NOTES: This story contains character death and angst. I like it. I can't guarantee you will!

Absent Friends

Returning to Ottery St. Catchpole was one of the hardest things Harry ever did.

But he had a promise to keep. Three years late, perhaps, but he'd never promised to return immediately. He'd just promised to come back someday. In his heart of hearts, he'd hoped he wouldn't have to. He'd hoped that he could continue running until, one day, he'd just collapsed on the ground and lie there until he died.

Harry wished he'd died. He could bear that better than life.

Then, too, in his mind, there'd been the question of the kind of reception he'd get from the Weasleys after so long. He needn't have worried on that score: Mrs Weasley was tearful and Mr. Weasley pleased, Bill was just as hearty and scarred, Fleur just as aristocratic and beautiful.

Ron and Hermione were much the same as they'd always been, albeit a little older, more mature. Harry wondered if they saw the tiredness in his face; he hoped they saw his pleasure at seeing them again.

Hermione hugged him fiercely and, naturally, burst into tears on his shoulder. Ron gripped his hand and pulled him into a backslapping hug, unabashed. "Good to see you, Harry."

But he was grateful when they let him go on, into the graveyard alone.

Some griefs should be private.

The poppies he carried were from a garden in Israel, where he'd been only days before. They were vivid in the green shades of the English countryside; brilliant, the way he remembered her, although the edges of his recollection bled and frayed, even as he tried to remember his last look at her before...

He wouldn't think about after.

It was hard not to linger on that final, still image of her: no mark on her body, no expression on her face, and the wand in her hand. Instead, he focused his attention on the pebbled grey of the path, on the daisies pushing up their faces in the warming spring, on the voice that picked its way through the gravestones as delicately as a queen might pick her way through a puddle of mud.

"...So Daddy thinks that we might try the Kosovo hills next year..."

The faint strains of a wandering voice trailed through the air, casual as a conversation, easy as a friend. There was only one person in Harry's world who would speak to the dead as though to the living.

Harry paused at the edge of the row, noting the glint of blonde hair, untidy as ever, the long gypsy skirt, somewhat tattered, the lopsided garland that clung stubbornly to the crown of her head, refusing to come loose. While some things had changed in the years since Harry had run from that final destruction of Voldemort, it seemed that Luna Lovegood had remained quite defiantly the same.

"Personally, I'd rather Bolivia." There was a pause, as though an answer was given. "No, I didn't think it was such a good idea, either - not with the upheaval there. Maybe if we took some peacestones in with us, or stayed out of sight..." Luna sighed and tilted her head. "No, you're right. It would be far too dangerous. And peacestones only work on people who have rindoscars."

Harry shook his head, as always, unsure of what to make of Luna. The motion caught her attention and she looked up. Her eyes widened, large, astonished, and oddly pleased. "Oh, Ginny, Harry's here!"

With more agility than Harry would ever have supposed her to possess, she picked herself up, her movements oddly graceful and brisk. "I think I'd better leave you two alone," she said conversationally, not finding it at all odd that she was talking to thin air. "It was lovely to talk to you again, Ginny. Bye!" Her bag was collected, and she laid a small silvery cup on the grassy swathe before she straightened and looked Harry in the eye. "She's been waiting a long time for you to come."

And with that extraordinary pronouncement, she walked from the churchyard, the garland still hanging rakishly from her brow. Harry looked after her as she vanished down the path towards the gate, putting off the moment when he would have to face...

Ginny Weasley.
Born 1981.
Died 1997.
Age 16.
Greatly loved, greatly mourned.

Harry stared down at the grave with its slim grey headstone and flower-filled vases and felt his heart clench.

Beneath the incised letters of the eulogy, someone had written in chalk: Some evils shouldn't be allowed to live.

It was a shocking thing to write on a tombstone, and Harry crouched down to brush the words away...

And paused. He remembered that conversation only too well.

"Harry, you have to--"

"No," he'd snarled at her. "I don't!"

"You do!" She'd taken him by the shoulders and forced him to look at her. "Harry, you've been fighting him for the last six years."

"And this is the last year," he'd said.

"Harry, you know it won't be! If you're going to destroy all the horcruxes--"

He'd brushed his fingers past her cheek, softer than the skin of any girl he'd ever touched. "I told you I didn't want you to be part of this."

"And you should have known that breaking up with me wouldn't change a thing," she'd said. "I'm in this as deep as you, Harry."

"You don't have to be."

"Yes," Ginny had told him. "I have to be." Her fingers traced his jaw as she looked into his eyes. "Harry, some evils shouldn't be allowed to live."

They found her after the last battle against Voldemort's minions, her wand still clenched in her hand, her face oddly serene. Hermione had confirmed the last spell to come from Ginny's wand, and Ron had held his little sister in his arms and cried like a child, while Harry stood frozen, staring down at the face of the girl he loved.

Some evils shouldn't be allowed to live.

Voldemort couldn't possess Harry for more than a second, touched as he was by the sacrificial love of his mother. And, however much she'd been loved, Ginny hadn't possessed that protection. There was no time to ask for someone willing to give it to her, even as they spoke, Voldemort and his Death Eaters were closing in on Harry and his companions and they needed everyone in this battle.

So Ginny had done what Harry could not; she had destroyed the last horcrux herself. She had done what nobody else would do; she had destroyed the last horcrux: herself.

His jaw tickled. Harry lifted his hand and wiped away his tears, smearing the moisture beneath his glasses.

