Disclaimer: To paraphrase Sgt. Schultz: "I own nothing!"
Chaos… The castle shuddering as volleys of hexes blasted away portions of its walls. Desperately flying on a battered broom, barely outrunning the flames licking at his feet… Percy futilely trying to shake life back into Fred's limp body… Walking towards the Forbidden Forest to meet death… Facing the man who'd spent the better part of two decades trying to kill him… A flash of green light and then… blissful nothingness
Harry slowly opened his eyes and gazed around him. He was lying beneath a warm quilt in a small, snug bedroom. Suddenly memory crashed upon him, flooding his brain with images of returning to the Burrow, cups of cocoa and a flask of Dreamless Sleep Potion.
Something was weighing down his legs. Harry turned his head slightly and saw a pair of bare feet resting atop the bed, feet attached to a set of slender legs. He followed the legs up to the blurry, red-haired figure seated in a chair, apparently leafing through a magazine.
Harry fumbled on the bedside table for his glasses, finally slipping them on. Ginny instantly came into focus, smiling as he shook off the grogginess that clung to him. "Hi you," she said, standing and dragging her chair to the head of the bed. She leaned over and brushed her lips against his before resuming her seat.
"How are you feeling?" she asked, reaching out and grasping his right hand. Harry stared at the ceiling for a moment, taking stock of every part of his body. He felt… rested. He couldn't sense any aches or pains. Aside from being a bit hungry, he hadn't felt this good since his stay at the Burrow last summer.
"I feel great," he answered, turning his gaze back to Ginny as she caressed his fingers. "How long have I been out?"
"Two days," Ginny replied, now gently tracing the scars he'd been forced to carve into this hand during fifth year.
"Two days! Merlin's Beard!" Harry yelped, sitting up and struggling to get out of the bed. Suddenly he realized he had no idea what state of dress – or undress – he was in, and he lay down again, jerking the covers back over himself.
Ginny giggled. "Relax, Harry! You're not starkers or anything. Madam Pomfrey came by to check you over while you were asleep. She took the liberty of cleaning you up and putting you in some pajamas. Mum helped, by the way."
"Just great," grumbled Harry. "Can't seem to wrap up any of these little jaunts without shredding my dignity."
Ginny arched an eyebrow and a wicked glint appeared in her eyes. "I offered to help, but Mum ran me out of the room." Harry felt a slow flush rising past his pajamas collar, which sent Ginny into a further spasm of laughter.
Harry stared at the ceiling again, trying to get control of himself. After a moment, he turned back to Ginny. "How's your mum?" Ginny's smile faltered.
"Okay, I guess," she said, her voice growing husky. "She… She's taking it very hard. We all are."
Harry reached out and took Ginny's hand, trying to offer a small measure of comfort and suddenly wishing he wasn't lying in Fred's bed. Several beats of silence passed. "When is the funeral?" he asked.
"Day after tomorrow," Ginny replied, rapidly blinking her eyes. "We pushed it back a day so that you could be there, and also because tomorrow the Order is holding a service for Lupin and Tonks."
Harry felt his heart clench at the thought of Remus – last of the Marauders – and Tonks, whose off-beat persona lightened every room she tripped into. Seeking less painful territory, he asked, "Where are Ron and Hermione?"
Ginny smirked. "In the orchard, I think, no doubt making up for lost time. Mum's already yelled at them twice today for snogging in Ron's room and in the broom shed."
A grin spread across Harry's face. The idea of Ron and Hermione together felt so right. "Fred," Ginny said, swallowing hard, "and George had a bet running on how long it would take those two to finally do something to… er, with… I mean, to act on their feelings for each other." Now it was Harry's turn to arch an eyebrow.
"Oh, you know what I mean, you prat," she said, swatting his arm.
Another comfortable silence fell. Harry gently traced circles on the back of Ginny's hand with his thumb. "Harry?" she asked after a moment.
"Hmm?" he replied absently.
"Are you going to tell me the details of what you've been doing for the past year?" Harry's gaze snapped back to the petite redhead. This wasn't a conversation he really wanted to have at this point. He looked into her warm brown eyes and saw a mixture of emotions – sadness, relief and even contentment, but above all else, a world weariness that had no place on such a young face.
As she stared at him, he saw something else – hurt. Pain that he'd pushed her away, that he might not return to her alive. That they'd had virtually no contact for nearly a year. That he'd shared none of his plans or fears or hopes with her. How could he not tell her everything after all he'd put her through? Still, he hesitated – he was rubbish at this kind of messy, emotional conversation.
"I already know about the Horcruxes," Ginny said in an effort to spur him on. "You kind of let that cat out of the bag in the Great Hall. Hermione's told me what they are and how they're made, but she's refused to tell me anything about your hunt for Voldemort's Horcruxes."
Harry sighed and propped himself up against the headboard. "It's a long story," he said. "And not a very nice one at that."
