A/N: Oops – I thought this was going to be the last chapter, but no such luck. Too much ground needed to be covered here, so it looks like there'll be one more chapter to finish up … hope you can all stick it out. PepperImp
DISCLAIMER: I don't own anything. It all belongs to JK Rowling.
Harry opened his eyes grudgingly and squinted at the shaft of bright light that penetrated a crack in the curtains around his four-poster. Groaning, he leaned over to get his glasses from the bedside table and settled them on the bridge of his nose before glancing at the alarm clock. Nine o'clock.
Good lord, he'd really overslept. Remembering that he had double Potions first, he shot out of bed and was galloping out of the door to the bathroom when he spotted a note pinned to his curtains.
It was from McGonagall.
You are permitted to miss lessons for today only. Mr Weasley is awake and asking after you – take this opportunity to visit him when you can.
Harry breathed a sigh of relief and sat down heavily on his head. Thank Merlin he didn't have classes today – he was still absolutely exhausted.
Not wanting to intrude on the Weasleys, he had slunk off to bed after his confrontation with Ginny, his heart heavy. He just couldn't believe that she'd attacked him like that – what did she think she was doing? And her accusation that he was trying to get himself killed … well, he really didn't know what to say about that. Maybe he was a bit reckless, but …
Harry felt the first stirrings of anger. She knew about the prophecy. She knew it wasn't up to him, but she was trying to make him believe that he had the option to just walk away. Which he didn't. That just wasn't a choice for him to make.
First chance he got, he was going to tell her that in no uncertain terms. As much as he wanted her in his life, he wasn't prepared to back down from what his heart told him was his destiny. And if she couldn't deal with that – well, so be it. Much as it was going to hurt, so be it.
Half an hour later, after a refreshing shower and a plate of eggs on toast brought to him by Dobby, Harry was feeling more clear-headed and was filled with righteous fury. Even though he was a bit nervous of Ginny's temper, he was rather looking forward to seeing her so he could give her a piece of his mind. However, he wanted to visit Ron first and see how he was doing.
Not sure if Ron would be sleeping, Harry tiptoed silently into the hospital wing and headed over to Ron's bed, which was screened by cream curtains. The day was warm with a gentle breeze, and it swirled the curtains slightly. Approaching the bed, Harry was jolted by the sound of a voice he knew very well. He froze and was just about to leave as silently as he had arrived, when he heard his name.
"… you know that's Harry all over, Ginny," said Ron's exasperated voice. "I can't believe you gave him a hard time about it!"
"Keep your voice down," hissed Ginny. "He nearly got you killed, Ron!"
"No, he didn't," said Ron. "I went along with him willingly. What, you think I'm going to let my best mate go off for an adventure without me? With Malfoy?" He snorted. "Not bloody likely."
"Exactly! Why was he helping Malfoy, of all people? He's not worth it!" hissed Ginny furiously.
Ron sighed. "Ginny, sit down," he said reasonably, and by the faint outline Harry could see through the curtains, Ginny had risen to her feet. "C'mon – sit." There was the sound of someone patting the bed. "I want to talk to you."
Huffing in exasperation, Ginny sat on the edge of the bed. Curious, Harry edged closer.
"Ginny, admit it. One of the reasons you had such a big crush on Harry in the first place was because he was this big hero to you ... The Boy Who Lived. Right?"
"Not any more! I …"
"I know, I know! It's different now. You know him now, but then you didn't. Isn't that true?"
There was a brief silence. "Yes," Ginny admitted.
"Well, the more I've gotten to know Harry, the more I realize that he really is a hero," said Ron steadily, and Harry's jaw dropped. "But it's more than just doing the exciting action stuff … like rescuing you from the Chamber of Secrets. Didn't hear you complaining about his hero complex then, did I?"
Ginny let out a sound that was somewhere between a giggle and a sob. "No, but …"
"Just listen, OK? Harry takes this all very seriously. And he's grown up so much this year, he's left us far behind. He's a man now, Ginny, with a man's responsibilities – and if you want to be with him, you need to understand that."
Harry sank down on the end of the nearest bed, mouth open. He couldn't believe it was Ron talking like this, in such a mature way. Hermione was obviously having a good influence on him.
"I know," muttered Ginny. "But he's taken this whole prophesy thing so much to heart, Ron! It's like he wants to go up against Voldemort and get killed!"
There was a pause.
"Harry doesn't want to die," said Ron slowly. "But the only way he's ever going to have a normal life is when Voldemort is gone. And he will win against the dark forces, Ginny – because he's too decent and good not to. I believe in him. He needs that from us, because without our support, he's not going to make it."
