The final chapter, is now a healthy 3,200 words and growing. I'm about halfway through with an epilogue to finish the whole thing (or not as the case may be). I'm in a good place for writing having made good progress on an original work and fully recovered from the most recent bout of illness that put me out of action for 6 weeks.
A/N:The use of a character's name in Harry's thoughts and speech is deliberately inconsistent and gives an insight to his thinking.
He was awake.
His pleasure at his finally being awake was tempered by a general disorientation that had him gripping the sheets as he waited for it to pass.
Judging by the pale light creeping through the large infirmary windows, he guessed that it was somewhere between five and six in the morning. Reaching for his glasses, he was pleasantly surprised by the way they sprung into his hand from the side table next to his bed.
So, my magic is back, good!
He looked at his glasses as the lay in his palm and, concentrating, he watched with satisfaction as they began to rise and broke into a smile as they began to slowly rotate. Satisfied with what he'd seen, he let them fall into his hand before slipping them on. His vision was clear which, given the blows he had taken, was another pleasant surprise.
Right, let's get to work.
He kicked off the covers, unsurprised to discover that he was naked. The hospital wing was one of the few parts of Hogwarts he had been familiar with before his arrival as a student, so much that a pattern, born of necessity, had been established; remove his clothing to treat him more quickly and let him stay that way as he slept better unencumbered by clothing. And if it got cold, as it invariably did, then a simple Warming Charm sufficed.
The stone floor was cold rather than cool, but he didn't mind; the discomfort, along with an overall feeling that his body had been put through the wringer, was a pleasant reminder that he was alive. Standing, he stretched slowly, testing his body, searching for any surviving problems.
A bit of stiffness, but nothing too bad.
He was sure that Poppy would disagree with him, but whereas she would want to keep him under her watchful eye until he was fully healed, his only concern was that he was fit enough both to walk and to fight.
He walked over to a nearby mirror to inspect his body more closely and satisfy himself that he had indeed recovered from the damage done to him. He was still badly bruised, but the natural bruises had gone and those from curses had faded sufficiently for him to be satisfied that their magic had been countered and he was going to suffer no ill effects going forward. His body ached, a testament to the amount of flesh and bone that had been healed in the time he had been unconscious. But he was fit to leave and that was all that mattered.
How long had I been out for?
Poppy kept no calendar or timepiece for her patients to view and so he would have to wait until she emerged or he left the place.
He turned and inspected his back, his neck complaining as did so. It was much the same as his front; battered, bruised, but not broken. He would do. Not quite mended, but well enough to leave with or without her permission.
"I take it you've decided you are well enough to leave, Harry?"
He turned and smiled at the school nurse as she walked towards him, still in her nightdress but with a cup of tea in her hands. He felt no embarrassment at his nakedness; she had been healing him since he could walk and she had seen him without any clothes on more times than he could remember.
"Let's have a look at you, then," she said as she placed her cup of tea on his bedside table.
He stood as she ran her expert eyes and hands over his body, wincing as she squeezed or prodded or poked an area that was still painful. So, he wasn't as healed as he'd thought, but she hadn't uncovered anything that would change his mind. And besides, if he'd recovered enough to walk and talk, he could finish his healing back at Grimmauld Place.
"You shouldn't walk around naked, you know," she said as her fingers worked their way slowly down his spine, "anyone could walk in on you and, even though you've not been Mr Popular, I'm sure some of them would be prepared to make an exception once they've seen you naked."
Harry laughed and then regretted it as pain shot through his chest.
"You're not quite healed, young man," she admonished, "and anyone sensible would be getting back into bed."
"Since when have I been sensible, Poppy?" he replied with a laugh. That too, hurt, but a surge of his magic soon lessened the pain.
"You've had enough bumps and bruises to have knocked some sense into you over the years and they've all failed."
He laughed again, this time pain free.
"What day is it, Poppy?"
"Then I really do need to leave."
"Did you ever plan on staying once you were awake?"
"Maybe a day or two for old time's sake."
