Thanks again to Arnel for doing a bang-up job as my new Beta!
David Ball's "Private Andrew Malone" doesn't belong to me, it belongs to him.
It was pointed out to me by a rather irate person that I'd forgotten to acknowledge someone in the note in the prologue. Honey, I'm sorry.
None of this would have ever happened without my fiancée. She's the greatest, and all my work is dedicated to her.
There, that should take care of that. On with the show!
-- -- -- --
Harry Potter shivered and pulled his jacket up a little tighter as he stared out the window at the blackness all around, watching the headlights of lonely cars passing beneath them. There was the occasional well-lit highway interchange marking a service station of some kind, but for the most part, only inky darkness. It was absurd to be thinking about turning on the heat in July, but there was a cold breeze at this time of the morning, and at this altitude. But it would have been pointless anyway, the heat in this thing had never worked quite right. That, and Ron's insistence on keeping the driver's side window open.
It seemed like so long ago that he and Ron had taken his father's old Ford Anglia to Hogwarts. They were so young back then, young and reckless. That was back before he'd even met Sirius, long before he died. Long before seventh year and that finally tragic confrontation with Voldemort. It was all over now, but the price had been steep. Dumbledore…Snape…Dean Thomas…Percy and Charlie…Harry closed his eyes against the roll call of the dead. But it was over now. Life had begun again, finally. He and Ron had gone into Auror training, and now worked for the British Ministry of Magic, on special assignments.
And now they were in America, on assignment. It had been dull, boring work, observing the work of the Federal Bureau of Magical Investigation. The only reason they were present at all was because one of the suspects was a British national. The case was all wrapped up now, and they were heading home. They were flying above an interstate highway, or whatever it was called, in a beat up Land Rover that Ron had purchased for a song in England, and then enchanted much the same way the Anglia had been enchanted. He'd done it specifically to make the long trans-Atlantic flight, and had obtained a special waiver from the Ministry to do so. Harry somehow suspected that Hermione had been instrumental in making sure the whole arrangement worked properly. Despite her position as Transfiguration professor, Hermione's skill at Charms had not diminished a whit.
They had to follow the highways, as the American wizarding community tried to keep aerial traffic, like enchanted cars, broomsticks, and flying carpets in designated areas to avoid any accidents with commercial air traffic. There had been only one or two in the entire history of air travel, but they'd been messy, ugly affairs that had taken many lives and required hundreds of memory charms to cover them up. They were allowed to use their Land Rover only in these lanes.
The radio only picked up Muggle music, and right now it was tuned to a "country/western" station. Harry listened with half an ear, gazing sleepily off into the night. The singer was telling a story of a car and a solider. He glanced over at Ron, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, and humming along softly, one arm hanging out the window casually, cold air flowing in through the window.
"You're daft, you know that?" Harry said finally, shivering.
"What's that mate?" Ron asked, looking over at him.
"You're daft! You've got the window down and your arm out the window and I'm over here bloody freezing to death!"
"Sorry," Ron said, pulling his arm in, and rolling up the window, finally. The wind stopped blowing and Harry could feel the warmth begin to return. "I had it down to help keep me awake."
"Some days I wonder if your brain hasn't frozen up," Harry said, but softened the comment with a grin.
"Hermione says the same thing."
There was a pause in the conversation as their thoughts drifted. Harry found himself thinking about Hermione, and he was quite sure Ron was doing the same. Professor Hermione Weasley: it was something Harry still had trouble putting his head around. His two best friends, married – and procreating. Their first child was due shortly. The long separations for assignments were hard on both Ron and Hermione, but they endured them with good humor. Ron had put in for a transfer out of field work, and was hoping to get a posting in Auror headquarters at the Ministry after the baby arrived. Harry felt a twinge of annoyance at the thought having to train a new partner.
"How's she doing?" Harry asked, seeing Ron's eyes glaze over.
"The worst of the morning sickness has passed, she says, but something new is always making her sick. The baby's kicking up a storm now, she says. She thinks we'll have a football player. I keep trying to tell her that's not kicking – it's swinging. We're raising a Beater." Ron grinned, Harry laughed. "She's still feeling pretty miserable though. I hope I get back in time." The baby was technically due in a little less than a month, but due dates were hardly an exact science. Given Hermione's uncomfortable pregnancy, the Healer had said the baby would likely come early.
