading the citation to the audience, who largely seemed unaware that their supposed protectors were up and walking away.

Harry was about to nudge Ron, who was still staring quietly at his feet, when a flock of memos flew in overhead, whizzing in and out of the seated crowd before falling into the laps of a select few Ministry employees. Kingsley looked up as one hovered insistently around his ear.

Small purple aeroplanes fell into the laps of both Harry and Ron. Harry, his heart pounding, hastily ripped his open:

From the Desk of Mileva Proudfoot, Head of Department of Magical Law Enforcement

Members of the Auror Office are hereby informed that at approximately noon, this day, Friday, April 23rd, 1999, Roldophus and Rabastan Lestrange Apparated into Hogsmeade Village, uncloaked and unmasked, and entered the Honeydukes Sweet Shop. Using the Killing Curse, they murdered the proprietor of the shop, Ambrosius Flume, in front of no less than 20 witnesses. The Ministry was informed of these events by a Magical Law Enforcement Patrol stationed in the village. All Hit Wizards have been called to the scene. All members of the Auror Office should immediately report to Level Two to await further instruction.

Harry's pounding heart seemed to fail. He turned to Ron, who looked panic-stricken, and then back to Kingsley, who had grabbed the memo and was reading it now, Fred's citation forgotten. Mr. Weasley was reading over his shoulder, his face grave, while Molly was gazing over the crowd, most of whom were starting to realize that something was quite wrong.

Beside Ron, Neville stood up and began the process of extracting himself from the row of seats, not bothering to apologize to those he trod on as he made his way towards the lifts. Harry wondered why he didn't feel spurned into similar action; he knew he too was supposed to make for Level Two, likely to await instructions from Robards before Apparating to Hogsmeade with his team. And yet, something about the memo didn't seem right.

Harry glanced up again at Kingsley, whose brow was set and whose lips were thin. Harry saw the Minister's right hand dive into the pocket of his robes, and Harry felt himself do the same, fingering with the end of his wand.

It made no sense for the Lestranges, after nearly a year in hiding, to walk openly into a village and kill the owner of a candy shop. It was an effective terror tactic, Harry supposed, to show that they weren't just targeting specific members of the new Ministry or the Order of the Phoenix, but why break their cover for such a small-scale attack?

He checked his watch. It was nearly half-past-twelve now; there was no way a team of Hit Wizards would be able to apprehend the Lestranges with such an amount of time already lapsed. He made to stand, when from behind him he heard a great whooshing sound; he turned in time to see a great blonde figure emerge from one of the fireplaces lining the hall, wand pointing upwards.

Harry's hand drew his own wand from his robes but he wasn't fast enough, for Thorfinn Rowle had already sent a massive fire-like streak from his wand towards the Atrium's bright blue ceiling. There was a terrible silence, and Harry closed his eyes.

The explosion shook the entire room; screams rent the air as the ceiling made a great creaking noise. Harry opened his eyes and looked up; a hole had been blasted in the center of the vaulting; and now bits of ceramic were falling onto the crowd below.

"GET DOWN!" Bill shouted viciously, yanking Fleur to the ground alongside him as he ducked for cover. Harry heard Ron grunt beside him and turned; his friend had been brought down by a hunk of tile. Harry levitated the stone off of Ron and made to bend down, but Ron shook his head.

"I'm fine," he mumbled, spitting blood out of his mouth. "Go!"

Rowle had already began his signature assault: shooting off Killing Curses in every direction imaginable. It had been mere seconds since he'd entered the room; Harry saw a body crumple before there was time to react. Streaks of red light shot towards the Death Eater but he deflected them all easily from his position in the corner of the fireplace; Harry knew they had to get closer. A jet of green light whizzed overhead towards the daze.

It was utter pandemonium: witches and wizards were attempting to Disapparate from the room but were unable. Harry saw several Ministry officials pointing their wands at the deformed ceiling; attempting to undo whatever Anti-Disapparition Jinx had been level across the room, but clearly to no avail; Harry heard no tell-tale cracks of a fleeing crowd.

Even in his panic Harry felt his Auror reflexes kicking in; 'Rowle couldn't have acted alone, or just with the Lestranges,' he thought quickly. There was no way that Rowle was a gifted enough wizard to cast an Anti-Disapparition Jinx that was strong enough to prevent several witches and wizards from undermining its power. Would the Lestranges have been able to infiltrate the Ministry with their companion.

He didn't have time to think any further; a second beam flew towards George, who was on his feet by now, missing him by an inch. Harry yanked the twin down, behind one of the chairs with him, gazing hurriedly forward in an attempt to see whom of those he trusted, be they Aurors, Order, or D.A., was closest to the fireplace.

Bill and Fleur were still on the ground beside them. Bill quickly sent a neat curse soaring towards the back of the hall, but to no avail; there was too much space and too many people separating Harry and the Weasleys from Rowle; any true defensives hexes or jinxes were too likely to hit an innocent; whereas Rowle was blasting each and every wizard nearest to him out of the way. The fireplaces, the Atrium's only exits at this point, were unapproachable.

Finally, Harry caught sight of a flash of blonde, inching its way closer and closer to the wall of grates, and with a shock of relief he recognized Neville, wand drawn, pushing against the storm of witches and wizards attempting to get closer to the memorial, instead moving towards the source of danger, a look of determination on his sweaty face.

"Neville," Harry shouted ahead. "You're covered!"

Neville turned minutely, enough to nod in Harry's direction. Ron had righted himself by this point, and together he and Harry crawled into the aisle, wands pointing towards the massive hearths. They both sent Stunning spells soaring towards Rowle, forcing him back behind the wall of the fireplace successively enough that it allowed Neville some time to move forward another few feet. Harry and Ron took advantage of their friends assault to gain similar ground; a witch in high heels running for cover knocked Harry in the nose with her handbag, causing his eyes to water. He forced himself to stare through the stinging.

They were close enough now that Neville had a clear shot, and Harry could see Rowle's twisted expression as he gleefully shot off Killing Curse after Killing Curse. Harry, motivated more by rage than strategy, raised his own wand higher, convinced that he could end this all now, bring a true finality to this terrible war.

But then Rowle turned, and looked Harry straight in the eye. His sneer grew, and Harry was sure he was seconds from the need to dodge or deflect a curse meant for him, but curiously, Rowle pointed his wand to a point just behind Harry. Another serpent of fire erupted from his wand, shooting over Harry's head and colliding with something behind them all. There was no silence this time: another wave of shrieks filled the air and Harry suddenly felt a clip to his chin at the same time a whooshing sound engulfed the room and green flames danced in front of his eyes. A flash of darkness enveloped his senses, but they recovered near instantly and Harry found himself lying on the floor, staring up at Ron.

The source of his knockout, was immediately apparent; Rowle's final curse had clearly made contact with the memorial, sending hunks of marble flying in all directions. As Harry lifted himself up and looked around he saw the audience of the ceremony helping one another up, waving wands over the wounds of their friends, and, in one or two cases, clinging to the bodies of those who were beyond help. Harry nearly closed his eyes again.

"Neville got there in time, right?" he asked Ron desperately. "Neville got to the fireplace in time, we can track them-"

"Mate..." Ron began slowly, before turning behind him. Harry saw Neville, wand still in hand, slumped against the wall of the Atrium.

"He could be anywhere," Harry said, the full realization crashing over him. They hadn't been ready. Rowle, the Lestranges, whatever other accomplices they had acquired in the last year… they could be anywhere.

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Chapter 7: Chapter 7 - Running Up That Hill

Author's Notes: Jesus Christ. I should start by saying that I mapped out most of this fanfiction back in August, and knew that Chapter Seven was going to be quite the monster. I did not realize, however, that I would be writing twenty-three single-spaced pages of fic in less than a month. I hope that this is an enjoyable rather than daunting read. I greatly appreciate all of your wonderful comments and reviews. This chapter is titled after the song Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush, which I listened to over and over and over and over while writing this chapter, except I've listened to so much Kate Bush in the last week that I'm in a kate-hole and can't function. Whatever. Update: 09/22/2018. A kind reviewer has called out my having Ron use the expression "nutter Muggle holidays" when describing religious traditions that incorporate fasting. I think that my rationalizing in writing this came from the notion that Ron is still largely ignorant of the Muggle world, and further would be very dismissive of any ritual involving denying yourself food for any period of time. However, I can see how this would seem to reflect my own personal views and certainly be offensive, so I have chosen to remove the word "nutter" from the sentence. Thanks all!

"Patil," Savage barked, rounding the corner of the rookie cubicle. Padma jumped in her seat before realizing who had called her. She caught Harry's eye and rolled her own gaze upward in a silent cry of annoyance. Harry grinned and looked back to the report he was reading, an alleged sighting of Thorfinn Rowle in Swansea, living in disguise as an old woman called Blodwen.

"Savage?" Padma replied stiffly.

Savage held a stack of cream-colored file folders in his arms. Harry slammed his own report shut, deciding the information was worthless. The attack on the Ministry had been over two months ago, and Harry had yet to receive one piece of useful information to suggest where the rogue Death Eaters may be hiding.

"A Muggle family of six in some arse-fuck nowhere village called Barrowden all turned up dead in their beds this morning. Muggle police are saying it looks like gas poisoning, but are investigating for signs of foul play because, for whatever reason, the pantry and kitchen were completely empty of all food. I need you to check for any unusual magical activity in the area," Savage directed, shifting his files from one arm to the other.

Padma nodded, turning in her chair to the wall behind them, which housed a massive map of all of Britain and Ireland. The map was color-coded, the swirling lines of the colors changing and shifting before their very eyes, ebbing and receding across cities, towns, and counties, their hues lightening and darkening gradually. London, Hogsmeade, Godric's Hollow, and other settlements with large populations of wizards were all a startling red. The hills beside Ottery St. Catchpole, where the Burrow stood, were a more orangey shade, the colors cooling down as the magical activity in the area decreased.

Harry watched from his desk as Padma dragged her finger across the tiny county of Rutland before tapping once on Barrowden. The village was green.

"Hmm," she said. "It does seem like there's been something cast here recently. Let me check the logs and see if it's consistent."

Savage tapped his foot impatiently as Padma waved her wand over a filing cabinet with a lazily-scribbled label reading "East Midlands". A file flew out at her and she thumbed through it quickly before looking back to Savage.

"No, the level of activity in that area hasn't changed in decades. A wizarding family lives near there, they're called Tuft," she said, a note of curiosity alighting her eyes.

"They ever messed with the Muggles before?" Savage asked. "Anything sinister?"

Padma held up the file, much flimsier than the ones Savage was carrying.

"The family's been on record as living there for over fifty years and there's not a single violation or citation in this thing. I'd guess they keep to themselves."

"Likely a gas leak, then. Arthur Weasley told me it sounded like carbon monoxide, though I've no bleeding clue what that gibberish means."

He stalked off to his own cubicle, slamming the files irritably on his desk. Padma flinched, but returned to her seat, swiveling around to view Harry and Ron.

"It is a bit odd," she said softly. "Muggles die in random ways all the time, and it can certainly seem like a Killing Curse when in reality it was a heart attack…. But six people? And an empty larder? It reminds me of the war."

She shuddered before turning back to her things.

Harry looked sharply to Ron, who had slammed shut the book of Wizarding law he had seemingly been idly perusing, though Harry knew the most recent edition of Which Broomstick? had been tucked amongst its pages.

As his best friend gazed at him in terror, Harry knew that they were thinking of their year in hiding; when food was so scarce that they had often resorted to the petty theft of Muggle goods. A Death Eater on the run could easily justify murdering a family of Muggles if it meant a pantry full of food, and it would be smart to hide in an area were there was enough magical activity to cover up a few rogue, especially Unforgivable, spells.

"D'you think it could be him?" Ron asked.

"I don't think it's a fucking gas leak," Harry replied sullenly. "I'm going to talk to Robards."

Ron nodded, and they both stood from their cubicles and made their way to the corner of the vast office, where Robards occupied a tiny enclosure. Harry cleared his throat in the doorway, and the middle-aged wizard looked up from the file he was reading. Harry could swear he caught a flit of annoyance cross his boss's pockmarked face.

"Potter, Weasley," he acknowledged curtly. "What can I do for you?"

"Sir," Harry began. "Sir, we've just heard about the Muggle deaths in Barrowden, and we, er, we had some suspicions."

"Suspicions?" Robards repeated. Beside Harry, Ron gave a small sigh.

"Only that we think it might be worth having some of our law enforcement take a look around. Since - since it's an entire family dead with no obvious cause, and there are wizards in the village, and…"

"Potter, let me interrupt. I take it, given that you hold a position in this office, that you've been through your training?" Robards asked.

Harry bit back a sarcastic response of, 'Obviously,' in favor of drily replying, "Yes, sir."

"And, in cases of Muggle deaths with 'no obvious cause', to borrow your phrasing, what is the official recommendation for how the Department of Magical Law Enforcement should handle such a case?"

"That the Auror office clears the physical area in question for any unusual magical activity," Harry replied flatly.

"And if none is found?" Robards prompted.

"The case is returned to Muggle authorities," Ron finished.

"Yes," Robards said. "Though I'm not sure how this case found its way to the both of you, since I'm quite positive Patil handles all tracking of unusual magical activities. However, I am aware that the three of you share a cubicle, do you not? So, is there anything else you wanted to discuss, or are you here simply to make me aware of your misguided eavesdropping?"

Ron shifted stiffly in his robes. Harry took a deep breath.

"Sir, I just think, what with the attacks last April, it would be prudent to-"

"As far as I'm aware, no Muggles were harmed in April's attacks."

"But if we could just get a team out there to see, I know Ron and I would be -"

"You are rushing into this," Robards said sagely, sitting back in his chair and crossing his arms. Harry huffed out a long breath, again willing himself not to risk insubordination. Robards continued. "I'm not willing to form some pell-mell offensive squad for what is likely the result of some faulty piece of Muggle craftsmanship. I've heard of these carbon momoxide killings before. Muggles being murdered by their own homes and automobiles; it's embarrassing."

Harry bit his tongue, trying for a different angle.

"What about a Taboo? They're bound to have protective enchantments in place, but if we had a taboo, any dark activity in Barrowden would become evident immediately," Harry projected desperately. "We could use anything, their first names, the Dark Lord, anything."

"Do you have any idea what a complicated bit of magic that is to perform?" Robards barked, turning bright red. "Not to mention entirely unethical."

Harry had struck a nerve. He had guessed, and now as good as confirmed, that Robards had been the wizard who had cast the Taboo over the name Voldemort nearly two years ago. Only someone high up in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement could have enchanted the use of a word over so vast a space, and it was this very Taboo that had resulted in their capture, extradition to Malfoy Manor, Hermione's torture, and the death of Dobby. Feeling himself seeth in anger, thinking of Dobby, and now convinced that these deaths in Barrowden were something "sinister", Harry stepped closer to Robards, who crossed his arms even more tightly across his chest.

"Do it. Taboo the term 'Dark Lord' and I promise we will be notified that it's been used in Barrowden within the fortnight."

"What makes you so sure-"

"I was a fugitive, Robards," Harry interrupted. "I avoided detection for nearly eight months less than two years hiding outside tiny Muggle villages and raiding their chicken coops. And it was breaking a Taboo that finally got me caught, and weakened the enchantments around me to the point that I was defenseless. We've got the power of the Ministry behind us, and this is probably the only excusable thing to use it for."

Ron, beside him, looked away uncomfortably. Harry felt his friend's anguish; reverting to old Ministry tactics hardly painted the best picture for the new world they were trying to create. But Rowle had killed three people in April, and they had to find him before he could do more damage. It had been over a year since the final battle now, and Harry still felt, as he knew most of his friends did, that he was existing in a limbo, no longer under the threat of Voldemort but unable to work through the terrors of what they had been through. Perhaps they had underestimated the resolve of the Death Eaters; that some who were too cowardly to fight until the bitter end when their master lived would now evade arrest to wreak havoc and torment the country.

Robards uncrossed his arms and looked out of the window of his office.

"I'll Taboo 'Dark Lord' for a fortnight," he finally said. "And neither of you will mention it to anyone, specifically Proudfoot. And when it's been two weeks and we've seen no sign of Thorfinn Rowle in fucking Barrowden, I'm lifting the Taboo and we're never speaking of this again."

"Thank you, sir," Harry said, stepping back. Ron made an odd little shrug in his superior's direction before heading out of the door. Harry followed.

"Well, there's your career down the toilet if you're wrong," Ron said as they re-entered their cubicle.

"I won't be wrong," Harry said confidently.

"Maybe they'd just got back from abroad," Ron suggested. "Maybe they're fasting for one of those Muggle holidays."

"I won't be wrong," Harry said again. "I can feel this, Ron, just like with the attack in April. Robards, Savage - they never really had to fight. They just had to capture the bad guys, whoever they were at the time. I know Robards was Confunded and Savage says he was Imperiused and whatever else but… they never had to live on the defensive during Voldemort. They're still trying to do the same things they did five years ago, and Kingsley's got to keep them in his good graces because he needs support to run the Ministry but…" Harry trailed off dejectedly. Ron said nothing.

"I won't be wrong," Harry repeated a final time.

He wasn't. Harry, Ron, and Padma were sitting in their cubicle not a week later when a high-pitched scream sounded around the office, causing Harry to jump with a start at the memory of the Caterwauling Charm he had triggered in Hogsmeade village the night before the Battle of Hogwarts.

But this was not a Caterwauling Charm; the scream did not subside after a drawn-out moment, but rather continued to permeate the room. A chill ran down Harry's spine.

Heads popped up over the edges of cubicles across the hall, and suddenly Harry knew what was happening. He looked to Ron, eyes wide, and Ron nodded minutely in understanding.

"What the hell is that?" Padma asked, just as Robards stuck his head out of his office and barked, "Potter, Weasley, now."

"Did someone trip a Taboo?" Harry heard Williamson call from around the corner.

Padma looked to the two of them questioningly, but Harry merely shook his head. She scowled and turned to her map, as if hoping the answer lay in some recent surge of magical activity, and as Harry and Ron were exiting the cubicle, they bumped into Neville and Ernie, who were heading in.

"What do you think it is?" Neville asked anxiously.

"I've never heard anything like it," Ernie spoke over him. "It's got to be some kind of alarm, but it's certainly nothing we've been briefed on before."

"We're going to talk to Robards now," Ron said smoothly, Padma rolling her eyes behind him. "We'll let you know when we figure out what it is."

Harry felt quite sure that Robards wanted to grab him by the scruff of the neck and throw him against the wall when they reached his partition, but instead he gestured moodily to the chairs in front of his desk, where the two novice Aurors sat, waiting expectantly for instructions from their superior.

Robards didn't say anything at first, but rather waved his wand in a grand sweeping gesture, which silenced the room. He then placed the short bit of wood to his neck and muttered "Sonorus", before looking Harry directly in the eye as he spoke curtly to the entirety of the office.

"Magical Maintenance has accidentally triggered a Taboo charm that had not been undone after Pius Thicknesse's term as Minister. There will be no need for Auror Office response. Thank you."

Harry dared not glance behind him to see the response of his coworkers. There was silence for a moment, but then the usual buzz of conversation and movement took up again, and he and Ron were left sitting before Robards, who was rifling through a stack of papers in front of him.

"The Taboo was set off outside of Barrowden," Robards said without looking up from his parchment. He used his hand to gesture to a map behind him, where a red pin stuck in Rutland was blinking like a marquee light. "Get a team together and go."

Harry hesitated. "Go, sir?" he asked.

"Go," Robards repeated. "I'm not risking my best Aurors on a suicide mission."

Ron snorted. "Yeah, why risk your best Aurors when you've got Harry Potter?" he wondered sarcastically.

Robards ignored him. "I want your team to scope out the village and report back to me with your findings. Then we'll decide whether or not to mount an offensive. And I'd prefer if you spoke of this to no one."

"Our findings?" Harry asked incredulously. "A Muggle family ends up dead with no signs of a struggle in a village of four-hundred people and a week later someone in the same village starts talking about the Dark Lord? What the hell do you think we're going to find?"

"Watch it, Potter," Robards growled. "I'm still head of this office and-"

"Sod this, Harry," Ron said. "Let's just go to Kingsley, we can-"

"Go to the Minister and tell him you collaborated on the extrajudicial use of a curse he's been trying for months to make illegal?" Robards sneered. "While he's worked so hard for the last year to make this new government just and fair, his poster-boy Potter limits free speech with the same curse that forced Shacklebolt himself to go into hiding a year ago?"

Harry gaped, shocked at how quickly sinister Robards had become, but beginning to fully understand his director's motives. Robards wasn't stupid; he knew his headship had an expiration date. If this mission was a failure, it had all been organized covertly, and he could paint Harry as the rookie-gone-rogue. If it succeeded, he could take credit for the capture of Rowle and the Lestranges under his leadership.

Harry's expression grew angry, but he nodded slowly at Robards. He knew now he could not fail.

"I'll get a team," he said, and took his leave.

Ron followed Harry into the cubicle where Neville, Ernie, and Padma were waiting expectantly.

"A forgotten Taboo?" Neville asked skeptically.

"Not exactly," Ron said, while Harry quickly and quietly filled them in on the events of the previous few days. The faces of his peers changed from confused, to shocked, to resigned as he spoke.

"Robards told me to choose a team and leave today," Harry said, and Padma nodded silently, while Ernie took a deep breath and straightened up.

"And you want us?" he asked.

Harry didn't say anything, but rather looked at each of them beseechingly. There was no one else in this office that he trusted as much as his friends from the D.A. With Rodolphus and Rabastan Lestrange still at large, Harry had hardly been surprised that Neville had joined the ranks of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, but when Padma and Ernie had responded to Kingsley's call, Harry had felt a camaraderie with the two, and now considered them amongst those of whom he relied upon the most.

They looked at him, their leader since they had all been fifteen, and one-by-one stepped forward in agreement.

"Right," Ernie said, clapping his hands together. "Let's get a move on."

Five loud cracks cut through the air of the open field on the outskirts of the small farming village. As Harry rematerialized with a gasp of thick, afternoon air, the only thought he could manage was "Here?".

They had landed in the middle of nowhere. The others were looking around skeptically as well. The Taboo was meant to weaken protective enchantments amongst the users of the Tabooed words, so that, ideally, Harry and his team would be Apparating almost on top of the missing Death Eaters. But there was nothing here, save for high grasses and a narrow road leading towards the village. The tops of tiny houses could be seen over the crest of a hill. Harry's heart sank. Had they been too late? Were the Lestranges and Rowle somehow tipped off that the team of Aurors would be arriving?

"Are we in the wrong spot?" Ernie said hesitantly.

"This was the Apparition point," Ron said surely, looking at the bit of parchment they had collected from Robards. "The Taboo registered that this is the exact latitudinal and longitudinal location that the words 'Dark Lord' were said in conjunction."

"Maybe they left," Padma suggested hopefully, and Harry felt a pang of remorse for dragging the others along on this mission. They were going in blind to a highly dangerous situation, and it all felt completely antithetical in light of the months of training that they had just undergone.

They all looked to Harry, whose mind again flashed back to the old days of the D.A. They had trusted him then, when no one had believed him, when facets of the Ministry wanted to see him fail. They trusted him still. Like it or not, he was their leader.

"Let's head towards the village," Harry commanded, silently promising himself that he would not lower his guard despite that their immediate expectation of confronting the fugitive Death Eaters had been rendered false. The air was too still, the road too quiet, and Harry gripped his wand tightly in his right hand.

They set off down the path, Harry and Neville at the front, Ernie and Padma flanking their left and right, while Ron covered the rear. It was an odd formation, moving down the road in a crooked group, and Harry couldn't help but wish the team was larger.

"While we're here, we may as well scope out that Muggle house where those deaths took place the other day," Padma said from behind him.

"We don't have clearance to do that," Ernie reminded her. "It never made it past Muggle investigation into our jurisdiction."

"We hardly have clearance to be doing any of this, and I'd like to take a look at the fucking reason we're here," was her tempestuous reply. Harry grinned for a moment.

As they neared the village, signs of life began to make themselves known, and Harry trained himself to take note of haystack, every fencepost, trying to look for signs of magical activity; the telltale traces left behind by Concealment Charms, Disillusionment Charms, and other sparse signs of life. He saw nothing.

The conversation was negligible as they moved closer and closer towards the town, but when the reached the limits of the village, the silence grew oppressive and Ernie, Padma, and Ron began debating the merits of visiting the Tuft family to question them about the triggered Taboo.

Harry and Neville continued to remain silent on their quiet trek. Harry privately thought Neville seemed even more tense than Harry felt. Even with the demise of Bellatrix, the fact that there will still Lestranges running free weighed heavily on Neville, certainly more than the rest of the group. Neville's ambitions to be an Auror were motivated purely by the desire to bring down the Lestranges with finality, not by any actual career goals. He turned to Harry sharply.

"We should cast an Anti-Disapparition Jinx," he said firmly. Harry was taken aback by his conviction.

"You think?" he asked.

"We could cast one over the village from here," Neville said seriously, gesturing down the hill towards Barrowden. "I think the five of us could make it hold."

"You've never cast an Anti-Disapparition Jinx before," Harry said dubiously. They had stopped walking, and the others behind them were catching up now. "You think we can place one over the entire village on your first go?"

"I just think it makes sense," Neville replied earnestly. "If they haven't left already and we cast it well, we'd be able to hold them here if we found them."

"It didn't work in April," Harry reminded him. "And we'd be trapping ourselves here as well. They may even be able to lift it themselves and there would be no point in the first place."

"It's harder to undo someone else's jinx," Neville argued. "Why don't we ask the others?"

They turned to see that Ron, Ernie, and Padma staring at them, clearly having picked up on the end of the conversation.

"I'm for it," Ernie said. Padma shrugged, and Ron looked to Harry. The idea of not having a quick escape discomfited Harry significantly, but if they reached the Lestranges he'd prefer to have them not again vanish into nothingness.

He raised his wand in consent. His partners followed suit, pointing them at the village as they softly spoke the incantation in unison. Harry was sure it had worked; even as they spoke the air around them, already dense and sticky from the summer head, thickened further, and Harry knew that his very being had become more attached to the surroundings.

They continued on, the others continuing to chat and argue amongst themselves as they grew closer and closer to the village. Harry remained silent, wondering if it was really worth such an expedition if the Taboo had been tripped nearly five kilometers from the village itself. Were they walking in entirely the wrong direction?

"Ernie's needing a piss!" Ron shouted from the rear of their pack. Harry turned to see Ernie shaking his head, clearly displeased at such vulgar terms being applied to his basic bodily functions. He wandered off the trail, towards a nearby grove of trees to relieve himself.

Harry turned back to the road ahead and ensured that the area ahead was still free of disturbance before walking over to Ron.

"The others don't want to be here," he said to his friend. It wasn't a question.

"They're just nervous, is all," Ron said casually, gazing over Harry's shoulder towards the village again. "They know what's at stake."

Harry grimaced, glancing behind him again as Ernie buttoned his trousers and came to rejoin the group; Harry opened his mouth to speak to them all, but stopped suddenly as he realized what he'd seen, turning back to the road ahead of them.

A small roof jutted above the thicket of trees past where Ernie had relieved himself. Harry had not noticed it on their approach, though it blended in well with the leaves that surrounded it. Harry couldn't see the base of the structure through the dense trunks, and felt a sudden sense of overexposure, standing in a group on an empty road, surrounded by little more than tall grasses.

"Do you see that?" he asked Ron, gesturing to the eaves before them.

"Yeah," Ron said, unfazed. "I expect we're getting quite near the village, Harry, it'll be normal to see some houses."

"I didn't notice it on the approach," Harry said quietly.

"I can barely see it now, Harry," Ron said, a subtle attempt to reassure him. "It's not like it just appeared."

Harry threw him a skeptical glance, silently daring him to think about Seamus' house, or Grimmauld Place. It was actually quite typical of Wizarding settlements to appear seemingly out of thin air, Harry determined.

"Could that be the Tuft place?" Harry asked Padma.

"It could be," she said thoughtfully. "I'd think there'd be more signs of magic around it, though. That place looks abandoned."

Harry took a step closer, so he could see through the trees to the front door and windows. There was nothing around the house that would signify someone living there, Muggle nor magical. The windows were coated in dust, the grasses surrounding the house overgrown and beginning to cover the doorway. None of this made Harry feel better.

"Let's continue on to the Muggle house," Neville said.

The others regrouped and began again towards the village. Harry considered following them on down the road for just a moment before shaking his head and wordlessly taking several steps towards the house. One of the upstairs windows was open, the curtain eerily still.

"Look," Padma groaned. Harry didn't have to look back to know that she was referring to him.

"What's he doing?!" Neville exclaimed.

"Brilliant," Ernie deadpanned.

"Bloody fucking hell," Ron breathed, and Harry heard the crunch of earth as his best friend followed him off the path, towards the cottage.

"Is this in the area we shut off?" Harry asked, not tearing his eyes from the upstairs window nestled in the building's crumbling roof.

Beside him, Ron squeezed his eyes shut and gripped his wand. Nothing happened.

"Yeah, I'd guess so," Ron quipped. Harry allowed himself to smirk before finding his hand flying towards Ron's wrist as the curtain twitched.

But Ron had either seen or sensed the movement alongside him, and had dropped to the ground with a shout before Harry had a chance to drag him down. They crashed together into the cool ground as a jet of white light soared over their heads into the place where they had been standing moments earlier.

Auror instincts kicking in, Harry rolled away from the spot again, not willing to be a sitting target. Ron had done the same but in the opposite direction, now springing to his feet from his position on the ground and sending a quick Stunning spell back up to the window above.

"Shit!" Harry yelled, before remembering his role as the captain of their mission. "Find cover!" he shouted behind him, jumping to his own feet and making for the nearest tree trunk. Spells were flying from the window like bullets, whizzing past each of them, bringing up bits of grass and rocks in their wake. Harry noted the tell-tale green flashes of light, the mark of a Death Eater anywhere, but could not tell how many wizards they were dealing with, how many wands were pointed at the five of them from the old cottage.

He reached the base of the old ash tree and threw a Reductor Curse towards the window, hearing it crash behind him as he took the moment to account for the rest of his friends.

Ron held a fairly decent position behind the trunk of a tree not too far to his left, while Ernie and Padma had jumped into a ditch in the grass near the path. Neville had charged towards the house upon the initial attack and was now sheltering behind a small boulder.

"WE HAVE TO MOVE FORWARD!" Harry shouted as a jet of light whizzed past his left side.

"IT'S TOO OPEN," Ernie's voice replied. Harry looked to Ron, who caught his eye quickly before sending another jinx towards the window.

Harry grimaced, unable to think of a way to communicate with Ron without their attackers overhearing. Settling on the decidedly unmagical route of hand gestures, he motioned for Ron to approach the right side of the house while he took the left. He turned back to Neville, who nodded in understanding, knowing that he would cover them from behind.

Harry had to admire Neville's skill under fire as bursts of light began to shoot over their heads towards the house from the rear. A few other bolts supported he and Ron occasionally, indicating that Ernie and Padma were close enough to keep the house within range.

Harry and Ron looked at each other briefly for a second time, each nodding at the other, before dashing wildly towards their respective sides of the cottage. The volley of spells continued to whizz over their heads, scorching the earth around them.

Harry slammed into the hard wall, looking up to make sure no wizard could take aim at him from any of the upstairs windows. He was lucky; this wall of the cottage bore no openings, though he doubted he had more than a minute or two before those upstairs would confront him here, or vice-versa.

A great weight slammed into him suddenly, throwing him off balance. He straightened himself to see Neville standing beside him, looking up furtively towards the window.

"You followed me?" Harry said.

"You're not seriously trying to go in alone, are you?" asked Neville.

"Why not Ron?"

"In case you hadn't noticed," Neville whispered, "they've stopped firing spells at us. Ernie and Padma are going to regroup with Ron."

"Right," Harry said. "Right, let's move in."

They crept around the corner of the building, hoping to find a back entrance that could lead them in. They were rewarded in short, and Harry tried the door, surprised to see that it was unlocked. He looked at Neville, who grasped his wand more securely in his hand and aimed it ahead of them. Harry pushed through the entrance, into a tiny scullery.

The room was devoid of human presence. Dishes were piled upon every surface, and a thick coating of dust covered the room.

"The plates don't have dust on them," Neville noted in a hushed voice.

"So?" Harry asked.

"So, someone's been here to use them. For awhile, I'd guess," Neville gestured at the absurd amount of used china in the room.

"Well, we know that, don't we?" Harry whispered dramatically. "They were just trying to kill us a minute ago!"

"I meant that they've been here awhile."

"Yeah, yeah. Let's see if we can figure out how many there are," Harry suggested, raising his wand and murmuring "Homenum Revelio".

A wisp of smoke emitted from his wand, raveling itself into a number five, which hung in the air for a minute before dissipating.

"Five?" Neville mouthed, looking to Harry in horror.

Harry heard a creak from the floor above. He looked to Neville, and they both raised their wands again, as the door to the scullery burst open and a trio of figures darted in.

"Alright?" Ron said quietly. "They must all be upstairs, we didn't see anyone on our way in from the front."

"What the hell are they doing?" Padma wondered anxiously.

"They can't have Disapparated?" Ernie asked. Neville shook his head.

"We need to confront them," Harry said. "I'm not playing hide-and-seek. There are five of them and five of us."

"So what do we do? Root them out one-by-one?" Ron asked.

Harry looked to his best friend. "We'll go upstairs with Neville. Padma, you and Ernie cover this part of the place. Let us know if you need anything."

Harry boldly pushed open the door to the scullery.

"Staircase is over there," Ron said, gesturing. "We saw it coming in."

Harry nodded, and Neville led them to the left, where the rickety staircase began. Every instinct in Harry's body was screaming for him to turn back, screaming that if their attackers weren't willing to engage in an open fight, they should pack up and go. But he knew he had to press on, and so he went up first, wand held aloft, reaching a narrow hallway with several shut doors on either side.

Just as he was attempting to decide which entrance to try first, the door nearest him burst open with a great crash, and a scruffy man jumped out, sending a purple beam of light heading towards them. Harry had been expecting this, deflecting it easily with a Shield Charm while Neville threw a Stunning Spell in the man's direction.

He clearly wasn't a Death Eater; he was unkempt, with ragged robes, and even from here Harry could see that his forearms did not bear the image of the Dark Mark.

"Snatcher!" Ron shouted, waving his wand so that an Impediment Curse smashed into the man, who stopped dead on the landing.

Harry's mind was racing. Was this place simply a hide-out for Snatchers attempting to avoid Azkaban in the wake of Voldemort's defeat? He'd been so sure that he had discovered the hidden location of the Lestranges and Rowle. Ron gave him a bracing look.

"Let's round them up," he said, knowing exactly where Harry's mind was. "No one knows about the Taboo, we can come up with some excuse as to why we're here and, come on, it'll be fantastic to see this lot shut up for good."

Harry nodded, and Neville pointed his wand at the next door, Harry and Ron raising their wands beside him.

The door swung open to reveal a small, windowless room. It was completely dark, and in the moment it took for their eyes to adjust to the darkness, Harry made the mistake of assuming it was unoccupied.

"Lumos," Ron whispered, stepping forward.

Light poured into the room, revealing a tall, muscular man, his blonde head gleaming in the low light as he raised his wand and aimed it directly at them.

And with a sickening realization, Harry knew what was going to happen before it did, and, even as he was shouting "Protego!", knew his Shield Charm was not fast enough, knew with the familiarity of only a caster the exact speed and color of that terrible bolt of light that surged from Rowle's outstretched wand into the side of Ron's body.

Harry could swore that Ron's blue eyes looked pleadingly into his own for a moment before the blood began to pour out of the massive gashes opening over his torso, but perhaps it happened too quickly for that. Before Harry could get any closer to Rowle or his best friend, Ron, entire body wet and sticky with red, collapsed forwards onto the floor of the dingy room, a pool of blood beginning to spread out from beneath him.

Terror and rage began to seethe through his body as he raised his wand at Rowle, who, like Harry just two years prior, seemed to not have realized the effects that the Sectumsempra curse could bring about. He jumped back for a moment from the wave-like spurt of blood, and it was in this moment that Harry threw his arm forward, immobilizing the Death Eater as Neville crashed into the room behind him.

Harry fell to his knees beside Ron as another Snatcher ran towards the room. Neville deflected him easily, sending him flying into a bookcase.

"Ron!" Harry cried, flipping his friend over and grabbing onto the front of his robes. "Ron, can you hear me?"

Ron writhed and gasped wetly beneath his touch, and Harry jammed his hand into his robes, where he kept the kit that he'd been given on his last day of training, full of useful things to have in the field. He found the tiny vial of dittany and uncorked it with his teeth, desperately trying to remember the song-like countercurse he'd heard Snape recite over Malfoy in that bathroom years ago. It was to no avail; Harry knew that he hadn't heard the actual incantation Snape had voiced.

He turned Ron on his side and looked at the terrible, gaping wound. He could see something pulsing underneath the sea of red and felt a wave of nausea as he realized it was Ron's heart. His entire left side had been sliced open; Harry could see splinters of bone and cleaved muscle as he attempted to evenly administer his insufficient bottle of plant essence. He settled for pouring the entirety over the areas that he believed to be most essential to sustaining Ron's life; his chest and back. A puff of green smoke shot up from Ron's body, and when it cleared Harry looked back at the hole. Blood still oozed from the gash in his hips and over his neck, but the rush from his chest seemed to slow. How much longer could Ron bleed like this and still survive?

"Neville!" Harry shouted, surprised at how weak his voice sounded as such panic seared through him. "Neville, we've got to lift the jinx!"

"I know," Neville cried desperately. "But Harry, there are too many of them, if you lift the jinx the three of us won't be able to hold them here!"

"It doesn't matter!" Harry cried as Ron coughed in his arms, flecks of blood hitting Harry in the face. "Please, help me!"

"Incarcerous!" Neville cried, and the Snatcher was bound and gagged, and then Harry and Neville pointed their wands in the air in unison, murmuring the counter-jinx. Harry felt the stiff air, smokey and hot from the fight, loosen slightly, and he bent over and grabbed onto both of Ron's wrists, picturing the St. Mungo's reception area as vividly as he could.

"Neville," he said for the final time. "Take Ernie and Padma and go! Get help and come back!"

But he knew as he squeezed his eyes shut and prepared for the sensation of Apparition that they had lost, again, and suddenly he was forced through that terrible tube into a bright space, landing awkwardly on the hard floor as Ron's weight dragged him down again, and he heard his own voice shouting for help again and again as the sounds of what seemed like hundreds of feet surrounded him.

"Merlin, what's this?" someone shouted.

"Is that Harry Potter?" another called.

"The bleeding one?! It can't be!"

"Out of my way!" a voice cried, and Harry opened his eyes to see a Healer in lime green robes towering over himself and Ron. Harry slackened his grip on his friend just slightly, as the witch leaned over Ron, pushing back her sleeves and prying her fingers over his wounds.

"Christ," she muttered. "What's happened to him?"

"A curse," Harry said quickly. "He's an Auror, a Death Eater's just hit him with a curse called Sectumsempra, not three minutes ago. I've applied dittany but I don't know-"

"Nevermind any of that," the Healer barked, clearly alarmed by what she'd discovered upon her quick examination. "We'll sort that out once we've got him stable, he's about to bleed out!"

She waved her wand and a stretcher appeared, and she waved it again and Ron was lifted onto it.

Harry made to follow, but the Healer looked back and shook her head. "Go to the fourth floor waiting room and when we know what's going on a Healer will see to you. You said Sectumsempra?"

Harry nodded, stopping miserably in his tracks.

"Sectumsempra," he confirmed.

The Healer shook her head for a moment before following the stretcher around the corner.

Harry wanted to collapse, but he couldn't keep his head from spinning. Moments ago Ron had been fine. How could things have deteriorated so rapidly? He had woken up this morning to the sound of his two best friends squabbling over a Daily Prophet horoscope, blissfully unaware of the horrors that today would bring.

Harry felt his heart sink, wanting nothing more than to Apparate back to Barrowden and tear Thorfinn Rowle limb from limb, but he knew that he had to tell Hermione, so she could be here, in case…

But Harry shook his head, unwilling to let that particular thought form. He yanked off his blood-soaked robes, revealing a stained sweater and jeans beneath. He found the nearest bin and threw the robes in, consideration for sanitation nonexistent by this point.

He closed his eyes and, after the now-familiar sensation, opened them to find himself in front of his flat. He knew Hermione would be home; just returned a week earlier from her final term at Hogwarts, gearing up to start her new job in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. These few weeks were meant to be a well-deserved break for her, a time for her and Ron to catch up after their year apart.

Harry entered the flat slowly, still unsure if the events of the last minutes were real. He kept checking Fabian Prewett's old watch, spacing the time between the current moment and the last he had seen Ron unhurt. They had landed in Barrowden not two hours ago. He looked out the window, seeing the early evening sun beginning to set over the London skyline.

Hermione was curled up on the settee with a book on her lap, clearly in the midst of a very pleasant nap.

Harry placed one hand on her shoulder.

"Hermione," he said quietly. Her eyes were instantly open, her expression of alarm changing to one of comfort as she recognized who was standing above her.

"Harry," Hermione said. "Are you coming from work?"

Harry cleared his throat, giving Hermione a moment to take in his disheveled appearance.

"Harry, what's happened?" she said, her eyes widening again. "Harry, is that blood?"

Harry couldn't say anything, but took another deep breath, which rattled treacherously on its way out.

"Are you hurt? Where's Ron?" the panic in Hermione's voice grew as realization dawned on her. "Harry, where's Ron?"

Harry couldn't meet her gaze. He wanted to throw himself out the window for suggesting the stupid Taboo. How had he been outsmarted by the Death Eaters yet again?

"He got hit," he said quietly.

Hermione was silent.

"Where is he?" she asked, her voice eerily calm.

"St. Mungo's," Harry answered, finally looking back at her. She gazed at him frankly, then bent down and picked up her wand and beaded bag. "It was - Hermione, it was Sectumsempra. Snape, or Voldemort, I don't know… they must've showed the others how to use it."

"I'm going now," Hermione said, and her strange calm was starting to unnerve Harry. Had she not heard what'd he'd said? The only person who knew the countercurse for the terrible spell had been dead over a year. The potions book where he'd recorded his spells and curses had been destroyed in a cursed fire the same night.

Hermione walked to the door before surveying him again. "You'll need to tell the others," she said, before opening the door and walking out.

Harry's stomach suddenly churned, and he attempted to make it to the loo before being violently sick, but could only get as far as the hallway. He Vanished the vomit quickly, sinking down the floor as his stomach heaved again.

He couldn't do it. He couldn't look Mr. and Mrs. Weasley in the eye and tell them that another of his foolish actions had lost them another son in this war that was meant to be over. And he'd have to face Ginny, really face her, for the first time in nearly a year. He couldn't do it.

But he had to do it, and he hadn't been a Gryffindor for nothing. He stood slowly from the floor and gathered his things around him before following Hermione's path back into the hall and Disapparating for what felt like the tenth time in an hour.

He appeared at the garden gate of the Burrow, the sunset behind the hills casting the house and lawn in a beautiful golden light. A war raged within Harry as he tried to decide which Weasley he least-wished would answer the door. He had finally settled on Molly when he reached the stoop and, for the first time in his life, knocked on the door to the home.

It was silent for a moment, and Harry looked again at his watch. It was going on seven o'clock, surely they'd all be at home. But then the door swung open and Ginny was in front of him, already wearing a nightdress despite the early hour, her hair wet and tangled from the shower.

"Harry?" she asked, paling considerably as she took in his appearance. There had been no moment of confusion for Ginny as there had been for Hermione; one look at Harry was all it took for her to realize that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.

"What's happened?" she asked.

"Ron's been hurt," the words fell out of him effortlessly here, so unlike the coaxing they'd required with Hermione. "Really badly hurt, we were on a mission-"

"Fuck," Ginny breathed, looking back into the house. "Oh, fuck, alright. Come inside. He's at St. Mungo's? Fuck."

If the situation was any less dire, Harry might've laughed about how Ginny's immediate response to stress was to begin swearing like a sailor. However, he barely registered what she was saying as he followed her into the house.

"Wait here," she said. "It's just me, Mum, and Dad. I'll get them and we'll go."

Harry followed her instructions unthinkingly, sitting himself down at the gleaming wooden table as she quickly ascended the stairs.

His looked around the room quietly, trying to remember the last time he'd been there. Just before he and Ron had moved to London, he realized. Without realizing what exactly he had been looking for, he found himself suddenly facing Mrs. Weasley's wooden clock. Most of the hands of the clock were pointing to "Home", as Harry assumed the majority of Molly and Arthur's children were settling in for the weekend. Ron's hand, however, was firmly fixed over "Hospital". He wondered if Mrs. Weasley had left her room recently enough to see the moments where it had hovered over "Mortal Peril". He thought it unlikely.

There was a cacophony of sound from the staircase and Harry turned to see Ginny, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Weasley hurrying from the floors above. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley looked a combination of stunned and frazzled, and Mrs. Weasley took in the sight of him before silently closing her eyes. Ginny made for the door, not having bothered to change out of her night things, but merely throwing a robe on over them.

Harry stood up and followed her, with Mr. and Mrs. Weasley just behind them.

"What's happened?" Mr. Weasley asked urgently. "I've just gotten back from work - I'd not heard anything about a mission in your office."

"It was secret," Harry said, and explained to them the circumstances of the afternoon as they reached the gate. Mrs. Weasley gasped when Harry described Ron's injury.

"But, Sectumsempra!" she said breathlessly. "When George lost his ear, all I used was a great deal of dittany on the wound and it closed up fairly quickly."

This was the most Harry thought he'd heard Mrs. Weasley talk since Fred had died, and the hope in her voice nearly broke Harry's heart. They'd yet to reach the Apparition point, but thankfully Mr. Weasley answered for Harry.

"George's ear was severed clean off, Molly," he said, putting on a show of remaining calm for her sake. "It seems from Harry's perspective that whatever has happened to Ron has done damage to his insides, as well."

Mrs. Weasley groaned in response to this, but they had finally reached the perimeter of the Burrow, and before Harry could realize what she was doing, Ginny had grabbed his hand and twisted on the spot.

The four of them appeared in the reception area of St. Mungo's. Harry glanced at the bin to see that someone had removed his bloody robe.

"What floor?" Arthur asked.

"Fourth," Harry answered, and they made their way.

The fourth floor had a separate reception area, and Ginny quickly hurried to the Welcome Witch's desk.

"Excuse me, my brother was brought to this floor earlier, his name's-"

"Harry! Ginny!"

Harry and Ginny turned sharply to see Hermione walking out of the waiting area. She looked far worse than she had at the flat.

"Thank goodness you're here. They won't tell me anything about him."

"What do you mean?"

"They just keep saying he's critical right now, and they'll let us know if things change."

"Who's they?" Ginny asked.

"The Healers, the Welcome Witch, anyone I can speak to!" Hermione cried, wringing her hands together.

"Well, they have to speak with us," Arthur said steadfastly. "We're his parents."

Hermione turned back to the waiting room, choking back a sob, while Arthur and Molly went to speak to the witch behind the desk. Harry and Ginny followed Hermione.

"I told them everything I knew about Sectumsempra," Hermione said thickly. "I told them that it was invented by Snape who was a master at both potions and the Dark Arts. They didn't seem to care, though."

Harry knew not what to say, and for the first time in an hour wondered what had become of Rowle and the Snatchers that they had discovered outside of Barrowden. Had Neville been able to capture any of them. He knew he should reach out to his friend for information, but dreaded whatever he was to hear.

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley rejoined them, looking even more stricken now than before.

"We can't see him," Mr. Weasley said. "They said there's no visitors for injuries as critical as his."

The five of them lapsed into silence for a few moments. Ginny, rubbing at her eyes, decided to send Patronuses to the rest of the family, and as the hours passed by they were soon joined in their silent vigil by Bill and Fleur, Percy. They only spoke to quietly ask one another the time.

Shortly before midnight, George arrived with Angelina Johnson in tow, taking up places in the corner of the room nearest Bill and Fleur. Ginny eyed them suspiciously, her gaze narrowing in a way that was so Mrs. Weasley-ish it made Harry momentarily uncomfortable. Tired of the silence, and not being able to think of anything better to say, Harry leaned towards her.

"Why're you wearing a nightgown?" he asked. She jumped, startled, but then smiled slowly.

"I was trying to go to bed early," she admitted. "I've got a Quidditch clinic in the morning, though it's starting to seem pretty likely I'll miss it."

"Yeah," Harry said, settling back.

For whatever reason, it felt as though the shock of what had happened had stripped away at least some of the awkwardness surrounding them. Panic had Harry's throat nearly stuck together, but he felt able to speak to Ginny properly for the first time in months. He leaned forward, his hands on his knees, exhaling deeply.

Ginny had gone back to staring intently at Angelina and George.

"Did you know that Angelina used to date Fred?" she asked innocently.

Harry scratched the back of his head. "Er- they went to the Yule Ball together, didn't they?"

"Yeah," Ginny replied. "Yeah, and then they used to see each other a couple years ago, when they both left school. It ended before Voldemort took over, though."

Harry counted the months. "That wasn't too long, then," he said. "A year?"

"It's longer than we were ever together," she snapped. Harry recoiled.

"What does it matter, anyways?" he pressed, trying to keep his tone casual.

Ginny's look softened a bit. "I just can't figure out why George won't talk to any of us about her," she admitted. "I think they must be serious, if she's here now, but she's never been to the house, or anything like that, and she wasn't there in April for the Order of Merlin."

"Hmm," Harry noncommittally voiced. He hadn't been much apprised of Weasley happenings since he had started his career at the Ministry. He knew George spent most of his time with Angelina in London, and that Verity was effectively running Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, which was barely breaking even without its owner on the premises. He wasn't sure what brought George and Angelina together, but was saved from having to make further comment on the situation by the emergence of the same Healer that had admitted Ron hours before, her lime green robes smeared with rust-colored stains and her expression grim.

"You're the family of Ronald Weasley?" she asked, gazing around the waiting room at each of them.

Mr. Weasley nodded and stepped forward. "You have news for us?"

"Hardly," the Healer said briskly. "His condition hasn't much improved. Whatever curse this was, it was clearly designed to inflict major harm on the human body. The damage to his left side remains extensive, and we cannot begin to even think about closing the wound until we deal with the internal bleeding. He's unconscious now, and we're sustaining life with a Blood Replenishing potion, but really, at this point, we have very little idea of how to move forward. The concern, however, is that if we don't move quickly enough, the damage to his lungs, spleen, and pancreas will be irreversible. Curses this dark tend to become more severe the longer they remain uncontained."

"So the effects of the curse are worsening?" Ginny asked, her voice a squeak.

"Yes," the Healer said simply. "As I said, I simply wanted to update you. We will notify you all immediately if his condition changes. My name is Healer Ainsworth."

"Thank you," Mr. Weasley said. Healer Ainsworth retreated back down the corridor, and Harry sank back in his chair, hardly daring to look at the others. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley hadn't moved, and Hermione had covered her mouth with her hand.

Harry didn't know what to say or do. A quick motion beside him made him look up in time to see Ginny's long hair flying down the corridor as she rushed from the waiting room.

Without really thinking about what he was doing, or how it would look, Harry stood, following her down the long hall. She ducked into an empty private room, and when Harry reached the doorway, he saw her pacing in front of the small window, her silhouette illuminated by the moonlight.

He walked in and crossed the short distance between them easily. She turned to look at him, running a hand impulsively through her hair.

"I've been so fucking stupid," she gasped, and the desperation in her voice cut through Harry like a knife. "After Fred I told myself I'd never take anyone for granted again and I - I just can't believe I ended things with you - it could've been you. I can't even remember the last time I told Ron that I, you know, loved him or anything like that, you know - or said anything to him that wasn't taking the piss out of him and now it's too late…"

She was hyperventilating now, and looked quite mad. Harry had never seen Ginny so out of control; she normally was so composed, the master of her own emotions. His mouth opened and closed several times before he took a step closer to her.

"It's not too late," Harry said quietly. "We don't know what's-"

"He's going to die!" Ginny cried. "You saw him, didn't you? The healers have no clue what to do! Did you see her face? He's going to die."

"What's wrong with you?" Harry shouted. "Stop saying that!"

"It's the truth!" she screamed. "None of us are ever going to be okay again!"

Harry threw up his hands in anger, unable to get through to her. "I'm done, okay?! I'm done with this!" he roared, making to leave the room.

But she had stopped moving as he had shouted and for the briefest moment she gazed openly into him, and he could see in her eyes all the confusion, and fear, and anger, and hurt, but then she ran forward and grabbed his face with both hands, pressing her lips to his.

Surprised, he pushed her away, but only for a moment; Ginny looked at him again, so vulnerable, and before he realized what he was doing he kissed her back, grabbing her by the shoulders and pushing her across the room and into the wall.

Still locked at the lips, he shrugged hurriedly out of his jacket, and she her cardigan, and suddenly she was dragging him by the neck of his shirt downwards, sliding to the floor and pulling him on top of her as he broke away, drawing ragged breaths. She spread her legs so that her nightgown rode up around her knees and gazed at him expectantly, and he found his hands flying to the button on his jeans, tearing them down and leaning over her, hesitating for only a moment.

"Do it," she whispered, a frenetic edge to her voice.

He entered her quickly, kissing her neck as he thrust once, twice, and again. It had been too long; it had all been too much; it was over as soon as it began, and as he finished she inhaled deeply as if being awakened from the dead.

He pushed himself up on one arm and looked at her, using the other hand to caress her face. She was staring at him opened-mouthed. A wave of realization crashed over him.

"Fuck," Harry said, rolling off of her and pulling his trousers up. "Oh, fuck, Ginny, I'm sorry, I-"

"No," Ginny said, sitting up, her chest rising and falling rapidly and a blush beginning to creep across her face, "No, please don't apologize. Harry - Merlin, stop looking all guilty, it's okay!"

Harry put his head in his hands. When he had awoken this morning it had been a day like any other; now his entire world had been turned upside down. He wiped at his eyes with his sleeve; when he pulled it away he caught sight of a rust-colored stain; Ron's blood, caked in and dried. He was covered in it, never taking the time to change or magic it off.

What was wrong with him? His best mate lay dying down the corridor and Harry's reaction was to shag the man's sister? He couldn't stomach the idea of going back to the waiting room with Mrs. Weasley and the lot of them.

"Harry?" Ginny's touch was gentle on his shoulder. He shook her off, and she sighed loudly.

"Fuck this," she huffed, and grabbing him by the wrist, she turned on the spot, and Harry was sucked into the terrible, dark, tube, the air forced from his lungs, until light washed over him, and he found himself gasping for breath in front of his own flat.

"Let us in," Ginny commanded, and Harry obliged, without really thinking. She pulled him into the tiny lodging, dragging him nearly halfway across the sitting room until she stopped and faced him squarely.

"I'm sorry," she said in a rush. "I'm so sorry for what I did last summer. Not a day goes by that I don't regret it; that I don't wish I hadn't done it. And now, every time I see you, it seems like you're doing so well, and I don't want to bring you down, or demand attention that you can't make time for… but I can't stand this, and I need you to know, really, really know, Harry, that I love you. I've loved you since you asked fucking Luna to that fucking Christmas party my fifth year, and I'm so sorry I waited until I was breaking things off with you to tell you, because that wasn't fair, because I knew saying it would hurt you more and I was so hurt that you weren't going back to Hogwarts that I just wanted to make you feel terrible and I don't know why I did that. It was cruel. And I understand if you hate me for not trying harder to make things work with you and I think I hate myself a bit for that too but I just want to make absolutely fucking sure that you know how much I love you."

She took a deep breath and stared at him sadly. Harry felt like he had been deflated. How could she be saying these things to him now, after he'd been craving to hear them for months? They hardly seemed to matter now, with Ron mere miles away, bleeding out because of Harry's stupid actions. Harry couldn't think of one right decision he'd made since the war ended, if he was being honest with himself.

And yet, Ginny loved him. He looked at her, and she stared back at him with the blazing look that he loved so much. But it wasn't really the look, he realized, it was her that he loved so much. The world around him seemed to be crumbling, but here, in his tiny flat, with Ginny by his side, all the pains and fears of what was happening to Ron were muted softly, and his thoughts were clear. She had always been, and would likely always be his best source of comfort.

"Damn it, Ginny," he said weakly, his voice breaking. She gave him a wretched grin before taking a long, shuddering breath, and sinking slowly down to the floor. Harry's heart thudded mercilessly as he took a long stride towards her and ducked down to sit beside her on the wooden planks.

"Sorry," she said.

"It's alright," he murmured, raising a hand to push some of her hair from her face. She sighed and brought his own face to hers. He felt her warm breath near his ear, and drew her closer.

"I love you," he said. "I'm sorry, too. For not trying harder. For not asking about your feelings more. I've thought a lot about it, these last few months."

She was gazing at him with a strange look, and Harry worried that his words had fallen flat in face of her impassioned speech. But then she nodded quickly, and Harry knew they had reached another silent understanding together. They sat there for a moment, hands wound in the other's hair, foreheads touching, staring at the floor. Finally, Harry broke away so that he could sit propped up beside her, their heads resting on the windowsill.

"Can I ask you something?" he began.

"Sure," she said softly, head lolling onto his shoulder.

"What makes you think that I'm doing so well?" he wondered.

"Oh, come on, Neville writes all the old D.A. crowd to tell them that you're practically leading the hunt for the Lestranges single-handedly."

"Yeah, that's turned out great," Harry mumbled sarcastically. "My best mate slashed through by the biggest oaf imaginable, who we still can't seem to manage to capture." He didn't mean to be so abrupt, and looked quickly down at Ginny, her head still lightly touching his arm.

Ginny had paled again at the mention of Ron. "We should go back, shouldn't we?" she asked.

"Yeah," Harry said, picking up the lace of his trainer and fiddling with it idly in his hand. He couldn't even bear to think about Ron, doped up on Sleeping Draught while Blood-Replenishing Potion was flowing through his veins. He glanced back at Ginny for a second time. She looked positively nauseous now. Was this really what they had suffered through the war for, Harry couldn't help but wonder bleakly. To lose more friends, more brothers?

"Maybe you should sleep," Harry suggested. "It'll be daylight in a few hours and we can go back then."

"Will you stay with me?" Ginny asked him softly, and Harry felt his heart swell with both tenderness and sadness.

"Of course," he said, before clambering to his feet and offering her a hand. He pulled her up and led her to his bedroom, feeling remarkably self-conscious of its sparse furnishings and decorations, but she didn't seem to notice, instead directly honing in on the bed.

She collapsed on top of the blankets, rolling over onto her back. Harry sank down next to her and leaned over her prone figure, pressing his lips to hers chastely.

"Sleep," he said gently, pulling back the blankets and removing his own glasses. They both climbed under the sheets, he still in his blood-stained clothes, she in her nightgown, and curled up against one another.

Ginny reached up and touched the side of his face.

"I'm scared to sleep," she said softly.

"I know," Harry said.

