Disclaimer: I don't, of course, own any of this. JK Rowling/Warner Brothers do. I do own two characters, though (you'll know who).
Summary: Broken after the war, Harry left. Now, two years later, he's finally found the strength to return, only to discover that old sins have long shadows and some very crucial things have changed…
Author's Note (A/N): I know I have to apologize for "Promise", but my only excuse is that I soon discovered it worked better as a one-shot than as a full story. This one will be a full story – assuming, of course, you, my dear readers, want it to continue. If so, I will update it at least once a week (unless some crisis occurs… heaven forbid!).
As always, I've made a token effort to keep the characters true to themselves. I hope you guys enjoy this.
Please review :-)
Chapter One: Homecoming
As the old, ramshackle house loomed ahead, he paused for a moment, beside the shrubs behind which he'd Apparated, and stared at it. Guilt, shame, trepidation and a tiny flicker of happiness fought for dominance inside him. God, it was so good to see it again. He'd thought of the Burrow so often these past two years. But those other, not-so-nice feelings didn't go away.
He had behaved like a cad, like an ungrateful thickhead, disappearing the way he did with only a single 'goodbye, don't worry' note. He didn't regret the actual act of going away—he knew, now, that he had needed it. That the war had hurt and damaged him, and he needed to get away to fix himself before he could inflict his presence on his friends again. The nightmares and effects weren't gone, but he had grown up a bit. He knew he was a better person—man?—now than he had been when he'd left. They deserved the better him, after the way they'd all fought, sacrificed and loved for him. After the way some of them had died for him. He knew it was stupid, and that they probably resented or hated him for leaving, but he hadn't been able to bear the thought of their pity or of making them sacrifice more for him in the aftermath.
Better to disappear until the scars had faded.
With the exception of Percy, the Weasley family, thank heavens, had survived the war. So he knew that right now, inside that house, they would all be there, probably celebrating quite happily, along with the usual motley host of friends. He had chosen Christmas Eve, in particular, because he'd known they would all be there.
Harry Potter took a deep breath, mustered up the courage he had once been famous for—that eternal Gryffindor nerve, he thought with a faint smile—and made his way towards the window-lit house.
He was no less than ten feet away from the kitchen door when a loud explosion shook the very foundations of the house itself.
"FRED—GEORGE—WHAT HAVE I TOLD YOU ABOUT THOSE STUPID TRICKS?" a loud, angry and achingly familiar voice screeched. "YOU COULD HAVE DONE THAT BOY A SERIOUS INJURY, YOU MAD LUNATICS!"
Mrs. Weasley's shouts made Harry stop and grin. He'd even missed that.
He went cautiously up to the back door, heart thumping a little quicker in his chest, and knocked tentatively at it.
Silence fell inside the house, laughter and shouting dying away.
"Aren't we all here?" Ginny's voice asked—Harry wasn't surprised to register he felt no pang upon hearing it, just a sense of amusement, because he was fond of her, but he had never really loved her. In hindsight, it was actually a bit embarrassing, thinking of the bout of hormones he'd given in to for that brief time. "Who could that be?"
"Who is it?" Mrs. Weasley asked from right beside the door.
Harry swallowed. "Harry Potter."
If it was possible, the silence deepened even further, and Harry could feel their very palpable shock. Then Mrs. Weasley snapped: "Are you trying to be funny? Are you from the Daily Prophet? What do you want, another story about the post-war heroes and the happy family?"
"Go away," another voice said aggressively: Tonks'. Harry grinned in spite of himself. "Before I hex you into oblivion!"
"I'd like to see you try, Tonks," said Harry, smiling. "It really is me. Go on, open the door and you'll see." He caught sight of a familiar freckly face peering through the window beside the door, and grinned, a warmth and pleasure flooding through him. "How're you, Ron?"
"Harry!" Ron yelped delightedly. "It is you!"
"Don't you dare touch that door, young man," Mrs. Weasley shouted, oblivious to Mr. Weasley's mild remonstrations. "We have to be sure."
"If you're Harry," said Lupin's voice cautiously, "Tell me what form your Patronus takes."
"A stag!" a very small voice piped up before Harry could speak.
He blinked; it was completely unfamiliar.
There was a ripple of laughter inside the kitchen, and then Mrs. Weasley said in rather indulgent exasperation: "Well, thank you, David dear, but that negates the purpose of that exercise, doesn't it? Can anyone think of another question?"
"What do you smell when you're near Amortentia?" Lupin asked.
Harry sighed. "Polished broomstick, treacle tart, and—er—" he fumbled here, rather embarrassed and not wanting to reveal what the third item was (he had long since grown out of the Ginny-flowery-smell), and gestured helplessly at Ron, who was still squinting at him through the frost-covered window.
