Disclaimer: The characters and situations of Harry Potter depicted in this story are the legal property of J.K. Rowling, Bloomsbury, and AOL Time Warner, and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. Chapter titles and lyrics are the property of Evanescence.

No profit is being made off this story. It is for entertainment purposes only.

Warning: This story contains sexual content and implied drug use. If that bothers you or you are under age, please do not read.

Everybody's Fool

A/N: This is Part One of Two, a seven-chapter introduction of sorts. In other words, some things will not be resolved by the end. Pay attention to the titles and lyrics excerpts… they were chosen carefully to help you understand the problems the characters are facing and contribute to the story. Part Two is planned but is still a WIP. It will not be published until it is 100 complete. Updates for this story will be once a week for seven consecutive weeks. I hope you enjoy it!

Harry hesitated just outside the doorway. Beads of sweat droplets formed on his forehead and rolled down the back of his neck as the struggle inside him intensified. He was standing outside the Burrow, inches away from the door, and he just couldn't do it.

There was no bona fide explanation why he couldn't enter the only place other than Hogwarts he had ever called home. The truth was the Burrow was more of a home to him than Privet Drive had ever been. He hadn't spent much time here, but that didn't matter to him. This ramshackle house represented everything he had ever wanted in life but could never have – not anymore. Not ever.

Harry closed his eyes tightly trying to ward off the truth of that thought, but it was no use. He was what he was. Nothing and nobody could change it.

"Harry?" a familiar feminine voice said from nearby.

Harry's eyes flew open with a startled snap. Ginny stood in the doorway, her mane of red hair glinted golden in the late afternoon sun. Her eyes were wrinkled in confusion as she stared at him, waiting for an explanation that would not come.

"What are you doing out there?" she asked gently. Her voice sent shivers down his back and he ducked his head to stop her seeing the effect her voice alone had on him.

"I…," he stuttered awkwardly, "I was just…" He looked around for an excuse, his eyes travelling upward to the waning sun. "I was enjoying the last of the warm weather," he lied. His eyes refused to find hers because he knew she'd see through him. She always did. She searched his face, seeming to reach into his thoughts, and he glanced away nervously, thankful that she didn't press him. "Why aren't you out back with the others?" he asked.

She shrugged. "I came inside to get something. When I glanced up at the clock I noticed your hand moving from travelling to home, but when you didn't come inside right away you had me worried."

"Oh," he said, unable to think of anything else to say.

"Well, stop sulking out there and come in and join the party," she said a little too brightly, gesturing for him to come inside. "Everyone else is here already." She stepped aside to give him access to the house, holding the door open for him as he passed. "You're late as usual," she said, amusement flickering below the surface.

"Yeah," he said meekly, looking up at her apologetically through long fringe he had not bothered to cut. "Sorry about that. Happy birthday, Ginny."

She leaned in and kissed him on his cheek pretending she didn't notice when he flinched. "You're forgiven," she said tenderly. She led the way back to the kitchen and he followed meekly, his eyes on the floor. "Would you mind helping me carry out these plates?" she asked as soon as they crossed the threshold, handing him an armload without bothering to wait for his reply.

As she turned he couldn't help admiring her retreating silhouette from behind, causing a painful lump to form in his chest. She hadn't changed a bit in two years except to get more beautiful. His mouth went dry as she grabbed an elastic out of a drawer and pulled her hair up, exposing her bare neck to Harry. He sighed inwardly, knowing that she had absolutely no idea what kind of effect she had on him. Every breath was torture. He closed his eyes to her briefly before she forced him to flee. As it was, it took every ounce of strength he had to stop himself from bolting out the door, away from this madness – this torment.

She must have been worried about his lack of conversation because she paused to glance back at him. "Sorry," she apologized, a tiny blush appearing on her freckled cheeks. "It's really warm out there."

"S'okay," he shrugged, forgetting momentarily that he was holding an armload of dishes. He struggled to keep from dropping them, conscious that his stomach was doing an unpleasant flip flop that intensified when she came over to help.

"There," she said softly, stabilizing him. "They must be heavy. Let me take a few of those off your hands."

Reluctantly he allowed her to take some of the plates, feeling immediate relief as his heavy load suddenly became lighter. Silently he trudged behind her, his eyes on the ground, as they made their way out into the garden.