"I want this all to be a nightmare," she continued. "But when I wake up tomorrow it'll still be real."

"I'll be here," Harry said softly. "Everything will be alright, Ginny."

"You can't know that," Ginny said with a yawn.

Harry didn't reply, but a few moments later her breathing evened out, and he knew she'd drifted off.

He wound his hand again through her hair and clung to her softly as he let the guilt of Ron's injury wash over him. Ron was dying because of him, and he lay here in the arms of the woman he loved. Hermione would probably give everything she had for another night with Ron, but because of Harry's terrible rashness, his impulsivity, she was sitting in a stiff wooden hospital chair. The shame engulfed Harry completely.

The hours of night dragged on, Harry clinging to sanity by listening to the slow, repetitive rhythm of Ginny's breathing beside him.

It was just past six when the shimmery silver otter flew in through Harry's bedroom window.

"Ginny," Harry said, and she was instantly wide awake and sitting up beside him, as the otter opened it's petite mouth and asked, with the voice of Hermione, "Where are you two? The Healers are coming to speak with us."

Ginny looked to Harry, terrified, and he knew it was not because she worried of what Hermione and her family would say of them for their hours-long disappearance, but rather what they were about to learn of Ron's injury.

They hurried out of bed silently, Harry finally pulling out a fresh t-shirt and new pair of jeans. Ginny looked down at her nightdress sadly, and Harry reached into his chest of drawers and unearthed a faded sweater and second pair of pants, which she quickly slipped into, rolling up the legs of the trousers several times to keep them from dragging on the floor.

"You must be a foot taller than me," she observed quietly, and Harry flashed her a wry smile.

They collected their wands and rushed from the flat, Apparating from the hall directly into the hospital.

Gaining speed the closer they got to Ron's room, Harry and Ginny dashed through the reception area and caught the lifts to the fourth floor. Bursting into the waiting room they were immediately faced with entire Weasley family and Hermione.

Charlie had arrived in their absence and was standing awkwardly in one corner, looking bleary-eyed. Fleur was leaning quietly on Bill's shoulder, while George and Angelina were talking quietly beside them. Hermione was pacing the tiny antechamber, while Mr. and Mrs. Weasley sat stock-still behind her, Percy beside them, rubbing his hands together as though trying to warm them. It was a picture of misery, Harry thought.

Ginny stepped forward, and Hermione turned towards her. Harry expected her to be accusatory, but her worry was clearly to great to fault them for disappearing for several hours.

"Where have you been?" she asked sadly.

"I got overwhelmed and needed a sleep," Ginny replied smoothly, her statement hardly an untruth. "Harry let me use his flat so I didn't have to leave London."

Hermione nodded, apparently satisfied, and resumed her march.

"What did the Healers say?" Harry asked hesitantly.

"A Mediwitch came about half-an-hour ago and told us that the Head of Spell Damage was going to come discuss Ron's outlook with us presently," Percy said, clearing the smudges off of his horn-rimmed glasses with the edge of his robe. "We've heard nothing since."

"Why don't you seet?" Fleur asked groggily, lifting her head up from Bill's shoulder and gesturing to the hard, wooden chairs beside her.

Harry and Ginny nodded in turn and took up their designated spaces. They watched Hermione stalk back and forth across the cramped space, each silently bracing to hear the very worst.

It wasn't until nearly eight that a Healer finally entered, drawing his robes around him securely and crossing his arms over his chest.

"We're sorry for the wait, but Mr. Weasley's health has been touch and go since being admitted last night. Unfortunately, we were unable to apply any kind of countercurse that would help his wounds heal."

Standing in front of Harry, Hermione closed her eyes.

"He was being administered a regular Blood-Replenishing Potion but the wound remained open-"

"I don't understand," Mr. Weasley interrupted. "I had a nasty snake bite years ago and the wound wouldn't close, but my condition wasn't nearly half as critical as my son's after this many hours."

The Healer cleared his throat pompously before continuing. "Yes, well, though snake bites are often grave, and can obviously cause severe blood loss, their fangs typically cannot sink as deep as did whatever curse struck your son. You may be looking at a punctured lung or a few broken bones if the snake is large enough, but every organ on the left side of the younger Mr. Weasley's body, from his longs to his bladder, looked as though they had been severed in half, accounting for his increasingly critical state, and presenting us with our second problem."

Fleur gave a small whimper. Bill had put his head in his hands, and Harry worried that he may be sick on the floor.

"We couldn't begin to assess the damage to the internal organs until we got the bleeding under control. It was a mess of severed veins and arteries, and whatever curse this was seemed to resisted any Sealing or Suturing Charm that we attempted. Ultimately, we decided that we would have to remove the cursed flesh and blood vessels completely in order to graft the healthy body back together. We Severed a quarter-inch of flesh each way around the wound and on each severed vessel, which we were then able to seal back together with dittany."

"So - so the bleeding has stopped, then?" Ginny said.

"Yes," the healer replied evenly. "Though the wound remains open as we attempt to determine how best to repair the organs."

"Because you can't just lop off the dead tissue of organs?" Charlie wondered, and Harry heard a sarcastic edge in his voice before remembering Ron's opinions about medical professionals that "cut people up". Harry had to admit that the Healer's words all felt rather medieval.

"It may be possible," the Healer said with a shrug, not catching Charlie's tone. "It will likely be a process of elimination to determine how to best approach Mr. Weasley's internal injuries. But he is stable now, and with the bleeding stopped and our treatment for whatever curse this 'Sectumsempra' is, I can now say with confidence that, though it will be a long road, I'm optimistic that Mr. Weasley will make a near-complete recovery."

Mrs. Weasley burst into a wave of fresh sobs, while Hermione looked as though she had been suddenly punctured and all of the air let out of her, falling over herself and breathing deeply with her hands on her knees. When she arose Harry could see tears streaming down her face.

His own relief was a great, palpable thing; it stretched over his entire being, and lightened him so considerably he felt as if he could float away. It was then, however, that he became aware of the pressure keeping him tethered there, and when he looked down he saw that it was Ginny's hand in his own, their fingers intertwined. He glanced up to her face and saw that she was beaming up at him, her bright eyes dancing.

The early afternoon found Harry and Ginny still together, sitting side-by-side in the same miserable chairs of the St. Mungo's waiting room. Ron had regained consciousness nearly half an hour prior and had first asked to see Hermione. The rest of the family was surrounding Harry and Ginny, who were doing their best to keep their positions casual; to keep from slipping too close to one another, to keep their hands firmly in their own pockets.

"When do you start training?" Harry asked quietly.

"August 15th," Ginny replied.

"And you're moving to Holyhead?" he questioned.

"All rookies have to live on-site," Ginny said, stretching.

"There's always weekends, I suppose," Harry said sadly.

"Shhh!" Ginny hushed, turning to look behind them, where Bill and Fleur still sat, waiting for their turn to visit Ron's bedside.

"What's so wrong with everyone knowing?" Harry asked.

"Nothing," Ginny said emphatically. "Just… not now."

"When?" Harry pushed.

"Before I leave, I suppose," Ginny said.

"Are you embarrassed of me?" Harry muttered playfully, though he did feel a bit genuinely hurt.

"No!" Ginny hissed, turning around again to make sure that no one in her family was paying them any attention.

"No," she repeated, looking back to Harry tenderly. "Look, being the youngest, I've never had many things that were mine. Even when we were together my fifth year, I felt a bit like I was just being allowed time with Ron's best mate, not my own boyfriend. And you being, well, you, it's just nice to not have everyone so wrapped up in our business."

"I suppose that makes sense," Harry said softly, leaning back into the wall.

Suddenly the door to Ron's room burst open and Hermione pelted out. Harry could tell that she had been crying. She took one look at the mass of Weasleys sitting before her, let out a long breath, and ran down the hall.

"Has something happened?" Mrs. Weasley said, panic rising in her voice. "Arthur!"

But Mr. Weasley had already made his way to Ron's room and entered, quickly followed by his wife. Harry looked to Ginny and gestured that they should follow Hermione.

It didn't take long to find her, hidden in a stairwell, drawing long, shaky breathes. Harry braced himself for the worst; perhaps Ron had had some kind of relapse and the Healers were wrong; rather than him recuperating fully in the coming weeks, his days were limited and recovery impossible.

But as Hermione turned to face them she gave a somewhat-crazed laugh, standing tall and wrapping her arms around herself.

"We're getting married," she said.

Back to index

Chapter 8: Chapter 8 - Harness Your Hopes

Author's Notes: Another chapter!! I’m so sorry that it took so long to update!! I almost missed my self-imposed “update-at-least-once-a-month” rule! I’ve been continuously busy with work and done some serious restructuring to this story and where I’m trying to take it. Anyways, I hope you all enjoy this chapter. It is titled after the song ‘Harness Your Hopes’ by Pavement. I’ve also created a Spotify playlist of all the songs I’ve used for chapter titles thus far and included a link on my author page. As always, thank you for reading and reviewing.

The scar ran the length of Ron's left side, starting near his hips and reaching all the way past his neck to his hairline. Every time Harry saw it a dull pit formed in his stomach. He pointed his wand at the hem of Ron's shirt, which tucked itself neatly into his trousers.

"I'm going to vomit," Ron groaned for what seemed like the twentieth time that hour.

"You're not," Harry replied again as he straightened the tie on his best friend's dress robes. Ron's nerves had been in check for most of the week up to the ceremony. However, upon waking this morning, he'd decided that Hermione had made a grave, grave mistake in agreeing to marry him, and that the best thing he could do for her was to call the whole thing off.

Though Ron's struggle with an extreme lack of confidence had mostly been overcome in the year since the war had ended, Harry suspected the emotional upheaval of the day had triggered the stifling insecurity that had plagued Ron for most of his adolescence.

Harry, also suspecting such a reaction would emerge from Ron as the happy event arrived, had already prepared his rousing speech. He took a deep breath.

"Look, Ron, why do you want to marry Hermione?"

Ron rolled his eyes. He had explained this to anyone and everyone for the last two months, and clearly found it redundant to remind Harry again.

"Because nearly dying gave me the profound realization that I want to spend the rest of my life, no matter how long or short it is, with her," Ron recited in a monotone, just as he had to his parents, to Hermione's parents, to all of their friends and siblings, and to Harry specifically, who, for the first few weeks, had had a genuinely hard time wrapping his head around the concept of his friends' brief engagement.

"Right," Harry said. "And why do you think Hermione's agreed to marry you?"

Ron's ears turned red, and he smiled in spite of himself. "Because she loves me, but I don't think she realizes-"

"'Don't think she realizes'?" Harry interrupted. "Blimey, maybe you shouldn't marry Hermione if you honestly believe you can get anything by the woman. Have you ever known her to make a choice that she hasn't first considered in at least twelve different ways?"

"No, but-"

"Hermione knows what she's doing, and so do you," Harry said simply. "If you think you're ready, then you're ready. You've been through the war and now everything with Rowle. This is a good thing. This is what we've fought for."

Ron scowled. "You've practiced this, haven't you?" he asked.

"A bit," Harry chuckled, patting Ron on the shoulder and looking over his handiwork. He himself had chosen the dress robes in his capacity as best man and he thought Ron looked bloody smart.

There was a knock on the door, and Ginny stuck her head in the room.

"Harry?" she called with a dazzling smile. "You're needed for something downstairs."

"Right," Harry said, looking at Ron. "I'll be back to walk you down in a few minutes. Please try not to make a run for it."

"Har-har," Ron said sarcastically, but he still looked a bit nervous as he turned back to the mirror, pulling his hair around his ears in an effort to make them not stick out as much.

Harry followed Ginny out onto the landing and down the first flights of stairs.

"Who needs me?" he asked, afraid that the answer would result in him being at the command of the imperious Mrs. Weasley in the remaining hour before the ceremony began.

"I do," Ginny said, quickly grabbing him off the landing and pulling him into her darkened bedroom. She brightened the lights with a flick of her wand and turned to face him. He looked her over for the first time today, taking in her braided hair, falling in a crimson rope over her shoulder, and her dusty lilac dress, one shouldered and cinched at the waist.

She was incandescent, from every strand of copper hair to every inch of freckled skin. Harry crossed the room quickly, bringing her into his arms and kissing her soundly, pressing his tongue against her lips and revelling in her throaty sigh as she opened her mouth to accept him. One hand found its way, as it always did, to her hair, hindered in part by her plait but still managing to weave its way into the dense tresses. The other clawed at her back, bare in her open dress. He still couldn't believe that he was allowed to touch her like this; that she wanted him as much as he did her.

Unlike the summer before where grief mingled with their time apart made him hesitant, even reserved as he touched her, the recent shock of Ron's injury had caused Harry to become reckless, animalistic, and unwavering in his attention and affection. Work was gruelling still, and he felt his hours with her were far too short, but this did not hamper their time together as they had both feared it would during the last year. Rather, it made it more precious.

"Why did we wait for so long to be like this?" Harry asked, his thoughts becoming vocal as her mouth made its way to a place just below his ear.

"Because we're fools," Ginny replied. Harry sighed and ducked his head, biting her shoulder gently.

"I love you," he murmured into her neck. She pressed her mouth to his temple.

"I love you so much," she said. This was how it had been, since the night at the hospital. Harry could not declare his adoration enough, and she always reciprocated simply, warmly, passionately, in full. Harry sometimes wondered if she was trying to make up for him going most of his life without hearing the words; a thought that might've embarrassed him once, but now resulted only in his sheer happiness.

Harry lifted her chin so that she was looking up at him and smiled softly, gesturing down to the marquee below.

"D'you think this will be us soon?" he asked.

Ginny laughed. "Watch it, Potter," she said. "It's only been two months, you don't want to scare me off."

"I'm serious, Ginny," Harry said, drawing her in and wrapping both arms around her.

"What's the rush?" Ginny said. "The war's over… we have time."

"Rowle-" Harry began.

"Is a concern," Ginny finished. "There will always been Dark wizards, Harry. I know the risks of being with you, and they don't scare me. I don't need a ring to know that we're going to spend the rest of our lives together."

Harry's breath caught in his throat. "Really?" he asked dubiously.

"You're telling me that you feel differently?" Ginny challenged. "This… this is it for me. I love you, you giant sap. I want to share everything with you."

"Me, too," he said thickly, cursing his inarticulacy. "I love you."

Ginny kissed him then, her lips parting slowly as she gently pressed her tongue against his. "Come on," she said, breaking away. "We really are needed. I've told Hermione I'd gone to get more Sleekeazy's, but really I just wanted to see you in your dress robes. And Mum wants you to get Ron downstairs so he can be on time for his big entrance."

Harry groaned, leaning back from her and straightening the front of his robes. She adjusted her dress, tugging it down a bit to reveal even more of her freckled chest, and looked to Harry suggestively.

"Stop it," he huffed.

She chuckled and walked out the door onto the landing. Harry followed, reaching out impulsively to grab at her bottom, hidden away underneath all the chiffon. Ginny jumped in surprise and turned, laughing, to swat him across the chest.

"If you ever try that again you'll have bogeys flying out of your nose before you can say 'Sorry, Ginny,'" she threatened playfully.

"Glad to see that you can defend your own honor, sweet sister," a voice said from the landing above.

Harry turned bright red and cursed under his breath. George and Angelina were making their way down the stairs from George's room, hand-in-hand. Angelina looked decidedly pretty in her pale pink gown, which clashed fantastically with George's hair and signature magenta robes.

"Hullo," Ginny said pleasantly.

"Hello, yourself," George replied with a smirk, reaching them on the landing. His spirits seemed better than Harry had seen them since Fred's death, and he blessedly seemed not to mind Harry's rare and unusually indelicate display of intimacy.

Still, George had been one of the few people who had known, definitely, of Harry and Ginny's past relationship, which he tactfully chose not to ignore in this moment, instead running a hand across a dusty picture on the wall of the staircase, displaying the family on vacation in Egypt six years prior. "You two ready for what is sure to be an epic shit show?" he asked.

Harry and Ginny blanched at his tone, for even in their most private moments together, neither voiced their doubts at Ron and Hermione's impending union, knowing that if their roles were reversed they wouldn't want the other couple thinking ill of them. Yet, these doubts existed still, as small, unsaid words avoided in nearly every conversation.

Harry understood Ron's logic, understood the appeal declaring, in front of nearly everyone he had ever known, that he loved Hermione and was prepared to spend the rest of his life with her. He felt the ache too, to settle down with Ginny now and assert that this was how it would be forever, for some glimmer of certainty in this new muddled world of theirs.

After the war and Ron's injury, Ron and Hermione now were largely willing to give into the desires and needs of each other with admirable self-sacrifice. Harry only worried that it would not be that way twenty years down the line…

Beyond that, it all seemed annoyingly grown-up, after only a year of Harry finally feeling as though he had some semblance of his youth restored to him. Granted, most 19-year-olds weren't trained professionals trying to track down terrorist holdouts after the bloodiest war their country had seen in several hundred years. But Harry, Ron, and Hermione had always been doing that to an extent. Marriage was yet another step that indicated his best friends were moving away from him, and Harry couldn't help but be nostalgic for the time that he was the glue that held them together.

"It does feel a bit rushed," Ginny allowed. "I think they'll stick it out, though. I mean, everyone expecting you to fail is a great reason not to. "

"Wow," George said appreciatively. "And they haven't asked you to give a speech? That was moving."

Ginny rolled her eyes. Harry was saved from having to make any additional comment by the appearance of Mrs. Weasley, who seemed to be ready to breathe fire as she saw them standing on the landing.

"I'm sorry," she voiced shrilly. "I'm simply struggling to understand why, when I've got nearly two hundred guests in the garden expecting a wedding in twenty minutes, you lot have seen fit to have a nice chat in the hallway. Ginny, you told me you'd have Harry bring Ron down nearly half-an-hour ago!"

"Sorry, Mum," Ginny murmured, turning to go back upstairs, presumably to fetch Hermione from Percy's room, where she was getting ready. Harry, blushing, followed her, leaving the others on the landing.

As Ginny reached the bedroom she gave Harry's hand a small squeeze.

"I'll see you in a bit," she said with a dazzling smile before disappearing behind the door.

Harry trudged to the final landing and let himself back into Ron's room. The groom was sitting dejectedly on his bed, holding an empty glass. A bottle of Firewhisky was on the nightstand.

"Er- is that wise?" Harry asked, gesturing to the bottle.

"I need some liquid courage to propel me down the aisle," Ron said glumly.

"You act like this wasn't your idea," Harry reminded him, exasperated. "No one is holding a wand to your head."

"I want to do this!" Ron said sharply. "But I'm starting to really feel the pressure, you know? What if I can't, you know, give her the life she wants? Or what if something happens and I get all terrible and walk out again…"

"You won't do that," Harry said forcefully. "You've grown more than you realize since the war. Ron, this is a good thing."

"I suppose," Ron mumbled. "Are they waiting for us, then?

"Yup," Harry replied drily.

Ron reached to grab for the Firewhisky but Harry beat him there. He opened a drawer in Ron's desk and shoved the bottle inside, closing it roughly.

"There will be plenty of time for that once you've said your vows," Harry said. "Let's go."

Ron stood, grumbling a bit, but the two made their way down the stairs and through the kitchen. The guests had all been seated, and Harry and Ron ducked around to the corner of the tent and quietly took their places at the front of the altar.

Harry looked out across the sea of faces, nearly all of them familiar. Ron and Hermione had invited the entirety of the Order and the D.A. to their celebration, and Harry spotted several members of the Ministry as well. Hermione had done well in her first months there, despite Ron's injury, and last Harry had heard, was a contender to head her department when she and Ron returned from their honeymoon.

The Weasleys and Mrs. Granger were sat in the front row of chairs, and as Harry and Ron stood tall in front of the tufty-haired man presiding over the ceremony, the sounds of a harp began to emanate throughout the marquee.

Ron turned sharply to face the aisle, where Ginny was now standing, holding a bouquet of baby's-breath. She smiled slowly and began walking down the center of the tent, revealing Hermione and Mr. Granger behind her.

Ron took a quick shaking breath, and when Harry glanced at his best friend's face, he saw wetness in his blue eyes.

Harry glanced back at Ginny, walking down the aisle towards him now, and for a moment his imagination let himself believe that this was his wedding, that Ginny was walking towards him now so that they could be wed, and a sickening happiness formed deeply in his stomach. He tore himself out of his reverie and forced himself to give his attention to Hermione as every pair of eyes in the garden turned towards her.

The dress was simple in a way that could only be expected of Hermione. The high neck and capped sleeves were of a modest cut, and the gown itself was devoid of any embellishment, save for a small studded belt cinching at the waist. Hermione's hair had been sculpted back (certainly with more than one bottle of Sleekeazy's) into a feminine knot near the nape of her neck, from where was fastened a long veil.

She was breathtaking.

Ron's face immediately broke into an utterly dopey grin, and he looked as though he wanted to sprint down the aisle to meet her half way. He began bouncing on the balls of his feet, and the tiny wizard presiding over the ceremony gave a small cough in Harry's direction.

Harry considered briefly laying a gentle hand on his friend's shoulder, but ultimately decided against it as Ginny reached the altar and took her place on the opposite side of the tufty-haired man. She smiled brightly at Harry, who felt his heart rate pick up rapidly as he contemplated how much he wanted her.

He forced himself to turn back to Hermione, who by this point had reached the altar. Mr. Granger kissed her cheek briefly before leaving to take his seat beside Hermione's mother. Ron grabbed her hand happily as the couple repositioned themselves in front of their friends and family.

The tufty-haired wizard cleared his throat.

"We are gathered here today to celebrate the union of Ronald and Hermione in marriage…" he began, and Harry watched a single tear fell down Hermione's cheek. He felt himself relax, letting the words of the ceremony wash over him a gentle hum.

Mrs. Weasley was crying quietly in the front row, and Ron and Hermione began to say their vows, describing a love everlasting and a commitment that wouldn't weather through even the deepest of adversities.

Harry caught Ginny's eye over Hermione's shoulder and smiled. She winked in return and Harry was overwhelmed with a sudden sense of warmth, as though suddenly everything in his world had been made beautiful and sound.

The tufty-haired wizard - Truly, Harry wondered, who the hell was this man? - had finished speaking and, as the guests rose from their seats with thunderous applause, Ron and Hermione kissed for the first time as a married couple. Harry gazed out in front of him as tables appeared under the marquee and all of their friends and family began milling about in search of places to sit.

Ron and Hermione joined hands and moved towards a tide of well-wishers as Harry sought out Ginny, wanting nothing more than to be near her as the festivities began. Their dual role as maid-of-honor and best man ensured that they could remain close throughout the evening without drawing suspicion, but Harry still had to check himself in his effort to avoid grabbing at her waist, remembering that this was Ron and Hermione's celebration, and not his own.

Harry followed Ginny towards the back of the tent, where the wedding party was to sit at a long, rectangular table. They quickly found their places and waited for the rest of the seats to fill. Waiters bearing flutes of champagne appeared in front of them, and Harry grabbed one, tossing it back in a quick swig.

"Watch it," Ginny laughed. "Your track record with booze isn't spectacular."

"Let's get trashed and make fools of ourselves," Harry replied, the champagne making him giddy.

Ginny was soon joined by Mr. and Mrs. Granger at the bride's end of the table, and Harry by Mr. and Mrs. Weasley at the groom's side. Harry smiled as he watched Ginny demonstrate how the menus at each setting worked, looking at the empty goblet before her and murmuring "Elderflower mead."

The glass filled quickly to the brim, much to the Grangers' astonishment.

"But surely that won't work for us," Mrs. Granger voiced awkwardly.

"I'm not actually doing magic," Ginny kindly explained. "The table settings are enchanted, of course, but the waiters don't care if you can perform magic or not; they're the ones hearing your command and serving everything."

Mr. Granger looked down as though expecting a waiter to appear from under the tablecloth with his wand drawn. Harry personally thought they were bearing up reasonably well for being the only Muggles at the wedding of their only child. Harry thought of the Dursleys, a rare occurrence, and had a private smile at the idea of his relatives at a Wizarding wedding.

Most of Hermione's family wasn't aware of her status as a witch, as the International Statute of Secrecy forbade all but the closest of Muggle relatives from knowing of the existence of the Wizarding World.

The original plan for the wedding had been for the ceremony to take place at the church where Hermione had been baptized, with Ron's family doing their best to blend in to the Muggle festivities. However, it quickly became apparent that it was easier for the couple to leave most of the organization of the event to Mrs. Weasley, while Ron and Hermione focused on the former's recovery and the latter's new career with the Ministry. Thus, the location of the ceremony had been changed to the Burrow, and only Mr. and Mrs. Granger and Hermione's aged grandmother, Jean, had been invited to the ceremony.

"She's so batty she probably won't even notice her champagne pouring itself," Hermione's mother had said with a dismissive wave of her hand the night before the ceremony, after Mrs. Weasley had voiced concerns about Grandmum Jean's possible confusion regarding the festivities.

"We've told her that you're hippies," Mr. Granger had told the Weasleys conspiratorially. Harry nearly choked on his wine as he laughed at the bemused expressions on Mr. and Mrs. Weasley's face. Hermione had thumped him on the back, turning bright red.

Ron and Hermione had pushed their way through the crowd of guests to the table, and sat down. Both were grinning from ear to ear, and Ron grabbed two champagne glasses out of the air, handing one to Hermione. She reached out for it and Ron took her hand, pressing a gentle kiss to it. Hermione leaned forward and whispered something in his ear.

Harry looked down to one of the adjacent tables and watched Charlie put his wand to his throat.

"Alright, you lot," Ron's older brother boomed across the marquee. "Find your places, it's time for toasts."

The wave of guests began to sit, so that Harry could see better who was present. He waved to Neville and Luna, sitting amongst Ron and Hermione's Hogwarts roommates at a table adjacent to Ron's brothers. Grandmum Jean appeared to have fallen asleep in her space next to Ron's Auntie Muriel, who was prodding at her rather rudely. Harry attempted to hide his smile.

Dinner appeared on their plates and goblets were raised in toast to the couple. Mr. Granger gave a moving speech on the importance of unity and partnership, followed by Ginny, who read a passage from a favorite Muggle novel of Hermione's.

George was next, giving an impassioned description of what an utter nag Hermione was to himself and Fred during their five shared years at school, before ultimately asserting that Hermione's disapproval had motivated the twins more than anything else to succeed in establishing Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. By the end of his speech Hermione was wiping quite repeatedly at her eyes with the corner of her napkin.

Harry was last, and as he stood awkwardly every head under the tent turned to face him. He took a deep breath and took a scrap of paper out of his pocket.

"You think I'd be used to everyone staring by now," he said. The crowd tittered quietly. Harry continued, looking down at his sheet. "Er, I'm Harry, the best man."

The guests laughed openly this time at Harry's useless introduction.

"I thought about using this speech to describe how Ron and Hermione were my first friends, all the trouble we got into in school, how they followed me into the most dangerous of situations - but then I realized that you could read all about that in Rita Skeeter's new book, which is coming out next month, so I won't spoil it for all of you."

There was another wave of laughter, and Harry tugged at the collar of his robes.

"Er- It's hard, I suppose, when the people that you've done everything with for the last eight years suddenly go off by themselves, but seeing Ron and Hermione together, it doesn't feel like such a bad thing. It's, er, a beautiful thing, how much they love each other."

He turned to face Ron and Hermione directly, and saw that Hermione was crying in earnest now, and that Hermione's blue eyes looked a bit misty as well.

"You're both kind, you're both brave, you're both funny, you're both loving, and I can't think of two people who deserve each other more. Really, you two are the best friends I could ask for. And, more importantly, you're the best together. I wish you all the happiness in the world."

The tent erupted into applause, and the band began playing, signalling the end of the speeches.

Ron and Hermione both stood and drew Harry in to a great hug. Hermione kissed his cheek and Ron clapped Harry on the back, clearing his throat as the guests returned to their food and conversation.

"Why don't we all take a picture together?" Hermione suggested happily, wiping at her cheeks.

"Where's that damned photographer?" Ron said gruffly, attempting to recover some of his composure.

Harry quickly volunteered to find the man, and his quest led him past an old witch talking loudly to a table of wizards who all looked as though they had been born no later than the nineteenth century. Harry attempted to hurry by without attracting any attention, but unfortunately tripped on the leg of the witch's chair, causing her seat to shoot backwards with a large thump.

"Sorry, Muriel," Harry huffed.

"You presume to address me in such a familiar tone when we have yet to be introduced?" Muriel shouted, turning to address him, her eyes widening just slightly as she took in the messy black hair and lightning-shaped scar. She seemed to take it in stride, however, as she continued to address him. "I care not a whit whether or not you're Harry Potter. I'm a hundred and nine and shall be spoken to accordingly."

"Er-" Harry said, for he had forgotten that he had been disguised as an imaginary Weasley cousin, Barny, when he had first met Ron and Ginny's Aunt Muriel. "Yeah, you're right, it's, er, nice to meet-"

"Harry?" a quiet voice cut across. "Could I borrow you for a moment?"

Harry turned and smiled graciously at his rescuer. "Thanks - I mean, sure, Andromeda."

He followed after her without much thought to Muriel, who had resumed talking to the wizards at her table, this time about Rita Skeeter's forthcoming biography of Harry.

"You saved me," Harry told the older witch gratefully.

Andromeda smiled wryly. "I've been at the receiving end of one of Muriel's rants before. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."

Harry took a moment to wonder when Muriel and Andromeda might have crossed paths before tonight, but saw that Andromeda had led him to a table quite near the dance floor. She looked out across the sea of guests.

"A young French girl took quite an interest in Teddy and scooped him up to play," she said, a hint of worry in her voice. "I was keeping an eye on him, but I had to use the lavatory. I do hope he's alright."

"I'm sure he'll be fine," Harry said, though he, too, found himself looking for Teddy amongst the crowd of dancers. He and Andromeda watched the floor silently for a moment.

"Perhaps you'll be next?" she asked, nodding in the direction of Ron and Hermione in the center of the dance floor. Ron kept stumbling and Hermione, her face a deep crimson, was making more of an effort to keep him upright than do any actual dancing.

"What do you know?" Harry asked her with a chuckle.

Andromeda gave one of her wonderfully baying laughs. "Only what I see," she admitted. "But all evening I've been watching you stare rather openly at your friend's little sister, the one I met in Diagon Alley last year. She does look lovely in purple."

Harry blushed, but inclined his head in respect to her observation. "She does," he agreed.

"Do her parents know about your attachment?" she wondered, taking a sip from her champagne flute.

Harry thought for a moment. "It's been going on for awhile," he said. "They may. We don't discuss it much with the others, though."

"A secret romance?" Andromeda pushed.

Harry shook his head. "It took us awhile to sort ourselves out, so we kept everything quiet at first… and now… I mean, we don't want to steal Ron and Hermione's thunder… there's not been a good time to bring it up, I suppose. I've known them all for ages, and they've been the closest thing I have to family. I can't imagine saying, 'By the way, Bill, I've been involved with Ginny for two years now,' over tea one day."

"I'm sure they know more than they let on," Andromeda mused. Harry glanced at her again. She looked more relaxed, having finally located Teddy, who was was trotting around the dancefloor, laughing and waving his arms while followed closely by Fleur's younger sister, Gabrielle. Harry cleared his throat.

"I - er, I had something I actually wanted to discuss with you," he said, feeling a moment of anxiety wash over him.

"Yes?" Andromeda asked. Harry shifted his gaze to the ground.

"Well… Ron and Hermione have got a house now, close to here, so they're leaving our flat in London. I was thinking I might turn the empty bedroom into a place for Teddy. I could get everything new… toys and books and all of that… and maybe he could start having overnights with me." Harry looked back at Andromeda hopefully.

She regarded him for a moment, taking another drink from her champagne flute. The silence hovered awkwardly between them as she lowered her glass.

"There is a group for the spouses of Muggle-borns killed during the war," she said. "They meet on Tuesdays at eight o'clock… quite late when one is raising a child."

Harry grinned, his venture to find the photographer long forgotten. "Tuesdays are good for me," he said happily, glancing across the dance floor. Teddy had torn the sash off of Gabrielle's dress, and she looked close to tears as he held it happily over his head.

Ron and Hermione had been sent off on their honeymoon; a two week trip to the south of France paid for by the bride's parents. The guests had left; some off to the Leaky Cauldron for another drink, generously supplied by apprentice landlady Hannah Abbott, while most of the Weasleys had retreated to their living room to toast the happy couple and listen to a Celestina Warbeck special that Mrs. Weasley was greatly anticipating, even in light of the recent nuptials.

Harry and Ginny remained, ostensibly to help direct the waiters and caterers in the process of cleaning up from the event, but now they were sitting easily in the gilded chairs, each nursing a beer as they watched the band pack up their instruments.

"I'm happy for them," Ginny said softly. "I think… I don't know what I think. I want to judge Ron for the cliché of it. Near-death experience followed by proposal, the whole deal, but I think I understand it. We're young… but we're not."

"I can't remember ever really feeling like a kid," Harry admitted. "I've been thinking about, you know, if I ever have a family, I'll want to make dead sure that my kids have the most normal lives imaginable. No secrets, no Dark magic, no need to restructure an entire society. Just Quidditch and Exploding Snap and Chocolate Frogs."

He turned to see Ginny smiling kindly at him.

"Oh, Harry," she said with a giggle. "All of that will be completely out of your control, you know."

Harry shrugged. "I suppose. I've just been thinking about it a lot lately."

"Having children?" Ginny asked, a note of surprise in her voice.

"Yeah. Not now, obviously, not for a long while, but one day. I just think it would be nice to actually have living, flesh-and-blood family for once. Apart from the Muggles, I mean."

Ginny gave him another appraising stare before settling more comfortably in her seat.

"Okay," she said. Harry stretched beside her, placing a hand on her knee and relaxing back. Nighttime had somewhat cooled the oppressive August heat, but Harry was torn between wanting to stay with Ginny here forever and going back to the house to change out of his robes.

"Do you really have to leave for training on Monday?" he asked her.

"I really do," she replied.

"Will you dance with me?" he murmured, gesturing towards the empty floor.

Ginny smiled. "You don't dance. I remember watching you during the Yule Ball."

"That," Harry said pointedly, "was a long time ago." And with a smile he reached out his hand to her.

She took it, setting down her beer bottle, and he guided her past the empty tables to the center of the marquee, where he pulled her into him. They began to sway to the sounds of crickets and calm night winds that moved through the grasses around the home. He felt awkward at first, but remembered that there was only Ginny here, and that though she would likely always tease him, she loved him and wanted to be close to him, now and always.

"You didn't dance at Bill's wedding, either," Ginny said, leaning into his shoulder.

"Well, there was only one person I would've wanted to dance with then," Harry mused. "And her brother had instructed me very specifically to steer clear of her."

Ginny pulled back from him for a moment, eyes wide. "You never told me that!"

"Didn't I?" Harry asked, looking down at her. "After he walked in on us kissing on my birthday, Ron told me not to 'mess you around' anymore."

Ginny looked thoughtful for a moment but then her posture relaxed. "Stupid git," she muttered under her breath. Harry was silent.

They danced quietly for a few more minutes before Ginny spoke again.

"Do you remember when Ron told you to ask me to the Yule Ball?" she wondered. "But I'd already agreed to go with Neville?"

Harry closed his eyes and pressed his cheek against her skull. "Vaguely?" he replied honestly. "I definitely remember not being able to find anyone to go with me, and that you were there."

Ginny snorted. "I was so angry at myself," she admitted. "I stormed off to an empty classroom and set about twenty tapestries on fire for missing the chance to go out with you."

"Really?" Harry asked. He was truly struggling to ever remember Ron suggesting that he go to the ball with Ginny. Perhaps Ron had never been as put-out with Harry dating his sister as he had always implied.

Ginny nodded into his chest.

"You could've told Neville your plans had changed," Harry said, looking down at her. "Ron and I would've done the same to Parvati and Padma if Fleur and Cho had suddenly become available."

"Ron, maybe," Ginny said with a snort. "I don't know about you though. Your weak spot for Cho Chang has always been one of your least-redeeming features, but I don't believe you'd've really left Parvati in the lurch. You're better than that."

Harry decided to take the compliment, knowing full-well if Cho had decided he'd been a more worthy date than Cedric Diggory he would've left Parvati without second thought. But Ginny was so good, and loyal, he knew exactly why she'd still gone with Neville, and loved her for it. It seemed a hundred years ago now, though it would only be five years that winter. He was suddenly overwhelmed with how far behind him his childhood truly was.

As if reading his thoughts, Ginny spoke quietly.

"Are you afraid?" she asked.


"Of the future."

Harry thought about this for a moment, considering his words carefully before he answered. He had thought, after the Battle, that facing death would be the most difficult thing he'd ever do. But Dumbledore was right, had always been right; there were many worse things than one's own death, and Harry had little desire to confront any of them right now, or in the near future. But afraid? Afraid, with Ron and Hermione married, with Teddy Lupin happy and healthy, with Ginny Weasley, flesh and blood and a beating heart, clutched in his arms at this moment?

"No," he said slowly. "I'm not. I think - I think I made the mistake of thinking everything would be easy, after Voldemort; that the war itself was the difficult part. I mean, it was, but this aftermath has been anything but great. But… I don't know, Ginny, just because my life isn't easy doesn't mean it has to be difficult, either."

Ginny gazed up at him expectantly. Harry took a deep breath before continuing.

"There's no prophecy, no Dark Lord dogging my footsteps everywhere I turn. Fate will lead where it will, and when it's time for the end, it's time for the end. But… I still worry. I worry about you getting hurt all the time, and Ron and Hermione, too. I think that fear is inevitable, even if Rowle and the Lestranges weren't on the loose."

Ginny didn't say anything for a moment, but sighed instead, looking out from under the roof of the marquee and biting her lip.

"I worry about you, too," she admitted. "I wouldn't have you any other way, Harry. I love that you'll never be content to be idle, that you will always need to fight for what is good… but after everything that happened during the war, after seeing you in Hagrid's arms… I don't want you to think that because I've accepted who you are means that I'm happy about it."

Harry smirked. "That's really good to know, actually, because the last time I was stuck in the woods with Killing Curses whizzing over my head, all I could think was 'I bet Ginny's really pleased about this.'"

Ginny pressed her face closer to his chest. "Don't joke," she said.

"Oi," Harry said gently. "Look at me."

She turned towards him, reaching a hand up to smooth down some of the rogue hairs sticking out of his head.

"I'm not going anywhere," he said.

"Neither am I," she said, jutting out her chin defiantly, and Harry took this as his cue to lift her face to his and gently press his lips to hers as they continued to twirl around the dancefloor.

It seemed as though they'd been linked like this for hours when suddenly a great burst of cacophonous sound erupted from all around them. Harry jumped, as he always did at loud noises, with his hand flying to his wand, pushing Ginny protectively behind him as he turned, ready to face whatever terror was sure to find him, here in this place that he felt most safe.

But he quickly realized that what he feared was nothing that could be confronted with a wand, as the sound that had started him so thoroughly was the applause of all the Weasleys (sans Ron and Hermione) and Angelina Johnson, who were standing at the far end of the dance floor laughing at the young couple and holding several bottles of champagne.

"We were going to have a nightcap," Charlie called good-naturedly, lifting up a bottle of champagne in offering. "George said we should make sure to find you for the toast, but I'd reckon we've gotten a bit more than we bargained for."

Mrs. Weasley looked at her middle child, wide-eyed. "George! Did you know we'd find them like this?"

George flashed a gleeful smile. "I'd hoped they'd be in a greater state of undress, actually. But this will have to do."

"George!" Mr. Weasley warned, turning quite red. Harry found himself suddenly wishing he had chosen to board that train at King's Cross last year when Dumbledore had given him the chance.

Ginny stuck her head out from behind Harry's shoulder to glare at George. "I can't believe you!" she spat. "I didn't tell anyone about you and Amélie and Dad's Firewhisky!"

Fleur's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Amélie?" she wondered. "My cousin?" And then the blue orbs widened in sudden understanding. "Tu es l'homme qui a vomi sur ma cousine et lui a dit que tu t'appelles Abelard?"

George gazed innocently at Fleur, whose face had changed into an expression quite frightening at this point, practically spitting as she gesticulated wildly and continued to shout. "Je savais qu'il n'y avait personne appelé "Abelard" à mon mariage! Tu as ruiné sa robe!" Bill tactfully led her away before she could say any more, and they all listened in silence for a few moments as her fading voice continued to berate George in French.

"Well," George said. "Thanks for that, Ginny. But really, it should be you who's thanking me."

"How do you figure that one?" Ginny asked contemptuously.

"Everyone knows now," George said. "And you didn't have to awkwardly worry about how to tell us all that you're back together-"

"Back together?" Mrs. Weasley exclaimed, her voice a bit weak.

George ignored his mother and continued. "And you didn't have to worry about everyone talking about you behind your backs, speculating about what the two of you are up to. And now you can just be together, without worrying about what anyone will think. It's bloody brilliant."

For the first time, Harry really looked at Angelina, who was smiling just a bit more widely than the rest of the family assembled around the dance floor. Beside him, Ginny relaxed, humbled.

"Well, yeah, I suppose you're right," she muttered in a rare moment of defeat.

Percy immediately seized the chance to deflect the awkwardness of the situation by raising his champagne flute. Angelina turned to beam at George. He grabbed her hand and brought it to his lips.

"Ron and Hermione," Percy said. "Ad multos annos!"

"Ad multos annos," Harry murmured, bringing his glass to his lips.

Back to index

Chapter 9: Chapter 9 - Time Is On My Side

Author's Notes: Well, I’m trying something new. Instead of churning out one monster chapter every six weeks, I’m going to attempt to put out more frequent updates that are slightly less substantial. I’m worried that my characterization of Ginny might be a bit too cruel, IDK, I struggle with conveying sarcastic humor that isn’t downright nasty. I’m also really, REALLY, terrible to all of my brothers so I probably shouldn’t take so much inspiration from my own life. Whatever. I can’t do anything right!!!

The eaves over the Burrow's front door were covered in a fluffy layer of snow as Harry, Ron, and Hermione made their way up the walk. The gnomes that normally occupied the front garden were nowhere to be seen, perhaps hiding from the cold, and it made the house seem rather lonely as the trio reached the step.

It was quiet still, even accounting for the lack of gnomes. Lights were burning in the windows, but no sound could be heard from within.

"Perhaps we're the first to arrive?" Ron said gently, taking Hermione's hand and pushing through the door. The Ministry offices had closed for the Christmas holiday that afternoon, and Harry, Ron and Hermione had decided to Apparate from work to the Burrow together. Christmas had fallen on a Saturday that year, forcing them all to work on the twenty-fourth, so the family was congregating at Arthur and Molly's for a week of celebration beginning Christmas Eve and lasting through the New Year, the first time they had all been together since Ron and Hermione's wedding.

Harry was itching to see Ginny as they marched across the threshold, stomping snow off their boots before vanishing it away. Her schedule had been madness for the last few months, and though they spent plenty of time together on the weekends, it would be lovely to have some quiet moments just to themselves over the holiday. Harry had even found himself secretly wishing that the Harpies didn't make it too far into the playoffs, so Ginny's season would be over by early spring, though he had tried to quickly banish such selfish thoughts immediately from his head. He found himself desperately envious of Ron and Hermione and their private little cottage over the hills.

They were no sooner in the living room than there was a great commotion from above as Ginny flew down the stairs in a tornado of hair and limbs. She flung herself into Harry's arms, crushing her body against his, but before he had time to reciprocate she had pulled away again to face Ron and Hermione, hurriedly kissing each on the cheek.

"Thank fucking Merlin you're here," she said in a rush. "It's just been me since last night and Mum's driving me absolutely mental."

"What's happened?" Hermione said, unwinding her scarf and hanging it on the coat rack.

"Oh, the usual, cooking, cleaning, barking orders at me like she's le Fey herself. She's gone and put us all in separate rooms, of course, so I'm with Angelina for the week, and you've a camp bed set up in-"

"Please say George's room," Harry interrupted, the panic evident in his voice.

Ginny gave a wicked grin. "Percy's room. Charlie's in with George so Bill and Fleur can have privacy, and Fred and George's room is still too full of wheezes to have more than two people."

Harry groaned audibly as Ron gave a gleeful laugh.

"Well," he said, grabbing Hermione's hand and ignoring Harry's particularly rude gesture. "Let's go settle in, Hermione."

Hermione made an apologetic face at Harry as Ron dragged her up the stairs. Harry turned back to Ginny, smiling sweetly at him.

"Marry me," Harry declared desperately. "We'll be in the same room if we're engaged."

"Ah, every witch's dream," Ginny sighed in falsetto. "Her boyfriend proposing so he doesn't have to spend Christmas sharing a room with her older brother! How romantic. Anyways, it's not likely," she finished happily. "Bill and Fleur were separated until the moment they exchanged rings, and I can't pretend I'm not going to enjoy you getting a week's worth of lectures on broomstick regulation. It's probably the best gift I'll get this year."

Harry must've looked ready to pull his hair out, for Ginny stepped closer to him and placed both hands on his shoulders, standing on her tiptoes and placing her lips gently on his. He sank into her embrace.

"I missed you," she said, pulling away.

"And yet you torture me," Harry said, giving her a small smile.

"There's just not much to do around here," Ginny teased. "I get bored."

"I can think of a few things to do," Harry said, kissing her again, opening his lips and feeling the intensity build into-

"Harry!" a cry came from behind him, and Harry jumped back as though struck, turning just in time to see Mrs. Weasley come around the corner from the kitchen, wearing a frayed apron that was dusted over in flour.

"Oh, dear, it's so good to see you," she cried, running forward and bringing him into a great hug. "We missed you so last Christmas."

Harry squeezed her back tightly. He hadn't realized, until it had partially lifted, the effect that Molly's grief had on him. She was still a bit more reserved and a bit less warm than Harry had known her to be during his adolescence, but Ron's recovery and marriage had thankfully put some of the spark back in her.

"Has Ginny told you you're in with Percy? It's going to be a bit tight this year, with everyone in the house, and Angelina come to stay as well! And I've finally convinced Charlie to come for Christmas- it's been years - but we're so excited about Angelina. She and George do seem quite serious… perhaps there will be another wedding next year! Wouldn't that be wonderful?"

"It would," Harry said kindly, nodding along to Mrs. Weasley's barrage of information as she led him into the kitchen and pushed him into a chair, declaring him far too skinny.

Bread and butter were set forth on the table, and Ginny sat beside Harry as they chatted with Mrs. Weasley about Ginny's new team-mate and roommate in Holyhead, Sinéad, who apparently enjoyed celebrating the Harpies victories in their flat with copious amounts of both Firewhisky and male company.

The Christmas feast slowly came together as Ginny entertained Harry and her mother with tales of Sinéad's antics, and they were joined in the kitchen by Ron and Hermione, smoothing their hair and adjusting clothing unconvincingly. Harry couldn't imagine ever being so indiscreet, or indeed, so unable to control his own urges, but perhaps marriage changed things for a couple.

Various members of the Weasley family began stomping in through the front door, brushing snow off their shoulders and calling out Christmas tidings. Mr. Weasley appeared from the Ministry first, arms laden with wine and spirits, followed by Bill and Fleur, both sporting thick scarves and sweaters, their cheeks flushed with a mixture of cold and excitement.

"I think that's all of it," Mrs. Weasley announced to the kitchen at large, surveying the various trays and platters laid across the table. "Why don't we have a drink while we wait for the others to arrive, and then we can eat?"

Everyone nodded in assent, pushing themselves up from the table and making their way into the sitting room. Fleur groaned audibly as Mrs. Weasley made a beeline for the wireless, no doubt anticipating another Celestina Warbeck Christmas Eve special. Harry couldn't help but find himself sharing in her sentiments.

They all settled themselves in comfortably, with Harry and Ginny sharing the sofa with Charlie, who'd appeared during their migration, sporting a few new burn scars and what appeared to be a great claw-mark across his temple since Harry'd last seen him at Ron and Hermione's wedding.

As the croons of Celestina began to warble out of the old wireless, Harry stretched and arm round Ginny's shoulder found himself silently thanking George. Ginny's brother had been right; it was far easier to be around the Weasleys now that their great secret was out in the open, and the family seemed far less displeased about his and Ginny's involvement than Harry had thought they'd be. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had warmed up to the idea quite quickly, and treated him no differently than when he had simply been Ron's best friend.

Ginny smiled up at Harry and leaned into him a bit, bringing her legs up onto the sofa and curling up like a cat. The door flung open yet again to reveal George and Angelina, arms laden with presents and grinning widely at the group assembled around the fire.

"Happy Christmas," they called in unison, and there was a roar of welcome at their appearance. Harry couldn't remember the last time he was happier as he gazed around at Ron's family, assembled in front of him. They'd kept it quiet that year, only inviting the immediate family, and Harry preferred this to an extent. Fred's absence was still a gaping hole in any gathering, but this felt more like an old stay at the Burrow than any recent holiday they'd had. Harry and Ginny had plans to stop by Andromeda's tomorrow for dinner and presents with Teddy, who was growing faster than Harry would ever care to admit.

"When are we eating?" George called as he and Angelina deposited presents under the tree, which Harry suddenly noted had a gold-painted gnome stuck to the top of it.

"How long did it take you to find that one?" he asked Ginny in a mutter, at the same time that Mrs. Weasley answered George, "We're only waiting on Percy."

"Bloody ages," Ginny answered. "They've all wandered under the house where it's warmer. But this one was hiding in the exhaust pipe of Sirius' old motorbike."

"Blimey," Harry wondered. "Does your dad still have that?"

Ginny nodded, just as there was a loud rapp at the door.

"Who could that be?" Mrs. Weasley wondered.

Ron, nearest to the door, opened it up wearily, hand fingering his jean's pocket, as though half-expecting Thorfinn Rowle to have made a surprise appearance for Christmas Eve dinner. His stance visibly relaxed as the mysterious knocker came into view, and he turned back to the sitting room with an air of annoyance.

"It's just Percy, the stupid prat," he said angrily, leaving Percy standing on the threshold as he returned to the armchair he'd been cozily sharing with Hermione. "Knocking at his own home on Christmas Eve and scaring the ."

Percy flushed red in irritation, moving forward as though to object to Ron's statement, but in doing so revealed a second person standing behind him, a young blonde woman in a wool overcoat. Harry first registered that she looked rather posh, but that was before noting that she'd arrived in Muggle clothes.

"Percy!" Mrs. Weasley exclaimed weakly, making for the door. "Have you brought someone for a Christmas surprise? Oh, what fun! Come introduce us to your friend!" Harry could practically see Mrs. Weasley's head spinning as she attempted to determine where on Earth she would fit this new person.

"Er- well, yes, I have," Percy said awkwardly. "But she's not exactly my friend - I, er, could I explain this to you all inside?"

"Of course, son," Mr. Weasley said warmly, stepping back to allow Percy and his companion to enter the house. Harry noticed that this young woman looked, for lack of a better word, terrified, as she took in the sitting room; the knitting working on itself in the corner, Mrs. Weasley's fantastic clock, and the deck of playing cards shuffling themselves between Angelina and Charlie.

With a jolt of realization Harry turned to look at Ginny, who was staring at him, eyes wide.

"No," she mouthed, but she could hardly stop the slow smile spreading across her face.

Harry shook his head, but his own mouth was twitching. Percy had led his companion to the settee and they sat down together. The family that wasn't already stationed around the room gathered around the new couple, with expressions ranging from excited, to confused, to positively anxious.

"Er-," Percy said again, looking towards his companion. She shook her head briefly, before turning back to gaze at some of the moving photographs on the walls.

"Well, er, Mum, Dad, everybody," Percy said, looking around the room quickly. "This is Audrey. Audrey Bland."

Ginny sucked in her breath and looked at Harry with her eyebrows raised. He could tell that this was all becoming far too much for her. He couldn't deny that Audrey's surname was unfortunate. George, like Ginny, seemed to be going a bit red in the face trying to hold his tongue.

Audrey looked around at the others with an expression as though she thought one of them likely to bite her.

"Hello, dear. It's so lovely to have you," Mrs. Weasley said robotically, seeming to notice this. Audrey made no reply. Ginny grabbed Harry's arm rather hard, her brows now at risk of disappearing completely beneath her hairline.

"Get a grip on yourself, Weasley," Harry muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

"Mum's going to have a cow," Ginny whispered back gleefully.

Percy continued. "I've, um, well, I've brought her for Christmas because we've been seeing each other, actually, and quite seriously. Last week, well… last week she agreed to marry me."

"An actual cow," Ginny finished in the same dramatic whisper.

Mrs. Weasley gave a great start at Percy's revelation. "What?!" she cried, clutching at her heart.

Mr. Weasley looked just as taken aback, but seemed to collect himself faster than his wife. "Congratulations, son," he said quietly, and Harry could see the dawning of recognition alight his eyes.

Not one of Percy's brothers spoke. Harry and Ginny themselves remained silent, bracing themselves for what they were sure was coming next.

Mr. Weasley seemed to have quickly harkened onto what was going on. "Is there a… a reason, Percy, that you haven't brought Audrey to meet us sooner?" he asked hesitantly.

Percy visibly sank back with relief at his father's careful prompt. "Er, yes," he said. "Yes, well, I couldn't actually introduce you all to Audrey until she agreed to marry me because she's not… she's not like us. She's not, er, magic."

Excepting the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry didn't think he'd ever seen Percy so without pomp. It made him far more easy to be sympathetic towards, Harry thought, as the rest of Weasleys gaped in stunned silence. Ginny finally let her gleeful smile show, but it seemed to be genuinely kind. Harry supposed she was simply happy that there had been a big surprise to liven up Christmas dinner.

"Congratulations!" she said. "I'm Ginny, Percy's sister."

Audrey still said nothing, looking rather dazed, as though Percy's revelation was a shock to her too. Harry wondered whether she had been expecting the entire situation to be some elaborate prank until she saw the Weasley's house. Harry remembered when he'd first learned of the existence of this magical world; how miserable his life had been that he'd have accepted nearly any reality that got him as far from the Dursleys as possible. Audrey, he thought as he glanced her over, seemed perfectly normal, and this was probably quite the blow to her worldview.

Hermione followed Ginny's lead, smiling at Audrey and stepping up from her spot on the arm of Ron's chair.

"I'm Hermione," she said. "I'm married to Percy's brother, Ron."

"Perhaps we should all introduce ourselves," Mrs. Weasley said weakly, her hand still hovering over her chest.

"Yes, wonderful idea, Mother," Percy said, regaining some of his composure. He took Audrey's hand, and Harry noticed that at his touch she gained back a little color.

"Audrey, these are my parents, Arthur and Molly," he said, gesturing to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, who were standing in the middle of the sitting room. "My older brothers, Bill and Charlie," Bill held up a hand in hello and Charlie asked, "Alright?"

"Bill's wife, Fleur."

Fleur smiled and tossed her hair over her shoulder from her rocking chair.

"My brother, George, and his girlfriend, Angelina, and my brother Ron, Hermione's introduced herself already, as has Ginny. And that's Harry."

Harry gave Audrey a small wave, assuming that Percy didn't know whether to identify him as Ron's friend or Ginny's boyfriend. Sometimes Harry himself wasn't sure which label fit best.

"How did you meet?" Angelina asked with a genuine interest. Percy, clearly recovering from the awkward introductions, threw his chest out importantly.

"Well, you all know that Kingsley's asked me to work alongside the Muggle Prime Minister, even though this is traditionally a role reserved for our Minister of Magic, himself?" Percy asked the room at large. Everyone nodded, having been apprised of this fact at least three or four times since Percy's appointment.

"Yes, well, Audrey works in the office of the PM's wife," Percy said. "We met at Downing Street."

Hermione lit up. "Oh, Cherie Booth? Are you a barrister?"

"You know her?" Audrey spoke for the first time, looking up at Hermione in surprise. "I'm a publicist."

"A publicist?" Mr. Weasley said excitedly. "What an interesting word."

"Er, yes," Audrey replied.

"Hermione's parents are Muggles," Ron told Audrey. "She still pays attention to their news."

"Well, since you pay attention to no news, it's probably best that I take in a bit extra," Hermione retorted. Harry rolled his eyes.

"I pay attention to the news," Ron said.

"Who was elected to the Wizengamot last week?" Hermione prompted.

"Probably some old warlock, how should I know?" Ron said. "I pay attention to the news that matters!"

"The Wizengamot does matter, Ron," Hermione replied, exasperation clear in her voice. "You should know this, you work for the Ministry-"

"Why don't we eat?" Mrs. Weasley suggested. "Now that Percy's here, I mean."

The family mumbled in agreement, and they made their way from the sitting room back into the kitchen, Harry feeling the joys of the holiday season radiate through his body as he spotted a dish of treacle tart.

The family took their seats, and drink was poured liberally as conversation flowed freely, the effects of Percy's announcement being dulled by the wine.

With most of the family being employed by the Ministry at this point, the main discussion centered around Kingsley's job as Minister of Magic, and the continued hunt for the Lestranges and Thorfinn Rowle.

As Harry had predicted on the day of Ron's attack, Neville, Ernie, and Padma had been unable to hold Rowle and the Snatchers long enough for Ministry backup to arrive, and the Auror Department was effectively back to square one when it came to tracking down the rogue Death Eaters.

"Are we allowed to ask about Rowle?" Charlie asked Harry amiably, though there was a hard note to his voice. Harry felt Ginny stiffen slightly beside him.

"I couldn't tell you anything about him even if I wanted to," Harry replied, dejectedly pushing a pea across his plate. "The Lestranges have gone completely off the map, and there have been several unreliable sightings of Rowle since Ron's attack. But actual, reliable leads? None."

Charlie looked troubled for a moment, then shrugged.

Mr. Weasley, listening to their conversation, leaned conspiratorially across the table.

"I don't want you boys to get yourself too down about this. It was the same way when the first war ended. I'd just started at the Ministry, and we had stragglers and hold-outs until the mid-eighties. I'd wait until the summer when the trials start before you really start to work yourselves up. When the captured Death Eaters go before the Wizengamot, I'm sure they'll be willing to give up some of the old cronies."

Harry nodded, trying to look convinced. He thought Mr. Weasley was being particularly forgiving of the Auror Department's lack of success, given that his youngest son's life was nearly the price for Harry's impulsivity. Ron had returned to work in September after returning from his honeymoon, throwing himself even further into the hunt for Rowle. Neville was still eager to find the Lestranges, but it had been nearly eight months since their attack in Hogsmeade village.

Still, Harry and Ron had been making a conscious effort to keep themselves from concentrating too hard on work, when there was so much to appreciate in their home lives. Harry watched from across the table as Ron leaned forward and whispered into Hermione's ear. She turned slightly pink and swatted his arm before turning away to look at Bill, who was struggling to gain everyone's attention from the far end of the table. More and more heads turned, until finally, it was only Percy speaking, still loudly explaining the rules of Quidditch to Audrey as Ginny looked on with an amused expression.

Finally, Bill cleared his throat loudly, and Percy quieted down. Everyone looked on expectantly as the eldest brother of the Weasley family turned uncharacteristically red. Fleur smiled at him, and Ginny suddenly gave a great gasp of realization and gripped at Harry's hand under the table.

