Ginny studied the notice board. It had been cleared of all the pleas for help locating lost books and mittens, the Gryffindor team practice schedules, and various other school announcements. Only one piece of parchment was pinned to the exact center of the board. All school activities are cancelled beginning at the end of classes on April thirtieth. Classes to resume on May fourth. There will be a school-wide memorial service at two o'clock in the afternoon on May second. Signed, Professor M. McGonagall, Headmistress
She picked at the corner of the parchment. Ginny didn't want to go to some public memorial, even though it would be mostly other students and Hogwarts staff. Nor did she desire to go home. It didn't seem as if it had been a full year since they'd lost Fred. But the date printed neatly in the top left corner of the notice read 29 April 1999. Irrefutable proof of the passage of time.
'Doesn't seem like a year, does it?' echoed a voice at her shoulder. Ginny turned to see Dennis Creevey standing slightly behind her. He'd undergone quite a few changes that year, including a rapid growth spurt that had added several inches to his frame, but made him look somewhat starved, even though he ate alarming amounts of food at meals. The merry light in his eyes was slowly returning, albeit somewhat subdued. 'I wish Colin…' He cleared his throat. 'I wish he were here. I would give up all my magic, just to have him back…' He shrugged, shifted the strap of his school bag higher on his shoulder and climbed out of the portrait hole.
'Are you going to go?' another voice rumbled on Ginny's other side. Dean slung a brotherly arm around her shoulders.
'I don't know,' Ginny admitted. 'Some part of me thinks I ought to go. But most of me is screaming to avoid it.'
'Why?' Dean asked.
'I don't really feel up to hearing someone spout a load of platitudes about how we suffered such terrible losses but the forces of goodness and light survived to carry on,' Ginny scoffed. 'I just remember feeling numb, you know? Once it was all over, and Voldemort was gone, and when I closed my eyes, I could see Fred lying on the floor. And he was so still. Fred was never that still when he was alive. Not even when he slept,' she added ruefully. 'That's how I knew he was gone,' Ginny said softly. 'And the others… Remus, Tonks… Colin. I'd just rather not be around people on Sunday…'
Dean nodded. 'Yeah. I don't think there's going to be a great many of us there. Not unless McGonagall makes us go.'
Ginny turned from the notice board, recalling McGonagall's anguished cries as Voldemort pronounced Harry to be dead. She fancied McGonagall would have wanted to be alone Sunday, had circumstances permitted. For Ginny felt the Headmistress' emotions ran deep, skillfully hidden under a brusque exterior and her concern for students ran far beyond seeing to their basic necessities or seeing the Quidditch Cup in Gryffindor's possession. 'I don't think she will.'
'Good,' Dean sighed with relief. 'I don't think I can handle public grief again…' He gave Ginny a bit of a hug, and went to the portrait hole. 'Going down for breakfast?'
'Yeah…' Ginny swung her bag to her shoulder and gave the notice board a last, thoughtful glance. Life continued, even in the face of death, destruction, and mayhem. It was just the natural way of things.
Molly awoke at her usual time, gazing sleepily at Arthur's side of the bed. He could normally be found sprawled over his half of the mattress, mouth slightly open, while one arm draped possessively over her waist. But only the impression of his head in the pillow belied his presence in their bed. 'Arthur?' Molly called, as she slid from the bed, and pulled her dressing gown over her arms. 'Arthur?' Her voice rose in a slight panic. Molly pattered down the stairs, gripping the banister tightly. When she rounded the landing on the second floor, light spilling from Fred and George's old room arrested her flight. She stepped to the open door, and stifled a sigh at the sight that greeted her. Arthur perched on Fred's bed, a box of photographs next to him. 'What are you doing?' Molly asked quietly.
