A/N: Many thanks to my volunteer beta team for this, my first-ever Harryfic: lydaclunas, lizbee, pharnabazus, penwiper26, wahlee98, and kismet42. Your suggestions and criticisms were, as always, much appreciated.
Those who have read my other fics may notice that this story appears to take place in the same universe. I wish I felt free to create an infinite number of alternate universes -- as many of my favorite authors do -- but for some reason my brain refuses to work that way. So for those who keep track of such things, this story takes place immediately after the end of the third story in the Darkness & Light trilogy, "If We Survive". It isn't necessary to have read D&L in order to understand this, however.
ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS
The battle was over.
Harry felt numb from head to toe, his mind fogged with exhaustion and his legs trembling. If it hadn't been for the faint coppery gleam of Ginny's hair as she walked before him, he would have had no idea where he was going; if not for Ron and Hermione's shoulders to lean on, he would surely have collapsed long ago.
So tired. He wanted nothing more than to fall into bed somewhere, anywhere, and sleep for... forever.
"You did it, Harry!" Hermione kept saying, her voice high with excitement. "You defeated Voldemort! He's gone for good!" Her arm tightened around his waist, squeezing him until his breath hitched. "Oh, Harry, I'm so proud of you!" And then Ron, oddly gruff-sounding and swallowing every few words, as though fighting back tears: "You did it, mate. You really did it. You beat him."
Only Ginny, now a few steps ahead as they laboured up the stairs into Hogwarts, said nothing: but when she hesitated and looked back, he saw her frown a little. Too weary to meet her searching gaze, he closed his eyes and let Ron and Hermione carry him. A few long minutes passed in this waking sleep, and then:
"Just a few more steps, Harry," said Hermione, sounding breathless. "Right here... now lie down... that's it."
Eyes still closed, not caring where he was, Harry lay down. Someone gingerly removed his glasses while someone else tugged off his shoes, and the blankets were pulled up awkwardly around his shoulders; then a small, soft hand closed over his tight-clenched one, and Ginny said, "Your wand, Harry. You can let go of it now." She paused, added in a lower voice, "You won't need it again, not tonight. We promise."
There was a hint of steel in those last words, a determination that was oddly reassuring. Slowly Harry let his hand relax, felt her cool fingers prise the wand from his grip. The soft click of wood on wood told him that she had set it down on a nearby table. From somewhere in the darkness Hermione's voice said, "Try to sleep, Harry--" and without hesitation, he obeyed.
He woke to full daylight and the sound of voices at his door, muffled but loud nonetheless, and escalating rapidly in volume.
"Miss Granger, be reasonable." An unctuous, cajoling tone, from a voice Harry didn't recognise. "I just want a few --"
"You are not going in there!" Hermione sounded indignant. "Harry needs his rest, he's exhausted."
"Yes, yes, of course he must be tired, we all understand that. But once he wakes up --"
"-- then you can bloody well get in the queue with everybody else." That was Ron's voice, thick with weariness and anger. "We've had half the school round this morning with gifts and party invitations for Harry, and we sent them all packing. The Ministry called, and we told them to take a number. My mum came by half an hour ago and we didn't even let her in. He's not talking to anyone right now -- get it?"
"Look," said Hermione more gently, making an obvious effort to be reasonable. "He's been through a terrible experience. Give him time, and he'll talk to you when he's ready."
"That's if he feels like talking to the press at all," added Ron. "And considering the sort of rubbish you lot have written about him in the past, I wouldn't blame him if he didn't."
"Say what you will, Mr. Weasley, but the wizarding world has a right to know --"
"Git," muttered Ginny's voice close beside him, and Harry jumped. He fumbled for his glasses and put them on, to see her standing by the bedside with one finger held against her lips, warning him silent. As the argument from the hallway continued she went on in a whisper, "That's Thaddeus Gammon, from the Prophet -- he's been hanging about for hours. Unless Hermione loses her temper and hexes him to jelly, he'll come barging in here any minute -- we'd better clear out before he finds you." She picked up his wand from the bedside table, held it out to him. "Are you OK to walk?"
Harry took the wand reluctantly: it felt like a foreign object to him now, no longer a natural extension of his own body. Almost he wished he could leave it behind -- but that would be madness. "Yeah, I think so." Gritting his teeth against the burning ache in his muscles, he swung his legs around and shoved his feet into the shoes Hermione had lined up neatly for him by the end of the bed. "Let's go."