Bill grinned down at his wife, clearly bolstered by her presence.

"We've some exciting news to share as well, though Percy's gone and stolen some of our thunder," he said with a smile, and Fleur looked around at the rest of them.

"We're expecting a baby," she said happily, and the table erupted in cries of delight, congratulations, and, from Mrs. Weasley, great, heaving sobs.

A toast was quickly arranged, with glasses of mead being passed around the table, save Fleur, of course. Audrey accepted hers hungrily, and Harry felt a moment of pity for the Muggle woman, remembering his introduction to the Wizarding world. He, at least, had been a member of the community that he was so quickly thrust into.

It was funny to imagine Bill and Fleur as parents, but part of Harry was surprised that they'd waited even this long to start their family. Ginny, always particularly close to her eldest brother, was beaming as she leaned towards the couple. Harry smiled easily, remembering the days when she had been far less keen on her brother's choice in spouse.

"When are you due?" she asked her sister-in-law excitedly.

"The end of April," Fleur said, looking at her midsection. "My midwife thinks the twenty-eighth."

"So soon?" Mrs. Weasley asked, dabbing at her eyes with a corner of the tablecloth.

"Fleur was twelve weeks at the beginning of November," Bill explained, and though Harry had little idea of what exactly Fleur was twelve weeks of, the women at the table all seemed to be nodding in understanding. "We were going to write you all then, but then we thought it may be more exciting to wait until we were all together again."

"Who is your midwife?" Mrs. Weasley demanded, and she and Fleur began talking excitedly amongst themselves, while small conversations broke around around the rest of the table. Ginny's hand made its way into Harry's, and she rested her head quietly on his shoulder. Harry's trained ear caught wind of continued discussions of Ministry business, attempts to strike up conversation with the quietly overwhelmed Audrey, and a barrage of questions being directed at Fleur over her and Bill's impending arrival. Yet, Harry could only sit in silence and dread the fast-coming moment when the plates would be cleared and he and Ginny would be forced to retire separately.

As if reading Harry's mind, Ron's elder brother piped up from the end of the table.

"Mum?" Charlie asked. "You've not told us, where'll everyone be sleeping?"

"What?" Mrs. Weasley asked distractedly as she cleared away a pie dish.

"Well, now that Percy's fiancée will be joining us?" Charlie asked innocently.

Audrey looked up awkwardly from what Harry guessed was her fourth glass of wine.

"Oh," Mrs. Weasley remarked. "Oh, I hadn't actually thought about… well, no matter, she can certainly squeeze in with Ginny and Angelina-"

"Three people in Ginny's room?" George asked. "It's a shoebox. And Audrey doesn't even know Ginny or Angelina. You can hardly expect her to stay with strangers for an entire week."

Realization seemed to have dawned on Audrey's face, and she suddenly threw Percy a very dark look. Though Harry had yet to hear her speak, he privately thought that Audrey must have quite a tough disposition, to date Percy Weasley in the first place, then to accept that he was, in fact, a wizard, to then agree to meet his magical family unannounced for a Christmas holiday, and to finally be told that despite being in a committed relationship in their mid-twenties, they would be disallowed from rooming together.

At the same moment, Mrs. Weasley seemed to catch on to what Charlie was suggesting, looking over to her husband for support. Mr. Weasley seemed suddenly very interested in his eggnog.

"Ginny's room is quite small, Molly," he said quietly. "I'm sure Audrey would be far more comfortable with Percy-"

"Well, that's ridiculous," Mrs. Weasley snapped. "Harry's in with Percy, it's already been decided."

"Well," Charlie said seriously, "I don't mind taking the sofa if Harry wants to bunk with George. Him technically being a guest, and all."

With the reflexes of only a Seeker, Harry noticed George's arm shift surreptitiously in Charlie's direction, who's right side made a similarly jerking movement. Harry suddenly felt sure that if he were to look under the table right now, he'd see Galleon's being passed from the younger brother's hand into the elder's. He placed a hand over his mouth to hide his grin.

Mrs. Weasley looked around the various faces at the table, each carefully guarded not to show too much hope or amusement, respectively. Harry could swear he saw Mr. Weasley's lip twitching.

Mrs. Weasley snatched up the coffee service far too aggressively. "Very well," she muttered. "Very well, Percy's fiancée can stay in his room, and Harry can stay with George. But that is it for the week. I mean it, all of you."

Harry practically expected her to finish by saying, "Off to bed." but she merely deposited the coffee service indelicately in the sink and stomped out of the room.

"Well," Ron said with a yawn. "I think we're off for the evening. Goodnight, all."

Quietly, the rest of them stood up and bid the others a happy Christmas before turning in for the night. Ginny kissed Harry's cheek gently before departing up the stairs with Angelina, and Harry found himself shortly thereafter trudging up to the second floor with George.

George rounded on him as soon as the door shut behind them.

"You'd better have the bloody Cloak with you," George said. "Or you owe me five Galleons."

"How d'you figure that one? Way to capitalize on your brother showing up with a Muggle for Christmas dinner," Harry replied, whipping the shimmering Cloak out of his rucksack.

"What can I say," George answered with a shrug. "I'm a natural businessman. Wait until you hear my parents go up."

For Harry had already swung the Cloak round his shoulders and was making for the door.

"They've gone up already. I heard the third step creak seconds after you shut the door behind us."

George looked at Harry wide-eyed for a moment, before realizing that sneaking around the Burrow was old hat for his friend.

"You're lucky I like you so much," George said with a laugh as Harry lifted the rest of the Cloak on over his head.

"Have a good night," Harry replied, sliding out of the room.

There was only one floor between George's room and Ginny's, and Harry met no one on the landing. He tapped lightly on Ginny's door and it swung open instantly.

A camp bed had been set upon the sliver of floor space Ginny's room had to offer. Angelina sat there with her duffle bag, picking at her fingernails.

"You managed that one quickly," she said in a somewhat bored voice. Harry swung the Cloak off his shoulders and handed it over to to Angelina. She looked up from her fingers and regarded it reverently for a moment before standing and swinging it over her own shoulders, transforming into a disembodied head.

"I always wondered how you lot got into so much trouble at school," she said, looking down at the place where her body should be.

"Bring it back down when you wake in the morning," Harry said. Angelina winked at them both and covered her head, vanishing into the hall. Ginny closed the door behind her.

"Alone at last," she said, wrapping her arms around him as he lifted her gently onto the bed and raised himself above her on his forearms.

"Fucking finally," Harry breathed, kissing her deeply.

The sunlight coming through Ginny's east-facing window woke Harry far earlier than he would've normally preferred on Christmas morning, but he was surprised to see Ginny already conscious and staring at him, tracing the shape of his jaw lightly with her fingers.

"You look like a baby when you sleep," she said. "I absolutely love it."

"A baby?" Harry asked, rubbing his eyes.

"Your mouth hangs open," she said. "After the battle, you would frown in your sleep, your brows all knit together, like this." She closed her eyes and made a distressed face.

"I think I'm happier," Harry said.

"Are you?" Ginny asked.

"I think so," Harry repeated.

Ginny draped an arm across his chest and fit her head into the space between his shoulder and side, pressing her lips to his collarbone.

"Happy Christmas, Harry."

"Happy Christmas, Ginny."

"D'you want your present?"

"Sure," Harry said, stretching his arms tiredly. Ginny sat up from the bed, clutching the quilt to her naked torso as she shivered miserably. She leaned over the side of the bed, reaching into her duffle and bringing out a flat package. Harry suspected it was a book, but when he tore off the paper he was rewarded with a happy photograph of himself and Ginny arm-in-arm at Ron and Hermione's wedding. They were leaning towards the camera and laughing, Harry's arm around Ginny's waist as she balanced a glass of champagne in her hand.

"It's brilliant," Harry said, running a finger along the edge of the glass. He couldn't remember ever looking so happy. "I don't have any photos of us together."

"Is it?" Ginny asked anxiously. "I thought you could keep it in your cubicle at work."

"I love it," Harry said, kissing her. "I love you."

"I love you, too, you muppet," Ginny said, leaning back onto her bed.

"Are you ready for your gift?" Harry asked her.

"Of course," she said, her voice happy with anticipation.

"I don't really have anything here," Harry said. "It's more of a question."

"You cheap bastard," Ginny said, smiling in pretend affront. "Well, go on."

"Well, I was thinking, if you wanted, when your lease is up in Wales, you could move in with me. We could live together."

Ginny's eyes grew wide for a moment, and she looked very, very happy. But, always the actress, she quickly tossed her hair back in her best Fleur impression.

"Into your dingy flat? I'd much prefer the country, but I suppose so," Ginny said, wrinkling her nose before winking at him.

"It's not dingy. It's prime real estate!" Harry said in mock annoyance. "I'll have you know I had to Confund the manager of a hedge-fund to land the place."

"A hedge what?" Ginny asked, Harry's remark completely lost on her.

"Nevermind," he said, running a hand through her lovely, lovely hair. "Really, though? You'll move in?"

"When the season ends," Ginny said, running a hand up his arm and burrowing into his chest for warmth.

"Right," Harry said happily. "I can't wait."

Ginny kissed him sweetly. "Me either. I can't imagine waking up like this every morning."

Harry drew her in closer and felt sleep begin to retake him in her cozy little bed.

"Happy Christmas, Ginny," Harry said again, stretching his toes under her quilt.

"Happy Christmas," she mumbled sleepily, before her eyes shot wide open in surprise. "Hang on, Harry. Was that really my only present?"

Back to index

Chapter 10: Chapter 10 - We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow

Author's Notes: I know, I’m full of crap. I’m sorry for how long it took to update. I love you all, and thank you in advance for any ratings and reviews. You are all fantastic. Chapter titled after the song by Soko.

The Auror Office was buzzing with chatter as Harry stepped off the lift Monday morning. He could hear snippets of conversations: his coworkers mostly discussing how they had passed the week-long Easter Holiday. Harry felt no temptation to stop and join them, though his holiday had been exceptionally enjoyable.

The week had started with Ginny finally moving her things into his flat after the Harpies had failed to qualify for the League's finals. Ginny's spirits were rather low, but Harry's excitement of finally having her in the flat all the time was enough to rouse her from her upset at the defeat.

Further still, Teddy Lupin had come to stay with them on Thursday in a belated celebration of the boy's second birthday. Ginny had spent the day using her wand to adorn his tiny bedroom walls with extremely realistic dragons, which had delighted the toddler to no end.

"I didn't know you were able to draw like that," Harry had complimented.

"Er- yeah," Ginny had replied, the discomfort apparent in her voice.

"What?" Harry had asked.

"Dean Thomas taught me," she had admitted, blushing a bit. "He was always really artistic, making banners and things." She'd laughed at Harry's scowl.

Regardless, it had been a perfect week, and Harry knew he should've felt peaceful and relaxed as he made his way through the office. Yet he flew to his cubicle as quickly as possible, anxious to sift through the memos that had been deposited there over the holiday.

Ron was already sitting at his desk, bent over a report. He glanced up at Harry ask he passed through the cork half-walls of their station.

"Don't get your hopes up," Ron said, turning back to his paper. "There's nothing good from the holiday."

Harry sifted through a few memos sent through from the MACUSA reporting sights of the Lestranges near Miami.

"Florida?" Harry groaned in exasperation, holding a fistful of reports out in front of him. "How am I supposed to know which of these I'm meant to take seriously?".

"Perhaps we'll get a vacation out of it," Padma suggested, entering the cubicle and dumping her rucksack on the desk.

"Yeah, Robards'll definitely give us clearance to visit the sunny beaches after last year," Ron said, stretching back and putting his feet on Padma's chair. She picked up his legs by the ankles and dropped them back to the floor. At his own desk, Harry felt an odd twinge somewhere near his stomach that he was unsure how to identify.

He turned back to the memos on his desk; most of them detailing minor infractions that had been called in during the overnight shift. A small slip of parchment was stuffed amid the purple airplanes, and Harry picked it up eagerly.

It was a note from Bill, bidding him to lunch at the Leaky Cauldron this afternoon. Bill, attempting to secure a more stable life for his wife and unborn child, had decided to accept a management position at Gringotts, making his war-time desk job permanent and putting his Curse-breaking days officially behind him. It seemed, however, that Bill had grown quite bored in his new position, as he frequently solicited time during the workweek from his brothers and Harry.

As Harry scribbled out his reply on a piece of parchment before asking a passing secretary to post it back for him, he had to admit to himself that he didn't mind the new friendship. Bill had always been kind to Harry, and treated him with actual consideration, rather than just the friend of his kid brother, but there was a stark age gap between the two men, and spending time with Bill often made Harry rather anxious, as though he would suddenly be expected to buy a home in Cornwall and have a child in the next few months.

"But I'm his brother!" Ron said crossly, after Harry informed him that he wouldn't be able to listen to the Arrows game with Neville on their lunch break. "He never asks me to lunch!"

"Likely I'm just better company," Harry surmised, reading over a report on Antonin Dolohov, who had attempted to poison his Azkaban guard on Friday evening. "Damn it, I'm going to have to go all the way to Scotland to sort this! How the hell did he get aconite in the middle of the North Sea?"

"What?" Ron said, but Padma looked up from her blinking map.

"Wolfsbane's native to Scotland," she said. "It could grow on the grounds."

Ron chuckled darkly. "What was it you and Kingsley said about more outdoors time being reformative for prisoners?" he asked Harry sarcastically.

Harry groaned and banged his head on the desk.

"Don't be dramatic," Padma said. "I'll go to Azkaban today, but you owe me."

Harry smiled up at her, not lifting his head from the cool surface of the desk. "Thanks," he said.

"Yeah, well, I reckon we all owe you a few favors," she replied, gathering her things and marching out of the cubicle.

Harry sat back at his desk. It was nine now, and he and Ron decided to busy themselves with organizing the various reports of Lestrange and Rowle sightings, looking for patterns in the months since the skirmish in Barrowden. The work was boring and unsatisfying, and Harry found himself counting the minutes until he could go on his break. He never thought being an Auror would involve so much time sitting at a desk, but after a year of being qualified, he'd be surprised if he spent more than the equivalent of a few days actually in the field.

The clock struck twelve-thirty and Harry and Ron stood from their desks.

"I'm sure Bill wouldn't mind if you joined," Harry noted, gathering his things.

"Nah," Ron said. "I'm not about to miss the qualifying match to sit in a pub with you and Bill."

Harry understood Ron's hesitation. The semi-final match between the Tutshill Tornados and the Appleby Arrows would decide which played Puddlemere United in the final for the English National Cup. Harry had been forbidden from even mentioning the season in his flat.

Harry was clear to avoid any information that would clue him into the outcome of today's match as he situated himself comfortably in a booth of the Leaky Cauldron. Within moments, Bill Weasley was sliding himself in beside Harry.

"Glad you could meet me," he said curtly, gazing around the pub with a calculated irreverence.

"Sure," Harry said. Bill seemed odd, almost jittery, if Harry was being honest with himself. It seemed as though he was leaving the conversation entirely in Harry's court.

"It's bound to be any day now?" Harry wondered, knowing that Bill and Fleur's baby was meant to arrive around the holiday.

"Oh," Bill said, seeming genuinely surprised at Harry's comment, as though the birth of his child was far from his head. "Er, yes. Yes, any day now. Fleur says she's beyond ready."

He smiled mildly, and Harry raised his mouth in return.

"I expect you're not allowed to discuss Quidditch," Bill wondered as the barmaid brought Butterbeers to their table. Harry nodded, a smile on his lips.

"Ginny told me she's moved into your flat," Bill continued, smiling again. "Good luck hiding it from our mum."

Harry snorted. "Yeah, well, apparently we're quite fond of doing things on the down-low. And by 'we', I mean Ginny."

Bill laughed. "I made the mistake of showing off my relationship with Fleur in its early days. If I can give you or Ginny any advice, it would be to take the George and Angelina route."

Harry smiled and the two men were quiet for a moment, each taking a sip from their drinks.

"Well," Bill said. "If you can believe it, I asked you here for more than just to talk to you about your relationship with my sister."

"I can't pretend I'm not relieved to hear that," Harry joked, settling back. "I still have forty minutes before I need to be back."

Bill gazed into his tankard for a moment. "I'm unsure of how to best broach the subject," he admitted. "I returned to Gringotts today from the Easter holidays and was confronted with a surprising withdrawal on Friday."

"A withdrawal?" Harry asked. "From a suspicious account?"

Bill shook his head. "No," he said. "That's just it. We'd have notified the Auror Department immediately if it had been a monitored account. But it was the account of Dagmar Rowle and-"

Harry huffed in reply, realization dawning on him. "Don't bother," he cut across. "She's Thorfinn's great-aunt and has been interrogated about six times since the war. We made a huge effort to tie her down on some collusion charge after the war, but she was clean as a whistle."

"She took out a hundred thousand Galleons," Bill said. "She's been banking with us since the forties and closed the entire account. Surely that's-"

"She's within her right to do so," Harry interrupted again. For whatever reason, he felt frustration towards Bill bubble in the pit of his stomach. "Did she present proper identification?"

"She presented her wand for inspection," Bill said. "She was also visually confirmed by one of our desk goblins who has been managing her account for decades."

"I'm not sure I understand what the problem is," Harry said to Bill.

Bill sighed and raised his hand toward Tom, the toothless bartender, who was smiling happily at the pair of them. "There's not much of a problem," Bill said. "Only that I'm concerned the money is somehow making its way to her great-nephew."

"I'm concerned about that, too, but legally I can't make such a conjecture. All I've got from this conversation is that some batty old witch isn't going to continue banking with Gringotts."

"What do you want me to say?" Bill asked. "I thought this would be helpful information."

"It would be," Harry answered, "if we were capable of using it to consider her a suspect in Thorfinn's disappearance. But her banking is confidential information, and she appeared in person and presented her wand, and we're not already monitoring her account, so I can't use her closing her vault as a reason to bring her back in for questioning."

"Well," Bill said, rubbing his hands together. "I figured I should at least let you know."

Harry felt embarrassed for a moment at his own curtness. Bill wasn't trying to get a bit of glory or fancy himself an Auror. He was only trying to be helpful. Harry smiled at the older man and tossed a couple Sickles on the table between them.

"Perhaps Ginny and I could come to Shell Cottage before the baby comes," he said to Bill, standing and gathering his things. "I've been meaning to pay a visit to Dobby's grave."

"Fleur would love that," Bill replied, standing as well. "She's going a bit stir crazy. But if you do, please don't say anything about how big she's gotten."

"I wouldn't dare," Harry laughed, shaking Bill's hand and turning to leave the pub.

He was thoughtful on his walk back to the Ministry, unable to shake the anxious pit in his stomach. He entered his cubicle to find Neville sitting on his desk, a Snitch flying around the room as he spoke to Ron animatedly.

"Harry," Neville said happily. "Alright?"

"Yeah," Harry murmured, his brow creased in upset.

"'Yeah' my arse," Ron said. "How was lunch with Bill?"

Harry explained Bill's revelation to Ron and Neville, who were silent through his description. When he finished Neville cleared his throat.

"It is bizarre," he said, pulling at the neck of his robes. "I'll go see if Ernie's able to grab her file, and we can go over it again, just in case."

Harry nodded, knowing already that they wouldn't find anything.

Ron gave Harry a concerned look. "Are you sure you're alright?" he asked his friend.

"Yeah," Harry said. "I'm just not sure what to do."

"Why don't you just pay her a visit?" Ron said. "Auror business, you know?"

"Because Bill shouldn't have ever told me in the first place. If it was an official communication between Gringotts and our department, that'd be one thing, but I can't just go hammering on some old witch's door saying 'my best mate's brother's gone and told me you've closed your bank account.'"

"Come up with some excuse," Ron said. "Tell Robards you want to pay home visits to all relatives of former Death Eaters, he'll let you."

"A bit old regime, isn't that?" Ernie asked, entering the cubicle with Neville and holding a thin manila folder.

Ron raised a hand in greeting.

"Dagmar Rowle," Ernie read, opening the file. "Pureblood. Born Dagmar Hrolf in Frankfurt, year 1910. Educated at Durmstrang Institute. Emigrated with Mads Hrolf, her brother and Thorfinn's grandfather, to Orkney in 1940, listed her reason for leaving Germany as Grindelwald's presence there. They all changed their names to Rowle in Orkney. She's never been married and has no children."

"If she's Pureblood, why was she fleeing Grindelwald?" Ron wondered. "I thought it was Muggles that bloke was after?"

Ernie shrugged, shutting the file. "That's all we have on her. Interrogation revealed nothing. We brought her into the office for the first time in December of '98 and she complained she hadn't left her cottage since the sixties. She didn't even know she had a great-nephew, let alone that he was a murderous Death Eater."

None of this information made the pit in Harry's stomach feel any better. Ron went back to his report and Ernie and Neville made their way back to their own cubicle. Harry found himself unable to finish any of his tasks, and by the time five o'clock hit, he practically ran out of the office.

This didn't do him much good though, as the moment he got to the lift it opened to reveal Hermione, who smiled brightly over his shoulder. Harry turned to see that Ron was standing just behind him, and with a sinking realization remembered that he and Ginny were hosting his best friends for dinner that night.

"Are you ready?" Hermione asked brightly, beckoning them into the lift. "I figured it would be quickest if we all Flooed."

"Wait until you hear about the day we've had," Ron grumbled, pushing Harry forward.

"Save it for Ginny," Hermione warned. "She's going mental with the season over, some drama will be good for her."

Harry sighed as they reached the Atrium, the trio walking towards the great stone fireplaces. Harry stepped in first, being quickly deposited into his sitting room, where Ginny reached out a hand and yanked him up, brushing soot off his robes.

"Alright?" she asked breathlessly.

"Just you wait," he said, stepping forward as Ron tumbled in after him, quickly followed by Hermione.

"We're having chicken!" Ginny cried happily. "I made it myself, and I bought good wine, too."

Ron and Hermione both smiled in appreciation as Harry went to the bedroom to change out of his robes. It was funny, he thought, how things changed as he got older. In school he craved the company of Ron and Hermione more than anything, but now, as he'd aged, he preferred to spend his evenings in his cozy flat, with only the company of Ginny.

He threw on jeans and a t-shirt and made his way back into the dinner room, where Ginny was setting dishes down on the table. Ron and Hermione murmured their thanks, and Harry couldn't help but smile at how excessively proud Ginny looked at her creation. He sat at the table and scooted forward, pouring himself a generous measure of wine.

Ginny returned to the table bearing beer for herself and Ron, and they all commenced eating their dinner with little fanfare.

"Do you want to tell them about Bill today, or should I?" Ron asked Harry.

Hermione and Ginny dropped their forks in unison.

"Has Fleur had the baby?" they cried simultaneously.

Harry and Ron shook their heads in great haste.

"Bill called me to lunch today with some news from Gringotts," Harry said, and leaned in conspiratorially as he described the conversation to Ginny and Hermione. They both seemed concerned, if not surprised.

"And there's nothing you can do?" Hermione probed.

"There's plenty we can try," Harry said. "I don't see anything doing much good, though."

Ginny's brow furrowed. "That doesn't sound like you at all."

Harry didn't say anything, trying to ignore the ever-gnawing pit in his stomach.

Hermione took a long drink from her wine. The silence nearly became unbearable until Ron spoke.

"What if we went, just us, to scope out the Aunt's house?" he suggested over his beer.

"We could be apprehended for trespassing," Harry reminded him, idly bringing some chicken to his mouth. He looked up to see Ginny gazing at him shrewdly. "We'd need a warrant from Robards first."

"Suddenly you care so much about the rules?" she wondered.

"Look," Harry said, putting down his fork. "The thing in Barrowden was a fucking nightmare. I still can't get Kingsley to look me in the eye and it's been eight months. I'm not trying to single-handedly cause yet another Ministry disaster, alright?"

Ron looked at Ginny with his eyes raised, and Harry could see he was trying not to smile. Hermione frowned. Ginny all but winked back at her brother before letting out a long, deep breath.

"I'd like to go," she said.

"You don't even work for the Ministry," Hermione said. Ginny smiled, shrugging her shoulders.

Harry felt himself suddenly seethe. "Why are you being so cavalier about this?" he asked her sharply. "D'you have any idea how dangerous it could be?"

"I'm not being cavalier," she fired back stoically. "But you've been moaning for months about having no leads and now Bill's gone and given you one."

"Bill's given me nothing!" Harry said. "Bill's given me an old lady withdrawing money from a bank!"

"You used to run off on less," Ginny reminded him.

"Ginny," Hermione said sharply. "It's not easy, after what happened last year."

"Oh, Bludger that," Ron said, standing from his chair. "It's personal with Rowle. I'm tired of the bureaucracy, honestly. I think I'll go, and there's an open invitation to the rest of you lot."

Ginny smiled at her brother and looked to the others.

"Well, there's no time like the present," she said, getting up from her chair. "Are you coming, Harry? Hermione?"

Hermione threw Ron a beseeching look.

"Now? Why?" she asked her husband.

"Because this is what we do," Ron said firmly, looking to Ginny. She turned towards her brother, her hair covering her face so that Harry couldn't see her. When she looked back to him, her hard stare pierced into him.

"You have the best instincts of anyone I've ever known," Ginny said, and something about her frankness made Harry blush. "Do you really believe that all of that money being withdrawn has nothing to do with Rowle?"

Harry felt a moment of anger at being questioned, yet again, but her blazing expression continued to bore into him, and he felt his own gaze become more clear. Of course he found it suspicious; of course he believed it was connected to Rowle. Harry knew he had been trying, without really realizing that he was trying, to play the straight game, to put Rowle out of his head, because it was his impulsivity that had gotten Ron so terribly hurt last summer. But he also knew that Ginny was right, that his sense of when to go running off after the darkest of wizards was almost nearly impeccable.

"I suppose we should go," Harry said. Hermione sighed and looked out the window onto the street below.

Ron smiled, clapping his hands together. "Just like old times," he said.

The sun was setting as the four wizards rematerialized before Kirkwall Harbor. Harry felt Ginny stumble as she appeared on the curb beside him; he reached out to steady her, and then pulled her into a brief embrace.

"Stay close to me," he murmured, entwining their fingers. She nodded into his chest.

"Right," Harry said, looking up to Ron. "Where are we going?"

Ron grabbed a slip of parchment from the depths of his robes and consulted the writing.

"Dagmar Rowle, Victoria Lane," Ron read confidently, depositing the slip back into his pocket. "Let's go."

They traveled down the narrow roads of Kirkwall, all aware of even the slightest sounds or movements. It was hardly eight, and yet most curtains were drawn and they ran into no other people on the street. Harry felt miserable, unable to help being reminded of their trek into Barrowden, which had been utterly boring under his team had suddenly found themselves under attack from every side. He felt Ginny squeeze his hand under his cloak, and he gratefully returned the pressure. He couldn't explain why he felt safer having her present, but he knew that together, nothing would happen to them.

They passed storefronts and homes, the streets becoming smaller as they moved from the harbor. All four jumped as a cat upset a dustbin on the side of the road, but Ron shushed them as he pointed to the street sign above them, indicating they had reached their destination.

Victoria Lane was hardly a roadway, rather more of an alley that was lined on one side by whitewashed cottages and on the other by a chest-high stone wall, behind which was a vast garden, complemented with hanging laundry.

"Quaint," Harry said as Ron walked along the way of the cottages.

"I think this is it," he whispered, reaching a green door. Hermione hurried anxiously to him, standing at his side.

"Lumos," Ginny whispered, raising her wand. The others followed suit.

Gently, Harry raised his hand, tapping quietly at the door. They waited a few moments, but there was no response.

"Try again?" Ginny suggested.

Ron scoffed. "Yeah, right," he said, aiming his wand at the door knob. It unlocked with a click, and Harry opened the door.

The first thing he noticed was the smell. It was like rotting food, perhaps eggs, mixing with feces. Beside him, Hermione retched.

Ginny waved her wand and several handkerchiefs appeared. Each grabbed one out of the air and pressed it to his or her face, and Harry led them forward into the tiny sitting room.

"Someone's definitely croaked in here," Ron said, his voice muffled from the kerchief.

Ginny nodded solemnly, raising her lighted wand so that it shown across the living area. There was a small loveseat and chair positioned in front of a fireplace, a wooden table and chair, and an old-fashioned stove. The room could've been from the eighteenth century, but this wasn't unusual by wizarding standards.

What was unusual was that nearly every surface, including the floor, was covered by books; novels, pamphlets, and encyclopaedias of every variety. They weren't laid out with the careful and yet chaotic nature of an eccentric bookworm, but rather as though they had been shaken out and then thrown across their room when their contents hadn't revealed the desired information.

Ginny stepped around the piles of literature to a small door in the corner that Harry had not noticed. She opened it gingerly, as if the knob would burn her flesh, but her shoulders visibly relaxed as she took in the contents of the next room.

"Harry," she called. "She's - she's here."

Harry knew from Ginny's tone that she had discovered Dagmar Rowle, or whatever was presently left of her.

Hermione reached the doorway first, then Ron, and then Harry. The great wrought iron bed frame bore a body that was clearly in the later stages of decay, for it was badly bloated, and the room was full of flies. Hermione gasped and turned away, and Ron placed a bracing hand on her shoulder.

"How can we be sure that's Dagmar?" Hermione asked.

"I've seen her," Ron said. "I saw her two of the times that they brought her into the office for questioning."

He stepped forward towards the bed, clutching his handkerchief even closer to his nose as he peer into the grotesque face resting on the lace pillow.

"It's her," he confirmed, looking back at them.

"Does she look injured?" Hermione asked.

Harry wasn't concerned much about Dagmar's physical appearance. The moment they entered the house and were confronted with the smell of death, he began to treat the area like a crime scene. Wizarding murders typically left very few clues on the actual body.

"I want to find her wand," Harry mumbled to Ginny. His girlfriend nodded, and set about sifting through all the items scattered across the nightstand and vanity table, opening drawers and cabinets.

"It looks like a Killing Curse," Ron said, stepping back from the body. Besides him, Hermione nodded solemnly.

"Harry," a voice said sharply. Harry turned to see Ginny peering onto the floor of the closet, looking extremely concerned. "Harry, come see this."

Harry moved quickly across the room to stand at Ginny's shoulder, looking down to where she was pointing.

A cauldron sat on the floor of the wardrobe, and its contents were a thick and mud-like potion that was terribly familiar.

"Bill said Dagmar Rowle closed her account on Friday?" Ginny asked.

"Yeah," Harry said uneasily. "Yeah, he did."

"And she presented her wand for inspection?" Hermione questioned.

Ron nodded. Hermione stepped forward to inspect Dagmar's body for a second time.

"Friday was just over three days ago," Hermione said. "I don't know much about the decomposition of corpses, but I doubt Dagmar was living three days ago."

"There's no wand anywhere I can see," Ginny said. "If she died of natural causes wouldn't it likely be around her somewhere?"

"Likely," Ron said.

"Shouldn't we alert the Ministry?" Hermione asked, her voice sounding slightly strangled. "Or at least send a Patronus to Kingsley? This is a murder scene. It's not just checking out the old witch, is it?"

"Hermione's right," Harry said. "Why don't we get Kingsley down here and figure out our next step."

"I'll send the message," Ron said. "Let's get out of this bleeding room, shall we?"

They all nodded in assent, and Ginny led the way from the bedroom back into the sitting room, shutting the door firmly behind them. Ron went out into the garden, ostensibly to send Kingsley a Patronus, though Harry privately suspected he simply wanted to escape the stench of death that permeated the house.

Ginny and Hermione had both busied themselves by rifling through the papers covering every inch of the sitting room, and Hermione held up an old volume curiously to the light cast by Ginny's wand.

"This one was open on the coffee table," Hermione told Harry as he approached. "It hadn't been flung about like the others."

"What's it called?" Harry asked curiously. Hermione stuck a finger onto the open page and flipped the cover of the book over it. Ginny brought her wandlight closer.

"Great Wizarding Families of Scandinavia," Hermione read before flipping the book open again to the marked spot. "It's open to the page on the Rowle family."

Harry looked over her shoulder as she traced her finger down the page.

"Someone's circled all the relatives educated at Durmstrang," he said.

"It seems like most of them," Hermione noted.

"And?" Ginny said, as Ron reentered the house. "I assume most Scandinavian wizards and witches are educated at Durmstrang."

"But why would someone circle it?" Harry wondered.

"Kingsley's on his way," Ron said.

"I want to keep looking around," Hermione said. Harry nodded, setting about picking up other titles and examining them for anything suspicious.

"None of this makes any sense," Harry muttered under his breath. "Why would he leave the place such a mess. He had to know that closing out that account would arouse suspicion."

Ron shook his head. "Kingsley was at Azkaban when my Patronus found him. Apparently the aconite had been added to all of the food and water sources used by the guards; the whole place is a mess. If I had to guess, I'd say that our friend Dolohov was creating some kind of distraction for Rowle to get out."

"So you think he's gone?" Harry asked.

"Well, he's certainly not here," Ron said.

"Harry," Ginny said urgently, her voice far more alert than when she had found the stash of Polyjuice Potion. Harry's heart leapt and he turned towards her again.

"Look at this," she said, holding up a wrinkled envelope. Harry stepped closer to read the address on the front.

Mr. Filen Hornwort

Victoria Lane, Kirkwall


"Filen Hornwort?" Harry asked.

"Probably had a rough time on the schoolyard," Ron said. "Where's it from?"

Ginny flipped the envelope over, her eyes widening. "Irina Sokolova, Headmistress, Durmstrang Institute," she read, looking up at Harry in terror.

"So someone living here was getting mail from Durmstrang?" Harry asked.

"How do you spell Filen Hornwort?" Hermione asked.

Ginny handed her the envelope. She read it intently, before handing it back.

"So why was Filen staying here and getting mail from the Headmistress of Durmstrang?" Ron asked.

"Thorfinn Rowle," Hermione said.

"What?" Ginny asked.

"Thorfinn Rowle," Hermione repeated. "Filen Hornwort and Thorfinn Rowle; both names use the same letters the same number of times."

"What?" Harry said. "Give the envelope here!"

Ginny frowned at his command, but handed the envelope back to him nonetheless. Harry opened it, already knowing it would be empty, turned it over several times.

"Okay," Ron said. "Now we're getting somewhere. Why was Thorfinn Rowle staying here and getting mail from the Headmistress of Durmstrang?"

"Who cares why!" Harry exclaimed. "We need to go, now."

"Go?" Ginny asked. "Go where?"

"Durmstrang," Harry said. "To talk to this Sokolova woman and figure out what the hell she was sending to Filen Hornwort."

"Harry," Hermione began slowly as Ron rolled his eyes. Ginny, however, was smiling.

"Glad to have you back," she said gratefully.

Ron and Hermione ignored her.

"Harry," Hermione began again. "We're meant to be waiting for Kingsley to see what he wants us to do about Dagmar."

"Nevermind that," Harry said. "He's got nearly four days on us. We might actually be able to get him, Hermione. We've got to get to Durmstrang."

Ron frowned. "Someone needs to wait for Kingsley and explain to him what's going on. We don't want another repeat of Barrowden."

Harry nodded, already itching to leave.

"I'll stay," Hermione said. "You three go."

"What!" Ron cried gallantly. "You can't stay here by yourself."

"You and Harry need to go," Hermione said. "You're both trained to deal with this. I'm not. And I can tell by Ginny's face she's not letting Harry go anywhere without her."

"Oh, but you're alright with me going without you?" Ron asked.

"I know you'll be okay," Hermione said confidently.

"I'm staying," Ron said firmly. "Harry and Ginny can go to Durmstrang."

"No," Hermione said. "There's no danger here. I can take care of myself and Kingsley will be here any moment. Go, you lot."

"Hermione-," Ron began.

"Go," Hermione interrupted, swallowing thickly. "Don't you dare let anything happen to him, Harry. I'll be fine here with old stinky."

"Are you trying to make a joke?" Ron asked. Hermione laughed and kissed him.

"Go," she said, breaking away. "I'll join you when I've spoken to Kingsley."

Ron, Harry and Ginny walked from the house and Disapparated with three loud cracks.

It was nearing midnight as Harry, Ron, and Ginny made their way through a winding path towards the great castle of Durmstrang. It was more imposing than Hogwarts, despite being smaller. There were no towers, only great stone walls with small windows. Some had candles lit, and Harry wondered if the students here were studying late into the night for final examinations as he once had.

"I thought this castle was meant to be Unplottable," Ginny said as they made their way closer and closer from the thicket where they had Apparated.

"Luckily," Ron said pompously. "Your beloved older brother is in charge of keeping tabs on all international Dark Arts affiliates. The Institute itself believes it to be Unplottable, but Ministry Intelligence uncovered the location years ago, and it was in my cubicle waiting for me when I started in the office. Some suggested my responsibility wasn't as glamorous as, say, prison reforms," here, he shot a smug sidelong glance at Harry, "but here we are."

"Alright, Percy," Ginny smirked. "Good job blowing intelligence the Ministry's been saving for years."

Ron flushed red, but they were approaching the great doors to the castle now, which swung open in invitation.

Unlike Hogwarts, which often seemed vast and imposing from the outside, but warm and merry within, the Entrance Hall of Durmstrang was like a prison. Candles burned in candelabras hanging from the ceiling, but the walls were devoid of tapestry and the floors had no rugs.

"How do you think we find the Headmistress' office?" Ginny wondered. But they had little time to contemplate that question, for a man in a thick fur coat was approaching them. He was short, with a small pointed beard, and looked startlingly familiar to Harry.

"Hva vil du?" the man asked aggressively, raising his wand at the trio. Harry instinctively pushed Ginny behind him, reaching towards his pocket, but before he could even grasp the thin, holly handle, Ginny's wand was drawn out in front of him.

"We're here to see the Headmistress," she said firmly.

The man's eyes widened in surprise. "English?" he asked.

Ron nodded.

"We were surprised to see you pass through our Concealment Charms," the man admitted in heavily accented English. "I am Poliakoff, groundskeeper here at Durmstrang."

Harry realized suddenly why the man seemed so familiar; he had come to Hogwarts for the Triwizard Tournament when the false Moody had put Harry's name into the Goblet. Harry instinctively smoothed his hair over his scar. Poliakoff caught the motion and his eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"Poliakoff," Harry said. "We are delegates from the British Ministry of Magic. We're here to speak with your Headmistress on a matter of international importance."

Harry thought he sounded rather smooth, but Poliakoff didn't lower his wand.

"Certainly," the groundskeeper said. "If you will follow me."

Ron turned to Harry, raising his eyebrows. This seemed nearly too easy. Harry continued fingering his wand in his pocket as the trio followed Poliakoff down a long corridor.

"I must ask, how did you manage to locate our castle?" Poliakoff asked them. Neither Harry, nor Ron, nor Ginny answered. Poliakoff seemed unperturbed.

They reached a staircase at the end of the long corridor and Poliakoff led them up. They were deposited in a vast hallway, and Ginny gasped audibly at the image that they were confronted with.

The wall before them had the sign of the Deathly Hallows carved into it, reaching from floor to ceiling. Harry froze at the sight, though he was unsurprised. Viktor Krum had told Harry of the existence of this mark years ago. Still, it was an imposing thing to behold, and Harry's mind flashed to Grindelwald. The reason Dagmar Rowle had fled Germany. They were in the northernmost reaches of Norway now. Grindelwald's reach had been vast.

Harry closed his eyes for a moment, as though he had anticipating that his scar would suddenly begin to hurt, but Poliakoff had not noticed the reaction from Harry, Ron, and Ginny. Continuing to walk on, Ron gestured that Harry and Ginny needed to keep up, so Ginny grabbed Harry's hand and pulled him along.

Finally, they reached the end of a particularly long corridor that displayed a great wooden door at its culmination. There was a notice board next to the door with a great list written in a Cyrillic alphabet that Harry couldn't identify.

"Wait here, please," Poliakoff bid them, before opening the door a crack and letting himself into the chamber beyond.

The moment the door shut behind him, Harry turned to the others.

"We're not safe here," he said. "They're far too comfortable with our presence, which means they're not expecting us to leave."

Ron swore quietly, but Harry raised his wand and pointed it at the notice board.

"Revelio," he muttered. The words on the board were quickly transfigured into English.

"He's here," Ginny said excitedly, reading faster than Harry could. "Filen Hornwort, Office 232."

"Let's go," Harry said, yanking out the Invisibility Cloak.

"You're joking," Ron said. "We can't all fit under there."

"You and Ginny then," Harry said. "I'll walk alongside and if anyone says anything I'll pretend I got lost."

"Oh, that makes a load of sense," Ginny whispered. "The most recognizable wizard in the world just happens to be walking around lost inside Durmstrang. You two go under the Cloak and I'll play the fool. People tend to assume women are confused anyways."

They were losing time, and instead of arguing with her, Harry threw the Cloak over himself and Ron.

They made their way down the halls, back the way they had come, with Ginny silently revealing all of the numbers to the classrooms and offices along the way.

"We're heading in the right direction," she mumbled in the direction of the invisible Harry and Ron.

It was late, and thankfully they met no others on their way. Office 232 was located on the building's third floor. They reached it quickly, and Harry pulled the cloak off of himself and Ron.

"Right," Harry said. "What's our plan of action?"

"Walk in and see if he's there," Ron said, cracking his knuckles.

"Great," Harry said, raising his wand and pointing it at the door. Behind him, Ron and Ginny did the same. The knob unlocked with a click.

"Here goes nothing," Harry said.

They walked into the office. The room was devoid of any embellishment, home to only a desk and a chair. A briefcase sat on the desk.

"F. Hornwort," Ron confirmed, moving over to read the label embossed on the front of the bag.

"Look," Ginny said, gesturing to the door in the corner of the room. Harry felt his heart jump. If it was really Rowle, and he was just there, this nightmarish saga could finally be over.

Ron drew his wand high and aimed it at the door. Harry did the same, and Ginny cast the spell that caused it to swing open.

Harry rushed forward and Ron flicked his wand, causing the lamps on the walls to alight. Harry was startlingly reminded of the day of Ron's injury.

The light revealed a bed, and the figure who had moments earlier been asleep sat up quickly.

Thorfinn Rowle reached for his wand on the nightstand, but Harry disarmed him quickly, and Ginny reached up to catch the wand as it hurled towards her boyfriend.

"Fancy seeing you here," Harry said. "Get up."

Rowle had the decency to look shocked for a moment, but quickly set his face with a hard sneer, throwing back the blankets and standing from the bed. He slept in not nighthings but traditional professors robes. It struck Harry as being particularly sinister.

"You've come a long way, Potter," Rowle said.

"You didn't make it particularly difficult to track you down," Harry answered.

Rowle sighed. "No, I suppose I didn't," he admitted. "I committed two years after the war to wreaking as much havoc as possible, but even I got tired of doing so without purpose."

"You were hoping to make a quiet exit?" Ginny wondered. "Come here to lead a simple life teaching Dark Arts to Swedish children."

"I've long admired the philosophy of the Institute," Rowle said. "When I saw the position was open I saw fit to apply."

"You've just given up?" Harry asked. "After two years on the run?"

"I figured I could do more for our mission out of Azkaban than within," Rowle answered, stretching.

"You didn't try to fight until the end?" Ginny asked.

Rowle smiled. It was an ugly sight, reminding Harry somewhat of Umbridge.

"Who says I didn't fight until the end?" he asked.

"You're here now. You were there, in the Forest. We captured everyone who was in the castle when Voldemort died," Harry said, raising his wand and noting Rowle's flinch at his old master's name. It brought Harry a definite satisfaction. "You saw the spell hit me, and you saw me come back. Is that why you ran?"

"I left long before you revealed yourself in the Great Hall," Rowle admitted again, looking nearly reflective for a moment. "When the Longbottom boy killed Nagini. I myself believed that snake, so dear to the Dark Lord, to be indestructible. I knew then that I would make it my imperative to survive the Battle so that I could carry out the Dark Lord's wishes for as long as possible."

"Some would call you a coward," Ron murmured from his place near the door. Harry turned, having nearly forgotten his best friend was even in the cramped bedroom. Ron's expression was unreadable.

Rowle looked unperturbed. "Some would," he agreed quietly. "As I said, I thought it better to remain operative than fight to the death. I believe the effects of my efforts are apparent here, though."

He gestured to Ron as he finished speaking, and a look near excitement crossed his rosy face.

"I imagine the scar must be very long," he said.

Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw Ron stiffen just as his vision clouded over with red. His own hand flew to his wand, ready to blast Rowle into nothingness, but some unforeseen force stopped him. He turned to Ron.

"Do you want to take over?" Harry asked his best friend through gritted teeth.

Ron, who had gone quite pale, merely shook his head, and Harry turned back to the Death Eater.

"You're under arrest," Harry said evenly. "For the murder of Dagmar Rowle, for the murders of the wizards at the memorial unveiling, for the imprisonment, torture, and murder of innumerable Muggles and Muggle-born wizards during the war."

Ron stepped forward. "Incarcerous," he said, aiming his wand at Rowle. Thick cords sprung from Ron's wand, wrapping themselves around Rowle's hands and ankles.

Ron opened his mouth again.

"Hold on," Harry said, looking Rowle in the eye.

"The Azkaban guard?" Harry asked. "Did you set Dolohov up to poison him so you'd have a distraction to run?"

Rowle smiled his wide, sickening smile. "How would I have managed that?" he wondered. Harry rolled his eyes.

"Silencio," Ron said, and Rowle was quieted.

Harry looked at the other two. For two years of chasing down this madman, the entire arrest had seemed eerily anti-climatic. Ginny looked frightened, and Harry was tempted for a moment to comfort her. She quickly revealed the nature of her concerns.

"How the hell are we supposed to get out of here?" Ginny asked.

"We could talk our way out," Ron suggested. "He's a citizen of Britain; he's under arrest. Trying to stop us could cause an international catastrophe."

"Something tells me these people don't care much about that," Ginny said shortly.

"Merlin," Harry said. "Can we stop bickering for five minutes?!" He took the Cloak from Ron's hands and threw it over Rowle.

"Don't let go of him," Harry warned.

Ron nodded.

"Let's go," Harry said, stomping out of the bedroom and into the office. He cracked open the door to the corridor before throwing a glance back to Ron and Ginny. Ron looked utterly suspicious, holding onto what appeared to be thin air.

"Fuck," Harry muttered.

"Just go," Ginny said. Harry marched into the hallway, followed by Ron, Ginny, and the invisible Rowle. They had made it down the only the first flight of stairs before a voice cried out from behind them.

"You!" Poliakoff cried. "You left the Headmistresses office!"

"Er-," Ron said, closing his eyes in distress. "Er- yes, or Minister made contact with us and said that this issue was resolved, we were instructed to return to Britain immediately. If you'll excuse us-"

"Certainly," Poliakoff said in his thickly accented English. "But I'm afraid you must comply with a Memory Modification charm. It is our Institute's policy, you see, for visitors to have their memories wiped at the end of a visit, so that no Durmstrang secrets are revealed to those who are undeserving of such information."

Ron looked at Harry in terror for a minute just as Harry watched Ginny step forward and raise her wand.

"Stupefy!" she cried, and Poliakoff collapsed.

"Fuck, Ginny!" Ron said. "Some warning would've been nice."

"GO!" Ginny cried, waving her wand at the space where Rowle stood, bound and gagged.

"Petrificus Totalus!" she cried. "Wingardium Leviosa!"

The air shifted slightly as the invisible form of Rowle was immobilized and floated into the air.

"You'll have to push him, Ron," Ginny said, setting off at a run, with Harry and Ron flying behind her.

They made their way past the sign of the Deathly Hallows, down the first staircase and into the Durmstrang Entrance Hall.

The doors flew open, and Harry allowed himself to feel relief as he turned to watch Ron dragging Rowle along. They were really going to make it. They really had him.

They tumbled out onto the grounds, still at a sprinting pace, and made for the boundary of the campus.

Harry could see the thicket they had Apparated into when the first beam of light soared over their heads.

"Get down!" Harry cried, and Ginny immediately ducked, but not before a second jet of light collided with her face.

"Ginny!" Harry said, as she cried out, turning to run towards her.

"It's just a scratch," she panted, wiping blood off her cheek. "Keep going!"

Harry did not want to think what it could've been if the caster had sent anything more sinister than Diffindo, but suddenly they had made it to the copse, Ron's hands still clutching the invisible Rowle, and Harry pulled the Cloak off the Death Eater at the same time that Ginny grabbed her boyfriend and her brother, turning on the spot.

Harry's face collided with the cool, marble floor of the Atrium.

"Thank God!" a voice cried from above them, and suddenly Harry was yanked from the ground and pulled into the grip of Hermione, Ron crushed beside him. Harry looked around desperately for Ginny, who had landed a few feet away and was holding the sleeve of her t-shirt to the gash in her cheek. Harry extracted himself from Hermione's grip to run towards her, just as Kingsley Shacklebolt ran by and waved his wand at Rowle, who's bonds were resecured with additional cords.

"You're okay?" Harry asked Ginny, oblivious to the other bodies in the Atrium, far too many for this hour of night, that were beginning to clamor around the immobile form of Rowle.

"I'm fine," she said, smiling weakly. "Really, Harry, it's just a scratch."

"I've got dittany somewhere," Harry said, shoving his hands in his pockets. He pulled them out to realize that they were shaking.

Ginny reached out and grabbed them. "I'm fine," she said again. "You're not the only one who's allowed to have scars."

Harry smiled weakly. Ginny pulled herself up a bit more from the ground and gestured behind him. "You did it," she said. "You got him."

"Me?" Harry asked, not tearing his eyes from her. "You were incredible."

Ginny smiled happily. "It felt good to stretch my legs again."

Suddenly Kingsley was towering over the pair. "Alright, you two?" he asked, proffering a hand to each of them. They both declined, pushing themselves up from the ground and standing. Robards and Savage were hovered anxiously around Rowle, still floating prone in the air above the Atrium's tile floor. Several Unspeakables had also been called to the scene, though Harry could not fathom why. As he contemplated the scene, a lift opened and a team of Hit Wizards poured out.

"We want him held in the Wizengamot chambers for trial until we can sort the aconite at Azkaban," Kingsley announced to the Hit wizards. On nodded, reaching forward to grab Rowle. Hermione pulled Ron back.

An Unspeakable suddenly leaned forward and spit at Thorfinn's face.

"Murderer!" he cried.

Harry felt livid. If himself, Ron, and Hermione could keep themselves composed throughout this debacle, why were others unable to? He felt Ginny's hand suddenly on his back, a calming presence as they made their way through the Atrium.

"Let's go home," she said, steering him towards the fireplaces. Harry nodded, suddenly feeling crushed with how exhausted he was.

Ginny raised a hand in silent farewell to Hermione, who was similarly directing a dazed Ron to a different fireplace.

Ginny pushed him into the grate, tossing the Floo powder for him as she called their address.

Harry stepped out into the sitting room quickly, collapsing onto the settee as Ginny followed. The sun was just beginning to rise over the surrounding rooftops. Ginny regarded it silently for a moment.

"That was easier than it should've been," Harry said, articulating what had been on his mind since they'd entered Rowle's bedroom.

"I know," Ginny said quietly. "I don't think he intended to be a hold-out for too long. He seemed tired."

"I just can't help but think of the Lestranges," Harry said. "I'm trying to feel pleased about what we just accomplished but…."

"But Rowle had given up," Ginny said. "And Rodolphus and Rabastan never will."

"Never," Harry said. "It's the two year anniversary of the Battle."

Ginny snorted. "Did you think I could forget?" she asked him.

Harry stood from the settee and walked towards the bedroom. Ginny followed.

"I suppose… I just wish… I don't know, with today being today, and with everything that just happened, I wish I could feel more relief," Harry admitted. "More closure."

Ginny didn't speak.

"Well," Harry said, feeling bad for harping on. "Small victories, right? Anyways, it hardly matters now. I just need sleep."

"Go," Ginny said. "I'll bring tea."

However, they were both prevented from their goals by an old Barn owl hooting at the window. Ginny cranked the glass open, and the owl lifted his leg to reveal a roll of parchment. Ginny snatched it up and read it quickly, her face turning from confused to concerned to positively delighted in mere seconds.

"Poor Harry," she said, her voice rife with happiness. "You're going to have to delay sleep a few hours longer."

"How d'you figure?" Harry asked dubiously, stripping off a sock and throwing it across the bedroom, where it missed the hamper pathetically.

"We're going to Shell Cottage," Ginny said, handing the parchment over to him. "Fleur had the baby just after midnight. A girl."

Harry groaned, falling back onto the bed.

Back to index

Chapter 11: Chapter 11 - Something Soon

Author's Notes: I wonder if anyone can guess why Rowle is moving around massive amounts of gold and acting recklessly? Who could they be trying to protect? I hate this whole story honestly. I also have to say that exactly a year ago I began planning this story, so thank you all for sticking with it for such a long time. You guys are fantastic. The next time I write something I'm definitely going to flesh it out better so it's more logical. Pretty solid. Chapter is titled after the song "Something Soon" by Car Seat Headrest.

"It's the Prime Minister!" Hermione whispered, clutching Harry's arm excitedly as a tall man with a toothy grin and thinning hair strutted past them as the quartet made their way into the chapel.

"What's the big deal?" Ron grumbled. "You see our Minister every day. Look, there he is now."

Harry almost laughed at loud at the sight of Kingsley, towering over the other wedding guests, looking very solemn indeed in his coat and tails. Kingsley was the only other member of the Wizarding community present at the event, save the groom's family, and he was presumably invited for his high status and knack for dressing like a Muggle.

The Minister raised a hand at the foursome in greeting as they took their seats in the second row besides Bill and Fleur, who was cradling their small daughter on the lap of her mint-green dress.

Harry glanced around the great room as he settled into the pew, deciding that even Aunt Petunia would have no disparaging comment for such a tasteful event. He hadn't realized that Audrey Bland was so well connected as to have the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in attendance at her wedding, but poor Hermione had been enlisted to make sure that each of the Weasleys dressed the part for the posh Muggle occasion. Harry had caught sight of Mrs. Weasley as she had entered the chapel just before them, looking as though a great bird had hatched on her head.

"Sacrebleu, eet is stuffy in this place, and I am leaking everywhere," Fleur complained from under her own gargantuan hat. Ron turned bright red, but Harry noticed that many heads had turned in the witch's direction since she had taken her seat. "'Arry, please, 'old the baby while I find some relief."

And suddenly Harry found Ginny's young niece cradled in his arms as her mother turned heads walking up the aisle of the chapel, her poor husband following closely behind.

"Leaking?" Ron repeated in a terrified whisper, leaning towards Harry. Harry himself shrugged, offering a finger to the fussy child in his arms.

The only word Harry could think of that adequately described Victoire Weasley was angelic. He had never considered himself to be overly attached to babies, assuming that his deep fondness for Teddy was the result of his close bond with the boy's parents. But here he was, staring at Victoire, blinking up at him from his arms, and thinking only of how perfect she was.

"Potter!" Ginny interrupted, elbowing him in the rib. "Should I be jealous?"

Harry shook his head, snapped out of his reverie.

"Sorry," he said.

"It's the Veela thing, Harry, I swear," Ginny said reassuringly, patting his arm. "You were never like this with Teddy. Look what it's done to Bill."

Harry nodded, acknowledging that Bill's adoration for his daughter seemed to transcend the rational. He'd first noticed this fact at Ginny's birthday dinner some weeks prior, when Bill, normally so cool and composed, had run from the Burrow's kitchen with his hands over his ears shouting, "I can't stand it!" after failing to calm a colicky Victoire.

Bill had managed to reign in some of the madness for the last few weeks, but the effect of the new baby on the family was an intense one. Hermione wouldn't even let herself hold the child, for she wept profusely every time the blonde cherub was placed in her arms.

Hermione now was eyeing Victoire uneasily, as though Harry was going to suddenly deposit the baby into her own lap, but it was Ron who spoke first as the last of the guests had found their seats and a violinist struck up an uplifting composition that echoed lushly around the church.

Fleur slid back into the pew beside Harry, whatever leakage issue she'd been experiencing hopefully resolved, and beckoned him to hand Victoire back over as he turned to hear what his best friend was saying.

"Can't believe Percy's gone and made George his best man," Ron voiced in a hushed whisper. "D'you think he'll have something up his sleeve? I wish Fred was here to see it."

Harry and Ginny smiled appreciatively, but Hermione frowned. "Well, it's probably because Fred isn't here to see it that Percy asked George, don't you think?" she asked her husband mildly. Ginny's eyebrows went up as she looked away pointedly. Harry was a bit surprised at Hermione for bringing Ron down so abruptly, though her comment was innocent enough in nature.

"Merlin forbid I forget for one bloody moment," Ron muttered back, as the priest stepped onto the dais at the front of the church. Ron took in the man's dress and looked gleefully back to Harry, his irritation with Hermione forgotten.

"Are they robes?" he asked excitedly, and Harry nodded quickly before turning to Ginny and giving her a meaningful look. However, she only shook her head imperceptibly before turning to the back of the church, where Percy and Mrs. Weasley were now walking happily down the aisle, Mrs. Weasley dabbing at her eyes profusely with a scrap of lace. They were followed by George, arm-in-arm with a pretty Muggle woman that must've been Audrey's sister, themselves followed a gaggle of small children, tossing petals before the bride.

Harry had never seen Audrey in her own world, surrounded by her own friends and family before, and the difference between her here and at the Weasley's home was remarkable. She walked confidently on the arm of her father, wearing a long veil affixed to the crown of her head with some kind of tiara. Percy looked utterly beside himself as she reached him and her hand was placed in his own.

The priest smiled across the gathering of people congregated in the pews, before opening his mouth to speak.

"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you," he said, drawing his hands together.

"And also with you," those in the church chanted back en masse. Ginny looked at Harry, wide-eyed.

"We're meant to speak?" she asked in alarm.

Harry shook his head. Around them, the various Weasleys were all looking around in some distress, having not been apprised of the more Christian aspects of the Muggle wedding ceremony. Harry too was thankfully unaware of such procedures, this being his first Muggle wedding.

The words were not remarkably different than those in the Wizarding ceremonies; perhaps more reference to God than Harry was used to, but soon the rings had been exchanged and Percy and his bride were sharing a kiss as London high society cheered them on.

The church bells began to ring as Percy and Audrey made their way back up the aisle, followed by George and Audrey's sister, to the raucous applause of all their guests. Everyone began to collect themselves and their things before making their way out of the church and onto Dartmouth House for the reception.

"Muggle weddings are quite boring, aren't they?" Ron said to Harry as he picked up the top hat he'd been advised to purchase alongside his jacket. "I mean, nothing even caught fire."

"I thought it was lovely," Hermione snapped from beside him. "It was certainly posh, and I doubt anyone suggested to Audrey that she cut costs by hosting the reception in her back garden."

Ron turned a very peculiar shade of violet has Hermione clicked past him in her high heels and, before Harry or Ginny could speak, stomped after her.

Harry looked down at Ginny.

"What the hell is going on with them?" he asked. But a faint blush was beginning to creep up Ginny's neck as well.

