Disclaimer: I, in no way, shape, or form, own these characters. That honor belongs to the one and only J.K. Rowling. This is simply my excursion into her magnificent world
A/N: There are a few people I need to give thanks to. My pre-betas, Cody, KD and Spenser - thanks for everything you do - nitpicking grammar, humor and everything else, it just wouldn't be the same without you. And last, but certainly not least, thanks to my beta, Jules. Thanks for putting up with my overbooked nature, and understanding when I went through that rough patch earlier this year. Now that I've regained the passion, the only direction is up!
The fierce wind echoed throughout the trees. Rather than bringing an ominous feeling to Hogwarts, as it had done earlier that night, Harry felt it lifting a large burden from his shoulders. The cold wind at his back sent shivers up his spine as he stood at the only place he had ever really called home, in front of the tomb of the only man that he had ever thought of -- in some means -- as a parent.
He was not really sure why he was here. It just felt right after the events earlier that night. Talking to Dumbledore's portrait just wasn't the same. In silence, he bowed his head to pay respect to the memories of his headmaster and all those who had sacrificed their lives to end the evil that was Voldemort.
It's finally over.
The chill wind blew another gust, the cold bringing a slight discomfort to him as his body shivered. For the first time since he had entered Hogwarts as a small eleven-year-old boy, Harry really felt lost. His whole life had been devoted to extinguishing the threat that Voldemort posed to the Wizarding World, and now that the threat and evil was vanquished, he really didn't know what to do.
It was ludicrous. From the time he gained the knowledge of his true past and his destiny, his sole objective had been to destroy the one person who had been standing between him and a normal life. Now that the evil that had kept his life in a state of danger had been vanquished, the normalcy had not just rushed into his body. As if it would be that easy.
Harry guessed he had never truly thought it through. He had simply been guided by a goal that was thrust upon him through no choice of his own. Now that Voldemort was dead, there seemed to be no goal in sight -- and no goal meant there was nothing to drive towards.
Of course, there was something to look forward to, he suddenly realized as his brain switched its course. It was a word that made his stomach flutter both with nervousness and excitement, a name that made all he had suffered through worth it.
The smell of burning wood assailed his nostrils as he turned from Dumbledore's grave and began to walk towards Hogwarts. Glancing in the direction of the smell, he saw a blackened portion of the Forbidden Forest, where the Aurors and the Order of the Phoenix were still rounding up the stray Death Eaters hours after the battle had subsided. A very minor struggle had broken out, and a most recalcitrant Death Eater was using a free hand to beat on Kingsley Shacklebolt, attempting to escape from his clutches. Shacklebolt withdrew his wand and shouted "Incarcerous," and the woman suddenly stiffened, as if constricted by unseen ropes.
Most of the Death Eaters had been caught already, and the ones who had not had fled into the woods. They would not easily be able to escape the school due to the Anti-Apparition Wards. There was only one other way out of the school from the outside, and Harry was sure that there were a few Aurors at the exit. Harry once again glanced towards the blackened area of the woods and caught Kingsley's gaze. Kingsley bore a look of extreme exasperation, but still turned and winked at Harry, silently conveying his gratitude.
Turning away from the woods, Harry entered Hogwarts and made his way to the Great Hall, where he knew Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and a whole mess of people awaited him. It was only a matter of time before the press arrived here, too, Harry thought glumly. If only Rita Skeeter somehow happened not to show up, the media just might be bearable.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Ginny, sitting glumly with the rest of the Weasley family, near the lifeless body of her brother, Fred. His heart broke for her as he saw tears stream down her face. Fred wasn't the only one the Order had lost, either. Only five feet away lay the lifeless bodies of Tonks, her usually vibrant pink hair now a mousy brown, and Remus Lupin, the last Marauder. Every link he had to his parents was now destroyed, now that Lupin was dead, and Harry couldn't even bear to look at Tonks; the color of her hair was the same as when Sirius had died. Still, even through the loss he felt, the fact that they had died for a cause, fighting for something they believed in seemed to comfort him just a bit. Lost in his thoughts, the sight of Ginny rising from the table and walking towards him brought him back to reality. He opened his arms, offering her solace in his embrace. Instead, as she reached him, he found her reaction quite a bit different.
"You git! Don't you EVER do that again!" Ginny said, stopping short of Harry. Her hands were sternly placed on her hips. Harry noticed a slight smirk on her face, but the harsh tone of her voice suggested anything but the notion that she was fooling around.
"All right," Harry said, walking over to her. Ginny's stern countenance seemed to vanish as she melted into his arms, wrapping her own around his waist, pulling him close to her. "I promise, but it was necessary. Voldemort needed to think that I was dead."
"I know you wouldn't have done it unless you had to," she responded. Harry could tell that she was trying to suppress the emotion that threatened to overtake her, but a sniffle betrayed her lips, "but I didn't need to--I mean, I thought...I thought I had lost you." A few tears streamed their way down Ginny's cheek, and Harry removed an arm from her back in order to wipe them away. This certainly wasn't the response he'd have expected from Ginny. It unnerved Harry a bit to see Ginny like this; she usually was averse to crying in public, the result of living in a family with six brothers. The fact that she so easily betrayed her emotions tonight just served to demonstrate just how much a toll her brother's death had taken on her this night.
