|SIYE Time:22:54 on 20th October 2018|
Genres: Drama, General, Romance
Warnings: Death, Extreme Language, Intimate Sexual Situations, Mild Language, Mild Sexual Situations, Sexual Situations, Violence
Story is Complete
Summary: "I've had enough trouble for a lifetime," Harry Potter tells his friends after the Battle of Hogwarts. Life, however, is not done with Harry. The Wizarding community is left in chaos and it's up to Harry to fix it, and there's the small matter of repairing his relationship with Ginny, strained after months apart. Will Harry ever be able to settle and enjoy a simple life with the ones he loves?
Hitcount: Story Total: 16530; Chapter Total: 1697
Awards: View Trophy Room
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.
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