Arthur held out a faded photograph. Molly took it from him, and held it up to the light. Percy had his arms wrapped around one of her knees, and a slight bulge was visible under her robes. The miniaturized version of herself kept gesturing for the photographer to put the camera away before she finally acquiesced and pressed the voluminous fabric closer to her body, revealing a much larger bulge than the initial image indicated. Molly smiled fondly. 'I don't think I slept for more than a few hours at a time for three months…' she murmured. 'If one wasn't moving, the other one was.' She moved to join Arthur on the bed, and her hand dipped into the waiting box. 'You were always so excited to become a father again, even when it strained our finances to the breaking point,' she told him. Her fingers unerringly found the photograph she sought, and offered it to Arthur.
Arthur chuckled softly. He held a twin in each arm, beaming with a mixture of joy, pride, and elation. They'd just been born, he thought. Their tiny faces were scrunched in identical expressions of dismay at being separated for the first time, as they wailed in unison. 'They didn't like being apart, did they?'
'No.' Molly's head rested against Arthur's bony shoulder, nestled in the hollow where her head just fit for the last thirty years. 'I was completely surprised we even had Ron and Ginny after we barely survived the first year with Fred and George,' she said lightly.
'We hadn't exactly planned on Ron or Ginny,' Arthur retorted, pulling out a photograph of all the children, taken just before Bill had gone to Hogwarts for the first time.
'We didn't plan on any of them,' Molly snorted. 'But I wouldn't have traded our life for all the gold in Gringotts. 'Not the years of nappies, the crying, the handed-down clothing, second-hand books and robes… Not even the smells that used to come from this room.' Her voice hitched slightly. 'I can still see the smiles on their faces when they each got their Hogwarts letter. I can still see Percy trying on his robes every day for a week before he went to school for his first year. Fred promised me he was going to use his magic to make more money than the Malfoys.' Molly's voice cracked, and she looked around the tiny room, with barely enough room for a bureau between the narrow beds and a wardrobe in the corner. Shelves hung on the walls, crammed with books about magic and potion ingredients, and Muggle magic tricks. 'And Ron… Ron was terrified he'd be the first Weasley to not be in Gryffindor. I thought Ginny was going to hyperventilate when she realized she was going to be on the same train as Harry,' she laughed. 'George was trying so hard to be brave, like Fred, but he came downstairs before the others when it was the twins' turn to go, and wrapped his arms around me and told me he would miss being at home…' She drew a deep, shuddering breath. 'Bill was just so thrilled to get out of the house,' she said, laughing shakily. 'I think it was far more peaceful in the common room than it was here. And Charlie…' Molly felt a pang for the child Charlie had been. So quiet and kept to himself, and self-sufficient to such a degree that by the age of thirteen he sorted, laundered, and mended his school uniforms, and had his trunk packed the night before the train left. 'Charlie just watched everything going on around him.'
'Bill's married,' Arthur mused. 'George seems rather taken with his young lady.'
'Katie,' Molly supplied automatically.
'Katie,' Arthur murmured. 'Percy's doing well for himself. Charlie's thriving with his dragons. Ron's probably not going to be here much longer. Nor Ginny, I imagine.' He tilted up Molly's face with a finger and gently kissed her. 'We've done very well by our brood,' he said, resting his forehead against Molly's.
Molly blinked slowly and two fat tears escaped from her eyes, and slid down her round cheeks. 'It still feels empty,' she choked. 'Not this big, old, creaky, empty house.' She pressed Arthur's hand to her chest. 'Here… When I think of how much our children have accomplished for themselves, it's not quite right because Fred's not here.' More tears followed, one behind the other, reflecting the light of the flickering lamp overhead. 'We're not supposed to outlive our children… We're supposed to go before them… It's not… It's not…' Molly dissolved into sobs.
Arthur didn't know what to say. Molly was usually so strong and held herself together, even in the most distressing circumstances. Her tears unnerved him, and always had. He pulled her closer and tucked her head under his chin, his arms around her waist. It was all he knew to do.
Bill yawned and stretched, listening to the pound of the surf against the cliffs. It was one of the reasons why he'd chosen Shell Cottage. Most days, the sound of sea didn't make him feel maudlin, but today it was making him keenly feel his own mortality. The rising and falling roar of the water mimicked the sound of a heartbeat. Tantalizing aromas drifted up from the kitchen, coaxing Bill from the warm bed. He followed the scent of roasting chicken down the stairs, through the sitting room, and into the kitchen.
