Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all related plot events and characters are the property of JK Rowling.

Summary: PostHogwarts. Harry must deal with the horrors of war, and in doing so he will embrace his heritage and leave a lasting legacy on the world.

A/N: 'And like withered leaves on a gust of wind, we scattered like riders on the storm.'

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Chapter 16: Riders on the Storm

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, Headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, sighed and leaned back in his chair. He could feel the tired strain his ancient age put on his bones, but it didn't concern him at the moment. He took his glasses off and placed them on his desk, pinching the bridge of his nose. He had a mild headache, but the action was more from the heavy feeling he'd had for some time now.

The Wizarding World, most of it, at least, was in good shape. The fear that had spread like wildfire after Voldemort had returned was slowly receding, and becoming, just like Voldemort, a distant memory. And, as the fear went away, things became more and more relaxed, and people were starting to live their lives like they should.

The prejudices and bigotry that Tom had fed off of were also slowly disappearing, because most of the people that harbored them were either dead or in prison. The peace was a welcome change, especially because there hadn't been true peace in a very long time. The economy was flourishing, relations between magical species were growing, and the Ministry was no longer the seed for corruption.

As Dumbledore considered things, he could definitely see that things were indeed looking up. His world—the world that he'd been protecting and looking after for so long now—was almost to the point where it would not need him anymore. He'd been quietly guiding things as best he could for a very long time, and he was happy to see that the necessity for that was fading.

Except…in one area. He tilted the chair back even more as his thoughts went to his Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, one Harry James Potter. If the Wizarding World was in good condition, its hero certainly was not. Dumbledore grimaced as he replayed what he had just thought: the world's hero.

That's what struck him. That's what bothered him the most. Since Harry had been one—since that fateful Halloween night—he had been, more or less, the hero of the Wizarding World. Through thick and thin, he had been the beacon of hope for so many people. It was all with good reason, as there was a prophecy that said it was Harry who had to kill Tom, but it had thrown a cloud over Harry's life from the start.

Dumbledore had noticed it the first day Harry had been in Hogwarts, when he had entered the Great Hall, and everyone was gawking at him. He had looked distinctly uncomfortable, and that had, for the most part, followed Harry through his entire time at Hogwarts. As time passed, though, he seemed to handle it better, and at some point, it had become a non-issue. He had simply accepted the fact that there was nothing he could do about it.

Dumbledore didn't mind his own fame, but he knew what it could do. He knew how fickle the masses were, and how quickly fame could become infamy. Thankfully, Harry had avoided that little problem, but that wasn't what was really bothering the Headmaster. He began to rub his eyes, trying to get the stupor out from his overworked brain.

No, what was really bothering him was that the Wizarding World was good. He loved that it was good—that had always been his goal—but it was how it became good that was giving him issues. Of course, it had been Harry and his friends, but mostly Harry, who had created this peace, and that was why he felt so old and tired. As he'd told Harry before Christmas, he felt like he'd failed Harry. It wasn't something he'd ever wanted to do again, to fail, but it was there.

He'd failed him because he hadn't foreseen what was coming. Harry had sacrificed so much, had given up so much for people he would never meet. Tom was a huge, giant specter over things for so long, and then Harry had come in and ended that. It had been appreciated, for a little while, but then things had changed.

People had seemed to stop caring. Now that their world was safe…and free…they returned to their lives and forgot about how things had become like that. They forgot about who had finished it, about who had been the one to end it all, and about who had restored peace. The Wizarding World was good, yes, but they had forgotten about their hero.

There was no doubt that Harry loved the quiet life, away from all the sights and sounds of fame, but Dumbledore took it as an insult to himself that the world could have such long-term memory issues. Harry was a like a grandson to him, and when Harry was hurting, he got upset. He got upset at everything that hurt Harry, which, in this case, was the world. They were all so wrapped up in their own lives—it had happened so fast after word of the Tom's end had come—that they'd left their savior in a heartbeat.

And where was Harry for all of this? Harry was…Harry was a broken man, that's where he was. He'd lost his parents…actually, he'd never really known his parents. He'd grown up unloved and uncared for, which was partially Dumbledore's fault, but at least he'd been protected. Dumbledore shook his head. He was past trying to justify his actions, because he could now see just how horribly wrong he'd been. Harry was…Harry would have been just as selfless and humble if he'd grown up exposed to his fame, but Dumbledore didn't have enough faith. He'd doomed Harry to eleven years of hell.

Then, every year that Harry had been at Hogwarts, he'd been through some trial or another, most of which Dumbledore either could have prevented or had caused. Quirrell…well, Dumbledore knew there was something odd about the man. If only he'd checked into his suspicions. As for the Basilisk, Dumbledore knew that the Chamber did actually exist, but he'd never really had the motivation to find it and stop whatever was inside it. That entire ordeal could have been avoided altogether.

