Ginny gasped for breath in the still, muggy summer air as she searched the darkened room warily. Something had pulled her out of her slumber, perhaps a noise or even a whisper of a breeze. She held her breath, straining to listen, and realized her heart was racing. The sound that had awakened her must have been her own scream, again. She exhaled at last and sat up, hugging her pillow to her chest as she struggled to overcome the effects of the nightmare. Breathing deeply, she focused on the familiar night noises as they began filtering through the remaining haze of sleep.
She glanced at the empty bed across the room. At least Hermione hadn't been subjected to her night terrors. She had left for Australia several weeks ago to find her parents. Just yesterday they'd had a letter from her. She was fine and had been able to restore her parents' memories without a problem. They were due back in August, in time for Ginny's birthday. She hoped she would have her nightmares under control by then.
The walls of the ramshackle Burrow were thin, and Ginny could easily hear Ron snoring faintly from above. The ghoul in the attic began clanking about and moaning quietly, and Arnold the Pygmy Puff was trilling softly from his perch atop one of Ginny's pillows. From the floor below came a faint rustling as one of her parents shifted in their sleep, and then a feminine voice murmured gently and fell still again. Outside, the garden gnomes were snuffing and chuffing as they dug holes in her mum's vegetable plot.
Reassured that she had not awakened anyone else, Ginny breathed a sigh of relief until she heard one sound that was out of place: the creak of a footstep outside her door. A heavy weight settled into her stomach as she swung her legs over the side of the bed and rose to creep across the room. She counted to three and pulled the door open, but there was no one there. Perplexed, she stepped out onto the landing, where she could see both the stairs going up and the stairs going down. They, too, were empty. She stood there indecisively for a moment before climbing up the stairs until she reached Ron's door on the top floor. It was standing slightly ajar; all it took was a slight nudge from Ginny and it swung open with a soft creak.
The moon was waning, but the glow was still strong enough that Ginny could easily see that Harry's bed was abandoned. Panic bloomed in her chest; her heart thudded painfully as she struggled not to hyperventilate. Kneeling, she pressed her hand to the middle of the bed. It was still warm. Hot tears burned her eyes, and she swiped at them angrily, feeling foolish.
It's nothing, Ginny thought. He just went downstairs for a snack, or a drink of water. It's over. He's safe, we're all safe.
As she stood, a movement outside the window caught her eye, so she stepped over to the windowsill and looked out. At first, nothing seemed amiss. Then she noticed a path through the overgrown grass near the edge of the pond...a path that was lengthening, even as she watched. Reflexively, she clutched at the windowsill. Her first instinct, as always, was to go to him.
"Mmmmm...that's nice, 'Mione," Ron moaned in his sleep, grinning. Ginny couldn't suppress her soft snort of laughter. When she looked over her shoulder at her brother, his eyes popped open. "Ginny? What are you doing in here?"
"I just thought I heard something," Ginny said. "Go back to sleep."
Ron's attention shifted toward Harry's bed. Seeing it was empty, he sat up and rubbed his large hand across his face, struggling against the fog of sleep. His expression was solemn when he glanced up at his sister.
"He hasn't been sleeping well," he said, pointedly.
Ginny couldn't bring herself to reply. Instead she turned back to the window. The path beside the pond stopped just past the giant oak Ginny and her brothers had climbed as children. She wondered if Harry was perched on one of its limbs.
"The circles under his eyes are as bad as the ones under yours," Ron continued, as if he hadn't expected a reply in the first place. "He isn't eating, you're thin as a rail, he flinches anytime anyone waves a wand in his general direction, and you're jumpier than a Puffskein in a roomful of Kneazles."
"What do you expect me to do about it?" Ginny demanded hotly.
"Have it out with him, Ginny. Whatever the problem is, it's eating you both alive."
"Yes, you can," Ron insisted "Go now. Just cast a silencing charm if there's gonna be shouting. Some of us are still trying to sleep." At that, Ron flopped back into a prone position with a grunt and covered his face with his pillow, adding a muffled, "Go!" for good measure.
Ginny stopped in her room to fetch her wand before she crept all the way down the stairs and out the door, following the faint trail Harry's footprints had made in the dew until she reached the oak tree. She looked up into the branches, but did not there was no sign of him.
"Harry?" she called softly. She felt a soft breeze of air pass her, lifting her hair slightly, though the leaves on the nearby tree remained still. The back of her neck prickled with the awareness of someone's presence. When she turned, Harry was standing behind her, broom balanced in one hand, shimmering Cloak clutched in the other.