The table groaned under the weight of enough food to feed the entire family. For a week. 'Fleur, chérie, what are you doing?'
'I zought your muzzer might want some 'elp wiz ze meals for today.'
'That's going to last them for some time,' Bill told her.
'I zhust wanted to do zomezing nice…' Fleur wiped a shaking hand over her face. After nearly two years of marriage to Bill, she still felt somewhat like an outsider with the Weasleys. Not that they hadn't welcomed her into the family, but Fleur had come to realize she hadn't made the best impression she could have when she and Bill first announced their engagement. Since the wedding, she was determined to prove to Molly she wasn't just a pretty face. In fact, the kind of life Molly had was exactly the life Fleur wanted, in spite of all of Fleur's comments to the contrary. If Fleur had any faults – and she did have them – she tended to make cutting remarks when she was nervous, while projecting an air of confidence that came off as cool hauteur. It was a horrid combination when one was attempting to forge a relationship with the people that would become one's family. Most men didn't notice the flaws under the glare of Veela charms, and Fleur admittedly never had gotten along with other women and girls very well. Her relationship with Molly had markedly improved, but Fleur could still see the aura of uncertainty in Molly regarding her. 'I zought if I took food, zen Molly would not 'ave to worry about doing any of ze cooking today.'
'I don't think anybody's going to show up for lunch today,' Bill said softly.
Fleur's face crumpled. She didn't know many of the people that had died last year very well, save for Fred. But even then, she hadn't known Fred as well as she could have. She hadn't deigned to set foot in the shop, deeming it as beneath her. Yet another regret. 'We could take zome of eet to George? And to 'Arry?' she asked anxiously.
'Percy, too,' Bill added, thumbing an errant tear from Fleur's face.
'And Percy, aussi.'
Bill managed to find the bowl of apples that sat in the center of the table, surrounded by roasted potatoes and creamed parsnips. He plucked one from it and briefly polished it on the sleeve of his t-shirt, then took a bite as he sat down in a chair, drawing Fleur closer with his other hand. 'Why is it so important to you to do this?'
Fleur shrugged eloquently with one shoulder. 'I do not want zem to zink I do not care,' she admitted reluctantly.
'Nobody thinks that,' Bill objected.
'I have not treated your family very well in ze past,' Fleur said. 'I want to try and make zings better wiz zem.'
'I guess this is as good a time as any to try and start over,' Bill mused. 'It's like a new year, no?'
Charlie carried a large, steaming mug of tea to the steps leading up to the small verandah of his cabin. He was bundled in an old Christmas jumper that bore several small holes from his work in the hatchery. It was a bright, sunny morning, not unlike the morning after the battle a year ago. He didn't know why he was up so early. Daffyd had removed him from the duty roster for that day. He could go home, but the idea of seeing Molly valiantly attempting to hide the grief that would surely well up anew made him slightly ill. He considered and rejected going to Andromeda's. For some reason, it made him inexplicably angry to think about Tonks' son, left orphaned by the war. 'Stubborn woman,' he muttered. Tonks, he understood, could have stayed home – no, should have stayed home, but she rushed to Hogwarts, leaving her newborn child behind. She died instead, killed by her mother's sister. What galled Charlie was that Tonks didn't need to be at the battle, but she couldn't stay away from the action. 'Bloody Aurors,' Charlie grunted, burying his nose in his tea. In Charlie's opinion, Aurors were more than a bit mad, always running toward danger instead of away from it, like sane people. Tonks was no exception, even after she'd had a child.
'You're up early,' a feminine voice commented. Charlie glanced toward the sound of the voice. 'I thought you'd have a bit of a lie-in, since you're not on duty today,' Bronwyn continued.
'Can't sleep,' Charlie told her, their voices carrying across the misty valley, even though they barely spoke above a murmur.