Immediately his ears, accustomed to silence, were accosted with lively sounds. Someone must have put up a mass of Silencing Charms around the area, he reckoned, otherwise every Muggle in the vicinity of Ottery St. Catchpole would have been able to hear the noise of the wizard party going on behind the Weasley's house. Music from the Wizard Wireless Network blared, people laughed, and conversation was everywhere. Tables laden with food, candles, and presents were scattered here and there, while dancing fairy lights hung from almost every limb of the trees. The paper globes that housed the vain little creatures lit the darkened area invitingly. Since the Weasley garden was on the opposite side of the house from the setting sun it was much darker back here. The fairies were doing their jobs superbly, bathing the garden in a warm, ethereal glow.

Following Ginny's lead, Harry set the plates on a nearby table then looked around to see who else had come. Ginny was already engaged in conversation with a group of people Harry recognized from school. Tons of people had come for the party. He couldn't ever recall seeing this many people packed into the tiny back garden before, and he felt an ugly stab of jealousy as he observed the numerous males who had decided to attend.

He spied Ron and Hermione sitting at the end of one of the tables under a large canopy of trees. Hermione's hand was on top of Ron's and the two were engaged in an animated conversation that looked private. He hesitated, feeling very out of place. I shouldn't be here, his panicked mind screamedBut before he could turn around and leave, Hermione looked up and spotted him. A wide grin spread across her lovely face and she called out his name excitedly. For a split second he debated about what to do, but he knew he couldn't act like he had not heard her. He was caught.

Resigning himself, he weaved his way over towards his two oldest friends and plopped down on an empty chair.

Hermione and Ron both greeted him warmly but he was immediately aware of the tension in the air. When Hermione rushed away to fetch Harry a glass of Pumpkin juice he soon found out why.

"Where've you been?" Ron said crossly. "Buggar it all, Harry! I've been stuck here all evening trying to convince Hermione that we'll be all right without her for a few months. Please assure her that we can manage just fine on our own. Honestly, it'll be a relief to not have to listen to her constant badgering to clean up or do laundry at every turn. She's driving me mad with all the mollycoddling and we still have three weeks to go before she leaves. I don't know how I'm going to stand it till then!"

The three of them had been sharing a flat in Leicester near London since finishing up at Hogwarts, and Hermione was constantly on them about keeping up the housework. It was worse than her badgering all through school about homework, in their opinion, and she had ratcheted it up a notch since learning that she was to be sent away for training until the Christmas holidays.

Ron hadn't seen Hermione come back with the drink in time to catch the tail end of the conversation, but Harry did. He looked from Ron's grumpy face to Hermione's angry one and came to the instant conclusion that he'd much rather be somewhere else. He knew from experience that this was not going to be pretty. Conversations such as this could go on for hours, with him eventually acting as referee and go between when they refused to talk to one another. It was really very tiresome, and he usually tried to avoid it at all costs.

Tonight he decided his best strategy would be to offset Ron's comment with something of his own to try to deflect some of Hermione's anger at Ron's insensitive comments.

"We're really going to miss you Hermione," he said honestly. "I don't know how we're going to manage. But if we can survive Voldemort, then I'm sure we'll find some way to get though without you around every day to keep us in line." His voice was genuine, not condescending, and Hermione's anger melted under it.

Ron looked at her, defeated. "He's right, you know," he said dejectedly. "We are going to miss you terribly."

The hard lines of Hermione's face softened at his words. As she sat back in her chair, she placed her hand on Ron's thigh. Harry saw apprehension flitting across her face. "I shouldn't go," she said, appearing to waver.

"Of course you should go," Harry said firmly. "This is your life, Hermione, your career. You have to go." She looked unconvinced and ready to argue, but Harry cut her off with a wave. "It's only till Christmas. Don't worry… you know I'll look out for Ron. I'll make certain he doesn't starve. Besides, our training is moving into a new phase and it's beginning to get very intense. I doubt we'll have much time at home anyway."

Hermione raised an eyebrow and shifted her free hand to Harry's. "And if you're taking care of Ron, then who's going to take care of you?" she asked affectionately.

Ron perked up indignantly. "You know I have Harry's back. The three of us are a team, remember? Even when you're in bloody France or wherever you'll be."