He'd always had his suspicions about who the real secret keeper was, and if he'd pressed harder to get Sirius a real trial all those years back, most of what had occurred during Harry's third year would have been different. And the TriWizard Tournament…he didn't even want to think about that fiasco. There could have been so many things that would have invalidated Harry, or the Tournament altogether, but they'd all blindly pressed on.

He admitted to himself that Snape probably wasn't the best to teach Harry Occlumency, because of the pretenses the man had had to keep for his role as a spy, but that, like everything else, was water under the bridge. At least Harry, and his five accomplices, had escaped the Ministry that night with their lives.

And then there was Harry's sixth year. Dumbledore had so blindly followed his will not to reveal his true power, that he'd faked his own death, in front of Harry. Apparently, as Dumbledore now saw it, he hadn't learned from any of his past mistakes. He'd forced the boy into another cruel situation, and then had confronted him with that. He was ashamed of it, more than he would admit to anybody, and if he could take anything back, in his entire life, that would be it.

It had caused Harry to become bitter and hard, and had led him down roads that had shocked Dumbledore at first. The more he thought about it, though, the less surprised he was. Harry was a survivor, as well as a protector. He'd do anything to keep his own life; however, the only thing he valued above that, were the lives of those close to him. The darkness Harry had shown wasn't really darkness…it was more an extreme reaction to the danger his loved ones were put in.

Everything, though, all of it, had led to what had happened. Harry and his closest friends drifted apart, and Dumbledore couldn't help but think he'd had a hand in that too. The Headmaster had caused most of the traumas in Harry's life, either directly or indirectly. They had slowly eroded away at Harry; they had slowly made it harder and harder for Harry to relate to his fellow human being, in the most fundamental of ways, and that had started the entire downhill slide.

What was worse, and why Dumbledore was so…frustrated…was that he had been forgotten. The broken man he'd become—even though at times he didn't appear to be one—had been forgotten. Harry'd had only Ginny, himself, and, to an extent, Helen to turn to, but now…now it was different. Ginny was gone, which Dumbledore had known was going to happen, but not as quickly; Helen and Harry seemed to be drifting apart, which was a shame, because they had helped each other so much; finally, Harry hadn't had a meaningful conversation with Dumbledore since that week before Christmas.

That left him to himself, which Dumbledore knew was a dangerous situation. Harry wasn't normally self-destructive, but he did have very little regard for his own well being at times. As Dumbledore watched him close himself off, as he faded from the public eye, he'd become very reticent. The withdrawal of Ron and Hermione hadn't helped things, and Dumbledore didn't think he'd spoken to them since…well, the wedding.

Dumbledore glanced at the magical calendar on the wall. The wedding had been almost nine months before, as it was now the end of April, 1999. He hadn't spoken to his two best friends in nine months. He'd had the feeling that Harry was going to seriously try and fix things, but then Christmas had happened. He sighed yet again, sinking lower into his chair. Christmas had been a…disaster.

Dumbledore didn't know how much longer this could go on, or how many more traumas Harry could take, before he did something rash. Since Christmas, Harry had withdrawn from everyone so completely that it was hard to tell what he was really thinking. Even his teaching, which he'd been able to separate from his depression before, was suffering from his impassive and apathetic attitude.

There was no blame to place, though; at least, not on Harry. Harry had done so much for everyone and had done it all so selflessly, that no one could possibly blame him. And that was the problem—they weren't blaming him; no, they were forgetting him. And as Harry slipped further and further away from everyone, Dumbledore was afraid that Harry would forget himself.

He sat up, placing his glasses back on the end of his nose. There were things he needed to get done, so he couldn't continue to dishearten himself for the entire day. He would observe Harry carefully for a while, and see if he could help here and there. It was the least he could do for the savior of the Wizarding World, his Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and the lost and broken young man that was Harry Potter.

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Things had been going so well, and now it seemed like all that had been lost. Helen Potter stood in the middle of the Quidditch Pitch early one late-May morning; Fervens rested idly against the ground. The light wind tousled her hair, but she wasn't aware of it. Her thoughts were a thousand miles away.

Her relationship with Harry—her father—had started out on the worst of terms, and she still shuddered to think about the night she had been woken from a sound sleep by those rough hands, but it had been almost completely positive after that. He had promised to continue to help her, and he had done just that.

His visits to the Pediatrics Ward were something she genuinely looked forward to, and over time, became to depend on. He got her through the roughest times, when all that she had to fall back on was that horrible night. He would remind her of how well it had ended, though. Someone she had only read about, and had already put on a pedestal in her young mind, had come in and saved her. He had held her and he had wept with her. Her image of Harry Potter had been shattered in that moment, to be replaced by something that few people saw.