'You were there, weren't you? At Hogwarts.' Bronwyn's tone was less of a question and more of a statement.
Bronwyn frowned, trying to recall the list of casualties from the newspaper article that had been in the Prophet several days afterward. 'Fred Weasley…' she said uncertainly.
'One of my younger brothers.' Charlie wiggled his toes inside his thick socks. 'The most ambitious and the most outrageous of us all.' He set the mug on the step next to his feet, the tea no longer appealing. 'Even more ambitious than my brother Percy, who has designs on the Minister's position. I'm told Fred died laughing. Fitting.'
'Are you going home for the day?'
'Was thinking about it. Not sure I will.'
'There are a couple of public memorials scheduled for today,' Bronwyn ventured. 'One in Diagon Alley tonight at sundown…'
Charlie shook his head. 'Too many people…'
'Your friend died too,' Bronwyn observed. 'That girl in Hufflepuff who could change her appearance.'
Charlie exhaled with barely concealed impatience. 'Yeah.'
Bronwyn tucked a curl behind her ear. 'It's not my place to say,' she began.
'But you're going to anyway,' Charlie huffed.
'My mother died when I was young,' she continued, as if Charlie hadn't spoken. 'Right before I started Hogwarts. At Christmas. So for most of the time I was in school, I stayed there for the holiday. I didn't want to be at home, because she wasn't going to be there making toffee with me before she went to sing in the plygain service…' Bronwyn took a deep breath. 'My last year, I finally came home. Dad and I stayed up, making toffee, just like Mam used to do. Then we staggered to the plygain. Done it ever since. Ended up being the best way to remember my mother.'
'And your point?' Charlie asked with forced composure.
'Go home,' Bronwyn said bluntly. 'Just for a bit. Or do something your brother would have done.'
Charlie rubbed his hands over his face. 'I don't play pranks on people.'
Bronwyn sighed. 'I give up,' she muttered. 'My professional opinion,' she intoned, 'is that you need to do something to remember your brother and your friend today. Don't stay cooped up in that cabin of yours all day.' She turned on her heel and strode off. Charlie slumped with a sigh. He hated to admit she was right.
Percy stood in front of the mirror, carefully dressing for the day. Crisply pressed white shirt, black tie, severe black robes. His hair had been brushed into neat halo of tamed curls. He slipped his feet into the waiting black loafers and started for the door. The Ministry ceremony would start in an hour. As he opened the door, Penny's startled face came into view with one hand raised, poised to knock against the door. She, too, wore unremitting black, her hair twisted into a simple knot low on the back of her head. 'I thought I'd come with you…'
'Thank you,' Percy breathed fervently. 'I was going to go see my parents afterward,' he told her, closing the door behind them.
'I can go with you,' Penny said.
'I'll have to track George down first,' Percy replied. 'I'm not sure if he's going to be at the Burrow, Katie's flat, or the cemetery.'
'What if he doesn't want to go anywhere?' Penny inquired.
'I don't know.' Percy began to make his way down the narrow, twisting stairs. 'I'll figure that out when we get there.' He blinked in the bright sunshine that greeted them when they emerged from his building. He tilted his head back for a moment, looking into the clear, blue sky. It was a lovely day, perfect for things like weddings or parties, not memorials.
They walked into the Atrium, hand-in-hand, joining the throng of people already there. Percy had to admit the fountain was perfect. A small rivulet of water seemed to flow directly from the wall, with no visible opening. Names were carved into the polished black marble that wound around the Atrium on either side of the stream that led to a large pool of water in the center. Still more names were carved around the pool, on the bottom, and the inside walls. The water itself glowed softly as it flowed from the wall, fading as it traveled to the pool. There was little noise, save for the quiet burble of the stream. It was all very peaceful, and very austere. A glint of gold caught Percy's eye, and he stepped to the pool, studying a small bronze plaque set into the marble. Donated by H.J. Potter. It was nearly unnoticeable amid the other, more prominent names of the dead and missing.
'It turned out well, didn't it?' Penny murmured.