Ginny shook her head. "We have plenty of time," she said. "And after what I saw this year at Hogwarts, trust me, I can handle anything you throw at me. I'm not that scared little girl in the Chamber anymore."
Harry gazed at her, loving the fierce gleam that had suddenly appeared in her eyes. He slid over on the bed and patted the empty spot. Ginny climbed up and snuggled beside him, resting her head on his chest. Slowly he began to recount the events of the past three years, starting with the night of Voldemort's resurrection.
He told Ginny of the constant pain in his scar and the visions that plagued him during his fifth year. She said nothing but gripped his arm tightly when he told her of his possession by Voldemort at the Ministry of Magic and Dumbledore's subsequent revelation of the prophecy.
Harry then explained about his special lessons with Dumbledore during sixth year – the multiple trips into the Pensieve that illuminated the darkness that had surrounded Tom Riddle since childhood. Ginny sat bolt upright when Harry speculated that Riddle made his first Horcrux from the diary that would cause so much heartbreak nearly fifty years later. Ginny's eyes were wide; she appeared terrified.
"Harry…" she said, her voice trembling. "H-Hermione told me that soul fragments could slip in and out of their Horcruxes. What… what if… I mean, do you think…."
Harry immediately pulled her back to him and began stroking her hair. "No," he replied firmly. "The Basilisk venom completely destroyed it. That piece of soul is gone. Your soul is your own. He can never touch you again."
Ginny said nothing for several minutes, and Harry silently tried to project comforting thoughts into her mind. Finally, she spoke. "So one Horcrux wasn't enough. The monster had to make a whole slew of them. How did Dumbledore figure this out?"
Harry filled her in on more details of Dumbledore's guesswork before recounting the tale of the awful night he and Dumbledore had gone to the cave by the sea. Harry then jumped to his, Ron's and Hermione's flight from Bill and Fleur's wedding. "I was so scared for everyone, especially you," he said, tilting her head up so he could look into her eyes. "I didn't know if you were alive, or dead, or… worse." Ginny gave him a tight squeeze before beginning to run her fingers through the hair that now hung down over the nape of his neck.
Harry sat silently, enjoying the feel of her touch. "Go on, tell me the rest of it," she said after a few moments. Harry sighed and resumed his tale. When he mentioned the row that led to Ron's departure, Ginny sat up again – her eyes narrowing and her mouth set in a hard line.
"That insensitive prat," she said angrily. "If I'd known…"
But Harry shook his head. "He came back. That's what's important."
Ginny's expression softened as Harry explained how Ron had saved his life and destroyed the locket Horcrux, but only after undergoing the agony of mental torture by that twisted bit of Voldemort's soul.
On the tale went. Ginny had snuggled back against him, and Harry felt her body tense as he haltingly described the horrific events at Malfoy Manor – particularly Hermione's suffering at the hands of Bellatrix LeStrange.
He felt rather than saw Ginny struggling not to cry as he spoke of Dobby's death and his own eyes burned. Dobby… Brave, noble Dobby… Harry couldn't speak for several seconds but finally explained circumstances leading up to their arrival at Hogwarts..
"You know pretty much what happened in the battle at Hogwarts," Harry said, as he finished explaining the destruction of the soul fragments in the cup and the diadem. They sat in silence for a moment.
"So where did you disappear to in the middle of the night?" Ginny finally asked.
Harry took a deep breath and closed his eyes. This was the part of the tale he really wasn't looking forward to, partly because he didn't want to relive those horrific events and partly because he knew the effect it would have on Ginny. But he'd promised to tell her everything. He owed it to her.
Slowly, he recounted Snape's murder. Ginny sat up and listened intently when he described the memories Snape had left him. Her hands flew to her mouth as he told of that heart-stopping moment when he'd learned that he himself was a Horcrux, and that he could not live if Voldemort was to be destroyed.
"Oh, Harry," she whispered, tears swimming in her eyes. "Oh my God… I can't… I-I'm so sorry. I can't believe…" And she couldn't say anything else as sobs wracked her body. Harry instantly put his arms back around her and held her tightly, whispering words of comfort in her ear while gently rocking her back and forth.
"Hey, it's okay," he said quietly. "Everything turned out fine. I'm here. I'm alive. I'm with you." Ginny didn't answer but took several deep breaths and the sobs finally ceased. Harry's throat began to ache as he watched her struggle. Things could have turned out so differently. He could have been separated from her forever. Thank Merlin Dumbledore's guesses really were right!
"So let me guess," Ginny said, wiping her eyes again. "You decided you'd have to sneak out of the castle and hand yourself over to Voldemort because of that blasted nobility complex of yours."
Harry pulled back a little and stared at her for a moment. "Yeah," he said quietly. "I ran into Neville on the way out and told him to take care of Nagini for me."
