Summer arrived early the year Harry Potter defeated Voldemort.
The thick, heavy air, redolent with the heady scent of June flowers, made the occupants of The Burrow slow and lazy, the grief and the heat leeching their energy as efficiently as any Dementor.
Ginny hid away from the stifling warmth and sorrow in the still, shady refuge of her bedroom, the cooling charms bringing relief to her sweat-dampened skin and the quiet allowing her to contemplate what she'd lost.
The feeling of the house had changed. Fred hadn't lived there in several years, something she'd grown used to, but his absence was like a big, gaping hole, almost as if The Burrow itself was mourning (and that wasn't completely beyond the realms of possibility with a house as suffused with magic as theirs). Despite being packed to the rafters with Weasleys and adopted Weasleys, the house felt bereft and empty.
She couldn't look at George without wanting to cry. Seeing him without Fred was like seeing him minus a leg, or an arm – he'd lost something much more substantial than an ear. A piece of his soul was gone, ripped away from him in a heartbeat.
Mum wasn't coping any better than George. She drifted through the house, quiet and pale, unable to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. She wandered off in the middle of cooking, or washing up, or even in the middle of a conversation, and tears were a constant presence on her wan cheeks. She seemed to cry all the time now, seemingly unknowingly, her eyes spilling evidence of her grief onto her face even as she talked or ate or cleaned. When Ginny poked her head around her parents' bedroom door in the wee small hours, she always found Mum crying in her sleep.
Dad was putting on a good show of holding it together, but Ginny had seen him suddenly shudder as his breath caught in his throat, and she had heard the muffled sobs from the kitchen at three o'clock in the morning.
Bill was being a brick, looking after everyone – George in particular - in his quiet, gruff way. He'd arranged Fred's funeral when it became apparent that nobody else was in any condition to do so, solid and dependable as always, but Ginny knew that at night, he cried in Fleur's arms.
Charlie and Percy were sticking pretty closely together, an odd alliance to anybody that hadn't known them as children, but Charlie had always been the one Percy went to, and they'd settled back into that pattern as easily as breathing.
Ron – well, Ron had Hermione. The two were as thick as thieves, and Ron didn't seem to be able to go more than two paces without Hermione's hand clasped in his. Hermione appeared equally dependent on Ron – she'd yet to retrieve her parents from Australia, and with the ongoing ban on international Wizarding travel, she wasn't likely to see them anytime soon.
Ginny had nobody, and she had discovered that it was possible to be intensely lonely when surrounded by people.
She'd hoped that Harry would be her rock, but Harry was having issues of his own and she'd barely seen him. He spent most of his time at the Ministry, leaving the house at 6am, and stumbling back through the floo at midnight, tired and drawn.
She wanted to Hex him, or shout at him, or shake him until his black-ringed eyes rattled in his thick head, but all of those things required being in the same room with him for more than a few seconds.
Sighing, Ginny pushed herself listlessly up into a sitting position and swung her legs over the side of her bed. It was lunchtime, and she was expected to put in an appearance for meals, at the very least.
Twisting up her lank, sweaty hair into a knot on the top of her head, Ginny trudged heavily down stairs to the kitchen, to find her family already seated at the table and waiting for her, but unlike previous mealtimes, they were animated and talkative, heatedly debating something.
Mum ushered Ginny into a chair, her hand lingering on Ginny's shoulder. 'Ham sandwiches for lunch, dear,' she said, her hand moving to caress Ginny's head.
'Thanks, Mum,' Ginny reached for a sarnie and nibbled at the crust, chewing the small mouthful to a sticky paste before forcing herself to swallow past the ever-present lump in her throat. Of late, food settled in her belly like a lead weight, and she ate only because it was expected, not because of hunger.
She glanced up from her plate, feeling the weight of every eye in the room on her. 'What?' she asked, her fingers mangling the ham sandwich.
'We're worried about Harry,' Mum said, setting a glass of pumpkin juice in front of Ginny. 'It's only been three weeks, and we've barely seen him, he's been working so hard. I took Kingsley to task over it, but he insists that Harry is working regular hours and should be starting at nine every morning, and finishing at five.'
Ginny dropped the sandwich back onto her plate. She hadn't heard her mum speak so many words strung together since the battle. 'Um – Mum – you ... are you feeling ... better?'
The question got her a kiss on the cheek. 'Bless you. Poppy persuaded me that I needed a potion to perk me up a little. I wasn't doing so well, sweetheart, and I'm sorry that I haven't been here for you in the way I should have been.'
'A potion?' Ginny echoed. 'What kind of potion?'
'Almost like a liquid Cheering Charm, dear. Just something to help me sleep, and function. I won't need it for long.' Mum sat down next to Ginny, and took her hand. 'Now, about Harry. We think you're the best person to get through to him.'
Ginny laughed. 'Me? Mum, we've barely spoken two words to each other since ... since he came back. What makes you think he'll speak to me? What about Ron and Hermione?' She gestured at the people in question. 'They've just spent nine months with him.'
'He'll talk to you, Gin,' Ron said, his voice quiet. 'You've always been able to get him to open up, even when we couldn't.'
