Epilogue

            The sky against the window was a pervasive grey. Somewhere, out in the dense forest surrounding the building, the sun was reluctantly rising, shaking off the curtain of the long night, and trying to pierce the thick cloud cover with its bright rays. Some days are harder than others.

            Harry Potter, only son of Lily and James Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived, the slayer of the Basilisk, Triwizard Champion, the youngest person to make the Gryffindor Quidditch Team in over a hundred years, and the One with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord, lay awake on his narrow cot. He was a quiet young man; seventeen years old by the calendar, but with a lifetime of concern in his green eyes. He had grown up tall and strong -- had begun to fill out at last, giving up his time-honored skeletal frame for toned muscles.

            He often lay in bed in the mornings without sleeping; opting instead to stare up at the ceiling with laconic patience until the sun rose and the day began. He was not an early riser by nature, but of late the realm of dreams held too many terrors, and he was comfortable with silence. So, he lay there in perfect peace, listening to the old house creak around him. Soon, he knew that Mrs. Weasley would be up, making breakfast for her large family and her guests. That moment was still half an hour off, he figured, gauging by the dim color of the early morning sky.

            In the bed next to him, Ronald Weasley snorted loudly, stirred by an unseen hand. "That tickles, Herm," he muttered, pulling up the bright orange blanket to his chin and rolling over on his right shoulder. Within seconds, the boy's breathing evened out, and Harry knew he was fast asleep again. Harry had had plenty of experience in listening to his oldest friend sleep over the years.

            Hands behind his head, Harry continued to regard the ceiling, which was also a bright shade of orange. It was late summer, and within a week they would both return to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for their seventh and final year. It was a startling realization to the taciturn youth. His first year at the school seemed like a different lifetime, so far in the past that he had trouble remembering what preceded it. It was as if his entire life hinged upon that castle, and he could only guess at what would follow it.

            Or, more accurately, he could only wonder if anything would follow it. It had been a little year since the time that Albus Dumbledore had revealed his fate to him – his young life must include, or end in, murder. Somewhere, hopefully far from the run-down place called the Burrow, Lord Voldemort waited. Harry would meet him again someday, and only one of them would survive the encounter. It was a grim reality, beyond any doubt, but one that he had grown accustomed to. One can used to anything, after all, if given enough time.

            He still dreamed about them, he knew. There were some six billion souls on the planet, but he had personally removed five of them. He had not wanted to, in any of the cases; in fact, he had only done so to preserve his life or the life of others. There had been Edmund Gloucester, a Deatheater, who pulled his wand on Harry in a dark alleyway. Harry left his body in the dumpster. There had been the Nigellus brothers, Dorian and Jacob, with Dorian's wife Calliope – all Deatheaters. They tried to ambush Harry in a convenience store, killing the clerk in the progress. Harry laid them out neatly on the sidewalk in front of the store.

            Every time the young man was forced to kill, it left him in a state for days afterward. The first time had been during his last school year, right before Christmas. A Deatheater attack of Hogsmeade left the village in the grips of terror, and Harry took the life of Bellatrix Lestrange. He no longer remembered most of that day. The details of his return to the school, the conversations he had afterward, where he slept that night – he recalled none of it. In his mind was only a large, blank gap. The same was true of the weeks that followed. He was told that he was insensate for large portions of the time, crying and screaming until spent. He thought he was better off without those memories.

            Even with the peculiar gap in his memory, he knew what it was that tormented him those long weeks. He saw it every night when he closed his eyes; the same hypnagogic terror – two wide, vacant eyes and a terrible lightning-shaped gash. He still avoided mirrors religiously for that very reason – every time he looked in one all he saw was two eyes and a lightning bolt. It was the very symbol of his misery.

            He was told that he recovered from the ordeal, at length. In a sense, it was true – he left the Hospital Wing, began eating regularly, and even returned to classes eventually. The world that he confronted upon his return was not the one he had left. Some clever scapegrace had exchanged the old reality for a newer, darker one while he slept. There was no humor in the world anymore. There was no peace, no beauty, no poetry. The sun showed its face rarely, and when it did he was sure it mocked him. He knew that he had not gotten better at all. In truth, at the moment when Bellatrix Lestrange's eyes opened in surprise and that horrible lightning bolt became affixed to her head, a large part of him had died, and it was not coming back. He carried death around inside of him wherever he went. One does not recover from death. One learns to accept that they are dead, and gets on with their life.