"You'll be back, soon enough, you can't stay out of trouble for long."
"Maybe this time will be my last."
"I doubt it, but one can always hope."
"Ah, Poppy, you old softie."
He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her and enveloped her in a hug. To any other witch and wizard, one of them being naked and the other dressed only in their night clothes, might have been a prelude to something more intimate, especially as they had complete privacy. But to each other, they were still the little boy who had to learn to duel from the age of five and the strict, but loving, nurse who had always patched him up and sent him back to his mentors.
And besides, Harry Potter was still, but only just, bound to Ginny Weasley by one ancestor's greed and another's temerity.
Harry decided to leave the school without having breakfast, deciding instead to pay a visit to Ginevra's father to inform him of his failure to complete the contract. He also wanted to inform him that his daughter now knew what had been kept from her and that he was to expect a visit from an angry young woman any day soon.
He appeared in the atrium of the Ministry of Magic with barely a sound, causing the witch who occupied the spot right next to where he'd appeared to faint in fright. The Auror who was on duty ran over to check what was happening, but stopped when he saw who it was that had appeared.
"Morning, Harry, heard you was at school."
He had become accustomed to the magical community treating him with familiarity; he was, in many people's eyes, public property. It was something he had never got used to and he was sure that he never would. Perhaps if it had been more than him, if he'd had two or three close friends around him and they had shared the limelight with him. Not only that, but the three, or maybe four of them, could have grown old together, comfortable in each other's company, without the nuisance of the other's fame always overshadowing their relationships.
"I was—" Harry glanced down at the man's name badge, "—Horatio, but I have a few things to sort out with Arthur Weasley, is he due in soon?"
"Arrived a few moments ago, Harry. Early riser he is, gets in early and leaves on the dot of five. Good man."
That Ginevra's father was known as a man who played with a straight bat came as no surprise, which only served to add to the confusion as to why he hadn't at least let his wife know what their daughter was committed to.
"Thanks, give my regards to the missus, and tell her I hope it's a girl this time."
"Will do, Harry," the man replied, beaming that Harry Potter had remembered him and his family.
Harry smiled back at him, feeling slightly embarrassed at the man's reaction. It was a simple trick, a bit of surface Legilimency, and you were always able to come across as the good guy. Except, of course, at Hogwarts.
He now accepted that his time at Hogwarts had been a failure on many levels. Given the opportunity to rebel, he had done so and had failed to see the consequences of his actions. The whole affair was now proving to be the biggest mistake of his life. The resentment he felt against the manipulations of the past lessened as he realised that, once he had been left to his own devices, the result had been a disaster. But then again, he wouldn't have lasted more than five minutes surrounded by the sycophants in Gryffindor. Ginevra's brother would have found the wrong end of his wand before the sun had set on their first day, of that he was sure. Would his courtship of Ginevra been easier? Possibly, but leaving aside the shortcomings of his peers, something was afoot at Hogwarts that went far beyond the anger of disgruntled sixth-formers.
Arthur Weasley's office was on the second level of the Ministry and it took Harry less than five minutes to find it, even with the number of Ministry workers who stopped to say hello.
He found the man himself sitting behind his desk, poring over a number of scrolls and smiling as he did so. Clearly a man who likes his work, thought Harry, as he paused in the doorway.
He knocked on the door and returned Arthur's smile as he looked up and smiled at Harry.
"Good morning, Harry," Arthur announced, "what brings you to my humble office?" Harry ignored the fact that no head of department's office could ever be described as humble and came straight to the point.
"I need to discuss the contract with you, Arthur."
Arthur Weasley's previously happy expression faded quickly, to be replaced by a suitably grim expression.
"Take a seat, Harry." Ginevra's father indicated the seat in front of his desk as he cleared the scrolls from it with a wave of his wand.
"I'm afraid," said Harry as he took his seat, "that I have failed to complete the contract." He waited for the man to respond, but all he did was nod that Harry should continue. "And come to warn you that your daughter knows all about the contract."
