She noticed the forest first. The sun shone brightly high in the late-morning sky and its rays played gently amid the thick sea of leaves, illuminating the upper branches and shadowing those below in contrasting shades of gold and green. She watched in awe for a moment, wondering how she'd ever missed such a beautiful scene, before she turned around to an even more striking sight.
The lake was calm -- undisturbed by even the faintest ripple or the giant squid -- its depths appearing almost white as the brilliant glare of sunlight reflected off the mirror-like surface. And behind on the mountaintop stood Hogwarts, tall and majestic against the cloudless background of azure sky. Though she'd lived there for much of the last six years, the castle's odd assortment of stone gray towers, turrets and battlements had never appeared more welcoming or secure.
She couldn't remember a more beautiful early summer day.
Yet, something didn't seem quite right. It took her a few moments to realize the scene was almost too peaceful. The throng of students that would normally be studying or relaxing by the lakeside on such a morning was completely absent. So were the sounds. The sweet tittering of birdsong, the rhythmic rushing of lake swells against the rocks and the gentle whisper of the breeze amongst the trees -- all were strangely missing. But Ginny Weasley forgot all of those things in an instant as three familiar figures in the school's distinctive black robes strode out of the woods and made their way up the shore toward her.
Ginny felt the smile of recognition bend her lips even as she stood frozen in near disbelief. When they came close enough that the unmistakable green eyes of the black-haired leader became plainly visible, she could hold her ground no longer. In three quick, running strides, she covered the short distance between them and threw herself into his waiting arms.
"Harry!" she yelled joyfully as the boy she loved held her tightly.
"Hi," he replied, giving her the brightest, most contented smile she had ever seen as he ran his hands softly over her back. Ginny's feeling of relief was blissful. After everything that had happened, she had honestly thought she might never see Harry Potter again. She hoped their embrace would last forever.
"Oi, pillock! Hands off the sister!" the jovial voice of her youngest brother, Ron, resounded from just feet away, shattering both the silence and the moment. "Family gets first go."
Harry merely laughed, but Ginny looked over in time to see his other companion, Hermione Granger, answer in annoyance. "Ron! Give them a minute."
"But … we only …" Ron countered, this time sounding unsure and much more serious.
Hermione silenced her boyfriend with a stern look and a brusque shake of the head, then gave Ginny a sisterly wink. "Never mind us. You two take all time you need."
The compassionate gesture made Ginny grin, but she wasn't about to ignore her closest sibling and her best friend. She had been dreadfully worried about them, too, and her delight peaked as she took in the fact they were all together again. Releasing herself from Harry's embrace, she enthusiastically hugged first Ron and then Hermione.
"I'm so glad to see all of you!" Ginny exclaimed as she stepped back.
"We're really glad to see you too," Ron replied, a hint of sadness evident in his voice and gaze. Surprised, she looked back and forth between the three friends, and though Harry's features exuded only contentment, she thought she saw something somber in Hermione's eyes as well.
Ginny felt her heart sink, and the images of what she'd witnessed -- been a part of, really -- flashed unbidden in her mind. "I was so scared. I … I thought Vol --."
It was Harry who stopped her. His smile unbroken, he lightly took a hold of her upper arm and rubbed soothingly. "Let's not talk about that now. It's finally over."
Her pain quickly dissipated as she looked into his reassuring eyes. She managed a weak nod before saying, "Okay."
"What do we talk about then?" Ron asked after the silence lingered for a few seconds.
"How about us?" Hermione suggested, as if on cue. "All of us. Now seems as good a time as any to remember the good times. We are leaving, after all," she added, gesturing toward the school. The boys quickly nodded their agreement, and they found a comfortable place to sit under a tall oak near the lake's edge.
The topic wouldn't have been Ginny's first choice but the conversation -- covering everything from her first embarrassing squeal in Harry Potter's presence to Quidditch triumphs -- proved light-hearted and enjoyable. It pleased her to see Harry laughing so freely; there had been so few opportunities for that in the last few months.