"Oh, you know those two," she said breezily. "I expect they're rowing because Robards is making you lot pull such long hours right now. Shall we go on foot?"

"Er- okay," Harry said, following her out of the cathedral.

They set off down St. George's, Ginny fanning herself in the August heat.

"Did you know Audrey's family was so bloody rich?" she asked Harry under her breath as they passed another small group of wedding guests.

"No idea," Harry said, thinking back to the Muggle Prime Minister in his tails. Percy must've had a cow at the sheer stress of hosting such a man.

"I wonder if she thinks all Wizarding families are dead broke or if it's just us," Ginny voiced curiously. "I'll bet Percy's convinced her the Burrow's a castle to our lot."

"I'm sure Percy's been totally forthcoming," Harry said kindly.

Ginny snorted and mumbled something that sounded very much like, "My arse." Harry grinned.

They reached the reception hall and stepped in the entryway. Ginny walked in first, and as she made her way through the foyer the high, Georgian windows cast pools of light onto the flagstones before her, bathing her in a dim glow that radiated from her hair to her feet. Harry loved watching her the organza material of her dress swish around her calves as she walked forward, and the way her fiery hair fell across her shoulder as she turned to speak to him.

"I think the ballroom's just over- oof!"

For Harry had grabbed her by the arm and was pulling her in the opposite direction, towards a tiny stairwell in the far-left corner of the hall.

"What are you doing?" Ginny cried.

"I need the loo," Harry said, as several women who all looked to be close friends of Audrey walked in from the patio giggling heavily and smelling a bit of Dubonnet. "I didn't want to go alone."

Ginny rolled her eyes but continued to let herself be dragged along until they reached the stairwell, upon which point Harry pushed her against the wall, wrapping one hand around her waist and the other in her sweet-smelling hair as he kissed her neck, her chest, that fantastic place behind her ear.

Ginny sighed and let her head fall back for a moment before leaning forward and lifting Harry's chin so that he could meet her gaze. She was wearing perhaps his favorite expression; one of sheer joy mixed with a mirthful teasing, and she pressed her lips to his gently before pushing him away again.

"I'm not shagging you in this stairwell," she said happily, gazing up at him.

"Did I ask you to?" Harry said, returning to her neck.

"Not so much with words," Ginny replied breathily. "But in other ways…."

"I really bloody love you, you know," Harry growled into her ear.

Instead of the laughter and return of affections that Harry had anticipated hearing, Ginny stilled under him for a moment.

"What?" he asked, looking down at her.

She bit her lip in uncertainty. "Nothing, Harry. I love you, too," she said, before kissing him again. Harry pressed his tongue against her lips, and Ginny broke away again, laughing.

"What?" Harry asked, starting to feel annoyed now.

"You just - you get so - oh, I don't know, so romantic at weddings, Harry," Ginny admitted. "You were like this at Ron and Hermione's, too. It's odd."

Harry felt his face get hot at an alarming rate. Ginny noticed him reddening immediately and her expression flew back to one of concern.

"What's happened?" she asked.

"Nothing," Harry said. "I don't want to make you feel pressured, Ginny, that's all."

"Pressured to do what?" Ginny pushed, taking him by one hand and using her other to brush some hair off his forehead.

Harry closed his eyes briefly, knowing that she wasn't inferring what he'd hoped she would. "Look, Ginny, let's not talk about this now," he said. "I'm sure everything's getting started in the ballroom, let's go get some champagne and have a dance…."

"Pressured to do what?" Ginny asked, her eyes narrowing into her most Mrs. Weasley-ish stare.

Harry cursed himself under his breath, fixing his gaze at a spot just over Ginny's left shoulder.

"Look, Ginny, for pretty much my whole life all I've wanted, er, all I've really wanted was a family…." Harry began, chancing a glance down at his petite girlfriend.

Ginny, whom Harry had thought would look irritated, instead wore an expression as if he had struck her. She dropped his hand abruptly.

"Are you trying to tell me you want to have a baby?" she asked in horror.

"What?!" Harry cried. "No, Ginny. Merlin, you think I want to have a baby?"

"Then what are you saying?" Ginny asked, sitting down heavily on the last stair and looking up at Harry with her head in her hands.

"I want you to be my family," Harry said. "I want us to get married, Ginny."

Ginny was quiet for a moment, staring up at him.

"You are my family, Harry," she said softly. "How does a piece of paper change that?"

"It's just different..." Harry began.

"How?" Ginny interrupted. "How is it different? Will getting married change how much I care about you?"

"Look, Ginny, let's just go back to the wedding, and we can talk about it later?" Harry said, flushing again and trying to lead her up from the stair.

"Don't touch me like that," she snapped, and now Harry blanched, for he had upset her.

"I don't want to row," Harry said.

"You just told me you wanted to get married!" Ginny said. "In a way that suggests you want to get married in the more immediate future than you and I have ever discussed! You're not allowed to walk away from that."

"So I have to stand here and listen to you explain to me why it doesn't matter that we're not married when you already know I don't agree? I'd rather just go have a few drinks and pretend nothing happened."

"Well, it's too late for that," Ginny said. "But I suppose you're right, they'll be wondering where we are."

And with that, she stomped off, her high heels clacking on the marble floors of the entrance hall. Harry swore under his breath before following after her.

Ron and Hermione had clearly been at it again, for when Harry entered the ballroom, he found Ron sitting dejectedly at the table with a glass of champagne in his hand. Hermione was chatting happily with the Muggle Prime Minister's wife as Percy and Audrey twirled awkwardly around the dance floor.

Ginny went off quickly to greet George and Angelina, leaving Harry to slump into a seat besides Ron.

"Remind you a bit of the Yule Ball, doesn't it?" Ron asked Harry.

"What's going on with you and Hermione?" Harry said. The tip of Ron's nose reddened just slightly.

"Oh, you know how they are. You make one simple suggestion and suddenly you're trying to ruin her whole life."

"You have no idea," Harry groaned.

"What?" Ron asked.

"I told Ginny I want to get married," Harry admitted. "She doesn't seem too keen on the idea."

"I thought you two had always planned on that?" Ron said, sitting up a little straighter.

"Yeah, I suppose," Harry said. "I told her that I'd like to get married in the near-future and she got pretty angry."

"What kind of backwards family are we apart of where the blokes have to do all the convincing?" Ron asked, rolling his eyes.

Harry shrugged. "This is worse than the Yule Ball," he said, taking in the happy scene around him while unable to feel anything more than a general malaise at the thought of Ginny's upset. Mrs. Weasley danced past the pair, doing the foxtrot with Audrey's father.

"I don't know," replied Ron. "Even after destroying seven Horcruxes, sometimes everything feels somehow more complicated now."

Harry snorted, and they were both quiet for a moment. From where they sat, they had the perfect view of Hermione, who'd brought Kingsley into her conversation with the Muggle Prime Minister. Both men were listening to Hermione, who was gesticulating wildly and wearing a bit of a crazed look on her face, with a clearly high regard.

Ron smiled to himself for a moment before glancing back to Harry.

"She may drive me absolutely mental, but I do reckon she's the greatest thing that's ever happened to me," he said, taking a sip of champagne.

The flat was long dark as Harry and Ginny made their way across the threshold, Ginny stumbling a bit as she kicked off her heels and sank onto the sofa.

"Let's go to bed," Harry suggested, pulling at his stiff necktie.

"No," Ginny said, shaking her head and sitting up a little straighter. "No, I want us to talk about earlier."

"Ginny," Harry took a deep breath, his eyes rolling just slightly upward. "You've been drinking, and we'll feel so much better if we talk in the morning. I'll make coffee and we can get everything sort-"

"Do you really think we're not a family?" Ginny asked, her voice breaking on the word family.

"Fuck," thought Harry. He'd never meant to make her cry. Though, she must've been drunker than he'd realized if she was getting teary over his comment.

Harry took a deep breath and sat beside her on the sofa. Her head fell easily onto his shoulder and his strung his fingers through hers.

"Of course I think you're my family," Harry said softly, kissing the top of her head. "But…. Look, Ginny, I don't know if it's difficult for you to understand because family has always been this given thing for you, but, with me, it's always just been bits and pieces of what I could string together. Sirius, Ron, Hermione, your parents… that was always enough for me, being able to choose my family. But with you, in some ways, it doesn't feel like a choice. You're a part of me in ways that those people never were and never will be."

Ginny looked up at him. "But that's not enough for you?"

Harry gave her a wry smile. "Perhaps I'm being selfish," he admitted. "I want more. It gets kind of old, being the only Potter."

Her eyes narrowed. "Are you trying to make me feel sorry for you?"

Harry laughed. "Is it working?"

Ginny yawned, stretching out a bit and wrapping an arm around his chest. Harry, in turn, traced small patterns in the freckle constellations that dotted her shoulders.

"A little," she murmured.

"I know it's a lot," Harry said, though internally regretting none of his boldness. Ginny was right. Weddings did bring out something bizarre in him.

"I don't want you to think that I don't feel the same way about you," Ginny said softly, closing her eyes. "It's just that, Harry, I'm nineteen. There are a lot of things I want to do. There are a lot of things I want to be."

"And you can't do or be those things if we get married?" Harry pushed.

Ginny's eyes opened, their murky brown depths more penetrating than Harry had ever known them to be before.

"You and I both know, the minute that ring goes on my finger, I will only be known as 'Harry Potter's wife' for the rest of my life," she said with a note of finality, closing her eyes again and reaching up to stroke the side of Harry's face.

Monday morning, the lift deposited Harry not in front of the Auror office, as was typical, but rather in the lowest levels of the Ministry of Magic. Harry, carrying a manila folder, followed a dark corridor to one of the dungeons abutting the court chambers of the Wizengamot.

Blood thundered in his ears as he walked the long halls, contemplating exactly what he would say. He hoped the adrenaline would be to his advantage rather than his downfall, but he knew his exact presentation was essential in the task that he was about to approach.

A silver-robed guard greeted him at a block of cells, producing a small key that he handed to Harry surreptitiously, before continuing on his patrol of the corridor.

Harry turned to the nearest door, inserted the key in the lock, and let himself into the tiny cell. The blonde wizard before him was shackled to the table with a manacle that glowed slightly blue.

Rowle smiled at Harry as he entered, but didn't speak as the other wizard sat himself at the table.

"I apologize for the intrusion," Harry said in a calculatedly passive tone. "I'm sure you were expecting to use these moments for some quiet contemplation of your circumstances."

Rowle still didn't speak. Harry leaned forward just slightly.

"I came to speak to you, Rowle, about your options before your plea hearing this morning," said Harry, glancing up at the wizard in front of him. "Typically, your defender would go over this with you, but as you declined your own counsel and had legal aid appointed by the department, I thought perhaps I could come instead."

Rowle scowled in response. Harry laid his folder on the table and opened it, shuffling the parchment inside. He looked up at Rowle again.

"You're looking at spending the rest of your life in a cell," Harry said. "Dolohov, Macnair, they've all received the maximum sentence for their crimes, and you are facing charges for the attack on the Ministry and Barrowden as well."

Still, Rowle regarded Harry with a smug indifference.

Harry cleared his throat and continued.

"We haven't been able to locate Dagmar's money," Harry admitted. "All the wizarding banks in Eastern Europe have been completely compliant with our inquiries and yet there's no record of yourself or Filen Hornwort opening an account."

Rowle's smug look only deepened into something quite resembling happiness. His wide smirk brought Harry to the very depths of discomfort, but he pressed on.

"You said a few things when we found you at Durmstrang that I found particularly interesting, Rowle. Would you like to know what they were?" Harry asked. Rowle still said nothing.

"You said that you were wreaking havoc on Britain without purpose," Harry said. "I might have believed that had you been operating alone, but we know that you and the Lestranges were working together, and we have still been unable to locate them since their attack in Hogsmeade. I might have believed that if you had murdered your great-aunt and stolen her money to set up a comfortable life for yourself in the north. But your quarters at Durmstrang were sparse, and the money is nowhere to be found. Do you know what that leads me to believe?"

Rowle's smile had vanished, replaced by a look of vague discomfort that he didn't do well to hide.

"It leads me to believe that you didn't choose to go to Scandinavia. It makes me think you were sent there. It makes me think that you were told by someone to flee the Battle of Hogwarts before your master was brought down. It makes me think that your reckless attacks are more calculated than random acts of terror. Your mission has been to distract the Ministry while the Lestranges worked for something, and you helped them obtain massive amounts of gold after their accounts had been frozen."

Harry was sure he saw Rowle frown for a moment before carefully rearranging his expression into one of impassivity.

"Well," Harry said. "I've got good news for you, Rowle. We've changed a few things since the first war. I know your defender has explained to you that you have the ability to plead no contest to some of your charges this morning. I'm here in his stead to explain to you how it would benefit you to do so."

"Kingsley and I took this idea from the MACUSA," Harry explained. "Instead of only being able to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty, you'll be able to plead no contest, which is neither an admission of guilt or innocence. In exchange for such a plea to the charges of the April, 1999 attack on the Ministry and the murder of your aunt, you will receive a shorter sentence. You will, however, be expected to provide information and aide in our case against the Lestrange brothers."

"Is that all?" Thorfinn asked quietly.

"You have been acting at their behest for two years and they don't give a damn about you!" Harry said passionately. "They told you to go to Durmstrang knowing full well you'd be giving yourself up and had Dolohov poison half the guards of Azkaban so they could get away with Merlin-knows-what. You're really okay by having your strings pulled by those puppet masters?"

Harry had let his feelings betray his quasi-interrogation. Rowle's frightening smile had returned at the sight of Harry's distress.

"You have no idea what you're talking about, Harry Potter," the wizard claimed. "I didn't become a follower of the Dark Lord to make friends." He said the word with an air of disdain. "There are things worth going to Azkaban for!"

Harry recoiled suddenly as if Rowle had struck him. He closed his folder and stood from the table.

"You're defender will be in shortly to reiterate your options to you and escort you to the courtroom," he said formally.

Rowle nodded. "I look forward to it."

Harry left the cell and made his way back to the hall, handing the key to the guard before walking up towards the courtrooms.

It was a zoo. It seemed that the entire Ministry had left their Monday-morning tasks to come here Rowle's plea, though Harry could hardly blame them, as they had been the majority of the victims of his attack.

"How'd it go?" Ron asked, coming up behind him with Neville and Padma in tow.

"Terrible," Harry said.

"I told you not to do it," Padma said. "You get too upset, Harry."

"Thanks, Padma," Harry said miserably.

"Sorry," she shrugged.

They entered the vast, square courtroom and found seats on the hard, wooden benches directly behind the chair where Rowle would sit during his arraignment.

"I hate this room," Ron said, looking down with a shiver at the chair in the middle, still with the same chains that Harry remembered from his own trial the summer before his fifth year at school.

Witches and wizards continued to trickle in, filling the benches quickly as the plum-robed members of the Wizengamot took their seats in front of the chair.

"Quiet in the courtroom!" one of the members called, and a general hush descended around the room.

"Bring him in," Elphias Doge called to the room at large, and a door opened as Rowle entered, flanked by two silver-robed guards and his Ministry defender.

He was led to the chair in the center of the room, and when he sat the chains clinked to life, binding him in place.

"Thorfinn Rowle," Elphias Doge said. "You stand accused of crimes against humanity, including the persecution and murder of hundreds of Muggles and Muggle-borns between the years of 1996 and 1998, an attack on this Ministry of Magic that resulted in the deaths of three witches and wizards, a bodily and unwarranted assault upon the person of Mr. Ronald Bilius Weasley, an Auror in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and the use of an Unforgivable Curse in the murder of your aunt, Dagmar Rowle. How do you plead to these charges laid against you?"

The Ministry defender stood and faced the members of the Wizengamot.

"Mr. Rowle submits a plea of not guilty on all charges laid against him," he said, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow.

There was a brief moment of silence as the courtroom processed this news. Half the people there had personally seen Rowle blast apart the ceiling to the great Atrium just a year ago.

And then there was an uproar as the witches and wizards rose to their feet, crying out and jeering at Rowle as he smiled up at the Wizengamot.

"Order!" a plum-robed wizard cried to the room. "Order in the court!"

"Mr. Rowle," Elphias shouted down to Rowle. "You are dismissed to your cell. The Wizengamot will convene in a weeks time to set a date for your trial."

The silver-robed guards walked forward and the chains released Rowle. He was led quickly from the room.

"Damn it!" Harry cried, as the clamor of the room reached a peak. "He just wants to drag it out! The trial will take ages with all the shit he's done. It'll be a circus."

"Well, are you surprised?" Ron asked, already standing and scanning the chamber in an attempt to catch Hermione before she exited the chamber with her colleagues from the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures.

"Who is he protecting?" Harry said. "The Lestranges don't give a damn about him!"

"He was going to go away for a long time regardless," Neville said soothingly. "We really had very little to offer him in terms of bargain."

Harry still felt nauseous. He stood with the rest of them and began to make for the door, anxious to be out of the dreary space. He had just reached the hall when Neville reached for his sleeve.

"Can we have a word?" Neville asked. "It'll only be a moment."

Harry felt that his disappointment must've been plainly splashed across his face, for he had planned on calling quits on today and Apparating home to Ginny during her last week before training for the season began.

"Sure," he sighed. "What's going on?"

Neville took a deep breath.

"I'm leaving the Ministry," he said.

Harry felt his jaw drop.

"What?" he asked.

"Sprout retired in June," Neville continued. "She recommended me to McGonagall to interview for Herbology professor. I found out I got it on Friday."

Harry's head was swimming. He collected himself enough to meet Neville's own steadfast gaze.

"Congratulations," Harry said curtly. "But what about the Lestranges?"

"What about them?" Neville asked, suddenly glancing away.

"You don't want to bring them to justice? They obviously have some kind of goal - something they're trying to accomplish besides wreaking havoc and killing Muggles. Don't you want to make them pay for what they've done to your parents?"

"Honestly, Harry?" Neville asked. "No. I'd get the satisfaction from knowing that they weren't able to hurt anyone else, but there is no justice for what happened to my parents. I'm making myself miserable trying to get justice for them! Nothing I can ever do to the Lestranges will make them mad, will take them from their families and the people who love them. And I'm not sure I'd want to."

"You only joined up two years ago!" Harry said, hearing pleading in his voice. If Neville was leaving it would truly mean that their mission was a failure, that their goals were worthless. Voldemort was gone but his terrible followers still reigned strong.

"Two years has been long enough," Neville said with a kind note of finality. "I never see Hannah, I never garden anymore. It's time for me to start living, doing what I want to do. I joined the Office as a sense of obligation, not desire. I'm sorry, Harry."

He gave Harry a bracing squeeze on the shoulder before turning down the corridor.

Someone just behind Harry cleared his throat. He turned to see Ron staring at him with great sympathy.

"You knew," Harry said. It was an accusation, not a question. Ron shrugged.

"He told me yesterday," said Ron. "He was worried you'd be upset."

"He's gone and given up on everything we've been working towards," Harry said dismally. He could swear Ron rolled his eyes just a degree, and was shocked by his friend's suddenly striking resemblance to Ginny.

"Come on," Ron said, placing a hand on Harry's elbow. "Let's get you home. My sister'll be waiting for her daily marriage proposal."

Harry followed along without comment.

Back to index

Chapter 12: Chapter 12 - Cloudbusting

Author's Notes: This story will start wrapping itself up in the next two chapters, I promise! Thank you so much to everyone who has stuck through it for this long! You're all wonderful. Please forgive any logical fallacies, plot holes, or that the narrative has become so dark. Like I've said before, I've really learned my lesson about the importance of *planning*. Chapter titled after "Cloudbusting" by Kate Bush.

The tension in Courtroom Ten was almost too much for Harry to bear as the jury filed back in and sat, one-by-one, on the bench lining the right side of the room. He fidgeted just slightly in his seat as Elphias Doge stood slowly and looked, with great sincerity, into the face of each juror.

"I now ask you, the jury," he cried in his wheezy voice, "how you find the defendant, Thorfinn Rowle, in light of the charges laid against him?"

A wispy little witch stood from her seat, holding a piece of parchment. "We, the jury, find the defendant, Thorfinn Rowle, to be guilty of all charges laid against him."

Harry glanced to Ron, sitting beside him, and saw his friend's posture relax just slightly.

"Very well," wheezed Elphias. "Then we, the Wizengamot of the Ministry of Magic of Great Britain, sentence the defendant to life in Azkaban, without possibility of parole."

There were whoops and cries of joy throughout the chamber as two Azkaban guards stepped forward and led Thorfinn from the room.

Harry and Ron stood to leave.

"Relieved?" Harry asked as they made their way along the crowded benches towards the exit. The various witches and wizards who had been attending the weeklong trial were chatting animatedly amongst themselves, but Harry felt only exhaustion as he contemplated returning to his cubicle above.

"Yeah, well, we didn't expect much else, did we?" Ron answered.

Harry didn't say anything. The pair made their way in silence from the courtrooms to the lifts. Ron turned to Harry abruptly as the doors clanged shut.

"Listen, mate, there's something I need to talk to you about," Ron said, reminding Harry painfully of Rowle's hearing last August, when Neville had informed him of his decision to leave the Ministry.

"You're not quitting, are you?" Harry asked with a laugh, but even as he spoke, he saw Ron's face fall just slightly as his best friend stared guiltily at his shoes. Harry suddenly felt as though he'd been punched in the gut.

"You're joking," he said.

"I gave Robards my notice this morning," Ron answered as he looked up from his feet and met Harry's gaze directly.

"Why?" demanded Harry as the lift opened to the second level of the Ministry. The two stepped out and made their way to the doors of the Auror Office.

"Same reason as Neville, I suppose," Ron said with a shrug. "These hours we're pulling, the stress of it. It seems like my whole life is this job, and yet I get no satisfaction from it."

"They just found Rowle guilty!" Harry exclaimed as they reached their cubicle.

"Which is why I've stuck around this long," Ron muttered. "Hermione thinks I needed the closure." He threw himself into his chair and swiveled towards Harry, crossing his arms across his chest defensively.

"What are you going to do for work?" Harry pushed, utterly dumbfounded.

"George has offered me a place at the shop," Ron answered. "Verity's having a baby in the fall and I guess her bloke doesn't want her working, so George has asked me if I'd come aboard."

"I can't believe it," Harry said, slumping into his own chair.

"Look, Harry," Ron said. "I knew this was going to upset you, but you've got to understand; my marriage is falling apart. Hermione and I can't communicate worth a damn these days because I'm here from seven in the morning until eight at night trying to track down the Lestranges, who, for what it's worth, I don't even believe to be in the country. I can't keep doing this. I didn't survive the bloody war to be stuck in a job I hate for the rest of my life."

"Is that how you see me?" Harry asked.

Ron didn't say anything.

"It is."

"No," Ron said cautiously. "I just…. Look, d'you remember what you said to me and Hermione after the war ended?"

"No," Harry said, unsure of where his friend was going.

"You told us that you'd had enough trouble for a lifetime," Ron said. "And I agreed with you. I know it's not really in your nature to take a backseat when it comes to Voldemort and the Death Eaters, but you're wearing yourself thin. I mean… Harry, are you happy?"

Harry didn't need to think much about that one. It was no secret that being an Auror didn't bring him the satisfaction that he thought it would. He had never expected that he'd keep hitting so many walls, that he'd be forced through so many bureaucratic hoops, or that he'd be stuck at the mercy of Robards and Savage.

Ron smiled sadly at Harry's lack of response.

"So, what?" Harry asked angrily. "What, should I quit, too, and we can all go work at the joke shop and leave the Lestranges for someone else to handle?"

"Did I say that?" Ron asked. "You're a damn good Auror, Harry, but I'm only worried that you're being too hard on yourself."

"I'm not," Harry said curtly. "Look, Ginny and I have got Teddy this weekend. I need to go."

"Really?" Ron asked, a hint of annoyance in his voice. "I thought we could talk about this, Harry."

"Isn't that what we've been doing?" Harry snapped. "You're leaving. Is there anything I can say to change your mind?"

Ron didn't respond. Harry sighed before reaching under his desk to grab his bag. He didn't look back at Ron as he left the cubicle.

The impact of Ron's decision followed Harry's thoughts from the office, into the lifts, and through the Atrium. Feeling particularly brooding, Harry chose to forgo Flooing home in favor of walking through the blustery March air, going over the his exchange with Ron in his head and reimagining the scenario into one where he gave his friend a real telling-off for leaving the Ministry when things were still so unsettled.

The vestibule of his building was welcome warmth, and Harry unwound his scarf from around his neck before marching up the stairs to his flat, stopping in front of his large, white door.

He opened it hesitantly, unsure of the scene he would find before of him, for Ginny was in the midst of training for semi-finals, and her mood was largely dependent on how the day's practice had gone.

He had no cause for fear, however, for Ginny bounded up to him happily, placing a kiss on his lips.

"You look miserable!" she exclaimed. "What's happened? Don't forget we have Teddy tonight! Surely that'll turn your frown upside-down!"

"Good practice today?" Harry asked, hanging his things on the coat rack.

"Gwenog reckons we'll obliterate the Tornados next Saturday. We ran our drills so well she even let us go early!" Ginny said.

Harry smiled, her fantastic mood brightening his poor one.

"Really, though," Ginny said, pushing him into the sofa and plopping down beside him. "What's bothering you?"

Harry took a deep breath. "Ron's gone and quit the Ministry. He gave Robards his notice this morning."

Ginny's mouth popped open.

"He did what?"

"He's leaving to help George run the shop."

"You're joking."

"That's what I said to him."

"Did he say why?" Ginny pushed.

"He's not happy being an Auror. He said it's ruining his relationship with Hermione," Harry told her.

Ginny snorted. "Yeah, sure. Being an Auror is what's ruining his relationship with Hermione," she said sarcastically.

Harry sat up straighter. "You know what, Ginny? You've been making comments like that for months now, and I've no idea what you're talking about. Do you know what's going on with them?"

Ginny had the decency to look embarrassed.

"Not really," she admitted. "I know my brother's a giant prat. They had a big row last summer because Ron tried to get Hermione to leave her job."

"Really?" Harry was shocked. Hermione adored her career in the Department of the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, which she had spent most of the last two years single-handedly deregulating. Harry knew that she was currently in the midst of drafting legislation that would provide affordable housing for emancipated house elves. "Why?"

"She won't tell me, but she was furious," Ginny said in a rather guarded tone, suggesting that even if Hermione didn't say why, Ginny held her own private suspicions.

Harry sank back into the sofa.

"Ron asked me today if I was happy, and I couldn't answer," Harry admitted. Ginny frowned, placing a hand on his shoulder.

"You don't think you are?" Ginny asked.

"I just wish we could leave the war in the past," Harry said. "I'm ready to move on."

Ginny regarded him thoughtfully. "Not being able to move on from the war makes you feel unhappy?" she asked. "Even with the Lestranges in hiding, I find so many moments of happiness that I never had during the war. When I hold my niece and think about how hard we all fought for her existence, I feel joy. When I wake up and see you, safe and healthy, sleeping next to me, I feel peace."

"I suppose I just thought that if we could just get through Voldemort, everything else would feel like cake," Harry admitted.

"Well, that's trauma for you," Ginny said as stood up and walked over to the icebox, where she grabbed a couple of butterbeers. She brought them back to the settee and handed one to Harry. "I don't think life will ever be easy for us, Harry. We've all been through too much, you most of all. But we can work to make sure Teddy's life is as happy as possible, and Victoire's, and even our children's... one day, Harry. Merlin, don't look at me like that," she finished, for Harry had looked up in surprise at the mention of their children. "And we can find gifts in the good moments. Good moments like drinking a butterbeer with your beautiful girlfriend in the flat that she spent all evening cleaning after her captain let her go home early, because she killed it at practice today."

Harry smiled and clinked his bottle against hers. "You'd think the Master of Death would have a healthier outlook on life," he murmured and Ginny laughed.

"Oh, my darling Master of Death," she sighed dramatically. "I think you're having a hard time because your whole existence was on a singular track for the first eighteen years of your life, whether you knew it or not. You're free to do whatever you want now, and that's a difficult thing and a beautiful thing. You can keep working your arse off to find the Lestranges or you can shift speeds and do something else. You have choice."

"Alright, alright," Harry said, holding his hands up in surrender. "Thanks for talking it through with me."

"Always," Ginny said kindly, just as there was a knock at the door. Harry stood up and made his way over to the entryway, wrenching open the door to reveal Teddy and Andromeda, the former carrying a very realistic model dragon and the latter with an overnight bag.

"Harry," Andromeda said briskly, handing him the bag. "Apologies, but I really must dash. He's already had dinner!"

Before Harry could respond she gently pushed Teddy across the threshold and made her way down the staircase. Harry shrugged as Ginny giggled from behind him.

"Does she have a fit date, d'you think?" she laughed, coming forward to greet Teddy.

"Who knows," Harry answered. "Hullo, Ted."

"Harry," Teddy said in his most serious voice. "I has a new dragon."

"Well let's see it then," Harry said, bowing down and picking up his godson, throwing him over his shoulder before walking over to the sofa.

The three plopped down on the couch, admiring Teddy's dragon happily.

"Shall we make it fly, Ted?" Harry asked, pointing his wand at the dragon and levitating it into the air.

Teddy laughed gleefully as the dragon flew around the flat, his hair turning to a deep shade of purple to match the dragon's scaly belly.

"What kind of dragon is it, Ginny?" Harry asked in his most inquisitive voice. Teddy looked between the pair curiously.

"I have absolutely no idea," Ginny said with a laugh. "What makes you assume I'm the dragon expert? You're the one who's ridden one!"

She clapped her hand over her mouth as she realized what she'd said, but it hadn't been missed by the sponge that was Teddy Lupin.

A small smile spread across the two-and-a-half year old's face. "You flied a dragon?" he asked skeptically, his eyebrows raising in anticipation.

"Only once," Harry admitted, ruffling Teddy's purple hair, which promptly turned jet black.

"Were you so scared?" Teddy asked, and his brow furrowed.

"Not really," Harry replied, causing Ginny to roll her eyes.

The trio sat on the sofa for nearly an hour, Harry and Ginny entertaining Teddy with stories of dragons and bursts of bubbles and smoke from their wands. As darkness fell, Ginny volunteered to put Teddy to bed while Harry did the washing up.

By the time Ginny emerged from the second bedroom nearly another hour had passed, and she found Harry waiting in front of the fireplace, two beers on the coffee table.

"A welcome sight," she sighed, settling down next to him on the sofa and curling up like a cat. "I had to tell him four different stories to get him down, all involving you and a dragon."

"You brought that one on yourself," Harry said with a smirk, running a hand across her thigh.

"Don't remind me. Though you're definitely in competition with Sirius for World's Coolest Godfather, I'll give you that," Ginny said.

"It's funny, isn't it?" Harry mused, taking a sip from his beer. "Teddy's generation… they're going to hear about the stuff we went through like it's myth or legend."

"Oh, don't be so modest," said Ginny. "Anytime you see Dean or Seamus they make you recount the great dragon ride over Britain. You, Ron, and Hermione are already legends."

Harry flushed. "I suppose," he said.

"It's okay to revel in it," Ginny told him. "You defeated the Dark Wizard, flew off on the dragon, and got the girl. Three things to be happy about, if you ask me."

Harry grinned. "I think the girl got me," he said seriously.

"Good answer," Ginny said. She leaned forward and kissed him gently before grabbing his hand and standing. "Come on, let's go to bed, and I'll give you another thing to be happy about."

Harry couldn't get up from the sofa quickly enough.

Harry and Ron's cubicle was a somber place Monday morning.

"Come on, Harry, you'll still have me!" Padma said in a transparent attempt to lighten the mood, but she was quickly silenced by Harry's expression.

The day passed slowly, Harry and Ron refusing to acknowledge one another. Harry busied himself by going over the prison reforms that he and Kingsley had drafted that winter. They were scheduled to go in front of the Wizengamot in a few weeks time and Harry wanted to ensure that they were perfect.

He was so engrossed in the legislation that he almost disregarded the great transparent mare as she galloped through the office, throwing back her shimmering mane as heads turned in her direction.

"Harry," Ron said, and Harry looked up, surprised at Ron's address. "Isn't that…."

The mare opened her long mouth and spoke with Ginny's voice.

"Harry, please, come to Holyhead as soon as you can," she cried urgently. "Bring Ron."

The horse vanished into a wisp of smoke as a shiver ran up Harry's spine. He had never heard Ginny's voice like that before.

She sounded terrified.

Panic engulfed Harry and he stood from his desk.

"Ron," he called, his voice sounding terribly high pitched. Ron stood from his chair with a concerned look, but was not moving near-quickly enough for Harry's liking.

"Harry," Padma warned. "Harry, it could be some kind of trap-"

"It's not," Harry cried. "RON!"

Heads were sticking up over the tops of the cubicles as the scene unfolded in the middle of the office. Ron took up his wand, looking weary.

"It's Ginny's Patronus; only she could've cast it," Harry said weakly. "We have to go."

Ron steeled himself and nodded, gathering his cloak and following Harry from the cubicle.

They ran through the office to the lifts, Harry squeezing his eyes shut in concentration and picturing the Harpies stadium as they passed cubicle after cubicle. Ron took notice.

"Harry," he said as they turned a corner. "Don't even try it, you know you won't be able to Apparate until we've reached the Atrium."

"She could be hurt," Harry gasped. "Or captured, or-"

"She's well enough to cast her Patronus," Ron said bracingly. The lift was mercifully already at their floor, and the flew into it, stopping for breath as the doors clanged behind them.

"I've never heard her sound like that," Harry said, terror saturating his own voice as he paced nervously around the lift. "What could've possibly happened…."

Ron looked uneasy. "She did sound off," he admitted. "We're almost there, Harry, we'll get it sorted, alright?"

The doors of the lift opened and Harry ran to the center of the Atrium, reaching out for Ron and Disapparating with a loud crack.

The pair rematerialized in the middle of the muddy Harpies pitch, and Harry immediately looked up, hoping to see the team hard at practice, whizzing back and forth across his field of vision. All he saw, however, were clouds, and he felt panic surge again, until Ron cried out, "Look!"

Harry's gaze followed the direction that Ron was pointing. The Harpies were sitting high in the stands as the grey clouds swirled ominously around them. Harry immediately spotted Ginny's flaming hair in one of the lower sections, her teammate Siobhan's head resting on her shoulder. He breathed out a massive sigh of relief.

All the women looked as though they'd seen the Grim; their faces exceptionally pale and expressions downturned. Several had arms wrapped supportively around one another; some were crying. Harry's stomach lurched at the sight, and he looked at Ron in inquiry; his friend shrugged, his expression as bewildered as Harry felt.

They approached the stands, and Ginny stood, rubbing Siobhan on the back in coming to the edge of the bleachers so she could lean over and hear them.

"Are you alright?" Harry called urgently. "What's happened?"

Ginny's eyes widened in surprise, clearly of the belief that the cause for her team's misery should have been apparent. She shook her head like she was going to be sick, raising her hand to point wordlessly at the sky behind them.

Harry turned to face the village, down the hill below the pitch, just behind where he and Ron had Apparate. As he took in the sight, it felt as though the ground supporting him had suddenly become gelatinous.

"Oh, fuck," Ron whispered from beside him. "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!"

The cloud cover over the village of Holyhead was dense, not unusual for March in Wales, but the glittering green skull with the emerald snake protruding from its mouth was clearly visible in the mid-afternoon sky.

Harry felt something inside him snap as he took in the image of the Dark Mark over Holyhead. He drew his wand immediately, raising it in defense as Ron turned back to the stands where the Quidditch team sat expectantly.

"Go home," Ron called up to them in his most authoritative voice. "Listen to your wireless and don't leave until the Department of Magical Law Enforcement makes a statement."

The witches in the stands nodded, gathering their brooms and wordlessly Disapparating in a series of loud cracks.

Harry turned back to see Ginny, no longer at the edge of the stands but on the pitch in front of him, her jaw set and a hand on her hip. He couldn't help but smile. She always had this effect on him; even in the most dismal of times, her presence was a mere comfort.

"I'm not going home," she said defiantly. Beside Harry, Ron was sending Patronuses back to the Ministry.

"Did I ask you to?" Harry said, raising his wand and murmuring, "Cave inimicum." He watched in satisfaction as a wall of blue light surrounded the Quidditch pitch.

Ginny's posture relaxed significantly. Harry cast another spell across the pitch before stepping towards her and placing a hand around her waist.

"You think I don't know better than to send you away?" he murmured into her ear. She pressed her lips to his jaw for a moment, before giving him a squeeze on the arm.

Harry pulled away from her, forcing himself not to look at the Dark Mark, still hovering over the village of Holyhead.

"You'll probably have to stay here," he admitted. "It being a crime scene."

Ginny nodded. Harry glanced at Fabian Prewett's battered watch.

"Is it mostly Muggle?" Harry asked her, gesturing down into the village. He'd never given too much thought to the actual town of Holyhead before, preferring to pay attention instead to their Quidditch statistics.

"It's half-and-half," Ginny said. "I'm sure the villagers have noticed by now."

There were a series of loud cracks and Harry stepped protectively in front of Ginny. Robards materialized in front of them and marched towards Ron in a way that reminded Harry of one of Aunt Marge's bulldogs. The Department head was followed by Savage and Williamson. Harry rolled his eyes. Of course they had left Ernie and Padma back at the Ministry.

"Weasley," Robards called briskly. "You called for backup?"

Ron, mimicking Ginny's gesture from moments earlier, pointed wordlessly at the great serpent stretching out grotesquely from the skull above their heads.

Robards' eyes widened for a moment, before springing into action.

"Right," he said, drawing his wand. "Savage, go back to the office and get together two teams. Williamson, go to Proudfoot and tell her we need Hit Wizards here, now, and to make sure the entire Department is on high alert."

The two men, staring open-mouthed at the Mark above the village, nodded without shifting their gaze and Disapparated in unison.

Robards looked back to Harry and Ron. "How long since it was cast?" he demanded.

Ginny stepped forward from behind Harry. "We noticed it half-an-hour ago," she answered. "It couldn't have been up much longer than that, we've been in the air all day."

Robards nodded in her direction before addressing Harry and Ron again. "Once we get more Aurors here we'll go into the village to find the house."

"Yes, sir," Harry and Ron said simultaneously.

There seemed nothing to do but stand and stare at the glittering skull above Holyhead, but it didn't take long for Padma, Ernie and Savage's team of Aurors to make their appearance.

"Right," Robards said gruffly. "Potter, you and your team enter the village from the East and approach whatever home or building the Mark is over. Savage, your group will approach from the West, and I'll take MacMillan from the south. No one enters until we have reconvened."

Ernie, who had been staring at the Dark Mark with an expression of great terror, suddenly looked even more afraid at the prospect of being paired with Robards. Harry knew that Ernie sorely missed his former partner, Neville, and no new recruits had advanced through training recently enough to give Ernie a new cubicle-mate.

The three groups set off, Harry glancing nervously back at Ginny. He was confident that his protective enchantments over the pitch would hold, but he didn't like the thought of her alone at all. Still, he trusted that she could be the judge of her own safety, and he reckoned she was probably thinking the same thing about him now.

Harry, Ron, and Padma made their way into Holyhead without a word between them. All three had their eyes fixed upon the Mark, unwavering in the cloudy sky. It was certainly over a home, Harry assessed quickly, as Holyheads few buildings seemed regaled to just the high street.

Closer and closer they walked, until finally Padma said, "It's that one, there," and pointed to a small, whitewashed rowhouse. They were the first team to arrive, and the street was eerily quiet.

Savage and his group appeared first, quickly followed by Robards and Ernie.

"Did any of you meet anyone on your way in?" Savage asked.

Harry shook his head, and Robards said, "No," in a gruff voice.

"The place is dead," Libba voiced from her place beside Williamson.

Robards pointed his wand at the wooden door. The lock clicked and the door swung open.

Harry couldn't help but be reminded of his excursion into Kirkwall, though here, at least, he knew what he was in for. The stench of death had not yet permeated this home, but the victims were in plain sight, slumped over the dining table, a bowl of soup in front of each.

There were five of them: an elderly woman, a middle-aged man and woman, a younger woman who must've been in her mid-twenties, and a small boy. Harry's stomach lurched. Each face wore the same expression of sheer terror.

The sitting room was sparsely furnished; a sofa and an armchair, the dining table, and a small cot in the corner.

"Right," Robards said. "Any signs of struggle?"

Harry rolled his eyes and stepped forward, reaching gently into the man's pocket. His wand was there, and a wallet.

Harry pulled out the peeling leather booklet, unfolding it gingerly. A few Sickles had been shoved inside, but a crumpled Apparition license fell from within and landed on the wooden floors.

Ron bent over and picked it up, his expression turning to one of alarm as he took in the name.

"Robert Tuft, The Tannery, Barrowden, Rutland," he read aloud, looking up to Harry in shock.

"Tuft?" Harry said, reaching forward and grabbing the paper from Ron.

"The family in Barrowden?" Ernie asked, craning his neck to get a look at the license. Behind him, Libba had taken out her ancient camera and begun photographing the scene.

Robards said nothing as he surveyed the scene around them with an air of disdain. Savage approached him and murmured something quietly into his ear.

"We need someone to go back to their house, now, the one where Ron was injured in Barrowden," Harry said.

"That - that wasn't the Tuft house," Padma said quietly.

"What?" Harry said. "Of course it was, Rowle and those Snatchers that Neville captured were using it as a hideout, remember?"

"No, that was some abandoned Muggle place on the outskirts of village," Padma said. "The Tannery, the place where the Tufts lived, was right in the middle of the village, near where those Muggles were murdered. I put the address on Savage's list of interviewees when we were investigating that crime."

"It didn't seem relevant," Savage said confidently. "We knew Rowle had killed the family and stole their food when he was hiding in the village. The Tufts had no priors; quiet family, kept to themselves. We were more concerned with finding Death Eaters."

Harry was overcome with a desperate urge to tear Savage limb from limb.

"Does it seem relevant now?" he growled, gesturing to the young boy, slumped over his lunch.

Robards looked between Savage and Harry for a moment, before taking a deep breath.

"We'll need a coroner here to remove the bodies," he said. "Williamson, I want you on this case. Get a team together and start conducting interviews and gathering evidence. Patil, I need you to go back to the office and make record of all spells cast in Holyhead today. Libba, finish taking photos here and then go to Barrowden and get pictures of the house there. Take a team of Hit Wizards with you. Potter, you're responsible for memory modifications here," Robards said.

"What?" Harry spat, already fuming that Robards had chosen to disregard Savage's obvious blunder. "That's a job for Obliviators, not an Auror!"

"You can summon them here, while I go report to the Minister, and then supervise their

efforts while ensuring that they don't disrupt the crime scene. When they have finished modifying the memories of the Muggles in this village, you are dismissed."

"Fuck that, Robards," Harry shouted. "This is my case!"

"Harry," Ron warned, but Robards was already marching up up to Harry.

"I am still the head of this office, Potter," Robards growled, jabbing a finger into Harry's chest. "I don't care a damn whether or not you are Shacklebolt's favourite, or if you defeated You-Know-Who, or about anything else you've done, for that matter, because you answer to me!"

Harry must've looked like he wanted to hit Robards, for Ron laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Leave it," he muttered.

"Listen to Weasley, Potter," Savage said with a sneer, handing Libba a Sneakoscope. Harry let out a long breath and turned away.

"I'll stay with you and wait for the Obliviators," Ron said, as the rest of the Aurors began to Disapparate. Ernie and Padma gave Harry sympathetic looks as he sent his stag racing off to the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes.

It took hours for the team from the Obliviator Headquarters to move through the village conducting modifications. Harry and Ron had little to contribute, and by the time they made their way back to the Harpies pitch night had fallen. Ginny was sitting in the stands, drumming her wand against her thigh. Sparks flew out of the end as she stood, gazing down at Harry and her brother expectantly.

"Well?" she asked.

"Remember the family in Barrowden? The ones who lived near those Muggles that Rowle murdered?" Ron asked. "When I was cursed?"

"Yeah," Ginny said, clearly confused.

Ron gestured over his shoulder, back to the village. "All of 'em."

Ginny's eyes widened in shock. "What?" she asked. "Here?"

Harry nodded, his lips pursed.

"Why aren't you still down there?" Ginny asked.

"Robards took Harry off the case," Ron said quickly.

"He did what?" Ginny cried.

"Libba's down there now taking pictures and Williamson is coming back with a team to collect evidence," Ron said in a rush. "Come on, let's get out of here. I told Hermione to wait at the Burrow."

Ginny collected herself, squinched her eyes shut, and Apparated down to the pitch beside them. Harry took her hand and closed his own eyes, rematerializing in front of the Burrow moments later. The lights were on in the downstairs windows.

The door flew opened with a smack and Hermione ran into the garden. Ron met her halfway, bringing her into an embrace. Ginny ran away from Harry into the kitchen, where Harry could see the silhouettes of Molly and Arthur sitting at the table.

He followed Ron and Hermione into the house, where Mr. and Mrs. Weasley stood in greeting and anticipation. Ginny went over to her mother and hugged her tightly. Molly looked surprised, but began murmuring quietly to her youngest and rubbing her back.

"Kingsley just Flooed Hermione and I," Mr. Weasley said. "He's on his way to Holyhead now, and he's absolutely furious about Robards, Harry. I'm sure you'll be back on the case in no time."

Harry tried to look appreciative towards Arthur's words, but could only grimace.

Hermione dropped Ron's hand and walked over to Harry. She hugged him tightly before pulling back with her hands on his shoulders.

"Please don't let yourself get too down over this," she said earnestly. "I've been reading all afternoon, and Grindelwald's supporters drew, carved, and cast the sign of the Deathly Hallows for years after his defeat."

"Did they kill entire families as well?" Harry asked. Hermione looked down awkwardly before taking a deep breath and

"There is a historical precedent for violence in the wake of wars," Hermione reminded him. "It hasn't even been three years and we've made so much progress. Please don't forget that, Harry."

Her kindness made Harry feel even worse. He knew that this was part of being an Auror, that he would always have to deal with hideous crimes, but he wanted to be preventing murder, not investigating it.

Arthur and Molly were looking at him sympathetically, but it was Ron that Harry turned to.

"Still planning on leaving, then?" Harry asked, a sarcastic edge to his voice. Ron immediately reddened.

"You know what, Harry?" Ron said. "If you're going to be so obtuse about this, I don't reckon I owe you an explanation at all."

"Ron!" Hermione cried, clearly distressed.

Ron marched toward the door, but seemed to decide that he did owe Harry an explanation, and turned back.

"I've been patient with you. I really have! I know you're worried about the Death Eaters, and I knew it would be hard for you to hear that I was leaving, but this is never what I wanted to do!" he shouted. "It makes me bloody miserable, and I never see Hermione, and my whole fucking life is falling apart because of those two fucking brothers!"

"What is wrong with you?" Harry demanded. "You and Neville, you just give up when we're not making enough progress. Someone has to hunt them down, you realize? They're not going to put themselves in Azkaban."

"Yeah," Ron replied moodily, though thankfully with quieter voice. "Yeah, I realize. But, Harry, Neville and I have done our part. We're not like you, alright? It's not that we don't care, or that we're just standing by. I gave up any chance I had at a normal life when I went with you to find the Horcruxes and Harry… I don't regret it. But it's been years, and I want to start living. It's starting to feel like that tent again, the same disappointments over and over again. I can only take so much of it. I need to have a laugh."

"But the Lestranges-," Harry began.

"It's awful," Ron interrupted. "It's horrible, but they're two men, Harry. There are always going to be 'bad guys', alright? If it's not them, it'll be someone else. And I know that it's important for you to put a bookend on the entire sodding war, but I don't think it will ever be that easy, Harry. This will never be behind us."

"People are being killed!" Harry shouted.

Ron flinched, but then seemed to stiffen, collecting himself as he forced his direct gaze upon Harry.

"Harry, listen to me. After the war I was - I was so angry about what had happened to Fred and the others that I joined the Department because it felt like the best way to handle that - that murderous rage. But it's been over two years, and I don't feel any better. I don't get fulfillment from chasing the bad guys the way you do. Can't you understand that I have to go?"

Harry felt anger bubble in the pit of his stomach, but he did understand, despite everything. Ron had done his part during the war itself, and then had spent additional years of his life trying to make their society a safer place. He'd played a huge role in the restructuring of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. He was allowed to be finished. But Harry felt overwhelmed and abandoned, and the task in front of him seemed impossible to conquer.

A small hand was suddenly at his back. He turned and saw Ginny, still pale, with an added air of utter exhaustion.

"I want to go home," she said, her voice small like a child's.

Harry wrapped an arm around her before glancing quickly up at Ron and nodding to him, hoping to convey that he did not want to part on poor terms. Ron inclined his chin back at Harry, turning back to the sitting room.

Harry and Ginny walked arm-in-arm to the edge of the garden wordlessly, though just before they reached the point from where they normally Apparated, Ginny stopped.

"Harry?" she asked, a quaver in her voice.

Harry turned back to her.

"I'm really-," Ginny took a deep breath. "I'm really frightened."

Harry felt himself deflate a bit, walking over to the place where she had stopped and wrapping his arms around her. They stood like that for a moment, the chilly air whipping around them. Harry could feel Ginny's heart against his own chest, beating rapidly. He couldn't think of a time that she'd ever admitted to feeling afraid openly.

He knew, then, that it was his turn to be her comfort, to help her keep up her strength, the way she always, always had for him.

"Everything's going to be alright," Harry said reassuringly. "Let's go home."

Back to index

Chapter 13: Chapter 13 - Needle In The Hay

Author's Notes: Another chapter, this one titled after Needle in the Hay by Elliott Smith. I'm sorry if this is illogical or confusing, and give endless thanks to those of you who have stuck with this story for this long.

Harry cracked one eye open, only to shut it again immediately.

The sound of rain beating against the window panes and the comfort of his soft quilt were fantastic incentives to remain asleep. Of course, the presence of Ginny beside him, her naked back to him as she slept soundly, was equally persuasive. He reached out and brushed some of her hair from her shoulder so that it fell across her back in a fiery wave onto the mattress. Harry sighed contentedly.

His touch caused Ginny to stir, and an arm stretched out from underneath the quilt and into the air, her shoulder giving a faint pop and she stretched.

"Whatimizzit?" she mumbled, bringing her arm back down.

"Nearly eleven," Harry replied, checking his watch. Ginny rolled under the quilt so that she faced him, smiling brilliantly as she wrapped her hand around the back of his neck and drew him in for a kiss.

"Hello," she said as she pulled away, leaving Harry feeling a bit dizzy.

"Hi," Harry breathed, running a hand along the length of her hip.

"Merlin, we slept late," Ginny said.

"It's Sunday," Harry reminded her. "We can stay in bed all day if we want."

"No," Ginny groaned. "We can't. We're due at the Burrow for dinner tonight, remember?"

Harry sighed, flopping over onto his back. He had, indeed, forgotten about their commitment. Mrs. Weasley, very concerned that the family hadn't been united in full since Victoire's first birthday party that May, had invited them to a mandatory Sunday meal at the house, despite Christmas being just around the corner. Even Charlie had been roped in, coming all the way from Romania.

"Well, at least you can tell everyone your big news," Harry said.

Ginny smiled. "'Ginny Weasley: International Quidditch Star' certainly has a ring, doesn't it?"

"Well, I don't know about star. I was thinking more along the lines of 'Ginny Weasley: Best Bum in International Quidditch', but whatever works, I suppose," Harry said, earning himself a slap across the chest.

"That's not very nice," Ginny said with a giggle.

"Your poor arse is so underappreciated!" Harry cried.

"By you!" Ginny laughed. "Mister Tit Man!"

Harry eyed the offenders for a moment, before letting out a long sigh.

"That's me," he said. "Mr. Tit Man. And if you ever feel ready to marry me, just know that you can be Mrs. Tit Man."

"Well, I can't deny that it does sound appealing," Ginny said sarcastically, rolling over on top of him and kissing him again. Harry raked one hand through her hair, placing the other gently on her waist so he could roll her back underneath him.

She sighed, breaking away and letting her head fall back onto her pillow. Harry pressed his lips down her neck and onto her collarbone.

"Have I mentioned how fucking proud I am of you?" he asked her in between kisses, before letting his head fall back to her chest.

"Only once, or twice, or maybe a thousand times this weekend," Ginny replied breathily.

She had gotten the news that she would play on the English National Team the next summer on Friday. She and Harry had celebrated by spending nearly the entire weekend in bed, summoning bottle after bottle of champagne from the kitchen in their naked reverie.

"You're incredible," Harry said, rolling back off of her and staring at the ceiling in quiet contemplation. "My girlfriend in the Quidditch World Cup! It's bloody fantastic."

Ginny smiled beatifically before flopping onto her own stomach and combing a hand through her hair.

"I'm proud of you too, you know," Ginny said. "You're doing fantastically, especially with everything you're working on for the arrest procedures."

Kingsley had, as Arthur had suspected, bypassed Robards and offered to put Harry back on the Tuft murder case, but Harry had declined. He was mostly doing desk work with Padma now, monitoring illegal uses of magic in Wizarding communities, as well as working with Kingsley and Proudfoot to come up with even more reforms for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. He was home before six o'clock most nights, and it had been nearly three months since he'd been to the office on a weekend.

He willfully ignored office gossip about the Tuft case, but it had reached him that Williamson was making little progress in tracking down the Lestranges. Thankfully, there had been no incident since March, and Padma confided to Harry that Williamson and Savage believed the brothers had left the country after the murders.

Still, mention of the Lestranges always put a small knot in Harry's stomach, and he insisted on casting one or two protective spells over the flat every night.

He turned back to Ginny, regarding him carefully. "I'm proud of you," she repeated. "But if you want to get back on the case, Harry, you know all you need to do is ask Kingsley."

Ginny had supported Harry's decision to step away from the case, but he knew she was concerned at his relative detachment to any news of the missing Death Eaters. It was fundamentally unlike Harry to be aware of a problem and not go running off to solve it.

Harry smiled. "I'm happy where I am," he said, and it wasn't a lie. The extra time with Ginny had been lovely, and he felt they were closer than they ever had been before.

Ginny smiled and sat up from the bed with a sheet wrapped around her torso.

"I want to go to Diagon Alley and get Bill a birthday gift," she said.

Harry groaned. "But that means we have to get out of bed now if we're going to make it to dinner on time."

"We could save some time by showering together," Ginny suggested with a wink, letting the sheet fall back to the bed, exposing her naked chest.

Harry raised his eyebrows and surveyed the image before him. "I suppose that would be the most practical thing to do," he said in his best Percy voice, smiling mischievously.

The sun was just beginning to disappear beyond the hills as Harry and Ginny trudged up the front steps to the Burrow, bearing wine and Bill's birthday gift. Harry could hear the merry chatter from within as they approached the house, and before Ginny could let them in, the door was thrown open by Mrs. Weasley.

"You're late!" she accused, though she was smiling happily. "Oh, you've brought wine! Thank you, Harry! How kind."

"The wine was my idea," Ginny grumbled, kissing her mother on the cheek and depositing Bill's gift onto the kitchen table, before disappearing into the sitting room, likely in search of her niece.

Harry let Mrs. Weasley verbally worry over his nutrition for a few moments as he set the wine down on the table. He then followed Ginny into the sitting room, where most of the family had taken up residence. There was a general cry of greeting as he entered the room.

Ginny had located Victoire and was sitting cross-legged on the floor as the blonde toddler took uneasy steps between her aunt and her mother. Harry smiled as Victoire reached Ginny's outstretched arms and Ginny plucked her up, holding her in the air and blowing a raspberry on her tummy. Victoire cackled in laughed.

"Alright, Harry?" Charlie asked, approaching Harry from the side. He passed Harry a beer and clapped him on the back.

"Can't complain," Harry said with a smile. "How're the dragons?"

"Good, good," Charlie answered happily. "We've just hatched a Romanian Longhorn that was abandoned by her mother while still an egg. Claws are measuring at three inches already!"

"Nice," Harry said appreciatively, noticing a rather surly-looking scratch on Charlie's left cheek.

He turned around to see Bill unwrapping the new Hobgoblins album that Ginny had bought that afternoon in Diagon Alley.

"Brilliant!" he said happily. "Thanks, Ginny. Did you hear Stubby Boardman's doing his first tour in twenty years? Apparently he's finally recovered from that incident with the turnip."

"I remember that," Mr. Weasley said with a laugh. "I thought Stubby was going to hex the whole audience when that turnip hit him."

"I'm not surprised you remember, Arthur, given that you snuck out to that concert with Bilius, and he was the one who threw the bloody thing!" Mrs. Weasley said with an air of consternation as her children howled with laughter.

"Yes, well, Bilius did always have a rather juvenile sense of humour," Mr. Weasley said, turning a bit red.

"Humour is one word for it," Mrs. Weasley said with a scowl. "Anyways, dears, dinner's ready."

The family migrated to the table, each holding quiet conversations between one another. Harry noticed Ron and Hermione seemed to be avoiding each other like the plague. From what Harry had picked up from the both of them, Ron's decision to leave the Ministry had done very little to improve upon their tenuous relationship. Ginny was becoming increasingly concerned as Hermione spent more and more hours at the Ministry and Ron visited Harry and Ginny's flat several times a week, seeking refuge from her various frustrations.

They all took seats around the table, chatting merrily as Mrs. Weasley passed around dishes of delicious-smelling entrees. Harry happily scooped a large portion of shepherd's pie onto his plate as Molly looked fondly around the table at all of them.

"Thank you all so much for being here," she said happily, leaning over to ruffle Victoire's little blonde head.

"It looks wonderful, Mum," George said.

"Fantastic, Molly," Angelina added.

The pair of them were both exceptionally giddy, and kept sharing private, happy smiles with one another. The meal passed easily, Harry spending much of it explaining all the new reforms he and Kingsley were trying to get through at Azkaban to Bill and Charlie. The Ministry were holding the first open elections for the legislative body of the Wizengamot soon, and it was a major topic of conversation for all at the table.

As Mrs. Weasley began to levitate desserts over, Ginny cleared her throat, attempting to get the attention of the various occupants of the table. Several heads turned in her direction.

"Oi!" Ginny cried, causing Ron and George, who had been hotly debating whether or not Chudley was going to qualify for semifinals after the holiday, to turn in her direction.

Ginny smiled, finally having the audience she desired.

"You all heard that Keaton Flitney got Vanishing Sickness in September?" Ginny asked.

A mournful attitude descended over the entire table. Flitney was one of the best Chasers in England, and the English National team qualifying for the 2002 World Cup could be largely attributed to his strengths on the pitch. The last the Prophet had reported, he was still in St. Mungo's, the right half of him completely missing.

"We're having a nice time, Ginny," Ron remarked with a tone of profound loss. "Why'd you have to bring that up?"

"Because Flitney was a reserve Chaser for Hawksworth, after Hawksworth got the sack for transfiguring that referee into a kiwi, and they didn't have a reserve in place for Flitney," Ginny explained. "So they held an open trial last month for Chaser for the English National Team, and I heard on Friday that I got it."

