|SIYE Time:3:26 on 17th August 2018|
Genres: Drama, General, Romance
Warnings: Death, Extreme Language, Intimate Sexual Situations, Mild Language, Mild Sexual Situations, Sexual Situations, Violence
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?
Hitcount: Story Total: 9456; Chapter Total: 1750
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."
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