Suddenly a hard look came over Ginny's face. "I was with Neville out on the grounds, helping him collect injured students. You were there, weren't you? I thought I felt something brush past me. You walked right by me in that bloody Cloak of yours and didn't even stop, didn't you?"
Harry felt the blood draining from his face and knew his expression was as good as a confession. "Gin…" he said softly.
But Ginny had planted her fist in his chest, knocking the wind out of him. "You lousy git!" she snarled. "You were walking to your own death and you didn't even say goodbye! I… How could…" And now she was raining blows all over his body. Pounding him as hard as she possibly could. Harry tried to fend off the attack, finally grabbing her and pinning her arms to her chest.
"Look at me!" he said fiercely. Brown eyes met green. "Yeah, I didn't say goodbye. Because if I'd stopped to do it, I would have never had the strength to do what I had to do. I couldn't let anymore of the people defending Hogwarts be slaughtered for me – especially not you. Y-you mean the world to me. Breaking it off with you last year was the worst thing I've ever had to do. Not having you around to cheer me up, or just to be with was pure hell, Gin. I just…"
Ginny was moving again. Harry tensed for another blow. Instead, she had placed both hands on his face and planted her lips on his in a hard, almost brutal kiss. It was as though she was trying to convince herself that they both were alive, that this was real. Whatever the reason, Harry returned the kiss passionately, pulling her into an almost painful clench.
After several minutes, they broke apart, panting. Harry stared at Ginny for a moment before dropping his eyes to the bed covers. But she placed her hand under his chin and forced him to look at her. "Don't you ever again do anything like that! Do you understand? I don't care what you're facing, don't ever just walk away from me like that again."
Harry nodded silently, and Ginny suddenly seemed exhausted as she laid her head on his shoulder. "So what happened when you went into the forest?" she asked quietly.
Slowly, he told her of using the Resurrection Stone. His sight blurred and his voice cracked as he described the appearance of his parents and Remus Lupin and Sirius, and how they gave him the strength to face death. At last, he recounted stepping into the glen, waiting to Voldemort to strike.
Harry once again looked at Ginny. "Right when it happened, I was thinking of you, of the look on your face the first time we kissed." Two large tears coursed down Ginny's cheeks, but she made no sound as she clutched Harry tightly, as if afraid he was an apparition that might dissolve at any moment.
"When they brought you back to the castle, a-a part of me died when I saw you in Hagrid's arms," she said, swiping furiously at her face. "I've never felt that kind of agony before."
Harry held her, and they sat in silence for a long time – both overcome with emotion. At last, Harry drew a shuddering breath and gave a snort. "I don't know why we're so weepy," he said. "We both know this fairy tale has a happy ending."
Ginny laughed weakly and dried her tears. Slowly a mischievous smile appeared on her face. "Oh, my knight in shining armor," she said, batting her eyelashes.
Harry grinned and puffed out his chest. "At your service, m'lady."
Ginny broke into giggles. "I'll have to think long and hard about what services I require from you. I'm sure I can come up with plenty of ways to keep you busy."
Harry smirked. "Shouldn't the knight get a reward for services already rendered?"
"And just what sort of reward did you have in mind, Sir Harry?" she asked. Harry grinned and drew her to him for a long, gentle kiss.
After a few moments, Ginny pulled back and sat quietly beside him. She took several deep breaths. Harry sensed another question coming and had a pretty good idea of what it was. "So how did you survive the Killing Curse?" she asked. "How did you come back to me?"
Harry settled back against the headboard and told her of his conversation with Dumbledore, recalling as best he could the old man's explanation of the uncharted magical waters Harry had sailed. Ginny winced when he described the flayed-looking creature that was the only other inhabitant of that world beyond death.
When he finished, Ginny sat up and turned towards him, straddling his knees. "Harry," she said, again taking his face in her hands. "Thank you for everything. You've saved us all. Thank you." Harry shook his head and started to speak, but she placed a finger to his lips. "Being apart from you was the worst thing I've ever felt too. I dreamed of you all the time this past year. I worried about you nearly every waking moment..
"I never did give up on you, even after you broke things off. I want you to promise me… no more secrets ever again. I want to be with you. I always have and I always will. And that means that whatever you have to face, we face it together. No more trying to protect me. I want to be beside you for the whole ride, wherever that may take us."
Harry took one her hands and threaded his fingers between hers. "No more secrets," he said in a husky voice.
Ginny leaned down kiss him again, but as their lips were about to touch, the bedroom door burst open with a loud bang. The pair jerked apart, and Ginny twisted so hard she tumbled to the floor.
"Oi! 'Bout time you woke up," Ron bellowed as he strode into the room, ducking to avoid a cuff to the back of his head by Hermione.
"Ron!" she hissed in an exasperated tone.
Ginny shot her brother an evil look, and Harry knew Ron was extremely lucky she didn't have her wand within reach. He glared at Ron himself. "I see your sense of timing hasn't improved," he grumbled.