Hermione smiled at both of them, emotion glistening in her eyes. "All right, I'll stop mollycoddling from now on and leave you to it. If you wear dingy pants it'll be your own faults."

Ron and Harry exchanged significant looks, knowing her decision was made. It was just as well. They were busy with Auror training most days anyway. Hermione's super-secret position as a liaison between the Department of Mysteries and the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and Legal Affairs kept her just as busy, and they rarely even saw each other, even though they shared a flat.

Feeling a change of subject was needed, Harry commented quietly. "This is some party, isn't it? Who knew Ginny had this many friends?"

He noticed both Hermione and Ron give him a strange look but couldn't for the life of him think what it was he had done this time.

"You are joking, right?" Hermione said finally.

"Er…" Harry said awkwardly. "I know Ginny's always been too popular for her own good," he said defensively. "I just didn't think they'd all show up for her birthday party, is all."

"You're right," Ron said darkly as his eyes scanned the crowd. "I could really do with a few less blokes chatting my sister up."

Harry silently agreed, stealing a glance at Ginny surrounded by a group of her friends, laughing and talking animatedly. It wasn't surprising when he felt the familiar stab of pain he'd come to associate with her. But he couldn't deny that being the centre of attention suited her. She seemed to sparkle under all the attention. Among the group hanging on her every word were Colin and Dennis Creevy, Justin Finch-Fletchly, and Anthony Goldstein. They were, reportedly, the latest boys to show an interest in her.

Standing off to the side was Dean Thomas, Ginny's old flame. Hermione whispered she had heard Dean might be interested in a second chance with Ginny. Harry's stomach clenched painfully at the thought. Dean was an all right bloke, but Ginny deserved more.

Harry's eyes swept over the youngest Weasley appreciatively; she radiated confidence. He remembered when he had captivated her attention. Those had been the best weeks of his life, but that seemed like a lifetime ago now. Sometimes Harry wondered if it had all been a dream.

He jerked himself away from those thoughts quickly. He had decided long ago that she was better off without him, and he'd not back down now. He repeated it like a mantra, trying to convince himself of it, but knew deep down he'd never accept her with anyone else – not really. Still, he knew he'd have to let go of that dream sooner or later because he refused to let her ruin her life on the likes of him. He could never bring her true happiness… not in his current situation.

Bringing his thoughts back to the conversation at hand, Harry asked in a deliberately casual tone, "So who's the lucky sod this week? Is she still dating Finch-Fletchly?"

"I don't think so, but who knows?" Ron said irritably. "She never tells me anything, anymore."

"Honestly, you two," Hermione said, "Ginny hasn't dated that many boys. Most of them have just been friends. And she would tell you, Ron," she pointed out, "if you didn't threaten to hex every boy who has the audacity to show an interest in her."

"Can I help it if I want to see my sister happy?" he retorted.

"And just what constitutes happy, in your opinion?" Hermione said heatedly. "She's eighteen today. Don't you think she's capable of deciding for herself who makes her happy?"

They were still arguing when Harry slipped away quietly and headed for the food table. He was fond of his two best friends, but their constant bickering did play on his nerves; at times like these it was better that he just leave them to it. Besides, he really wasn't in the mood to hear them bicker about Ginny's happiness as it pertained to other blokes. Even though Harry knew he could never be in Ginny's life again, the thought of her finding happiness with someone else literally tore him to pieces inside.

He was in the process of examining the vast array of food laid out on a long buffet table, wondering how he was going to muster up the appetite to eat anything, when two identical blurs approached him, one on each side.

"Hello there, business partner," Fred said, clapping him on the back. "Long time no see!"

"How's Auror life treating you these days, Harry, my boy? Saved the world anymore lately?" George chimed in, throwing a brotherly arm around his shoulder. Not waiting for an answer, he ploughed on. "This brings us around to why we're here... Harry, mate, we've got something to show you." He held up a jar of what looked like ordinary green pickles in front of them.

"What's that?" Harry asked warily.

"It's our latest product. Should be a whopping big success," Fred said proudly, indicating the pickles. "We're calling them Potter's Pickles."

"Yeah," George said. "One bite and your eyes will turn the colour of fresh pickled toad."