The man's expression worsened, but there was not the huge outcry that he had expected. Obviously, the man was made of sterner stuff than Harry originally thought.
Of course he is, you idiot. He didn't get to be this high up in the Ministry by being stupid. Not without bags of Galleons that the Weasleys plainly didn't have.
"Not unexpected news, Harry," he replied, his expression changing from grim to pensive, "although I would have thought that if anyone could have managed to complete the contract, it would have been you."
Harry ignored the back-handed compliment and carried on.
"I came close, Arthur, but in the end I couldn't follow through, I couldn't force her to marry me." He struggled to keep the regret in his voice, but he didn't care.
"I take it that you did not fall in love with her, or she with you?"
How did he answer that question? He decided that he couldn't, not without embarrassing both himself and Ginevra's father.
"There was," he paused, struggling for a suitably banal phrase to describe the intensity of emotion that she had managed to stir up in him, "certainly sufficient attraction, but I wasn't able to determine how much of it was as the result of the contract and how much could be attributed to genuine affection. As much as I knew that I could have forced her to accept me, I decided that to do so would have been a folly of monumental proportions."
"I see; a bit too noble for your own good then, Harry?" said Arthur with a muted laugh.
"That is the first time that anyone has described me as noble," replied Harry, finding it hard not to smile at the thought.
"So, what is to be done? If I remember correctly, if the contract is not completed successfully, then it is you who starts to pay the price."
"You are, unfortunately, correct. If the magic is not satisfied in the prescribed manner, then its demands have to be satisfied in another. How much of my magic will be left when the contract is concluded, I have been unable determine. In the face of such uncertainty, I have begun to make plans for a life outside of magic."
"Isn't that a bit unnecessary, Harry? I mean, surely there are other ways around this. And why is it you that suffers and not Ginny? Not that I wish my daughter ill, but I would have thought that both families are equally responsible for making sure that the contract is satisfied."
Harry stared at the man, unable to believe what he was saying.
"Mr Weasley, if you truly thought that both the Potters and the Weasleys were responsible, then why was I the first person to tell your daughter what her family had planned for her? And why does your wife still not know what is actually going on?"
"Things were not as straightforward as they now seem, Harry. Yes, I admit that my part in this has been less than honourable, but it was only since May that I began to consider how the contract was to be fulfilled."
"You mean, when I'd so inconveniently lived whilst still defeating Voldemort?"
The man did not flinch either at the name of the Dark Lord or at the accusation levelled at him.
"I can see why you, especially, would see things that way, but in essence we only began living when He Who Must Not Be Named was killed. Being honest, Harry, I didn't know if any of us would be alive when it came down to it, let alone the person on whom all our hopes were fixed."
"And your wife, why didn't you tell her?"
"I don't really have an answer to that. I kept telling myself that I'd tell her when Ginny went to Hogwarts and then when she'd finished her first year and so on. In the end, once I hadn't told her, it just made it harder to tell her, it was a vicious circle."
Harry stared at him, torn between sympathy for a father given an impossible task and anger that his and Ginny's lives could have been a lot simpler if only the man had told his daughter earlier. But then, Black had been very quiet as well, so perhaps Ginevra's father shouldn't shoulder all the blame.
They were both silent for a moment, both having said what they needed to say
"Harry," Arthur said slowly, "are you sure that there is no way out of this? I mean, the terms of the contract are specific in respect of the marriage between you and Ginny, but isn't the magic only concerned with the settlement of the debt of honour? Yes, this can be paid in full by the sacrifice of a daughter against her will into a magically binding marriage contract, but could the debt of honour be paid in other ways?"
"How so, Arthur? And why wasn't this raised earlier?"
"Because, Harry, I always thought that you would win Ginny's heart and there would be no need to look at alternatives."
Harry paused. He was tempted to vent his anger on the man, but his time was running out and, if there were a way in which he could satisfy the contract or at least lessen its impact, then it would be sensible to try. He could deal with Weasley later, assuming he lived through this.
"Okay, Arthur, where do we start?"