Ron smirked and dragged a couple more chairs over to the bed. "My timing is excellent," he replied, "especially when it comes to keeping my little sister in line."
Harry sensed an explosion coming and sought to defuse it. "Speaking of toeing the line, I heard you and Hermione enjoyed some quality time in the broom shed."
Hermione's cheeks turned pink, and the tips of Ron's ears colored brightly. The scowl vanished from Ginny's face as Hermione, now desperate to change the subject, walked over and hugged Harry. "How are you feeling?" she asked, looking at him with a mixture of affection and concern.
Harry stretched and folded his arms behind his head. "I'm good," he replied.
At that moment, his stomach rumbled loudly. Ginny giggled. "Nice one, Harry."
Ron grinned. "If you're hungry, why don't you just call Kreacher? He'll be happy to bring you some breakfast."
Harry started and sat up. "Kreacher's here?"
Ron nodded. "He showed up yesterday looking for you. Been running around cleaning and cooking ever since, wanting to help 'Master Harry's' friends. He's about to drive Mum spare – will hardly let her set foot in her own kitchen. Mind you, I'm not complaining. He really is a first-rate cook." Hermione frowned as Ron said this but kept silent.
Ginny once again sat down on the bed next to Harry and nudged his shoulder. "Go on and call him. You could use a good meal, and I'm sure he'd be happy to see you."
Harry hesitated, then called tentatively, "Kreacher?"
With a loud crack, the wizened house-elf appeared, bearing a tray laden with breakfast food. "Master Harry," he said, with a deep bow before trotting over to the bed and handing the tray to Ginny, who passed it to Harry. "Kreacher is most pleased to see master awake."
Harry paused for a moment, then he handed the tray back to Ginny and scrambled out of the bed, kneeling before the house-elf.
"Kreacher," he said. "I just want to thank you again for everything you've done for us. Without your help, we'd have never found one of the clues we needed to get rid of Voldemort. Thank you for leading the other house-elves in the final fight. You really made a difference. Thank you for being so good and faithful…"
The old elf burst into tears at these words, his sobs growing so loud that Ron pulled out Pettigrew's wand and pointed it at the door, closing it and throwing up a Silencing Charm. After several moments, Kreacher calmed down. "Master is too kind," he said brokenly.
Harry winced. He'd never get used to that kind of subservience. "It's the least I can do," he replied, smiling at the elf.
"Will Master Harry require anything else right now?" Kreacher asked, straightening up.
Harry shook his head. "Not right now, Kreacher. Thanks for the breakfast. It looks delicious. Let's stay here for now. Could you please keep helping Mrs. Weasley? She's had a rough time of it. In a few days, we can go back to Grimauld Place and decide what to do about cleaning it up."
"As you wish, Master Harry," the elf replied. And with little bows to Harry and the others, he vanished.
Harry started to climb back onto the bed, intent on devouring his breakfast. He paused as Hermione, ignoring Ron's warning glances burst out, "Harry, how could you keep him enslaved like that? Don't know how…"
"Drop it, Hermione," Ron said, cutting her off. "You saw how Kreacher reacted just at being thanked. He's spent his life being treated as a slave. How do you think he'd do if Harry freed him? He'd probably die." Hermione's face was coloring and Ron held up his hands in a placating gesture. "It's not right, okay? I know it's not right," he continued. "But that's the way it is. We'll just have to count on you to change it all when you become the youngest Minister of Magic the world has ever seen."
Hermione, who had opened her mouth to argue with Ron, snapped it shut and gazed at him with shining eyes. Then she launched herself at him, kissing him full on the mouth. Harry concentrated on the tray of food, grinning as Ginny made appropriate gagging noises. Finally, Ron and Hermione broke apart and sat down, though they continued to hold hands.
Harry couldn't believe how hungry he was as he worked his way through the mountain of eggs and rashers of bacon. "So, what's been going on in the world while I've been out?" he asked between bites.
"Well," said Hermione, "Kingsley's acting Minister of Magic, but you already knew that. They're trying to get everything cleaned up, but…"
"Dad got a promotion," Ron said, interrupting her. Harry looked up with interest. "He's now head of Magical Law Enforcement," Ron continued, beaming with pride.
"Excellent," Harry replied, a grin now stretching across his face. "Are things getting back to normal at the Ministry?"
Hermione heaved a heavy sigh. "Yes and no. Kingsley's definitely not going to have an easy time. He's slowly cleaning out all of the Death Eaters and their sympathizers. It's scary how many people bought into all of that pure-blood rubbish. It's going to take quite some time to get all of that straightened out." A gleam of triumph suddenly sparkled in her eyes. "There is one bit of news I think you'll especially like. Delores Umbridge was one of the first people Kingsley sacked. She's now in prison awaiting trial on charges of crimes against Muggle-borns. And I imagine there are some parents out there who might have something to say about how she treated their children at Hogwarts."