It was hard to stay upset at Ron. He understood why his friend would want to leave active duty. But Harry was saddened by the knowledge that nights like this, where it was just him and Ron, off on adventure again, were numbered. He wondered if this is what Sirius had felt like before his father had married his mum.
"Ginny was asking after you," Ron began slowly. Harry felt his heart begin to race.
"She was?" he tried to sound casual but failed.
Somewhere along the way, Harry had realized that he was attracted to Ginny. But ever since she had gotten over her schoolgirl crush on him, she had failed to show any interest in him. The war and school had always gotten in the way. And now that Voldemort was gone, Harry's vaunted Gryffindor bravery had failed him. He couldn't even bring himself to ask after her, and avoided going to the Burrow with Ron when he knew she would be there. Hermione had told him he was being a git. Harry had convinced himself he was happy as an Auror, and it allowed for very little in the way of social life. If he were honest with himself, there was more to it than that, but he couldn't seem to put his finger on it.
"She wanted to know how you were. I told her you were working too hard, as usual," Ron said. Harry snorted. And then a strange thing happened. "It's not funny Harry." Harry turned to look at Ron. He was staring straight ahead, but there was a set to his jaw, that Harry recognized as Ron's internal struggle to find words. Silence stretched on for moments.
"You're working too hard, Harry. You, of all people, deserve some time to yourself. You need a life outside of work. Haven't you done enough? Do you want to spend the rest of your life living out of a half furnished flat, running out at all hours, chasing people into dark holes?"
"I'm happy, Ron."
"Bloody hell you are!" Ron was warming to his topic. "You're convincing yourself you're happy. At first, it was revenge. You and me, we've tracked down every last one of Voldemort's Death Eaters. They're in Azkaban or dead now. And ever since we finally caught up with the Malfoys, you've been miserable. You've now managed to convince yourself this is what you want to do for the rest of your life. Look, Harry. Let me put it this way. I wanted to be an Auror for reasons other than it was my best chance to catch Malfoy. I enjoy the challenge of solving puzzles. It's like chess for me. I don't really enjoy the field work, but it comes with the territory. Hopefully, I'll have less of that after the transfer, and I can go home every night to Hermione. Why did you want to become an Auror? Honestly?"
Harry didn't respond for a moment, and Ron poked him. Harry push his hand away and finally sighed. "I don't know. I guess I never really thought about it much. I just wanted to make sure I saw things through to their conclusion."
"Exactly, Harry. You became an Auror because you thought you had a responsibility to do so. You never even stopped to think about what was best for you. You're not happy, Harry. Hermione can see it, Mum can see it, Ginny can see it, hell, mate, I can see it, and according to Hermione, I have the emotional range of a teaspoon!" They exchanged a wry smile and a chuckle. "Harry, I don't know what it is that will make you happy, but you need to figure it out, because you look worse every week, and it's killing us. Maybe you should look up old Oliver Wood and go play Quidditch for Chudley. You should be happy, Harry."
There was another long pause as Harry stared out the window. "I don't know Ron, maybe you're right."
"I'm right, too bloody right," Ron swallowed, and steeled himself for what he had to say next. "And if nothing else you should go ask my sister out on a date when we get back to England before I bloody well kick you into next Tuesday."
"You heard me."
There was another long pause, but this one was much more uncomfortable.
"Harry, I've seen the way you look at her. I've seen the way she looks at you. What I don't understand is why you haven't asked her already. Somewhere along the way, she decided she'd rather be single than settle for anyone less than you, and I know, I know, that you've measured every woman you've ever seen against her. I can see it in your eyes Harry. I ask you, 'how was the date?' and you say, 'it was okay, she was nice', but in your eyes, you say, 'she wasn't good enough.'"
"Don't you understand that you're entitled to be happy? The war is over. We won. You're entitled to have a life…a future…a family. Why do you think Hermione and I had been trying so hard to start a family? I'm not ready. I'm terrified. But we deserve some happiness. We want to have a family in peace."
"I never thought…I never thought I'd be able to. I never…Ron, I don't know how to be happy. What does it feel like?"
"Well, it's like…well, you remember back to that last Christmas? Before we finished Hogwarts?"