You almost did lose me, Harry thought, for a second his memory treading back to marching to Voldemort and the death that had been sure to follow. No, he decided, now was not the time to tell her about the near self-sacrifice he had made that night. "Ginny, you'll never lose me. Even if I die, I'm always going to be there with you."
No response sounded immediately from Ginny, who just pulled Harry tighter, as if trying to meld into one. After a beat, Harry could clearly see her mouth move; her words, however, were muffled by his chest, but Harry could swear that she had simply said, "Oh, Harry..." At the words, his insides could have melted. In the past he had come to her for comfort, and the fact that she was now doing the same attested to him the deepness of their relationship.
Still clutching Ginny, Harry made the awkward shuffle to the Gryffindor table where the remaining members of the Weasley clan sat. Harry came to a stop beside a despondent Ronald Weasley, to Ron's left sat his girlfriend and another of Harry's closest friends, Hermione. Both looked over and gave faint smiles; they too were feeling the effects of the casualties.
It was a time of mourning for the whole of the Weasley family, who had lost a cherished part of their family. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley seemed to be taking it the hardest, having now lost family members in both Great Wars. While Ron put a comforting hand on Harry's shoulder, nothing was said, and the rest of the family barely noticed as Harry sat down with Ginny on his lap.
He wanted to say something, but no words came to mind. He wanted to tell Ginny how harrowing the past months had been without her at his side, but still he refrained. It wasn't the time. Now was the aftermath; now was the time for grieving those they had lost. Harry knew how Ginny felt right now; he'd certainly been through the pain enough in his life. Harry lifted his hand to her hair and gently threaded through it soothingly, causing Ginny to relax further into him. He marveled at the flowery smell that always seemed to emanate from her, taking comfort in the sweet scent. They stayed in their embrace with an unspoken message between them for a long while, simply taking solace in the fact that they still had each other.
Harry lost track of the time until he noticed the spry figure of Professor Minerva McGonagall approach the table. Arriving at the Weasleys' table without a welcome from any single member of the family, Professor McGonagall flashed only a single fleeting frown. With a look full of concern, she placed a hand on Harry's shoulder. "Harry, are you alright?"
"Yes," Harry answered quickly, both his and Ginny's heads tilting upwards to meet Professor McGonagall's gaze. "Well, as alright as I can be right now, I guess."
"Good," McGonagall answered, her facial muscles relaxing as relief assuaged concern, "because I have a proposition for you that you may want to take into consideration." Harry's face scrunched a bit, confused by her words. "You may want to make sure that Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger are listening as well, as it also concerns them." Harry extended an arm to rouse Ron from his deep contemplations while Hermione's head immediately swiveled towards McGonagall.
"It comes to mind that you three have done the Wizarding World a great service, and for that we cannot thank you enough. Harry, I'm sure you could immediately be accepted for the position of Auror that you so desire, but I can't help but wonder whether you would like to come back to Hogwarts next year to acquire your N.E.W.T.S. and complete your seventh year. While I must say that there may not be a purely academic need for you to finish the year with the maturation that has taken place with you," continued McGonagall, glancing back and forth between Ginny and Harry with a knowing smile, "I'm sure another reason may influence your decision."
Without saying a word, Harry looked at Ginny, who returned the gaze, sharing the promise of a full year together, a full year without Voldemort to ruin things. Silently, they nodded to each other.
"I think I'd like that" replied Harry, bringing a meek smile to Ginny's face. His acceptance was immediately echoed by an enthusiastic Hermione.
"Well, if Hermione's going, I guess I'll go," responded Ron. Education had never been much of an interest to him, but Harry guessed that Ron would be returning for a similar reason to his.
"Good, it's settled then," replied McGonagall, who bent down and placed her head near Harry's ear. "Well done, Harry; Dumbledore would be proud."
Harry smiled from ear to ear. "Thank you," he whispered back. As Professor McGonagall walked back to monitor the room, Harry's smile remained. In the face of all that had happened tonight, in spite of the evil that he had faced, regardless of the loss that had been suffered tonight, Harry couldn't help but think that he had gained something even more valuable as he gazed into the wells of Ginny's beautiful brown eyes.
The beast in his chest that had been lying dormant for nearly a year groggily stretched its paws and settled back down, a satisfied purr escaping from its throat.
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Harry had barely regained his senses waking up almost an hour later when the sounds of a loud verbal clash met his ears, alerting him to a pressing situation occurring across the hall. Near the Slytherin table stood Professor McGonagall, Professor Horace Slughorn, and Kingsley Shacklebolt all stood arguing around a tall blonde boy, who Harry instantly recognized as Draco Malfoy.
"The boy at least has ties to Death Eaters! You cannot deny that, Minerva!" shouted an irate Shacklebolt, his face red either from the shouting match or his growing frustration.
"The boy was inside during the attack on Hogwarts. Children are not always doomed to repeat the mistakes of their parents!" argued an equally red McGonagall, who was staring down Shacklebolt in a contest of sheer will.