Fortunately, Ron did not prove usually obtuse on this occasion, and grinned happily. "Yes, it's him!" he yelled.
"Why, what did he say?" demanded one of the twins, avidly.
"None of your business," said Ron promptly. "Mum, can you open the door now? It must be bloody freezing out there!"
Mrs. Weasley cautiously opened the door, and when she saw Harry, Polyjuice Potion notwithstanding, she seemed finally convinced it was him. She burst into tears and threw herself at him, enveloping him in a smothering, motherly hug. Harry choked and grinned simultaneously, finally certain he was home. "Oh, Harry, dear!" she cried. "We have missed you!"
"Seriously, mate," said Ron, grabbing him next and beaming from ear to ear. "Where've you been?"
Harry grabbed Ron and hugged him hard, reminded all over again of how much he had missed his stupidly thick remarks and good humor and constant companionship in the two years he had been gone. Warmth and happiness spread through him, tinged only with an elusive sadness and regret, but he ignored this and focused on the fire roaring in the kitchen and the feel of being back here again.
After that, it was a blur of one heart-wrenchingly familiar face to another: Lupin, who caught him in a neck-breaking one-armed hug; Tonks, who cast herself upon his chest; Ginny and Neville, who hugged him; Fred and George, who grinned delightedly at him and shook his hand enthusiastically; Fleur, who kissed him on both cheeks; Bill, Kingsley and Moody, who shook his hand as well; and Luna, who gave him a hug and airy kiss on the forehead, looking as batty as ever (though happy; Harry assumed she was still with Ron, who also looked very happy, but as though he had, in fact, missed his best friend sorely).
Harry greeted Hagrid last. His favorite half-giant just barely fit into the kitchen and lifted him right into the air, leaking tears of joy all over Mrs. Weasley's pudding (but no one seemed to notice). He had just detached himself from Hagrid, when he caught sight of a bandy-legged ginger cat.
His muscles tensed and his heart squeezed a bit as Crookshanks rubbed himself against his legs, purring happily, before marching off.
"Harry, it's very good to have you back," said Luna bluntly, smiling vaguely at him. "Things will be much brighter here now. I know you must have thought we would all be angry, but we're not. We understand why you left, you see. I would have gone myself, to find Crumple-Horned Snorklelacks, but Ronald is quite unable to cope without me…"
Harry laughed. Ron turned bright red. Sobering, Harry looked around at them all. "I didn't think you'd be glad to see me," he admitted honestly. "And—I—I'm sorry I left the way I did. You all deserved better than that."
"Mate, we understand," Ron said earnestly. "Her—I mean, it was explained to us. We're just really glad you came back."
"Wonderful Christmas present," said Mrs. Weasley, who was still sniffling on Lupin's shoulder (why did she never sniffle on Mr. Weasley's shoulder, Harry wondered?). "And you're just in time for dinner, too, Harry dear! I must say," she added more sternly, "You look—"
"Underfed," the entire room chorused, grinning, and Harry laughed again.
How could he have stayed away from all these people, his family, for so long? How had he coped without his friends?
Quite suddenly, as Ginny moved out of the way to sit back down at the dining table (massively enlarged, he noted), Harry noticed two people in the room that he hadn't seen before. Though 'people' hardly seemed an apt word for them, considering both were less than three years old (one of which was practically a baby still).
They were sitting together in a playpen, watching him with wide-eyed innocence and interest. One, the older, was a girl, and Harry knew instantly, from her silvery hair and blue eyes, that this had to be the child Fleur was about to deliver when he'd left. She was probably two years old now. The other, a boy, was a mystery: he was younger—about a year old, Harry judged inexpertly and vaguely, and possibly had only just learnt to walk and talk a bit—and he was absolutely adorable, with dark hair and large brown eyes that were oddly familiar.
"Er…" said Harry, suddenly aware that everyone in the room had gone silent again and was watching him, almost nervously, as if they expected a reaction of some sort. "Those are really cute kids. Are they both Bill and Fleur's?" Seemed a bit unlikely, if his math worked out.
"No, no," said Fleur, smiling and stroking the long silver-blond hair of the girl, "Zis one is ours—'er name is Belle—but zis 'uzzer one—" she rumpled the soft dark hair of the boy; "'E is not ours; 'is name is David, and 'e is…"
"Mine," a new voice interrupted.
The nervous silence in the room trebled.