Harry was gentle, caring, the complete friend, and, above all else, he was not arrogant or boastful. He accepted his fame and his abilities without too much question, and he did not dwell on them. He did not shove them in anyone's face and demand special treatment; on the contrary, he tended to play them down and place other people, whom he thought deserved it more, in the spotlight for things he mostly was responsible for. Helen had heard the full story of Voldemort's fall—Harry liked to say his friends helped, but it really was him who had finally ended it. Harry had the power, and had used it.

And then, for a few horrible moments, she had thought she was being sent back to the Orphanage. The nurse hadn't told her where she was going…just that she had to pack her stuff because she would be leaving later that day. She had assumed the worst, and had been absolutely hysterical. She hadn't even heard Harry come in.

When she did, though, she'd flung herself at him and he did what he always did—comforted her and made her feel better. She'd found out she was going to Hogwarts…to live with him. That weekend had been incredible, and it had ended with her officially becoming part of his family.

She couldn't remember a better time in her life. Those few months, they had been so amazing. She felt so loved and accepted…not like at the Orphanage. She wasn't suffering from boredom, either, which plagued her at the Ward. She was content. She was happy. She was part of a family.

The icing on the cake was that she had gotten to do magic. Magic had always fascinated her, and she'd had some strange drive to figure out as much about it as she could. That's why she read so much—she had to be acquainted with as much as she could. When she first cast that Patronus in Harry's Defense Against the Dark Arts class…she had almost burst from joy and pride.

Of course, it hadn't lasted, however. Even she, as young as she was, knew that her life couldn't stay so wonderful. Things had gotten so bad so…quickly, though, that she had been totally unprepared. Her mind had been so overwhelmed that she was still trying to absorb everything that had happened.

First, her Mum had been diagnosed with some sort of sickness that would lead to her death. Her heart was failing her. Then…there had been a weird tension building between Harry and his two friends, and it had seemed to snap on his wedding day. She knew that people were supposed to be happy when they got married, and at first Harry was, but, by the end of the reception, he had seemed like a different person. Helen didn't know enough about the situation to place the blame on anyone, but she couldn't condone the redhead hitting her father, for any reason.

Things were different after that—her family was falling apart. That feeling of belonging, that she had come to accept and rely on, was fading. It hurt in ways she couldn't articulate, but Harry was pulling away from her. Dumbledore had known it, from the little chat she'd had with him, but both were unable to stop it. All throughout the fall, Helen had watched, helplessly, as Harry has distanced himself a little more every day.

She watched as he trained harder and harder, absorbing himself in it more and more, until that's all she would really interact with him. She was becoming quite powerful and athletic, but that didn't matter to her if Harry wasn't there to support her and share it with her. Ginny, her Mum, was great, but Harry held a much more special place in her heart. She loved both, but Harry was who really mattered.

At the Christmas Eve party, Harry had seemed to undergo a bit of change. He seemed to come out of his shell a bit. He was a little more loving towards both her and her Mum, and he seemed genuinely happy for the first time in a while. She had left the table with her Mum that night with a warm feeling spreading through her chest; it was that feeling of belonging returning.

Then, it all went wrong. Everything had just…exploded. Her Mum had died, which she still had a hard time grasping completely. There was no doubt in her mind that she had loved Ginny, but what hurt her the most was the effect her passing had had on her father. She had never seen Harry so strained…so fragile. To her, it had appeared that he had just given up. The four days between Ginny's death and the funeral were rough for her, because Harry had closed himself off in his room. He had offered no words of support…he didn't hold her at all. He had just disappeared into his room and stayed there.

And that's how it had been, for almost five months now. Winter had given way to spring, which was now on the cusp of giving way to summer, and nothing had changed. Harry was still as cold and distant as he'd been those four days, and Helen didn't know what to do anymore. She trained with Dumbledore almost every day, working herself to the limit her seven-year-old body would carry her, but that wasn't enough. Her mind kept returning the huge, vacant spot that was Harry.

She had come to depend on him. That was the simple truth. She had come to depend on him, and she knew that he depended on her in some ways. Now, though, he wasn't depending on her, or anyone, really. That hurt her in ways she couldn't express—it seemed to suggest to her that maybe their bond wasn't as strong as she'd thought it was, that if he could so easily forget about her then maybe he wasn't as loving and caring as she'd thought.

She started into a dance of death with her scimitar, twirling and flashing around the half-lit pitch. Her breath puffed in vapory clouds—it was a bit chilly this morning—as she leapt and plunged. Her face set in hard line, harder than ever before. There was a burning feeling of longing and loss that was fueling her motions now, of betrayal and denial that was causing her to move faster and faster.

Her sword was moving almost quicker than the naked eye could observe, and the air started to shimmer around her as if it was heating up. All that she knew was the movements of the blade…and the emotions that were raging against the dam inside of her; with each stroke of the metal, the waves crashed harder and harder against the wall, until finally, a crack appeared.