Harry's spirits soared at this thought. "Did they get all of the last Death Eaters rounded up after the battle?" he asked as he scraped his plate clean.
"Yeah," Ron replied, leaning back in his chair. "A lot of 'em got offed during the battle. The rest are now under guard at Azkaban. Oh, they got the Malfoys as well. I imagine life in prison has been a right nasty shock for them. Gits." A smug look crossed Ron's face as he spoke those last words.
"Ron," Hermione said reproachfully. "Don't forget Narcissa did help Harry in the forest. And during the last bit of the battle they weren't fighting. In fact, they…"
"They're still scum," Ron said, cutting her off. "They stood by and enjoyed watching that Lestrange bi…"
"Language, Ronald," Hermione retorted, before he could utter the oath.
"Yeah, well, I'm never going to forgive them for what they let happen to you," Ron replied sharply. "I hope they all rot in Azkaban." Harry gave Ginny's hand a gentle squeeze as they both noticed Hermione's flush at Ron's passionate defense of her.
Seeking a less charged topic, Ginny turned to Harry. "So what do you want to do today?"
"I don't know," Harry replied, somewhat dumbfounded. He turned to Ron and Hermione. "I can't remember the last time we had a day to ourselves. There's nothing we have to do today, is there?"
Both of his friends shook their heads. Harry sighed and leaned back against the headboard, idly playing with Ginny's hair as he did so. "I dunno what I want to do," he said at last. "If somebody had asked me that while we were on the run, I could have come up with a million things. But now, I'm stumped. Maybe we could just spend the day… together."
A comfortable silence settled over the room as each of the four teens retreated into his or her own thoughts. At last Harry sat up. "What I would like is a shower and some clean clothes."
Ginny bounced off the bed and rummaged in the nearby wardrobe, pulling out a pair of jeans and a t-shirt for him. "Mum did laundry for you," she said. "She says we're going to have to take all three of you clothes shopping soon. She's appalled by your wardrobes."
Harry grinned. "Sounds good. Why don't you all head downstairs? I'll come down after I've showered and we can sort out what to do today."
Hermione pulled out a wand and pointed it at the door, canceling the Locking and Silencing Charms. Harry stared at it for a moment. "Still using Bellatrix's wand?"
Hermione wrinkled her nose. "Unfortunately " Ron shook his head in disgust. "I just hope we can both get ours back. The Aurors are supposed to return them to us if they find them at Malfoy Manor. I don't fancy using the rat's wand any longer than I have to."
Ginny grabbed the empty breakfast tray and led the other two from the room. Harry spent more than a half-hour in the shower, enjoying the feel of the hot water beating against his skin. After drying and dressing, he stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. His hair lay damply against the back of his neck, and he was certain that Mrs. Weasley was itching to give him a trim. Rubbing his chin, he was pleased to see that Madam Pomfrey apparently had shaved him while he slept.
Slipping on his trainers, he bounded down the stairs, landing in the kitchen with a loud plunk. Ginny, Hermione and Ron were seated at the table with Fleur and Mrs. Weasley, who were both drinking tea.
"'Arry! Eet is so good to see you! 'Ow did you sleep?" Fleur said, rising and planting a kiss on both of his cheeks.
"Very well, thanks," Harry replied, walking over and giving Mrs. Weasley a hug.
She looked up at him and smiled. "How are you feeling, Harry?"
"The best I've felt in a long time," Harry replied. "How are you doing?"
Mrs. Weasley's smile faded. "Coping," she said softly. The room went silent for a moment. "Would you like some tea or something to eat, Harry?"
Harry shook his head. "No thanks, Kreacher brought me breakfast."
"About that..." Mrs. Weasley said, an uncomfortable expression crossing her face. "It's very sweet of you to have him help me, but I really don't think…"
Harry held up his hand to stop her. "Kreacher came here because I asked him to. When he came to my room this morning, I asked him if he'd mind helping out for a few days, and he agreed. Don't worry about cooking or housework for a while. Kreacher will take care of it. After everything you've been through, I think you've earned a rest."
Mrs. Weasley's eyes watered for a moment, and then she gave a small nod. "So," she said, suddenly brisk. "What have you four got planned for today?"
The four teens glanced at each other. Nobody said anything. Finally Ron shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe we could go into town or something."
"Well, you're all free to go anywhere you like, though I'd suggest you remain close to the Burrow," Mrs. Weasley said. "We've left the wards up to keep out all the reporters and photographers that have been swarming around ever since they figured out you'd all come back here."
Harry grimaced. Fleur snorted in disgust. "I nearly 'ad to hex one of those peegs. 'E kept offering me money for a chance to get in to see 'Arry."
Ginny rose and walked over to Harry, taking his hand. "C'mon, let's go outside and wander back to the orchard or down to the pond." She led Harry to the kitchen door, Ron and Hermione following them.