Very slowly, rooted to the spot, Harry turned. Don't react, he begged himself. Don't start crying or doing something stupid like that. Just look at her and hug her and greet her like you did everyone else. There's nothing different about her; it's just Hermione, your other best friend, you've known her for nine years, come on, Harry, don't be a prat now…
But, of course, he was wrong. She was different, in every way possible. He'd known it since that fateful day during the Horcrux search, had probably known it for years without realizing it. He couldn't treat her like everyone else…
"I found the currant cake, Mrs. Weasley," she said, "It's in the pantry, just as you told me it would be." She shifted her brown eyes—with a jolt of recognition and shock, he realized why David's eyes were so familiar—back to Harry, and for the first time in his life, he realized he couldn't read the expression in them. They were completely blank to him.
But she smiled faintly, though with more restraint than she might otherwise have had. He couldn't help remembering how she used to greet him, running up to him and flinging her arms around him.
"Hi, Harry," she said, still smiling at him. "I'm glad you're back."
It took him a moment to find his voice. She looked exactly the same, just perhaps a little… curvier... and if she'd had a baby, that was only to be expected. Her brown hair had been tamed a little, and fell around her shoulders, and she was dressed in jeans and a fitted white sweater. She looked so normal that there was no reason why it ought to bring a lump to his throat. She looked so… Hermione.
He'd always thought she was pretty, but, knowing her as well as he did, he knew she was more. She was, and would always be, beautiful to him.
"Hi, Hermione," he finally got out. "Good to see you."
She came towards him, possibly as aware of their audience as he was—oh my God, what are they going to think, seeing us acting so weird, he thought desperately—and gave him a quick hug. He barely had time to put his arms around her, before she pulled away again and smiled at the others.
"So what about dinner?" she said brightly.
Harry tried to read the others' expressions. What did they think, he thought rather worriedly? Because, apart from Ron and Luna—and maybe Ginny—none of them knew about… they weren't stupid, Lupin and Tonks and Moody and Molly. Surely they must have notice the restraint and awkwardness between two once close and affectionate friends? Maybe—he devoutly hoped—they would put it down to the fact that Hermione must be a bit sore with him for leaving.
That reminded him… how angry was she? He couldn't read her expression, as she walked past him, but he'd caught a glimpse of hurt in her eyes when he'd faced her. He regretted hurting her. He'd never wanted that. But was she furious with him? Did she forgive him, as the others had?
He wished he could ask her, but he couldn't… not now.
It looks like the stuff you do always comes back to bite you, he thought with a hint of bitterness. What was that Muggle phrase? 'Old sins have long shadows'. They always had consequences.
Well, here he was. Facing those consequences, one of which, most horribly, seemed to mean he'd lost the easy comfort and trust of one of his best friends. At least she was making an effort to act normally and was being nice to him. She even seemed to be happy, in her own way, to see him. At least he still had that. And he had the others, of course. They'd given him a wonderful homecoming, and he was grateful to them all for it.
As they all moved towards the dining table, to take their places, a diversion came in the form of David's young voice:
"I want to meet Hawwy!"
Correctly interpreting that this mysterious person was himself, Harry went obligingly to the crib. David was toddling around it alone now; Belle was sitting in a high-chair at the table. Harry approached the baby and looked down at him. The shock and… and something else, something painful that he couldn't define… came back. Hermione had a baby.
Merlin's beard. He felt a little weak as it really hit him. Hermione has a baby.
He was surprised at his first thought 'I want to hate this kid', and ashamed of it. Yet as the little boy reached towards him, he didn't hate him. Even if, for some reason he couldn't fathom, he wanted not to like David, he did. There was something about his easy smile and innocent, mischievous eyes that reminded him of Sirius, or what his father might have been like. No one could not like him.
"Hi," he said. "I'm Harry."
"You can pick him up," said Ginny with a grin, watching him—along with everyone else, apparently—very closely. They seemed to think he would stab the baby with his wand or something. "He might drool over you for fun, Fred and George taught him that, but Hermione's got a handy anti-drool spell."
"Charming," said Harry dryly, rolling his eyes at a grinning Fred and George. "Leave the kid alone, would you? He's too young to be corrupted by you two!"
"Cowwupted," said David at once.
Harry was very thankful he hadn't used more colorful language. "Smart baby," he remarked.
"Well, look at his mother," said Tonks with a grin. "His dad's not too thick, either. Well, not excessively, anyway. Has his smart moments now and then, but he can be abysmally slow when you least expect it… no offence, Hermione…"
"Tonks," Lupin frowned at her.
"I keep threatening to jinx Fred and George," said Hermione, reaching across Harry to pick David up; he laughed happily and snuggled against his mother's neck. "But it seems to have been to no avail. Come on, David. It's time for dinner, and you know what I'll do to your fingers if you throw meatballs at Uncle Ron again."