Helen stopped and fell to her knees, dropping the sword in the grass next to her, forgotten. It was just too much…all that had happened. The confusion, loss, sadness, and hurt tightened into one small, burning ember in the pit of her stomach, and her eyebrows came together as she fought to hold the tears and cry of anguish back. It wasn't enough, though, and the dam broke.

Chemicals poured through her body as the amount of emotion intensified, and her magic began to mix with it. There was a moment when she felt nothing—it was almost as if everything had melted away—and when she came back to herself she was on all fours on the ground. There was a weird orange haze in the air around her…

She stood up, looking around. For some reason, she felt a little better, but the emotion was still there—she could almost feel it coursing through her veins, pulsing with her magic…her hair was blowing in her face, and she distractedly pushed it out of the way. It wouldn't stay, though, and her eyes went to the nearby trees. The wind wasn't very strong, so her hair shouldn't be this stubborn…

And then she looked at herself. Her clothes whipped against her in an unseen gale, and the grass near her was bent sideways from the force of whatever wind it was. The orange haze caught her attention, and she looked more closely. It seemed to be coming from her…and her eyes widened in realization. She had done that thing…that power that her father and the Headmaster had shown her.

They had told her that she would someday be able to do it, most likely, but to not be disappointed if it didn't happen for many years. They had said that it was very hard to cause, that it required some profound emotion. There had to be a strong catalyst for it, to make it happen, even stronger than losing a loved one.

She had done it, though. She had 'ascended', as they had called it. It was almost bittersweet though, when she realized the emotions that had caused it; or rather, who had caused it. Harry's attitude towards her was what caused it. That didn't make her feel very good—but, well, it kind of did. She was feeling an interesting paradox at the moment. It showed her that she cared enough about him for it to affect her so deeply, but it also showed her that Harry was so far from her at the moment.

She bent and picked up her wand, as it had reverted after she'd dropped it, and started back toward the castle. The orange aura was still roiling around her, but she didn't care. Maybe it would show people that things weren't good. Maybe it would show people that ignoring problems only made them worse.

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Dumbledore looked up curiously as he heard the Gargoyle move aside. Apparently, it was so bewildered by what it was seeing that it couldn't even report to him. Focusing intently, Dumbledore's eyebrows raised a little. Whatever, or whoever, it was, was very powerful. He could feel the magic pounding against the stones of the castle. It was…almost familiar…but there was something about it he couldn't quite place. He didn't feel threatened, but he didn't know what it was.

He stood, grasping his wand, and whispered the incantation for the change. Omnipotens flashed into sight, and he moved to stand by the door to his office. He was probably overreacting, but in his old age, he'd found it wiser to err on the side of caution rather than be unprepared. The doorknob turned slowly, and he readied himself to spring. He would level the sword at whosever head it was.

The door pushed inward and he sprung, but the only thing he saw before he was knocked to the ground was a blur of orange. His sword had been parried and the person—quite small, in fact—had whirled and hit him with the flat of their blade, knocking him to his back. When his vision cleared, he saw that he was looking up into the horrified face of Helen Potter.

A smile spread across his lips and a laugh escaped, slowly at first, but building more and more as the hilarity of the situation presented itself. A seven-year-old had just soundly trounced him, and he had been waiting, ready.

"Umm…Professor…" was all Helen could vocalize.

He shook his head mildly and pulled himself to his feet, still beaming at the small girl. It was then that he noticed it…and his eyes widened. She was surrounded by an orange aura. She had ascended.

"Well, well, well…" Dumbledore said. He noticed the slight fear with which Helen was looking at him. He put a hand to her back and guided her over to a plush armchair in front of his desk, and then moved to sit in his own chair.

She wouldn't meet his eyes and was picking at the collar of her shirt when he looked to her again. "Helen, you did nothing wrong."

She looked up. She was still ascended, so that might account for the emotions bubbling in her eyes, but there was something else in there that Dumbledore couldn't quite place.

"But…but I attacked you, sir." She looked down once again. Something glinted in the light, and the Headmaster's eyes were drawn to the tear as it flashed down from her face.

"Helen," he said softly, "look at me." She slowly looked up. "You did nothing wrong, my dear." He almost smiled at the familiar motion of her cocking her head in a silent question.

Dumbledore decided to approach this from a different direction. "What happened as you opened the door?"

"Well…I saw a flash of silver. I didn't even know it was a sword—yours, actually—so I guess I just reacted?" she finished, posing it slightly as a question.

Dumbledore inclined his head. "And react you did, that is for sure."

A small smile graced her young features. "About that…I'm sorry for knocking you down."