"Two bites," Fred said, "and your hair will be as dark as a blackboard."

"Three bites and you'll have your own lightening bolt plastered on your forehead!" George chuckled.

Harry grimaced. He felt slightly nauseous at the idea that people would even want to emulate him in any way. "Sounds fun," he said dully, unsuccessfully trying to fake his approval for the product.

"We thought you'd appreciate it," Fred said, grinning. "It was all George's idea."

"Not true, my dear brother," George corrected him modestly. "Don't you remember? It was our baby sister that gave us the inspiration."

"Gave who, what inspiration?" a familiar, disapproving voice said from behind Harry. Turning around, he felt his face flush with embarrassment. Ginny was looking between him and her brothers expectantly, a frown on her face.

"I was just telling Harry how you were the inspiration for the new line of Potter's Pickles," George said confidently.

Ginny's eyes sparkled then narrowed. "Yes. About that…" The twins looked at her suspiciously.

"I have it on good authority that a certain dwarf is prepared to petition a lawsuit if you go through with this crazy new scheme. He claims that you stole his idea," she said calmly. Her eyes were deadly cold now and Harry shivered, not wanting to be the twins for even one second under that stare.

Fred and George exchanged stricken looks.

"You said you weren't going to do that," Fred said lamely.

"Did I?" Ginny said innocently, revealing a sweet but calculating smile.

But Fred smiled widely, too. "You know we need more proof than your word sister, dear," he said, wagging a finger in front of her nose. "I think you're bluffing."

Ginny smiled just as widely. "I hoped you'd say that." Pulling out her wand, she said clearly, "Accio letter!" A moment later, a letter came zooming into her hand.

"You didn't really-" George said disbelievingly as Ginny handed him the letter.

"I most certainly did." She stared the twins down with a hard glare as they read the letter, their heads almost touching as they scanned it. Harry watched in fascination as their eyes darted to and fro, their faces growing more and more serious by the second. After a few moments they looked up, identical frowns plastered on their faces.

"Can we talk about this?" George asked timidly.

"Tell you what," Ginny said pleasantly. "I'm a reasonable girl. We can make a deal."

The twins started at her dubiously.

Ginny continued. "I think this product is worth saving. Why don't you drop the scar bit, make the hair and skin green, and just call them Potent Pickles? Leave Harry out of it. If you do that, I'm sure something could be… arranged. For a price, that is. Say, five percent of your total profits?" She raised an eyebrow in question, but showed no signs of backing down.

"Five percent!" George exclaimed. "Are you mental?"

Fred gave her a disgusted glare. "And you call us family," he said, shaking his head sadly.

"Fine, have it your way," she said dramatically waving the letter. "I'll just write Armando and tell him the good news." She turned to leave.

"Wait!"

Fred and George exchanged a glance. They clearly seemed to be doing some sort of silent communication.

"Is that your final offer?" George asked hopefully.

"Take it or leave it."

Harry nearly fell over in surprise when they agreed to Ginny's terms. He was further shocked when she produced another document making it official. The twins even seemed impressed in a begrudging sort of way. They went off mumbling about family honour and bloody sisters, but there was a proud gleam in their eyes.

When they had gone, Harry turned to Ginny and offered her a weak smile. "Thanks for that," he said sincerely.

Ginny smiled warmly. "No problem, Harry," she said, rubbing his arm in a friendly, comforting way.

An electric shock ran through his body. His arm tingled at the touch and he jerked away abruptly, although all he really wanted to do was keep her hand there a little longer.

Ginny backed away too, stuttering out her next words awkwardly. "Sorry… I forgot for a moment there. It won't happen again."

"It's fine... really. It's not you, it's me. Please don't apologize."

"All right, then," she said uncertainly. "I suppose I should get back to my guests."

Harry couldn't help holding her gaze for a moment, and perhaps it was his imagination but he could almost remember how it used to be before that last battle with Voldemort. Vaguely he could recall a time when he could feel something, anything, other than this pain he carried around in his heart every day.

"I'll see you around," he said quietly, even though his heart screamed at him to take her in his arms and hold her until all the hurt was washed away.

She smiled a sad, slow smile. "Sure," she said, turning her back on him and walking towards Finch-Fletchly who was motioning her over.

Harry turned away so that he didn't have to look at her anymore because every time he did his heart broke just a little more.