"Uncw Ron thwew mee'ball at me fwirst."
Ron had the grace to look ashamed of himself, and Hermione sighed in exasperation. "I sometimes wonder who the baby is, Ron," she said.
The others laughed, and in spite of himself, Harry felt himself grin a little. He took a seat next to Ron, and was startled when, despite the empty chair beside him, Hermione went across and sat down next to Neville, putting David down on her lap. Mrs. Weasley began to dole out the food, and cheerful conversation carried on for an hour or so.
Harry felt Mrs. Weasley's cooking and warm bottles of Butterbeer begin to thaw the cold sadness that had been wrapped around his heart for so long. But it didn't thaw it completely. It was still there, somewhere, and he didn't know why.
"So where have you been, Harry?" Ron asked him.
The others stopped talking to listen, and he explained: "I went all over the place, really. Never stayed anywhere for long. Leeds and Nottingham and Yorkshire and Dublin and even as far as Bulgaria. I managed to catch a few of Krum's matches while I was there. He saw me and gave me his winning Snitch once; that was it for my anonymity, of course."
"I'm surprised no one had recognized you before," Lupin commented, "You still appear in the papers at least once a week, you know. 'Where is Harry Potter?'. 'Britain Mourns Absence of Chosen One'."
Harry flushed. "Yeah, well. I'd hoped it would have died down by now."
"People are very grateful, Harry," Luna told him. "And they like celebrities as well, you know."
"So what made you decide to come back now?" Fred inquired.
He shrugged. "I don't really know, to be very honest. I just felt… I don't know… it was like I woke up one morning and I couldn't take it anymore, and I just came back. You know? Something brought me back, and I can't put my finger on it, but I'm glad. Anyway," he went on hastily, eager to turn the subject off himself, "What's been going on here?"
"Well, Scrimgeour's put me in charge of a new Werewolf Alliance committee in the Ministry," said Lupin. "I never thought I'd work in the government, and to be honest, it's not very interesting, but I get posted to Hogwarts a good deal, and now that Tonks and I are married, I thought a stable job would be a good idea. Tonks is still an Auror; Kingsley's been moved up to Head of the Auror Office, and Moody's the new Muggle Prime Minister's Secretary."
"Frighten him half to death every day too," said Moody with relish. "Bloody fool of a man, that one."
"The Joke Shop's still flourishing," said George gleefully, "And Ginny's working for Bill in curse-breaking at Gringotts' now."
"You still with the Chudley Cannons?" Harry asked Ron.
"Official Keeper now," said Ron proudly. "Luna's… er… our official commentator." He caught Harry's eye and they both looked away hastily before one of them laughed. Harry caught Hermione's eye; she was also trying not to laugh, and for a brief instant, it was as if things were exactly as they'd always been.
Then Hermione hastily looked away. Harry swallowed his disappointment and said, "What about you, Hermione?"
"I have a part-time job," she said, "As assistant Transfiguration teacher at Hogwarts. McGonagall asked me, and I said yes. Three days a week. David stays here during those times, with Mrs. Weasley. She takes care of Belle during the day anyway, so it's good. I think she misses having children at home to fuss over," she added, smiling at Mrs. Weasley.
Molly sighed. "They grew up too fast, and now none of them live here any longer!"
"You're still living at Number 12, Grimmauld Place, then?" Harry asked Ron happily, as Crookshanks crawled into his lap and curled up there, purring. He'd been hoping to have Ron and Luna there with him. Sirius's house, though much brighter now, could get lonely.
"Yeah, me, Luna and Hermione and David are all there still," said Ron. "You didn't think we'd abandon your house, did you, just because You-Know-Who is gone? We kept your room clean and just as you left it all this time, too."
"You mean Dobby kept it clean," said Hermione sternly.
"We pay him, Hermione, and he gets a holiday each month! You've got to stop telling him not to work—you know he almost has a heart attack every time you do!"
Hermione sniffed and paid undue attention to feeding David. Harry felt a pang; she hadn't changed very much at all. It seemed that the only thing that had really changed, apart from the fact that she was a mother, was their relationship, his and hers. He missed her. There. He'd admitted it. To himself, yes, but there was a start. He had missed her and he missed what they'd once had. He'd been an idiot to mess it all up.
Across from him, Harry saw Neville slip David a piece of cake, and, with a shy grin, David batted Neville across the cheek, as if to say thank you. Hermione, who hadn't missed this, shook her head reprovingly but smiled at Neville nonetheless.
Harry felt positively faint. Was Hermione with Neville now?
For the first time, he fully realized that he couldn't pick up where he'd left off. Things had changed, and he didn't know why that left him with a sad, sinking feeling in his gut.
To Be Continued.