He waved his hand. "Not to worry…these old bones can still take it." He stared intently at her for a moment, and she grew uncomfortable under his gaze. Her eyes started roving about the room.

"Tell me," he said, suddenly, "how is it that you came to be like that?" He motioned to the orange haze around her.

She looked kind of confused as she spoke. "Um…I was kind of thinking about all that's been going on," she stated, and her face fell a tiny bit, "and I guess I just kind of lost it. I was practicing with my sword, and then the next thing I knew I was like this."

"Ah," Dumbledore intoned. She was remarkable, this girl. In terms of spells, she could probably give any fourth year a run for their money. In terms of power…let's just say that he wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of a simple stunner from her if he was caught unaware. And now…with this ascension…she was probably the third most powerful wizard or witch in the world, behind Harry and himself. On top of all of that, she was seven.

"Did you tell Harry about it yet?" he asked.

The brown in her eyes shifted, getting darker. The orange aura flared out slightly, and a ghostly breeze started flitting about the room. Dumbledore didn't know if Helen even realized the change, but he certainly did.

"No," she said. Her voice was slightly off.

Dumbledore considered her for a moment, unsure of what to say. He had an idea of what was causing the change, and, in turn, what had caused her ascension, but he didn't know if it was a good idea to be blunt about it, like he would have been with Harry.

He finally settled on, "May I ask why?"

Helen drooped in her chair a bit as another tear escaped, and slowly the orange aura and the wind died away. She had returned to her normal state. She looked heartbroken, and it hurt Dumbledore to see such a young, fiery girl be like that. Things had just gotten so out of hand.

Through a stifled sob, she said, "I don't know if he'd care."

"Of course he would," replied Dumbledore. He inwardly winced; his voice sounded a little too dry.

She looked up at him through red, puffy eyes, with tear-streaked cheeks. The agony in her gaze…it was all Dumbledore really needed to know. She was lost, maybe just as lost as Harry was, and the further they drifted from each other, the worse off they both were.

"Listen, Helen…" he started, but paused, as he was unsure of what he really wanted to say. "Things…things will get better." He could see the doubt on her face. "I know that right now it seems like they won't, that right now it doesn't seem like things could ever get better, but trust me when I say they always do." Some of the doubt faded, and Dumbledore would have felt glad, if only he had complete faith in his own words. He wasn't sure if things could ever completely return to the way they were.

"Time usually heals even the deepest of wounds," he concluded. There wasn't really much more he could say. She was sharp and would be able to see right through any kind of extended consolation.

She took a deep breath and slowly exhaled; he watched as her shoulders slowly settled. She dragged her forearm across her face, wiping, or in some places, smearing the wetness. She regarded the Headmaster for a moment.

"I'm sorry for knocking you over."

Dumbledore chuckled. "As I said before, don't worry too much about it. You impressed me, you know."

"I did?" she queried.

"In three ways, actually," he responded. She wiped the rest of the tears away and, when her arm came away, Dumbledore could see she was curious.

"The first," he went on, "was how aware of your surroundings you were. I thought I had hidden myself fairly well, but I guess I cannot fool you." There was slight red tinge to her cheeks. "Then, you reacted much faster than I could have in parrying my sword. I wasn't even sure of what had happened, you moved so fast." The color deepened. "And finally, in the heat of the moment, you still used non-lethal force. Rather than trying the blade on me, you simply struck with the flat of it." The color stayed, but Dumbledore could tell by the way her eyes scrunched up that a question was on her lips.

"But…the blades have dulling charms on them, right? Even if I wanted to use the sharp part, I wouldn't have been able to."

"Yes, you are right, of course, but would you have if they weren't dulled?" It was a good question, and Dumbledore was very interested in her answer. He watched as her eyes narrowed; he supposed that she was thinking about it, about what it might be like to actually do that to someone.

"I think," she said, slowly, "that I would avoid it if I could."

That was what Dumbledore was hoping he'd hear. "A very wise and merciful decision that would be."

"But," she forged on, "if I had to, I don't think I'd have a problem with it."

"And why is that?"

"I've seen what people like the Death Eaters can do…I've…been a victim…if I had to protect someone from something like that, I don't think I'd hesitate." Dumbledore watched her carefully as she spoke, but she didn't notice. She was staring at the paneled front of his desk, but her eyes were unfocused. She was speaking very slowly, as if thinking about it very hard. She certainly had some interesting observations for a seven-year-old.

"And I'm sure you'd make them regret it," Dumbledore said. He looked over his half-moon spectacles at her, until she looked up and met his gaze. "As for what you've accomplished today, I think we'll explore that further when we next meet for training. Alright?"

She nodded and slid off the chair. "I…thanks, sir," she said, and turned to leave. Dumbledore watched her go without saying another word. She was remarkable, that was for certain, but she was troubled. They all were.