The encounter with Ginny left Harry feeling flushed and totally out of sorts. He needed to escape, badly. It was a terrible idea to be here – to be this close to her again. He should never have come. The party continued to rage around him as his head spun with thoughts that were straight from the past, before Voldemort had ruined everything for him.

Stumbling around, he finally found a dark corner of the garden under a tree where he could be alone and collect his jumbled thoughts. He breathed deeply as he leaned forward in the shadows, quietly collecting his composure as he observed the comings and goings of the mass of bodies that filled the Weasley garden. Everyone was laughing and joking, dancing and talking. They all looked so carefree. Why couldn't he be like that?

He knew why. Two years had passed and he still thought about it every day.

The final fight.

Ron and Hermione captured, used as bait.

He knew it was a trap - a lure to get him to come, but he went anyway. There was no way he would leave his two best friends in the hands of that monster. They'd been with him through everything. They helped him get the Philosopher's Stone and they'd been with him when he destroyed the last of Voldemort's Horcruxes. In the end, they had given him the courage and the means to face his nightmare, his enemy, and destroy him for good.

But at what price?

The final confrontation had sucked out all remnants of any happiness he had in him, infecting him with darkness. When Voldemort was finally gone he had no happiness, no hope, left. Harry found himself empty – a living shell that walked and talked and smiled, but could not feel. He had forgotten how.

The only emotions he had left were mostly angry, dark, and depressing. He could still care, still express kindness and tenderness towards others, but all the happiness and joy in his life – everything that made life worthwhile – was gone. Worse, he could remember having it once, like the feeling one gets between sleep and waking when dreams seem real but just out of reach. Happiness had been real once, he was certain, but not anymore. Not for him.

At first, everyone assumed his depression was the result of post-traumatic stress and the after-effects of the war. Most everyone said they were feeling that way as they looked around and the impact of what they had lost sunk in. But gradually Harry noticed others moving on, past the pain while he never improved. It was like being stuck in a nightmare, dreaming of the past nightly and reliving the feelings during the day.

When he became aware that he wasn't going to get better he pushed everyone away. Unsurprisingly, his two best friends had steadfastly refused to let him be. After awhile, he had grown tired of the effort and stopped trying to make them go away, but he knew there was something missing in their friendship… there was a distance or void that had never been there before that last confrontation with Voldemort. It was a chasm so wide and so large it was impossible for him to cross; it separated him from the rest of the world, leaving him isolated and alone.

Ginny had gotten the worst of it. She had tried her best to reach him in those early days but he had said and done things to hurt her, to make her go away forever. Every time she came near him it was like a knife cutting into his heart; her very touch was painful. The Fates were cruel in their case. They were drawn to each other like moths to a flame, but when they collided it only burned. He remembered how he'd shouted at her, degraded her, told her how stupid she was for holding out hope that they'd ever be together again. He'd been pissed off his arse at the time and the alcohol had made him say and do things he never would have done sober.

'Do you love me, Harry?' Her eyes bore into his, trying to penetrate the layers of darkness surrounding his heart and see the truth.

'No,' he lied, his face a cold mask.

Tears rolled down her face, but her jaw was set – hard and angry. 'You're lying. I know you're lying. Why won't you tell me what's wrong?'

His temper flared. 'Why can't you just accept the fact that I don't have feelings for you Ginny!'

He'd thrown his mostly empty bottle of Firewhisky against the wall with a satisfying crash, causing her to jump in surprise. A frightened squeak involuntarily escaped her lips.

His face twisted in a sneer. 'You're pathetic', he said, his voice cold as ice. 'I'm never going to be the same boy you used to moon over when you were ten. That person is dead, and all you're left with is me! This is it, Ginny… this is the real me. Is this what you really want?'

Her eyes were wide and uncertain, but she answered bravely. 'Y-yes.'

'Now who's lying?' he'd scoffed, taking a liberal drink from his full glass. 'Get over it, Ginny… get over me. I can't give you what you need, so just go.'

She'd slapped him and told him he was a piss-poor drunk, but after that she had kept her distance. She was through being his fool, apparently, and he was secretly proud of her for not taking it from him. He was poison. They both knew it, they both accepted it.

'Do you love me, Harry?'