Harry couldn't argue with that point, and although he had no desire to ever see Malfoy again, Harry didn't really think that Malfoy deserved to be sentenced to Azkaban. The one big mission Draco had been given from Voldemort was one that he thought better of, Harry knew. Of course, he had been the one to vocally vent about Draco's mission to kill Dumbledore to the Order, so Shacklebolt's next argument hardly surprised him.
"You know as well as I do what he was doing in the Astronomy Tower the night Dumbledore died, Minerva!"
At this, Slughorn stepped in front of McGonagall, as if shielding her from the verbal assault of Shacklebolt. "But he didn't do it, now did he? I think we can agree that Snape was the one behind that," Slughorn argued, "so why don't we put this behind us? Come, my good man, let us grab a shot of firewhisky."
Shacklebolt wasn't listening, however, and his voice only grew louder. "Whether or not he actually killed Dumbledore isn't the problem. It's the intention! Conspiracy to murder is against the law as well! And we all know who sent him on the mission. Just let us--"
"No," Harry stated from across the room. Ginny's delicate sleeping body prevented him from rising and joining the confrontation, but he had to step in; as much as he hated the fact that he was defending Malfoy, he owed Snape at least this. "Dumbledore was dying anyway," Harry began, every conscious head in the room swiveling to meet his, shocked expressions on each of their faces. "Snape left me his memories to use in Dumbledore's Pensieve. Dumbledore had been poisoned, and it was incurable. On his orders, Snape took the duty of killing Dumbledore out of Malfoy's hands so he wouldn't go to Azkaban. A--And Professor McGonagall's right, he was inside during the battle," Harry grimaced, despising the fact that he could not mention the events with Malfoy and the tiara, "Just let him go."
The room instantly quieted, unsure whether Harry had actually said the words. Scattered disbelief was evident in most eyes -- Snape was working for Voldemort, it was common knowledge. The tension could have been cut with a knife. Draco's mouth could not have fallen open any wider if an Engorgement Charm had been cast on it.
"You mean to say, Harry," humored Mr. Weasley almost in jest from across the table, "that Snape was actually on the Order's side all this time?"
"Yes," Harry responded bluntly, causing the scattered members of the Order of the Phoenix to scowl. "If you want proof, it's upstairs--the Pensieve, I mean. You can see for yourselves."
Shacklebolt clearly looked put off, but finally decided that he was outnumbered. "Alright, the boy goes free." At the words, Draco shot out of the hall as fast as his legs would take him, swiveling his head, not taking his surprised stare off Harry.
A soft waking groan sounded from Harry's shoulder as Ginny stirred. "Mmmm...what's going on, Harry?" she asked groggily.
"Nothing," Harry said, gently stroking Ginny's brilliant red hair, "just go back to sleep." He bent his head and kissed her forehead. Ginny responded by burying her head into Harry's chest and hugging him even closer to her.
Harry could have positively sworn that he had heard the beast in his chest mew.
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Draco woke the next morning on his bed at Malfoy Manor and immediately began packing. He couldn't stand staying in this house for a second longer. All his family members were either dead or incarcerated, and their cash assets, like all the other Death Eaters' had been frozen, all of which effectively prevented him from staying in England by his insular train of thought.
He simply needed to get out of England because he couldn't stand the thought of Harry Potter.
It had been bad enough that Potter had shown him up, managed to destroy the tiara in the secret room, and then escaped from the Fiendfyre. No, Potter had to be the consummate Gryffindor and play hero, saving both Draco and Goyle. Still, that wasn't even the worst of it. Potter hadn't just saved him once that night; he had saved him twice! He had then prevented Draco from Kingsley's wrath and the horrors of Azkaban.
Malfoy couldn't stand it. He owed Potter his life, twice-over! It was preposterous, but it was true. There wasn't one person he could think of that he'd less prefer to owe that debt to.
The articles in the papers that day certainly hadn't helped things, either. Draco cast his copy of The Daily Prophet a look of utter abhorrence as an obviously embarrassed Potter tried to keep climbing out of the photo.
Potter Chosen One; You-Know-Who Vanquished By: Rita Skeeter
Last night, the great evil that had been the Dark Lord came to an end as Harry Potter, 17, otherwise known as "The Chosen One" and "The Boy Who Saved the World" defeated You-Know Who in what will surely go onto be known as one of the most famous duels of all time, perhaps overshadowing the duel between Gellert Grindelwald and Albus Dumbledore.
Of course, I, Rita Skeeter, have been in close correspondence with the Potter boy since I met him as a wee lad. Always standing by him, I have gotten in his best graces. We have the tightest of bonds, and I have gotten the full story exclusively from him.
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Just gazing at it sent fits of jealous rage rippling through Draco, and before he really had a chance to think about it, he slammed down the case of his trunk, grabbed his wand, and shouted "Incendio," at the newspaper, causing it to burst into flames. He grabbed his trunk and calmly strolled out the door, leaving Malfoy Manor to burn behind him.
One day, Draco would pay Harry back for his debts, he swore. Surely Draco would inevitably pay Potter back for ruining his life.