DISCLAIMER: J.K. Rowling owns the Harry Potter universe and everything it encompasses. This is a work of fan fiction, and thus derives no profit or material benefit therefrom.

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The sun hung low over the western horizon, igniting the evening sky with bands of red, orange and gold. The midsummer air was warm and humid, filled with the steady droning of cicadas recently emerged from their burrows, seeking to mate and reproduce before time caught up to them. A heron waded through a pool nearly obscured by the low-hanging branches of a weeping willow, waiting to grab the day's final trout before the last light waned.

A woman, on that cusp of time between youth and maturity, sat in a rocking chair by an upstairs window in the small house on the edge of the wood and watched the sun set, thinking back on times long past. Twenty-five years. Twenty-five years had come and gone since that fateful day. Twenty-five years since Harry laid down his life for his friends and, in so doing, freed them all from the tyranny of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

She still missed him.

For months after his death she'd felt like a ship lost at sea, anchorless, rudderless, without a single star in the sky to fix her location by. She'd never imagined a life without him. She'd never dreamed of a future with anyone else but him at her side. Yet somehow she'd managed to get through those dark days at the beginning, even if only by dissociating her mind and body from the agony in her heart. She endured the recovery, the inquiries, the funerals. She tended the wounded and comforted the bereaved. She buried friends, family members, loved ones. She watched as though from a distance as those around her began to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and rebuild from the ground up. Yet she remained nothing more than an empty shell, a Ginny-shaped husk with the insides scraped out and dumped unceremoniously on the ground.

A breaking point was inevitable. When it finally came it was with such fury and violence she almost didn't recover at all. Fortunately for her pride it happened just before Christmas; Professor Snape found her crumpled on the floor in his office, after she'd broken into his private cupboard and ingested a near-fatal overdose of Dreamless Sleeping Draught, and her fellow students were none the wiser. When she finally broke through her coma three days later she was so delirious Madame Pomfrey had had to put her in restraints. And when even that didn't work, they'd taken her to St. Mungo's.

She received her first letter from Neville two days before the hospital discharged her to her parents. She'd always liked him; he'd been unfailingly kind to her over the years, even appointing himself her champion on occasion. He'd also been one of Harry's most ardent supporters and admirers.

She would never forget how on that day he'd thrown himself in front of a Severing Charm Lucius Malfoy had intended for Harry, or the smell of burning flesh when Bellatrix Lestrange aimed an Incendio Curse at his face as he lay helpless on the ground, trying frantically to stem the river of blood pouring from his mangled leg. Only Lupin's quick thinking and an Extinguishing Spell spared him the horrible agony of being burned to death, and then Hagrid hoisted Neville over his shoulder and sprinted to safety.

By the time Hagrid returned, Harry and Voldemort were already dead.

At first, she'd despised Neville for surviving, as much as she despised herself for the same reason. At first, she ignored his letters. But as she grew stronger she found herself looking forward to them. By the end of January she had started writing back. And when his letters mysteriously stopped coming just after Easter, it was as though a dark cloud had settled once again over her heart.

Then he wrote to her at the end of May, days before she was to sit for her N.E.W.T.s, to invite her to a picnic in the Forbidden Forest. Although she was indescribably relieved to hear from him again, she almost turned him down. She hadn't seen him since that day she, Ron and Hermione had escorted him home from St. Mungo's. He'd been so frail then, a pale, wounded shadow of the sweet, round-faced boy she'd grown used to, and she was afraid to see him like that again. She was afraid that seeing him would bring back memories of that terrible day.

She set the letter aside.

The next day, she'd received a note from Hermione, asking Ginny to meet her in the Three Broomsticks that afternoon. Classes had already ended for the term, so around teatime she dug herself out from under the mountain of books she'd been poring through as she revised for her exams and strolled past the main gate and into town.

It was a happy but muted reunion. Although Hermione was almost as regular a correspondent as Neville, they hadn't seen each other since Ginny'd been discharged from St. Mungo's, and the events of nearly a year before weighed heavily on both their minds. But, as so often happens, warm butterbeer loosened stiff tongues and before long they were talking and laughing as two teenage girlfriends should.

Then Hermione, looking fit to burst, leaned across the table and told Ginny something that made her gasp and slop butterbeer down her front. Ron had always been so straight-laced, so conservative, she would never have imagined...but the glow on Hermione's face couldn't be ignored.

"How long?" she asked.

"How long have I known, or how long 'til I'm due?"

"Either. Both."

Hermione smiled bashfully. "I'm due around Christmas. And I know it sounds silly, but I reckon I knew the moment it happened."