Those words would haunt him to his dying day.

It sickened him to see what he had become. Only the most abhorrent potions a wizard could purchase on the black market came close to making him feel the way a normal wizard should, but they were temporary fixes – mere band-aids on a bigger problem.

He cursed Voldemort as he stood in the shadows now, half-hidden by the tree, watching them.

Ron and Hermione swayed softly in the moonlight, caught up in a long, slow dance. Last spring a relative of Hermione's married and she had asked Ron to accompany her to the wedding. Dancing was required she had said, so she broke out the albums and taught Ron the moves. Harry had walked in on the lesson by accident and she'd grabbed him up, trying her best to get him to sway with the beat of the music he couldn't feel. In frustration he had lashed out at her for putting him in that awkward situation, and he and Ron had almost come to blows. In the end Harry had backed down and stormed out, but had apologized later for his behaviour after he'd calmed down. He knew he had been out of line, and luckily they had accepted his apology. He wasn't certain what he would have done if they hadn't.

His eyes moved on, and he saw Fred and George attempting to dump a bucket of ice on Angelina Johnson's and Alicia Spinnet's heads. They had been caught in the act, but the girls were being good sports about it. The group, including Katie Bell and Lee Jordan, was laughing uproariously and trying to shove ice down each other's shirts, gaining the attention of the entire party. Soon Dean and Seamus had gotten into the act. Harry's stomach clinched as Dean tried to trick Ginny and slip one down her shirt, but she side-stepped him neatly and conjured a bucket of cold water, drenching him thoroughly. The impressive bit of magic had earned her laughter and a round of applause from the twins. The dark feelings of self-loathing and raw jealousy intensified watching them. Unlike Dean, he hadn't laughed once in over a year.

His gaze leapt from person to person and his heart grew heavier with each passing glance. They'd all be better off without him bringing down the mood of the party. No matter how much they didn't want to admit it, he was broken. Unfixable. His acting ability only went so far; whenever he was around he knew his presence was not much better than a Dementor. That was why he stayed away now, out of sight. He didn't want to ruin everyone else's fun with his sour mood.

He turned away abruptly, looking out towards the field where they had spent so many enjoyable hours playing pick-up games of Quidditch. Even that was not pleasurable anymore and he rarely played. He just couldn't bring himself to get on a broom when he was so empty inside. He didn't even like flying anymore. He made stupid errors and flew worse than a first year. It was embarrassing.

"Are you watching the Hugglebees?" a dreamy voice said from beside him, startling him. "They are quite lovely this time of year, don't you think?"

Harry turned to look at Luna Lovegood. He had not noticed her approach.

Some Auror I'll make, he thought to himself glumly. No wonder I'm near the bottom of my class.

Her eyes were slightly glazed and unfocused, staring off into the fields at something only she could see. Her dirty blond hair was just as straight and stringy as it had been the first time he had seen her on the Hogwarts Express.

"Umm, no," he said uncertainly. He wasn't quite sure what a Hugglebee was – probably just another one of Luna's crazy imaginary creatures. "I was just remembering all the good times I've had here," he said miserably.

Her soulful eyes seemed to see right to through the façade – the mask he had created – and into the depths of his true self.

"You know, Harry," she said, seriously looking at him sideways, "things are going to improve soon. I've consulted my spirit guide about your problem and she agrees it's only a matter of time," Luna said with authority. "You still have something left inside your heart. It's just buried so deep inside you that you're having trouble finding it. It's not your fault you know, it's the curse. Voldemort's curse."

Harry blinked in surprise. How could she know? Once again Luna had hit the nail on the head with her knack for voicing uncomfortable truths.

"Er… right," he fumbled. "I know." He wasn't sure what else to say to that. Luna's crazy observations rarely made sense, but this time she'd gotten too close.

She stared at him unblinkingly for a good long while, making him even more uncomfortable. Then suddenly she said in that same irritatingly serious voice as she turned her eyes back to the field twinkling with fireflies and fairies, "The Hugglebees really are beautiful… and there are so many! Did you know that they're attracted to areas where there is a concentration of empathic energy?" She looked over her shoulder at the ruckus still going on inside the Weasley garden. "Of course, they're also attracted to the smell of birthday cake."