Finally, after about an hour, the topic shifted to their time as couples.
" … So Harry's there on his bed, his head buried under the pillow, and here I am thinking he's had another one of his nightmares," Ron drawled on much to Harry's discomfiture. "So me, being the concerned best friend that I am, ask him if I could do anything to help, and the great Harry Potter says, get this, ‘Only if you want to rip my heart out now and save your sister the effort.'"
Ron, Hermione and Ginny broke into uncontrolled mirth and Harry blushed brightly before joining in. When Ginny calmed enough to look at him again, Ron wore a knowing smile. "That's when I realized you two were meant to be together," he continued. "He was more scared of you than he ever was of Voldemort."
Ginny giggled, but for whatever reason, his words seemed to set Hermione off. "Ron!"
"What?" he replied, sounding as dumbfounded as Ginny suddenly felt.
"Ron, will you ever get a clue?" Hermione continued unabated. "Think about what you just said."
The redheaded young man looked puzzled for a few seconds before a blush of realization colored his ears and a slight frown formed on his lips. "Oh, right. … Sorry."
That was as much of their odd behavior as Ginny could stand. "I knew we were meant to be together the first time I saw Harry at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters," she said without embarrassment, leaning close and putting an arm around her boyfriend's shoulders. Harry responded by slipping his hand around her waist.
Hermione didn't quite look mollified, but she nodded and rose from her place on the soft turf. "I think it's time for us to leave you two alone, then," she said firmly. "Come on, Ron." The friends followed her to their feet, and she gave Ginny a hug and a kiss on the cheek, whispering, "I'll see you later." Ron quickly followed suit.
Ginny watched the couple step back hand in hand. When they stopped a few yards away, the traces of sadness were again clear in their faces. As Hermione turned to walk back toward Hogwarts, Ron said softly, "Goodbye, Gin." Then he turned and followed his girlfriend for a few steps before adding, "And Harry, tell her how you feel, you daft prat!"
"I will," Harry answered laughingly, drawing Ginny's eyes to him. When she looked back, Ron and Hermione were gone.
"Where'd they go?" Ginny inquired in surprise.
"Off to be together, I should expect," Harry said, taking her hand. "Come on, let's walk by the lake."
Ginny nodded and kept pace beside him, but her thoughts were on all the strange things she had seen that day. For one, she was quite certain that Ron and Hermione couldn't have Disapparated from the Hogwarts grounds. After a minute or two, she couldn't help asking, "But how'd they just disappear like that?"
"Magic," he replied with a bright smile.
She couldn't hold back a hardy laugh as he followed his evasive answer with a knowing wink. "Will I ever have a normal boyfriend?" she teased between chuckles, playfully hitting him on the arm.
Harry stopped suddenly and looked pensive for a moment. Then he nodded knowingly. "You will, love. You will."
Ginny was taken aback. She didn't want a normal boyfriend; she only wanted Harry. "But …"
"Shhh, love." he said softly, pulling her close. "My heart is yours forever. I'll love you always. Always."
Ginny could see that love in the emerald green of his eyes, feel it emanating from everywhere their bodies touched. Any lingering doubts she might have had vanished. Harry Potter was hers. Giving in to the deep blush she felt coloring her cheeks, she tilted her head and leaned forward. As their lips were about to meet, she blissfully closed her eyes. …
"Ginny! Ginny, wake up!"
Ginny forced her eyes open to find the spacey face of Luna Lovegood staring down at her. It took her a few seconds to blink away enough of the sleep to process that they were on the Hogwarts Express.
"Good, you're awake," Luna said. "We're here."
But Ginny barely noticed. Her eyes were fixed on the empty bench directly across the compartment. Slowly she turned her head to the left and saw another empty seat. As realization set in, images not even a week old came at her in a rush: the blinding flashes of countless curses; the screams of the wounded and tortured; Voldemort's glowing red eyes and his evil, cackling laugh.