"We need to examine the contract itself to see how its magic is constructed and how, if it is indeed possible, it might be amended."
"You mean it still might not work?"
"It might not work, but even if it doesn't, then you would be no worse off than you would have been had we not tried."
"So what is it that we have to do, then?"
The man stood and with a wave of his wand wall scrolls that were on his desk disappeared to the shelves that lined the walls of his office.
"Come with me, Harry, we have a trip to make to the Department of Magical Contracts."
Arthur strode out of the door and Harry followed him, wondering what he was getting himself into.
By the time he left the Ministry of Magic, Harry was physically and magically exhausted. The spell work had been intricate and the wording of the new contract so convoluted that he barely understood what it said. Even so, there was no guarantee that he would live beyond the eleventh and, if he did, how much of his magic would remain.
When he arrived back at Hogwarts he was pleased to see students streaming into the Great Hall to begin their midday meal. That meant that he had time to visit Hogsmeade before returning one last time to talk to her.
He arrived at the Three Broomsticks and, after ordering a Ploughman's and a pint, settled down to write his letter. Half an hour later, he drained the dregs of his pint and set off towards Hogwarts to complete what he hoped was the final act in the drama into which both he and Ginny had been cast so unwillingly.
The Great Hall fell silent as he entered and walked calmly up to where she was seated at the Gryffindor table. He ignored the stares, the loud whispers and then catcalls. He kept his head high because, despite his failure, despite the fact that he was going to be saying goodbye to Ginny, he had no regrets about leaving Hogwarts behind.
"Ginevra," he said as she turned to face him, "may I be so bold as to ask for a few moments of your time?"
Those around her stiffened and he imagined more than a few hands reaching into their robes to find their wands. She looked at those who would be her saviour, snorting and shaking her head before nodding.
"Yes," she replied calmly, "I believe I can spare you a few moments."
She rose from her seat and, grabbing her bag, followed after him as he made his way out of the Great Hall.
He stopped in the Entrance Hall, recognizing the irony of holding their final conversation here. She had not hurried after him and he was forced to wait for her to arrive. This, however, afforded him an opportunity to observe her and what he saw only added to the regret about their failed relationship. She was beautiful, that was obvious to anyone, but the way she walked, the way she carried herself, all this told him that this was a witch who could take all the rubbish that the world had to throw at her and emerge out of the other side with dignity.
Oh, Harry, he said to himself once she had taken her place opposite him, how could you let such a prize slip through your fingers?'
Was it too late to take everything back, to try and claim her as his own?
She stood, arms folded, her face impassive. He took a few moments to take in her beauty one last time. He knew that if he saw her in the arms of another, he would have difficulty in controlling his jealousy, but if she was not to be his, then he wouldn't deny her happiness.
"Thank you for agreeing to meet with me today, I promise that I will not detain you any longer than is necessary."
He paused, giving her one last chance to object and, when she remained silent, he continued. "The last time I attempted to explain matters, things ended somewhat disastrously. So, I have, therefore, taken the… er … liberty of committing my thoughts to parchment to avoid any possible confusion."
He pressed on, not wishing to give her the opportunity to interrupt and therefore place him in the position where his resolve would be called into question.
"Today will be the last time that you will be forced to endure my presence, I wish you a long and prosperous future."
And with that, he handed the letter to her. Once he was sure that she was going to accept it, he gave her a short bow and then took a few steps backwards before giving her a brief smile and, using what was left of his magic, Apparated out of Hogwarts and out of her life.
She didn't know how she knew, but as soon as the Great Hall went silent, she realised that it could only be him. She turned and a quick glance showed that he was no longer dressed as a school boy but as the Auror who had helped her onto the train at the start of the year.
She turned away, fighting the smile that came to her lips as she remembered that day. He had literally swept her off her feet and had he asked her to marry him there and then, she would have agreed. But life was never as simple as that and, instead, they had been forced to endure the compulsion of the marriage contract. Even now, after she knew what had provided the impetus to her actions, she knew that she had enjoyed many of their encounters.