They were in the school's hospital ward, which made sense -- last night it would have been a good deal easier for Ron and Hermione to get him there than to his own room. Not to mention that the ward also had the strategic advantage of two exits, making it easy for Harry and Ginny to escape through the far door. They shut the door carefully behind them, and Ginny locked it with a flick of her wand; then they made their way down the long, dust and rubble-cluttered corridor, heading by unspoken agreement for the safety of Gryffindor Tower.
Behind the somewhat wild-eyed portrait of the Fat Lady, the Gryffindor common room looked much the same as ever -- but mercifully empty. Harry dropped onto the sofa, grateful for another chance to rest; Ginny hesitated a moment, then sat down beside him. For a long moment neither of them spoke, until:
"You're not really OK, Harry -- are you. Not inside."
She said it without looking at him, her eyes fixed on the cold ashes of the fireplace. For a moment Harry felt anger surge up in him, wanted to tell her it was none of her business, but deep down he knew better. If anybody could understand what it had been like to battle Voldemort on the deepest and most intimate level, how it had felt to be possessed, consumed, indeed nearly obliterated -- it would be Ginny Weasley.
"No," he said quietly. "I'm not."
She nodded, as though this were only to be expected. "But you're going to make it," she said. "Because, no matter what he did to you, you're still you. You're still here. He lost, Harry. And you won."
"You mean Neville won." The words tasted bitter. "If it hadn't been for him--"
"If it hadn't been for you, he couldn't have done what he did, either. If it hadn't been you fighting Voldemort, your life at stake -- I don't think Neville would have done that for anyone else."
"He wouldn't have done it for Snape, that's for sure," said Harry with a short laugh that cracked in the middle, leaving an unfamiliar wetness on his face. He brushed it away quickly with the back of his hand, not wanting Ginny to see it; but if she noticed either the tear or the gesture, she gave no sign.
"Speaking of Snape," she said thoughtfully, "did you know he's eloped?"
"I forgot, you missed that part of things. Seems he was in love with Maud Moody -- remember her? Mad-Eye's niece?"
"Sort of," said Harry, but he found herself staring at Ginny's profile, convinced that any minute she would grin and admit she'd been having him on. The idea of Snape falling in love with anyone, let alone anyone who'd want to marry him, was too bizarre to contemplate. But her face remained calm, and her voice only faintly amused, as she went on:
"Well, practically the moment the battle was over, they got married and went off. Nobody knows where. Fred and George told me."
Fred and George. Of course, that explained everything: it had to be one of the twins' outrageous jokes. Though surely Ginny, of all people, would know better than to take her brothers' twisted sense of humour seriously by now?
"I know," said Ginny, catching his eye and smiling a little. "That's what I thought, too. But it's true. You wait and see."
Her face was paler than usual, the freckles stark against the creamy whiteness of her cheeks. There were blue shadows under her eyes, and the flaming Weasley hair hung limp and tangled about her shoulders. He realised, then, that she must have been up all night and all morning as well, taking it in shifts with Ron and Hermione to guard his door and watch by his bedside as he slept. Guilt plucked at him, and he said, "Gin. You don't have to stay with me. You should get some sleep."
"I know." Her smile did not fade, though her eyes were sober. "But I want to stay. Unless you'd rather I didn't."
For a moment he almost told her that he didn't want company, and she'd be better off leaving him to think things over on his own. But he knew instinctively that she would see through that. She wasn't a little girl with a crush on Famous Harry Potter any more, nor even the brash teenager of two years ago. The war had changed her, as it had changed them all, and by now she was too perceptive, and knew him far too well, to be deceived.
"OK," said Harry, looking back at her, and managing the ghost of a smile in return. In spite of the pallor and the tangles, she didn't look like she was suffering, and he had to admit there was something comforting about having her near. Maybe because she didn't pressure him to talk, and she wasn't fussing over him, as Hermione or her mother would. She was just Ginny, and she was just... there.
For a long time they sat together in silence. Then Harry heard himself say, with a suddenness that took them both by surprise:
"I think Snape had the right idea."
Ginny raised her eyebrows at him. "What, eloping?"
"Getting away. Somewhere no one could find him." It was too late for that now, though. He felt sick at the thought of how many people -- how many friends -- awaited him outside the castle walls, eager to welcome and embrace and congratulate him for his defeat of Voldemort. Their praise was the last thing he wanted, he had no heart for celebration, and yet... he couldn't let them down. He owed them too much.