"Come back around noon," Mrs. Weasley called after them. "We'll have lunch ready by then. Hopefully Arthur and some of the boys can join us."
The foursome wandered through the back garden and the apple orchard and across the paddock that served as a makeshift Quidditch pitch. Ginny led them into another glen of trees, eventually stopping by a gnarled oak tree that spread its limbs wide to create a leafy canopy. She sat down amidst the roots and leaned her back against the massive trunk. Harry joined her, slipping his arm around her waist. Ron and Hermione sat down as well, joining hands.
No one said anything for a long time – all of them savoring the quiet companionship and the gentle forest noises around them. Finally, Hermione spoke. "So what do we do now? We've spent the last three years fighting. Now what?"
Harry stared up at the deep blue sky. "I don't know. A few days ago, I wasn't sure any of us would be here. I can't get my head around the fact that I've got to figure out what to do with my life."
Ginny gave him a gentle squeeze. "Well, the next year of my life is plotted out. I'm sure they'll re-open Hogwarts, and Mum and Dad will insist that I go for seventh year."
A familiar gleam appeared in Hermione's eye. "You know," she began, looking at both Ron and Harry.
"Here it comes," muttered Ron, earning himself a smack on the arm.
"I'm certain that if the school reopens, they'll invite students from our class to repeat seventh year, since the last one was such a waste. We really should take advantage of that if it happens. We need to sit our NEWTs if we want to have the kind of careers…"
Ron snorted. "Oh yeah, I'm sure after everything that's happened, the first thing anybody's going to look at is our NEWT scores. You're bloody brilliant, Hermione, and everybody knows it. And Harry here just did the impossible, so I think you're both set."
Hermione appeared taken aback for a few seconds before she plowed on. "We couldn't have done it without you, Ron. You saved both our lives. I'm sure anybody would hire you on the spot at this point. But it doesn't matter. We should do this the right way. We don't want people hiring us based just on fame.
"Besides," she added, an almost seductive expression crossing her face, "don't you think it would be fun to go back? I'm sure a lot of our classmates will, and we could have plenty of… quality time together. After school, it's all work and responsibility."
Ron stared at his girlfriend, his mouth agape. "Who are you and what have you done with Hermione Granger?" he said at last, drawing bursts of laughter from Harry and Ginny.
Ginny turned to Harry, giving him a meaningful look. "So what about you? Where do you plan to spend the next year?"
Harry swallowed hard and then grinned at her. "I dunno, maybe I'll spend it on a quest to find the Crumple-Horned Snorkack."
Ginny punched him in the arm. "Prat," she said, smiling back.
The four teens sat in the shade for a long time, chatting, laughing and just enjoying each other's company. Finally Ron glanced at his watch and got to his feet. "C'mon," he said. "It's nearly noon. Mum will be getting lunch ready."
The group trekked back to the Burrow, detouring by the swimming pond. As they approached it, Harry spotted a lone red-head sitting on the shabby dock that jutted over the water. Ron had noticed too and grimly shook his head. "He's been spending most his time alone ever since we all got back," he said. "I've never seen him like this."
Harry came to a decision and stopped. "The rest of you head on up to the house," he said. "Tell your mum I'll be there in a few minutes. I need to talk to George." The others nodded and continued on.
Harry slowly walked out onto the dock. George glanced up as he approached and sat down, then went back to staring across the water.
"How are you doing?" Harry asked after several quiet moments passed.
George shrugged. "Okay, I suppose," he replied before lapsing back into silence.
Harry felt increasingly uncomfortable. He was no good at talking about feelings, but truly believed he should do something to help the surviving Weasley twin. "Look," he said at last, "I can't begin to know how it feels to lose a brother, but after Sirius died I remember everyone hovering and asking how I was doing. It drove me spare. I just wanted people to leave me alone, to drop it."
George gazed across the pond, as though he hadn't heard anything. "I-I'm really sorry about Fred," Harry continued. "He was a great bloke, and a great friend – just like you. I really miss him. I'm sorry I couldn't do anything to stop…"
George turned suddenly to face Harry. "It wasn't your fault," he said listlessly. "There wasn't anything you could have done." He paused and heaved a deep sigh. "I just can't believe the bloody git off and left me like this. Hermione told me the other day that when a person has an arm or a leg cut off, they'll have… What did she call it? Oh yeah, phantom pain, like the limb's still attached. That's what this is like. Sometimes I think I almost here his voice in my head."
Harry had never seen a Weasley twin in such a serious mood, and the pain on George's face broke his heart. He gently laid a hand on George's shoulder. "It gets better eventually, I promise," he said. "I'm not really any good at helping with stuff like this, but I'm here. If you need an ear…" Harry closed his eyes, sucked in a breath and cursed his own stupidity for making such a comment in light of George's injury.