There was a moment of silence as Ginny's news was processed by her family, until a great crash sounded across the room as Ron pushed himself back from the table, knocking over a potted plant in the process.

"WHAT?" he shouted in disbelief.

Bill and Charlie both gave great whoops of excitement, and even Percy stood from beside Ron, leaning towards Ginny from across the table to hear her better.

"You're playing in the World Cup?" he cried. "Audrey, did you hear that?"

Audrey, who had been pouring herself a rather generous measure of wine, looked startled at being addressed.

"I quite like Posh and Becks," she said with a titter, earning herself a few confused looks from her brothers-in-law.

Ginny laughed as the family erupted in chatter and cheers. A toast was quickly arranged.

"To Ginny!" Bill roared. "The best Chaser in Europe!"

"To Ginny!" echoed from around the table.

The excitement died down as a bit as the family dug into dessert. Ginny, clearly ecstatic at the response from her family, grinned at Harry as Angelina suddenly leaned across the table.

"Not to take away from Ginny's announcement, but George and I have some news we'd like to share, as well," she said happily, looking over to her boyfriend, who grinned happily.

"Yeah, yeah, well, you could actually argue that Ginny went and stole our thunder," George said seriously. "I don't know if having a sister playing in the World Cup next summer is bigger news than a brother that got married yesterday."

You could hear a pin drop as the family processed what George had just revealed.

"A - a brother who did what?" Ginny asked, looking between George and Angelina in disbelief.

"Got married," George answered pompously. "We figured we'd go ahead and make the whole thing official."

"Congratulations!" Harry said loudly, for most of the family was still staring at George and Angelina open-mouthed and silent. He nudged Ginny.

"Er - congratulations," she said quietly.

Felicitations emerged slowly from the rest of the table while Mrs. Weasley procured her favorite scrap of lace and began quietly weeping into it.

"I just don't see why you couldn't tell us," she cried softly.

"Merlin, Mum, no one's died," George said in an irritated tone. "We just wanted to avoid all the hoopla, that's all."

Angelina smiled kindly. "We thought maybe we could have a kind of party at our flat in a few weeks' time! Everything happened so quickly - we don't want anyone to feel left out."

The family had little to say, but Charlie tactfully arranged another toast. It wasn't that Angelina was disliked, or that anyone begrudged their decision, it was simply just such a shock that no one knew exactly how to respond. Dishes were cleared away and plans were made to visit the newlywed's home in Diagon Alley next weekend for a small celebration.

Ginny stood from the table. "I'm going out for a breath of air," she announced to no one in particular.

She exited the room, leaving Harry to help Mrs. Weasley bring the pie dishes to the sink. When the work was finished, he grabbed his jacket and scarf off the coat rack and made his way outside as well. He found Ginny standing on the fence near the apple orchard, her arms wrapped tightly around her as the night breeze coursed over the field.

"Are you alright?" he asked, taking off his jacket and placing it over her shoulders.

"Thanks," Ginny said, shrugging her arms into the sleeves. "I'm fine," she continued looking out across the hills. "Just thinking about Fred's funeral."

Harry smiled sadly at the memory. "I think Lee and Angelina did a good job that night," he said after a moment.

"They did," Ginny agreed. "And you came to my room after and told me you wanted to be with me."

"I did," Harry said, remembering the rawness of those first few days after the Battle of Hogwarts.

"Why couldn't he tell us?" Ginny asked quietly. "Why didn't he want us there?"

"I don't think he didn't want us there, Ginny," Harry replied. "I just think it would've been too hard for him to have the everyone there except Fred. It was probably easier having all of us absent than just that one, glaring absence."

Ginny nodded, quiet for another moment. The wind whipped through her hair, bringing it up from her shoulders so that it was parallel to the rich earth of the Burrow's garden.

"I've been thinking," she began, before stopping suddenly and taking a deep breath. "I've been thinking that once everything with the World Cup is over… regardless of how England competes... maybe we could start thinking about getting married."

A lump formed in Harry's throat. Not turning his head, he glanced over to Ginny. A blush was beginning to creep up her neck, but she faced him with her characteristic blazing look.

"Hang on a second," he said in a somewhat strangled voice. "Are you proposing to me?"

Ginny cheeks flushed a deep crimson.

"No, you muppet," she said. "I'm just saying that after the Cup's over… maybe you could propose to me."

"So you're proposing that I propose to you?" Harry asked.

Ginny giggled. "Yeah," she said. "Yeah, I suppose I am."

"After the World Cup?" Harry asked, his voice still slightly more high than he preferred.

"Yes," Ginny repeated slowly, looking as though she was actually rather concerned with his processing abilities. "I think, after the World Cup, I'd be ready to get engaged."

"Oh," Harry said, feeling a bit as though he wanted to cry with joy. "Alright, then."

Ginny gave a small smile. "Alright," she said with a nod.

Harry strung his fingers through hers then, and she rested her head on his shoulder, and the two stood at the edge of the orchard for a long moment, admiring the night stars.

Harry arrived to work Monday morning feeling invigorated. He and Padma were scheduled to give a lecture on Defensive Magic to a group of first-year trainees, and he couldn't be more excited to put on his old teaching hat, taking a moment to feel nostalgic for the D.A.

He entered his cubicle and threw his rucksack under his desk, taking a deep breath before beginning to sort through the memos that had been deposited there over the weekend. A couple of newly of-age wizards had snuck off Hogwarts grounds on Saturday and had a one-on-one game of Quidditch somewhere over Sutherland, mystifying Muggles. Beyond that, it seemed like a largely uneventful few days.

Harry paused, however, as he unearthed a thick and glossy piece of parchment from underneath all the memos. The great seal holding the parchment together was a family crest, embossed with the initials D.L.M.

"D.L.M.," Harry read to the empty cubicle. "No way…."

He ripped the parchment open.


I was hoping you could join me today, at your earliest convenience, at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade. I will be there all day. I have a matter of great importance I wish to discuss with you. Come alone.

Draco Malfoy

Harry set the note down on his desk, utterly dumbfounded. He hadn't heard from Malfoy since the Battle. During the first of the depositions in the Death Eater trials of the late-nineties, Harry had testified to Draco's refusal to identify him during the skirmish at Malfoy Manor, and Narcissa's lie to Voldemort that bought the fighters the time to kill the final Horcrux, Nagini.

Both had been spared time in Azkaban because of Harry's statements, but he knew the Lucius had an upcoming trial, and he had no desire to make any such statement for the elder Malfoy.

Still, he was eager to see what Malfoy could possibly want, and why he would request Harry come alone, so he quickly gathered his things and stood from his desk chair, exiting the cubicle just as Padma was entering.

"And where do you think you're going?" she asked. "Don't forget we're giving that lecture today!"

"I haven't forgotten!" Harry huffed as he darted past. "I need to go down to evidence."

"Sure," Padma said sarcastically, rolling her eyes. "Don't make me do it alone, Harry!"

But Harry was already halfway to the door of the office, and he hurried to the lifts, pacing around in agitation as his mind spun, trying to guess why he'd been summoned by Malfoy. He fingered his wand, tucked safely in the pocket of his robes.

He nearly ran into the great stone fireplace closest to the lifts and clearly declared "the Three Broomsticks" as the green flames engulfed him.

He managed to step out into the pub somewhat gracefully, and luckily ignored by most of the patrons of the quiet bar, nearly empty this early on a Monday.

It was not difficult to locate Malfoy, though Harry was surprised to see not one, but two golden heads sitting side-by-side in a booth near the bar.

The ravages of war and the loss of most of her station in life had not treated Narcissa Malfoy kindly. She and her son both had dark circles under their eyes, and both gave a great jump as Harry approached the table.

"I had to come alone, but you've brought Mummy along?" Harry asked, sliding into the seat across from them. Draco merely rolled his eyes at Harry's jab, but his mother scowled.

"Potter," Malfoy said. "I admit, I didn't expect you so early."

"Your note piqued my curiosity, Malfoy," Harry said with a shrug. "Why don't we get right to it; what is it that you want?"

Malfoy had the decency to blush, but only just.

Narcissa leaned forward, a note of urgency to her voice.

"My husband's trial date has been set for next summer," she said.

"I'd heard," Harry replied drily.

"It's been postponed several times, because he's been suffering from Spattergroit for nearly two years now," Narcissa continued.

"I'd heard about that, too," Harry said. "Is that why you've brought me here?"

Madame Rosmerta ambled over and set a tankard of butterbeer in front of Harry.

"On the house," she said with a wink. Narcissa glanced at the landlady before looking back to Harry.

"The Wizengamot is seeking a ten-year sentence," Narcissa said. "Lucius won't survive. He's weak, and the Dark Lords followers have not forgotten how I assisted you during the final battle."

"So you want me to testify for him? I told the Wizengamot everything I witnessed during the war. They still saw fit to prosecute your husband."

"We heard a rumour that you offered Thorfinn Rowle a more lenient sentence in exchange for information on the Lestranges," Narcissa said.

Harry sat up straighter now.

"Look," he said. "If you have any idea where Rodolphus or Rabastan are, you are legally obligated to report it to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement or you will be considered an accomplice and-"

"Give it a rest, Potter, we don't know where they are," Draco interrupted. "Do you really think they'd've come knocking on our door after Mother lied to the Dark Lord about your death?"

"Fine," Harry replied, crossing his arms across his chest. "Then what information does Lucius have that he thinks will save him? And why couldn't he come here himself to tell me?"

"Spattergroit, Potter, remember? Merlin, you Gryffindors were always thick as bricks. Once it reaches your uvula you can't speak," Malfoy spat angrily.

"Draco," Narcissa laid a hand on her son's arm. He seemed to calm slightly. Narcissa turned towards Harry.

"My husband has been communicating largely in writing," Narcissa said. "When the news that the Tuft family had been murdered in Holyhead, he was very surprised. I myself didn't realize that the Tuft family were still in England. There were a few Ministers back in my day with the name, but I thought the family had died out years ago."

Harry leaned forward, intent on understanding what Narcissa was trying to say.

Narcissa took a deep breath before continuing. "When the news broke of the murder, my husband conveyed to me something that he had overheard during the war, that he believes may be pertinent information now. When Malfoy Manor was the headquarters of our side-"

"Hang on, Mother," Draco interrupted. Narcissa looked upset for a moment, but allowed her son to continue.

"Father doesn't want to reveal the information until there's a deal on the table," Draco said, looking to Harry.
"Loyal until it suits him not to be?" Harry asked bitterly.

"It's his only bargaining chip!" Malfoy said, clearly agitated.

"Tell me what you know, and I swear to you I'll keep him out of Azkaban," Harry said. "If I can find the Lestranges on your information we may be able to throw away his entire trial."

Narcissa's eyes grew wide.

"I have your word?" she asked, her voice much higher than usual.

Harry nodded. "My word."

Narcissa glanced at her son uneasily before she started speaking. "Lucius overheard an argument between Bellatrix and Rodolphus a few weeks before the Snatchers brought you to our home in March of 1998. Bella was furious, for she had discovered that Rabastan was having an affair with a young girl in the Tuft family. The girl, Desdemona, was a werewolf, and because of our niece's recent marriage to the werewolf Lupin, Bella was concerned about falling from the Dark Lord's favor due to one-too-many half-breed connections in the family."

Harry felt himself stiffen at Narcissa's description of Remus as 'the werewolf Lupin,' but he fixed his gaze ahead before speaking.

"Desdemona was one of the witches identified in the murder last March," Harry confirmed in a monotone. "The Ministry has no record of her being a werewolf."

"She was," Narcissa confirmed with an air of great conviction. "Bella demanded that Rodolphus force his brother to sever ties with the young witch. Specifically, Lucius heard my sister demand that Rabastan 'stop meeting his whore in that thatched barn before he brings about the ruin of us all.'"

Harry blanched at Narcissa's harsh tone. "Thank you for providing such a vivid description," he said, before asking, "Thatched barn?"

"Their meeting place," Narcissa said. "A barn somewhere near the Tuft home."

Harry was quiet for a moment. "So the Tuft girl was Rabastan's lover?" he asked, more to himself than Draco and Narcissa. "Why would he kill her, then?"

"He never spoke of her," Narcissa said. "I doubt it could've been too strong an attachment."

"But why kill her after so long? You believe the Tufts were hiding the brothers? You do know where they are?" Harry asked sharply, attempting to uncover whatever information Narcissa was holding back.

Narcissa had turned back to her son, but she threw a piercing look in Harry's direction. "No," she said firmly. "I think the brothers were using the Tufts as cover."

Harry was quiet for a moment, taking this in.

"You think Desdemona discovered him?" Harry said. "In their old hiding place? They'd been staying there so they could use magic under the cover of the family, and Rabastan knew it was a good hiding place because Voldemort had never tracked him and his unworthy lover there?"

Narcissa and Draco had both flinched visibly at Harry's use of Voldemort's name, but neither countered his deductions.

"But why? Do you know their endgame?" Harry pressed. Narcissa looked uneasily at Draco, whose lips were set in annoyance. She took a deep breath.

"The Rowle family was always very good at ensuring that the women of the family were never connected to anything incriminating in the slightest. Your department," Narcissa said with an air of disregard, "may want to look in on Euphemia Rowle."

"Euphemia?" Harry asked. "Why?"

"She's not as innocent as she seems," Narcissa said mildly. "And neither was Dagmar. She knew full-well that her Gringotts account was a fund for the Dark Lord's scheme in case the Ministry was ever able, as they have now, to freeze our own accounts."

"Hang on," Harry said. "The Lestranges have Dagmar's money?"

Draco scoffed. "You Aurors must have your heads so far up your own arses you could lick the back of your own eyeballs."

Harry narrowed his eyes at Malfoy, trying to pretend that he wasn't starting to agree.

"You have to understand," Narcissa said, disregarding her son's comment. "That we weren't allowed to entertain even the slightest possibility of failure. After you were dead, the plan was to extend the Dark Lord's reach to Europe, and then beyond, with the help of paid mercenaries. That was what the money was for. And I don't doubt that my brother-in-law is giving his best effort to continue the plan."

"To what end?" Harry said. "Voldemort's dead. What can they possibly hope to achieve?"

"They can wreak havoc and cause chaos," Narcissa said simply. "Their goal would like be to have a less-progressive government installed in the Ministry, or to feed funds to pure-blood regimes in Eastern Europe. Anything Rodolphus and Rabastan can do to undermine those who brought them down, they will."

Narcissa was quiet for a moment, before looking up and taking a deep breath.

"Everything they lived for is gone. That makes them more dangerous than you or I could possibly imagine."

Harry reentered his cubicle after returning from Hogsmeade, still finding it hard to believe that Narcissa was as afraid of the Lestranges as he was. He looked down at his rucksack, where he'd made notes of all of her claims, working to connect the dots between what she had revealed and what they knew.

Harry knew he should likely hand the information over to Williamson immediately, but he was afraid to waste good intelligence on another bungled mission. Harry agreed with Narcissa, that if the Lestranges believed their hiding spot good enough to avoid detection during not one, but two investigations into Barrowden, they would likely remain there, though certainly surrounded by protective enchantments.

There had to be a weakness though - there always was. Harry threw himself down into his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose and wracking his brain as to how they'd gain entry into this barn that Narcissa had mentioned. Harry agreed - Desdemona Tuft must've sealed her own fate by stumbling upon her old lover.

Padma trudged into the office.

"Oh!" she cried. "Look who it is! Thanks for making it to the training today!"

"Padma, listen, you're not going to believe the morning I've had," Harry said, turning towards her. "Is Ernie around? He'll likely want to hear this."

Padma obliged and grabbed Ernie from his own cubicle, dragging him over to theirs. He recounted the information Narcissa shared; the secret account of Dagmar Rowle, the overheard argument between Bellatrix and Rodolphus, and Narcissa's suspicions about the brother's hiding place.

"But Harry, don't you think we would've discovered them if they were still in Barrowden?" Padma asked as Harry finished speaking. "It seems too easy."

Harry nodded. "I know, I've been thinking the same thing. But, think about it, they've really insulated themselves well. Rowle was clearly there protecting them when he triggered the Taboo, and the Tuft family accounted for any magic in the area. They certainly venture out when they want to make a scene, like the attack at Honeydukes, but I think they would've been much easier to find if they didn't have someone doing their dirty work for them."

"But who?" Ernie asked in a hushed whisper. "Rowle's been behind bars for over a year."

Harry thought for a moment, reflecting on the last three years, all of his terrible encounters with Rowle, his sneering smile in the Atrium of the Ministry, in the house in Barrowden -

"Merlin!" Harry said, smacking himself in the forehead. "Merlin, I've been so bloody stupid!"

"What?" Padma asked.

"The Snatchers," Harry cried. "I thought they were working for Rowle, but they weren't. Rowle and the Snatchers were all working for the Lestranges. The house was a lookout for the Lestranges who were hiding in the village, relying on the Tuft family and their clean record to cover up any magic they were doing!"

"Rowle, a Death Eater, ranking as high as some Snatchers trying to avoid Azkaban?" Padma asked dubiously. "I thought he was in the inner circle."

Harry shook his head. "Have either of you seen him in battle? He's a loose canon! He killed those Muggles in Barrowden and drew attention to the whole operation, and that's why the Lestranges sent him away after they got ahold of Dagmar's money. They probably told him he was meant to recruit Scandinavian mercenaries for this scheme of theirs."

"Well, that's all well and good," Ernie said. "But how are we going to get ahold of the Snatchers protecting the Lestranges. They Disapparated before we could identify them."

Padma thought for a moment, and Harry watched as her eyes lit up in excitement. "Wait!" she cried. "Ernie, that's not true! We disarmed two of them! The wands are still in evidence!"

"Did anyone ask Ollivander to identify them?" Harry asked.

"I'm sure," Padma said confidently. "They usually put a tag on the wand in the locker. But Harry, whoever they are, they've been without wands for over two years. How could they possibly be doing anything for the Lestranges without wands?"

"Maybe they got new wands," Ernie reasoned.

Harry was quiet for a moment.

"I want to go to the evidence locker," he said finally. "And then I want to visit Ollivander."

He looked up into the eager faces of his friends, and realized with a pang that he had been expecting to see Ron and Hermione in front of him, not Ernie and Padma. He shook his head for a moment and cleared his thoughts before grabbing his wand and standing from his desk.

The bell to Ollivander's shop chimed happily as Harry, Ernie, and Padma walked in. Harry took in the sight of the boxes of wands piled all the way to the ceiling.

"Merlin," Ernie said. "You know, I don't think I've been in here since I was buying my wand."

"Me either," Harry said in a hushed, reverent whisper. He clutched his holly-and-phoenix wand in the pocket of his robe, taking a moment to contemplate the moment the he first held the thin piece of wood.

Alerted by perhaps the bell or perhaps the sound of their voices, Ollivander himself appeared from behind the counter, a great cloud of dust following him.

"Harry Potter," he exclaimed in wizened excitement, before taking in the presence of Ernie and Padma. His face fell. "On Ministry business, I presume?"

"Er- yeah," Harry said, feeling suddenly embarrassed. "Mr. Ollivander, we're here because you helped the Ministry identify two wands belonging to Snatchers who are evading capture for crimes against humanity they committed during the war."

Ollivander's brow furrowed for a moment, before it raised again in recognition.

"Yes," he said. "Yes, I recall now. Savage from your office brought the wands in, July of 1999. One, pear wood with a unicorn hair, medium-flexibility, belonging to Giles Duncan. The other was birch with mermaid hair, exceptionally swishy, sold to Tarquin Stuart."

"And you remember these men?" Padma asked. "Did they ever come back into your shop after purchasing their wands?"

"No," Ollivander said. "I have not seen them since they were boys."

Harry pulled out a quill to make a note in his notebook, just as Ollivander began to speak again.

"Though," the old wizard continued, "what was perhaps most curious, was that two wands of very similar descriptions were stolen from my shop, not two months after the visit I received from Mr. Savage."

Harry looked up from his notebook. "What?" he asked.

"Yes," Ollivander said. "He came in the dead of night, but after my time in Malfoy Manor I have always taken additional precautions, and had a Caterwauling Charm in place. The thief tripped the alarm, but by the time I arrived downstairs, he was already gone and down the Alley. I saw him weeks later at the Leaky Cauldron and confronted him, but he denied the entire event."

"You knew who robbed you?" Harry asked. "But you didn't report it?"

"Wherever Mundungus Fletcher travels, a certain stench is never far behind," Ollivander said with an air of great disdain. "Dung's been a thief for many years longer than you've been alive, my dear boy, and he has yet to face any justice for his crimes. Beyond that, I'm sure you can understand that I have a certain distrust for the Ministry, which I hope you won't take personally, Mr. Potter."

Harry smiled kindly. "Not at all," he said. "We appreciate your help this afternoon, at any rate."

"Anything, my dear boy, anything at all," Ollivander said. "Let me show you to the door."

The bell of the shop door echoed behind the trio as Harry turned back to Ernie and Padma.

"We need to find Mundungus Fletcher," he told them.

Back to index

Chapter 14: Chapter 14 - First Love, Late Spring

Author's Notes: Woo! I do believe that I set my sights too high in writing an action/adventure piece, and will likely stick to fluff from now on as I believe this is where my strengths mainly lie. I'll be honest in saying that this chapter was written in a great rush, because I wanted it to be done with, but that doesn't mean that I don't want you to enjoy it. I am so excited for the remaining five chapters of this story, because they are the ones that I wanted to write originally and what I believe to be some of my best work. Thank you, as always, for sticking with me for so long. Chapter titled after the song by Mitski. OH! P.s.) I have a request. As an American writer, I sometimes have an unbelievably difficult time with writing decent English-sounding dialogue. What do you, as a reader, think is worse: American writers using distinct American English in their stories, or American writers trying and failing to use British English? let me know lol.

The first Monday in March was a significant one, and Harry had risen far earlier than usual to make sure it was commemorated appropriately. He'd already brewed a pot of coffee, and as he spread jam across a golden slice of toast, he contemplated the day ahead of him. He was considering visiting Hogwarts to speak to Kreacher, the house-elf technically in his service still, though Harry had presented the old elf with one of Hermione's knitted hats several weeks after the final Battle of Hogwarts, much to the creature's consternation.

It had been nearly four months since Ollivander had revealed to Harry, Padma, and Ernie that Mundungus Fletcher may have a connection to the Snatchers aiding the Lestranges, but the trio had made little progress in tracking Fletcher down. They were secretive about their work, operating on a rotation between their usual cases, staking out Barrowden, where Harry was sure the Lestranges were hiding under some sort of protective enchantment, and searching for Dung.

Harry was hoping that Kreacher may have some advice on where to find the old thief, remembering the elf's remark from nearly five years prior that Mundungus could easily avoid capture with his many hiding places and accomplices. Harry set the toast down on the table and rubbed his eyes, continuing to brood over Mundungus as he heard footsteps sounding across the sitting room.

Ginny entered the kitchen and smiled at the sight of him standing in front of a hearty spread of breakfast.

"You're sweet," she said, understanding immediately that Harry had wanted to send her off with fanfare to her first practice. She sat down at the table and poured herself a cup of coffee. "Thank you."

"How are you feeling?" Harry asked, placing his hand on her shoulder and giving it a squeeze. She was in her red and white practice robes, and his heart swelled proudly at the sight.

"Nervous," Ginny admitted, taking a sip from the mug. "Listen, we've got a scrimmage tonight and relatives can come and watch. It's at five. Can you make it?"

Harry tipped her chin up and kissed her gently. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

"Brilliant," Ginny said, tucking in to her porridge. Harry sat down beside her and poured himself coffee, opening his copy of the Quibbler. Ginny still gently chided him for refusing to take the Prophet even though Seamus Finnegan had recently been promoted to editor. Some wounds healed more easily than others, Harry believed.

They chatted quietly about his case, Harry telling Ginny about his plans to reach out to Kreacher after finishing up with his assignments that morning.

"I think it's a good idea," Ginny said. "Why not fall back on history a bit. He found Mundungus in a few days during the war, right?"

"Yeah," Harry said. "It's just concerning that we haven't been able to track him down yet. I'm worried he's gone and died or something."

Ginny rolled her eyes. "I have a terrible feeling that Mundungus Fletcher is going to outlive us all," she said, standing from the table. "I'm going to head out. I'm due at the stadium in a quarter-of-an-hour."

Harry nodded, standing as well and kissing her chastly again on the lips. "Good luck," he said. "I know you'll be brilliant."

Ginny smiled and left the kitchen. Harry heard the front door shut behind her and a great crack sound from the hall. He settled back at the table with his magazine, but felt unable to focus on what he was reading.

He was terribly proud of Ginny, but he was slightly apprehensive of where the next few months would take their relationship. The cup was being held in Germany, and Ginny would have to be on-site for the entire summer. Her training ran from six in the morning until six at night six days a week, and if England played well, it was quite feasible that Harry and Ginny could go weeks at a time without seeing one another. It was a small price to pay for the happiness and fulfillment it brought Ginny, and yet Harry couldn't help but mourn their long days and nights together over the past year.

He left early for work, unable to stop his mind from wandering deep into the summer, and figuring that if he got his edits on the prison legislation done before noon he could visit Kreacher on his lunch. He Flooed into the Atrium, which was completely empty at this early hour.

He went straight to his cubicle after the lift deposited him at the door to the Auror office, and wasn't joined by Padma for over an hour. However, even after she appeared, it became quickly apparent that he was destined to be alone for most of the morning as Padma was called to deal with a parent who had decided to test a growth charm on his own young daughter.

Harry spent slow-passing hours going over each individual word of the revised Azkaban reforms handed back down to him by the Wizengamot. Apparently, the legislation wouldn't be passed until Harry limited the number of visitors each prisoner was able to receive. Dolores Umbridge had requested some fifty people to be added to her visitor's list, which had been deemed by the prison as a safety hazard.

Finally, finally, the clock struck twelve, and Harry stood from his desk, grabbing his rucksack and turning to exit the cubicle, but was stopped in his tracks as Padma smacked into him as she ran in, knocking him straight off his feet. Correcting herself, she grabbed him by the front of his robes, dragging him up with surprising strength.

"We've got him!" she cried joyfully as she straightened his robes.

"What?" Harry said, still processing the shock of her entrance. "What?"

"Mundungus Fletcher!" Padma exclaimed proudly. "Ernie picked him up this morning selling fake Invisibility Cloaks in Knockturn Alley! He was dressed as a witch, but when we passed through the Ministry's Anti-Concealment charm his wig and robes disintegrated, leaving Ernie with a bit more than he bargained for, if you know what I mean. But still, we've got him!"

Harry gave a cry of excitement, and without really thinking about what he was doing, brought Padma into a great hug.

She pushed him away, smiling awkwardly. "I'm glad you're excited," she said with a giggle.

"Where is he? Does Williamson know he's been brought in?" Harry asked.

"Interrogation Room Four," Padma answered. "No, Ernie's only told me. He hasn't done a report for the Invisibility Cloaks yet."

"I'm going down now," Harry said, reaching under his desk and grabbing the stack of files he'd been privately gathering on the Death Eater-related incidents since the end of the war. Though relieved that he no longer had to approach Kreacher in his quest to hunt down Mundungus, Harry still felt the pressure of a ticking clock looming over him. Lucius Malfoy's trial date was fast-approaching. Harry needed to find the Lestranges soon, or be forced to turn his intelligence into Williamson so that Lucius could be sentenced with the leniency he deserved.

Harry flew through the Auror office towards the interrogation rooms, knocking open the door to Room Four.

Ernie was sitting on the old radiator, looking rather haughty as he gazed towards Mundungus, sitting before him wearing a tattered duster and bound to the wooden chair with chains.

"Is that really necessary, Ernie?" Harry asked, setting his file down on the table. "He was selling shitty cloaks, not using an Unforgivable Curse."

"After how long it's taken us to find him, I'm not taking any chances," Ernie replied pompously. Harry rolled his eyes.

"'Ow long it's taken to find me?" Mundungus repeated, his eyes widening. "An' might I ask why 'ee was looking for me in the first place?"

"You may," Harry said amiably. "How are you, Dung? It's been quite awhile."

"Aye, it 'as," Mundungus said, his eyes shifting nervously between Ernie and Harry, but rising himself up in indignation. "I read the papers, 'Arry, and I know you took that locket off Dolores Umbridge on my very own information, you did, but no thanks I get for my contributions in the war against 'Ee-Who-Must-Not-Named."

"I apologize for the oversight," Harry answered graciously. "But we'd actually like to talk to you about something else entirely. I've recently learned that two wands were stolen from Ollivander's shop in the fall of 1999, and I was curious if you knew anything about that."

Mundungus' bloodshot eyes widened in surprise, and Harry glanced at Ernie with a smile playing at his lips as Mundungus attempted unsuccessfully to rearrange his expression into something unreadable.

"About what, now?" Dung asked in a calculatedly bored voice.

"Were you hired to steal two wands for Giles Duncan and Tarquin Stuart?" Harry asked, leaning in just a bit in an effort to intimidate. He was rewarded, however, with the strong stench of tobacco and whisky.

The mention of the wizards in question set Dung's eyes wide again, and he raised his hands as if in effort to shake the chains off.

"Look," he said. "I'm just an 'onest man, tryin' to make a living. I wasn't offered any fancy Ministry job for my work in the Order, and Merlin knows there was a lot of it, putting my neck on the line again and again - first for Dumbledore, then Moody... takes its toll on a bloke..."

"Save it, Mundungus," Harry said, raising a hand. "You know as well as I do that selling fake Invisibility Cloaks can get you a fine of two-hundred-and-fifty Galleons. Do you have that kind of gold?"

"Who the bleeding 'eck 'as that kind of gold?" Dung spat, clearly becoming agitated.

"Well, it's Azkaban if you can't pay the fines," Harry said sadly, leaning back. "Unless you want to help us track down the Snatchers…"

"I don' know where they are!" Mundungus cried. "They reached out to me, they were the ones who set the meeting places. They paid well for me to not ask any questions! You Ministry blokes 'ave no clue 'ow it's been for us simple folk after the war. The Galleon's gone down a 'ill, it 'as, no purchasing power; a man 'as to take what 'ee can get!"

"I'm sure," Harry said drily, though pleased that they were making progress. He knew Mundungus wasn't loyal enough to any person or ideology to withstand interrogation for long. "Look, Dung, if you can lead us to Stuart and Duncan, I'm sure I can persuade MacMillan here to drop the charges."

Mundungus glanced uneasily back to Ernie. "Mirrors," he grumbled.

"What?" Ernie asked.

"MIRRORS," Mundungus cried. "They 'ad some of them two-way mirrors, didn't they? I met Duncan in the Leaky, and 'ee gave me the mirrors and said 'ee'd reach out to me when 'ee 'ad need, and that if I came through there'd be more gold than I could imagine."

"Do you have it on you?" Harry asked urgently, waving his wand so the wizard's arms were released from his chains.

Dung looked ever-more unhappy, but reached into his frayed pocket and pulled out a familiar-looking piece of glass. Like Harry's own two-way mirror, this one was simply a small shard that was about the size of his hand.

"Right," Harry said, looking at the mirror and running through imaginary scenarios in his head. "Right. This is what you're going to do-"

"Harry," Ernie said, a note of warning in his voice. "Harry, we should discuss it with Padma first, come up with a plan."

"No time," Harry answered. "Look, this is what you're going to do. You're going to use that mirror to talk to the Snatchers. Right here, right now. Tell them that you have something good - Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder - but that you need to meet them at their place within the hour to deliver or it's no deal. Say you need to flip it for gold today."
"It'll never work," Mundungus said, his bloodshot eyes swiveling back and forth between Harry and the mirror. "They'll never give up their location…"

Harry scoffed. "They'll be chomping at the bit," he said with confidence. "There hasn't been darkness powder sold in Britain since 1997; it's a dream for a Dark Wizard, and exactly the kind of thing that would bring a Snatcher higher in the favour of a Death Eater."

Mundungus looked quite like he would rather be sent to Azkaban than attempt to fool the two Snatchers serving the Lestrange brothers.

"'Arry, listen to me," he said urgently. "If this doesn't work… they'll kill me. No questions asked, I'll be a dead man. I need some assurance of my safety."

"If you help us find where they're staying, I'll make sure you have witness privileges. I'll leave a note here with you while we go scope out the scene."

Ernie looked to Harry with his eyebrows raised, but said nothing. Mundungus didn't look like he was too keen on remaining in the interrogation room, either, while the Aurors followed up on his information, but he sighed unhappily and raised the mirror in front of him. Harry motioned for Ernie to move, and the pair stood in the doorway, out of sight.

Mundungus held the mirror close to his face, in what Harry realized was an attempt to conceal his surroundings from the person on the other end.

"Duncan," he said in the clearest voice Harry had ever heard him use.

There was a moment of silence, and Harry held his breath before a small scuffling sound echoed across the room.

"Dung," a muffled voice said. "What is it?"

"Got some good stuff over here," Mundungus said gruffly. "Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder. I'm floating around the Midlands now trying to unload it."
"I don't recall ever inviting you to solicit goods to myself or Stuart," Duncan said, his voice sounding incredibly posh. Harry was surprised. Was this some heretofore unknown brand of elite Snatcher?

Dung took an uneasy breath and spat a chunk of phlegm across the room. Ernie closed his eyes and silently retched.

"Can't hold onto this stuff long, Duncan," Mundungus answered. "Not with me priors. I have a few other interested buyers, I suppose I can reach out to 'em…."

There was silence from the mirror, and Harry took a moment to appreciate Mundungus' acting abilities.

"Can you meet in Hogsmeade?" Duncan asked finally.

"'Ave I not just told you I'm in the Midlands," Mundungus cried in irritation. "I can't be gettin' all the way up to bleedin' Scotland, can I? I'll just meet you at your place."
Harry closed his eyes in silent prayer. The room was quiet for a moment.

"Barrowden," Duncan's voice said gruffly. "The old Tuft house at the Tannery. Be here within the hour."

Harry opened his eyes and looked at Ernie, who looked even more as though he was about to vomit. Dung put the mirror down as Harry slammed a fist into the doorway.

"Harry…" Ernie warned.

"I AM GOING TO FUCKING KILL WILLIAMSON," Harry roared. "How many times have we been out to the Tannery in the last year? How many times?"

Ernie looked at his feet, and Harry knew he had seen the files too. Since the Tuft murder last April, the Department had made at least a monthly trek to the Tannery to observe the home. Harry had never been on one of the excursions, for they fell under Williamson's jurisdiction, but for the Snatchers to have been able to avoid capture in an area that was under regular Auror observation was nothing short of a travesty. Harry understood the logic of Duncan and Stuart completely; why vacate a hiding spot that was clearly so good a team of senior Aurors couldn't detect it with their noses pressed to the window.

"It's got to be some kind of Anti-Revelation Jinx," Harry muttered to Ernie.

Ernie raised his eyebrows and tilted his head towards Mundungus, who's worried expression had grown quite curious in light of Harry's anger.

"Let's not reveal all of our cards just yet, Harry," he said gently. "We'll go to Barrowden now, we just have to grab Padma."

Harry nodded, his nostrils flaring in rage, and he turned towards Mundungus.

"You stay here, and if we find them, you'll be released immediately," he said, half-a-bribe, half-a-threat.

Mundungus nodded, and the chains sprang to life, binding him back to the chair, while Harry waved his wand so the shard of mirror flew into his outstretched hand.

He and Ernie let themselves out of the interrogation room, where Padma was standing, keeping watch for any overly-curious Aurors. Harry and Ernie quickly revealed to her the events of the interrogation, and her eyes grew wide in anxiety.

"We need to go now," she breathed, and her two partners nodded in agreement. The three set off towards the lifts and made their way back to the Atrium. They decided to Apparate from the street above so as not to attract any unwelcome attention, and by the time they made it to the busy Whitehall road the clocks were loudly chiming one o'clock. Harry thought briefly about Ginny's practice match and decided to send her an owl when they got to Barrowden to explain to her that he would not be able to match the scrimmage.

Padma grabbed Harry and Ernie each by the wrist and twisted on the spot, and before Harry could truly grasp what was happening the trio was standing outside the Tannery in Barrowden. Harry hadn't seen the street before, and he took it in with an air of apprehension.

It looked exactly as one would expect an old tannery to look, a small group of houses surrounding a covered structure that looked long-defunct. A sign denoting the area rested on the outside of the fence.

Ernie drew his wand, with Harry and Padma quickly following suit. The three moved down the narrow street, glancing at each tiny house, whereupon a sign bearing the owner's name rested.

'Tuft,' the sign over the last house on the alley read, and the three stopped in front, looking uneasily from one to the other. Harry took a step forward, and the crunch of his shoe on the gravel path seemed to alert the inhabitants to their presence, for the door swung open and a pale man with long, dark hair tucked behind his ears stepped out, drawing his cloak around him for warmth in the cool March air.

"Merlin, Dung, get in the house before-" the man suddenly stopped dead in his tracks as he took in the three wizards in front of him. He gave a great shout of recognition and threw his arms back, revealing his wand, but Ernie was faster, sending a neat Stunning spell straight into the man's chest.

The wizard cried out in surprise before crumpling, and there was a clatter from within the hut as another man ran forward, wand raised in defense. "Stuart!" he cried.

Their reflexes were slow, and Harry took this to his full advantage.

"Incarcerous!" he shouted, and thick cords wrapped themselves around the man's wrists, yanking him to the ground. Padma charged past the doorway as Ernie conjured binds around Stuart's wrists. Harry grabbed Duncan by the collar of his robes and dragged him into the house, Ernie following closely behind with Stuart, before any of the neighbors could get a look at the scene occuring on the quiet country road.

Harry deposited Duncan on the floor of the sitting room and took a deep breath while looking around. The man grunted against his binds as Ernie leaned over him and grabbed his wand. Padma plucked Stuart's up as well, before pointing her own wand to his chest and mumbling "Rennervate."

Stuart sat up and took a great breath as though he had been revived from a months long sleep. Duncan looked angrily at the three of them.

"I'll skip the pleasantries," Harry said. "I know Rodolphus and Rabastan Lestrange are hiding here in the village under protective spells, and I need the pair of you to tell me the address, now."

"Who says we know it, Potter?" Stuart spat, earning himself a kick from Ernie. Harry threw his partner a warning glance, but Ernie shrugged.

"Why don't we tell you how this is going to go?" Padma said, stepping forward with her wand outstretched. "You are formally under arrest and will be charged with aiding and abetting in the attack on Ronald Weasley in the summer of 1999, to which there were five witnesses, three of them standing before you. Thorfinn Rowle faced the same charges last year and was sentenced to life in Azkaban. Or, you can choose the same route as your associate Mundungus and help us find the Lestrange brothers."

Duncan shifted his gaze towards Harry. "We've heard of your bargains, Potter. Has it occurred to you that perhaps the Lestranges have made more enticing offers than you could imagine?"

Harry laughed. "Gold, you mean? It seems to have gotten you far," he said, glancing around at the sparse furnishings, which looked as though it had all come from a second-hand shop that was particularly lax about its standards for donation.

"We don't require instant gratification for our services," Stuart said, straining against his bonds.

"Perhaps you should," Harry mused, praying that Duncan and Stuart's arrogant way of speaking wasn't reflective of some deeper intelligence. He was relying on their limited status as Snatchers to indicate that they weren't powerful enough to be inducted into Voldemort's inner circle. "Anyways, the Ministry has other ways of extracting information it desires."

He gave Padma a meaningful glance. "The Veritaserum, Patil," he said dramatically.

Padma glanced between Harry and Ernie. "The wh-?" she began before Ernie stepped quickly on her foot. Padma cleared her throat in understanding. "Yes, yes of course," she said. "I'll just go to my bag," she said, turning away from the others and walking for the door.

Harry nearly smiled in satisfaction as the eyes of both Duncan and Stuart widened in fear. "Padma is a particularly good hand at potions," he said mildly. "Of course, it would be much more beneficial to you to comply with our wishes so you have control over what information is revealed. If not, who knows what you'll say under the effects of the serum?"

The two Snatchers glanced at each other. Each seemed reluctant to be the one to reveal the secret. Padma returned, carrying a flask of what Harry knew was likely water.

"We can't exactly tell you," Stuart said finally, and Duncan let out a great breath. "There's some kind of spell cast over the place… if we try to speak it, we get sick."

Duncan nodded seriously in confirmation. Harry hadn't thought about the possibility of a Tongue-Tying Curse, but Ernie had already conjured parchment and a quill from thin air and handed it to Duncan.

"Try writing it," he said, not unkindly.

"You'll have to let us out of these ropes," Stuart growled. Harry waved his wand and Duncan's right hand sprung free from the cords. He took the parchment from the Snatcher's hand and pressed it against the wall of the sitting room, gesturing for him to use this as a surface with which to write the address.

Duncan looked to Stuart unhappily, before shrugging and walking to the wall. He wrote something on the parchment before giving a great shiver. Ernie walked over and secured the man's bonds for the second time as he yanked the parchment from the wall.

"The barn at the St. Peter rectory," Ernie read. "The rectory has a barn?"

Stuart shrugged, a rather humorous sight to behold, given that his hands were still tied behind his back. "It's a farming town," he said. "Everywhere has a barn."

Ernie handed the parchment to Harry, who glanced back to Padma, still holding the glass of water.

"What are we waiting for?" he asked.

"What are we meant to do with these two?" Ernie wondered.

Harry glanced back. "Leave them here," he said. "Do you trust your incarceration spell?"

Ernie nodded, glancing back to the Snatchers uneasily. Padma held up their wands.

"They won't get far without these," she said. Harry nodded and cast the charm over the two Snatchers for a second time. The three backed slowly out of the house, locking the door behind them.

"The churchyard is just around the corner," Ernie said. Harry nodded, following the others up the tiny street. There were few structures on the road in front of them, making St. Peter's clearly visible at the end of the road. Harry could see the parsonage from where they were, situated at the end of the cemetery, but there was no barn. He turned back to Ernie and Padma.

"They lied!" he cried in anger.

"Give it a moment, Harry," Padma said gently. "Really think about the barn. Envision it."

Harry tried to calm himself for a moment, thinking deeply and clearly about the barn as they moved towards the rectory. Harry glanced back behind him towards the Tannery, and when he looked back, he saw the tiny rectory again, but this time another roof was jutting out from behind.

"Look at that," Ernie breathed. Harry felt his hand tighten around his wand as his heart rate accelerated.

The three walked closer and closer to the cemetery, reaching its gate in just a few moments. Harry could see that the grounds to the old barn were separated from the cemetery by an old pasture fence. The trio walked through the kissing gate of the old cemetery and immediately made their way towards the pasture fence, weaving their way around crumbling headstones and overgrown roots.

Harry reached the fence first, and seeing no gate, attempted to scale the iron bars of the structure, only to be thrown back by some invisible force. He glanced back to Padma in confusion, who looked over towards the rectory.

"I think… I think we're meant to go through," she said, steeling herself and raising her own wand just slightly. Ernie nodded in agreement. Harry grimaced before nodding at the others.

The walked to the right and approached the tiny door to the parsonage with great hesitation. The door was made of old wood and seemed on the verge of rotting away. Only one of them could fit through at a time, and Harry boldly raised his wand and heard the lock click as the door swung open.

Harry took a deep breath and entered the tiny house, followed by Padma and then Ernie. The door swung shut behind them and locked with a click, and before Harry could process that no one in his party had cast the spell, a tall, thin man with long, dark hair stepped into the hall and raised his wand, a look of surprise mingled with excitement on his face.

"Hello, Potter," Rodolphus said, waving his wand and sending a jet of red light soaring towards the trio. Harry deflected the Stunning spell easily before sending another one straight towards the Death Eater, who ducked with great agility and cried out.

"RABASTAN!" Rodolphus shouted. "WE HAVE COMPANY!"

A great crash echoed from the back of the house as an equally thin man shot into the hall. Harry stomach twisted at how prepared the brothers were for battle. Ernie sent another jinx towards the Lestranges, but Rabastan deflected the spell and turned, running from the hall towards the pasture, Rodolphus following behind.

"Don't let them Disapparate!" Harry shouted, charging after the brothers, bombarding them with spell after spell. Padma was just beside him with Ernie bringing up the rear, and as they spilled out of the kitchen door into the pasture, Harry caught the sight of a robe whipping around the side of the barn.

Ernie raised his wand towards the sky above them, unusually blue for March, and Harry heard him quietly cast an Anti-Disapparition Jinx. Harry silently prayed that they wouldn't find themselves in the same terrible position as their last trip into Barrowden. Beside him, Padma raised her wand offensively.

"We could set it on fire," she suggested. "Smoke them out into the open."

"There could be evidence as to what they were doing with Dagmar's gold inside," Harry said, glancing up the building. "Do they have a vantage point from here?" he asked.

"There aren't any windows," Ernie said.

"We're going to have to go in," Harry said, pushing back his sleeves and raising his wand. Ernie and Padma had both paled slightly, but nodded. They crossed the threshold, looking around. Harry took in the sight of a desk littered with papers and a large trunk in the corner. There were no animals to be seen, and Ernie flicked his wand wearily at the trunk. The lid sprung open, revealing a glittering pile of Galleons. Harry sucked in his breath.

The Lestranges were nowhere in the vast room, and Harry looked uneasily upward. He was quickly rewarded by the sight of Rodolphus' matted hair and waxen smile, observing him quietly as if curious what Harry would do next.

Roldophus' gaze was fixed on Harry as he raised his wand arm, but with the reflexes of only a seeker, Harry noticed the Death Eater's wand shift imperceptibly to the left as a jet of green light shot out from the tip, hurling itself towards Padma. Harry cried out and slammed into her, knocking both of them into a hay bale.

Ernie shouted in distress and sent another Stunning Spell towards the rafters at the same time Harry sent a severing spell towards Rabastan, who had peered over the edge of the loft. Harry heard a yelp of pain as his spell hit its target.

Rodolphus waved his long, thin arm outwards towards Ernie and cried, "CRUCIO!"

Ernie's body flew from the floor of the barn with a screech of pain, and Harry watched as his partner reached out blindly in attempt to escape the sensation. Harry raised his wand towards Rodolphus again and attempted to disarm him, but missed, drawing the Death Eater's attention back towards him as Padma sent an Impediment Jinx towards Rabastan. It missed again, and Harry realized it was no use with the brothers having higher ground than the Aurors. Just as he was about to give the order to fall back, Rodolphus met his gaze and murmured an incantation.

The air in front of Harry suddenly changed terribly and he blinked desperately. He wasn't in the barn at all, but a great stone dungeon with sculpted serpents twisting up pillars.

"No," Harry cried, desperately looking around in an effort to find the Lestranges, but he was alone, all alone, in the Chamber of Secrets. He could hear Ernie and Padma calling out for him, but their voices were quiet and far-off. He whipped his head to the left and a flash of red caught his eye.

"No!" Harry shouted, throwing his body towards Ginny. She was lying on the wet, dark flagstones, but even as he reached her, he realized it wasn't the Ginny that had departed their flat that morning for Quidditch practice, but the eleven-year-old girl who had been brought down to the Chamber by Tom Riddle nearly ten years earlier.

It was with a sickening sense of dread that Harry realized what was happening; the incantation Rodolphus must've used, and he made every effort to close his mind to Rodolphus' Legilimency, but the scene around him changed again to a Hogwarts corridor being blasted apart, and Fred Weasley's body flying through the air before hitting the ground with a sickening crunch. Harry cried out and his surroundings changed once more to Lupin and Tonks' funeral, where Harry tried desperately to feed a squirming and miserable Teddy. Harry could still hear Padma and Ernie crying out to him, screaming now, and he closed his eyes, trying with all of his might to block out the influx of memories, raising his wand in defense only to have it be ripped from his hands.

The images continued to whip around Harry like a terrifying slideshow; Dumbledore being blasted from the parapet, Sirius falling through the veil. The sights didn't abate even as Harry felt a rough pair of hands grab him and pull him upwards; it was all he could do to follow blindly.

And suddenly he was in the barn again, his wrists bound behind him and a Body-Bind Curse holding him in place. He moved his eyes to the left and right, seeing Ernie and Padma beside him, both similarly inhibited. Harry wanted to scream; how could he not have known that Rodolphus was a Legilimens; how could he have neglected his duty to learn Occlumency so thoroughly? Ernie and Padma were looking at him, and though their eyes bore no trace of resentment, Harry couldn't help but feel as though he failed them.

As if reading his thoughts, Padma blinked twice, but a tear fell down her cheek. Harry closed his own eyes, the only movement he was capable of, and hoped that whatever end they were about to meet came quickly. He allowed himself to think of Ginny. He had likely missed her practice match by now, and he nearly felt sick with the thought of how worried she would be when he didn't show up, but he was distracted from his misery by the sound of hay rustling from below.

"We could kill the other two," one of the brothers suggested, and Harry imagined it was Rabastan, for Rodolphus seemed the clear leader between the pair.

"Never kill a potential bargaining chip," Rodolphus replied condescendingly. "They're Aurors, they have value."

"I don't see why the Minister needs Potter alive," Rabastan grumbled. "Potter dead is easily worth the Galleons we were going to pay him for the giant army."

"I've told you a hundred times," Rodolphus said, slamming something shut. Harry turned to Ernie, whose eyes were wide. "The Belarusian Minister isn't secure in his position, and he wants to figure out exactly how Potter managed to defeat the Dark Lord, through whatever means necessary. Potter alive and primed for questioning is worth more to him than the ten thousand Galleons we were going to pay."

"You talk to me like I'm stupid," Rabastan replied. "Do not forget, brother, that it was I who brokered the deal in the first place. If you believe we cannot kill Potter and still exchange him for the giants, I don't see why we can't have a little fun with him while we wait."

"Rabastan," Rodolphus said. "I warn you, if his memories are disturbed, we will have to pay the money regardless."

Harry heard their voices growing closer, and the ladder at the end of the loft creaked ominously. Padma closed her eyes, another tear falling down her cheek.

"Perhaps, brother, we can put both our skills to use," Rabastan said with a dark chuckle. "If you can bring his memories to the forefront, and I use my particular brand of interrogation effectively, we may be able to recover the information the Minister needs and avenge the Dark Lord."

Rodolphus had no reply, and by now Harry could hear that the brother had nearly clambered their way into the loft.

Harry saw Rabastan's head appear first over the landing, followed by his long-haired brother. His stomach lurched at the sight of them. The two brothers stood in the middle of the loft, regarding their prisoners quietly.

"Potter," Rabastan said quietly, and Harry remembered Narcissa's warning about the Lestranges losing everything they had ever lived for, and how dangerous this made them.

The Death Eater walked slowly over to Harry, looking somewhat hesitant, which, despite Harry's terrible circumstance, did bring him a moment of pleasure. These men still feared him, just as Voldemort once had. Rabastan reached the spot where Harry was stuck, and wearily reached a hand out, pushing back his hair so he could trace the scar above his eye.

"Potter," Rabastan repeated. "I feel obligated to tell you how extraordinarily happy it makes me to have you here."

Clearly a fan of brevity, Rabastan stepped back, raised his wand towards Harry, and cried, "Crucio!"
Harry had known it was coming, and even as the pain hit him like a thousand white-hot knives stabbing him all over his body, he refused to cry out. He didn't know if he could scream even if he wanted to, for the Body-Bind Curse was still in effect, but he gazed at Rabastan steadfastly, willing the brother to understand that he couldn't effect Harry.

His teeth were clenched, and he struggled not to tear his gaze from Rabastan, even as he saw the terror in Padma's eyes from the corner of the room as Rodolphus approached now, raising his own wand.

"The Dark Lord counselled me on your weakness to Legilimency before you struck him down, Potter," Rodolphus said quietly. Harry closed his eyes, even as the pain engulfed him further, making him wish that the end was near, that death would bring him back to King's Cross, where he could board a train and forget all this misery. He was too vulnerable; a weak Occlumens even in the healthiest of mindsets, this level of pain left him defenseless.

"Legilimens," Rodolphus said quietly, and Harry felt his eyes fly open against his will as he was again forced to relive his life's most trying moments. The images of death, loss, and despair were easily a hundred times more unbearable than the physical torture being inflicted on him.

This venture into the depths of Harry's mind didn't last as long as the first, and as Harry was hearing his mother beg and plead for his life, the great mists of his memory cleared and he was staring up at Rodolphus' thin, pale face in the loft of the barn yet again.

"There are so many people you care for, Potter," Rodolphus said quietly. "I cared for someone once. I had a wife, I'm sure you know. Your girlfriend's mother killed her."

Harry attempted to close his eyes again, knowing what was coming, but Rodolphus raised his wand once more. Harry felt his eyelids pull back, and watched as Rodolphus' dark eyes bore into his own as the Death Eater cried, "Legilimens," for the third time.

Harry prepared to be whipped again from the barn, but the scene in front of him remained the same. Rodolphus smiled at Harry, whose vision was starting to go fuzzy around the edges as he continued to be subjected to Rabastan's torture.

"Your girlfriend will suffer just like you, Potter," Rodolphus murmured, stepping aside to reveal a figure lying on the ground behind him.

Harry's heart seemed to fail as he took in the sight of Ginny, in the exact same position as she had been in the Chamber of Secrets nearly ten years before, but looking as she did now, her hair a long wild mane in an ever-growing pool of blood as her body lay broken and twisted before him.

Harry tried with all of his might to close his eyes, to shut Rodolphus out, but it was too much, all too much, even though every rational bone he had left in his body was telling him that it was the Legilimency, that Ginny was safe, safe at home, far, far away from here.

"You may not look away, Potter," Rodolphus said. "You must watch, as I was forced to watch my wife and my master die within mere moments of one another. You've a strong will, Potter, not many can survive the Cruciatus Curse and Legilimency at the same time, and yet you still fight."

He stepped around Ginny, revealing another figure behind her, this one conscious and much, much smaller.

"But, make no mistake, I will break you," Rodolphus said, as the image of little Teddy Lupin wriggled against invisible ropes and cried out to his godfather.

"Harry, please," the child cried as he writhed in pain. "Harry! Harry!"

Harry couldn't couldn't hear himself screaming in reply, though he knew his mouth was open, all the air forced from his lungs. He couldn't move, couldn't go to either of them; not Ginny, lying in a pool of blood, her hair fanned out beneath her, skin pale as snow; not Teddy, reaching out and screaming in terror, begging for his godfather. Harry attempted to move his hands to cover his ears, attempted to block out the sound of Teddy's screams, but they were still bound behind his back. He tried to screw his eyes closed, but they were held wide by some invisible force. He couldn't bear it.

The fire in his veins, the pulling on his limbs dulled as Harry forced his consciousness into the deepest recesses of his mind, a safe place where there was no Ginny, no Teddy, no Ron or Hermione, no home. He started to pull away from himself, from Harry, and as he forgot his own being he felt a warmth envelope over him.

"Good," a voice said, though he couldn't identify who it belonged to, for it was far off and distant. "Good, Potter, I can sense that you are beginning to lose yourself. Let go, Potter."

Letting go sounded like bliss, Harry thought. Let go, let go. He felt himself give over, closing off from the pain and the memories. The figures in front of him vanished, he was in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by unfamiliar voices, which had raised abruptly.

"Rodolphus," one of the voices said. "Rodolphus, do you hear-"

And suddenly there was a great bang that exploded around the room, followed by a scuffling sound and a yelp.

"Fuck!" a new voice, this one a woman's, cried. "Stupefy!"

"Petrificus totalus!" a man shouted. He sounded achingly familiar, and Harry had a flash of a warm room with a plush sofa in front of a great stone fireplace.

Harry felt the binds on his wrists snap, and he fell to the ground like a marionette with its strings cut as whatever enchantment had been holding him upright fell away. He looked up at the rafters above him as jets of light soared overhead and voices cried out around him.

And then suddenly there was a great, silent gap in things, and Harry felt the air around him shift and tilt. He could hear feet running, the floorboards beneath him creaking ominously. A red-haired man suddenly entered his line of vision, hovering over him in concern. Harry knew this man, and he opened his mouth in an effort to identify him.

The man noticed this and put a gentle arm on his shoulder.

"Don't speak, mate," he said. "We're going to get you out of here, we just have to make sure the others can move."

The others. Who were the others? Harry turned his head and saw a woman with long, dirty blonde hair holding out her wand and murmuring over a man lying prone on the floor, seemingly unconscious.

"Ron?" a woman called, and suddenly the red-haired man above him had a name. Yes, Harry thought, Ron. Ron, who had sat with him on the sofa in front of the warm fire. "Ron," the woman said again. "Is he alright?"

"I don't know," this Ron said apprehensively. "He looks out of it."

Another head popped into view, a waterfall of hair tickling Harry's face as it's owner peered into his eyes. "Harry?" she asked, her voice shaky. "Sweetheart, can you hear me?"

A small, warm hand reached out and brushed the hair from his forehead, and Harry was flooded with a deep sense of comfort. His mouth opened, almost against his will.

"Ginny?" he croaked, his throat burning as he tried to sit up. "Ginny, are you alright?"

Ron laughed and Ginny's face broke into a great smile. "You're asking me if I'm alright?" she asked incredulously.

"Did they hurt you?" Harry asked. "Did they hurt Teddy?"

Ginny's eyebrows knotted in concern. "No, sweetheart, I'm fine. Teddy's fine, he's at home with Andromeda. Hermione's just getting in touch with St. Mungo's and we're going to get you out of here."

Harry grimaced. Why did she keep calling him sweetheart? "I can't go to St. Mungo's," Harry told her, trying to sit up again. "I need to arrest the Lestranges."

Ginny shook her head. "Don't worry about them," she said, taking his clammy hand in her own. "They're not going anywhere. Please, Harry, just rest for a moment."

Harry nodded, comforted by their intertwined fingers. He let himself fall back for a moment as Ginny brushed her thumb against his knuckles again and again while murmuring to him quietly, and before he could really realize what was happening, darkness had overtaken him.

The lights above Harry were uncomfortably bright, and he screwed his eyes even more tightly shut in an effort to avoid the intrusion. He suddenly realized that he wasn't in his own bed, and he sprang up as the encounter with the Lestranges flew to the forefront of his thoughts. He reached out and sought his wand, opening his eyes and taking in the bedside table next to him where the stick of holly sat next to a potted plant.

"Oi!" a voice called, and Harry glanced over his other shoulder to see Ginny, sitting at his bedside and holding a cup of coffee. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Ginny," Harry said. "Where are the Lestranges? Where am I? Are Ernie and Padma alright? Rodolphus, he's a Legilimens, I never knew…."

Ginny reached out and placed a gentle hand on Harry's chest, pushing him softly back onto his pillows.

"Relax," she said firmly. "The Lestranges are in custody and you're in Spell Damage at St. Mungo's. Ernie and Padma are down the corridor; they're fine."

"Spell Damage?" Harry asked, looking around the room. The fluorescent lights illuminated his bed and the bedside table behind him. There was another empty chair on the opposite side of the bed from Ginny. "Why? I feel fine."

Ginny looked as though she was trying very hard not to roll her eyes, though she was exceptionally pale, and Harry could see that her hands were shaking as they clutched the cup of coffee.

"How long have I been out?" he asked softly, taking a moment to recognize what he'd likely put her through.