            The next time had been easier to deal with, and the third easier than that. They were still traumatic. It is a difficult thing to accept that one had to kill. However, one can rationalize that they merely did what they had to in a tough situation. It is a far more onerous task to bend one's mind around the fact that they have killed, and that they will have to do it again. Harry knew that someday he would have to kill again. He knew that it was for the best, knew that Voldemort had to die. It was nonetheless a daunting proposition.

            Kingsley Shacklebolt was lauded as a hero for taking down Lestrange, who cast a shadow of terror almost as far as her feared master. Kingsley Shacklebolt was given a medal for his heroic, bold and fictitious action. Kingsley Shacklebolt was wearing that medal when he was slain in battle. Kingsley Shacklebolt's medal did not stop the green bolt that took Kingsley Shacklebolt's life.

            Harry would later learn that the Deatheater attack on Hogsmeade was not a random act of terror. The Dark Lord's minions were not there to kill or even harass the denizens of the village. They had been sent for a single purpose – to shuffle Harry Potter loose from the mortal coil. Ironically, when Bellatrix Lestrange lost her duel with Harry, she inflicted the most serious wound he had ever suffered. Although the villainous Deatheaters had been sent to kill but one person (at which they failed), they succeeded in incidentally taking the lives of four. Mandy Brocklehurst, Blaise Zabini, and two French tourists perished when Madame Puddifoot's café succumbed to too many malevolent spells and collapsed. Neville Longbottom had been cornered by a pair of Deatheaters who were sure he knew where Harry was. They roughed him up severely in the interrogation, and were about to employ the Cruciatus Curse when the Ministry Aurors arrived. All things considered, the day could have gone far worse for them.

            Harry heard a rumble of pots and pans from downstairs, signifying that Mrs. Weasley was preparing breakfast. He glanced at the window, and was surprised to see that it had grown visibly lighter outside. He waited a few more minutes, and then nudged his mate in the side. "Come on, Ron. Breakfast will be ready soon."

            "Oh yeah?" Ron mumbled drowsily. "Is that so? Wingardium Leviosa. Win-GAR-dium Levi-O-sa."

            Shaking his head, Harry got to his feet and left Ron to sleep in peace. He dressed silently, threw on some house slippers, and headed downstairs. He was halfway there when the smell of coffee and bacon wafted into his nostrils. He was not surprised to find that Mrs. Weasley was alone in the kitchen.

            "Good morning, Harry," she said pleasantly. She waved her wand in the direction of the frying pan, which dutifully bounced in place, flipping the bacon over neatly. "Would you like a cup of coffee?"

            Harry shook his head, glancing around the kitchen. "Is there any orange juice?"

            Mrs. Weasley frowned, her careworn face blushing slightly. "No, I'm afraid not… Arthur hasn't been paid yet this-"

            "No, that's fine," Harry said quickly, embarrassed. "Some coffee would be wonderful." He stepped over to the churning pot and poured half a glass into his favorite mug, a stout black one with a small chip in the handle. He looked around for some cream, but did not see any. Too embarrassed to ask for any, he sipped his coffee black.

            "Were not sleeping well again, dear?" Mrs. Weasley asked. She did not look at him, focusing on the bread she was toasting with her wand.

            "No, I slept fine," Harry said defensively. "Really."

            "Mmm-hmm. Anyway, the Daily Prophet is on the table if you want to have a look at it," she said loudly. "I'll have breakfast ready shortly."

            Harry glanced at the table in disdain, safely behind the matriarch's back. He did not read The Daily Prophet. The two of them had gotten along reasonably well for several years, but during his fifth year they had a very up and down relationship. Harry had sworn the paper off after the gift he had received from the paper on his birthday. It was on that occasion that The Daily Prophet reported that Professor Anton Nemo had been killed in a duel with the Dark Lord. In a time that saw the ranks of Voldemort swelling to alarming numbers, it was a badge of honor to be dispatched by the Dark Lord directly. Harry had little doubt that his former professor had foolishly challenged Voldemort in a battle. His former mentor and friend had been prone to quixotic heroics. Harry never had the chance to say good-bye.