"What are you doing out here, Ginny?" he asked in a dull voice.
"I...I heard a noise. You weren't in your bed...I was.... I just.... I came to check on you," she finished lamely, unwilling to admit that, for an instant, she had been terrified that he had gone.
"I'm fine," he said flatly. "I just felt like flying."
"In the middle of the night?"
"You aren't fine," Ginny countered. "Your hands are shaking so badly you can barely hold your broom still. When was the last time you ate?"
"Since when do you care?" Harry snapped.
Ginny drew back as if he'd slapped her. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Ginny, you've hardly spoken a dozen whole sentences to me since I...since it was over," he said. "Every time I try to talk to you, you remember somewhere you need to be or something that urgently needs your attention." Ginny's cheeks flamed as he stepped closer, scrutinizing her from head to toe. "You're one to talk about not eating. I can count your ribs through your..." he trailed off, gesturing awkwardly toward the thin fabric of Ginny's nightdress.
Ginny folded her arms against her ribs self-consciously. "This isn't about me."
"Like hell it isn't!" he retorted. He dropped his Cloak and his broom into a heap on the ground and, with a sigh of frustration, pushed his fringe away from his face. "You were screaming in your sleep again."
"I'm sorry--" she began, but he interrupted with a fierce, "Don't!" Taken aback, Ginny stared at him.
"Don't apologize," he explained. "After all, it's my fault, isn't it?"
"What do you mean? How is it your fault?" Ginny asked, confused.
"It's my name you were screaming."
Ginny glanced away, mortified. She had known she woke up screaming, but hadn't realized she was screaming his name. She never remembered details about the nightmare, only that she was terrified, angry and grieving at the same time.
"That night, when Hagrid was carrying me. I heard you screaming my name..." He paused, then added, "when you thought I was dead. The way you screamed tonight...it sounded just the same. You were dreaming about it, weren't you?"
Ginny's arms broke out in gooseflesh. She had spent the past month trying to forget about that moment. "Harry, stop. I can't do this now," she begged. She turned to flee but he caught her elbow and pulled her back to him.
"Ginny, why are you so angry with me? Why won't you talk to me?" he asked hoarsely.
"I can't, not about this, not yet. It's too soon, it's too much," she protested, afraid of the swelling tide of emotion that threatened to choke her, leaving her gasping for breath. She could feel all of that pain welling up from the small place inside her where she had stashed it away until she could deal with it a piece at a time. It was too much to handle all at once. She shook her head vehemently and pushed him away.
"Ginny, please...." Harry pleaded.
He took a step towards her, reaching for her shoulders, which were covered only by the thin straps of her nightdress. His hands were like hot coals against her cool flesh, which had been chilled by the damp night air. Ginny felt as thought she might jump out of her skin at his touch, and she flinched away. His hands fell once more to his sides as his eyes grew stony, and she knew she had hurt him. She covered her face with her hands, humiliated that Harry would be here to watch her fall apart; she was unable to fight it anymore.
"You died, Harry," she said, softly at first, the words muffled by her hands. "You died. I saw Hagrid carrying your body. You were dead."
Harry shook his head. "I wasn't, Ginny, I was just pretending. I had to let Voldemort think he'd killed me."
Ginny's hands dropped away from her face, and she peered up at him, studying his face with narrowed eyes. When he shifted his gaze from hers, she knew he wasn't being completely truthful.
"No," she said, shaking her head again. "No, I don't believe you. Hagrid saw him cast the Killing Curse. You walked into that forest alone without a word to anyone, under that damned Invisibility Cloak. You knew Voldemort would kill you. You knew, and you let him do it, you noble, self-sacrificing prat," she sputtered, thumping his chest with her fist.
Harry's jaw clenched, but he said nothing. His silence only served to confirm her accusation. Ginny was trembling now, in fear and anger, even though it had all been over a month ago. She had refused to let herself consider the possibility that he had truly died that night in the forest, alone. Even now, she still couldn't fathom it, couldn't wrap her head around the implication behind the fact that he had been dead, but now he lived. The possibility of an alternate outcome, one in which Harry had not survived, occurred to her, and she shuddered violently as a fear deeper than any she had ever experienced chilled her to the bone and forced her brain to cease processing any other thoughts for a moment. When she could think again, she focused on the anger instead.
"Do you remember what you said to me last year, after Dumbledore's funeral?" she asked in a tight voice.
Harry's only response was a short nod.
"You asked me how I thought you would feel if it had been my funeral. Do you remember?" Ginny demanded again.