"Not long. It's Tuesday morning," Ginny said, sitting back a bit. "We found you near midnight."

"Tuesday morning!" Harry cried, trying to sit up again, though it was hardly an easy feat. "You're meant to be at practice."

Ginny's eyes narrowed at him, and he knew she was furious that he would even suggest such a thing when he was in hospital.

"I'm sorry for worrying you," Harry said, picking at his bedding.

"Worrying me?" Ginny asked, giving a dry laugh. "I just about had a nervous breakdown. You'd clearly been tortured for hours, and when you didn't recognize Ron I thought you were past the point of help."

She took a deep breath and turned to look at the blank, white wall of Harry's room. He could tell she was trying very hard not to cry.

"Ginny," he said, reaching out and grabbing her hand. She laced her fingers through his and placed her other hand on top of them both. "I swear, I'm fine."

"I know," she said. "I just hate seeing you like that, is all. They gave you Dreamless Sleep Potion when you got here, but before that you were crying out for me and Teddy, begging and pleading. It was just awful. Ron had to leave; he couldn't stand it."

Harry thought of the image of Ginny, lying in the puddle of her own blood, and Teddy screaming in pain. He shook his head as if trying to dislodge those terrible thoughts, but he knew they would linger.

"How did you know?" Harry asked. "How to find me?"

Ginny smiled. "You missed my scrimmage," she said simply. "I knew you wouldn't have forgotten if you hadn't found Mundungus, but as it got later and later and I hadn't heard from you, I grew worried. I got in touch with Hermione and she was able to track Dung down to the interrogation room where you were holding him in the Ministry. We spoke to him and he told us about the mirrors and the Tannery. Hermione Flooed Ron, who got in touch with Neville, who was visiting with Luna, and we all met in the village and retraced your steps from there."

"I can't believe you got them," Harry said. "I can't believe it's over."

Ginny gave him a small smile. "It was Neville who brought them down in the end. He's gone back to the school, though. It was… it was hard for him, I think."

Harry nodded.

"Well," he said. "Thank you for finding me."

"You're not getting away from me that easy, Potter," Ginny said, finally allowing a tear to trickle down her cheek. "I'm so proud of you. It's been so long, and now it's done. Kingsley was here earlier. They found all of Dagmar's gold and coded letters to other governments all over the world in that bloody barn. He's got codebreakers working on them now, but we know who the Lestranges were aiding, and vice versa. They had some deal where they were trying to buy a giant army from the Belarusian Minister of Magic. Anyways, Kingsley's just about had enough. He went over Proudfoot and Robards to give Savage and Williamson the sack this morning. Said something about the old Aurors never being willing to get their hands dirty."

Relief flooded through Harry's veins. Could it really, really be over? After nearly four years of uncertainty and anger, he felt a sudden contentedness settle over him. He relaxed onto the pillow.

Ginny smiled at him. "I'll find a healer," she said. "We'll get you home; I can see that you still have all your faculties." She grinned wickedly for a moment. "Well, as many of your faculties as you had before you found the Lestranges."

Harry smiled. "Stay," he said, pulling on her hand. She took the hint and stood, leaning over him and pressing a kiss to his dry lips.

"I love you," she said, reaching up again to brush his hair back. "Do me a favor and never scare me like again."

"I can't make any promises," Harry said softly. "I love you, too."

They were still for a moment, likely thinking of the other possible outcomes of Harry's rush into Barrowden, contemplating the nature of his work.

"Perhaps you should become an Auror," Harry said after a moment, flashing his girlfriend a small smile. "You've been on enough cases at this point, you might as well be getting paid for them."

Ginny laughed. "I'll stick with Quidditch, thanks. Being an Auror's not nearly dangerous or exciting enough for me. But I think you're right," she said, leaning back with a wink and making for the door. "We work much better together."

And with that she left the room, leaving Harry to lie back on the pillows with a sweet, floral scent in his nose.

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Chapter 15: Chapter 15 - Tender is the Night

Author's Notes: A/N: good news! The next chapter is already written, so if the direction of this chapter gets good response and i don’t have to edit the subsequent one over-much, there could be another update this weekend!! I hope you all enjoy this chapter!! Title is after the song “Tender is the Night” by Jackson Browne.

Harry couldn't find Ginny.

The sun beat down on the back his neck, and he could feel the sweat pooling in the small of his back as panic surged through him.

He'd been searching for ages, knocking on doors, wandering in and out of shops, calling her name. The village was small, and Harry knew he should've found her by now. Ron was standing on the corner next to the post office, smoking a pipe.

"Can you help me look for her?" Harry asked desperately. "Please, Ron?"

"No can do, mate," Ron said with a puff of smoke. "I'm not an Auror anymore, remember?"

"I forgot," Harry said quietly. "Why are you smoking a pipe?"

Ron looked down at the object in question, mere inches from his mouth.

"We all have to die somehow, Harry," he answered, looking back to his friend.

Harry took in the sight of Ron once more before turning and running up the high street.

The sky overhead was a piercing blue, and suddenly Harry found himself standing in the old church yard, facing the barn. He knew he must enter, but he was terrified of what he would find.

"Ginny?" he cried, weaving his way through the headstones towards the barn. "Ginny?"

But there was no answer. Harry began glancing down at each headstone as he passed, realizing that each one had the same epitaph.

Ginevra Molly Weasley

Born, August 11th, 1981

Died, March 24th, 2002

Harry wanted to leave this place. He screamed Ginny's name again. She couldn't be dead. She couldn't be dead. Every rational bone in his body started to argue with him. Why would she have so many tombstones? She couldn't be buried fifty times.

He finally reached the barn and found himself immediately in the loft.

There she was, her hair fanned out around her in the pool of blood. Her skin was as white as a sheet of parchment and she didn't move. Harry threw himself down next to her, touching her face again and again, trying to pull back her eyelids, but she still wouldn't move. It was like she was made of marble.

"Ginny, Ginny, please," he mumbled again and again, tears stinging his eyes.

"Harry," an urgent voice called. "Harry!"

And suddenly he was awake. He gazed up at ceiling trying to absorb his surroundings without his glasses, but then Ginny was leaning over him. Harry breathed a massive sigh of relief.

"You were having a nightmare," Ginny said, flopping back down beside him and summing a washcloth from the desk across from the bed. They were in her childhood bedroom, having arrived that evening from the Burrow for Christmas. Ginny murmured "Aguamenti" and a trickle of water from her wand dampened the cloth, which she pressed to Harry's temple.

"Thanks," Harry said, reaching up and stroking her wrist.

"Was it the same one?" Ginny asked. "Me in Barrowden?"

Harry nodded. Ginny set the cloth down on the nightstand and reached an arm across him, propping herself up so she could see into his eyes.

"I'm right here," she said quietly, before kissing him gently on the mouth, the forehead, the tip of his nose, along his chin, down his neck. Harry allowed himself to burrow into her for a moment.

She let out a deep breath and curled into him, her leg draped over his and her head resting under his chin.

"You've been so strong since you found them," she mumbled. "I know how terrible it is having someone in your head like that, and I know you feel fine during the day, but perhaps at night… you could take something so you'd sleep better?"

Harry shook his head. "I'll get through it," he said with a small smile. "Just promise me you're not going anywhere."

He lifted his head awkwardly to press his lips back against hers. She ran a hand through his hair.

"I'm not going anywhere," she said firmly. "But, Harry… perhaps we should talk about it. We can work through some of these fears..."

"I don't want to talk about it," Harry said, snaking a hand under her t-shirt and up her ribcage, brushing a thumb against her right breast.

Ginny still managed a small smile, despite her concern. She continued running her hand through his messy locks, but her gaze travelled over the edge of her childhood bed to the floor below.

"You've forgotten our company," she said, nudging her head downwards.

Harry groaned, leaning over to check on Teddy Lupin, only the top of his turquoise head visible from the sleeping bag Mr. Weasley had unearthed for him.

"We could be very, very quiet," Harry suggested, raising his eyebrows. Ginny giggled in response before pushing Harry off of her.

The four-year-old had begged his grandmother to spend Christmas with Harry and Ginny, and she had finally relented, deciding to visit an old friend of her late husband's for the holiday. She would be back to collect Teddy after Christmas dinner, and Harry was thrilled to be able to share the Burrow with the boy.

He and Ginny had again gone overboard with the gifts for Teddy, but Harry hardly minded. He and Ginny had stayed up late last night, tucking all the boxes underneath the tree in the sitting room, but Harry had been much more preoccupied with the tiny box he had left hidden inside the pocket of his trousers.

He had bought the engagement ring in August, just after England had lost the semi-final match against Bulgaria in the World Cup. Ginny had played spectacularly, and Harry was sure England would make it to the final, but Krum had caught the Snitch at just the right moment, and Bulgaria had beaten England by a mere ten points. Harry didn't think he'd ever seen Ron in such an admittedly justifiable rage, and had watched in embarrassment as a single tear had trickled down his best friend's cheek, hastily wiped away before anyone else could notice.

However, Ron's tears at watching his sister leave the stadium in defeat were happily avenged a week later when Egypt defeated Bulgaria in an equally upsetting defeat.

Harry had watched from the stands as Krum threw his broom into the green earth of the pitch before tearfully proclaiming that he was finished with the sport. Ron had cackled happily the whole time.

The Weasleys had returned to England in mourning for Ginny's lost cup, but Harry was happy to have her home after a long and trying separation during her training. Harry made it to every match England played, but trekking between London and Berlin had made for a long summer. The moment Ginny's bags were unpacked, Harry had ventured out to find a ring, intent upon honoring the agreement that he and Ginny had decided upon the Christmas prior.

It didn't take long for him to hunt down the perfect one, a small opal surrounded by a circlet of diamonds that he had bought off an antique dealer recommended by Hermione's parents. Harry hadn't thought twice about confiding to Hermione his plans to propose, and she hadn't whispered a word to anyone besides her parents, for which Harry was enormously glad, as he was quite chuffed with his choice of ring.

And yet, it was now December, and as Harry kissed Ginny lightly again, he caught sight of said trousers flung lazily along the back of her desk chair, and his heart leapt as he thought of the task that he'd been putting off since August. He was tempted to leap up now and propose to Ginny on the spot, but he wanted the moment to be perfect, a beautiful memory in the sea of struggle that had engulfed them in the last five years.

Harry knew that Ginny wouldn't want something public or over-the-top, but he didn't want to casually pop the question after a particularly good shag, either. He was finally beginning to feel a contented happiness that he was desperate to capture when he asked Ginny to marry him.

Ginny's breathing had evened out, and Harry knew that she had fallen back to sleep. Harry himself was unsure if he'd be able to slip back into unconsciousness after his nightmare and quiet contemplations of the engagement ring. He checked his watch. No one would be up for hours. Harry shifted in the tiny bed and settled for watching the slight rise and fall of the old sleeping bag as Teddy slept peacefully.

What felt like mere seconds later, Harry was jolted awake as a small forced crashed into his midriff.

"It's Christmas!" Teddy cried happily, managing to find space for himself between Harry and Ginny in the already-cramped twin bed.

"It's Christmas," Ginny confirmed, reaching an arm blindly from under the quilt and wrapping it around Teddy while keeping her eyes firmly shut. "Why don't you go down and check if Father Christmas has come, and then come back and tell us what you've seen."

Harry glanced towards Teddy, whose head shot up in excitement. "Really?" he asked.

Harry nodded. "Quickly," he said to Teddy, who was already clambering out of bed. "Before Victoire gets there first."

Teddy moved much faster, letting himself down from the bed and rushing from the room.

"You've bought us about thirty seconds," Harry told Ginny, who groaned in reply.

Sure enough, Teddy was back in the bedroom moments later, happily reporting that Father Christmas had indeed paid the house a visit, and that Harry and Ginny were the only ones still in bed, and that if they didn't get up now Victoire would get all of the presents and there would be none left for Teddy.

"That's not exactly how Christmas works, Teddy," Harry said, pulling pyjama pants over his boxers and handing Ginny her dressing gown.

Teddy shrugged and grabbed Harry and Ginny in each hand, pulling them down the flight of stairs and into the sitting room, where most of Ginny's family had already congregated under the tree. Bill and Fleur were sitting on the ground watching Victoire as she toddled happily around the room to the delight of her many aunts and uncles. It was the first Christmas that Victoire was truly aware of, and her doting parents had spoiled her just as much as Harry and Ginny had done Teddy.

George and Angelina were squashed together in an armchair, smiling happily at the sight of Victoire, though George's expression turned quickly to one of terror as Victoire reached out suddenly and grabbed her father's fang-earring, yanking hard and tearing it right from its place.

"She loves to do that," Bill said with a smile, raising his wand to heal the bleeding cut on his earlobe.

George smiled nervously. Harry glanced to Ron and Hermione, sitting together on the sofa next to Mr. Weasley. They were smiling happily as well, though Harry noticed that they weren't touching each other, leaving a few inches of space between them. Hermione's arms were crossed around herself and Ron was resting his chin on his hand.

Mrs. Weasley bustled out of the kitchen holding steaming cups of coffee, which Harry and Ginny eagerly accepted, sitting on the carpet. Audrey's sister had just gotten married, so she and Percy were spending the holiday with her parents.

"I know it's early, dears," Mrs. Weasley said happily, settling into her rocking chair. "The holidays are so much nicer though, when you can share them with children."

The children were given permission to begin opening their gifts, and Teddy took on the task of handing out presents to the adults. Harry showed the child which letters on the tags signified which members of the family. The four-year-old did remarkably well for having only just learned his letters, though Ginny did receive several gifts meant for George, and Harry turned a pair of goblin-made earrings over to Hermione shortly after opening them.

The festivities were momentarily interrupted by a whoop from Bill and a groan from Fleur, who had just unwrapped a miniature broomstick left under the tree for Victoire.

"Brilliant, Ginny!" Bill exclaimed, plucking his daughter up and setting her gently on the broom, which hovered about a foot off the ground. Teddy smiled; he had the same one upstairs. The broom took off slowly around the room and Victoire shrieked with laughter as she skirted past her relatives.

Ginny laughed. "I have to make sure I'm still her favorite aunt, especially now that I know Gabrielle's working with unicorns."

Fleur had turned rather pale. "Bill!" she cried as her daughter nearly missed the corner of the coffee table. "Watch her before she hurts herself!"

The family had largely finished unwrapping their gifts, and Harry spoke up.

"Why don't we all go outside and fly around the orchard?" he suggested.

"It's freezing!" Hermione said uneasily.

"You don't have to come," Ron said, standing from the couch and clapping his hands together in excitement. "I'm game!"

Everyone stood, summoning cloaks and wrapping scarves around the little ones. Harry sent Teddy up for his broom, and together the family trudged into the garden, covered in a majestic layer of snow. Harry loved a white Christmas.

The adults stood at the edge of the pasture and played audience to the children, who flew circles around each other a few feet above the ground. Victoire flew quite well, much to the delight of her father and aunt, though after a few laps around the garden she misjudged a turn and went tumbling into a snowbank, reemerging with tears streaming down her rosy cheeks and crying out to her maman, who quickly scooped her up and brought her back into the house. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley kindly offered to take Teddy inside for hot chocolate, leaving Bill, George, Angelina, Ron, Hermione, Harry, and Ginny in the garden.

"What do you lot say?" Bill asked. "Fancy a quick match?"

"We're odd numbers," Hermione said, looking around.

George glanced nervously at Angelina, who smiled happily.

"I'll referee!" she told the others.

"You're joking!" Ginny said. "I haven't played alongside you in ages!"

"I think the last time I picked up a Quaffle was probably the year I was Captain, and I'm not about to go against a Chaser for England."

Ginny looked momentarily suspicious, but shrugged her shoulders as she and Harry began summoning the old Cleansweeps from the broomshed.

Ginny was easily the best player between the six of them, Bill was out-of-practice, and Hermione was awful, so the three were paired together, while Ron, George, and Harry, who were all fairly talented, made up the other team. Angelina proved a fair referee, and they passed several enjoyable hours in the cold tossing around a Quaffle and attempting to spot the golden Snitch amongst the flurries of snowflakes until the cold became unbearable.

The family moved back inside to the warmth of the sitting room, where they stretched out in front of the fire and admired their new gifts. Hermione had given Ginny a book on the history of Quidditch in England, and Harry had received a new set of omnioculars from Ron.

"So you can actually see Ginny in the next World Cup," he said. Ginny had taken the golden device from him and was admiring the knobs and dials, and Harry had to take a moment to appreciate how beautiful she was, her red hair glowing in the low light cast by the fireplace. It was the perfect moment; surrounded by everyone they loved, everyone happy and laughing. The love in the room felt like a tangible thing, and Harry felt a lump form in his throat as he fumbled again with the box in his pocket.

"Dinner's ready, you lot," Molly called. There was a low mumble of excitement as everyone put their gifts back into bags and boxes and began the exodus towards the kitchen.

Harry plucked Teddy up into the air and sat him in a chair at the end of the table. Ginny slid in beside them, and Mr. Weasley walked in, setting bottles of wine down in the center of the table. Ginny grabbed one and uncorked it with her wand, pouring herself a glass before handing it over to Harry, who filled his own glass quickly as he took note of Mrs. Weasley's Yorkshire pudding near the other end of the table.

Pudding on the brain, Harry leaned forward to Angelina in the seat across from him, holding the bottle of mead over her glass in question.

"Oh, none for me, thanks!" she said breezily, waving her hand.

Harry hesitated, unable to remember the last time he'd known Angelina to turn down a drink. Still, it was hardly his business, and he shrugged before placing the bottle back down on the table in front of him. It seemed something of a non-event, but Harry noticed Ginny's gaze follow down his arm to the bottle of wine and then back to Angelina, before her eyes narrowed again in suspicion.

Angelina saw Ginny's reaction and gave a great laugh.

"Damn it, Ginny," she giggled. "It's too early for anyone to know!"

Ginny's eyebrows rose in delight and she clapped a hand to her mouth.

"Really?!" she cried.

"Angelina!" George groaned. "We weren't going to tell them for another month!"

Angelina looked ecstatic. "I know, I know, but it's so exciting," she said, forking a load of peas into her mouth.

Mrs. Weasley had caught wind of the conversation happening at the end of the table.

"George," she said sharply. "George, do you mean…?"

George took a deep breath and threw Angelina an exasperated stare.

"Due in the middle of July," he told his mother.

Molly shrieked. By now the rest of the family had harkened on to the announcement. Arthur clapped his hands together jovially.

"Congratulations, George and Angelina!" he said happily. "Fantastic news!"

Everyone raised their glasses in cheer, Ginny practically bouncing at the thought of becoming an aunt again, though Harry saw Hermione's mouth turn into quite a visible pout.

Mrs. Weasley came around to Angelina's chair and insisted on a pressing a hand to her still-taut stomach, making no effort to conceal the bevy of tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Everyone needs to calm down," George said moodily. "It's not like she's gone and cured Dragon Pox. We just forgot the charm!"

"George!" Mrs. Weasley cried, shocked, but Angelina laughed and swatted his arm. Despite the exchange, Harry privately thought George had looked happier than Harry had ever seen him, and certainly since Fred's death.

"What's happening, Harry?" Teddy asked curiously. Harry looked down in surprise, having momentarily forgotten the child's place at the table.

"George and Angelina are going to have a baby," Harry said.

"Another baby?" Teddy asked, glancing towards Victoire and sounding rather put out. Ginny giggled, but Harry put an arm around the child.

"It's just what people do, Ted," he said simply. "In a few months it'll be another friend to play with."

Teddy looked dubious and Harry rolled his eyes.

"I know you love to boss Victoire around," he told his godson conspiratorially.

"I do like when she shares her dragons," Teddy admitted with all the seriousness of a four-year-old.

A great screeching sound suddenly rang across the room as Hermione stood from her chair, looking utterly miserable.

"Excuse me," she said, throwing down her napkin and running for the staircase. Ginny stood quickly.

"I'll see if she's alright," she said with a warning stare to Ron, who looked terribly upset.

"Angelina, dear, have you told your parents yet?" Mrs. Weasley asked, wiping at her eyes with a scrap of lace. Angelina began discussing her parents' reactions to the news as Fleur pressed her for a complete description of the symptoms she was experiencing thus far.

Charlie, clearly quite recovered from the big surprise, nudged Harry and asked if he could show Teddy a few Norwegian Ridgeback scale models he'd been working on. Harry gave his assent, and Teddy toddled happily after his fellow dragon-enthusiast to the sitting room.

George smiled at his wife, clearly enjoying her place as the center of attention in the boisterous Weasley family, before standing and making for the kitchen door. Harry glanced towards Ron, who was staring at the ceiling above him as if hoping he'd be able to hear the conversation between Ginny and Hermione from his seat at the table. Harry took a deep breath and decided to follow George into the garden.

George was nursing a beer in one hand as he gazed out at the snow-covered orchard, the other fist shoved deep in his pocket. Harry cast a silent heating charm around the stoop, and George glanced towards him in greeting.

"Thanks," he said.

"You alright?" Harry asked.

George snorted. "Fucking Ginny," he said. "I was really hoping we'd be able to get through tonight without telling you lot."

"Yeah," Harry said noncommittally, unwilling to throw his girlfriend completely under the bus. "She gets pretty excited about that stuff."

George smiled. "It's not so bad. I was relieved we didn't have to make some big announcement like when we got married. That was brutal."

"I'll bet," Harry said, summoning his own beer, which flew gracefully from the kitchen window to his hand. "But, blimey, George Weasley being someone's dad? I don't think I'll ever wrap my head around it."

George snorted into his beer.

"You and me, both, mate," he said, before glancing back to the house and sighing. "I do just wish Angelina would've waited."

"Why?" Harry asked, trying to humour George's mood.

"Her midwife said not to tell anyone until she was twelve weeks, in case something happened," George said, bringing his bottle again to his lips. "She's only ten now."

"Surely it can't make that much of a difference," Harry murmured.

"Yeah, but why tempt fate?" George asked. He shuddered.

Harry looked over to his friend, paled by more than the cold. "Are you thinking about Fred?" he asked.

"When am I not?" George answered. "But, yeah. Yeah, I suppose I am."

He was quiet for another moment, and Harry didn't say anything. George took a deep breath, turning towards Harry.

"I think… sometimes… the way we all go on Fred… well, it makes it seem like he's not really gone, doesn't it? As if he's on holiday or something, and we're just telling stories to remember him until he gets back."

Harry had noticed this, but assumed that it was something the family had done for the last four years to benefit Mrs. Weasley. He didn't realize George was so in tune to the language surrounding his brother's absence as well.

"But, now there's Victoire, and my… baby. Fuck's sake, I'll never get used to that," George permitted himself a small smile. "And there'll be others, others who have never known him. I'm married to Angelina Johnson and we're going to have a kid in the summer, and Fred will never know that, either," his voice sounded tired. "It makes me miserable."

Harry sighed, and clapped his hand lightly on George's shoulder. He knew he needed to be concise in what he was about to say, but wasn't sure how George would respond. "He does know," Harry answered gruffly.

George looked to him quickly. "Just beyond where we can see, right, mate?" he asked with a smile, clearly remembering Harry's words from Fred's funeral. Harry met his gaze, and George relaxed visibly, nodding.

"Thanks, Harry," he said quietly, draining his beer and turning back to the house.

Harry stared out at the stars for a few moments, forcing himself to acknowledge the thing that George had just said. Fred Weasley was dead. Fred Weasley was never coming back. He'd never speak to Fred Weasley again. The pain of it hit him hard like a knife, and Harry drew in a ragged breath, before composing himself and following George back up the snow-covered path.

He entered the house to find the kitchen empty, and he could see from his position in the doorway that the sitting room was devoid of occupants as well.

Suddenly Mrs. Weasley popped her head down from the landing above.

"Andromeda came to collect Teddy while you were in the garden, dear," she said kindly. "Don't worry, I made sure all of his gifts were packed up!"

Harry smiled. "Thanks, Mrs. Weasley. And thanks for having him this year, I know he was ecstatic."

Mrs. Weasley waved her hand. "Please, Harry, you must call me Molly. You're really a man now. It is lovely to have such a reminder of Remus and Tonks in the house, and what a delight to have the sounds of children playing again. And another grandchild next year. I'm just beside myself with excitement."

Harry smiled at her. "I am too," he admitted. Mrs. Weasley was right… there was something about having the kids around the house that made the holidays naturally more cheerful. Mrs. Weasley gave a little wave and made her way back up the stairs.

Harry watched her retreat and absentmindedly reached his hand into his pocket and fumbled with the ring box yet again, thinking of Ginny alone, upstairs in her bedroom. He climbed the first flight of stairs, but stopped on the landing as he heard raised voices coming from behind Ginny's door.

He could tell that Ginny was arguing with someone by the pitch of her voice, and remembered suddenly that she'd followed Hermione from the kitchen. But why were they having a row in Ginny's room? Against all better judgement, Harry leaned forward so his ear was next to the door.

"... and now George and Angelina," Hermione was saying, sounding close to tears. "He's going to be so upset, and every month he gets his hopes up and every month he gets let down. It's getting to the point where he can't even look at me because all he sees is disappointment."

"That's not true," Ginny said. "He adores you. I think you're reading in too much to what he's saying because he's a prat and doesn't know how to talk to people. Have you tried telling him how anxious you're feeling?"

"No, because I don't want him to think anything's wrong, and I didn't think anything was wrong for the first few months, but it's been two years, Ginny, and I'm starting to worry it's never going to happen for us. Why hasn't anything happened yet?" Hermione's voice raised in desperation as she questioned Ginny. Harry was utterly lost. Was this the the mystery problem that had caused Ron and Hermione to be so upset for so long? The reason why they rowed constantly, the reason why he'd asked her to leave her job?

"Because," Ginny whispered dramatically, before stopping suddenly and taking a deep breath.

"Because," she said, more calmly this time. "I don't think you really want this, Hermione, and I think that your body is picking up on that, and, I don't know - maybe stopping anything from happening. It's okay for you not to be ready-"

"That's ludicrous," Hermione snapped. "I'm twenty-three years old, I'm fit, I'm healthy, I've been having regular sex with my partner for nearly two years-" Harry blanched from his place on the landing "- and nothing. Not a single late period. I'm telling you, there's something wrong with me."

"Fine," Ginny said. "There's something wrong with you. What are you going to do about it? These Muggle things you've been telling me about? The fertility treatments? Seems like a waste of money to me when you don't want to have a baby."

"Why do you keep saying that?" Hermione asked shrilly.

"Because it's true!" Ginny nearly shouted. "Why do you keep going along with all these ridiculous suggestions of Ron's? You told me you didn't feel ready to get married, you're certainly not ready for this. I don't get you, Hermione."

Hermione was silent for a moment, but Harry could hear her breathing heavily, and imagined that she must look quite crazed by this point. The entire conversation was making him deeply uncomfortable, and he sincerely regretted listening at the door of Ginny's room.

He remembered, two years ago, when Ron had decided to leave the Ministry, him telling Harry that his relationship with Hermione was struggling because he was working too much in the Department. It was starting to sound like they were struggling because Ron had been trying to convince Hermione to start a family.

It also seemed that none of this was new information to Ginny. Harry took a moment to feel betrayed that neither Ginny, nor Ron or Hermione had chosen to tell him that the latter pair wanted to have a baby. His best friends becoming parents would be a major change for all of them, and not one that Harry was sure he wanted.

Why hadn't Ron told him about this? Did he fear Harry's reaction, like when he had decided to leave the Auror office?

"You have no idea what it's like to be married, Ginny," Hermione said finally, and Harry heard her voice draw nearer as she moved to the door.

He sprang back, but he was still in motion as Hermione came out onto the landing, her eyes sparkling with tears. She registered no surprise at his presence, only glumly saying, "Happy Christmas, Harry," before walking up towards Ron's old room.

Harry looked past Hermione into the bedroom, where Ginny sat on her bed.

"Hi," she said, looking up to him with a pained expression.

Harry entered and plopped down beside her. She leaned into him, brushing a hand across his thigh and pressing her mouth into his shoulder.

"How much did you hear?" she asked him, her voice muffled.

"Enough," Harry replied. "What the hell, Ginny?"

"I didn't know for sure until tonight," Ginny said defensively, pulling away. "Hermione has been mum on the subject since Ron left the office, but I had my suspicions."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Harry asked, embarrassed at how the hurt came through so clearly in his voice.

Ginny fell back onto the bed, stringing her fingers through Harry's and tugging gently on his hand. He lay down beside her on the tiny mattress.

"I almost miss the summer after the war," Ginny said, quietly changing the subject. "Isn't that odd? It was so terrible; everyone gone, Mum sleeping all day… but you and I felt so right, spending all those nights in this bed."

"Yeah," Harry said. "Except the bit where we were so beside ourselves with grief that we couldn't communicate worth a damn."

"Yeah," Ginny said quietly. "Except for that bit."

She turned towards him so that her hair tickled his shoulder.

"I think we rushed things… getting back together after Fred's funeral," she said. "I wasn't just learning how to live without Fred, I was learning how to live in an entirely different universe. I had so much work to do on myself before I could ever think about being with anybody else."

"I know," Harry murmured, smiling back down at her. "That year without you was miserable, but I learned a lot about myself. Probably as much as I did when we were hunting the Horcruxes, if I'm being honest."

Ginny was silent. Harry felt more at peace here in bed beside her, but he still had terribly nagging questions. Ginny sighed deeply, almost in anticipation. Harry wondered wildly for a moment if she could read his mind.

"When did they decide?" he asked quietly.

"Ron asked Hermione if she'd want to start trying after Victoire was born," Ginny answered. "Hermione said they actually started around when he left the Ministry, though."

"I feel stupid for not realizing," Harry said. Ginny sighed sadly.

"I'm so sorry," she said. "Like I said, I didn't tell you because I didn't want to speculate, but I did tell Ron if something was bothering him he should talk to you about it."

"Why didn't he?" Harry asked miserably.

"I think… Harry, I think he thought you'd be upset that he was abandoning the mission for something that could be put off," Ginny said. "I know it's hard to see when it's your own life, but you were a bit one-track these last years with Rowle and the Lestranges. You were looking for answers that you'd never find while the rest of us were trying to move on."

"The Lestranges have been in Azkaban for nine months," Harry grumbled. "He could've talked to me about it. It's such a huge thing to do... have a kid. Even George and Angelina... Everything seems like it's happening too fast."

Ginny wrapped an arm around his shoulder and pressed a kiss to his jawline. Harry thought again about the box in his pocket. He knew he was ready to marry Ginny, but all the change was overwhelming. He had assumed that being married to Ginny wouldn't feel much different than living with her, but now looking at Ron and Hermione, and how much they were struggling, he felt suddenly nervous. He didn't want to put that kind of pressure on Ginny. Things were so perfect right now... did getting married mean they would change?

"Harry," she said emphatically. "This is growing up. Of course things feel like they're happening too fast. This part of our life is meant to be unsettled."

"I don't know if like it," Harry said.

Ginny snorted.

"Merry Christmas," she murmured. "Everything will be alright. I don't think Ron and Hermione are really going to have a baby anytime soon. Don't get your knickers in a twist."

She kissed him again. "I love you," she said.

"I love you, too," Harry murmured, staring at the ceiling. Ginny yawned.

"Stop dwelling, Harry," she sighed, reaching for her wand and flicking it so the light flew from the lamps. She reached down and tugged at the hem of his shirt.

"I've been thinking," she said, kissing his neck again. "That maybe we could be a bit… proactive about these nightmares you've been having."

"Proactive, eh?" Harry asked, his breath hitching in his throat as Ginny switched direction, her hand leaving his chest and making its way towards his waistband.

"It's worth a shot," she said breathily. "Maybe if I show you how… present I can be before bed, you'll stop worrying about me being gone."

Ginny's hand reached its destination and began gently moving up and down. Harry swore quietly.

"It's worth a shot," he repeated before kissing her passionately.

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Chapter 16: Chapter 16 - One Day

Author's Notes: A/N: Okay, I couldn’t resist doing a back-to-back post, so I apologize if this causes any confusion since I’m updating twice in one day. If you haven’t read Chapter Fifteen, Tender is the Night, yet, please do so before reading this chapter because there is major plot development going on!!! This was the first chapter that I wrote for this fic, and it was so incredible to be able to revisit and edit it today, and I’m beyond excited to share it with you!! I hope I’ve done a decent job of the timeline for this story, but fwiw this chapter takes place in February 2003, two months after Chapter 15. It does get quite sexual, at the end, so proceed with caution, but this version of the chapter has been edited for content and is posted in its fully smutty glory on My account there is linked on my author page. The title comes from the Sharon Van Etten song One Day.

The morning sun streamed from the window onto Harry's face, unusually bright for February in London. He woke with a start at the intrusion. Keeping his eyes shut, he turned away from the light, though still enjoying the warmth emitting from both the glow and his blankets. It was Sunday, and he had hoped to sleep later than this, but he couldn't deny to himself it was nice to be up early on a sunny morning. Harry noted silently that it was coming up on a year since the capture of the Lestrange brothers, a year of life that had been blissfully and refreshingly normal and uncomplicated. "Perhaps," thought Harry blissfully, "Ginny and I can go to Diagon Alley."

However, as he reached out for Ginny, his hand found only mattress. He heard a flush from the bathroom on the other side of the wall, and then the soft sound of Ginny's footsteps trodding into the hall. Burying his face in his pillow, he hazily imagined pulling off her ratty t-shirt and knickers when she returned to bed.

Harry longed for the days when they'd first moved in together, when they would keep tally of which surfaces they had shagged on, managing to cover every surface in the flat within the first few days.

They'd cooled off considerably in the past few weeks, and though Harry had initially chalked up Ginny being so tired and crotchety to the rigors of the current Harpies season, normally Quidditch matches were Ginny's biggest turn-on. He frowned slightly, irrationally beginning to worry they'd never have sex again. Every time he tried to bring it up to her, he received the same cold stare. It was times like these he wished his best mate didn't happen to be his girlfriend's brother, as he really had no one to turn to for advice on making it through this particular dry spell.

Somewhere in the back of his sleepy brain, a quiet thought occurred to him that perhaps this is what happened when you'd been with someone for as long as he and Ginny had been together. They'd been living together in their flat for almost three years now. Maybe she'd gone off him.

He was hit by a jolt of anxiety and felt suddenly awake. "No," he reassured himself. It's not as if the Weasleys were known for keeping their thoughts to themselves. If Ginny didn't want to be with him anymore, he'd be the first to know.

He thought again about the engagement ring, sitting untouched in his nightstand for weeks. Had she found it? Was she withholding sex to punish him for not proposing after they had agreed to consider marriage after the World Cup last summer? Again, Ginny was a fairly frank person, and Harry couldn't imagine her attaining such a level of passive-aggression.

Continuing to press his face into the pillow, Harry noted that though he'd heard the toilet flush at least a minute ago, Ginny still hadn't returned. He could hear her feet moving around in the hall now, and there was a certain urgency to the sound of her steps.

He thought of falling back to sleep, but his unexpected fit of nerves had sufficiently energized him that calming his mind down enough to drift off seemed impossible. He continued to lie on his stomach, contemplating the mountain of paperwork waiting for him at the Ministry tomorrow, wondering what he'd eat for breakfast, and planning exactly how he and Ginny could overcome this sexual drought.

He turned over onto his back, stretching as he wondered again why Ginny seemed to be pacing back and forth in the hallway.

He imagined for a moment of kicking off the duvet and sliding out of his boxers, so that when Ginny reentered the bedroom, she would only need to take a few steps to him. He let this fantasy run for a moment, knowing his mental image of her moving from the doorway to engage in filthy sex with him would never match the morning's reality. If Ginny walked in their room to find him lounging suggestively in the nude, she'd likely take the piss out of him for a moment before crawling back into bed and going back to sleep. It would probably be best to initiate things more subtly. He turned on his side yet again, screwing his eyes closed and willing Ginny to be in a good mood.

Finally, he heard the door open, and Ginny padded into the room. She was making very little noise, but Harry could still detect the same air of discomfort in the way she was moving, almost as though her steps were too deliberate. She walked around to her side of the bed, and Harry felt her crawl over the mattress to him.

Much to his delight, she snaked her arm under his, pulling herself into his chest. He cracked one eye open and smiled down at her, but his expression quickly turned worried when he caught the dismal look on her face.

"Merlin, Ginny, are you alright?" he asked her. In response, she pulled herself closer to him, avoiding his eyes.

"I think I'm about to be sick," she groaned miserably into his shirt.

"Go back to the loo, then. Do you want me to come with you? Did you eat something bad?" he questioned, as he tried to remember their dinner last night.

"It's not food, it's nerves," her voice was so muffled he was having trouble hearing her. Harry breathed a sigh of relief, understanding exactly the issue.

"Look," he said, gently pushing her shoulders away from him so he could see her face. "You know you're the best player on the team, hell, maybe even the best player in the country. You always get a bit tense when you have semi-finals coming up, but just talk to Gwenog about it if you're having problems…."

"Bloody hell, Harry, you're as thick as my brother sometimes. I'm not having nerves about Quidditch, I'm having nerves about what I have to tell you!" Ginny spat, still not meeting his gaze. Harry grimaced at her sudden attack, but frankly, he prefered angry Ginny over sorrowful Ginny anyday. At least the former was more familiar.

"What do you have to tell me?" Harry ventured carefully.

She sighed deeply, and the same anxious look returned to her face.

It was starting to seem like she physically couldn't bring herself to look at him, and for one frenzied moment he wondered if she was, in fact, leaving him.

"I think I'm pregnant," she mumbled.

Harry's breath seemed to leave his lungs at the same moment that his heart fell into his stomach. His eyes widened as he tried to process what she said, and abruptly he felt overcome by the desire to jump out of bed and run about the room. Ginny, however, still had her arms wrapped tightly around his back, so he was forced to settle for yanking both of them into an upright position. His stomach felt hollow and his heart was pounding wildly.

Ginny finally met his eye, attempting to give him her characteristic hard stare, but she could only manage to pull what was possibly the most anxious face Harry had ever seen. She looked on the verge of tears. He thought to say something that might comfort her, but only managed to open and close his mouth several times, in a way that he could only assume made him look like a rather idiotic fish.

This definitely did not help matters, and Ginny looked even closer to succumbing to tears.

"I know," she said quickly. "I've been expecting my period for a few days now and I didn't even think much of it because I've always been rubbish at keeping track so I figured I may have counted wrong and it wasn't even late, but I've been so tired and grumpy, I mean, I've been horrible to you and I feel bloated and haven't wanted to have sex in weeks and I almost fell off my broom at practice on Friday because I felt so faint, and then this morning I went to the loo and was thinking about the last time I had my period, and I realized I didn't get it at all in January, because the last time was at that Weird Sisters concert we went to and that was in December, which means I'm not a few days late, I'm months late, and it just makes no sense to me, because we're always so careful and I just can't believe I didn't realize I didn't have my period for two months..."

"Ginny," Harry finally managed to interrupt, not at all surprised at how weak his voice sounded. His face was uncomfortably hot and his heart was still thudding away, to the point he wondered if Ginny could hear it. "Ginny, if you're not sure, we should find out for certain."

This seemed the most logical thing to do, and it felt important in this situation to have a plan. However, he had no idea how exactly a witch discovered, for certain, if she was going to have a baby.

A baby.

He and Ginny might be having a baby. Despite his terror, and Ginny's tears, he was taken by the urge to give a great laugh, which he fought back, fearing it may upset Ginny further. Instead he drew her closer to him, wrapping his arms around her in a way that he hoped was reassuring, despite the fact that his limbs felt like jelly. She leaned into him, and for a long moment they clung to each other on the bed. Harry's mind was racing. A baby.

"You're right, I'm still not really sure," Ginny finally sighed, in a defeated voice that suggested she actually was quite sure. "We should go to the apothecary."

"The apothecary?" Harry wondered.

Ginny pulled away from him, scooting to the edge of the bed and standing up. "To get the things for the potion. I remember Fleur saying it's relatively easy to make, it's just a bother because you have to pee in it," she said with another sigh, making for the dresser and pulling out a clean pair of jeans and a tee shirt.

"You have to pee in a potion to figure out if you're pregnant?" Harry asked bemusedly from their bed.

Ginny looked at him with narrowed eyes as she pulled up a pant leg. "Why don't we walk to the Leaky Cauldron, and I'll explain it all to you on the way there," she said smartly. "Just wait 'til you hear how a baby gets out of a witch."

Harry couldn't help but feel glad that she had seemed to recover at least some of her sarcasm.

Their discussion on the trip to Diagon Alley was, in fact, minimal. The moment they had stepped into the crisp February air, Ginny fell sullen again, and they walked to the Leaky Cauldron in silence. Harry's heart didn't regain a normal pace during their trip, and his stomach still felt empty. Hannah Abbott greeted them warmly as they entered the pub, and Harry and Ginny could only nod in reply, such a state they were both in.

But, at the apothecary, when Ginny was discussing ingredients with the witch behind the counter, Harry stood next to a display of dragon's blood and let his mind wander. 'A baby,' he thought again. He couldn't decide whether to feel terrified or ecstatic. Ginny seemed so deeply anxious, and he understood why; her career was at its peak, and while he knew little about pregnancy, he was fairly sure dodging bludgers at a hundred miles an hour, while flying seventy-five feet in the air wouldn't be considered safe for an expectant witch.

He also knew that, though they had talked about having a family together, one day, Ginny had never expressed an immediate desire to be a mother. To be fair, he hadn't thought much about being a parent either, despite the Weasleys current preoccupation with producing children.

Now, however, Harry rebellious imagination kept stirring images of Ginny, her stomach bulging under a sweater the way Fleur's once had and Angelina's now did; Ginny, holding a small bundle in their bed, sweaty hair sticking to her face as he looked on proudly; himself, chasing a dark-haired child on a miniature broomstick around the sitting room while Ginny and Teddy watched from the sofa. With each thought the treasonous muscles of his mouth moved outwards, to the point he was having to actively focus on not grinning.

"Are you ready?" Ginny's voice from behind him made him jump, and he quickly rearranged his face to match her own impassive expression.

The journey back to the flat was equally silent as the journey from it. When they arrived in the tiny sitting room, Harry went to the hall closet to fetch the cauldron as Ginny trudged to the bathroom, carrying the parcel from the apothecary under her arm. When Harry reached her, she'd lain all the ingredients on the ground and was sitting in front of them, wearing the same unreadable expression.

Harry picked up the piece of parchment from the witch at the apothecary. "It seems quite simple," he said. "Apparently you just dissolve the Jobberknoll feathers into the castor oil, and then once it's bubbling, add the shrivelfigs. When it's all mixed together, you let it cool, add the - erm - urine, and wait ten minutes. If you're pregnant it turns deep blue. If you're not, it becomes amber."

"Got it," said Ginny, who looked quite ill again.

"Ginny," Harry said softly. "We don't have to do this now. It won't make any difference if we wait until tomorrow."

"No," Ginny shook her head. "I'll just be a disaster until I know one way or another."

"Right," Harry started slowly. "It's just… I'm worried. I mean, er, if this is really happening, are you going to be alright? I mean, Ginny, I'm not... no one is going to force you to have a baby you don't want to have."

Ginny let out a large breath, collapsing back against the side of the tub. "I know that," she said. "I just feel torn in about a hundred different directions. I don't feel like I'm ready to give up my career, and I can't help but think about all the other things we'll have to give up... we'll never be able to shag all Sunday anymore, or go drink ourselves under the table at the Hog's Head just because it would be a laugh. It's not that I didn't want this one day, but things are so good right now. I don't want them to change."

Harry nearly smiled, for she was voicing the exact thoughts he'd had when he'd learned Ron and Hermione were trying to start a family.

Ginny looked at him, and her distress was apparent in her deep brown eyes. "But then I think… it's our baby, Harry. It's this thing that we've made. And even if I have to give everything up, I want it." She gulped. "But what if we sacrifice everything being so good now and it just becomes terrible?"

Harry didn't say anything, and she rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest.

"And," she continued grumpily. "I'm so angry at you, because you're not forced to give anything up at all, even though I know that's not fair, and that you'd leave work if you had to, but I'm upset that it's me that has to - that has to quit my job and be sick and get fat and - ugh!" She swore loudly. "I'm so emotional! I bloody hate this!"

Harry laughed and scooted over towards her on the floor so that they both sat with their backs against the tub. He took her hand and she rested her head on his shoulder. "I think you're right," he said after a moment. "It'll make everything much more difficult. And we probably won't shag as much. I feel bloody terrified, honestly. I think that's normal. But we'll be a family. It's brilliant. I keep thinking of you holding our baby and I feel so happy I think I'm going to vomit."

For the first time today, Ginny looked as though she might smile. "I can't picture myself as a mum, but I can see you as a dad. Funny how that works, isn't it?"

"Yeah," replied Harry, feeling that he'd exhausted his ability to be eloquent for the foreseeable future. "Should we do this?"

Ginny gave a shaky laugh. "Let's get to work, Potter."

They fiddled with the ingredients until everything was happily bubbling in the cauldron; Harry tactfully left the bathroom as Ginny peed in a clear jar.

When he returned, Ginny had just finished pouring the urine into the potion, which had cooled and was letting off wisps of clear steam. Harry rubbed the back of his head.

"Blimey, Ginny, if we've gone through all this and I haven't knocked you up, we're going to really look like a pair of prats. You nearly cried!"

"Oh, shove it," Ginny laughed. Harry sat down next to her, lifted her chin, and pressed a chaste kiss to her mouth.

"I love you," he told her.

She placed a hand on his face and her eyes shone. "I love you," she said brightly. "And I'm not going to apologize for being a right bitch the last few weeks, because it's clearly all your fault."

"It's alright, I'm used to it," Harry smirked

"You know, if I am pregnant, we're probably going to have to get married in the next few weeks," Ginny sighed. "My mum's pretty understanding about us living here, but I can't see her being thrilled about us having a baby without making it official."

Harry felt his ears begin to burn, thinking of the little velvet box in his nightstand.

"I - er - d'you remember when you told me you were ready to starting thinking about marriage? After the World Cup?" Harry said.

Ginny laughed. "I do remember," she said. "I'm actually kind of put out that you've had nearly a year to make your big move and I still don't have a ring."

Harry blushed in full. "Hang on a minute," he said, and left her sitting on the floor of the toilet. He ran into their bedroom and grabbed the box before stumbling back in.

Ginny's eyebrows were raised. "What's that?" she asked.

"Ginny," Harry breathed. "Look, I've been holding onto this since August, waiting for the perfect moment and it just hasn't happened. I don't want you to think that I'm doing this just because you might be pregnant or because I'm afraid of your mum, but because since we kissed in the Common Room I've known that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you."

Ginny was staring at him with her mouth slightly open. Harry took a deep breath and continued.

"Will you marry me?"

He opened the box to reveal the opal nestled in fabric, and Ginny's eyes grew wide.

"You've had this for a year?" Ginny asked him.

"I wanted everything to be perfect," Harry admitted. "But I can't plan anything romantic worth a damn."

"It is perfect," Ginny said with a smile. "Of course I'll marry you."

Harry took the ring and placed it gently on her finger. Ginny smiled, admiring it in the light from the window.

"I love you so much," she murmured.

"You have no idea, Ginny," Harry said, kissing her softly. He couldn't believe he'd been putting off proposing for nearly a year only to have them get engaged in the loo.

Ginny smiled. "We will have to do it soon, though," she said.

"We can elope," Harry reasoned. "George and Angelina style."

"Not have my family there?" Ginny wondered aloud. "No… I couldn't do that. I would have to have my brothers, and I couldn't have them without my parents. And Neville and Luna. And Teddy. And Andromeda. And Hagrid. Is that okay?"

"Sounds fine to me," Harry chuckled, always happy with the opportunity to keep things on the small-scale, even if his wife had what felt like the largest family in Britain. "So we're getting married?"

"We're getting married."

"Wow," Harry said, glancing back to the potion. "How long do we have?"

"Three minutes," Ginny said with a smile.

Harry's heart had picked up it's rapid rhythm again. "Maybe they'd gotten themselves all worked up for nothing," he thought to himself. Another voice in his head replied, "At least now we know where we stand." He squeezed Ginny's hand, feeling the ring press into his flesh and thinking that his heart might burst.

It was the longest three minutes of his life, longer than waiting to free Sirius his third year, longer than walking to his supposed death at the hands of Voldemort. This seemed ridiculous; the march toward death could in no way be less difficult than waiting for impending… fatherhood? The word nearly made Harry laugh out loud. He couldn't be anyone's father.

Harry was beginning to wonder if he would ever feel like he was on solid ground again, or if this emptiness in his stomach would stay with him for the rest of his life. Ginny was curled up next to him like a cat, breathing slowly, eyes fixed on the cauldron in front of them, which was full of liquid that was still clear as water. He opened his mouth to tell her again that he loved her when she gave a loud gasp.

Harry's head whipped back toward the cauldron, glad his was sitting already, because his entire body seemed to give out as he stared at its bright blue contents.

Blood thundered in Harry's ears, and his chest felt like it would explode. His mouth, again out of his control, split into a huge smile and he let out a strange sound, a sort of choked laugh. Ginny groaned.

"What are we going to do?" she asked, giving him a panicked look.

"I think we're going to have a baby," Harry replied, feeling like he had just defeated Voldemort a hundred times over. He placed his hand on the side of her face, and looked her in the eye. "If you want to?"

She nodded in spite of herself. "I think I do," she murmured with a small grin, leaning into his hand. "I've got a few months to get used to the idea." Lightly, she placed a hand on her middle, and turned to gaze at her still-flat stomach with a sort of skeptical reverence.

"It's fucking mad, though," she said. Harry nodded, feeling overcome with emotion. Besides the responsibilities and changes that came with a child entering their lives, there was something about a small part of himself taking hold in Ginny's body that was overwhelming in itself. He wasn't sure if the bathroom floor was the best place to contemplate the nature of new life, but he brought her face even closer to his.

"You're brilliant," he beamed.

"I know," she replied, leaning forward so their foreheads touched, and then their lips met, slowly and without urgency, so unlike them. Ginny wrapped her arms around Harry's neck so she could cradle his head, opening her mouth so his tongue could enter. Her usual sly humour was nowhere to be found, and Harry knew now that all she wanted was for them to be close. He drew her into him, so that their legs were wound around each other's backs, and Harry ran his fingers lightly through her hair.

"Harry," she murmured. "Harry, we're going to have a baby."

They words seemed foreign and dreamlike. He couldn't believe it.

"We're going to have a baby," he repeated, feeling her breath hot on his neck.

Harry put his hand on her back, lowering her to the floor beneath him, never taking his mouth from hers, and without saying a word, Ginny wrapped her legs around his waist. He didn't know if it was the upheaval of the day or the knowledge of their child growing between them, but he had never felt more a part of her as he did now, hovering above her on one forearm. He broke his lips from hers and looked at her expectantly. Instead of her characteristic hard, blazing look, she gazed at him tenderly, openly, as if she was trying to pour some part of herself into him through her large brown eyes.

"I love you," she said simply. Today likely marked the a record for how many times they'd proclaimed their adoration for one another, and Harry took this as consent enough. He lifted her shirt over her head and threw it near the base of the sink. He stared in wonder at her breasts, marveling at their sudden change in purpose. Ginny would feed their child with this body. Harry had always understood the mechanics of pregnancy, childbirth, parenting. He had simply never realized how remarkable it actually was.

He placed another small kiss on her mouth before moving to her chin, past his favorite place on her neck, over her collarbone, and down her chest. Ginny gasped in response and her legs tightened suddenly around Harry. He smiled and let his face rest for a moment on her breasts.

Ginny gave another small sigh and Harry set back to work, lifting himself up to remove his own shirt. Normally so frantic, so desperate to reach that wonderful point of intimacy, he still found himself surprised at how slowly they were moving. Once his shirt had joined Ginny's on the bathroom floor, she reached up, brought him into a fierce hug, and placed her lips somewhere near his ear.

"You're always with me," she whispered, and Harry lifted his head to meet her eyes again and nodded in understanding. There was no rush to be inside Ginny; a small part of him would always be inside Ginny now. He kissed her again as he used one hand to push down and pull off first his jeans, and then hers.

They made love slowly. Ginny reached up over his shoulder to run her fingers through his messy hair again. Her mouth hung open slightly, as though she was Stupefied, but she never looked away from him. Harry remembered once thinking that looking at Ginny was like staring directly into the sun. He felt that way now, desperate to break away from the intensity of her gaze, nearly uncomfortable with the range of emotions he was feeling.

He wanted to bury his face in her hair, smelling her sweet floral scent, but he just couldn't bring himself to tear his face from hers. A small tear was welling in the corner of her left eye. Harry focused on this as pleasure rippled through his body.

They finished together, and Harry collapsed onto her as she used her clasped legs to roll them onto their sides. His hands, no longer supporting his weight, made their way to Ginny's hair. He pulled her head into his chest, and was sure she could hear his heart thudding.

"You're so brilliant," he sighed.

"You need to learn some new adjectives," she replied into his chest.

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Chapter 17: Chapter 17 - This Must Be The Place

Author's Notes: Chapter titled after the song by the Talking Heads

"Can you tell?" an anxious voice asked, mere inches from Harry's face. His eyes flew open only to slam shut again as he was quickly blinded by the harsh morning light.

"Tell what?" he asked Ginny, sitting up and rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands. He moved them just in time for her to smash his glasses roughly onto the bridge of his nose. He finally opened his eyes to the sight of her, standing just next to the bed, wearing a full skirted white gown.

"Tell that I'm eight-teen weeks pregnant," she groaned, stretching out the syllables between eight and teen as she flattened the dress so that her rounded midriff stuck out hugely.

Harry yelped in surprise.

"I'm not supposed to see you!" he cried. "It's bad luck!"

"Our relationship has exceeded the reasonable capacity for bad luck," Ginny noted, letting her skirts go and placing her hands on her hips as she took note of her figure in the mirror stuck to the back of their bedroom door.

"Did you put that in your vows?" Harry wondered sarcastically, rolling over back onto the pillow. "I thought you were getting ready at Ron and Hermione's."

"I was," Ginny said. "Until it occured to me that no one, save you and myself, knows about this suddenly very obvious baby, and that we're trying to keep it that way until this afternoon."

Harry leaned up slightly in bed, so as to see Ginny in her entire glory, and suddenly felt a large lump form in his throat.

She was breathtaking. The lace of the dress's torso reached her midriff, at which point a full skirt billowed out around her, reaching down to her calves. The gown was adorned with tiny flowers that seemed to blossom and sway everytime she moved, as if captured by an invisible breeze.

Ginny smiled at Harry's reaction.

"I know," she said, giving a little twirl.

"I love seeing you in a dress," Harry growled, sitting up and reaching across the bed to draw her nearer to him.

"Watch it!" Ginny cried. "I've already used three Ironing Charms on the skirt."

"You look amazing," Harry said, swinging his legs out of bed and standing. He was about to walk over to greet her properly when they were interrupted by an owl pecking at the bedroom window.

Harry went to the corner of the room and cranked the glass open, taking the envelope from the owl's proffered leg and grabbing a Knut from the bowl they kept on the sill.

The package was thick and heavy, bearing the official seal of the Ministry of Magic. Harry was scared for a moment that it was some new department regulation he was meant to edit, but when he turned it over, he realized it was addressed to Ginny.

"What is it?" Harry asked, handing it over to Ginny, who tore at the seal and reached in, pulling out a stack of documents, which she looked over quickly, a small smile spreading across her face.

"I had a few things changed over at the registry office," she said happily, handing a card over to him. "I didn't think it would come through so quickly. Surprise!"

Harry turned the card over in his hands. It was Ginny's Apparition licence, just like the one he knew was in her wallet, but his heart leapt as he read the information written in neat script on the card.

Ginevra Molly Potter was embossed beside Ginny's smiling photo, and when Harry raised his eyes he saw the real Ginny smiling up at him, smoothing her dress down over the fullness of her stomach.

Harry found himself momentarily speechless.

"I had no idea," he said quietly.

"You weren't meant to," Ginny said. "Are you happy?"

"Happy?" Harry asked. "We're getting married and having a baby. I don't think happy even begins to cover it."

He leaned into her, placing one hand on the small of her back and weaving another through her long, fiery hair. He kissed her then, slowly, breathing in her sweet flowery scent while contemplating the nature of eternity. Ginny shifted beneath him, and he could feel the roundness of the baby pressed between them, and he felt a deep tenderness take over his entire being. He could stay here forever with his family in this perfect moment.

Ginny broke away. "I have to finish getting ready," she said. "McGonagall said we need to be there by eleven. I've laid out your dress robes in the sitting room."

Harry nodded, stretching out his arms again and following her into the hall. He showered quickly, wrapping a towel around his waist and walking into the sitting room. It seemed to have been transformed into a dressing room overnight, with a large mirror in the middle and various hair accessories strewn about the place. Ginny was in front of the mirror, attempting what appeared to be an elaborate braid.

"Oh, leave it down," Harry requested, using the towel to rub his hair dry. Ginny looked him up and down suggestively in the reflection of the mirror before letting the braid unravel and muttering something under her breath that sounded very much like "Men".

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather get ready with Hermione?" Harry asked her, pulling on his undergarments. "She's going to find out about the baby today regardless. It seems… I don't know… a bit sad that we're getting ready for our wedding alone."

"We're not alone," Ginny said. "We're together. And you know I don't want all the fuss. I wrote Hermione and said I'd rather just spend the morning with you before all the hoopla, and that's not a lie."

Harry shrugged. "Suit yourself," he said, shrugging into his robes.

"Eliza Jane Dippet died last week," Ginny said lightly, fastening an earring. "She's left behind a four-bedroom flat in Pimlico that her family is trying to sell."

"Pimlico?" Harry asked. "Merlin, Ginny, we're not that well off. I thought we'd talked about being closer to your parents?"

Ginny sighed. "I know, but I love living in London. I was thinking, if we could find the space, we could stay in the city."

Harry and Ginny had both agreed after discovering their impending arrival that they had outgrown their Soho flat. They had both been concerned that Teddy would feel pushed aside if he was forced to share his room with the new baby, and so they were looking to purchase a home.

Harry was desperately hoping to find somewhere in the countryside, with a large garden not unlike the Burrow's, one where their child could run, play, and learn to fly. He loved London, loved the fast-paced hustle of the city, the richness of the architecture, the ability to transition seamlessly between Muggle and Magical worlds, but it wasn't necessarily where he wanted to raise a family.

"There'd be no space to play outdoors in a flat in Pimlico," Harry noted.

"We could always fix up Grimmauld Place," Ginny said with a wink, causing Harry to shudder. He fully planned on letting the old house rot, a terrible reminder of a life that Sirius hated and the place where he, Ron, and Hermione had planned their nerve-wracking infiltration of the Ministry.

"Don't you want the baby to have the experience of growing up in nature; getting all the messy bits? You loved flying around the Burrow when you were a girl, and you always talk about working in the garden with Ron and the twins."

"And here I was hoping our child would never know the unique torture of de-gnoming a garden," Ginny said with a sigh.

"De-gnoming's good for kids," Harry said in mock-seriousness, watching his reflection as he tied his bowtie. "It builds character. We don't want them to end up lazy."