"You don't owe anything to anyone, Harry," said Ginny softly, as though she had read his thoughts. "If that's what you want--"
Surely there must be a note of disapproval in her voice, a hint of reproach. Well, Harry, if that's really what you want... but I think you ought to know you're being very selfish. That's what Mrs. Weasley would have meant by those words, however kindly she said them. Even Hermione would not have been able to hide that she was worried about letting him go off alone, and hoping that he wouldn't take her up on the offer. But Ginny... the eyes that met his were clear and level, without even the faintest shadow of reserve. Whether she had anticipated this or not, she was not afraid of it.
"It is," said Harry, forcing the words past the sudden tightness in his throat. "I just want to get away from all this, on my own, try to make some sense of... everything." He looked down at his scuffed and threadbare trainers, just visible beneath the hem of the robes he wore. "But I don't see how I can."
"I do," said Ginny. She reached into the pocket of her own robes and pulled out a tiny parcel. Setting it down on the table in front of them, she flicked her wand and said "Engorgio!"
Immediately the package swelled to normal size, and Harry recognised his own Invisibility Cloak, neatly folded and tied together with string. One pull, and the twine came undone, revealing a note tucked in among the folds:
Harry, I found this on the battlefield. Yours, I think?
"Professor Lupin brought it, this morning," said Ginny. "I think you should take it. Even if it isn't yours--"
"It's mine." Harry let his fingers drift across the silky folds, hardly able to believe his good fortune. He'd thought the cloak lost, destroyed. As it was, there seemed to be a few singed marks in the fabric, and the hem was tattered. But it would still work, and that was enough.
"I think," said Ginny again, "you should take the cloak and go to London. Get as much gold as you need out of your vault at Gringotts, and then go -- somewhere. Anywhere." She drew a deep breath. "And don't come back until you feel ready."
"But what about --"
"I'll handle the press. I'll tell them that I fell asleep when I was supposed to be watching you, and when I woke up you'd disappeared. They won't ask too many questions about how you managed to get away -- right now they think you can do anything."
"But Ron and Hermione -- your family -- I can't just --"
"Harry." She laid a hand on his arm. "They'll understand. And if they don't, I'll make them understand." Her fingers tightened briefly, reassuring. "But really, they shouldn't be that hard to convince, even Mum -- as long as you're safe, and happy, that's all that matters to her."
"I don't know where to go," murmured Harry, gazing down at the place where her hand still rested, small and light, against his forearm. A few minutes ago he'd thought himself trapped: now the sheer range of possibilities made him dizzy. He could convert the gold into Muggle money, get a plane ticket to America, or Australia, somewhere that nobody knew him --
His heart sank. Gently he removed Ginny's hand from his arm and stood up, letting the Invisibility Cloak fall into a shimmering puddle by his feet. "No. It'll never work."
"There's nowhere I can go without being recognised. Especially not now. With this scar --"
"Harry." Ginny reached up and took his hand again, pulling him back down onto the sofa beside her. As he blinked at her, she reached up and brushed the tumbled hair away from his forehead. "I thought you knew," she said. "There is no scar, Harry. Not any more."
No scar...So that had been the last, brain-searing pain he had felt, just before the world exploded and he lost consciousness altogether. Disbelieving, he felt the place where the ugly lightning-shaped mark had been. The skin felt smooth, indistinguishable from the rest of his forehead. He stood up and walked to the looking-glass beside the fireplace, staring at his own reflection. Ginny was right: the curse-scar had vanished completely.
"You might want to grow a beard, though," said Ginny from behind him, and he turned to see her standing there, smiling. "Just for a change."
"Ginny --" Words failed him, and he found himself reaching out to her, gripping her hand as though it were a lifeline. "I just -- I don't --"
"You've done enough," she said. "More than enough. You deserve this, Harry. You're free now, so make the most of it. Whatever it is you want..." She paused, frowning a little. "Do you even know what you want?"
He shook his head. "Did you, after Riddle --?"
"For a while," she said reflectively, "I wanted to die. But after that, more than anything, I think I just wanted to forget. To stop thinking about what he'd done to me, stop wondering what else I could have done to stop him, just -- lose myself for a while."
Harry grimaced. "Yeah. I wish I knew how to do that."
Ginny said nothing, just looked down at their still-linked hands. The lamplight threaded fire through her hair, limned the curve of her cheek, and all at once Harry was struck by a revelation: Ginny Weasley was pretty. Not as pretty as Cho had been, nor in the same exotic way. But there was nothing unpleasant about looking at her, nothing at all. In fact, the more he gazed at her, the more distracting she became...