This time he met her gaze dead on. "I remember, Ginny," he answered quietly. "I don't think I would have been able to keep going if you had...if anything had happened to you. I think I would have gone spare."
"Do you think it was any different for me? All those months, I had no idea where you were, what you were doing. There were constant rumors that you had been killed. Not knowing nearly drove me mad," she explained with a noise that was half-laugh, half sob.
"I'm sorry," Harry rasped. He made a move as if to pull her into his arms, but Ginny held up her hand.
"No! You died, Harry. Goddamn you, YOU DIED!" she finished with a shout, blazing with fury.
"It was the only way to end it," he said in a low voice.
"You died," she said again, no longer screaming. "Every time I close my eyes, I keep seeing it, over and over again, remembering how it felt to want to die, too."
Harry's fingers clutched her shoulders convulsively as a sound of misery escaped his lips. He crushed her to him so tightly she could barely breathe, lifting her so that her feet no longer touched the ground and he was supporting her weight entirely, his face buried in her neck.
"I'm so sorry," he murmured again.
"Why didn't you tell someone?" she moaned against his shoulder.
"I wanted to. I saw you that night...I wanted to stop and tell you so badly, but I knew if I did, I wouldn't be able to go through with it, and I had to, Ginny. I had to."
His voice was breaking now, and Ginny felt horrible, but she had bottled her emotions all up inside for too long. They both had. She either had to let it go tonight or they would have to go their separate ways. She struggled in his embrace until he released her, whereupon she immediately stepped back a pace, breathing deeply through her nose until she felt she could speak without breaking down.
"I spent almost a year not knowing if you were dead or alive," she began, slowly and deliberately. "Then to finally see you, be able to touch you again...and you ordered me to stay in the Room of Requirement, as if I were a little girl."
"I needed to know you were safe!" Harry barked.
"You hardly knew I was there!" Ginny countered angrily, recalling Cho's eagerness to give Harry a personal tour of the Ravenclaw dormitory. She knew her display of jealousy had been childish, but the thought that Cho Chang would be the one to lead Harry through the corridors had been more than she could bear at that time.
"Is that what you think?" he asked with a bitter laugh. "Ginny, some nights I used to open the Marauder's Map and just follow your footsteps around the castle. It helped me feel you weren't quite so far away." He paused and sobered before he continued. "You spent a lot of time in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom...after hours."
Ginny flushed, remembering parts of her school year that she had never wanted him to know about. Automatically she touched the pink scar on the back of her hand. The words I AM A BLOOD TRAITOR had been carved there permanently after many hours spent in detention. When she moved to clasp her hands behind her back, he reached for them, grasping them firmly when she tried to snatch them away. He gazed somberly at the marks, caressing them lightly with his thumb. Ginny closed her eyes. Seeing the regret in his expression caused her nearly as much pain as receiving the scars in the first place.
"Neville told me about the Carrows," Harry said in a hesitant voice, as if he were afraid she might explode again.
"He shouldn't have," Ginny replied harshly. She silently cursed her friend, promising to give him an earful when she saw him again.
"I'm glad he did. You haven't been exactly forthcoming about what happened to you this year."
Ginny eyes flew open, and she stared at him incredulously.
"And you have been?" she retorted.
Harry didn't answer for a long moment. "I wanted to be," he said at last. "I will be, if you'll let me. The Cruciatus...did they....?"
Thinking about the Carrows made Ginny's skin crawl. She had been targeted as a troublemaker from the beginning of the school year, when, during Muggle Studies, she had shouted at Alecto that Tom Riddle's father had been a Muggle. Alecto had administered the punishment herself, her face lit with unholy glee as she aimed her wand at Ginny and cried, "Crucio!" When it was over, and Ginny lay on the floor sobbing uncontrollably while every nerve in her body continued to fire with the residual sensation of being jabbed with thousands of needles, she had been desperately glad that Harry was far away from Hogwarts.
He was watching her expectantly. Ginny swallowed hard and answered, "It's not important, Harry. It's over."
"It's important to me," he insisted. "Did they Cruciate you?"
"Yes. They did."
Harry made an agonized sound of strangled rage.
"I'm sorry," he choked. "Oh, God, Ginny, I'm so sorry."
"Harry, stop apologizing!" Ginny said sharply. She didn't think she could stand to hear those words one more time without screaming. In a softer voice, she added, "This is why I didn't want to tell you. You can't blame yourself for everything bad that happened. It wasn't your fault."