Ginny did some rapid calculations in her head. A grin spread across her face. "Ron's birthday." Hermione's cheeks turned pink, but she nodded. Ginny reached over and took her hand. "Please tell me it wasn't your first time."

"Oh, no," Hermione said vehemently, shaking her head. "We've been intimate for almost a year."

"Almost a year?" Ginny felt her eyes widen. "Since-Since--?"

Hermione set down her butterbeer and rested her free hand over Ginny's. "The night of Harry's funeral. It just...rushed up on us, this desperate need to-to do something, anything, to make us feel alive." Tears glistened in her eyes. "We were like animals. I've never been so completely out of control in my life. But I just--I *needed* him, Ginny. It was like losing Harry had eaten me from the inside out, and Ron was the only person who could put me back to rights." When Ginny started to sit back in her chair Hermione tightened her grip, holding her in place. "Please don't be offended," she said.

"I'm not offended," Ginny said, blinking back her own tears. "I'm envious."

"Envious? Of what?"

"Of you." She grabbed a napkin and dabbed at her nose and eyes. "At least you have someone to fill that void."

"Oh, Ginny."

The tears began to fall in earnest. "I miss him, Hermione," she sobbed.

"Oh, Ginny," Hermione sighed. She released Ginny's hand to get up and move closer. "I miss him too. But missing him won't bring him back, you know that." Ginny nodded. "You could live for at least another eighty years. Do you want to spend the rest of your life grieving what can't be brought back? You're a young woman with your whole life ahead of you."

Ginny swiped angrily at the tears on her face. "I *know*, Hermione," she said. "Don't you reckon I know all this already?"

Hermione gave her a look full of sympathy and compassion. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to--"

"No, no, it's okay, really." She gave Hermione a wan smile. "Sometimes I just need to be reminded. I just wish--"

"--you had someone who understood your pain?"

She nodded. "Yeah. Or...someone to help me forget it, even if just for a little while."

Hermione tilted her head to one side and studied Ginny. "What about Neville?"

Ginny almost dropped the bottle of butterbeer she'd been just about to drink from. "What about him?"

"Well, I know he's been writing to you since New Year's."

"Yeah? So?"

"So...he isn't writing to me. Or Ron."

"That doesn't mean anything."

Hermione made a sound of exasperation. "Ginny, Neville's adored you almost as long as you've loved Harry. He just never believed he was worthy of you."

She felt her face grow warm. She'd known of Neville's interest in her for years, but she'd never heard it voiced in such plain terms. "I don't love him the same way."

"I know you don't--"

"You're not suggesting I use him, are you?"

"No!" Hermione's eyes were wide. "I would never suggest such a thing!"

"Well, that's what it sounds like to me."

"You're misunderstanding me," Hermione insisted. She placed her hands over Ginny's. "I'll wager that Neville would hand you his heart on a plate if you asked him to."

"All the more reason--"

"Let me finish." Ginny clamped her lips into a tight line. "All I'm saying is that maybe you should give him a chance. All right, I know you don't love him the same way he loves you, but that doesn't mean you *can't*. He's not Harry, I *know*, but Harry's gone, and no one will ever take his place." As the tears began to slip from Ginny's eyes again, Hermione's hands tightened over hers. "You shouldn't dismiss Neville on those grounds. It's not fair, to him or to you. Let him show you what he has to offer. Maybe, just maybe, it'll be exactly what you need."

They talked for a little while longer, about love and heartbreak and what Ginny planned to do once she left Hogwarts, but as the shadows began to lengthen and the supper crowd began to wander into the pub, Ginny knew she needed to go. Before she left, Hermione extracted from Ginny a promise not to breathe a word about her pregnancy until after Ginny'd got home from school, when Hermione and Ron planned to break the news to the entire family. And when Ginny returned to Gryffindor Tower, she sent a letter to Neville accepting his invitation.

~~~~~ ~~~~~

She hadn't intended to have sex with him that day in the Forbidden Forest. But the instant she kissed him she felt as though she'd been an animal, suddenly set free after having been trapped in a cage for months, and she couldn't hold back any longer. The first time had been wild and unrestrained, completely devoid of thought and feeling as she gave herself over to pure, raw sensation. The second time, she'd been scared--scared he'd regret everything, scared he'd turn away, scared to allow herself to be so vulnerable with him.

The third time she knew he loved her, and that made all the difference in the world. As she lay there in his arms, sweaty, exhausted and exhilarated, she realized how prescient Hermione had been. She wasn't prepared to profess her love for Neville just yet, but she knew, instinctively, that what he had offered her that night was exactly what she needed--and wanted.

A week later she joined him in Costa Rica.

~~~~~ ~~~~~

"Ginny?"