"Uh… no, I didn't know that," he said resisting the urge to roll his eyes, thankful Hermione wasn't around to dispute the existence of Luna's latest fantasy.

Out of his peripheral vision he was relieved to see Ginny approaching, even though he felt his face heat again and that familiar urge to run away. Luna's knowing smile unnerved him. He wondered if his aura was doing funny things again; she had accused him of that before.

"There you two are," Ginny said cheerfully. "Mum wants to bring out the cake, but I told her I wouldn't blow out the candles until I dragged you both into the party."

"I think I'll go ask Neville if he has seen the Hugglebees yet," Luna said quietly. "Excuse me."

"No problem," Ginny said with a grin. "Last time I saw him he was running away from Seamus who was chasing him with a handful of ice."

"Okay."

Harry and Ginny watched curiously as she drifted off, dreamily humming an odd little tune.

"What was that all about?" Ginny asked, amusement flickering in her eyes.

Harry shrugged helplessly. "Something about Hugglebees. Ever heard of them?"

"No," she giggled. "Can't say that I have." She looked at him curiously. "What were you doing out here all alone?"

"I wasn't alone. Luna was here."

Ginny shook her head. "I mean before that. I saw you sulking all alone by the tree."

"I wasn't sulking, just thinking…" His voice trailed off and he didn't turn, hoping fervently she'd drop it.

"Oh…." she said with a knowing look. "I see."

"What?" He couldn't keep the annoyance out of his voice.

"You do an awful lot of thinking these day, don't you Harry?" she said almost cruelly.

"I have a lot on my mind," he retorted, vexed that she would choose to pick a fight with him tonight with a garden full of guest only meters away.

But Ginny didn't seem to care about guests. She whirled on him, her face alight with anger. "Isn't it time you stop dwelling on the past and start enjoying life, Harry? Everyone else has moved on, why can't you?"

He turned away, his temper simmering. "You don't understand," he said through clenched teeth.

Her quietness told him that she had calmed her temper, just as she had many times in the past. "Harry," she said, laying a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry."

He bristled at the touch and turned his head to the side, but couldn't bring himself to walk away.

"I do care about you, you know," she said, her voice sounding choked. "I-I wouldn't say it, if I didn't care."

"I know," he admitted reluctantly. He didn't turn – couldn't bear for her to see him with empty eyes. "I'm trying Ginny," he said truthfully, though it was hard to talk around the lump that had formed in his throat. "But it's hard."

"Life is hard, Harry," she said quietly, touching his cheek and forcing him to look at her. "But you're stronger than this. You can beat this."

He couldn't help himself. He turned and looked at her with dull green eyes. "I'm spent, Ginny," he said truthfully. "I have nothing left in me to give. Every day is torture, and I don't know how to move on. I've tried everything, but he took it all, Gin. He took it all, and now it's gone."

"I don't believe you," she said forcefully, fixing him with a penetrating stare. "The Harry Potter I know never gives up."

He stared back at her helplessly, willing her to see that he was telling the truth.

Understanding dawned crystal clear in her eyes. He saw it seconds before she struck like a predatory cat, bringing her mouth to his so violently he was thrown backward into the tree.

He felt himself tense up at first and try to get away, the pain in his heart practically bursting. He needed to escape before she realised what he was, what Voldemort had made him, but she held him fast and refused to let him run away. He was utterly helpless, paralyzed… torn between wanting to stay and needing to go. When he tried to pull back she stopped him, drawing him closer and closer, digging down into the layers of darkness and pain, opening his heart to feelings he'd long thought gone. Slowly, impossibly, he felt himself respond as she made contact with his weakened soul. Like a tourniquet, she wrapped her own soul tightly around his, touching him in a way he hadn't been touched before. It was raw emotion, intense passion, and pure need.

And then he remembered.

It was like breathing again after holding his breath for far too long. He filled his lungs with air as he leaned into her slightly, feeling a desperate drive to deepen the kiss. She continued to hold on to him, letting him know it was all right. Tentatively, he opened his mouth to hers when she pressed for entrance. It was like coming home – even better than he remembered. Without meaning to, he sagged against the tree tiredly and allowed her to kiss the pain away, tonic to his starving soul. Without hesitation he opened himself up to it fully.