"Remember how we were all sitting around the common room in the Tower? You, me, Hermione and Ginny? Just watching the fire burn down and singing Christmas carols?"
Harry smiled. "Yeah. That was nice. I remember Ginny had on this perfume and…" Harry hesitated.
"I don't really want to know," Ron interrupted. "But being happy. It's like that. All the time." Ron pursed his lips. "I'm so happy with Hermione. I miss her like crazy, hell yes. You're a great friend but I get really lonely at night. Which is why I want to transfer to headquarters, so I can go home every night. So what would make you happy Harry?"
"I…I don't know. I want…I want it all to end. I want to have an end to it all."
"What do you mean?"
"I can't get out of the war. Every time I close my eyes I see it all again. How can I be happy when so many won't be – can't be – will never be – all because of me."
Abruptly, Ron pulled the car over to the side of the travel lane, and set the car in hover. He turned and bored in on Harry, his eyes flashing. "Don't you ever believe that, Harry James Potter. It's not your fault! Any of it! Did you ever utter the words Avada Kedavra? Did you kill Hermione's parents? Did you do anything except try to stop any of that from happening?"
"Well no, but if I'd been faster, or better maybe…."
"But nothing! God, Harry, you can be such a git sometimes. Hermione was right – you have such a thick head. Harry, take it from me. You did everything you could. Nothing could change anything that's happened. You need to let it go. Really, Harry. Just let it go."
Harry felt a burning behind his eyes, and turned to stare out the window again. "There must be something. I can't believe you don't hate me."
"Hate you? What the bloody hell for!"
"Charlie and Percy."
"They did what they had to do. Harry, if it weren't for you. We'd all be dead. Me, Hermione, Ginny, Mum and Dad. We'd all be dead. We lived because of you. Percy and Charlie are dead because of Voldemort. We are alive because of you."
Harry's chest caught. He'd never considered it that way.
"I owe you my life mate, my life, Hermione's life, the life of my unborn child."
The burning in his eyes began to leak out. "I thought I could save everyone, Ron. But I couldn't. I wanted to. But I couldn't."
"Harry, the only other person I know who put so much pressure on herself was Hermione with her marks. Only you didn't settle for something as trivial as marks, oh no, you had to try to save the whole world. But you couldn't save everyone. No one could have. And just because you couldn't doesn't mean you need to deny yourself happiness for the rest of your life. You need to pick up and move on. You need to learn to be happy."
"How, Ron, how?" Tears were coming down his cheeks now, and he choked back a sob. Finally, it came together, and Harry could put his finger on that dark, lurking uncertainty that clouded his thinking about Ginny. "Don't you see? I can't offer Ginny anything. I don't even know how to be happy! I'm a wreck! Why on Earth would anyone want to get mixed up with me?"
Ron stared at Harry and then shook his head. "Harry, you're going about this all wrong. You're not supposed to go it alone. Sometimes, we all need a little help to get ourselves back on our feet. And so far, you haven't let anyone help you. You need to let go of the past, and step off into the future. We all want to help, Harry, and so does Ginny. She doesn't want you to offer her anything except the chance to give you a helping hand. Relationships are not a balance sheet. And she needs help, too. You're like two…I don't know…opposing Balancing Charms on a broom. You need each other to be stable. She wants to help you, Harry. But she can't get close to you unless you let her."
There was a long silence and Ron put the car back in gear, and they began driving again. Harry kept his face towards the window so Ron couldn't see the tears that ran down Harry's cheeks. It was a release, really. He had a name for what had been bothering him. Happy: it seemed like such a foreign concept. Ron was right, he needed to let go, to not dwell on the past. He let the tears come, cleansing the grief from him. He blinked a little, and sniffed, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. It was really time to move on. He wasn't going to die trying to defeat Voldemort; he'd managed to survive that three years ago. It was about time he started thinking about what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Harry looked out the window. Dawn was coming on, ahead of them in the east. Harry could see it out the windshield. It somehow seemed a little brighter this time – a new day, a new look on the future.
"I guess maybe I'll look her up when we get back," he said finally.
"Good," Ron grinned, "but you understand, if you hurt her, I'll beat you so badly there won't be enough of you left to identify."
Harry laughed, a pure unrestrained laugh that was surprising even to him. It felt good. Happy: yeah, he could do that.