With these words, Harry dropped her hands, leaving Ginny bereft at the loss of warmth. He turned away from her and leaned against the huge, gnarled oak tree, folding his arms against his chest. His head fell back against the trunk of the tree in defeat.
"I thought Hogwarts would be safe," he said in a bleak voice. "I thought the Ministry would make Professor McGonagall Headmistress. I never dreamed the Death Eaters would take over so quickly. If I had known...things might have been different."
"It wouldn't have mattered. Attendance was mandatory for pure-bloods, the better to indoctrinate us, and use us as leverage. If I hadn't gone back to school, they would have come after Mum and Dad."
Harry said nothing, staring up through the leaves at the crescent-shaped moon as if he was unable to face her. Ginny cautiously stepped closer until she was standing side by side with him, facing the pond. She recalled the conversation she'd had with Hermione about how Snape had remained loyal to Dumbledore, in the end. It wasn't until then that she had understood just how much worse her sixth year at Hogwarts could have been.
"I think Professor Snape tried to shield us from the worst of it," she said finally. "He required the Carrows to submit all detention slips for his signature, and instructed that the students should cast the curses rather than the Carrows."
"That's even worse!" Harry objected.
"I thought so, too, at the time. But looking back now, I think it was his was way of interceding, without blowing his cover. You have to mean an Unforgivable, right? Most of the students didn't. Some of us refused outright. Only Crabbe and Goyle were very good at it, and they were usually unavailable, running important errands for Snape. And, well, you already know he gave Neville, Luna and me detention with Hagrid for trying to steal the sword," she said with a wan smile. When she looked over at Harry, he was watching her, remorse etched across his face.
"I never wanted you to have to go through any of that," he said
"I know. But I did. And I survived. We both did."
They stood together, gazing across the pond for a while without saying anything. Ginny was glad for the opportunity to collect her thoughts. She listened to the gnomes grunting in the darkness, likely fighting over a potato or some other prize. The vegetable plot was nearly overrun; Mum would likely be after her and Ron to clear them out in the morning. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Harry startle when a bullfrog landed with a soft plop on a lily pad several yards away and began croaking loudly. Ginny waded into the pond a couple of steps and bent to retrieve a flat stone from the muddy bottom. Drawing back her arm, she hurled the stone so that it skipped within a few inches of the amphibious intruder. He croaked indignantly once more and then leapt back into the pond. Ginny knelt to rinse the mud off her palms. When she straightened and turned back to Harry, he was watching her with an expression she could only describe as hunger. She walked back a couple of paces to stand before him, unsure how to bridge the remaining distance between them.
"You changed your perfume," he said softly.
She nodded, wondering why it mattered to him.
"Did I ever tell you about the love potion Professor Slughorn demonstrated in sixth year?" he asked.
She shook her head, afraid if she spoke, it would break the spell that had loosened his tongue for a change.
"It was Amortentia," he said. "Do you know it?"
"Yes," she said, smiling faintly. "It was the first lesson we had this year."
"It was our first lesson in sixth year, too," he said, closing his eyes as he remembered. "It smelled like a bit of heaven in a cauldron, like treacle tart and broomstick handles...and flowers," he added, opening his eyes and gazing at her. "I realized when I ran into you after class that day that the flowery bit was you."
Ginny waited for him to continue, but he didn't right away. Instead, he lifted a lock of her hair with one hand, smoothing it between his thumb and fingers. With the other, he tenderly cupped her face and traced her lips with his thumb.
"Last year, before we left, I nicked one of your shirts and stashed it in my pack," he confessed. "It smelled of your perfume."
The tears Ginny had been struggling to hold back since she had first discovered him missing from his bed finally escaped, sliding down her face one after the other. She hadn't known that. She hadn't wanted to know that. It was easier to keep him at arm's length, to focus on her own pain and not think about everything he had suffered over the past year. It was easier not to wonder if he had missed her as much as she had missed him. It was easier to be angry about being left behind and coddled like a child than it was to think about the events that had transpired on the night of the battle at Hogwarts. She was ashamed of herself.
Harry gently swept the moisture from her cheeks with his thumbs before cupping her face in both hands and tipping it up so she couldn't look away.
"Ginny, when I left you behind, it wasn't because I didn't care. It was because I cared too much. That night, in the forest, at the last moment, you were all I could think about. I closed my eyes and pictured your face, and remembered the way your mouth felt on mine...."
Ginny didn't need to hear any more. She closed the remaining gap between them with one last step and lifted her face to press her lips firmly to his. Harry groaned in relief and pulled her to him as he leaned back against the tree, enveloping her in his arms.