Ginny laughed. "We'll find somewhere," she said confidently. "Let's get through today before we get ourselves worked up about a house."

He turned back to Ginny yet again, reaching out and drawing her into him. He kissed her gently before putting a hand on her waist and grazing his thumb against the expanse of her stomach.

"I wish I could feel it," Harry said mournfully.

"It feels like wind," Ginny said, rolling her eyes. "I'm sure you'll be able to feel it any day now."

Harry nodded, trying not to feel upset. Ginny had begun sensing the movements of the baby early last week, and Harry was terribly envious. Ginny's midwives, Winifred and Theodora, had assured Harry that it wouldn't be long before he would feel the flutter of a kick against his palm, but Harry had spent the last few nights prodding Ginny's belly in order to get some response, to no avail, and he could tell that Ginny was beginning to feel a bit frustrated.

Harry kissed Ginny once more before reaching down to give her stomach a gentle rub just as a great woosh sounded from the fireplace. Harry leapt back as if electrocuted, and Ginny smiled as Hermione's head appeared above the grate, looking rather put out.

"I just got your owl," she said angrily. "I thought I was going to help you fix your hair!"

"I was thinking of just wearing it down," Ginny answered, walking over to the fireplace as Harry hastily retreated back to the bedroom.

"Harry told you to do that, didn't he?" Hermione said. "I know he likes it that way, but it'd really be much better if you…"

"He didn't tell me anything, Hermione, Merlin," Ginny said.

Harry smiled as the witches continued to bicker. Harry and Ginny had done the family a great shock by announcing their engagement in early March with plan to marry in early April. They had given little reason for their brief betrothal, and Harry guessed that the family must privately suspect their news.

The timing had worked out well, though, for Ginny had expressed a desire to be wed near the lake at Hogwarts, and their wedding date fell on the Saturday before Easter, meaning most of the students were back at home and the grounds would be quiet. The plan was for the guests to Floo directly into McGonagall's office and then make their way down to the water. The party would then make their way back to the Burrow for a wedding luncheon, where the big news would be revealed.

Harry attempted to make his hair lie even slightly flat, still listening to Hermione and Ginny through the wall.

"And you're already in your dress! You were meant to come right over to Brook Hollow to get ready!" Hermione exclaimed, her tone immediately accusational.

"Er- I couldn't wait," Ginny said half-heartedly. "I was just too excited."

Harry could almost imagine the way Hermione's eyes were narrowing in suspicion.

"You didn't need help with the buttons?" Hermione asked.

"They were a cinch!" Ginny replied in falsetto.

"Right," Hermione said. "Well, I suppose I'll see you in an hour."

"Thanks, Hermione," Ginny said kindly. "For everything these last few weeks. Harry and I couldn't have planned this without your help."

Harry smiled, for Ginny was right. Hermione had arranged most of the decorations and food happily, likely knowing if it was left to Harry and Ginny the wedding would take place in a registry office with treacle tart and pints at the Leaky Cauldron for a reception.

Ginny walked back into the bedroom, looking guilty. They both felt some sadness at the prospect of revealing their news to Ron and Hermione, knowing now that they had been trying themselves to begin a family.

"Do you think we should've just told everyone after we found out?" she asked Harry. "I thought Mum would be more pleased if we were married before we told her, but I don't like having such a massive secret."

"Can't change it now," Harry answered. "Though, really, I've enjoyed being able to share this with only you for the last few weeks."

The only other person in on their secret was Gwenog Jones, who'd put out to the press that Ginny had an ankle injury that owed to her departure from the Harpies. This had thankfully kept Rita Skeeter and her Witch Weekly gossip column off their tail, though Harry was sure there was going to be a revised edition to his biography now that he was marrying and expecting a child.

Ginny had been nothing but cheerful about all the changes the last few months had presented to the couple, but Harry knew she missed flying, and he did feel more than a couple pangs of guilt as he went off to work each morning. He looked at her now, fiddling with her hair again, and smiled.

"Will you eat something before we leave?" Harry asked her, trying to frame the question delicately. Ginny, never one to be told what to do, had been especially sensitive to Harry's suggestions lately, even once accusing him of suggesting he didn't know her own body. "It's going to be warm and I'm afraid you'll feel faint."

Ginny smiled appreciatively. "Would you make me eggs and toast?" she asked.

Harry nodded, and they left the bedroom together. Ginny sat at the table while Harry began whipping up a quick breakfast. This had become something of a routine in the last few weeks; Ginny'd had terrible morning sickness at the start of her pregnancy, and fried eggs were the only thing she could keep down. Harry, terrified that his fiancée had been losing weight instead of gaining it, had made sure that there were eggs constantly on hand.

They ate quietly, and Harry was surprised to find that he had developed a definite case of nerves as the ceremony approached. He looked up at Ginny, who gave him a bracing smile. Harry nearly laughed at the image of her tucking into eggs in her white dress. He assumed he looked equally ridiculous as he brushed some crumbs off the front of his dress robes.

Ginny took their dishes and set them gently in the sink.

"Should we go, d'you think?" she asked him.

Harry nodded. He reached out a hand to her, and she grabbed it, and together they walked to the fireplace, squeezing in side-by-side.

"Professor McGonagall's office," Harry said clearly, and the green flames erupted around the pair, sending them spinning through grate after grate until they were deposited uneasily onto the hearth of the Headmistress' study.

McGonagall was sat her desk, intently reading a piece of parchment.

"Try not to get any ash on the carpet," she requested, not looking up from her paper. Ginny coughed, trying to suppress a smile, and Harry placed a hand on her elbow. McGonagall looked up at the pair, and then out the window.

"Nice weather for it," she said with a smile.

"Will you join us, Professor?" Harry asked, Ginny nodding beside him. The witch smiled.

"I do believe I can find the time," she said. "Miss Weasley, while I may still call you such, I feel obligated to tell you that your mother has already arrived and is in a rather, er, energetic, mood."

Ginny sighed. "Thanks for the warning."

The pair quietly let themselves out of the study and made their way down the corridors of the school towards the Entrance Hall.

"You know, I don't think I've been here since the Battle," Harry mused.

"I think you're right," Ginny agreed. They were silent as they moved through the familiar halls, gazing at the portraits, most of whom gazed back quite curiously at the bride and groom traipsing nostalgically through the halls of Hogwarts.

"Do you think this was a good idea?" Ginny asked softly. "There are so many terrible memories here."

They were quite near the now-repaired corridor where Fred had perished, and Harry turned to see that Ginny had grown rather pale.

"I think… I think that it's important that we're able to remember the good memories here," Harry said quietly. "This was my first home; this was the place where I fell in love with you… Voldemort will never be able to take that from me."

Ginny nodded.

They made their way to the Entrance Hall and through the great wooden doors. Harry and Ginny smiled as they heard Mrs. Weasley's frantic voice carry across the grounds from the lake, where several rows of white chairs had been erected. Harry's breath hitched in his throat. He took Ginny's hand in his own again, and she brushed her thumb across his knuckles. He relaxed at her touch.

They made their way down to the waterside, where Mrs. Weasley was speaking to the tufty-haired wizard that would be presiding over the ceremony. They turned at the arrival of the bride and groom, and Mrs. Weasley gave a little gasp and put her hand to her heart.

"Oh, Ginny, dear, you look beautiful," she sighed. "Oh, I just can't believe it. Do you two know Fawley?"

Harry waved to Fawley, the tufty-haired wizard, happy to finally be able to give a name to the ever-familiar face. He'd seen the man around the Ministry and knew he worked in the registry office. Fawley smiled.

"Will you be saying your own vows today, or using the traditional?" he asked the couple in his sing-song voice.

"The traditional," Ginny answered firmly. Fawley nodded, turning to the altar, which had been denoted with the presence of several Flutterby bushes.

Mrs. Weasley had begun fussing over Ginny's appearance, causing Ginny to flush and lean away from her mother. Harry knew that they had little chance of hiding their secret for the next few hours if Molly was overly-attentive to Ginny's dress.

"Dear, you're really slouching quite a bit," Mrs. Weasley said. "Perhaps if you just stood a bit straighter-"

"Mum, can you just leave it?" Ginny asked, exasperated. Harry knew she was hunched over because it caused her skirts to billow around her bulging stomach, and he carefully hid his smile. The next few hours were sure to be memorable.

There was a great cheer from behind and Harry turned to see Hagrid looming over him, already pulling out his tablecloth-sized handkerchief.

"Harry!" the half-giant boomed. "Blimey, yer the spit of yer dad! I just can' believe it. Wasn' it just yesterday when you was a baby and I brought you to live with those good-fer-nothin' Dursleys?"

Hagrid's dark eyes suddenly grew quite wide. "They'll not be 'ere today, will they?" he asked.

Harry gave a great laugh at the suggestion. "Not a chance," he said. "It's wonderful to see you, Hagrid."

Hagrid sniffed in response and walked over to his seat in the last row. Harry turned to see that even more of their small group of guests had begun to arrive. Neville, Hannah Abbott, and Luna, dressed in sunflower yellow, of course, were walking down from the castle, and a sea of red indicated that the majority of the Weasley family was not far behind.

Ron and Hermione reached Harry first, the former clapping him on the back happily before going to stand near the altar with Fawley. It had never been a question that he'd be Harry's best man, but they were skipping the formal procession in favor of something far more relaxed. Hermione kissed Harry on the cheek and went to stand beside her husband, giving him an affection rub on the back. Harry was glad to see that they had put their quarreling aside to celebrate the happy day.

Harry fielded several more hugs from various friends and future in-laws, though he noticed Ginny had crossed her arms carefully over her chest to ward off any potential embrace. Harry smiled again.

"Harry!" a voice called, and Harry turned to see Teddy running towards him, wearing the smallest pair of dress robes Harry had ever seen. Harry scooped up the boy, whose hair changed immediately from turquoise to jet black.

Andromeda came up behind him and gave Teddy a loving pat on the back.

"He has no idea what's going on," she whispered to Harry with a small laugh. "He asked me this morning if you were going to be Ginny's brother now."

Harry let out a roar of laughter before giving Teddy a quick kiss on the top of his dark head and passing him back to his grandmother.

The guests began taking their seats, and Fawley cleared his throat, indicating that it was time for the ceremony to begin. Harry took Ginny's hand yet again, and the pair went to stand in front of the old man, Ron and Hermione beside him.

Harry had thought that the relatively informal nature of their wedding, coupled with the emotional upheaval of the last few weeks, would render him rather composed for the duration of the ceremony. However, as Ginny looked up to him with her blazing stare, Harry felt butterflies erupt in his stomach, and he took in a great, ragged breath.

Fawley cleared his throat and Ginny blushed just slightly, a hint of red creeping up her creamy skin. She turned away from Harry to grin sheepishly at her family, but Harry felt himself unable to look away from her. The sun struck her copper hair, and as she turned back to him, the movement made it dance like flames in a hearth. Everything about her was warm, Harry thought as he clutched her hand in his own.

"Dearly beloved, we have been invited here today to share with Harry and Ginny a very important moment in their lives. In the years they have been together, their love and understanding of each other has grown and matured, and now they have decided to live their lives together as husband and wife."

Harry was still unable to look away from Ginny, but he heard a great sniffling towards his left and knew that Hagrid had unearthed his giant handkerchief and was weeping into it. Ginny's lip turned upwards and her shoulders shook in a silent giggle.

"Marriage is a common feature across many countries and cultures; Wizard or Muggle, but Harry and Ginny have been together for several years," Fawley continued in his sing-song voice, "and, in many ways, their relationship is already a marriage of two souls. They share everything together. So we, as the witnesses to this union, must ask why? Why bother with the ceremony when they are clearly so committed to one another already?"

Ginny grinned in full now. It sounded like Hermione had given this little tufty-hair man quite the insight into their relationship. Harry squeezed her hand gently, brushing his thumb against her knuckles.

"Because despite all of our differences, love is what we all share. It's the great unifier - our one universal truth. That no matter who we are, where we've come from, what we believe, we know this one thing: love is what we're doing right. That's why you both are standing here. We have all loved in our lifetimes, and in this moment, we're reminded that the ability to love is the very best part of our humanity."

Harry was suddenly reminded of Dumbledore, and as he gazed at Ginny and thought of the old wizard, it felt as though every event of his life had led to this one beautiful, perfect moment, the sun shining down on them, the lake glittering beside them, and Harry felt the other people melt away, and it was just him and Ginny, together forever in the vast and chaotic world.

"And now it is time for Harry and Ginny to take their vows to one another. Harry, do you take Ginny to be your wedded wife, to live together in marriage? Do you promise to love her, comfort her, honor and keep her for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and forsaking all others, be faithful only to her, for as long as you both shall live?"

Harry cleared his throat hastily. "I do," he said.

"Ginny, do you take Harry to be your wedded husband, to live together in marriage? Do you promise to love him, comfort him, honor and keep him for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and forsaking all others, be faithful only to him, for as long as you both shall live?"

"I do," Ginny said clearly.

"You've both chosen to wear rings as a reminder of these vows. Harry?"

Harry finally tore his gaze from Ginny, turning to Ron who gently placed the golden band into Harry's hand, giving him a brief wink in the process.

Harry took Ginny's left hand in his own, and slipped the ring onto her finger.

"With this ring, I thee wed," he told her.


Ginny smiled brightly in thanks to Hermione, who handed her a slightly larger ring, which she placed onto Harry's hand. The metal felt warm, rather than cool, and Harry felt an unexpected sense of pride at the slight pressure on his finger.

"With this ring, I thee wed," Ginny murmured.

Fawley smiled. "Then I declare you bonded for life!"

There was a smattering of applause and a "Whoop!" from George. Harry leaned forward and embraced Ginny, kissing her deeply.

They broke apart and turned to look at their friends and family. Hagrid and Mrs. Weasley were both weeping quietly, but everyone else was smiling happily, and as Harry and Ginny stepped forward into the aisle, the others stood, and the pair found themselves enveloped by those they loved the most.

"Alright, you lot, enough with the sentiment!" George shouted happily. "We've got a tent up at the Burrow and a case of Ogden's Old! Let's celebrate these two in style!"

There was a general noise of assent from the group, and the wedding party began walking along the lake back to the school, chatting happily.

They made their way back to McGonagall's office, where the old witch promptly excused herself from the reception, despite Harry and Ginny's protests, and sat back at her desk in front of a stack of parchment.

Harry and Ginny Flooed first into the sitting room of the Burrow, closely followed by Ron and Hermione.

"Fleur and Angelina worked on it all day yesterday," Hermione said happily. "It's beautiful, wait until you see."

They didn't have to wait long, and as they stepped into the garden, Ginny gave an audible gasp.

The sides of the marquee were raised, and a long table had been placed underneath. Enchanted stars hung underneath the ceiling of the tent, illuminating the flowers and spreads of food that lay elegantly across the table, which was covered in white linen. The effect was simple and lovely, and Harry smiled appreciatively.

They took their seats as the rest of the guests arrived, and soon everyone was eating and drinking happily. There was a toast of firewhisky, and Harry watched in amusement as Ginny brought her glass to her lips, pursed tightly shut.

Ginny set her glass down and held Harry's hand in her lap. "I think we should tell them now," she mumbled. "While everyone's still sober."

Harry's palms felt suddenly sweaty. "Now?" he asked weakly.

"What are you so worried about?" Ginny pressed.

"It's basically just confessing to your entire family that we have sex," Harry said moodily.

Ginny rolled her eyes, before prodding Harry painfully in the arm.

"Ouch, Ginny! We, er, we actually have an announcement to make," Harry said loudly, and eighteen pairs of eyes swiveled towards his seat in the middle of the table. He pulled at the neck of his robes uncomfortably.

"We, er, we're…"

"You're not getting divorced, are you?" George wondered. "I know you two are notorious for being on-again-off-again but this must be a new record. What's it been, an hour?"

"George!" Angelina cried.

"No," Harry said, more uncomfortable than ever. "We're not-"

"Because if you are splitting up, I just want you to know that I sent you the crystal goblets, not Percy, despite what he may lead you to believe, and they cost rather a lot and I'd quite like them back if this whole wedding has been a fraud, thanks very much."

"Damn it, George, can you be serious for one moment?" Harry cried, his voice sounding much higher than usual. "We're not splitting up, we're going to have a baby!"

Harry could hear a pin drop. Everyone looked from him to Ginny, clearly unsure of what to say. Hermione broke the silence, beaming up at Harry from his left.

"Are you really?" she asked excitedly.

Harry nodded, grinning in spite of himself. "In September," he told her.

"Congratulations!" Fleur squealed, leaning over to ruffle Victoire's hair lovingly. "Est-ce que tu as écouté ça, ma choupette? Un petit cousin pour toi!"

Victoire ducked away from her mother as Harry chanced a glance at the rest of Ginny's family. Most were smiling tentatively, though some looked a bit stunned. Hagrid had brought his massive handkerchief back out and was dabbing his eyes quietly at the end of the table.

"Merlin, can someone say something?" Ginny asked angrily. "Surely you must've suspected when we planned an entire wedding in a fortnight."

"We thought you two were just being… you two," George said. "Always been a bit cool, a bit aloof, a bit mysterious. Dating for years without telling anyone, moving in without telling anyone. We figured you'd just gone all hip and modern again."

"Says the man who eloped," Ginny muttered darkly.

"Well, that's got nothing to do with anything," George said pompously. "After seeing what a disaster it was to plan Bill and Ron's weddings, Ange and I figured we would just do you lot all a massive favor and skip the whole thing. You've always been my favorite sister-in-law, Audrey, for going Muggle-style and having your folks organize it."

Audrey raised her glass in George's direction before taking a long swig.

"Hopefully," George continued, "when they make interspecies unions legal and Charlie gets married her parents will take over the planning. Remember what a nightmare it was when we had the Frenchies come to stay? Imagine trying to cram a family of Romanian Longhorns into Percy's old bedr-"

"Enough, George," Mrs. Weasley cut across, though Charlie had given a barking laugh at his brother's jab. She turned back to Ginny. "Are you certain?" she asked

Ginny looked at Harry, mystified. "Harry, we didn't think to double-check!" she gasped sarcastically, before snapping back towards her mother. "Bloody hell, Mum, of course we're certain."

Mrs. Weasley looked at her husband, who, Harry noticed, looked very pleased. "I can't wrap my head around it, Arthur. They're so young!"

"Ginny's the youngest," Mr. Weasley reminded her. "She'll always seem young. Congratulations, you two! A third grandchild!"

He raised his glass. Now the rest of the brothers and their wives chimed in, everyone offering their enthusiastic congratulations and toasting to the couple. Molly bit her lip.

"I... just… but… you're my baby," she cried, her voice breaking. And then, before Harry could really understand what was happening, Molly was around the table, situated between himself and Ginny, embracing them hugely as sobs wracked her body.

"Oh," she wailed after kissing the top of Harry's head for the second time. "Oh, I can't believe it! Ginny's going to be a mother."

Ginny's face was as red as a poppy, but she was smiling. Harry caught Ron's eye over his mother's back, and was surprised to see that his best friend looked a bit misty as well. Ron grinned in spite of himself and winked at Harry. Harry smiled back and took a swig of firewhisky.

He couldn't think of a time he'd ever felt happier, but he was quickly proven wrong when he felt a small tug on the sleeve of his dress robe. He looked down to see Teddy standing there, looking rather serious.

"I won't mind if your baby wants to share my room," he told his godfather with a sheepish grin.

Harry meant to smile back at the boy, but suddenly took in a sharp breath, feeling tears sting the back of his eyes. He glanced up at Andromeda, who hastily wiped her own cheeks and winked at Harry.

Harry looked back down at Teddy, wishing so desperately for a moment that Remus and Tonks were there that it was physically painful. Not trusting himself to answer without tears falling, he settled for lifting the boy into his lap. Teddy nestled against Harry's chest, and Harry rested his chin against the child's head. Teddy was quiet for a moment, before suddenly craning his neck to look at Victoire, sitting beside her mother across the table.

"Maybe only if the baby's a boy," he said, turning to Harry and leaning back comfortably.

Back to index

Chapter 18: Chapter 18 - This Will Be Our Year

Author's Notes: Baby fever! Chapter titled after the song "This Will Be Our Year" by the Zombies

"I'm going mad," Ginny said bluntly. It was nearly noon, and she was still in her pajamas, sitting at the long table in the kitchen of their house. They'd finally decided on a semi-detached home in West Hampstead, bright and airy but still in possession of a rather large garden. Harry looked up from his copy of the Quibbler. He'd taken the day off work, thinking it would be nice to have a lazy day round the house.

"Mad?" he asked lightly. "Why?"

"Because I have no function! I'm useless, sitting around here all day. Tomorrow you get to go back to work and make the world a better place and do whatever else it is you do, and I'll wake up, fry an egg, straighten the sitting room, and then stare at my stomach all day," she groaned.

Harry sighed. He wasn't sure exactly what he could do to alleviate Ginny's boredom. At first, the wedding had been a nice distraction. After the ceremony, they'd bought the place in Hampstead, and spent most of the last month decorating and getting the house ready for the baby. But now it was June, and the baby wasn't due for another three months, and Ginny had no more projects to keep her occupied.

"Why don't you go visit Fleur?" he suggested, plastering a smile to his face. Ginny's sister-in-law had revealed in May that she was expecting her second child. "I'm sure she can commiserate."

Ginny narrowed her eyes. "So she can tell me how 'blessed she iz' and that 'she 'as never suffered ze swelling or ze morning seeckness, merci beaucoup, mais ils ont l'air terrible? No, thank you."

Harry had made the elementary mistake of forgetting that pregnancy had brought back Ginny's distaste for Phlegm. Luckily, he was saved by the sound of the bell on the letter flap from the front of the house. Harry smiled at the sound. Their new house had been a Muggle home before they'd purchased it, and owls always shoved things through the letter flap. It infuriated their own snowy, Swanhild, to no end.

Ginny jumped up, ecstatic to have something to do. Bounding for the door, she shouted behind her, "If it's from Ron, you can read it first but otherwise it's mine."

Harry poured himself another cup of coffee, taking a moment to feel guilty that Ginny's naturally competitive energy now had to be harnessed into a race for the post. He was thrilled when she had overcome her trepidation towards motherhood, and ecstatic as he watched her slowly become more excited about their impending arrival, but the fact of nature that Ginny had to be the one to carry their child made the entire process seem terribly unfair.

Harry tried to imagine what it sacrifice his career for their family; he could do it, of course, but he knew it would be difficult, and that many of Ginny's friends in the last years had been made through Quidditch and were now training for finals and summer tournaments. She was a bit isolated.

Ginny rushed back into the kitchen, brandishing a piece of parchment.

"It's from George," she cried, handing the parchment to Harry, who began scanning it. "Angelina's had the baby. A boy."

Harry looked up from the letter in surprise. "I thought she wasn't due until next month?"

"She wasn't. It's nearly four weeks early." Ginny bit her lip in clear distress.

"I'm sure everything's fine," Harry said reassuringly, turning back to the parchment. "Look, they've called him Fred… five pounds, two ounces. That doesn't seem too terribly small."

"George has been so worried for months that something would go wrong, and now look at what's happened," Ginny said, chewing on her thumb.

"Ginny, nothing's happened. They've had a baby! It's fantastic news. George's said Angelina's had a time of it and we should wait a couple days to visit, but he'll send a photograph. Really, everything sounds alright."

"Five pounds is so small," Ginny said, and Harry saw a tear welling in the corner of her eye.

"Ginny," he said slowly. "What's going on?"

"Nothing!" she snapped. "I'm just worried about my nephew, it's not a crime. Merlin, what if our baby is that small? It probably will be, I mean I didn't even realize I was pregnant for months, and I was drinking and eating like crap and-"

"Your midwives comment every time they visit on how healthy you are, Ginny. I know you're feeling anxious, but this is irrational, alright? Maybe you're going a bit stir crazy."

"I know I'm going stir crazy," Ginny said dismally.

"Alright, well, why don't we go into London. We can mess about in the city, I know you like watching the Muggle tourists."

Ginny smiled slowly. "Can we take the Tube?" she asked.

Harry laughed. "Sure, we can take the Tube." Ginny was quite like her father when it came to curiosities about the Muggle world.

They dressed quickly, left their house, and walked hand-in-hand down their leafy street towards the Underground station. As they reached the platform, a man jostled Ginny rather rudely. Harry was about to say something, but Ginny exclaimed in delight.

"Harry, what's that?" she asked, pointing to the man's hand, where he held a tiny white box, not unlike a mobile. A pair of earbuds stretched out from the bottom of the box to the man's ears.

"Er, you know, Ginny, I'm not really sure," Harry admitted. "It's for listening to music, but I don't know what it's called…"

"You've never seen an iPod, love?" a young woman drawled, leaning over towards them.

Harry ignored the woman, pulling Ginny down the platform a bit.

"An eye pod?" Ginny said to herself. "Can you see with it, or… no, that doesn't make much sense. How do they fit the records in there, Harry?"

Harry shrugged. The train was arriving now, and he and Ginny clambered aboard.

Ginny continued to muse over iPods until they reached Central London. They got off at Baker Street and walked into Marylebone, finding a cozy café where they each ordered a coffee.

"Winifred says I'm only supposed to drink decaf," Ginny mused sadly.

"How d'you think the Harpies are going to hold up against Tutshill next weekend?" Harry asked, trying to change the subject.

"We're going to obliterate them," Ginny said confidently, taking a sip of her coffee.

They chatted animatedly about Quidditch for nearly an hour, and were contemplating walking through Regent's Park when Ginny gave a start and pointed out the window.

"Look!" she said. "It's Percy and Audrey!"

Harry turned, and surely enough spotted Percy's red hair next to Audrey's blonde, bobbing down the street.

Ginny jumped up and ran for the door. Harry tossed some Muggle money onto the table and followed after her.

"Perce!" Ginny called, and her brother turned in surprise. He and Audrey smiled in recognition, stopping so Harry and Ginny could catch up with them.

"How are you?" Percy asked formally.

"Oh, swollen and miserable," Ginny replied casually. "Can you believe it about George and Angelina?"

"What about them?" Audrey asked uneasily.

"You didn't get their owl?" Harry asked.

"We've been out all morning," Percy said.

"Angelina's had the baby!" Ginny said. "A boy; they've called him Fred."

Percy smiled. "Brilliant news!"

Audrey smiled. "It's a bit early, isn't it?" she asked.

Ginny nodded. Percy glanced anxiously to his wife, before gesturing to some tables on the sidewalk outside the cafe.

"Why don't we sit?" he suggested. The four gathered round the tabletop.

"Hang on," Harry said. "Why aren't you two at work?" It wasn't too unusual for him to skive off on a Monday, but Percy was known for his spotless attendance record.

Percy and Audrey shared a conspiratorial smile.

Audrey cleared her throat. "I had an appointment on Harley Street."

Ginny looked confused, but Harry remembered all too well his cousin's visit to Harley Street after Hagrid had given him a pig's tail. "I hope everything's alright," Harry said.

Audrey nodded happily, reaching into her handbag and pulling out a grainy black-and-white picture. Harry's eyebrows shot up as realization dawned on him.

"What the hell is that?" Ginny asked, gazing down at the picture. Audrey looked rather offended.

"Er- Ginny," Harry began, but Audrey interrupted.

"It's a sonogram, of course," she said. "I know it doesn't look like much yet, but it's only our first one…"

Percy cleared his throat loudly. "It's, er, a picture of the baby we're expecting," he told his sister.

"You're having a baby?" Ginny gasped. "That's brilliant!"

"Thank you!" Audrey said. "Clearly it's something of a trend in the family, these days."

Ginny laughed. "You can say that again. I still have no clue what this thing is you're trying to show me, though."

Audrey pictured the sonogram up from the table. "See that?" she said. "That's my uterus. And then that," she continued, pointing to a tiny white grain surrounded by blackness, "is the baby."

Ginny's eyebrows drew together in skepticism. "You went to this Harley Street place so someone could put a camera up your-"

"That's not how it works!" Percy said, turning beet red, though Harry had to cover his mouth with his hand to stop from laughing. "Anyways, I'm glad we've run into you. We were going to go around and tell everyone today, but now that we know about George and Angelina we'll hold off."

Audrey nodded.

Ginny looked to Harry, looking rather upset. "I've just thought," she said. "What about Hermione?"

Harry groaned in response. Percy and Audrey's news meant that Hermione would be the only woman in the family who wasn't on the brink of motherhood. He glanced back to Percy.

"Any chance you could hold off on telling Ron and Hermione for a couple weeks?"

Percy looked curious, but shrugged and nodded, much to Harry's happiness.

"We should be going," he said, offering Audrey a hand. They stood.

"Hang on," Ginny said. "You still haven't told me how you've got this picture! I want one, too! Ours is probably much cuter than that little lentil."

Harry sighed as Audrey's mouth fell open in affront.

Harry and Ginny walked up the steps to George and Angelina's flat in Diagon Alley. Ginny was bouncing with excitement, while Harry was laden with various gifts and flowers.

George opened the door quickly, beaming proudly as he beckoned them into the flat.

"He's bloody brilliant, wait until you see him," he told them. "Ron and Hermione have just arrived."

Angelina was sitting on the sofa, chatting quietly with Hermione, while Ron stood before them, holding a small bundle in his arms.

Ginny walked over to her sister-in-law, kissing her on the cheek as Harry deposited the gifts onto the coffee table.

"Congratulations," she said. "How are you feeling?"

"Oh, it's not so bad," Angelina said with a wave of her hand, though Harry noticed there was very little color in her lips or cheeks. "Go on, have a look at him."

Ginny smiled, and she and Harry walked over to Ron, peering into the little bundle of blankets.

"Hi, Fred," Ginny whispered. "Oh, George, he's perfect!"

"I know," George said happily.

Fred Weasley was indeed quite sweet. He yawned in Ron's arms, his tiny rosebud mouth stretching hugely before snapping shut again. He had a dark mop of hair, more than Harry had ever seen on his baby, and despite being so small, his caramel skin had a wonderfully rosy flush underneath it.

Suddenly, his little mouth stretched outwards, something like a smile, and there was a quiet sound of flatulence before the baby's face fell back into contentedness.

"Er," Ron said. "I think he's just done a bit of a poo, Angelina."

"Merlin," she sighed. "He does about one an hour."

George raised his wand and Harry heard him mutter a quick vanishing spell as he pointed it at the baby's nether regions.

Fred squirmed, letting out a bit of a howl.

"That's so lazy, George," Angelina said. "He needs fresh nappies!"

"You just changed him twenty minutes ago!" George replied. "This works fine!"

Fred clearly hadn't appreciated the sensation of having his excrement vanished from beneath him, and he began to cry, though his exhausted parents seemed content to let Ron handle it for a moment, chatting idly as Angelina summoned the tea tray in from the kitchen.

Harry felt a hand on his shoulder. It was George.

"Can I have a word, mate?" he said, gesturing to the kitchen. Harry glanced back at the others. Ginny sat next to Angelina on the settee, the two chatting about Merlin-knew-what, while Hermione was in the armchair, listening to them with rapt attention, her elbow balanced on her knees as she held her chin in her hand. Ron stood in front of the coffee table, holding Fred, swaying awkwardly from side to side in an unsuccessful effort to keep him from howling.

Harry looked back to George, nodding.

George led the way to the kitchen, Harry following closely behind. When they passed the doorway, George turned towards him quickly.

"You need to start preparing yourself, now," he said, in urgent tones. "I thought it would be bad. I expected screaming and blood and Angelina threatening to curse my bits off, but it's so much worse. It's bloody fucking horrible."

Harry's lips felt suddenly dry, and his eyes widened. "What do you mean?" he asked apprehensively.

George, who moments before had been beaming proudly over his son, now wore the look of a man returned home from battle with a horrible exhibition of shell-shock. "I can't even describe it. I know you've always liked Angelina; I want you to be able to look her in the eye again."

"Well, you've told me to prepare myself, but you haven't said for what," Harry retorted, his anxiety turning into annoyance. "It can't really be that bad, can it? People would never have more than one kid! Angelina just told Ginny it was fine!"

"She doesn't want to scare Ginny, but you need to be prepared so you can stay strong when things go to hell. Bill tried to warn me," George said, ignoring Harry's question. "I didn't listen. You have to be ready for the worst. It starts with the mucus, then the vomiting, then the pissing. The shitting doesn't start until quite near the end, but the worst was the Severing."

Harry gulped loudly. "The Severing?"

George nodded.

"The midwife said the head was coming down too fast, and she was worried about anal tearing, of all things, and she - she just pointed her wand and - you know - Diffindo," he ended pathetically. "I still don't know what she Severed exactly, but Angelina's had to sit on a pillow for the last two days."

Harry shuddered, and then panicked, because it seemed that George had not, in fact, finished talking.

"Anyways, then the midwife handed Fred to Angelina, and I thought my chest was going to burst... I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but I didn't have time to do either, because I went to ask the midwife a question and realized that she had her arm up to her bleeding elbow inside Angelina!"

"What?!" Harry yelped, too shocked to be embarrassed at how high his voice was.

"So then Angelina's screaming, you can bet your arse I'm screaming as well, and the baby's screaming quite a bit too. It was like the bloody Shrieking Shack, but in my bedroom. Anyways, she pulls out her arm out of Ange, bringing with her this bloody fucking mess, and then asks me if I wanted to cut the cord like it was the most normal thing in the world, as though she was asking me if I wanted a sandwich."

George took a deep breath, indicating he was finished speaking. Harry didn't know what to say. He felt a bit lightheaded.

"Er, well, thanks for the advice, I guess," he voiced awkwardly.

"Well, you know, I just about want to die imagining all of that happening to my only sister," George said, recovering some of his jocularity. "But I know she'll be fine, and witnessing it is going to make you feel worse than I ever could, which makes all of this feel a bit better."

Harry grimaced, but he had to admire George. With only a two minute conversation, he had ensured that Harry wouldn't sleep for the next three months. As Harry briefly fantasized about how nice life would be if Ginny didn't have five brothers, George walked to the refrigerator to grab them each a butterbeer. Just as he faced back towards Harry, they both heard a large crash emit from the sitting room.

Harry grabbed his wand out of the front pocket of his jeans, and within seconds he and George had burst out of the kitchen, only to freeze at the sight in front of them.

The source of the sound was immediately obvious; the tea tray that had previously been on the edge of the coffee table was now on the floor, the pot overturned with amber liquid leaking out onto the carpet. Hermione, now standing in front of the armchair, seemed to have caused the spill, though she appeared not to have noticed. Her eyes were wide, her mouth downturned, and her bushy hair seemed to stand on end.

Ginny, Ron, and Angelina had not moved, and Ron was still holding Fred, though he was no longer swaying, but gazing down at his feet rather sheepishly. Angelina's hands were over her eyes and Ginny looked as though she were about to cry.

Harry instinctively stepped towards Hermione, who turned to him, fuming.

"Did you know?" she demanded of him.

"Know what?" Harry questioned back, trying to sound innocent.

"That Percy and Audrey are having a baby," Hermione spat. "Did you know that every single Fertile Myrtle in this bloody family are going to be having babies within a year of one another, except me?"

"Oh, er, yeah," Harry said lamely. "I knew that."

Hermione rolled her eyes.

Angelina uncovered her face, and her expression was as miserable as Ginny's. "Honestly, Hermione, I'm so sorry. I didn't realize you were trying. I wouldn't have said anything..."

Ginny also piped in, her voice small, "Harry and I just didn't tell you and Ron because we didn't want you to be upset, so soon after you found out about Bill and Fleur."

"Oh, so when did you lot plan on telling me? Were you going to wait until after it was born, and then when I showed up at Christmas it would be a big, happy surprise?" Hermione wondered. Ginny looked away pointedly.

"Hermione…" Ron began, and she whirled around to face him.

"I'm so tired," she said, her voice cracking, "of being humiliated like this around your family. I didn't realize marrying you meant that I was expected to have two children and one on the way by the time I was twenty-five."

"I never bloody said that! Did I?" Ron asked, more to the others than Hermione. No one spoke or moved. Even Fred was quiet and still in Ron's arms. Hermione threw her hands in the air.

"Why do I feel so bad?! This is completely mental! Most Muggle women don't have their first child until they're nearly thirty, and wizards have a decades-longer life expectancy! What is wrong with all of you?" she cried shrilly at the room before turning on her husband.

"I can't take it anymore, Ron. I can't take it! All of your little comments and asides about wanting to have children. If you want to have a baby so badly, find someone else to do it with! I'm done!" She turned to grab her bag, and made for the front door. Changing her mind, her head whipped around to look back at Ron, whose expression now was one of sheer terror.

"You know, I was going to Apparate to my parents' house, but actually I'm going home. You find somewhere else to sleep. You find someone else to put up with you and your dirty clothes and your ridiculous need to eat every two hours and see if she wants to have a baby with you! Why would I want to have a baby when I already live with one? I'm so sick of you!"

And on that final note, she strode through the front door, and within seconds they all heard a loud crack.

Ron swore loudly, and walked over to Angelina, who leaned forward to take Fred from his arms. As she shifted, Harry saw that she was, in fact, sitting on a pillow.

George looked from his wife, to Ginny, to Ron for a moment before letting out a low whistle. "What the hell was that about?" he asked them.

Angelina ignored him. "Ron," she said. "Ron, I'm so sorry, I had no idea."

Ron shook his head. "Harry and Ginny were the only ones who knew we were thinking about it. It was my fault anyways. I know when I talk like that it upsets her."

"What did you say?" Harry asked Ron, but he looked at Ginny for a response.

"It was just terrible timing," Ginny replied. "Ron was holding Fred, and he said he couldn't wait to have a kid, started going on about how mental it is that you, George, and Bill are all dads, and then…."

"And then I brought up that Percy and Audrey were having a baby, and said that I couldn't believe we were all having babies within a year of one another. It was so insensitive, I didn't even think…." Angelina trailed off miserably.

Ron managed to grin. "It's alright, Angelina, really. I should probably go try and talk to her."

He made his way across the room and out the door, and they all heard a second crack from the hall.

Ginny pushed herself up from the sofa. "We should probably leave too," she told Angelina.

"You can really clear a room, huh, Freddie?" Angelina asked her tiny son, who sighed in response. Ginny laughed, and then leaned down to kiss her nephew on the forehead. She gestured to Harry, and they walked over to the fireplace, and moments later found themselves falling out into their own kitchen. Ginny sat down heavily at the table.

"I can't believe George is a dad," she said, absentmindedly stroking her stomach. Harry put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it gently. She reached out to rub his back and they were silent for a moment, Harry standing and Ginny sitting.

"I miss Fred," she said finally. "Seeing George like that… it would've made him so happy."

"I know," Harry murmured, leaning over to kiss the top of her head.

Suddenly, Ginny cried out in surprise, her hand flying from Harry's back to her stomach.

"She just kicked really hard!" she cried.

"She?" Harry repeated, but Ginny was already grabbing his hand and dragging it to her abdomen. She moved it around for a moment, before stopping just to the left of her navel. Harry had just let his hand relax when he felt it; three tiny beats pressed into his palm so quickly he nearly missed them before the soft skin of her stomach stilled again.

Ginny looked up at him, a bright smile stretching across her face.

"Did you feel that?" she asked, amazed.

Harry swallowed thickly. "I - yeah, I did," he said, kneeling down in front of her. She placed her hands on his shoulders now, pressing the tips of her fingers into his back as he traced his own thumbs against each side of her growing stomach.

His heart pounded with the realization, the confirmation, of the life that resided just beyond the stretch of her sweater. Ginny could've told him a thousand times that they were expecting a baby, but he never would've believed as deeply as he did when he felt that flutter under her jumper.

He bowed his head for a moment over the crest of her belly, thinking about George and his dire warning as her fingers moved their way up from his shoulders to gently massage his scalp.

Harry lifted his head. "You really think it's a girl?" he asked.

"I really do!" Ginny giggled. "I don't know, I'm sure it sounds mad."

"We should start thinking about names," Harry said.

"I have been thinking about names!" Ginny said, as if offended that Harry thought she had neglected such an important task.

"Well?" Harry asked, pulling another chair out from the table and sitting beside her.

"For a boy? I love Peregrin," Ginny said happily. "Or maybe Ulysses, or Hieronymus."

"Hieronymus?" Harry asked. "You're joking."

"I am not joking," Ginny said, indignant. "Hieronymus is a fantastic name, and he'd never be confused with anyone else!"

Harry rubbed his eyes. "Merlin, Ginny, why don't we just call him Pigwidgeon and be done with it?"

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Pigwidgeon's a pet's name, you muppet," she said condescendingly, before realizing he was mocking her and scowled.

"Fine, Harry, what are you thinking for a name?" Ginny asked.

"I don't know," Harry said. "I kind of thought we could name him after someone we lost in the war, like George and Angelina have done." He braced himself for disappointment as Ginny wrinkled her nose in distaste.

"Don't you think…. I don't know, Harry, don't you worry that's a lot to put on a little baby?" Ginny asked. "All of our grief, all of our trauma, projected onto this little life who has no clue about any of it."

Harry had never thought about that before, but could certainly appreciate that it was quite the cross to bear for a young child.

"I mean, boy's names are quite difficult, but ones for girls are always so lovely. I was thinking Bathsheba!"

Harry raised his eyebrows, finding it very difficult indeed to contemplate the image of himself, Ginny, and their daughter Bathsheba, but he was saved from the necessity to comment by the sudden ringing of their doorbell.

Harry walked out of the kitchen and down the hall, pulling the door open. Ron was standing there, holding a suitcase.

"She's really done it," he said miserably. "She's thrown me out."

Harry attempted to make a supportive face, before stepping back and letting his friend walk into the house.

Back to index

Chapter 19: Chapter 19 - The Kids Are Alright

Author's Notes: I've already updated once today, so please make sure you've read Chapter 18. This is a tough little chapter, but one I think was important to include as Harry and Ginny venture into parenthood. Neither Harry nor Ginny are at their best form here, and I think both are struggling with the significance of starting new life "together" (ah, see, the title is relevant). The goal of this story has really been to explore how Harry and Ginny operate as two imperfect people with some fairly nasty life experiences under the belt. I hope this chapter does that justice. The chapter title comes from a song by the Who. Happy reading!

If Harry and Ginny ever had more children, Harry had privately decided that he would go to great lengths to ensure that Ginny was never heavily pregnant in the middle of August again. She was a planet; sweaty, swollen and miserable, and Harry had been given the futile task of keeping her comfortable. He missed the days of early summer when she had been happy and energetic, working tirelessly to get their house ready for their new addition.

They were lying in bed, all the windows open as the late-afternoon sun poured across their bodies, resting on top of the blankets. The cacophony of noise from the street below was comforting to Harry; it reminded him of sitting under the trees of the Hogwarts grounds with Ginny during those few perfect weeks in his sixth year, listening to the distant sounds of their peers going about end-of-term business. Ginny was napping now, and it was Harry's job to cast Cooling Charms frequently enough that the oppressive heat did not wake her.

Harry found himself increasingly distracted, though, by a nagging worry that far superseded his casual fears about Ginny's impending delivery. His hand sought comfort across the great expanse of her belly, hoping to feel the baby's fluttering kicks against his palm. He still found it to be the most remarkable sensation in the world, but now was unrewarded in his search for movement from his unborn child. He figured the baby, relaxed by Ginny's stillness, had also fallen asleep, and lightly poked at her stomach, hoping for a response.

Nothing. Harry sighed and tried again, now using four of his fingers to press firmly into the soft fabric of Ginny's t-shirt. He'd seen Ginny do this multiple times, whether attempting to coax the baby into movement to satisfy some overeager relative hoping to feel a kick, or to allay her own fears that something had happened to the child. Harry found this incredibly irrational, but Ginny's anxiety had peaked in these last few weeks. If she didn't feel the baby move for several hours, she became inconsolable that she had fatally failed her child and was not to be a mother after all.

He still couldn't feel any movement and, giving up, rolled onto his back, only to see Ginny staring at him with one eye cracked open.

"Why are you poking me?" she asked, her voice devoid of even the slightest hint of humour.

"Er- I was hoping to feel the baby move," Harry said lamely.

Ginny's eyes narrowed, but she couldn't hide the smile playing at the corner of her mouth. "Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus," she said softly, and Harry realized that her anger was all farce. He pushed his pointer finger hard into her side, watching her stomach flinch away.

"I think she's sleeping," Ginny said.

Harry sighed heavily. "How are you so sure it's a girl?" he asked her.

She smiled. "Mother's intuition."

Harry looked down. "I don't think I have any of that yet," he told her glumly.

` Ginny smirked. "Your mother's intuition hasn't kicked in yet?" she asked sympathetically.

Harry took a deep breath and rolled his eyes. "You know what I mean."

Ginny nodded, reaching out to rub his arm reassuringly.

"You're going to be a great dad," she murmured.

Harry didn't say anything.

Ginny sighed. "You're good and brave and smart and funny, Harry. Teddy adores you; he feels safe and happy with you; you listen to him and treat him with respect."

It was her mention of Teddy that pushed Harry over the edge, and he looked at her for a moment before his fears spilled out of him. "What if something happens to us and the baby is left alone?"

Ginny froze for a moment, before wrapping her fingers in Harry's hair and drawing his face in close to hers.

"Nothing is going to happen to us," she said calmly.

Harry sighed. "You can't know that," he told her. "My parents-"

"-had you in the middle of a war, a war in which they were known to be operating against Voldemort. We are safe. And I happen to come from the largest family in Britain. The baby will have so many people eager to step in and care for them if something happens to us."

"There are still people who want to hurt me, who could use you or the baby to get to me. It's not like we're bringing the baby into a beautiful, wonderful world."

Ginny's hand flew instinctively to her stomach, as if just her few fingers could protect the tiny life residing there from all the terror in the world. But even as she rubbed her belly, her eyes rolled upwards, and Harry could sense her patience growing thin.

"I'm tired of having this conversation with you every six months," she said. "I'm not afraid of anyone trying to use me to 'get to you'. I don't care. And as for the baby - I have no plans to sit idly by if someone threatens my child."

Harry thought suddenly of Mrs. Weasley bringing down Bellatrix Lestrange and grimaced. Ginny gave a start on the bed beside him, and Harry looked to see her vast stomach shift grotesquely as the baby arched inside of her.

Ginny closed her eyes and pressed a hand to the spot on her torso where the child had turned.

"She's going to start breaking my ribs soon," Ginny said with a grimace. Harry grinned as Ginny settled back onto the bed, rubbing her stomach softly.

"There actually is something that I'd like to talk to you about," she said after a moment, cracking an eye open yet again.

"Oh?" Harry asked, settling back down beside her. Ginny bit her lip.

"I want to see your aunt and uncle's house," she replied quietly. "I want to see the cupboard."

Harry felt suddenly a bit ill, looking quickly away from her.

"Why?" he asked uneasily.

"I've never met your fam-"

"They're not my family," Harry cut across her vehemently.

"Your relatives, then," Ginny finished. "Look, we have to raise this baby, and I'd rather do a good job than a shit one, but I can't stop thinking about how you were raised so terribly and you turned out so selfless and brave-"

"I wasn't raised terribly, I just wasn't raised at all," Harry interrupted again.

"Stop talking over me!" Ginny snapped. "I want to go meet your Aunt and Uncle and really, I don't need you to go with me. Tomorrow I'm going to Surrey and you can decide whether or not you'll come along."

Harry stared at her for a moment before huffing in defeat and turning towards the window.

Harry didn't speak as he entered the house, depositing the box in his hands quickly on the sofa and taking the stairs two at a time up to the bedroom.

He didn't bother to shut the door behind him, for he knew that would hardly stop Ginny, but as he flopped down on the bed and looked towards the doorway, he was surprised to see that she had picked up the moth-eaten box and was holding it now, walking towards the bed.

"What is it?" she asked softly.

"What is what?" Harry asked, playing the fool as he rubbed his eyes.

Her patience was endless. "Cancer," she said. "What is it?"

Harry stared at the ceiling. "I don't know, really. It causes lumps, masses, to grow on your organs, and spread from one to the other until they can't work properly anymore."

"Oh," Ginny said. "That's why your uncle said…"

"It was in her brain… her lungs… yeah," Harry finished for her.

Ginny shuddered. "It sounds horrible."

"Look, Ginny, I really don't want to talk about this," Harry said, kicking off his shoes. "We went. You saw the cupboard."

"But the box…," Ginny began.

"What could possibly be in there?" Harry asked her. "What could she possibly have had that she thought I'd want? Some more of Dudley's old clothes? A fly swatter?"

"It's bound to be important if she left instructions with your cousin," Ginny said, giving the box a little shake. "She wanted you to have these things, Harry. You could at least respect her wish-"

"Don't," Harry said, knowing that Ginny was merely curious, but feeling that she had crossed a line nevertheless.

"Sorry," she said, looking back down at the box. "It's your decision, I suppose."

She turned towards the hall, her bottom lip downturned. Harry rolled his eyes.

"Damnit, Ginny, just give it here," Harry said, reaching his arm out.

Ginny waddled back over to the bed, still looking quite concerned. Harry gingerly took the old hat box from her outstretched hands and set it on the bed, lifting the lid and peering inside.

There was a knit blanket folded into the box with a slip of paper pinned to the top. Harry leaned forward.

"I've been told I don't have very long, and have therefore asked Dudley to ensure that this box finds you. This is the blanket that you were wrapped in when I discovered you on the step. Below are letters that your mother sent me before she died."

Harry's breath caught in his throat, and even Ginny, reading over his shoulder, was silent. Harry reached out and ran his hand across the blanket. Had his mother knit the loose stitches herself? Had it been in his cot when Voldemort had killed Lily Potter? Had Hagrid swaddled him in it before tucking him under his coat and riding off on Sirius' motorbike?

His heart pounded, and he suddenly felt constricted, releasing a quavering breath. He felt Ginny sit beside him and squeeze his shoulder gently as he lifted the blanket slowly from the box. It smelled a bit like an attic, but it was soft and worn, and Harry could see it had been well-loved in its time.

He set the blanket down on the bed, looking at the bottom of the box where the letters, several of them, lay. He picked up the topmost one, hesitating before unfolding it to reveal the contents.

"I'll put the kettle on," Ginny said suddenly, making to stand up.

"Stay," Harry said. "Please?"

She sank back to the bed without a word, leaning back and placing one hand on her stomach, the other remaining on his arm.

He lifted the first fold of the letter, which was a plain stationary, not like the parchment on which she'd written the letter to Sirius he'd discovered some six years earlier. The letter's ink ran in places and had several greasy stains on it.

"It looks as though it was fished out of the bin," Ginny murmured.

Harry didn't reply, his eyes flashing to the date in the corner. August 8th, 1980.

Beside him, Ginny took a deep breath. He began to read.

Dear Petunia,

I've had the baby. It's a boy. We've decided to call him Harry, after James' grandfather. I was so happy to receive the birth announcement for Dudley. I'm sorry for not replying; I've been so exhausted in these last weeks that lifting a pen has seemed almost impossible.

I know I was a bit short with you in my last letter; I'm sorry for that as well. Since Harry's arrival I feel as though I've been flooded with warmth. I'm sure I needn't explain to you. Motherhood is wonderful, isn't it?

Still, some warning would've been nice, Tuney. I haven't been able to sit properly in a week.

Harry is fantastic and James is just besotted with him. Things have been difficult in our corner of the world and we've been a bit shut in-lately. I know you prefer that I don't discuss it with you, but all of this fighting and now Harry have made me realize that I'd like to see you. Perhaps we could have a visit and the boys could meet?

Give Vernon my congratulations.


Harry put the letter down and regarded it as it sat on the bed. Ginny was right: it didn't look carefully preserved, but rather as though someone had chucked it away and then pulled it out of the dustbin in remorse. He thumbed through the rest of the stationary quickly. The letter announcing Harry's birth had the most recent date.

"She never wrote back," Harry said under his breath.

"Harry…," Ginny began.

"I don't want to talk about it," Harry said. He'd never understand his aunt; he could see her jealousy, her resentment, but to have her only sister reach out trying to make amends and to just ignore her? He turned around to Ginny again, contradicting himself.

"Imagine!" he shouted. "Imagine if we died and this baby-" Harry gestured wildly at his wife's swollen abdomen "- went to live with Ron and Hermione and they shut her in a closet and refused to call her by her name and would go days without feeding her?! Your brother doing that to your child?!"

Ginny had gone quite pale, but Harry ignored this.

"Did she think this would make up for it?!" he asked, lifting the old hatbox and dropping it back down on the bed so that the letters jumped from within. "About to die and feeling remorseful so she writes me a note and sends me a blanket? I had no childhood! I didn't play games or draw pictures or hear bedtime stories! And it was all because of her!"

He wanted to kick something. It had been years since he'd felt sorry for himself like this, but now, with the brutal memory of his aunt's terrible treatment shoved in his face, he could hardly keep the rage at bay.

After the war, he'd felt pity for Petunia, her terrible inferiority complex keeping her from ever being truly happy or content in life. But now, with the knowledge and presence of his own child, he couldn't fathom her neglect. Lily Potter may not have been perfect, but she was a good person who loved her sister. Harry was sure his own mother would've taken Dudley gladly, not begrudgingly, had their situations been reversed. He was sure of it.

He glanced back up to Ginny, who was clearly quite upset. He felt a surge of resentment towards his wife and her idyllic childhood at the Burrow.

"I told you I didn't want to go to Surrey!" Harry spat at her. "I told you I didn't want to look in the fucking box, but you pushed and pushed until you got what you wanted! You're so bloody stubborn sometimes; d'you have any idea what this is like for me? What those people and that place are like for me?!"

Ginny's expression turned from miserable and concerned to a startling shade of red and she squared her shoulders to meet his gaze.

"You can't shout at me like that!" she snapped. "Of course I have to push, Harry, there's an entire decade of your life that I know nothing about! You don't talk about your aunt and uncle! I've asked Ron and Hermione and they don't know either. It's not like you just started existing the day you got on the train to school!"

"It is though!" Harry cried. "You don't understand - it's always been so easy for you and-"

"Are you joking?" Ginny said, pushing herself up from the bed. Her movements were so slow in comparison with her clear ire that for a moment Harry nearly laughed. "Easy? Easy, growing up with no money, being the youngest of seven? Easy, starting school being possessed by Voldemort's Horcrux? Easy, being chased around by the Carrows for an entire year? Oh, yeah, and it was really easy when that wall crushed my brother!"

She looked, perhaps, more furious than Harry had ever seen her, standing now with her hands on her hips and glaring at him. He felt humbled for a moment, for her knew she was right. Still, he felt as though he'd been utterly ignored. He'd thought for his entire life that he wouldn't care if his aunt and uncle died, but now all he felt was blind rage, and more hurt than he'd thought possible.

He didn't want to shout at Ginny anymore, for he knew she didn't deserve that, but he couldn't stay in this room and calmly continue this conversation. He stomped out into the hall and back down the stairs into the sitting room.

He threw himself moodily down onto the sofa, pinching the bridge of his nose. He'd forgotten the smells of Privet Drive, bleach and potpourri, and now they lingered in his nose, a terrible reminder of a terrible childhood.

It wasn't long before a small, warm hand brushed his shoulder, and he felt Ginny's body clamber onto the sofa next to him. She curled her torso around him, cradling him as if he were a frightened child.

"I'm sorry," she mumbled into his hair, clutching him tighter. Harry ran a hand up and down her arm. "I didn't give you the space you needed."

"I'm sorry, too," Harry said. "I shouldn't have shouted. I felt so jealous for a moment about your childhood at the Burrow. I just really don't like dwelling on them. I know it's important… with the baby and everything… I know it's important that we talk about those things."

"The baby's going to be fine, Harry," Ginny said softly.

"What if she asks, though?" Harry wondered, again allowing Ginny her assertion that they were having a daughter. "What if she asks about my life when I was a child?"

"We'll cross that bridge when we get there," Ginny said. "Everything is going to be absolutely okay. I promise, sweetheart."

Harry blanched at her use of a pet name, knowing that he must truly seem upset for Ginny to coddle him so.

"What happened?" Ginny asked his shoulder. "A few months ago I was the one who was terrified and you were reassuring me. This is supposed to be a happy time, Harry."

"I don't know," Harry said. "Everything just feels so out of control. There are so many things that can go wrong."

Ginny looked thoughtful for a moment, leaning back.

"There are so many things that can go right, too, Harry," she reminded him. "Holidays and first steps and trips to the Burrow. We're going to be a family. We're going to be so happy, I can feel it. This baby is going to be the best thing that's ever happened to you."

Harry gave her a wry smile. "You're the best thing that's ever happened to me, Ginny."

Ginny grinned in return. "Smart answer. However, I'm happily prepared to be unseated in that achievement."

Just then, the door opened abruptly, causing Harry and Ginny to jump in surprise. Ron trudged in, soot covering his face and hair singed. He took one look at Harry and Ginny's expressions as they sat curled together on the couch.

"Merlin," he said. "Who's died?"

Ginny looked at Harry in concern, but Harry took in the sight of his best friend and began to shake with silent laughter. Ginny's expression relaxed and she smiled tentatively.

Ron stood before them in confusion, his face blackened by whatever experiment of George's he was forced to play guinea pig to.

"Petunia," Harry said finally, wiping a tear away from his eye. "Petunia died."

"Sorry?" he said finally, more a question than an expression of condolence.

Harry nodded his head in gratitude.

"It's alright," he said, and as Ginny squeezed his hand, he had the sudden realization that everything would be.

Back to index

Chapter 20: Chapter 20 - The Start of Something

Author's Notes: Third update today bc I'm crazy. Only the epilogue left folks! I hope everyone feels that I've brought Harry and Ginny to a point of contentedness in their lives together! After all, that was really the point of the whole story. Chapter titled after "The Start of Something" by Voxtrot. Thank you all for sticking with me this far!

Exhausted after an afternoon of wandering Knockturn Alley, hoping to overhear information regarding a potential mole from the Belarusian Ministry of Magic, Harry Apparated directly onto the front step of his and Ginny's London home. Before he could reach for the doorknob, however, the door was yanked open from the inside. Standing there was Ginny, wearing a thin-strapped dress that revealed a good deal of her freckled shoulders, her mane of fiery hair bouncing excitedly. There was something of a mad glint in her eye.

"I'm so glad you're home!" she exclaimed, and Harry grinned.

"Were you waiting at the door?" he asked. She smiled in response, reaching out one hand to pull him into the house, albeit quite slowly, for these days, Ginny could walk in little more than a waddle. The pair made their way through the hall, past the sitting room and into the kitchen. The gleaming wooden table was already set with bowls filled with steaming soup, a fire was roaring in the hearth, and Ron was sitting on the long bench, drinking an ale and reading the evening Prophet.

"Do you ever go to work?" Harry asked him skeptically. He had hardly realized that Ron and Hermione would manage to live apart from each other for three months, and was beginning to regret saying that Ron could stay in his study indefinitely while his best friends sorted out their feelings.

"For about an hour," Ginny answered for her brother. "His work ethic is embarrassing."

Ron shrugged. "I bring home the Galleons. Did you tell him yet?"