To his surprise, George merely snorted. "Good one, Harry. Fred would be proud."
Harry grinned back at George, relieved to see a bit of his twisted sense of humor cropping up. A thought then flashed through his mind.
"About your ear," he said, hesitating. "Before the big fight, I got a look at some memories in Dumbledore's Pensieve. Snape didn't mean to cut off your ear. He really was working for our side. He was with the Death Eaters at Privet Drive on Dumbledore's orders. During the chase, he was following you and Lupin. He was aiming that curse at a Death Eater but missed. It really was an accident. I… thought you should know."
George stared at Harry for a moment, then shook his head. "I believe you," he said. "But I'm still not sure I'll forgive the greasy-haired git."
"I'll tell you all the details later," Harry said.
They fell into comfortable silence for a few moments. "Have you given any thought to reopening the joke shop?" Harry asked.
George's shoulders slumped a little. "Not much," he replied. "I haven't even had the heart to go by the shop since Fred died. It just doesn't seem right without him."
Harry nodded. More silence. "I think Fred would want you to reopen," he said at last. "He'd see it as the ultimate tribute."
George gave a half-hearted grin. "Yeah, I guess so. But I'll really need some help. I've thought about asking Lee Jordan to go in with me on it."
"I think that would be brilliant," Harry replied. "You should do it. I'd be glad to lend you a hand. And I'm sure Ron, Ginny and even Hermione would be willing to help out, too."
"Thanks," George said. "But you four can't get tied down with that. You're all going to be heading back to Hogwarts for seventh year."
"We could at least help you for the summer," Harry said. "Besides, who says I have to go back? Kind of an anti-climax after this past year, isn't it?"
George shook his head. "Harry, Harry, Harry, you're looking at this the wrong way. Hogwarts is the perfect place for you right now. Go back. Have some fun. Pull some pranks. Help pump up interest in Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes. You've got a stake in it, you know." A smile crept across Harry's face.
"Besides," George said, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, "there's a certain pretty somebody who'll be very disappointed if she can't spend the next year exploring all of the school broom cupboards and every other nook and cranny with you." Harry felt himself blush. Suddenly George fixed him with a stern look. "And if you ever repeat that to anyone, you'll find a dose of U NO POO in your pumpkin juice when you least expect it."
Harry reached out and shook George's hand. "Your secret is safe with me," he declared with mock solemnity. He glanced at his watch. "C'mon. It's almost one o'clock. Your mum's probably wondering where we are."
They hiked up to the Burrow and walked into the kitchen. Mrs. Weasley, Fleur, Ginny, Ron and Hermione were seated around the table, eating sandwiches and crisps. "Where have you two been?" Mrs. Weasley asked. "I was thinking of sending out a search party."
George walked over and kissed her on the cheek. "Discussing the mysteries of life, Mother dear."
Harry sat down next to Ginny, giving her a smile and a wink before grabbing a sandwich. Suddenly the kitchen door slammed and Charlie walked in. Mrs. Weasley's face immediately lit up.
"Sorry I'm late," he said. "It's a mess down at the Ministry. Dad and Percy won't be joining us." He sat down and filled his plate.
"What's going on down there?" Hermione asked.
"They're just trying to finish cleaning out the remainder of Thicknesse's cronies," Charlie replied. "They're also gearing up for Death Eater trials. It's like it was after the last war. A lot of people claiming they were under the Imperius Curse. It's really tough to figure out who's lying and who's not."
"When will the Wizangamot meet?" asked Mrs. Weasley.
"Soon," Charlie said. "They'll need to pick a permanent Minister of Magic. Everyone pretty much acknowledges that Kingley's a shoo-in."
"That's great news," exclaimed Hermione. "I'm sure he's going to change some things that have needed changing for a long time."
Charlie nodded. "He's a good guy. It's going to be a struggle. He'll meet a lot of resistance, but I think he's the right man for the job." Charlie paused and then fished inside his robes, finally pulling out a pair of wands and tossing them to Ron and Hermione. "Dad sent those to you. The Aurors brought them back from Malfoy Manor this morning. They both seem to be in good working order."
Ron's and Hermione's faces lit up as they caught the wands and experimentally waved them. "Excellent," Ron said, as red sparks burst from both tips.
The group finished eating, and Mrs. Weasley sent the dishes zooming to the sink. "Are you going back to the Ministry?" she asked Charlie.
Charlie shook his head. "I think I've done about all I can there," he replied. "I was thinking of just spending the afternoon with this crew," he said, pointing at the four teens. "What have you got planned?"
Harry thought for a moment. "How about a game of Quidditch?"
Ron bolted upright. "That would be brilliant," he declared. He turned to Hermione, who was rolling her eyes. "How 'bout it, Hermione? Come on and play with us. We could team up against Harry and Ginny. And we could all take turns as referee so that Charlie could swap in and out of both teams."