She opened her mouth to refute that, but then was struck with the image of eating Easter Eggs in the library with Harry, in her forth year. He'd pulled away from everyone that year, angry and scared and defiant, but had talked easily and openly with her. 'OK. I'll give it a go, but don't expect anything, will you?'
As she said that, a hand was under her elbow, pulling her up and out of her chair, and then Mum was steering her to the back door. 'That's good. Harry's outside in the garden, so you might as well speak to him now.'
Before Ginny knew it, the door was slammed shut, and she was standing outside with the dense, thick air pressing in on her lungs. It was like trying to breathe through a damp flannel. The garden was still and quiet, the sun casting a haze that rose from the grass in a heat shimmer.
Harry was slumped against the side of the house, his head bowed to rest against his knees. His hair was pulled back into a scraggy little ponytail, exposing the back of his sun-burned neck, the ends of his black hair curling against red, irritated skin. His hand was folded into a fist at his side, his wand clenched tightly within his fingers.
Ginny sat down next to him, and could feel the heat radiating from his body and smell the sour scent of old perspiration. His black robes were stuck to his body with sweat, and his breathing was harsh and wet, rasping in his chest.
'How long have you been out here, Harry?' she said, placing her hand on top of his.
He snatched his hand away, curling it in to wrap it around his body, and he lifted his head to look at her. 'About two hours.' His eyes were damp and sore, his stubbled face as sun-burned as his neck, and he had pushed his sopping wet fringe back off of his forehead, exposing his infamous scar. In a reversal of the usual trend, his scar was white against the redness of his skin. 'Kingsley tricked me, the git. Gave me a piece of paper that Portkeyed me here, and then displayed the message that I was locked within The Burrrow grounds for the next four days.' There was no anger in his voice, just bleak resignation.
'Two hours? You've been out here for two hours? Harry Potter, what on earth possessed you to sit out here with no sun charm and nothing to drink? Are you stupid, or what?' she snapped. 'What the hell is wrong with you?'
He shrugged. 'Don't know.'
She slapped at his arm. 'Doesn't sound like you particularly care, either.'
'Nope,' he confirmed, almost conversationally. 'Don't really care.'
This time the slap connected with his face, and Ginny's handprint bloomed scarlet for a moment before blending into the redness already present. The crack of hand against skin was shockingly loud in the quiet garden, and Harry's eyes grew wide and round.
'What did you do that for?' he snarled. 'What did I do to you?' That was the Harry she knew and lov ... liked, angry, indignant, confrontational.
'NOTHING!' she shouted back. 'Not a bloody thing, and you know what, that's not the problem. I'm more worried about what you're doing to yourself. Look at you! LOOK AT YOURSELF!' she ended on a shrill note, her voice strained, and even she could hear her mum in her shriek.
Harry just stared at her and she continued, her voice gentle now. 'You're obviously not eating, you've not shaved or had a haircut, and you're wearing winter-weight robes in the middle of the hottest summer we've had in years. If the bags under your eyes are anything to go by, you've decided that sleep is something that the great Harry Potter can do without, too.'
He looked at her, and suddenly laughed, but it wasn't a happy sound. It was the laugh of somebody desperate and sad and lost, and Ginny wasn't surprised when the laughter turned to sobs.
Quietly, she took Harry into her arms and held him tightly, tugging the elastic band from his hair and running her fingers through the damp strands, easing out the tangles. Released from its constraint, his hair brushed his shoulders, the unfamiliar length wrapping around her fingers.
Harry clutched at her, crumpling her t-shirt in his fists, and sobbed against her shoulder.
She rocked him, whispering reassurances to him and rubbing his back, and he eventually calmed but stayed wrapped in her arms, his hot face pressed into the curve of her neck. He shifted, and pressed a kiss against the skin at the juncture of her neck and ear, his lips dry and warm. His mouth moved along the line of her jaw, his stubble rough against her skin, and worked up to meet her lips in a gentle, sweet kiss.
'Harry,' she whispered, bringing her hands up to cup his face. 'Harry, stop.' She pushed him away from her, but kept her hands on his face, palms resting against his cheeks and her thumbs rubbing his temples as her fingers sunk into his wild hair.
He was an utter wreck, his eyes swollen and his face shiny with drying tears and snot, but he'd never looked more gorgeous to her. The fact that he trusted her enough to break down in her arms meant the world to her.
'Will you tell me what's wrong now?' she asked, running her thumbs along his cheekbones. 'Talk to me.'
Shrugging, he reached up and caught at her hands. 'I don't know how to explain it. I'm lost, Gin.'
He looked away from her then, his eyes clouding over. 'I shouldn't be here,' he whispered. 'I thought I was going to die. I did die, I think, but I'm not entirely sure.'
Her heart seemed to stutter at that, and she made him turn back to face her. 'What do you mean, you died? I know you pretended to be dead ...'
Harry told her everything. About his walk into the forest, alone until he summoned those he had lost. About being an accidental Horcrux, and realising that he had to die in order to bring about Voldemort's defeat. About standing in front of Voldemort and watching as a stream of green light hurtled towards him, thinking of one thing, and one thing only ... Ginny.