There was a soft sound from Ginny, and Harry knew instinctively that she was crying. "I believe in him too," she whispered brokenly. "And it's because I care so much about him that I don't want to see him risk himself like this. And for someone as useless as Malfoy!"
Ron chuckled. "Ginny, you know I hate Malfoy more than anyone, but I could kind of see Harry's point, you know?"
"No, I don't!"
"What's Harry going to do? Say to one person: 'OK, I like you, so I'll help you,' and then to someone else – like Malfoy – 'Right, I don't like you, so you can just bugger off'? You know that's not like Harry. In fact …" Ron paused, "I'd say that's what makes him most different from Voldemort and his followers. Harry's prepared to do the right thing, even if it's not for the right person. And even if it doesn't get him anything, or it puts him in danger. Because that's who he is, Ginny. And we all love him for it."
Harry swiped furiously at his eyes. He was not going to cry. He wasn't.
There was a ringing silence behind the curtains. Then he heard Ginny sobbing in earnest.
"Oh, God, what have I done?" she wept. "I said such terrible things to him last night! I was just so scared for him … and I was scared for myself. I don't know what I'd do if I lost him, Ron!"
"I know, Ginny," Ron said, with a tiny tremor in his voice. "Me either."
That was it. Enough. Harry scrambled to his feet and rushed out of the hospital wing, not caring who heard him.
He spent the next hour sitting on the banks of the lake, composing himself. The conversation he'd just heard had been really hard for him to hear, but, he admitted to himself, really important.
Since Sirius' death, he'd considered himself alone in the world, even with his relationship with Ginny and his friendship with Ron and Hermione. He'd spent so much time thinking of himself as someone without ties, without attachments, without family, that he'd rushed headlong into danger without thinking of how his death would affect everyone else.
Of course, he knew they'd be upset. But what he'd just heard had put it all into perspective – they'd be devastated. Not just his friends, but the people who'd come to see him as family – the Weasleys. And Dumbledore, and Remus, and … the list went on and on. People who'd come to care for him as one of their own, and he was going through life without giving them a second thought.
Eventually, as he got up and headed towards the castle, he was warmed from inside by a knowledge he'd never had before.
He had a true family.
Harry walked briskly into the hospital wing again, and this time the curtains around Ron's bed were drawn and he was sitting up, talking to Hermione. As Harry approached, they both looked up and smiled.
"Harry!" said Hermione, getting to her feet and welcoming him with a hug.
"What's this for?" said Harry, pretending to be irritated, but she wasn't having any of it.
"I was so upset last night I didn't even ask you how you are," she said, smiling up at him. "Are you OK?"
"I'm fine," said Harry, giving up the pretense and grinning back. "At least I don't look like hamburger, like this idiot. How are you, mate?"
Madam Pomfrey had performed her usual miracles, and Ron was looking almost normal except for a monster shiner that had blossomed into a spectacular shade of blue-black around his left eye.
"I'm OK, except for this, and my ribs are a bit sore," Ron said, ruefully indicating the black eye. "Madam Pomfrey healed the other bruises, but she left this one to remind me not to get into any more trouble for a while. She won't even give me some ice to put on it."
He looked at Hermione with what he obviously thought passed for a pained look, but she ignored him. "Serves you right," she muttered. "Going off without me."
Harry gaped at her.
"Oh yeah," said Ron, giving Hermione a slap on the rump that made her squeal and glare at him. "Madam here is royally ticked off that we didn't give her a call before we left last night. Not that we went off on a dangerous mission, mind – just that she wasn't in a starring role."
"Well, we're a team – aren't we?" she said, putting her hands on her hips. "You tried to leave me behind last time, Potter – and I wouldn't let you. Don't do it again or you'll never forget it."
Harry started laughing. He couldn't help himself – of all possible reactions, this was the last thing he'd been expecting from Hermione. They all looked at each other, and within seconds, the ward was filled with hysterical laughter. And all the while, Harry felt the heaviness in his heart getting lighter and lighter.
Harry and Hermione were sitting on the end of Ron's bed, sharing a box of Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans that Hagrid had sent and discussing the events of the previous night, when they were interrupted by Madam Pomfrey. Marching into the ward, she was bearing a long, brown paper-covered package and muttering under her breath.
"Treating me like a post owl… just wait till he comes in here again," she spat furiously. "I'll fix him. Here, Mr Weasley – this is for you."
Ron took the package from her in amazement. "Who's it from?" he called after her stiff, retreating back.