Harry and Ginny grinned as Ron gave Hermione his best puppy-dog look. Finally Hermione smiled. "Quidditch… It's always about Quidditch with you boys, isn't it?" Laughter rippled around the table. Harry, Ginny, Ron, Hermione and Charlie trooped out to the broom shed and then to the paddock.
They mounted their broomsticks and kicked off. A thrill coursed through Harry as he rose. He hadn't flown – really flown – since his last Quidditch match in sixth year. It felt wonderful to soar over the treetops, to skim the tall grass that covered the orchard. A blur streaked past him, and he watched in awe as Ginny performed a complex aerial ballet. His stomach swooped, and the monster in his chest roared with a pleasure that had nothing to do with flying.
Charlie tossed a battered Quaffle to Harry, and the game began. It lasted several hours. All five players – even Hermione – flew hard. It was a release for Harry – a chance to blow off some pent-up energy, to work out his frustrations.
At last, the group drifted to the ground, shouldered their brooms and headed back to the Burrow to clean up before dinner.
With Percy, Charlie, Bill and Fleur all present, there were far too many people to squeeze into the kitchen for dinner. So once again, Harry found himself dining in the Weasleys' back garden as the day drew to a close. The battered table groaned under the assortment of delicious food Kreacher had prepared.
The conversation around the table was, for the most part, light and joyful.
Sitting next to Ginny – bumping his knee against hers, occasionally grabbing her hand under the table – Harry had never felt so content. His ears perked up as he heard Mrs. Weasley speaking to Hermione.
"So when are you going to Australia to fetch your parents?" she asked.
Hermione smiled. "Kingsley's helping me out on that. He's contacted the magical authorities down there, and they're searching for Mum and Dad. They'll let us know as soon as they find them." Her face suddenly fell. "But I thought I'd wait a few days before going down, until… until after the funerals."
A silence fell over the table. Harry felt a stab of guilt. He'd been having such a wonderful time that he'd forgotten there was an empty place at the table, an empty bed upstairs. He glanced over at Ginny and slipped his arm around her shoulders. Mrs. Weasley was struggling not to break down, while Mr. Weasley gently patted her back. Most of the rest of the family stared at their plates.
At last Bill raised his wand, once more summoning bottles of firewhisky and glasses for everyone. With another flick of his wand, the glasses were filled. "To Fred, to Remus and to Tonks," he said hoarsely. The rest of the family silently raised their glasses in salute before drinking.
Harry felt the liquor burn as it made its way to his stomach, where it seemed to uncoil like a fiery dragon. Images of those he'd lost flashed through his mind. And suddenly understanding dawned on him, and before he knew what he was doing, he spoke. "The dead we loved never truly leave us."
Everyone else at the table looked at him curiously. Harry felt his face grow warm, though whether from embarrassment or the firewhisky, he had no idea.
"It was something Dumbledore tried to tell me after third year, but I never really understood it until now," he continued. "When… That night, when I went into the Forbidden Forest, I-I saw my mum and dad, and Sirius and Remus. They... came to me."
Absolute silence cloaked the table. Every eye was fixed on Harry. "They were the ones who gave me the will to face… to do what I had to do. They said they'd be with me to the very end. And they were."
Ginny squeezed Harry's arm. Hermione, Fleur and Mrs. Weasley were all crying softly. Even Ron's eyes were suspiciously bright. Harry looked directly at Mr. and Mrs. Weasley.
"I know that the dead are always with us," he said slowly. "They watch over us. They can even give us strength when we need it most. And I know they wait for us, and when our time comes to cross over, they'll be there to welcome us."
Harry turned to George, who was staring at him in wonder. "Somewhere," he said, glancing up at the twilit sky, "the Marauders are riding again. And I'd like to think they've picked up a fourth member."
A grin slowly spread across George's face, as he raised his wand and refilled their glasses. "To those who never truly leave us," he said, raising his goblet.
"To those who never truly leave us," the group chorused.
A/N: Whew! I thought I'd never get this installment finished. I now have a greater appreciation for JRK's decision to write the epilogue as she did. So many plot threads I wanted to tie up! I tried hard not to simply make it a laundry list.
Speaking of hard work, I'd like to thank all of those who offered such excellent constructive criticism. My pre-betas Melindaleo and The Seeker both offered great encouragement and helped me keep things flowing when the tale seemed to bog down. Melindaleo also saved me from drowning in the murky waters of wand theory, for which I am grateful.
Arnel, my long-suffering beta, once more brought her eagle eyes to bear, doing a masterful job of spotting all of those tiny little canon errors that inevitably creep into my writing. This story would have much less credibility without her help. Any errors you spot are mine, and mine alone.
Finally, I would be remiss not to once more thank Jo, who so kindly left things wide open at the end of Deathly Hallows, thereby giving us such a large, wonderful playground on which to romp.