'It did.' Percy glanced around the Atrium, but didn't see Harry anywhere. He didn't blame Harry for not being here. He had a feeling Harry would be mobbed. He wondered if Harry would make an appearance closer to the start of the dedication, then slip out before it ended. Just to be here long enough for people to see him.
Kingsley stood in front of the fountain, and waved his wand in a wide arc. The Atrium filled with chairs draped in black, and his sonorous voice filled the hushed room. 'If you could please be seated…' He waited while the rustling sounds faded as the numerous witches and wizards found a chair and settled in for what they expected to be long speeches. When silence rose once more, Kingsley took a deep breath. 'A year ago, we defeated the greatest threat to our world. It had naught to do with Dark magic and everything to do with fear. Fear of a person, fear of a name, fear in the way we lived our lives. The end of the war did not end our struggle to replace fear with acceptance, or darkness with light. For as long as there are those who believe certain of our kind are superior to others, that fear will exist.
'For several hours, we set aside our differences, united in a common cause, and it is my hope that we stay united in that conviction that all of us – regardless of where we were before the war – will continue to make peace amongst all magical beings a reality, and not just a dream.
'It is the best way to honor those whose names are listed here. Thank you.' Kingsley stepped down from the small dais and began to pace the perimeter of the fountain, his dark robes swinging behind him. He stopped at each name of a known Order of the Phoenix member and lightly touched it with his wand. A tiny blazing phoenix appeared under the name, flaring for a moment, then settled into a warm, steady glow, flickering as if tiny flames danced inside the outline of the phoenix.
Percy stared at a spot across the Atrium, at a figure dressed in dark clothes. Or at least he thought there was someone there. For he blinked they disappeared without a sound. He pushed his glasses up and rubbed his eyes. 'Are you all right?' Penny asked pressing a clean handkerchief into his hand.
Percy used the handkerchief to polish the lenses of his glasses. 'Just seeing things,' he murmured.
Katie's fingers tapped an idle tattoo on the small table. George gazed down into his bowl of cereal, moving the flakes around more than he ate any of them, shoulders inching up the longer Katie beat the irregular rhythm next to her bowl. 'Are you all right?' he asked gruffly.
'Hmmm?' Katie blinked several times. 'Did you say something?'
'Are you all right?' George repeated.
'Yeah, just thinking…' Katie replied absently.
George pushed his cereal away. 'Katie, are you mad at me or something?'
'What? No… Why?'
'You've just been really quiet the past few days…'
'I'm fine,' Katie told him. She sipped her cooling tea and examined George over the rim of the cup. 'There's a memorial in Diagon Alley tonight at sundown,' she ventured.
George shook his head. 'No.'
'The write-up about it in the magazine sounded really nice,' Katie wheedled. 'Quiet, no speeches or anything…'
George reached across the table and laid a hand over Katie's. 'I can't… No people…'
Katie nodded in understanding. 'Do you…' She took a deep breath. 'Would you mind if I went for Fred?' The baby, as well, she thought. No one will think anything if I'm crying…
'You'd do that?' George asked hesitantly.
'Of course I would,' Katie responded gently. 'I think Alicia and Oliver might be coming, too.'
George developed a sudden interest in the patterned tablecloth, tracing the print with his finger. 'That's kind of them,' he said thickly.
'Gryffindors aren't merely students in the same house,' Katie said loftily. 'We're practically family…' She picked up both hers and George's half-eaten cereal and carried the bowls to the sink. 'Are you going home today?'
'Yeah.' George's voice sounded like it came from deep inside a cave. 'Want to come?'
Katie concentrated on washing the bowls. 'Not today,' she murmured.
George stood behind Katie and rested his hands on her shoulders. He stepped forward, so his chest was against her back, and she felt some of the tension leave them both. He rested his cheek against the top of her head. Words seemed to stick in his throat, so he contented himself with sliding one arm around her waist, while they rocked gently for several minutes.