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Harry placed the paper on the growing pile and reached for another one. It was June 24th, 1999, and the students had just left for their summer holiday. He was grading the final essay he'd assigned his seventh years, which was the last thing he had to do before he could close the books on this year. Since the Ministry graded all NEWTS and OWLS, he'd only had five years worth of finals to grade. They didn't take very long, as did most of the younger years' essays, but this last stack was killing him. He wished he hadn't made it so hard; he always tended to forget that everything he assigned he'd have to grade at some point, and he wasn't one to half-ass it and slap a grade on something.

He noted the name—Luna Lovegood—and set to reading. He was working very methodically, almost without pause, because if he didn't his thoughts would stray and he wouldn't be able to get anything done. That's how he lived now. He either kept himself busy or slid into a pit of self-pity and misery.

Luna's essay was very thorough and very well organized, which was no surprise, as she was a Ravenclaw. He wrote 'A' on the top of the paper and entered the grade into his book; he moved to place it in the stack of already graded papers. However, the light coming from the windows was behind it as he did so, and he noticed that something appeared to be written on the back of it. Curious, he turned it over and read.

Harry,

While it is true that we reap what we sow, do not be too hard on yourself. It was no one's fault, least of all yours. Try to move on—it was what Ginny would have wanted. By the way, thanks for everything.

Warmest regards,
Luna

Harry simply stared at the words she written. He read them over and over again, trying to make some sense of what she was saying, but it just didn't get through to him. He didn't need people telling him how to live his life, especially one of his students, and he especially didn't need people reminding him of everything that had happened.

In a fit of rage, he crumpled the parchment violently and threw it across the room. It had been almost six months, exactly, since she'd died, and he still couldn't face it. He'd accepted her death a long time ago, but the crushing guilt that went with it threatened to suffocate him. If only he had done something sooner—if only he had made a better attempt at using his vast magical reserves for something constructive.

Instead, though, he'd ignored it. They both had. And as time passed, little did they know that the end was nearing. And…then…it was too late, and Harry would never know if he could have done anything. He missed her desperately, but that ache was slowly fading as time passed. The guilt got worse, though.

The guilt did, but that wasn't the only thing. Animosity towards Hermione and Ron had slowly been building, even though he hadn't seen them at all since the funeral. In his mind, he'd done absolutely nothing wrong. His was a revisionist memory—it was their entire fault. They had left him, and hadn't even bothered to come and say anything—not even when his wife had died. They had made eye contact, very briefly, at the end of the funeral, but that was it. They'd turned and left, and they might as well not have existed since then.

As time passed, he was able to accept the death, but his state of mind did not improve. In fact, it got worse. The guilt…the animosity…they both served to separate him from everyone else. He'd gone on teaching, and training, but that was all that he'd really done for six months now. He'd spoken hardly a word outside of the classroom, to anyone, and that included Helen.

There was some shame there, but it was far outweighed by the guilt over waiting. He couldn't bring himself to care—things like family and love and Helen just didn't seem that important to him anymore. In the back of his mind he knew that was a terrible way to think, but he shrugged it off.

His eyes went to the still-large pile of ungraded papers, and let out a small sigh. He didn't feel like doing this at all. He just wanted to take an extended vacation, away from Hogwarts, away from the Wizarding World, and most of all, away from everything that reminded him of Ginny, Ron, and Hermione.

Reluctantly, he reached for another paper, but stopped in mid-motion when a knock sounded. He looked up, and narrowed his eyes at what, or rather who, he saw. Hermione was standing in the doorway to his classroom. She kept looking behind her as if checking to make sure someone wasn't there. She was wearing low-cut jeans, a white t-shirt, and had her hair up in loose ponytail. Harry hadn't seen her in a long time, up close, and he was struck by how much she'd changed. She'd grown and filled out, no doubt from the Auror training, but it was her face that his eyes were drawn to. It looked…older…for lack of a better word, but not in the sense of normal aging. She looked tired. That was it. Her face was drawn.

"Yes?" he intoned, false politeness clearly ringing in his voice.

She regarded him silently for a moment, checking over her shoulder once again, before entering the classroom. She shut the door behind her, and walked slowly to the front row of his classroom. His eyes never left her as she made her way toward him. She sat in a chair in front of his desk, and looked down, regarding the floor.

"Yes?" he asked again, this time with a little impatience coming through. He hadn't seen her in six months. What did she expect him to say? She looked up finally, staring at him with her chocolate brown eyes, which he noticed, for the first time, were speckled with black.

"Harry…" she began, but trailed off. Harry started…he almost didn't recognize her voice. Had it really been that long since he'd heard it? He thought hard…yes, yes it had. He hadn't said a word to her since their graduation, a year before. He cocked his head to the side, waiting.

She took a deep breath. "Look, if Ron knew I was here, he'd go absolutely spare."