"There's a note," she said mysteriously over her shoulder before disappearing through the door. Harry thought he heard her say "Students today! You'd think they can't read …" before the door slammed behind her.
"Well, open it!" said Harry impatiently.
Ron turned the package over and grabbed the piece of parchment that was tied roughly to the end of it. His eyes opened wide and he mouthed silently.
"Well?" said Hermione. Ron stared at her, dumbstruck, and held out the parchment.
Hermione glanced over it and raised her eyebrows.
"Is someone going to tell me who it's from?" said Harry, getting annoyed.
Holding the parchment out of his reach, Hermione started to grin and read it out – in a perfect imitation of Malfoy's cultured drawl.
"Weasel – just so you don't think I owe you one or anything like that. Consider this as payment for services rendered. Malfoy."
Harry didn't miss a beat. "Open it! Come on – I want to see what Malfoy thinks is worthy payment of you getting captured, beaten to a pulp and mashed around on his behalf. Hurry up, Ron, or I'll do it."
Ron ripped into the paper and unraveled the string, and onto the bed fell a shiny, brand new Nimbus 2002 broomstick.
They all gazed at it in utter amazement.
"I can't accept it," whispered Ron, even as he slid his hands longingly along the handle and traced the gold lettering on the end. "It's too much. I'll be in debt to him forever, and he'll never let me forget it …"
Hermione snorted. "Are you nuts? Of course you're going to accept it! It's not worth half of what Malfoy owes you for what you did for him – and believe me, he knows it. Take it, Ron – you deserve it."
Ron gazed at her, hope in his eyes. "Harry?" he said, turning to look at his best friend. "What do you think?"
"Damn right," said Harry emphatically. "Keep it, mate. He'll regret it every time you save another goal against Slytherin."
Ron seemed to struggle with himself, and then come to a decision.
"OK," he said firmly. "I'll keep it. But I'm not thanking him for it, or anything mushy like that."
"Heaven forbid," said Hermione, rolling her eyes. "He'd never live it down."
Not willing to leave Ron alone, Harry managed to persuade Madame Pomfrey to let him come back after lunch, armed with a chess board. Ginny had been nowhere to be seen in the Great Hall, and Hermione, worried, had gone to look for her in the girls' dormitories. When he'd finally been thrown out of the hospital wing in the late afternoon so that Ron could have a nap, Harry had trudged back to his own dormitory to have a snooze himself.
He'd just settled down on his bed and was taking off his glasses when there was a tap on the door. Hermione peered around it.
"Oh good, you're here," she said, business-like. "There's someone who wants to have a word with you."
She reached behind her and pulled a tear-stained and blotchy Ginny after her.
"Right," Hermione said, giving Ginny a small shove to propel her further into the dormitory. "Talk. And don't come out until this is fixed. OK?"
The door closed authoritatively behind her and Ginny stood as though glued to the floor. Eventually, she raised her bloodshot eyes and looked at Harry.
'Hi," she whispered.
"Hey," he said back, uncertain as to what to do next. He got to his feet and went over to her, but she was rooted to the spot.
"Ginny, I'm sorry," he said in a rush. "I …"
She looked horrified. "No, Harry – you've got nothing to apologise for," she said in amazement. "It's me that … oh God, I'm so sorry for what I said last night. I didn't mean it … I was just …"
She trailed off and tears fell slowly down her face. "Can you ever forgive me?" she said brokenly. "Someone gave me such a wake-up call earlier today and I realized how awful and unfair I was being to you. I know you don't belong to me and I can't tell you what to do, but I was so scared. I was …"
Harry couldn't stand the heartbroken look on her face for one more second, and with two steps he closed the distance between them, pulling her into a tight hug.
"There's nothing to forgive, Ginny," he said roughly into her hair. "It was my fault, too. I don't know what I was thinking – it was mad. I'm so sorry Ron got hurt – I didn't mean for that to happen, either."
"I know," she whispered, and for a time there was silence between them.
Eventually, Harry pulled away from her. "Ginny, I'm knackered," he said, trying to stifle a yawn. "I only got about three hours sleep last night – I really need to have a kip."
"It's OK – I've got homework to do anyway," she said, starting to back towards the door.
"No, don't go," he said, grabbing her hand. "Stay with me?"
Ginny chewed her lip and looked worried, and then nodded. He drew her towards his bed and as she climbed up on it, drew the curtains around it. He settled down on the bed and pulled her into his arms until she was resting with her head on his chest, and the sound of her breathing soon lulled him into a deep sleep. He just hoped Professor McGonagall didn't decide to pay him a surprise visit …