Andromeda peeked into Teddy's room. He was already awake and babbling softly to his stuffed wolf. She stayed there, on the threshold to the nursery his mother had so lovingly put together. Andromeda closed her eyes sending up a brief word of thanks that she did have Teddy over the past year. When Dora had admitted she was, in fact, carrying Remus' child, Andromeda had been more than a bit taken aback, the shocked sensation quickly replaced by trepidation. None of them knew what would happen with the pregnancy, and it was a relief to her when it progressed normally and they found Teddy was not a werewolf after all.
And after… After the battle, after the war, being forced to get up every morning and look after Teddy, kept Andromeda from wallowing in the grief of losing not only her husband, but her only child, as well. She was comforted by the traces of Dora she could see in Teddy's face. And more importantly, Teddy was a tangible reminder of the passage of time. In just a year's time he had gone from being a helpless newborn to a toddler, just learning how to wobble from one end of the sofa to the other, chubby fingers clutching tightly to the edge of the cushions. Where Teddy used to have a wide, gummy, toothless smile, he now had several small teeth that brightened his frequent smiles and laughs. The tuft of hair on top of his head was now a mass of wispy turquoise strands.
Teddy had also brought her a family, via Harry and the rest of the Weasleys. Molly's repeated insistence that Andromeda join them for dinner when she came to pick up Teddy on the Saturdays he was with Harry, or for lunch on Sunday if Harry had him overnight kept her from isolating herself. She still missed Ted and Dora a great deal, but Teddy's presence in her life lessened the loss somewhat.
Andromeda opened the door, and walked into the nursery. Teddy looked up at the intrusion and beamed at her, holding up his arms. Andromeda swept the baby from the cot and cuddled him, brushing her lips over his tousled hair. 'How would you like to go see Mummy and Daddy today?' she crooned. 'I'll bet they'd love to see you…'
In the bustle of feeding Teddy and dressing them both for the day, it was quite late in the morning before Andromeda managed to get them both to the cemetery. The day was warm and sunny, with puffy white clouds dotting the clear sky. It was rather like the day of Dora and Remus' funeral. With a sigh, Andromeda dropped the changing bag near her feet and flicked her wand at it. An old quilt flew out, unfurling as it settled over the grass. She swung Teddy to the quilt and sank next to him. Andromeda said nothing, as she gazed at the headstones gleaming in the sunshine. Half her attention remained focused on Teddy. For several weeks, he had hauled himself to his feet, swaying precariously, while he clung to the edge of the sofa cushions with his pudgy fingers and edged from one end to the other. Teddy pushed himself to his feet and rocked a little until he found his balance. He stood uncertainly on the edge of the quilt, then took one step. Then another. And another before he suddenly plopped to his padded bottom, his eyes wide in surprise. 'You walked!' Andromeda exclaimed. 'Mummy and Daddy would be most pleased,' she added, wiping away the tears that had gathered at the corners of her eyes.
'That was brilliant,' a voice said earnestly from the gate.
Andromeda's head whipped around while Teddy held his arms up screeching, 'Da!'
Ginny blinked at the red velvet curtains around her, confused by the way the light streamed through the space between them. She sat up, pushing the loose plait over her shoulder, reaching for the alarm clock, ticking gently on the bedside table. It was almost noon. 'We tried to wake you for breakfast,' she heard Hermione's amused voice say from the other side of the curtains. 'You told us to sod off and put your head under the pillow.'
'Guess I needed the sleep,' Ginny yawned, pulling the curtains back, flooding her bed with light. 'Are you going to the… thing… later?'
Hermione perched on the edge of Ginny's bed. 'I don't think so,' she said finally, twirling a lock of hair around a finger.
Ginny sat up, working the elastic from the end of the plait and shook out her hair. 'I'm sort of hoping I can slip out of the castle for the day…'
'You and half the other students,' Hermione said in a tone that made Ginny look up at her.
'You think it's a bad idea, too, hmmm?'