Harry pursed his lips in disdain. That was not what he wanted to hear. He didn't really care if Ron went spare. With some acid in his voice, he asked, "So then why did you decide to grace me with your presence?"

She seemed to wince slightly at his tone, but Harry couldn't bring himself to feel any pity. If he was honest with himself, he hadn't exactly been sure if he was ever going to see them again, but here she was. And the first thing she says to him is Ron would have blown up to find her here.

Her eyes locked on Harry's for a moment, and he coolly held her gaze, before they slid just over his head and seemed to lose some of their focus.

"I guess…I guess in the end you start thinking about the beginning." She paused, but her eyes remained unfocused. Harry narrowed his eyes in thought. What could she possibly be talking about? That certainly was a weird way to start a conversation—the first one they'd had in a year.

She spoke again. "Do you remember what I was like when I first met you and Ron?" Her voice was soft, introspective, and almost dreamy.

Harry couldn't suppress a slight smile. He certainly did. He remembered with startling clarity how she had, in one breath, told Ron the spell he had tried wasn't very good, that she had learned all of their first year books already, and that the last thing she had told them was her name, almost as an afterthought

An image from the past suddenly came to his mind: Hermione, sweating, and very, very angry. He spoke. "'We could have all been killed—or worse, expelled.'"

Hermione's gaze focused on and shifted to Harry instantly. A soft smile graced her lips. "I will have you know that I was only twelve when I said that." For an instant, Harry felt the old ease with her come back. It was the Hermione he used to know, sitting in front of him, the one he'd always been so comfortable with. It didn't last, though, because both of their smiles faded at the same time.

She folded her hands in her lap and stared at the top of the desk. Her face looked even more drawn than when she'd walked in.

"Why are you really here, Hermione?" Harry asked. It didn't do to dwell on the past, no matter how pleasant it might have been. She sniffed suddenly, and Harry was startled to see something glittering and shiny fall from her face to splash on the surface of the desk. She sniffed again, and lifted her head to look at Harry. There was what looked like a wistful smile there for a moment, and then it was gone. A mask had descended over her features, and her jaw was set in a hard line.

"Ron didn't even want to tell you, Harry. He insisted that you wouldn't care, and that it was better if we didn't."

Now Harry was really confused. Hermione wasn't usually very cryptic. "Tell me what?"

She reached into her pocket, slowly, and drew out a white envelope. She stared at it for a moment, before standing and walking forward the few steps to place it on Harry's desk. She looked at Harry from her higher position, sniffed once more, and turned to leave. She was halfway to the door before Harry found his voice.

"What is this?" he demanded, rising from his seat and coming around his desk. He stopped halfway between it and the front row. She stopped but did not turn. "What is this?" Harry asked again, softer. Her composure seemed to break, and her shoulders shook as a soft noise escaped her lips. She turned and ran towards Harry, and he saw that her face was shining with moisture.

She almost bowled him over with the strength of her embrace. She was hugging him very tightly, tighter than she ever had, and she pressed her cheek against his neck. He slipped his arms around her back and held her, unsure of what had brought on this amount of emotion so suddenly.

"Harry…" she sobbed softly, and he made a shushing noise. That seemed to make her come to her senses, and the embrace loosened. Harry's neck was wet where her tears had touched his skin, but it did not concern him. She backed out of his arms, wiping her eyes as she did so. There was a weird look on her face, one that Harry couldn't place. He had never seen her eyes look so intense before…so scrutinizing. That wasn't it, though; there was some emotion smoldering in there that he couldn't name. She shook her head slightly.

"I'm sorry…"she said as she turned once again, heading for the door.

"Hermione?" he called out, uncertainly.

She pulled open the door, and paused. Without turning around, she spoke again. "Goodbye, Harry." And she was gone.

Harry stood still for a moment, silently regarding the now empty doorway, before slowly returning to his desk. His mind was a blank canvas…he was so bewildered at what had just occurred that no thoughts were able to process themselves. He sat in his chair, staring vacantly ahead, replaying the scene. It made no sense. He picked his wand off his desk and fiddled with it as he mulled it over.

Then, he suddenly remembered the envelope she had placed on his desk. He looked for it, and there it was, resting innocently on the top of one of his textbooks. He reached for it, noting that the only thing written on it was Harry in Hermione's familiar neat text. He turned it over, seeing that the flap wasn't even sealed. He reached in and pulled out the two pages of yellow parchment. They were both filled with that same neat handwriting. He leaned back in his chair as he started to read.

Dear Harry,
It is with a heavy heart that I sit down to compose this letter to you. Things certainly seem to have gone to hell, haven't they? I guess I can sum it up with a quote used by Mr. John Steinbeck, whom you may or may not have heard of: 'The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry'.