She looked up to see Neville in the doorway, concern deepening the lines around his mouth and eyes. She smiled at him, and stretched out her hand. "You're home."

He leaned his cane against the crib and sat on the footstool beside her to rest his palm across her swollen abdomen. "I called when I came in. I got worried when you didn't answer."

She placed her hand over his, her thumb caressing the silver band around his finger. "I'm fine," she said. "We're fine." They laughed as one when the occupant of her stomach gave an affirming jolt from within.

They had tried for so many years to have a child. In one of those cruel tricks of Fate, her mother's celebrated fecundity had manifested itself only in her male children; as various Weasley wives waxed and waned over the years, Ginny's womb alone remained barren.

At first it had been a comedy, but soon the laughter faded and tears set in. They'd tried everything, even a Muggle fertility specialist Hermione had recommended. Two babies were lost before they were formed enough to survive outside of her body; a third died days before she was due to go into labor. Her sisters-in-law stopped bringing their children to her home, afraid to cause her more distress. Only Hermione, with her clutch of bushy-haired redheads perpetually underfoot and asking questions, understood what Ginny truly needed--the sound of children's laughter echoing through her house--and never failed to bring at least one of the younger ones with her whenever she came to visit. In less than a year she'd be bringing her first grandchild.

Years passed, and still Ginny remained childless; her nieces and nephews grew older, attended Hogwarts, and began to fashion families of their own. She'd greeted her first great-nephew three Christmases ago, and yet she had nothing to show for all her efforts. Eventually, she'd begun to despair of ever becoming a mother, of ever giving Neville the son or daughter he so desperately wanted.

Through it all, Neville remained the one constant, his faith and love never flagging. He never once pressured her, or made her feel any less of a woman because of their inability to conceive, but when she learned he'd planted a tree for each one of the babies they lost, she began to realize the depth of his yearning. She didn't know what she would have done if he'd left her.

It was ironic, then, that, in a moment of weakness, she'd left him.

It happened during that awful year after they'd lost their third child. She'd begun an affair with a young man she met in the village near where they lived. A Muggle. She'd even moved out of the house. Neville had been devastated. Her parents had been furious. Ron stopped talking to her, and forbade Hermione to see her. And when she realized the horrible mistake she'd made and tried to return home, Neville didn't take her back right away. The agony she felt at having betrayed him so selfishly nearly tore her apart.

In the end, though, Neville did let her return home, and though their relationship had never been the same, it was at the same time richer and more vibrant than it had ever been before. Their sex life had never been found wanting, but after their reconciliation Ginny found herself and Neville reaching out to each other with greater frequency and urgency. It was almost the way it had been early in their relationship, after she'd joined him in Costa Rica; the natural wear and tear of time seemed to be the only restraint on their ardor.

A year and a half later she'd discovered she was pregnant again. They agreed that this would be the last time, that if this child failed to survive, they wouldn't try again. They would let nature take its course, and hope for the best. But, miraculously, this time she'd experienced none of the complications that had plagued her before. This time, she knew, they'd have the child they'd always wanted.

As a girl she'd never imagined a life without Harry, but until that day in the Forbidden Forest she'd never imagined a life with Neville. Now she couldn't imagine it any other way. What if their fortunes had been reversed? Would she and Harry still be happily married twenty-five years later? Would their love have endured what Ginny and Neville had? Her relationship with Harry had always been...incendiary, almost to the point of self-immolation; Neville, on the other hand, was a more quiet, reserved man, but his passion for her was just as potent. His was a love that burned slowly, never extinguishing itself or scorching whatever it touched.

Twenty-five years later, he was still exactly what she wanted.

She leaned over and kissed the thinning spot on top of his head. When he looked up at her with a smile, she held out her arms and said, "Help me up?"

He leveraged himself to his feet, mindful of his bad leg, then leaned down to scoop her into his arms and lift her out of the rocker. He set her down gently and they stood there in silence, enjoying the feel of their arms around each other. After a while she reached up and pressed her palm against his cheek, feeling the slight pucker of the scar tissue hidden beneath his thick beard, now sprinkled liberally with gray hairs. Then she bent forward as best she could and softly pressed her lips against his. "I love you," she said.

He smiled and kissed her back. "I love you, too."

"No, Neville," she said, shaking her head. "You're not hearing me." His brow furrowed with confusion. "I...love...you." Then she turned slightly, to maneuver her belly out of the way, and kissed him thoroughly. "I love you."

She knew, just from looking into his eyes, when the realization of what she meant hit home. His arms tightened around her and she lay her head on his chest, listening to the sure, steady beat of his heart.

"I know you do, Ginny."