Hermione shrugged. 'Not really. I mean, it's a lovely idea…' She trailed off, looking chagrined. 'I don't know how I'm to behave.' She pushed herself further into the recesses of Ginny's bed, and toyed with the edge of a curtain. 'I did give my parents some sort of explanation about why I sent them to Australia and modified their memories, but…' She exhaled slowly. 'I tried to put it all out of my mind afterward. And yes, I did lose people close to me, but it's nothing compared to you or Harry,' she said quietly. 'It's not that I don't feel anything. Showing emotions like that, in front of people…'
Ginny wrapped her arms around her knees. She could recall the occasions she'd seen Hermione dart into the girls' toilets, her lower lip between her teeth and slip into a stall before the sniffling sounds could start. Hermione wasn't one to wear her heart on her sleeve, unless she was with people she trusted. Hermione hadn't publicly shed a tear during either Fred's or Remus and Tonks' funerals, but Ginny remembered Hermione tossing and turning in the camp bed, before finally giving up and going upstairs to sleep with Ron. Ginny had often wondered if finding solace in Ron's arms gave Hermione the freedom to grieve. She liked to think so.
'Before Cedric died,' Hermione continued, still fiddling with the curtain, 'the only time I'd ever been around someone who died was my mum's mother. And I was only seven when that happened, and my parents didn't take me to the funeral…' She let her head fall back against the bedpost. 'I've found I'm not very fond of funerals,' she added with a slight shudder.
Ginny nodded. She knew exactly what Hermione meant. 'Makes you feel like you're on display.'
'Yeah…' Hermione pleated the hem of her jeans between her fingers. 'I noticed it during Dumbledore's funeral. Almost like people were watching Harry to see how they were supposed to react. And during the memorial last year, I could see people's eyes flicking back to where we sat. If we'd been prostrate with grief, I imagine everyone else would have been…'
Ginny snorted with arrested laughter. 'I just don't want to go and hear someone tell me all those deaths weren't in vain.' Her palms tingled with the memory of holding that Ravenclaw girl's hand while she died. What was her name? Ginny could still clearly see the girl as she lay in the dew-wet grass, pale brown hair streaked with blood, the pulse under her fingers growing more and more erratic as it faded into nothingness. Elizabeth. Elizabeth Willingham. Seventh year. Elizabeth was almost so colorless as to fade into the background when in the presence of other students, however, she'd fought bravely until one of Greyback's followers attacked her. Ginny hadn't wanted to look at the wounds, but she had glanced down, barely able to refrain from gagging. From then on, she resolutely kept her eyes on Elizabeth's face. 'I know it was necessary to defeat Voldemort, but all those people – they died before they got to live. That's what I think about,' Ginny said into the pool of silence that enveloped her bed. 'And I'd rather think about things that don't revolve around death and destruction.' She slid out of the bed and gathered her things preparatory to dressing for the day.
Ron blew his hair from his eyes and continued to beat the batter in his mother's old yellow mixing bowl. A drop of sweat inched its way from his hairline down his face, catching in the red stubble glittering along his jawline in the morning sunshine. He could have mixed the gingerbread with magic, but there was something soothing about the monotony of the wooden spoon thumping rhythmically against the side of the crockery, and Ron still appreciated the tactile sensation of mixing things himself. He dipped a finger into the spicy batter, and licked off the treacly mixture, nodding in satisfaction. It wasn't quite the time of year to make gingerbread, but it was something easy he could make without concentrating very hard. And George liked gingerbread. And the longer he baked, the less he had time to think about what the day potentially held for them.
Ron set the bowl down and flicked his wand at the waiting baking pan. It flew through the air and settled on the table in front of him. He poured the batter into the pan, using the spoon to scrape the sides of the bowl, then used his wand to open the door of the oven and send the pan to the shelf inside, and close the door. He stared at the cupboard wondering if there was clotted cream. Shrugging, he cleared the table and Summoned the butter from the cupboard, testing its temperature with a cautious forefinger. He cast a Cooling charm on the crock, and began to dump flour into yet another bowl, adding sugar, baking powder, and salt. He dropped the cold butter into the flour and began to rub it into the flour, until the butter was distributed through the flour. Unconsciously, he sifted currants into the dough, not realizing he was making them the way Fred liked his scones until he rolled out the dough. Nobody else in the family liked currants in their scones. Except Fred.
