Together by glasscandlegrenades

Summary: Nothing is easy after the war, especially not Harry and Ginny's relationship. Will the lingering traumas of Snape's regime and life on the run keep them from each other, or will they be able to create a life together?
Rating: R starstarstarstarstar
Categories: Post-DH/AB
Characters: None
Genres: None
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Published: 2017.12.23
Updated: 2018.07.23


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 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 took in the patterns of 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, appearing 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."

Back to index

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 morning 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.

"This is the most fucking useless I think 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.

Back to index

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.

"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 nutter 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.

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