Suddenly he needed more. Like something had taken over inside him, he grabbed her by the waist roughly and pulled her closer. Tongues danced and played, eliciting moans from both parties. Harry wove his hand in her silky hair, grabbing her by the neck and trying to draw her closer still, trying to melt his body into hers. He gasped as one of her hands trailed up and under his baggy shirt, stroking the bare skin of his back. His skin was on fire where she was touching him.

He turned her unexpectedly and became the aggressor, surprising her as he gently threw her against the tree and pinned her body next to his. Raising her up without losing contact with her mouth, she willingly wrapped her legs around him, letting the tree support the bulk of her weight and his hips support the rest. He kissed her neck roughly, applying pressure to the pulse point just below her chin. She threw her head back to allow him better access, her fingers driving him mad as they twisted in his hair. It was pure bliss, yet at the same time horrible torture.

He was just beginning to dip lower, seeking out the soft skin of her shoulder hidden under her shirt, when they heard their names being called. He broke off his exploration, panting hard and wild-eyed with unrequited fulfilment.

They leaned their foreheads against each other in an unspoken understanding, but he did not put her down. He couldn't bear to let her go yet. At the same time the feelings of despair he had been pushing away came crashing down on him like a tidal wave. He sighed heavily as the veil dropped and pulled away even further, earning him a curious, worried look that suddenly made things very awkward between them. He could tell she wanted to ease the tension but didn't know how.

Mrs. Weasley was shouting out her name. They were looking for her, wanting her to come blow out the candles on her birthday cake. He put her down reluctantly and backed away, his breathing ragged, staring at her in wild-eyed shock. Neither spoke, choosing instead to communicate with their eyes everything that no words could possibly express.

She started to say something but he backed away, stumbling slightly in his haste to escape. Turning, he fled, skirting around the garden to the safety of the other side of the house where he would be out of sight, hearing her call after him in confusion. He just couldn't face anyone right now, least of all her.

Leaning against the house, he tried to regain his composure. His self-control was totally shattered and he was thoroughly embarrassed that he had acted so thoughtlessly. What must she think of him now? He had sworn to Ron he would always take care of her and that's what he had been doing by staying away. In his mind, it was her only chance for happiness. She'd be better off with Dean Thomas than him. Anyone would be better than him.

He swore violently and kicked the house in frustration, momentarily fearing that the whole place might come tumbling down. What was he going to do now? For the first time in over two years, he had felt something. Something wonderful, incredible… amazing! But he didn't know if he was prepared for what that meant, and he certainly wasn't prepared for the pain that was now flooding his heart.

Time passed as his body that had betrayed him so badly finally came back under his control. Thankfully no one had come to seek him out – no Weasley male had come to thrash him for defiling their sister in such a brutish way. In the distance he heard the sounds of Ginny's friends and family serenading her. He longed to go back, but knew it was wrong. Ginny deserved more than he could give. He cared about her too much to let her get mixed up with the likes of him.

The laughter and clapping drifted through the late summer air, and he imagined Ginny in the middle of it all, blushing and smiling, blowing out the candles on her cake. Perfect. The epitome of life. Everything he wanted but couldn't have.

She's better off without me. I can't do this to her.

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the tiny pouch that contained Ginny's birthday present. He hadn't had time to give to her. Taking out his wand he vanished it, feeling sick, nauseous with pain… the worst despair he'd felt yet.

Clutching his stomach, he knew what he had to do now… where he had to go to make the pain that was threatening to overtake him more bearable. He'd promised Ron and Hermione he wouldn't do it anymore, but tonight had changed all that. He was teetering on the edge and, if he didn't find some relief soon, he'd plunge over the cliff. One more trip to the apothecary on Knockturn Alley would solve that. Although his conscious told him it was wrong and that he'd get kicked out of the training program if the Aurors ever found out he was using an illegal potion, he knew that for a little while he could find peace – even if it was a fleeting, synthetic peace. Then he'd go back to pretending for as long as he could.

What kind of man did that make him? He loathed his weakness and hated himself all the more. Dumbledore, Sirius, his parents… they would all be ashamed of him.

He closed his eyes and willed himself once again to forget, even though he knew it was impossible. Then he disappeared silently into the night.

A/N: Next chapter will be posted in one week. Thanks for reading and reviewing!