            "No thanks," Harry said softly. "I think I'll just go have a seat on the porch."

            "Oh," Mrs. Weasley remarked, her voice tinged with concern. "Okay, then."

            Harry took his mug out the nearest exit, and had a sit on the top of the stairs that lead to a small wooden porch. It was getting lighter outside, but the skies were still a dark hue of grey, promising another dreary, overcast day. A cool, favonian breeze rustled the leaves as it swept through the trees, but otherwise the world was silent, peaceful. Harry found that he was grateful to be alone at that moment. He raised the coffee mug to his lips and took a hesitant drink, grimacing at the flavor.

            To his left he heard the telltale snap of twigs on the ground. He looked over to see Fred and George Weasley hurrying across the ground, keeping as low to the ground as possible. They came to a stop at the base of the stairs leading to the porch.

            "Hey there, mate," George whispered.

            "You're up early," Fred observed.

            "You're out late," Harry returned.

            They were wearing solid black robes, long trench coats, and sturdy shoes – a clear sign that they had been traveling in the recent dark.

            "Yeah," George breathed.  He patted the bulging pocket of his coat in emphasis. "We had to meet Mundungus to get a shipment of – er…."

            "Perhaps it's best if we didn't go into that," Fred said reasonably.

            Harry shrugged in response. "Your mother's making breakfast in the kitchen," he informed them.

            "Yeah?" Fred remarked quietly, as he had George instinctively sunk lower to the ground. "Is it that late already?"

            Harry nodded.

            The Twins exchanged a look.

            "To the window," George declared.

            "We'll see you at breakfast, Harry," Fred whispered. "You know, after we get up¸ and head downstairs." His voice made it clear that Harry was not to mention this meeting to the Weasley mother.

            Harry said nothing, but simply sipped his bitter coffee and watched the Twins melt back into the grey shadows. There was a time when that conversation would have gone far differently. Fred and George had once regarded him almost as The Third of Three. They would have told him exactly what they had gone out for, how much it had cost them, and what nefarious plot they had in mind for it. They certainly would not have reminded him to keep his mouth shut. It all went back to that ridiculous contest the previous year.

            Harry had been in charge of recording the progress of the contestants at Hogwarts. However, right at the culmination of the month-long window of pranking, he was knocked out of commission by the events in Hogsmeade. Harry's team had a sizable lead at the time, more than anyone could hope to overcome. Harry's stay in the Hospital Wing and subsequent melancholy signaled his forfeit of the contest. As such, the Creevey Brothers were awarded a trophy that neither wanted nor deserved. The Twins would never admit to any ill will over the ordeal, but he knew that they had treated him differently since. Under the surface, they resented him, he knew, even though they knew consciously that he was not to blame. It was one more lamentable situation that Harry could never mend.

            The kitchen door swung open, the floorboards creaked behind him, and Harry was surprised to realize that he was no longer alone. Again. "I'll be right there, Mrs. Weasley," he said stiffly, not bothering to turn around.

            "Mrs. Weasley? I always thought of myself as just Ginny'," a young voice laughed.

            Harry blinked in surprise to see Ginny Weasley standing behind him. She held a coffee mug in her hand and a sleepy look in her eyes.

            "Oh, hey," Harry said.

            "Do you mind if I join you?" she asked, gesturing to the ground beside him.

            "Yeah, no problem," he answered.

            She sat down and put the coffee mug to her lips. "I can't wait until Dad gets paid again," she muttered. "This stuff is terrible without a little milk."

            Harry held his silence, staring at the dark trees impassively.

            "You're up early," she went on.

            He could feel her eyes on his face. He did not turn to look at her. "So are you."

            "Earlier than I had wanted," she giggled. "Ron came into the room and started snuggling up to Hermione, so I beat a hasty retreat."

            Harry nodded solemnly. "Sounds reasonable."

            Ginny paused a moment before going on, likely looking at him again. "And here I thought they were broken up." She laughed a little as she said it – it was getting to be a joke. Ron and Hermione had broken up and gotten back together on an almost monthly basis since they first hooked up. The first time it happened, shortly after Hogsmeade, everyone was surprised. With each progressive split, the next reunion loomed ever closer. It seemed that the two of them were dedicated to be breaking up (and making up) for some time to come. 