"Ginny, what are you doing?" Luna asked cautiously, obviously noticing her aloofness.
The answer -- looking for them -- was more than Ginny could handle. They were gone. Ron and Hermione had lost out on their final joyful days as Head Boy and Head Girl, the victory celebrations they had worked so hard to bring about and their chance at a future together. Harry had been denied even more: his one and only opportunity for a normal life. ‘They're dead!' Ginny's mind screamed out in anguish. She broke down and cried for all she was worth.
At some point, Ginny hadn't even noticed when, Luna had sat down beside her and pulled her close. When the tears abated enough that she could see again, she was surprised to find her blonde friend looking at her in what could only be described as understanding.
"He came to you, didn't he?" Luna asked in her usual dreamy voice. "That's why you're so upset."
"Wh … What?" Ginny managed between sobs.
"Harry came to you. While you were sleeping."
Her friend's insight stunned Ginny but it didn't change the truth. "It was just a stupid dream," she replied with as much composure as she could.
"That's what I thought the first time my mother came to me."
Ginny had known "Loony Lovegood" long enough that the girl's off-the-wall theories rarely phased her, but this time she'd struck on too sore a wound. "He's … He's gone!" she yelled, unable to contain her feeling of loss.
"But do you really believe that?" Luna replied quietly. "You remember the Department of Mysteries, don't you?"
She did remember. How could she forget? But at the moment, one memory seemed to drown out the terrible remainder of that night: Harry had heard voices from beyond the veil, hadn't he? She gave Luna a weak nod.
"What did he say?" Luna prompted.
It took Ginny a moment to realize that she was asking about the dream. "He said … He said he loves me. He'll always love me." Her tears returned in full force.
Luna watched her reverently for a moment before breaking her gentle embrace. Ginny felt her friend place a light kiss on the red curls on the top of her half-bowed head, then watched her make for the sliding glass door. As she took the handle, Luna looked back with a smile. "Then, the question is, do you believe him?" she said before disappearing into the corridor.
Ginny sat alone for several minutes, aware only of the tears streaming down her face. Only after she calmed down did she give thought to Luna's question. Could something as profound as love transcend death, she wondered, the doubt still grasping at her soul. Unconsciously her gaze shifted to window to her right, as if looking to the outside world for answers.
She saw the bustle of Platform Nine and Three-Quarters was already beginning to fade. Most of the students and their parents were gathered by the archway, joyfully waiting their turn to pass a few at a time back into a world finally at peace. Only a few stragglers -- including Luna, who stood hand in hand with Neville Longbottom -- remained near the train. Among them was a group of seven, all dressed in black clothing that didn't quite mask the vibrant orange of their hair. Her family. Even from 50 feet away, Ginny could make out the hurt on every face. They clearly felt the loss as she did: a son, a brother, friends. Yet they were all there waiting to meet her, to comfort her. They were getting on with their lives.
Then the realization struck Ginny in an instant: Harry loved her; Ron loved her; Hermione loved her. They all loved her. They had sacrificed themselves to give her -- to give all of them -- a true chance to live. She knew then that the dream had been a message. Harry just wanted her to be happy.
She rose from her seat and slowly walked to the door, consciously ignoring her tears. As she stepped out of the compartment, Ginny made a silent promise to herself. She would do her best to honor this final gift from the boy she loved.
A/N: First of all, three major thank yous. First of all, my beta Promethean Alchemist deserves much credit for his thought-provoking comments and his patience. The second goes to Lady Chi for the last-minute beta job. I wouldn't have made the SIYE deadline without her. Then there's Giulia; I wouldn't have even started this without her encouragement and prodding. She is my muse.
The appropriate musical accompaniment to this piece, or at least the piece I had in mind as I wrote it, is Jay Ungar's Ashokan Farewell. The line "Hands off the sister" is unceremoniously lifted from the movie Get Over It, which besides a vaguely H/Gesque plot, has one redeeming quality: Kirsten Dunst.