Ginny. You shouldn't have...

Pragmatically, he knew she'd done what was right. But his heart rebelled against the necessity of it, and he even felt guilty thinking that she'd done the right thing. Because what kind of man would think that a friend's suicide was the right thing - in any circumstances?

"I came back," he said at last. Maybe it was Luna's loony influence, but he felt the need to say the words and not just think them. He needed to hear them out loud, not just in the quiet of his mind. "I'm sorry it took so long."

He'd promised to come back. Someday.

Somehow, the hours had turned into days and the days into weeks, months, and years. Three years had passed in the blink of an eye and at the end of them, she was still dead.

Some evils shouldn't be allowed to live, Harry.

Harry started in surprise, wondering if it was his own imagination or really a voice he heard.

The graveyard was peaceful and quiet, subdued in the solemnity of consecrated earth. Nothing moved but the bees dancing over the flowers, and Harry relaxed, not sure if he wished her here or not. But no ghosts haunted this place - especially not hers. Ginny's body lay here, but Ginny herself - all the things that had made her who Harry loved - they were gone, far away.

"I've been...travelling." Trying to forget. "It helped." Just not as much as he'd thought it might. "I learned stuff. Philosophy." How to keep going in the face of loss. "I...missed you."

He paused and took a deep breath.

"I wish you'd been the Girl Who Lived, Ginny. Because then...then..."

So many possibilities, lost in her death. After that last battle against Voldemort, Harry walked away from the wizarding world. Not that he could escape being The Boy Who Lived, but in leaving the world where he'd once felt at home, he could at least forget the girl he'd loved.

"It took me this long to understand, Gin. I can't forget you. And I don't want to." It wasn't crippling, the way romance novels claimed, but it would scar him - had scarred him as indelibly as that first confrontation with Voldemort on a night twenty years ago.

"I came to keep my promise," he said. The poppies were still in his hand and he tucked them into one of the jars by the headstone. "I came to say goodbye."

He had a life to live - maybe not the life he'd imagined when he was seventeen, but a life nevertheless. There were people who'd missed him, people who cared about him, and a world that his parents had given him - his parents and Ginny.

She'd done the right thing. Harry accepted that at last.

Now he was ready to move on.

As he rose to his feet, the wind rustled the leaves of the trees beyond the spiky fence, like a breathy sigh, carrying away the old pain and grief, giving him a lease of life he never thought he'd have.

He walked away from her grave, knowing he'd be back from time to time. Maybe it was his imagination, but the world seemed lighter, brighter around him, as though a veil had lifted.

Luna was waiting outside the fence, making faces at a butterfly that had landed on her hand. "She missed you."

"Huh?"

"Ginny. She missed you."

Harry didn't know how to respond to that. After a moment, he found his voice. "I missed her, too."

"You should have come earlier," Luna said, lifting her gaze from the butterfly. "I said you'd be back."

That surprised him. "You did?"

"Of course." The insect lifted from her finger and fluttered off into the hazy afternoon. "We all return to where we came from, Harry."

That sounded more cryptic than crazy.

Harry stared at her as she tilted her head at him, studying his face.

Like most people he'd known at school, he hadn't seen Luna for several years. His last clear memory of her was at Ginny's funeral, staring off into space, frowning just a little. She'd come up and said something to him, although he forgot what it was.

Very few memories of that day remained with him, even years later, everything was a blur of faces and noises, light and haze.

But he remembered the blue of her eyes, meeting his gaze in the crowd and nodding at him as solemnly as any minister.

Those eyes regarded him now, almost critically, studying the changes time had made in him.

She hadn't changed all that much. Instead of radish earrings and lion-headed hats, it seemed to be silver snake fangs and daisy chains, but other than that, the air of distinct dottiness was unchanged. Whether she was talking to butterflies or graves, Luna was entirely Luna.

Then she smiled, quickly and without self-consciousness, and touched his arm. "It's good to have you home, Harry."

Ron and Hermione had said the same thing, and the Weasleys, and Harry had nodded and not said anything. Now, he stopped and turned towards her. "Did you miss her?"

She'd taken a step past him, continuing serenely along. Now she turned back to face him and Harry found himself waiting for her response.

Among the Weasleys - both sets - the topic of Ginny hadn't been broached. She was there, in everyone's thoughts, but nobody brought her up. They'd probably been worried about Harry's state of mind, and Harry hadn't exactly felt like talking about her.

On the other hand, he had a feeling Luna might understand him a little better than the Weasleys. After all, she, too, was solitary.

"She was my friend," Luna said. "Of course I missed her. But that's what you do with absent friends."

Her statement was simple, yet Harry felt as though he'd been hit with a stunning spell.

She missed you, Luna had said. That's what you do with absent friends.

He'd been gone too long.

It was good to be back.

Luna peered at him, as though he were one of her fantastic beasts, then smiled briefly and continued walking down the path towards Ottery St. Catchpole.

"That's what you do," Harry echoed, quieter.

He turned to look at the graveyard, at the tall cast-iron fence and thick green grass sprouting out from around the tombstones. Ginny Weasley was dead and gone.

As he looked back along the road that lead away from the dead and buried past, he caught sight of the blonde head, still crowned with its circlet of lopsided daises, and wondered whether Luna had missed him.

Too soon to ask? Or too late?

Only one way to find out.

Harry took a deep breath and walked away from his past.

- fin -

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