            "I guess not."

            "Harry-" Ginny started, but stopped herself just as quickly. She took another sip of her coffee and then started again. "Harry, if you ever want to talk, I-"

            "I know," Harry cut in, more sharply than he had intended. "Thank you. I-I appreciate it."

            "Yeah," Ginny said quietly. "Sure."

            They sat on the edge of the porch, but neither spoke. The wind had picked up a little bit, and leaves were now trailing along the ground in its path. The sky promised no sun.

            "I got a package from Colin yesterday," Ginny said suddenly, her face brightening.

            "Oh?" Harry remarked.

            "Yeah. He's doing really well," she went on, oblivious to his desire for peace. Ginny had resolved in her mind that the only way to cure Harry of his "funk" was to fill as much time as possible with cheerful conversation. She was doing her best to help, he knew. All of his friends were. They were going out of their minds trying to figure out how they could make things better, but he was beyond that. He watched them, day in and day out, trying to cheer him up. He watched as their bright smiles turned to tears of frustration. A part of him wanted to reach out to them, to tell that they could save themselves the trouble and give up the effort. One does not recover from death.

             "He's apparently learning a lot. He sent me this neat little rock -- it's so pretty. I forgot what the name of it was!"

            Harry was painfully aware that Dennis and Colin Creevey were spending their summer in Fiji. There were some powerful magical forces at work in the volcanic regions of the Island chain, and their parents felt it would be an educational experience for the crowned pranksters.

            "It was all purple and sparkly-"

            "Geode."

            "Huh?"
            "It's called a geode," Harry told her.

            "Yeah, that's it!" Ginny went on. "Remind me, and I'll show it to you later. It's so pretty."

            It was further obvious that Colin Creevey had finally figured out what everyone else had known for years – that he was hopelessly stuck on Ginny. She played dumb, as if she could not see it, either. Harry found his patience had run out. "Ginny, why don't you just kiss Colin?"

            "Huh?" Ginny exclaimed, her voice painfully loud.

            "Ginny, you're mad about the guy," Harry said morosely. "And he's mad about you. We all know."

            "Oh…" Ginny pondered it for a moment. "You know what? I think I will. On the Hogwarts Express, as soon as I see him. It'll startle him something fierce, but I don't think he'll mind." She paused. "It's a good thing you're here."

            Harry turned his head to look at her for the first time in their conversation. It was indeed fortunate that he was there – somebody had to dedicate their life to stopping the Dark Lord. "Yeah," he said dully.

            "Yeah!" She said, mistaking his tone for a question. "If it weren't for you, I wouldn't have made up my mind about Colin. It was just right there, and I… I guess we both knew it, but we wouldn't see it until you said something."

            Harry said nothing.

            "That must have been what it was like when you told Hermione to talk to Ron," Ginny observed.

            Harry cast his memory back to that night. It had been a Saturday, the day of the Gryffindor-Slytherin Quidditch match – the day it had all began. "Yeah," he remarked. "Something like it."

            From within the kitchen the sounds had been building over the last few minutes, culminating in that moment. A pair of loud thuds announced that Fred and George had decided to "wake up" and go down for breakfast. Mrs. Weasley apparently was not fooled. "Just where have you two been?" was the first of a long tirade of angry phrases which commenced at that moment.

            "I gotta go watch this. I love it when she takes the mickey out of them!" Ginny giggled, grabbing her coffee and standing up. She paused a moment. "Are you coming, Harry?"

            Harry shook his head. "Go on in. I'll be in there in a minute."

            Ginny bowed her head, looking a little disappointed. She left, her jubilant mood only slightly hampered by his indifference.

            Harry tasted his coffee again, and was again disappointed by the flavor of the rapidly-cooling beverage. His thoughts were whirling around that Saturday night, so long ago. He tried not to think about her very often, but it was an exercise in futility. Every time he closed his eyes, as he did then, he saw her. He watched her soft eyes welling with emotion, and then her lips with quaver, and slowly – sweetly – twist into a smile. He could taste her scent on the air sometimes, when the air was still enough and his mind remembered properly. He saw himself wrap her up in a bear hug, pulling him close to her chest and not letting go until he had had his fill. She would nuzzle against his neck, stroking his check with her hands. And then he would stoop a couple of inches, and they would press their lips together, drawn slowly into a world of mesmerizing heat.