I think that is perfectly apt to describe what has happened between the three of us, because for a while there, nothing could come between us. We were the consummate trio; we worked well with and off of each other. There was very little doubt, while we would all be successful and independent, that we would always be together.

It seems, though, at some point, those plans went awry. Looking back, at the fourteen months since we defeated Voldemort, I can't pinpoint exactly when or where we went wrong. None of it makes any sense, really, and I'm sorry that we were all either too stubborn or too proud to fix this before it got out of hand.

I know you may think it all started when you and I had our argument, but that was caused by something, something that I still can't figure out. Perhaps it is as the Muggles say: trauma causes very strange things to happen to people. Maybe we were so united because we all wanted Voldemort gone, and that was why we worked so well together. I refuse to believe that, though, because I don't want to make a mockery out of the friendship the three of us shared.

It was real, and it was strong. Before I was introduced to the magical word, before I came to Hogwarts, I had no friends. You and Ron were the first, and were always the best. I was very close with Ginny, also, because she was like the sister I never had, but you and Ron always meant more. Through all of the pain we endured…through everything that happened when we were in school…I wouldn't trade any of it for what the three of us had those seven years.

In any case, we have come to a crossroads. As the poet Robert Frost once wrote, 'Two paths diverged in a wood…' and I think that is where the three of us are. We have come to those diverging paths. Perhaps…perhaps if we had made stronger and more real attempts to reconnect with each other, this could have been avoided, but I'm afraid that it is too late for that. Ron and I will take one path, and you will undoubtedly take the other.

If you are unsure as to the meaning of what I'm saying, it is goodbye. Ron and I have accepted positions as Aurors with the American Ministry of Magic, and we leave early on the 25th of June for the United States. Ron insisted that we leave without telling you, because you wouldn't care and that he didn't really want you to know, and I didn't argue with him, but…I have to see you. If you're reading this, I've probably already done that.

Seven years of sharing the bond that we had cannot just be wiped away, no matter what Ron may think, and I must come and tie up some loose ends. I'm sorry, Harry…for everything. I'm sorry about Ginny. I'm sorry about what I said about you and Helen. I'm sorry for the state of things. I'm sorry that you had to be the one to defeat Voldemort. I'm sorry that I don't know how to make things right.

I'm sorry that things have to end like this. Ron and I aren't expecting to return to England. My parents are moving to America, and with Ron's brothers scattered, it doesn't really feel like home to him anymore.

I wish you the best of luck in all things, I truly do. I hope you know how much you mean to me, and how sorry I am. Good luck, Godspeed, and be safe.

Love, always,
Hermione

Harry did not move for several minutes after his eyes stopped their back and forth trek across the pages of Hermione's letter. There was nothing that he could think or do that would reduce the impact of her words. They hit him like a blunt force, pressing the air from his lungs and compressing his stomach into tight, burning knots. He set the letter gingerly down on his desk, still rolling his wand between the fingers of his other hand.

This was it. The end had come at last. Just as he had with Ginny, he'd waited too long to fix his problems, and it was too late. Hermione and Ron were leaving, and unless he did something drastic, he'd probably never see them again. He leaned back into his chair, sagging a bit as that same apathy threatened to overwhelm him.

He snorted in irony. Apathy? That was what had gotten him to this point in the first place. If he couldn't ever get past it, and it certainly seemed like he wouldn't, he could never have a satisfying life again. His eyes roved around his classroom as he considered going after her, but he didn't. He just sat in his chair, contemplating everything that had happened.

The three of them had so many memories together, most of them encapsulated in the very place Harry was. Hogwarts was full of their lives, and as he thought about, numerous memories floated to the surface of his mind. He saw the first time he'd seen Ron Weasley, when he'd politely asked Molly how to get to Platform 9 ¾. He saw the first time he'd met Hermione Granger, when she'd burst into their compartment in a huff looking for a toad. He saw the first he'd ever seen Ginny, about the same time he'd seen Ron.

It was just as Hermione had said: in the end you started thinking about the beginning. Things had seemed so simple. Their friendship had been built on the foundation of trust, support, and love. Ginny had come into the picture much later, but she still had been very important to the three of them, each in their own way. She had been the first to go, too, but not from any fault of her own. Harry knew it was his fault that she had died, because he'd chosen to wait so long and that he'd avoided the topic. He knew he could have saved her.

And now…what? Ron and Hermione, the only two true friends he'd ever had, were gone. They were gone, with barely a word from Hermione and none from Ron. The three people that had gotten him this far in life, the three people he owed his very existence to—Ron, Hermione, and Ginny—were gone.

He stopped twirling his wand, gripping it tightly. A solitary tear dropped from his eyes, but he was too drained of everything to really cry. He looked down, staring straight at the tip of his wand. He felt so…empty. Empty and alone.

END OF PART ONE