The sound of her hand hitting his face echoed through the Great Hall and suddenly the place was dead silent.
No one spoke.
No one moved.
All eyes were on Harry and Ginny.
For his part, Harry was shocked. His mouth hung open as he stared into her face. Ginny's mouth was twisted into a knot, her eyes were glaring... it was obvious that she was very, very angry. He didn't even try to defend himself when she slapped him again.
The second was a harder and more solid strike than the first, and his glasses went flying. He tasted blood on the corner of his mouth, but still he didn't move. He deserved this, he thought. Harry had abandoned her, and it was right that Ginny would be furious with him for it.
He braced himself as she raised her arm again, but rather than strike him, she closed her hand on the collar of his shirt and pulled him to her. His mouth was tender from the slaps, but Harry didn't care. He hugged her to him and returned it with full fervor. She brought her hands up and entangled them in his hair, then kissed him again. After what seemed like eternity, they broke but didn't separate.
Ginny stared up into his deep green eyes. "Harry, don't you dare... don't you ever dare to do that to me again. Don't you dare..." Her voice broke up into helpless sobs. Harry caught her as her knees buckled. He lifted her easily and carried her over to the bench, and held her while she cried into his chest. He nestled his cheek into her hair and held her, absorbing his sorrow into his own and by this hoping to lessen both.
He opened his eyes, only to be skewered by Luna Lovegood's stare. The Ravenclaw girl seemed to chew on her bottom lip for a moment. It was clear that she wanted to say something, but she didn't. She smiled, gently, and Harry watched his spacey but utterly brilliant friend return to as close to normal as she ever could reach. Luna smiled again and nodded.
This wasn't how he had envisioned their ultimate reunion. In his head, they'd sit and talk. He'd tell her how sorry he was for leaving her, tell her how much he loved her, and tell her how much he needed her. For some reason, he failed to foresee her reaction. Suddenly, on top of feeling sorrowful, he felt idiotic.
Ginny sat up; pulling away from him so she could look Harry in the eyes. Her mouth crinkled as she wiped away the blood on his lip. "Oh, Harry... what did I do... this is all so..."
"Yeah, I know." He shrugged. He tried to come up with the perfect thing to say at this point, but his thoughts were so utterly muddled. "Look, Ginny... This isn't how I wanted to... I needed to say..." Ginny put a finger to his lips to silence him.
"I know what you were going to say, Harry." Ginny smirked at him. "You were going to apologize for things that weren't you fault. You were going to tell me how much you cared about me, while simultaneously justifying your ripping my soul into pieces by reminding me how necessary it was for you to leave me." Her face hardened with every sentence until it had become rigid.
"And then you were going to somehow justify sneaking out of here and going to V-Vol... to V-Vol... to him because you felt guilty about everything you put everyone through. You..." she stopped, choking on her own words.
Guiltily, Harry stared down at his lap for just a moment, and then with slow movements pulled her hands into his own. Their fingers intertwined, and she gave him a gentle squeeze. He tried to bring her fingers up to his mouth so he could kiss them, but she pulled them away.
Harry looked up into Ginny's eyes. Her face had softened and the carefully crafted mask of anger slipped just enough for him to see past it. It was plain to Harry that she was angry with him and hurt by him, but in her eyes was also love, and desire, and caring. To the depth of his soul, he understood then just how badly he had hurt her.
Ron and Hermione had both made sure that Harry knew that his actions following Dumbledore's funeral had been hurtful, but it wasn't until now that he, himself, felt the pain he had caused. Up until that very moment, he hadn't ever fully appreciated how tough it was, over the past year, for Ginny to wake up every day and simply live her life.
Looking into her eyes, he finally got it. He finally understood. The long separation had been harder on her than it had been on him. Harry had his mission, and had used the mission to keep moving forward, to keep moving, and to keep his mind off of Ginny. For all that, he'd even had the Marauder's map... it wasn't the same as seeing her, but at least he could tell she was safe.
Ginny had nothing but her own remarkable will to keep going, and what little rumor and innuendo she could scrounge from unreliable and dangerous sources.
He wanted to hold her and tell her everything would be all right. He wanted to hold her and tell her that he loved her with all his heart. He wanted to hold her and tell her that he would never, ever leave her again. Harry didn't move. He said nothing. Rather, he just stood there, watching her work out what she should say next, and what she could say next. Mentally, he backed off. She would, he decided, have all the time she needed to figure out what she wanted from him, if anything.
He was terrified that she would ultimately reject him. But if that was to be his punishment, so be it.
Ginny said nothing. She simply stared into his face. Seconds collided into minutes, and still she said nothing. She simply stared at him with burning intensity. Harry never looked away. His eyes were fixed on her, as hers were fixed on him. And in this way, they spoke volumes to each other. Her eyes would flash with sorrow and pain, then need and love. His would respond with regret and penitence, then care and sympathy.
Finally, she spoke. Only a whisper. "You died. I saw you... You were broken, at his feet, and I knew he had killed you. I knew you were gone." She swallowed. ""You let me think you were gone."
He shook his head, trying to deny what she was saying, and without realizing he had done so collapsed to his knees. He cried, silently, convinced that he was unworthy of her. He'd almost killed her out of some stupid sense of protectiveness. His urge to not endanger put her directly into the path of the storm. He'd done this to her. Him.
Harry felt more than saw Ginny kneel next to him. It was her turn to offer comfort. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled his head to her shoulders, and only then did he start sobbing. Everyone around them turned to look as the sound of his cries echoed around the Great Hall.
Several people tried to approach out of simple concern, but Luna stood to intercept them. She didn't say a word, but nevertheless made it clear that this was something Harry and Ginny would have to work out between themselves. No one else should try to interfere, because no one else could be to either Harry or Ginny what they were to each other.