"Then start paying rent," Harry grumbled, sitting down next to Ron and picking up his spoon. "Tell me what?"

Ginny beamed, hardly able to contain herself. "I'm in labour!" she exclaimed.

"You're in what?!" Harry dropped his spoon back on the table and felt his face grow hot. "That's impossible! It's only September 9th and I know you're not due to have the baby until September 19th because it's Hermione's birthday! I wrote it down." He shrugged his rucksack off his shoulder and began searching wildly for the scrap of parchment where he was positive he had written "Baby - September 19th, 2003".

Ron sniggered into his soup. "Very chill, mate." Harry threw him an angry look.

Ginny rolled her eyes. "I don't know anyone who's actually had their baby on their due date. I started having contractions this morning after you left and they've evened out a bit and gotten really regular. I'm having one every eight to ten minutes now!"

Harry felt panic rising in his throat, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that Ron and Ginny seemed remarkably unconcerned with this development.

"Why didn't you write me?" Harry pressed. "Or send me a Patronus? Or have Ron get me? Or Flooed me in my office?"

"I didn't want to bother you," Ginny said lightly. "Anyways, the active labor has only just started; before that it was really quite erratic. Ron's been here, too, which has been helpful." Ron looked up from the newspaper and tipped his glass in Harry's direction.

"Didn't - Didn't want to…," Harry spluttered, feeling his blood pressure rise. "Ginny!"

"What?" Ginny asked innocently, but suddenly Harry noticed that her wide eyes were perhaps too innocent, her voice too light.

"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" he asked, and she grinned wickedly, the façade broken.

"I have to make sure you suffer somehow," she said. "Since I'll be doing all the hard work."

Harry shook his head, picking up his spoon again. "I would've liked to have been here," he told her softly, bringing some of the warm broth into his mouth.

"I know you would've," she said, not unkindly. "I didn't want you home all day fretting. It's really been uneventful. I folded laundry, made the soup, got our room ready. I haven't even owled the midwives yet." She put a loaf of bread and a knife on the table in front of him, waving her wand so that the knife set to work, severing the bread into thick slices. Ron eyed the knife apprehensively.

"Watch it," he warned. "It's been more than eight min-"

Suddenly, Ginny sucked in a breath, placing one hand on the table and leaning over, pressing the other hand, the one holding her wand, into her distended stomach. The knife started chopping maniacally, sending hunks of bread flying across the room, as Ron ducked for cover and Harry jumped up and flew to Ginny's side, grabbing her arm to steady her.

She remained bowed, eyes closed and lips tightly pursed, and Harry felt his panic surge again. After several long moments, however, she straightened up, exhaled loudly, and looked at Harry happily. The knife fell back to the table with a clatter.

"That one was definitely stronger than the last," Ginny said excitedly. "How long?"

Harry stared at her blankly. The contraction seemed to him as though it had lasted hours, but he doubted she would appreciate that response.

Ron's head reemerged from beneath the table. "Forty-two seconds," he said promptly, glancing at this watch. "Longer by three seconds."

Ginny rubbed her stomach absentmindedly. "I wish things would hurry up a bit," she sighed. "I'm ready for this one to be out."

Harry felt that he couldn't agree less. He had been convinced that he had ten more days before he really had to worry about anything. Now the baby was coming early and he didn't feel prepared at all.

There were so many things that could go wrong. Ginny seemed relatively alright now, but he had panicked just seeing her hunched over in pain. He thought again of George's warning. What would happen when the bleeding and the vomiting and the Severing started? Would he lose his head entirely? Would they even let him be in the room?

The worry must've been splashed across his face, for Ginny reached out and rubbed his shoulder reassuringly. This perhaps made him feel worse. Was he really the prat that had to be comforted by his wife when she was the one having the baby?

"This is why I didn't owl you," she said knowingly. "I'm fine, Harry. Will you please eat?"

But Harry was too keyed up to force anything down his throat now. He sat next to Ron, who was more than happy to consume Harry's helping of soup for him, while Ginny bustled around the kitchen, tending to various small tasks.

The contractions continued to come every few minutes, and as Ginny was usually holding her wand when they hit, more and more cookware was upset as the evening wore on. Even after being struck in the head with a copper pot, Harry gallantly tried to have Ginny take his place at the table after each labour pain but, despite his protestations, she insisted that she was much happier staying busy.

Sometime around eight o'clock, Ron had decided that it was in his best interest to get incredibly drunk in celebration of the impending arrival of a new niece or nephew. He had forsaken the beer in favor of firewhisky for this venture, and he and Ginny were now partaking in a heated conversation about whether the Chudley Cannons stood a chance against Puddlemere United in next week's opening match.

Harry, still moodily sat on the bench with his arms crossed over his chest, hadn't spoken in nearly a quarter-of-an-hour, since Ginny had refused his last plea to owl her midwives, two elderly witches named Winifred and Theodora, who had been married for three decades and delivering babies together for nearly twice that time.

Harry quite liked them; they both had brisk, no-nonsense attitudes and had come at the suggestion of Andromeda. They had assisted in the birth of Teddy, accepting no payment and showing no fear or judgement at the prospect of delivering the child of two known operatives in the Order of the Phoenix, one a werewolf, during the height of the war.

"Harry," Ginny began patiently, turning away from her brother. "Why don't you have a beer? It may calm you down a bit."

"No, thanks," Harry shot back. "It's probably best if one of us at least remains coherent and rational, since Ron's gone and got pissed and apparently you're not fussed in the slightest that this baby is coming any minute."

Ginny's eyes rolled so far upwards Harry thought they might go all way back into her head.

"Harry," she said again, still in her most accommodating tone, but Harry caught a slightly hardened note in her voice. "There is nothing to be concerned about. The baby is not coming 'any minute'; it may not even come tonight or tomorrow. Everything could slow down and I won't give birth for days. Anything could happen. It's no use getting yourself worked up. Have a beer."

She was standing with her back against the counter, and as she turned to the icebox, Harry heard a tiny pop.

Ginny froze and cried, "Oh!" Her eyes traveled downwards to her feet, and Harry followed her gaze.

A puddle had collected on the kitchen's wooden floors, and Harry could feel his heart rate slow to nearly nothing before picking back up again at a rapid pace. He could see stringy bits of blood in the fluid, and as Ginny picked up one foot, more of the gelatinous substance trickled down her leg.

"Oh," she said again, more weakly this time. A foul smell was beginning to permeate the room. Ron's face had turned quite pale.

Harry's mind flew back to the pages of What to Expect When Your Witch is Expecting; he conjured the memory of a section titled 'Spontaneous Rupture of Membranes'.

"I think my waters have broken," Ginny whispered, as more fluid hit the floor with a final splash.

Ron wrinkled his nose; Harry sprang up from the bench, quickly conjuring a flask and transferring the mess at Ginny's feet into the glass.

"Alright," he said forcefully. "Alright, let's get you into bed. I'll send for the midwives, and you can just rest until -"
"No," Ginny cut across him. "No. I think - I think I'm going to have a bath."

"Have a bath?" Harry blinked. "Alright, whatever, we'll go get you in the tub and then I'll send for the midwives and -"

"Stop rushing me!" Ginny snapped, and Harry stepped back. Ron coughed pointedly, trying unsuccessfully to hide a small smirk. Ginny's eyes narrowed.

"I need to talk to you, now," she said to Harry, looking so much like her mother that Harry's terror only grew. Ginny waddled out of the kitchen, Harry following meekly behind. As soon as they reached the hall, she rounded on him.

"Right," she huffed, and Harry blanched. "Right, let's get this out of the way. I know that you're scared, and I know that when you're scared, your instinct is to take command of the situation, and do everything all on your own, and be protective. But I need you to calm down, and find a way to be okay with this being out of your control. You can't have this baby for me. I have to listen to my body. I can't do that if you're bossing me around, alright?"

Harry felt terrible. "Alright," he said.

Ginny sighed, reaching out to touch his face. Harry let his head sink into her caress.

"Everything is going to be alright," Ginny murmured. "I know this is putting you out of your element, but I promise everything will be absolutely perfect."

Harry nodded.

"I'm going to have a bath. Ron can write to Theodora and Winifred when the contractions are three minutes apart. I need you to stay with me."

"I won't go anywhere," Harry said automatically. He hadn't meant to boss Ginny around. He had only wanted to be helpful. He hated the inevitability that she was going to be in pain, that there was nothing he could do.

"Good," Ginny said, and she reached up and pecked him on the lips. "Ron! I'm going to have a bath! Harry's coming as well!"

"Urgh! Don't tell me!" was the reply from the kitchen.

Ginny grinned, before turning and slowly making her way up the stairs. Harry was rather concerned that if she fell back he may not be able to stop them both falling to the landing, but he tactfully decided not to voice this concern to Ginny. He was truly hoping he could survive the next few hours without falling victim to one of his wife's notorious hexes.

They finally reached the bathroom, and Harry pointed his wand at the tub. Water quickly started pouring from the faucet.

"Not too hot," Ginny reminded him, crossing her arms over her chest to pull her dress over her head. Harry nodded.

The dress fell to the floor, revealing Ginny's naked frame. Harry was still so unused to her body like this. Her petite figure had changed little except for the in the region of her torso, where her stomach now hung so low that Harry was frankly surprised the baby had not yet fallen out of its own accord.

Her breasts were bigger, too, falling heavily over the swell of her stomach. There was something quite erotic about her body with this newfound purpose; even through his anxiety, Harry was able to appreciate how absolutely mental it was that she was about to bring their child into the world; that she had grown it from a single cell over the last nine months.

"Were you not wearing knickers?" he asked her cheekily.

"I can't bend over to pull anything up anymore," she replied in a sing-song voice. "Everything must come on over the head."

"I see," Harry said softly. He reached a hand out, and she took it, stretching one leg into the water. Harry was about to help ease her down when she groaned loudly, grabbing on to the front of his shirt and burying her face in his chest.

"Merlin!" she cried. "This one hurts so much!"

"Breathe," Harry said firmly. "It'll be over soon."

She took in a ragged breath, but stopped to groan loudly again.

"How long was it since the last one?" she moaned.

Harry checked his watch. "Five-and-a-half minutes."

She was still leaning on him, and Harry's heart fluttered anxiously.

"Ginny," he began, "do you still want to get in the tub?"

"Yeah," she panted. "Yeah, I do."

Harry grabbed her shoulders and gently eased her into the water. She leaned back against the end of the tub, closing her eyes and letting the water lap over her chest. Her stomach was an island in the tide of the bath, and Harry reached out and gave it a small rub. He still found the entire thing immensely weird. There couldn't actually be a person in there, could there? It must've all been some elaborate ruse.

Ginny smiled at his touch, her eyes still closed.

"Did you know," Harry asked, "that Muggles have ways of finding out whether a baby's a boy or a girl before it's even born?"

"Audrey told me," Ginny answered. "Muggles must be quite boring. The surprise is the best bit of all of this."

"I thought you were convinced it's a girl," Harry remarked.

"I know it's a girl," Ginny said. "But it would be much less fun if no one had reason to doubt me."

Harry smiled. Ginny rubbed a hand over her stomach. Harry found himself, as he always did, admiring her Pre-Raphaelite beauty. He had never been able to get over that feeling that he was living someone else's life. Perhaps he had died in the battle, and this moment was some elaborate construction of the afterlife. It couldn't be possible that he was here, with Ginny, and that in mere hours he'd have a family; his deepest desire finally realized. They had created life, together, and his heart ached with the anticipation for it.

He shook his head. He wouldn't let himself get all odd and sentimental now, not when Ginny needed him. He reached into the lukewarm water and grabbed her hand. She brushed her fingers across his knuckles.

They sat like that as the hours passed, murmuring to one another about everything and nothing while her contractions grew closer and closer together. Harry did everything he could to alleviate her suffering, digging his thumbs into her lower back in between contractions and holding her tightly as she cried into his t-shirt over their terrible duration.

In the kitchen, she had largely been able to square her shoulders and talk through each pain, but here, it was like every few minutes she was possessed by another person. It was so unlike Ginny, who was typically quite tough. Harry had seen her whacked out of the sky by Bludgers only to get back up as though nothing had happened. This was a completely different story.

"Right," he breathed, lowering Ginny back into the water after a particularly difficult cramp that had left Ginny moaning over the side of the tub a full minute after it had ended. "That was three minutes. I'm going to owl the midwives."

Ginny leaned back, eyes shut and lips thin. She nodded once before furrowing her brow.



"Will you owl Hermione as well? I want her to be here."

Harry sighed. He wanted Hermione there too. He didn't like thinking about how long had passed since her explosion at George and Angelina's. Was there actually a chance that her and Ron's relationship was irreparable?

"Of course I will," he said. "Will you be alright alone for a moment?"

She nodded again. Harry silently cast another warming charm on the tub before walking out of the bathroom, heading back for the kitchen.

Ron was asleep on the bench when Harry entered, the empty bottle of firewhisky still on the table in front of him. Harry snorted before grabbing two strips of parchment and a quill, hastily scratching out messages to the midwives and Hermione. He went to the window and cranked it open.

"Swanhild?" he called quietly into the night. She appeared on the windowsill after only a moment, holding out her leg obediently. He tied the letters to her, a for a moment thought briefly of Hedwig. He missed his old owl terribly sometimes.

He turned away, hurrying back up to the bathroom. Ginny was exactly as he'd left her, and for a moment he wondered if she too had fallen asleep. But as he moved closer she cracked an eye open.

"What if it's gotten this bad already and I'm only a centimeter dilated?" she asked him anxiously.

"I don't think that's going to be the case," Harry said reassuringly, kneeling down alongside the tub again.

"How would you know?" Ginny spat, irritated. Harry sucked in his breath, silently praying that Winifred and Theodora would brew up some Nodoloros Potion or at least Draught of Peace when they arrived.

Luckily, it didn't take long for the elderly witches to make their appearance.

It was Theodora who entered the bathroom first, pulling her long, gray hair into a bun as she surveyed the room.

"Apologies for not knocking," she said briskly, looking down at them over the bridge of her long nose. "We tend to find that all formalities have gone out the window by this point."

Harry laughed, relief flooding through his veins. Ginny was in the middle of a particularly difficult contraction; she had yet to acknowledge their new company. Winifred followed quickly behind her partner, taking in the sight with a pleased look on her face.

"Ah, you're in the bath!" she said. "Has it helped with the pain?"

"Not particularly," Ginny said through gritted teeth.

"Well, we're here now," Theodora said, pushing her arms out of her cloak to reveal a large black medical bag, which she promptly set on the tiled floor, kneeling in front of it.

"Start with a Calming Draught," Winifred suggested. "We'll check her cervix after and see if she could do with something stronger." She turned to Harry, looking at him curiously, and her frank, wide eyes made Harry think of Luna Lovegood. "Did you know there is a man asleep in your kitchen?"

"My brother-in-law," Harry replied, and Winifred smiled in understanding.

"Well, he seems fine where he is at the moment," she said enthusiastically, clapping her hands together as Theodora finished handing Ginny a goblet with a clear tonic inside. "Alright, dear. Up we go!"

Ginny placed a hand on each side of the tub, and Harry grabbed her from under the arms to hoist her out of the water. Theodora leaned forward to take her hand, Winifred came down with a towel, and together the three of them got Ginny into a standing position. She huffed uncomfortably, leaning again desperately into Harry's shoulder.

They marched, with Harry and Theodora on each side of Ginny, out of the bathroom and into the bedroom. As they reached the bed, Ginny grabbed hold of the mattress, leaning forward and groaning again. She gasped and moaned for several long moments, while Harry rubbed her back, and Theodora whispered support reassuringly in her ear.

Finally, she seemed to relax, and Winifred looked at Theodora sharply.

"Well, dear, you seem to have gotten quite far along without our help," she said to Ginny. "Why don't you lie back and we'll have a look-see at what's going on down there."

Ginny nodded, rolling over so that she was sitting on the bed. Harry propped up several pillows so that Ginny could sit upright, and she gently laid herself against them, swinging her feet up onto the bed.

"Will you get me a t-shirt?" she asked him, seeming slightly uncomfortable at being so exposed. Harry nodded, summoning one from the wardrobe and helping slide it over her head. Meanwhile, Winifred pulled out a small bottle of purple liquid, dripping some onto her fingers and rubbing them together.

"Antiseptic," she said, noting Harry's curious expression. "We bothered with rubber gloves back in the sixties… rather clever of Muggles, in my opinion, but I find I can get a better feel without the barrier."

She sat down on the edge of the bed in front of Ginny.

"Spread your legs, please, dear. I'm afraid this may be a bit uncomfortable."

Ginny nodded, grimacing, before placing her heels on the bed and drawing up her knees. Harry felt mildly queasy as Winifred inserted two fingers in between Ginny's legs, moving her hand around slightly as she gazed intently at the ceiling. Ginny's own eyes were closed, and she was breathing slowly through her nose. Harry held her hand, muttering nonsense about how proud he was of her and how well she was doing, and yet even his most supportive words seemed to fall flat in the face of this tremendous task he was watching her accomplish.

Winifred removed her hand from Ginny and looked to Theodora, giving a quick nod. She put a bracing hand on Ginny's thigh, and Harry saw blood smeared there. His stomach lurched.

"You're very nearly there, Ginny," Winifred told her. "You waited quite a long time to owl us, didn't you? I would say you're already seven centimeters dilated - if not eight!"

Harry thought Ginny would be encouraged by this news, but she was already tensing again.

Theodora put a hand on Harry's arm, seeming to sense his confusion. "Perfectly normal at this stage. When things speed up Mum tends to get quieter and quieter. Just hold her hand and rub her back. We're here for the messy bits, she just needs someone to remind her she can do it!"

Harry nodded, his anxiety beginning to take hold again. He moved even closer to the bed, and gripped Ginny's hand as she had another pain. He raised their entwined fingers to his lips, softly kissing her sweaty skin.

"You're so strong," he told her quietly.

The Calming Draught did seem to bring about an improvement in Ginny's mood. She was far more focused and far less agitated. Theodora had quickly whipped up an additional potion that dulled her pain, and now she was resting while Harry and her midwives made idle chat. Every so often Winifred would place a hand on Ginny's abdomen, or take her pulse, but otherwise the entire process seemed quite relaxed.

The hours slipped by slowly, with Ginny attempting to sleep, but having little success as the contractions grew stronger and stronger. Winifred decided to check Ginny's cervix again at half-three.

"Right," she said surely. "Very nearly there. Do you feel like you need to push?"

"How can I be sure?" Ginny asked, wincing and grasping tightly to Harry's hand.

"You'll know, dear," Theodora said confidently. They all lapsed back into silence, the only sounds being Ginny's continued puffing and moaning. Harry rubbed her back and muttered more encouragement, but he was definitely starting to feel like more of a nuisance than anything. Ginny had grown quite pale, and beads of sweat rested on her forehead and the tip of her nose.

It had been another few minutes when Ginny shifted, raising herself up to look around.

"I think I need to push," she said. "I can feel it, it's very far down."

Winifred nodded, standing up and moving back over to the bed. Harry gripped Ginny's hand as the midwife placed her own hand again between Ginny's legs. She looked at the couple in front of her, flashing them a beaming smile.

"Yes, I can feel the head near-completely. Alright, dear, this is it!"

Ginny nodded. Harry could see her most determined expression beginning to make its way across her face. He was hoping she could harness some of that Quidditch strength to get through the next few moments.

Winifred positioned herself so she could clearly see what was going on between Ginny's splayed limbs, while Theodora began to remove more objects from her large black bag. Harry saw her set various silver instruments, several towels, and a soft-looking cotton blanket on his dresser. His heart leapt.

"Ginny, when you feel your next contraction, I want you to push down hard into your bottom, like you're having a bowel movement, for ten seconds, alright?"

Ginny nodded, her face the same color as their bedsheets. Winifred placed a supportive hand on her shoulder and rubbed it, giving her a kind smile before gesturing to Harry.

"Harry, why don't we have you hold her leg up, like this, so I can see what's going on down here?"

Harry nodded, taking his assigned position.

"Alright, Ginny, are you ready?"

Ginny pushed herself up on her forearms, nodding.


Ginny curled herself over her stomach, groaning loudly, as Winifred began to count down from ten.

"...five, four, three, two, one. Excellent, Ginny, keep going just like that. I can see Baby's head when you're pushing, hopefully it will crown quite quickly and we'll have Baby born within the hour."

It was terrible. Ginny's face had gone from white to red, but she continued bearing down again and again, all with Winifred's sincere encouragement. Harry rubbed her arm and offered more encouragement, and the minutes passed quickly.

"It burns," Ginny moaned, as she pressed her chin into her chest for the eighth or ninth time.

"Good work, Ginny. I think with a just few more pushes Baby's head will be crowning," Winifred said merrily.

Ginny's own head flew up suddenly, and fiery hair whipped around the bed as she looked at Harry with terror in her eyes. "I think I just pooed myself," she whispered, her voice cracking.

"What?!" Harry exclaimed. But they didn't have time to confirm her suspicions, as Theodora commanded her attention.

"Take a break, dear," she said to Ginny. "You're doing brilliantly, but we don't want Baby to pass through too quickly."

Ginny moaned and shook her head. "I have to push," she puffed stubbornly. "I have to!" Her face was turning purple. Harry felt about as helpful as a disease as he gripped Ginny's hand and pushed some of her sweaty hair away from her face.

"You're amazing," he told her. "It's almost over."

"Don't touch me!" she cried, turning towards the other side of their bed.

Harry whipped his hand away. "What do you need right now?" he asked her.

Ginny groaned. "Water," she answered, and Harry conjured a glass and brought it to her lips.

Winifred leaned over so she could look Ginny in the eye. "If you feel like you need to push, pant instead," she instructed smoothly. "Take a break, recover your strength. Harry's right; it'll be over soon."

Ginny started panting wildly, but stopped suddenly as another contraction rocked through her. She groaned and curled over her stomach. Theodora, who was now across the room waving her wand over her cauldron, turned back.

"Ginny, don't push!" she cried authoritatively.

Ginny fell back on the bed, closing her eyes and nodding through thin lips.

Harry couldn't help it; he reached out again and grabbed for Ginny's hand. She cracked one eye open.

"You're doing worse than I am," she said weakly, giving him a small smile.

"Oh, no contest," Harry answered, staring at her reverently. "You're doing brilliantly. I can't even believe this is happening."

Ginny laughed, but suddenly doubled over again, crying out this time.

Winifred walked over and positioned herself between Ginny's splayed legs.

"Baby's crowning," she informed Theodora. "Alright, Ginny, I want you to begin pushing with the next contraction. We'll do ten seconds of pushing followed by a ten second break for the next minute."

Ginny nodded, raising herself up slightly and again curling herself over her heaving stomach, chin pressed to her chest. Harry's heart was beating rapidly, and he silently willed himself not to say or do anything stupid.

Theodora lifted one of Ginny's legs and gestured for Harry to do the same. He touched her gingerly, not wanting to upset her again.

"Alright, dear, here we go. Bear down, Ginny," Winifred directed calmly.

Ginny grunted, and her foot strained against Harry's palm. Harry reached out and placed his right hand on her shoulder in a way that he hoped was comforting.

"…three, two, one," Winifred counted down. "Wonderful, Ginny, have a breather."

Ginny shook her head. "I really need to push," she pled through gritted teeth. Ginny's distress made Harry feel even worse that there wasn't much that he could really do in this situation; typically, she could hold her own against any adversary but now, as she struggled with both her body and her midwives, she seemed a bit pitiful.

Winifred exchanged a glance with Theodora, who shrugged.

"If you say so, dear. You're running the risk of tearing," Winifred warned.

Harry blanched as he again remembered George's warning, and he prayed silently there would be no tearing, severing, or any event whatsoever that involved skin separating from itself.

But Ginny was already pushing again, grunting now in a way that was utterly animal. Harry attempted to rub the shoulder that his hand was placed on, but at that very moment Ginny shot forward with a blood-curdling scream, completely unlike the moans and groans Harry had become accustomed to over the past several hours. She looked at Harry, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, and Harry half-expected her to speak, but she caught her breath and screamed for a second time, this one more hair-raising than the first. Harry panicked, but willed himself to be brave.

"You're alright," he said bracingly, clutching her hand even more desperately and reaching an arm around her to support her back. "You're nearly done…."

"Head is born," Theodora said briskly, and Harry's eyes flew from Ginny's face to between her legs where sure enough, a head had appeared, face down and covered in the darkest hair he had ever seen. Harry's heart seemed to fall to somewhere near his navel.

"Oh my God, Ginny, I can see them," he said idiotically.

"Good," Winifred muttered. "Don't push, Ginny! Slow down a moment."

This was evidently the last thing that Ginny wanted to hear.

"GET IT OUT!" she cried desperately. Harry found himself in agreement, feeling like he was about to vomit.

"We need to wait for another contraction to get Baby out, Ginny," Theodora said reassuringly. Ginny didn't seem to hear her, and looked at Harry with shocking lucidity for a person who had another person's head hanging out of her bits.

"I'm going to die," she said matter-of-factly.

Harry rubbed her back. "You're not going to…"

But the rest of what he was saying was cut off as Ginny gave another animalistic cry and pressed her chin down again. Before Harry could even realize what was happening, there was a loud squelching sound that was quickly replaced by the wails of their baby.

"Good girl, Ginny, good girl," Winifred said, and Ginny's head fell back on the pillows, tears streaming down her face, while Harry turned towards the midwife, who held up something that looked not unlike a mandrake covered in cottage cheese and called out, "It's a boy!"

The floor seemed to fall out from under Harry's feet. It was all he could do to keep standing next to the bed. He felt his mouth fall open at the same moment that his grip on Ginny's leg slackened. Theodora pointed her wand at Ginny's t-shirt and muttered "Diffindo". Ginny's sweat-stained shirt split and fell away, revealing her breasts and, with neither pomp nor ceremony, Winifred marched over to Ginny and deposited the baby onto her chest.

Ginny's arms flew upwards voraciously to cradle her child. Harry watched her run a finger over his cheek as she looked hungrily into his tiny face. "Holy fuck!" she gasped through her tears. "Oh, we did it!"

The baby kept screaming, and Ginny started gently cooing to him, tears continuing to leak out of her eyes and down her cheeks. Harry felt his arm move as thought it was something other from himself, his hand reaching out to touch the skin of their child's back, unable to believe he was real.

Theodora reached over and put the small blanket over their son, who stopped squalling long enough for Ginny to look at Harry. Her eyes were wide and her face was drawn, but she somehow managed to exude only happiness and relief.

"What the fuck just happened?" she gasped.

"Why do you keep swearing?" Harry laughed thickly. He rubbed his eyes behind his glasses, surprised to find that tears were flowing freely down his face as well. He leaned forward to touch his forehead to hers, and then kissed her deeply, their happy tears mingling on their cheeks, before turning to look at their child, sniffling on his mother's chest.

"Merlin, that hurt so much," Ginny sighed, her head lolling back on the pillows.

"You're amazing," Harry whispered, not entirely sure if to Ginny or the baby. It was surreal. This tiny person was his. Blood thundered in his ears and his chest seemed to swell.

Out of the corner of his eye, behind his son and in between Ginny's legs he watched Winifred raise her wand to sever the long cord that followed his child out of Ginny.

"Alright, Mum," she said. "Let's hand Baby over to Theodora so we can deliver the afterbirth."

Harry's face split into a grin at hearing Ginny called 'Mum'. They were no longer exclusively Harry and Ginny, but this new little person's Mum and Dad. His thoughts flew suddenly to his parents and he found himself amazed that already he had a greater appreciation for their sacrifice than he ever had before. After all the years of finding places for himself at Hogwarts, with his friends, and with the Weasleys, Harry finally had a family that was his. Ginny and this baby were linked to him by blood, the strongest bond, and in that moment Harry knew he would die for them without second thought.

Theodora reached out her long, bony hands and scooped up his son, taking him over to the dresser where several instruments and potions waited. She wrapped the baby tightly in his blanket and attached a long, thin, silver tube to the swaddling, levitating it into the air with her wand as she made a recording.

"Eight pounds, twelve ounces," she said cheerfully. "Well done, Mum! Good thing he was a bit early, or I'd guess you'd be looking at a nine-pounder!" She plucked the baby out of the air and examined him in her arms. "He really is perfect. Ten fingers, ten toes."

Ginny gave another loud grunt. Harry tore his eyes away from the baby, turning back to the bed in time to see a bloody mass pass from between Ginny's legs into Winifred's waiting hands. He nearly laughed at how unfazed he felt by this gory sight. He caught Ginny's eye and found the same mirthful look mixed with her tears; he was sure that after the last few hours, nothing could ever shock them again. She reached a hand out and he grabbed it.

"I love you," she said, yawning.

"I love you, too," he replied, brushing her knuckles with his thumb. "Have I told you lately that you're the most incredible person I've ever met?"

She grinned, but then tears began to fall afresh from her eyes. Harry must've looked surprised, for she tried to justify herself. "I just love him so much."

Harry smiled. He, too, felt like his emotional capacity had just multiplied tenfold.

Theodora approached the bed again, holding their tightly-swaddled baby in her arms. Harry stepped back politely, expecting her to hand him back to Ginny, but Theodora took his right hand, passing the bundle into the crook of his left arm, before placing his hand back over the blankets covering his son's stomach.

Harry felt only a moment of anxiety, for the upheaval of the night had rendered him unconfident in his ability to control his arms, but as he adjusted the blankets, he felt himself fall quickly and hopelessly in love.

He couldn't believe that he had made (or helped make, anyway) this person, and he was shocked at how well their baby seemed to fit into the space between his forearm and his chest. Harry took a deep breath as he looked into his son's now-serene face. "He's mine, he's mine, he's mine," played on a loop through his brain as he watched the baby open and close his mouths several times, making adorable grunting sounds.

Winifred reached for her wand on the dresser and twirled it towards Harry. A chair appeared out of the air, and Harry sank into it, still clutching the baby. Clean and content, Harry had a chance to truly look over his son for the first time. He looked quite like Harry, with a long face and already the messiest head of black hair Harry had ever seen. He wondered briefly if his son would have Lily's green eyes when Ginny leaned over, placing one of her slender fingers near the baby's brow.

"Let's let Dad hold him for a moment while we tidy up and then you can try feeding him. Those little smacking motions he's making with his mouth generally signify he's hungry," Theodora said to Ginny. "You can rest now, dear. You've done beautifully."

Ginny smiled. "Thank you both," she said to the midwives.

Harry glanced up from the baby. "Thanks," he whispered. The witches bowed their heads in unison, watching them for a quick moment.

Then Theodora set to work, putting all of her instruments and potions back in her black bag. Winifred was now waving her wand around their bed, tergeo-ing all the various stains and fluids off the sheets. With a final flourish, the unstained sheets vanished from the bed and were replaced with Harry and Ginny's usual bedding, which tucked themselves gracefully over the mattress, ensuring Ginny was quite snug in the process.

"Would like to try feeding him now, Ginny?" Winifred asked quietly.

Ginny looked unsure. "What if I can't do it?" she said, glancing at Harry, the anxiety evident in her voice. "Fleur said it's horrible."

"You're not Fleur," Harry reminded her, and Winifred inclined her head in agreement. "Go on, give it a try."

"Good man!" Theodora said approvingly. "He's right, Ginny; every witch is different."

Ginny seemed to resign herself, and reached out for the baby. Harry passed him along, and Ginny settled back on the pillows, cradling him gently.

"Turn him towards you," Winifred instructed. Ginny shifted the baby so their chests were touching.

"Perfect position," Theodora encouraged.

"Alright, dear, now touch his upper lip with your nipple," Ginny followed her commands, and Winifred smiled.

"Excellent. He's opened his mouth, now gently push him onto your nipple. His mouth should cover your areola."

"My areola's bigger than his whole head," Ginny muttered darkly. Harry opened his mouth to say something to the contrary, but he snapped it shut as he realized he'd be lying. He watched as Ginny guided the baby's head onto her breast, a look of great concentration taking over her face. She looked up suddenly.

"I think he's latched!" she exclaimed. Winifred smiled.

"Does it hurt at all?" the midwife asked, coming around to stand over Ginny's shoulder.

Ginny shook her head and Harry let out a long sigh that he hadn't even realized he had been holding.

"Well done," Theodora said. "That might be the best latch I've seen yet, and from an early baby, too! Normally it takes them a bit longer to get the hang of it."

Ginny beamed, looking back down at the baby, her eyes filling with fresh tears. She was so different, this new maternal Ginny; softer, slower, more vulnerable.

"My sweet, smart boy," she cooed, again running a finger down his tiny cheek. She looked back up at Harry. "I'm a mess!" she exclaimed, half-laughing, half-crying.

Harry grinned, thinking he had never been so in love with Ginny as he was when she was feeding their child. He thought his heart might burst as it grew with adoration for this baby, but he could also feel his love for Ginny shifting and moulding itself into something new. She was no longer simply just his friend, his partner, his lover. They were a family.

She bent over the baby, her fiery hair creating a curtain, shielding the two of them from the outside world. Harry felt momentarily jealous; he knew that he'd never be able to provide for the baby the way that Ginny would. But the feeling didn't linger; Ginny looked up at him again, beaming radiantly.

"His eyes are open," she murmured, and Harry stood, walking to the head of the bed, where he sank down, next to Ginny. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and looked at the baby's face.

Their son was staring reverently up at Ginny as he nursed, and she looked back at him with equal intensity; their eyes mirrored each other, the exact same shade of bright brown. Harry smiled, pressing a kiss onto the top of Ginny's head.

"You know what people are going to say to him, don't you?" she observed.

Harry smiled. "'You look extraordinarily like your father, except you have your mother's eyes,'" he recited.

A polite cough came from behind the baby's head. Harry turned, and Theodora and Winifred were standing at the foot of the bed. The room had been quickly tidied, and Harry had almost forgotten he, Ginny, and their son weren't alone.

"Why don't we make you a cup of tea?" Theodora suggested. "We'll stay for a few hours until you feel confident that you can manage alone. Will your family be here to help?"

Ginny nodded. Theodora smiled. "Excellent. Let instinct run, dear. You're Mum now. You know best."

The two midwives turned to go when Ginny called out.

"Oh, Merlin!" she laughed. "Can you tell my brother I'm alright?"

Harry grinned. He had forgotten completely that Ron existed, probably still sat at the kitchen table with the firewhisky. Honestly, he had forgotten that anyone else existed besides himself, Ginny, and their baby.

The witches nodded before exiting.

"We should probably decide on a name before my family arrives," Ginny said quietly.

Harry looked down at her. She was radiating joy and an air of accomplishment that reminded him of when the Harpies won the National Cup, but her hair was damp with sweat, her shirt was still ripped down the middle, exposing dark nipples the size of tea saucers, and her eyes had a bit of a manic look to them.

"We should probably get you cleaned up before your family arrives," Harry said. "You look like you've just wandered off the closed ward."

Ginny swatted a hand at him. "Kind words for the mother of your son," she said, but she was smiling.

"Is he really ours, though?" Harry wondered. "It feels unreal."

Ginny sighed. "It will probably feel quite real in the next few days when neither of us are sleeping through the night. But focus, Harry! We need a name." She gestured for him to take the baby, who seemed to have finished feeding and was lying contentedly, and Harry's heart thudded again as his son slid back into the crook of his arms.

Ginny took her wand up and attempted to repair her ripped shirt, but it seamed itself halfway up her stomach before faltering and fanning outwards, again leaving her chest exposed. "I'm too exhausted," she groaned.

"The midwives said it would be normal for your magic to be a bit off," Harry reminded her, raising his own wand to repair her shirt.

"Thanks," she mumbled as the fabric sealed itself back over her.

Harry shifted on the bed, and the baby sneezed. Harry's heart picked up its rapid pace again. His son was so wonderfully alive.

"I love you," he whispered to his son, marvelling at how right the words felt, just like when he had first started saying them to Ginny. He was someone's dad now. He didn't think he would ever get used to it. He looked back at Ginny, whose eyes seemed on the verge of rolling backwards into her head.

"Why don't you try to sleep?" he told her.

"I don't want to," she admitted. "I'm afraid I'll miss him."

Harry smiled at her and stood from the bed, placing their baby back in her arms. He seemed to fit perfectly there. Ginny flashed him a beatific grin. "I promise I won't hog him," she said.

"You're his mum," Harry shrugged, though he was already itching to have the soft, warm bundle back in his arms. It was indescribable bliss.

There was a knock on the door, and it cracked open minutely.

"Everyone decent?" Ron's voice spoke warily. "No bits out?"

"Only mine," Harry said. Ginny rolled her eyes.

The door opened fully, and Ron edged into the room cautiously, squinting a bit in case he needed to avert his gaze with little notice.

"Relax, Ron!" Harry and Ginny told him simultaneously.

"Alright, alright," Ron said, putting up his hands in surrender and looking around the room. "Blimey, Ginny, you look terrible."

"You try shoving something the size of a Quaffle through an opening the size of a Snitch and see how good you look," Ginny said irritably. Ron didn't let this comment disconcert him.

"Yeah, well," Ron said, peering curiously towards the bundle in Ginny's arms. "Let's see it, then."

"Him," Ginny corrected, but her face brightened, and she held up the baby to her brother, who received him like he was made of the most delicate china. Ron's face broke into a great grin.

"Him," he repeated softly. "He's amazing." He glanced up at Harry for a moment. "He could be your twin already, mate."

Harry smiled, unable to pretend he wasn't exceedingly proud of his son's early resemblance to him.

Ron turned back to the baby. "It's mental, it is; the two of you having a kid. Seems like just yesterday you were besmirching my sister's honor down by the lake at school. Now you're a proper family and everything!"

Ginny gave Ron a bemused look. "Is that how you always say congratulations?" she asked him.

He ignored her. "I mean, Harry, this little bloke has bits of you and me in him! That's incredible. All of your kids are going to be related to me! Mine aren't going to be related to you though, are they? Funny how that works…" he trailed off, before glancing away from the baby to look back at Harry and Ginny, who were both staring at him, open-mouthed.

"What?" he asked defensively.

"Nothing," Ginny giggled. "I just hope you, Harry, and your baby are very happy together."

"Up yours," Ron said, reddening. "It's just interesting, is all!"

Harry smiled, content. Everything seemed right just now; Harry wished they could stay in this room forever, shut off from the outside world, with its darkness and dangers. The only thing that was missing was….

And then, as though Harry had summoned her with his mind, the door to the bedroom and Hermione tumbled in, rubbing ash off her robes as she straightened up, her bushy hair swinging about wildly.

"I came as soon as I heard," she gasped, her eyes huge and glassy. "Your owl must've been at my window all night; I fell asleep so early. I'm sorry, I was so angry at you all but I never meant to be so stubborn that I missed it…." Her words faltered as her eyes fell on the baby, who was slowly stirring in Ron's arms.

Ginny pushed herself further up on the pillows, her eyes also wide and brimming again with tears. "Please don't apologize," she said sincerely. "I'm so glad you're here."

Hermione nodded, unable to tear her gaze from Ron's arms. She walked slowly across the room to her husband, who shifted the baby into one arm and reached out to Hermione, using his thumb to wipe a tear off her cheek. Hermione didn't seem to register this either, as she peered down into the nest of blankets. She looked up slowly, not at Ron, but behind him, to where Harry stood by the bed.

"You're a dad," she said, blinking owlishly. Harry grinned sheepishly.

"It's a boy," Ron told her softly.

"Of course it is," Hermione chuckled thickly. "Ginny was so convinced otherwise. What do you think you'll call him?"

"We were just trying to decide that," Ginny said. Harry glanced back at her. She had regained some of her coloring and was glowing like a madonna, surveying the tableau around her bed calmly.

"But now that you're both here…" Harry began, catching Ginny's eye. She gave him a quizzical look, which quickly lightened into understanding.

"Oh, yes! We want you to be his godparents," Ginny finished.

"Of course," Ron and Hermione said simultaneously, looking at each other for a brief moment.

"Excellent," Ginny said, closing her eyes and leaning back again. "Hopefully you two can get your shit sorted. It would be awful if we died and he had to be shuffled every week between Ron's new home in Harry's office and your house, Hermione."

Hermione blushed slightly, saying nothing. She looked up at Ron, meeting his gaze for the first time.

"May I hold him?" she asked. Ron didn't speak, but held out the baby to Hermione, who took him in her arms and began swaying gently. She looked past them all, out the window, where the sun was just beginning to rise, casting the treetops in a warm, yellow glow.

Ron put his hands in his pockets, and Harry watched Hermione absently, wondering to himself what they would call the baby, when she spoke, almost so softly he couldn't hear her.

"I'm not ready for this," she said. "I don't think I will be for a long time."

Ron sucked in his breath and looked at the ceiling. Harry felt his cheeks flush as he realized he was about to have quite an intimate look into the inner workings of Ron and Hermione's marriage. Throwing Ginny a panicked look, his discomfort heightened as he realized she had fallen asleep, leaving him Ron and Hermione's sole audience, but surely they weren't about to hash out their issues here, in his bedroom…

"I don't want to pretend that I haven't enjoyed this solitude," Hermione continued. "I think that's why I let it go on for so long. I haven't really had time to focus on just myself since before the war, and it's been refreshing. But I've missed you, Ron." She shifted her weight, and raised a hand to lightly touch the baby's fingers. "I think part of me needed to prove to myself that I don't need you to be happy. And I know that now, but I think I was a little foolish, because love doesn't have to be about dependence, does it? I'm fine on my own, but I'm better with you. You're my partner."

"It's just that there's just so much I still want to do at the Ministry. S.P.E.W. isn't just the result of some adolescent sense of injustice, and I'm finally able to take it off the back burner now that we've made such progress with the reparations and restructuring," Hermione went on, barely stopping for breath, and she looked into the baby's face again. Harry attempted to shrink back closer to the dresser, and Ron was still staring at the ceiling. "And I see everything that Angelina and Ginny have had to give up, and I don't want that. If we have a family, that will become the most important thing in my life, and I want my work to be the most important thing right now. I don't think that's wrong. I understood when you wanted to get married after what happened with Rowle and I wanted to be with you and support you - and I still want to be with you - so I was alright with that even though I didn't feel completely ready. But this is something that will cause me to sacrifice so much more, and things that I'm not sure I'm willing to compromise on. So I suppose what I'm trying to say is that if this need for you to have children right now isn't negotiable, than I understand if you don't want this marriage to continue."

She finally looked up from the bundle in her arms, and she seemed almost surprised to see Ron had stopped looking at the ceiling and was staring at her, completely vexed.

"'Don't want this marriage to continue?'" he repeated, sounding totally mystified. "Hermione, for the smartest person I know, you're certainly being bloody thick right now."

"What do you-" Hermione began, looking bemused, but Ron cut her off.

"Are you really trying to tell me that you think I'm some kind of raving family man? That I'm so eager to be married and have a kid that I'd shack up with any witch on the street corner?"

"Well, I -" Hermione spluttered, but Ron interrupted her again.

"I asked you to marry me after I was cursed because I realized that I didn't give a damn if I lived another eighty years or another eighty minutes as long as you were with me," he nearly shouted. "I told you I wanted to have a baby because I saw Bill with Fleur and Victoire and I realized that if we had a family it would be like having more of you. Do you think I'm really so eager for sleepless nights and nappies and crying? Sorry, Harry." Harry shrugged, wishing for nothing more than to be able to Disapparate from the very spot. "Do you really think I would choose some hypothetical kid over you? I don't want to have a baby, Hermione, I want to have a baby with you. If you don't want one now, or if you don't want one ever, that's fine. I don't care. I'm sorry that I made you think this was something that I was prioritizing over your happiness."

Hermione looked dumbfounded, but still managed to retain her irritated dignity in the face of Ron's retort. "Well, why didn't you tell me all of this a year ago?"

"Because I thought you wanted it, too! If I knew that you were getting your knickers in a right twist and Flooing my sister four times a day panicking because you thought you were barren, I would've been the first to tell you to forget the whole thing! I don't know why you didn't tell me all of this a year ago."

"Because I didn't want to upset you! Because I thought it would break your heart if I told you that I thought we might never be able to have a baby," Hermione cried. Harry found himself wondering why his baby was still so calm in her arms, given the ever increasing volume of their voices. He concluded that the sounds must actually be rather familiar and comforting, given the amount of Ron and Hermione's bickering that he had probably heard in utero.

Ron opened his mouth again to fire back at her, but Harry interrupted. "Look, I'm glad you're both finally sorting this madness out, but maybe we could find a better time, yeah?"

Hermione looked at him as if she had just remembered he was there. Ron shuffled his feet uncomfortably. "Sorry, mate," he said.

Harry shrugged again. Hermione, blushing, walked over to him and handed him the baby, before standing on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "Congratulations," she murmured. "It's the start of something, really, really beautiful, isn't it?"

Harry grinned in spite of himself. "Yeah, I reckon it is," he told her. "Thank you for being here. Thank you for everything."

She nodded and squeezed his hand. "Why don't we leave you all alone for a moment. Do you want us to go around and let everyone know?" she asked.

"That'd be wonderful," Harry said, glancing back to Ginny's sleeping figure on the bed. "Though I'd be surprised if Molly isn't on her way over already, I'm pretty sure Victoire and Fred had hands on the clock before they were an hour old."

Ron chuckled. "Best of luck, mate. There'll be no getting rid of her once she arrives." He turned to Hermione. "Do you want to take a train Bill and Fleur's?"

Hermione stared up at her husband. "A train? To Cornwall?"

Ron's nose went a bit pink. "So we had time, I mean, you know, to talk." Hermione's quizzical expression turned suddenly pleased.

"Oh! Well, yes, of course!" she said, turning towards the door. Ron caught up with her, and Harry saw that his hand touched small of her back as they made their way into the hall.

"He looks like he's trying to guide her through the door whenever he touches her like that," a voice said from the bed. "Merlin help you if you ever try that with me."

"Oh! Nice of you to emerge from your slumber! Really convenient timing," Harry countered. Ginny flashed him a devilish grin.

"It wasn't as bad as it could've been," she said. "At least Hermione didn't take out her datebook to plan some sex for the weekend, because she's done that in front of me before."

Harry shuddered. That was exactly the reason he refrained from paying too much attention to Ron and Hermione's relationship.

"We're supposed to be a team; you left me to fend for myself!"

"Need I remind you that I just shoved almost nine pounds of your child out of my fanny? It's your turn to carry this team for a bit."

Harry rolled his eyes, and when they fell back on Ginny, she was no longer wearing her teasing expression, but was gazing at him quite tenderly.

"I love you," she said simply.

"I love you," Harry told her. "I don't… I can't even begin to tell you how much, or say it enough." Ginny smiled beatifically.

"I've been thinking…" she began.

"Mhmm?" Harry asked. The baby began to fuss, moving his head from side-to-side while his mouth opened and closed. Harry turned his right hand upward and gently slid his pinky between his son's lips, pressing the roof of his mouth as he felt the tiny tongue suck on the bottom side.

"... that I'd like to call him after your dad."

Harry's heart seemed to lodge somewhere in his throat. He looked back at her, still propped up serenely in their bed.

"Not Peregrin or Ulysses?" Harry tried to joke, but his voice faltered, betraying his true emotion at her suggestion.

"Not Peregrin or Ulysses," Ginny repeated. "I was worried, I think, that if we named him after someone we'd lost, it would feel like he would already be born with all these expectations. But after seeing Fred… it's not like that, is it?"

"No," Harry murmured. Had he ever imagined he could love this much? Looking down at his child, it was almost like the adoration had always been there, locked away in some hidden part of his heart, and Harry just hadn't noticed it until now. "It's not."

"And now…" Ginny said, leaning forward excitedly. "Now it feels like everything that's happened to us, ever, has brought us to this moment. I know that's not true, I know it wasn't just about us or this baby, but it seems like all of the sacrifice and all of the love has gotten us to this point. He wouldn't be here without your parents or Sirius or Dumbledore, and I want to honor that. I think we should call him James."

Harry looked back down at the bundle in his arms. James. It seemed to fit, and images flashed through his mind of a happy baby, a merry child, a lanky youth at Hogwarts…

"Merlin, Ginny, there'll be a Fred Weasley and a James Potter together at Hogwarts! Our family'll force McGonagall into her retirement," Harry laughed, and the baby - James - broke off his pinky and cried out. Ginny reached out and Harry walked over to the bed and passed him back to his mother. She lifted her shirt and guided him back onto her breast.

"James what, though?" she asked, as Harry reached forward and pushed some hair away from her shoulder. "James Harry? Keep with tradition?"

Harry shook his head. "Harry James and James Harry? We could name him for your dad, too. James Arthur?"

Ginny shook her head. "Percy's already bagsied Arthur and Molly. He has three years of being a selfish prat to atone for. Ronald?"

"Nah, we can't inflate Ron's ego too much, we've already named him godfather."

"We have to call him something, Harry!"

Harry thought for a moment, watching Ginny nurse James. It really was incredible; that he wouldn't be here without the sacrifices of his parents, or Sirius… their love for Harry had given him a future, a life, and now he was here with his child; the result of so much sacrifice and devotion.

"Ginny," he said slowly. "Hear me out."

She looked up from James, holding his tiny first in her hand.

"What if we called him James Sirius? I know it's two names from my family and none

from yours but…"

"It's perfect," Ginny interrupted with a note of finality. "James Sirius Potter. It has a ring."

"James Sirius Potter," Harry repeated, his voice thick with emotion. "A great wizard in the making."

James pulled himself off of Ginny's chest, giving a tiny squawk of agreement. Harry laughed.

A loud crack suddenly sounded across the house, and Harry could hear Molly Weasley's cries from floors below, accompanied by her husband's quietly reassuring tones.

"So much for peace and quiet," Ginny groaned. Harry found himself in disagreement. James had dozens of people waiting to meet him, people who loved him without yet knowing him. It was the most incredible thing in the world.

Back to index

Chapter 21: Epilogue - Together

Author's Notes: Well, that's that. Taking Harry and Ginny from those miserable first days after the battle to contentedness and happiness. Thank you all so much for sticking with this story for so long. You're wonderful. I also want to take a moment to dedicate this chapter to all survivors of sexual assault, including Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. These last two weeks have been rough, and it's been lovely to have this community to escape to. Until next time.

"I don't see why you all need to be here," Teddy Lupin cried in embarrassment as Madam Malkin fussed over him, summoning swaths of dark fabric down from the shelves and draping them pell-mell over the boy's shoulders.

"Are you joking?" Harry said. "I've been waiting eleven years for this moment!"

"As have I," Andromeda voiced seriously. "When one spends their entire middle-age raising a boy as high-energy as you, Teddy, one wants to see the fruits of their labour!"

"And I wasn't going to miss out on all the fun!" Ginny chimed in. "You know, the first time I ever met you was in this robe shop."

Teddy looked up in surprise, causing a piece of velvet to fall to the ground. "Really?" he asked dubiously, before gesturing out to the rest of their party. "Well, they could've at least stayed home."

Ginny looked sympathetic. "Wherever I go, they go, I'm afraid. None of their aunts or uncles will look after them after the incident with the firecrackers."

Three-and-a-half year old Albus looked up at his mother. "We made a poor choice, Mummy," he said glumly.

"You certainly did," Ginny replied.

James didn't look half as remorseful as his younger brother.

"When I go to Hogwarts, I'll learn how to make things blow up without needing firecrackers," he boasted.

"Well, don't tell your Uncle George that," Harry warned. "He'll never invite you 'round to play again. The healer told him there's a chance his eyebrows may never grow back."

Ginny had to turn away so her son wouldn't see her laughter.

Madam Malkin smiled at Teddy as she pulled another pin from between her teeth. "Where do you think you'll end up, dear?"

Teddy looked thoughtful for only a moment, before answering the old witch assuredly. "Gryffindor, like Harry and my dad."

"Or you'll be a slimy Slytherin," James suggested, wiggling his eyebrows.

"Slytherin is a fine house, young man," Andromeda said imperiously, before turning back to her grandson. "You could be a Hufflepuff, like your mother. Or a Ravenclaw; you're certainly bright enough. It hardly matters, what matters is that you are personable and work hard at your studies."

Teddy rolled his eyes at his grandmother. Harry smiled, setting Lily down on the ground and squatting to look all three of his children.

"Why don't we arrange a little bet?" he said. "Two chocolate frogs for whichever one of you can guess where Teddy'll be sorted."

Lily gurgled happily, and James rolled his eyes, looking very put out.

"Lily can't even speak yet," he complained. "And Al doesn't know any of the houses!"

"Yes, I do!" cried Albus unhappily.

"No you don't," his brother told him. "Anyways, Lily will get the frogs because Dad loves her best."

"I don't love Lily the best," Harry said. "She just causes me the fewest heart palpitations between the lot of you."

"Just wait until she grows up and tells you she wants to be an Auror," Andromeda said sadly. "The palpitations will never stop."

Ginny smiled kindly, but Harry frowned as he imagined his young daughter chasing after Dark wizards. The room was silent for a moment, but suddenly the bell over the shop's door jangled.

Harry, still deep in thought over Andromeda's comment, didn't turn, but Ginny, facing the door, stiffened and glanced to her husband with a warning look.

"How can I help you?" Madam Malkin asked kindly, stretching a tape measure down the length of Teddy's left arm.

"We need funeral robes," a male voice answered, and Harry closed his eyes as a wave of recognition crashed over him. Andromeda had also looked up from Teddy, and Harry saw her face go quite pale.

He rotated slowly to see Draco and Narcissa Malfoy standing in the doorway of the shop. Harry blanched, leaning over instinctively to pluck up Lily, happy to see that Ginny had also reached out and drawn their two sons nearer to her. Some wounds healed more slowly than others.

The two Malfoys looked haggard, and Narcissa had dark circles under her eyes. Her mouth fell open at the sight of her older sister.

"Andromeda," she breathed, and Draco's eyebrows raised in surprise.

Andromeda said nothing. Narcissa's mouth opened and closed several times as she clearly attempted to articulate something.

"Lucius died," she said.

Andromeda's expression didn't change. The silence in the room was unbearable. None of the children spoke, their tiny faces looking uneasily between Narcissa and Andromeda.

Finally, Andromeda spoke, her voice cold. "It's a terrible thing."

Narcissa flushed. "I'm sorry - I didn't…."

Teddy was unable to stand the tension. "Who are you?" he asked Narcissa curiously. "How d'you know Gran?"

Narcissa's gaze tore away from her sister and fixed itself on Teddy, who was stood in front of the mirror, turquoise hair darkening as he regarded the woman in front of him.

"I'm, er, I'm…." Narcissa began, but Andromeda suddenly stepped forward, seething.

"Don't speak to him!" she cried. "Don't even look at him!"

She pushed past her sister and ran from the shop.

"Gran!" Teddy called, making to follow her, but Ginny threw out a hand and held him back.

"Harry," she said, gesturing to the street. "Go."

Harry sighed, throwing the Malfoys a dark glare before handing Lily to her mother. He put his hand on Teddy's shoulder for a moment before following Andromeda from the shop.

It wasn't difficult to find her, huddled in front of the Leaky Cauldron drawing short, shaky breaths. She nodded to Harry as he approached her.

"Have I terrified him?" she asked, attempting nonchalance.

"He'll be alright," Harry said quietly. "Will you be?"

"Yes. I'm just a bit blindsided," Andromeda admitted. "As if I give a flying fuck that Lucius Malfoy has died."

Harry had never heard Andromeda swear before, and it was an effort not to smile. Andromeda continued.

"I'd always thought we'd done a good job," she said. "But now I wonder if it's been a disservice to him, not to tell him exactly who killed them."

It took Harry only a moment to figure out that she meant Teddy, and he was overwhelmed with a sense of flattery that she thought they'd done well raising him.

"I think he's old enough to understand," Harry said. "We could tell him before he leaves."

"He'll feel so betrayed," Andromeda replied sadly. "And to go live at the very place where it happened…."

She wrapped her arms around herself, and Harry could see her doing her very best to remain composed.

"He already knows they died at Hogwarts," Harry reminded her softly. "We can tell him about Bellatrix together."

"It never ends, does it?" Andromeda asked him bleaky. "He's so young, and happy, and now he has to inherit all of this misery."

"I think about that a lot, Andromeda," Harry answered truthfully, thinking of his small, happy children, who were thankfully still too young to know much about the war. "I'm sure it's going to rock his worldview to know that his mum was killed by your sister. But he'll still be alright."

Andromeda looked unsure. Harry took another deep breath.

"D'you remember the first Christmas after the war?" he asked her. "The one I spent with you and Teddy."

Andromeda nodded.

"You asked me if everything we'd lost fighting the war was worth all the things we'd gained."

Andromeda, surprisingly, smiled at the memory. Harry looked back up the street, and saw Ginny, carrying Lily on one hip and holding Albus's hand, while James and Teddy walked just beside her.

"I don't know if I completely understood at the time, but I do now. Good and evil aren't black-and-white, and Teddy's going to have to learn that eventually," Harry continued. "But what he doesn't have to learn, what he already knows, is that there's more light in his world than darkness. He may have lost some of his innocence when Remus and Tonks were killed, but he has love, and friends, and you."

Ginny and Teddy reached them with the others in tow, and Harry took Lily back from his wife. Andromeda gave Teddy a little squeeze, and he looked up at her with concern in his eyes.

"Would you like to go get an ice cream and have a chat with your old Gran?" she asked him.

Teddy smiled, and Andromeda threw Harry a gracious look before the two walked away.

Ginny sighed. "Is she going to be alright?"

"Yeah," Harry said, looking down at her and smiling. She reached out and took his hand in hers, and they stood there quietly for a moment.

It was almost peaceful, until James suddenly leaned over to look at his brother.

"Would you like a sweet, Al?" he asked kindly. Albus smiled hugely, reaching out and taking the green morsel from James.

"Albus, no!" both his parents shouted, but it was already down the hatch, and Albus looked up in alarm.

"James Sirius Potter, what was it?" Ginny asked, rounding on James.

"A chocolate," James said innocently, holding his hands behind his back. His mother whipped out her wand and snagged the vial out of the air as it came hurtling towards her.

"U-No-Poo?" Ginny cried. "Bloody fantastic, James! And you gave him the whole thing, didn't you? He'll be costive for a week! Where did you get it? Don't you dare tell me you found it! Was it Ron? I'm going to curse his fingers off for giving you - Why are you laughing? You do realize we're going to be up with Al all night now?"

Harry wiped a tear from under his glasses as his shoulders continued to shake.

"I'm sorry, Ginny, I can't help it," he said, trying to compose himself. "James, that was very wro-" Harry doubled over again, wheezing as he tried to control himself. "I'm sorry, Ginny. They just…." he chuckled again. "They make me so happy."

Ginny smiled in spite of herself, and she and Harry looked out at their three children, all gazing back at them in mild confusion. James had something of a hopeful look on his face, clearly sensing that he was about to evade punishment.

Harry set Lily on the ground beside her brothers, who were now laughing with their parents, poor Albus not knowing the tummy ache that awaited him tonight. Ginny leaned forward and kissed her husband, before looking down at the three children giggling on the pavement.

Harry took her hand again.

"Look at all that we've done together."

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