Ginny listened to him, cried with him, and then leaned forward and kissed him, putting everything she felt for him into it and hoping that he knew she loved him. 'But you didn't die, Harry,' she said. 'You're still here, and you have a life to live.'
'But I don't know how,' he replied, his voice empty again. 'I stopped thinking about the future at the end of sixth year, Gin, because I didn't expect to come out of this alive, regardless of who won. I don't know what to do anymore, or what's going to happen.'
A laugh escaped her before she could haul it in, and Harry goggled at her. 'Oh, Harry,' she giggled, 'you don't get it, do you?'
Harry raised his eyebrows in an adorable expression of befuddlement. 'Get what?'
Ginny stood, tugging Harry to his feet as she did so. Her hands began to work on the clasps of his robes, and she stripped the heavy material off of him, leaving him in his jeans and a t-shirt. 'That's life, Harry. We're all making it up as we go along, you know?' She draped his robes over her arm. 'We've all had our lives on hold for the last seven years, and it's going to be hard to go back to the way life should be.'
Harry let her take his hand. 'But ...' he was cut off as Ginny clamped her hand over his mouth.
'No buts. It's up to you what you do with your life now. No prophecy, no obligations to anybody but yourself and your family in there.' She gestured at The Burrow. 'And make no mistake, we are your family, and none of us will have any problem kicking your arse if you carry on moping about like this. In fact, I'm going to take you for an arse-kicking now.'
Harry snorted, and his laughter was genuine this time. 'I'd like to see you try and kick my arse,' he grinned.
She grinned back, and it must have looked somewhat wicked, as Harry blanched. 'Oh, I don't need to kick your arse, Potter, not when I have my mum to do it for you.'
'HARRY JAMES POTTER!! What on earth were you thinking? LOOK at the state of you!' Molly Weasley's shriek echoed down the stairs and through The Burrow, and Ginny leaned back into the settee and listened with a certain amount of satisfaction as Harry was berated by her mother.
'Told you so,' Ron said to her. 'He listens to you. Won't bloody well listen to us, but he'll listen to you.'
'That's 'cause Gin can do things for him that you can't, ickle Ronniekins,' chimed in George, from his chair in the corner. 'Not unless you're not telling us something.'
Ginny flung a pillow at him in retaliation, but was secretly pleased to hear George wise-cracking, even if it wasn't up to his usual standard. 'I just tell him as it is,' she insisted. 'I'm not about to pander to his little temper tantrums, and he knows that.'
From upstairs, they could hear the sound of the shower being turned on, and Harry protesting loudly, presumably as he was being frog-marched into the bathroom by Mum, who was still scolding him. Harry suddenly squawked, and the bathroom door slammed, both voices muted.
'I think Mum's stripping your boyfriend in the bathroom, Gin,' said Bill, with a chuckle. 'Best get up there.'
Ginny turned an icy glare on him. 'He's not my boyfriend anymore, and Mum's seen more than her share of scrawny arses raising you lot. She doesn't need my help.'
Over the next thirty minutes, an assortment of thuds, shrieks from Harry, and shouting from Mum could be heard, and eventually, the bathroom door opened and two lots of feet made their way downstairs.
Everyone made an effort to appear to be doing something other than sitting around talking about Harry, and when the door opened, nobody turned towards it.
Mum had Harry by the hand, and she tugged him into the middle of the room. 'Harry has something to say, don't you, Harry?'
Harry stood there sheepishly, looking down at his feet. He was clean shaven, in new clothes, and his hair was short and as neat as it ever got, brushed back off of his forehead and baring the scar. The angry red of his skin had been soothed with one of Mum's Cooling Charms. 'Um, I'm sorry I've been acting like such an idiot,' he said, looking round the room at each and every one of them. 'I just – well, I – I didn't know what to do next.'
That was explanation enough for everybody, and Harry was pulled into a Weasley group hug that left him spluttering and gasping for air. As he was released, he let out a squeak, grabbing at his bum. 'Who did that?' he demanded indignantly.
Everyone looked at Ginny, and she shrugged. 'Wasn't me.'
George waved his hand in the air. 'I 'fess up. I just can't keep my hands off you, Harry, now you've got rid of the Puffskein nest you were using for hair.'
Mum tugged Harry to a chair, and pushed a cup of tea into his hands. 'There, dear. Kingsley tells me I have to make sure you get plenty of rest and food for the next four days. I'm going to make you a steak and kidney pie, and a treacle tart, and I expect you to eat every bite I put in front of you.'
Ginny watched as her family teased Harry and he eventually relaxed enough to retaliate. His smiles were still slow to surface, and there was something in his eyes that spoke of an inner turmoil, but the thaw was setting in.
It was going to be a long road, but they were all starting to heal. Things would never be the same, could never be the same, but life would be what they made of it.
They were finally free to live their lives as they chose. No more hiding, or fighting, just living and loving, and the fact that they had the opportunity to do so was mostly thanks to Harry.
He'd given the Wizarding world something precious – its freedom – and if Harry would have her, Ginny was going to devote the rest of her life to ensuring that he got to benefit from that new-found freedom too.