Harry felt the blood rise, hot and prickly, into his face. Wild thoughts chased through his mind, and he wanted to say something, maybe even do something, but -- no, he couldn't --
"Ginny." His voice sounded hoarse. "Um, I was just wondering -- did you ever -- I mean, are you still --"
Had she ever been in love with him? Or had it only been a childish folly, like Hermione's crush on Lockhart? No, of course it was. She hadn't shown the slightest romantic interest in him for nearly three years. Stupid, he chided himself, stupid even to wonder about it, let alone ask -- Anyway, what was he thinking? This was Ron's little sister, for heaven's sake. He could only hope she'd be wise enough to let the matter drop, and not press him to finish the question. "Never mind," he said lamely.
"Harry." She took a step toward him and looked up into his face. "You've been staring at my mouth for a whole minute. If you want to know if it's all right to kiss me..."
Actually, he hadn't known quite what he was asking, hadn't allowed himself to think even that far ahead. Even now, the only things clear to him were how close the two of them were standing, the warmth of her hand in his, and the hollow ache inside that told him he wanted something...
"...the answer is yes."
Later, Harry would realise that he couldn't remember who actually said those words. Nor could he recall which one of them moved first, closing the last remaining space between them. All he knew was that in a moment he felt Ginny's arms slide around him, her slight body press against his own, and when their lips touched it was instant, blessed oblivion.
Nothing and no one in the universe, no past and no future, just the sensation of her soft mouth yielding to his and the curve of her waist beneath his hands. It felt so wonderful that he couldn't bear to let her go, and even when she turned her head aside to catch her breath he kept kissing her anyway, down the line of her jaw to the hollow of her throat, dizzy with the relief of not thinking.
A few long seconds passed while her quickening breaths stirred his hair; then she caught his face between her hands and raised it, bringing his restless mouth back to hers. They kissed again, hungrily, until something seemed to break inside of him, and the taste of salt on her lips made him pull back, mumbling "Sorry, I'm sorry--"
She reached up to brush his cheek. "It's all right to cry, Harry."
He'd thought the tears were hers, that he'd been too rough, too demanding. But her eyes were clear: it was his that burned and stung. He squeezed them shut and turned away.
"Gin," he said brokenly, "I am so messed up."
"I shouldn't have -- it's the wrong time for this. I can't --"
"I know. It's all right."
"I can't promise you anything."
"It's OK, Harry. I'm not expecting anything."
He doubted that, somehow. She was a girl, after all, and girls always had expectations, especially after you kissed them. But maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. It would give him something new to think about. Perhaps, even... another reason to come back.
"I have to go," he said thickly.
She nodded, and bent to pick up the fallen Invisibility Cloak, holding it out to him. "Be safe, Harry. Take care of yourself."
Slowly he took the cloak from her hands, draped it around his shoulders. "Tell Ron and Hermione --" he began, then stopped. What could he say to them? He could find no words to express his gratitude for their friendship, his relief that they were both still alive, his regret over not being able to share their present joy. The two of them had always been his anchor, his greatest comfort. Leaving them at the end of term had never been easy: now, it was like cutting off a limb. Especially since he had no idea when he would see them again.
Ginny took his hand in both of hers, squeezed it. "Don't worry. I'll tell them."
She would, too, he felt sure. She knew what he must be feeling, would be able to put it into words that Ron and Hermione could understand. "Thanks, Gin," he said quietly.
Her eyes were red-rimmed now, though her cheeks remained dry. Hermione would have thrown herself into his arms and wept stormily until there were no tears left, but Ginny was more guarded with her emotions -- most of the time, anyway. He liked that about her: she didn't make him feel helpless, or guilty, or confused, the way Cho had. He could almost believe that whatever might happen between them -- even if nothing happened at all -- she would still consider him a friend.
Quickly he bent and kissed her again, not allowing himself to linger. Then he pulled the hood up around his face, let the cloak fall closed in front of him, and vanished.
"Goodbye, Harry," he heard Ginny whisper, as he stepped through the portrait hole. Something in her voice tugged his heart in a new and unfamiliar direction, and for a moment he hesitated. But the emptiness inside him was too great, his thoughts too turbulent, his soul's burden too heavy to share. He had to get away, far away, before he ruined everything he'd fought for, or hurt any more of the people he loved.
Harry took a deep breath, and let the door go. It swung shut behind him, sealing itself with a familiar, final click. Then he lifted his head up, squared his shoulders and walked away down the corridor.
He didn't let himself look back.