When Harry stopped crying, he felt numb all over. He allowed Ginny to lead him back to the bench she had been sitting on. He felt shameful and refused to meet her eyes. Rather, Harry kept his gaze locked on his own feet. He was aware that Ginny had sat next to him, but didn't react.
Ginny waited a moment for Harry to move. When he didn't, she gently brought her hand up to tough his cheek, and then slid her fingers under his chin. Slowly, she lifted Harry's head up far enough that he was forced to look her in the eyes.
"I thought you were dead, Harry." Every word was an accusation that cut him to the core. "I thought you were dead."
She loved him. Harry realized it now. She truly loved him. And the thought of his dying was the worst injury she had suffered the entire year. He had lifted her spirit, and then broke it, by breaking up with her. She had endured danger and torture and threats while at Hogwarts. But what had truly hurt her was the thought that he, Harry Potter, had been killed by Voldemort.
"I love you, Ginny. I've loved you for a long time and I'll go on loving you for a long, long time. I'm sorry I ever hurt you. Sorrier than I can say... Can you forgive me?" Please, he thought... forgive me.
A sole tear escaped the corner of her eye. She looked away from him... she stared upward, not looking at his face and he could see her eyes were glazed. She held her mouth tightly, and didn't seem to breathe for a long time. It was obvious to Harry that she was doing everything in her power not to start crying again.
"I hate you." She said it so softly that he could barely hear, but he heard, and for a moment his head swam. He had known this might have happened. He had known that she might reject him. He had known...
"But I love you so much... I love you so much..." she said, still fighting back the tears. "I missed you, you know... I dreamed you came home to me, and held me, and told me that everything would be fine from now on because it was all over and you were mine and we'd be together forever. But you never came and you never came and...." She finally looked him in the eye. "I love you so much; the thought of not loving you hurts."
Instinctively, Harry reached out and pulled her toward him. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him toward her in return. Neither said a word; they simply held each other as tightly as they could. The strength of their embrace taped off, but still they held each other. Harry lost track of all time; when Ginny finally pulled away he had no idea if the hug had been for mere seconds, or minutes, or even hours. It didn't matter. He'd hold her for a million years if she'd let him.
Finally, Ginny pulled away. Her eyes met his and held them. Smiling, she said "Thank you. I do love you." And kissed him on the cheek. He smiled and nodded in return. When he absently tucked a wayward lock of hair behind her ear, she caught his hand and held it to her face.
"I can't imagine what you went through this year, Harry. I don't think it's been any easier on you than it's been on me. I know you did everything that you did with good intentions..."
He made a strange sound, a mix between a laugh and a sob. "Yeah. My Aunt Petunia made sure I knew which road was paved with good intentions." He sobered. "I truly am sorry, Ginny."
"Good." Her smile was tinged with something unpleasant. "You should be sorry." Her face went wide. The venom in her response had shocked her, being harsher than she intended.
Harry sighed. "It's okay, Ginny. I know I deserve it. You are the one person I never should have hurt, and you are the one person I hurt most in the world. There is no excuse I can make, no justification I could possibly present, that makes up for how I treated you. There is no defense for my actions."
Ginny's eyes narrowed. "Try anyway." It was clear that she wanted some reason to believe that he had done what had been done for the best of reasons. She wanted an explanation. She needed an explanation.
"Voldemo... Riddle... Tom Riddle couldn't die. He made... Ginny, do you know what a Horcrux is?" He shook his head at how stupid that question was. "No... of course you don't. It's the darkest magic imaginable. Far darker than the Killing Curse. Far darker." He paused, wondering how to begin.
"A Horcrux is a piece of a person's soul, you see. It's a piece of a person's soul that's been removed from their body and imbedded into another creature or into an object. And it takes a murder to create one"
Ginny looked thoughtful. "Why would a person want to break off pieces of their soul?"
Harry looked her carefully in the eye, willing her to understand. "Because as long as a person's Horcrux exists, that person cannot truly die."
Realization lit up Ginny's face. "And V-Vol... Riddle had a Horcrux?"
"No... he had seven.... Well... by the time Hermione, Ron, and went looking for them -- that was our mission, finding and destroying Riddle's Horcruxes -- there were only five left. The diary... I'm sure you remember the diary... was one of them."
Ginny looked horrified. Her mouth opened and closed, but she said nothing. "I think I'm going to be sick."
Harry sighed again. "There's one thing else I need to tell you, but I can wait. I don't have to tell you now."
She shook her head. "No, Harry. You say I need to know this, and I want to know this. I'll be fine."
He looked at her uncertainly, and then nodded. "All right. Here goes. I... uh... I was one of Riddle's Horcruxes."
Ginny gaped. "What?"
"Yeah... or rather, my scar was. He turned me into a Horcrux the night he murdered my parents. The reason I was a Parselmouth was because I carried his Horcrux. The reason I could see into his mind, and he into mine, was because I was a Horcrux. I never knew, Ginny..."
"But... but... you said that he couldn't be killed until all the Horcruxes were destroyed. You said that, Harry." Ginny was getting paler by the second.
"Yes, that's true. Until they were all destroyed, he was unstoppable."
"But how did... if it was inside of you, how did... " Her eyes were so wide now that they threatened to drop out of her skull. She was white as a sheet and he could tell she was barely hanging on. But there was no help for it. She had to know. "Harry... What did you do? Oh Harry, what did you do?"
He could tell that she knew what he was going to say before he said it. "Ginny... in order to destroy the Horcrux that was a part of me... I let him use the Killing Curse on me..."
She turned away from him and threw up what little she had eaten that morning.