            He kept his eyes closed, reveling in the moment.

            It had been seven months since Hogsmeade. To that day, his most recent words to her had been "All you have to do is step into the flames, and say the word Hogwarts'. Okay?". It seemed a poor way to end things. She had her say, of course. His first memory after Hogsmeade was from inside the Hospital Wing, holding a note in his hands and staring at the words in silence. He did not know when it had arrived, but he knew that he had read it many times by that point. He could stare at the brief note for hours on end, as if by absorbing the words he might summon her to him. "Good-bye." That was all it said, that and nothing else. It was not addressed nor signed, not that he would need any clues to recognize the handwriting.

            He would see her in the Great Hall over meals, or in passing in the stone corridors of that cold castle, and he would stare at her unabashedly for minutes at a time. She never so much as looked back at him, but she knew he was there, and that was enough sometimes. Usually it was not, and he passed long hours in silence and alone, refusing to let out the tears that threatened to break over the dam at any moment but never did.

            One day he saw her, standing in front of Snape's classroom, hanging on Draco's shoulder. Still she did not meet his gaze. He comported himself well at the moment, but when he returned to the privacy of the common room, a recliner paid dearly for the transgression. He was angered and saddened beyond words, but did not despair. Draco Malfoy, the prince of a small estate, could prove his pureblood legacy as far back as anyone. He would never have to work a day in his life if he did not choose to. He was popular and proud. But he would never understand her. He would not know what it meant when she clicked her tongue idly at the back of her throat, or pulled her hair behind her ear in a jerking moment. If she did not wish, he would never know how much she despised him. So long as she hated, Harry could hope.

            It had been confirmed to him that Adolphus and Arana Parkinson were Deatheaters. This was a bitter moment for Harry as well, since she had told him the opposite. It might have been a petty deception at the moment when issued, but the consequences could prove disastrous, in light of the many things he had shared with her. In a way, this thought gave him the most hope of all. Every Deatheater he had encountered had been surprised by his second wand – he saw it, pristine and unmistakable, on their faces before they died.

            The furor in the kitchen reached another level as Mrs. Weasley flung a copper pan in the direction of George. With the indignant clang of metal ringing in his ears, Harry stood up and stiffly descended the stairs. He had reason to suspect that breakfast would not be served for a few minutes yet. He ambled slowly over the soft ground, feeling the wind play across the exposed skin of his neck and shoulders, like the memory of a lost lover. He wandered to the edge of a small clearing and paused.

            He would fight Lord Voldemort, he knew. Perhaps it was a touch of the Inner Eye, or simply the escalation of the ongoing war, but he was reasonably sure it would be within the next year. Anton had done his best to prepare the young wizard, and others would rise to the task after his passing. Harry knew that he would be ready when the time came. It was impossible to know if he would survive. The truth was that he might be enjoying his last summer at the Burrow, and his last summer anywhere. He did not welcome death, but he did not flinch at it, either.

            Once his mortal struggle was decided, Harry knew what he would do next. He had suffered long, lonely nights and dismal days in the last seven months, but the memory lingered of a force that could take it all away. His plans started with overturning social convention and finished with the sweetest reward imaginable. He had made a promise.

            Stooping gently, Harry bent over to admire a flower at his feet. It was a marvel to behold, a dash of proud color in a forbidding landscape. Not many flowers bloomed in that inhospitable clime. The wide petals were a soft white with folded blue edges and long lashes of blue running down into the golden heart of the flower. He touched it gently with his fingertips, a smile creeping onto his lips. He thought for a moment to pluck it, take it with him. But instead he let it be to grow alone in the emptiness of the small clearing.

            He straightened up, and glanced in the direction of the Burrow. He would need to go inside soon, he knew, but he tarried a moment, content to observe the small clearing. Up in the sky, he could see the tenacious clouds thinning, breaking up. Perhaps the sun would come out that day after all.

A/N: Uh… The End.  I do hope you enjoyed it, gentle reader. If you did, you can reward me in two possible ways: firstly, with long, detailed reviews, or by reading my other full-length fic – The Dark Days Saga. I must warn you, it's not nearly as fluffy as this one was.