But ultimately, their relationship had all been based on a lie, and when he had finally decided to confess all, she had been too angry to do anything except attack him. The result was more than the end of their relationship, it led to the first ever defeat of the-boy-who-lived. True, he had been massively outnumbered and magically neutered, but, still, many were walking around the school crowing about his defeat.
"Ginevra," said the voice at her shoulder. She turned to face him trying to school her features lest she give herself away. He wanted to talk to her; his mouth was moving and from the expressions of those around her, he was asking her to go with him. Her housemates bristled with indignation on her behalf, but she needed no defending from Harry. She glared at them as she noticed a few wands being retrieved from inside pockets.
She had battled to remain calm as she told him that she would and she watched as he turned and strode calmly out of the Hall, confident that she would follow him. She stood, gathered her things and walked after him, forcing herself not to run.
He was waiting for her at the scene of his recent defeat. How much could have been avoided had she chosen to remain and argue with him rather than storm off? Until this year, she would have possessed enough common sense to do just that, but now she was a just a redhead with a temper and she had lost the hand of the most powerful wizard in the world. She had her freedom, but at what cost?
She placed her bag on the floor and folded her arms and waited. It was not, as some might assume, a manifestation of her anger toward him, but was meant to keep her from flinging her arms around him and blurting out through copious tears that she was sorry and that she loved him.
You can do this, she told herself. You can and you will hear him out and then you can get on with your life.
She endured his gaze, taking the opportunity to remember the man who had awakened her like Sleeping Beauty from the curse that had been placed upon her. Would they ever meet again? She doubted that they would, but that didn't stop her from hoping.
"Thank you for agreeing to meet with me today…"
She didn't really listen as he spoke; she knew that it was goodbye. She appreciated the gesture; he could have just disappeared from her life, leaving none the wiser as to his fate. He was handing her a letter, which she accepted reluctantly. With a bow and one last smile he was gone, doing the impossible, again, and leaving her alone, again.
She didn't return to the Great Hall, but instead made for her room. There, in the solitude, she opened the letter and began to read.
My Dearest Ginevra,
Please forgive the formality of this letter; given recent events and my obvious inability to communicate my thoughts coherently, I thought it best to avoid the potential for further misunderstanding.
I believe that it would be prudent to begin by detailing the events that led to my appearing at Hogwarts.
I had little in the way of a normal childhood as, from an early age, I was training for the event for which I was, apparently, born and for which my parents died -- the killing of the Lord Voldemort.
My earliest memories are not of a favourite toy or a visit to a park, but repeating the wand movements required to cast the spell I was being taught. I tell you this not to instil sympathy, but to enable you to understand the man who has attempted to play court to you during these last few days. The only ones of my regular circle who were not focused on the downfall of Lord Voldemort are my Aunt Bella and her niece, Nymphadora Tonks.
Bella took it upon herself to school me in the ways of her society, and it is from her that my mannerisms stem. I know that she loves me in her own way, but, like those who she sought to replace, she was interested only in moulding me to become someone whom she could present to her society without fear of embarrassment. Nymphadora is the only friend I have outside of yourself; if I may still be so bold as to number you amongst that small circle. Although she is seven years older than I, she was the only person close to my age who was allowed to approach me without my uncle's stepping in and forcing them to leave.
Once the task for which I had been trained was accomplished, I found myself at a loose end, unsure as to my place in the world and uncertain as to my next steps. I therefore agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to spend a year at Hogwarts, if for no other reason than to take the opportunity to see the world that had been denied me.
It was on the eve of my departure that my godfather sprung upon me the information that I presented to you during our ill-fated picnic. With the benefit of hindsight, I know that the manner in which I went about this was appalling and that I should have confided in you as to our predicament at the earliest opportunity; that I didn't is another of my great regrets.
As the head of the Potter family, I have, with the assistance of your father, dissolved the contract. Ginevra, you are no longer bound to my House in marriage and are free to live and love according to your desires without the compulsion of a magical contract.
I remain your most obedient servant, Harry James Potter