Ron stood motionless over the table, a biscuit cutter suspended in one flour-dusted hand, while his wand hovered over the dough. 'I ought to just Vanish it…' he muttered.
The door swung open, and Molly surveyed the wreckage of her kitchen. Batter encrusted mixing bowls were stacked on the drain board, piles of biscuits cooled on the counters, and baking spices hung heavily in the stifling kitchen. Ron gazed at her, flour liberally daubing his nose and cheeks. 'Mum…' he said weakly.
Molly stepped toward the table and gently pried the biscuit cutter from Ron's limp hand. 'How long have you been awake?'
'What time is it?'
'Four… no, five hours…'
'I see.' Molly looked at the waiting scone dough and blinked. 'Currants…'
'Yeah…' Ron squirmed, picking at flour caked in his nails. 'Didn't realize…'
Molly didn't say anything, nor did her face betray any sort of censure. Her hand pressed the biscuit cutter through the dough.
'Hmmm?' Molly hummed softly as she continued to expertly cut out scones.
'Nobody will eat those…'
'I know.' She lined the scones neatly on a baking tray and nodded toward the oven. 'How much longer does that gingerbread have?' The aroma of baking gingerbread was unmistakable. She'd often baked it for George for his birthday as a special treat.
Molly set the baking tray aside and gestured toward the laden counters. 'There are enough sweets here to last for weeks…'
Ron turned on the water and spent an inordinate amount of time scrubbing his hands clean. 'Couldn't sleep,' he mumbled, grabbing a dishrag and attacked the pile of utensils he'd left in the sink. He examined a spoon caked with biscuit dough and scraped at a petrified blob with a thumbnail. In actuality, he hadn't slept well for a few days. George had all but parked himself in the back room, mumbling excuses about needing to lay in more stock before the summer holiday began. Ron knew George was trying – trying not wallow, trying not to remember building the shop with Fred, trying to keep his end of the bargain he made with Ron in February, trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and above all, trying to live. Satisfied he no longer had globs of dough stuck to his hands, Ron shut off the tap, and took the dry tea towel Molly offered. 'I'll take the biscuits into the shop,' he told her. 'Leave them on the counter or something.'
Molly took a cup from the cabinet and glanced at Ron. 'Cuppa?'
'Yeah, that'd be nice, Mum. Thanks.' Ron pulled out a chair and ran a hand over the surface of the scrubbed wooden table, inwardly marveling at Molly's ability to scour things by magic. It was as if he hadn't spent half the night stolidly baking his way through one of the books on her the shelf. The soft click of the china saucer and cup landing in front of him made him shake his reverie. He blinked, clearing the fog from his eyes.
'Are you happy, Ron?' Molly asked.
Ron gaped at her, the cup halfway to his open mouth. 'What?' he spluttered.
'Are you happy doing what you're doing…?'
Ron sipped his tea, more to cover his own bewilderment by his mother's unexpected line of questioning than any real thirst. 'I guess…'
Molly persisted. 'If Fred hadn't died,' she began, 'would you have worked in the shop or gone into the Aurors with Harry? I thought that's what you wanted, dear.'
Ron shrugged, keeping his eyes fixed on the table. 'I did. I used to want to be an Auror.'
Molly casually flicked her wand at the oven and removed the gingerbread, adjusted the temperature and closed the door with an ease Ron envied. 'And now?'
'I don't know,' Ron confessed, so quietly, as if the mere fact of admission would bring the house tumbling down around his ears. 'I'm not quite sure I'm suited for the Aurors, anyway… Even if it was something I wanted to do.'
'I think you're selling yourself rather short, if you don't mind me saying so,' Molly snorted.
Ron looked at her sharply. 'I don't mean I couldn't do the work.' He transferred his gaze to the window on the other side of the kitchen. If being an Auror was anything like those long weeks and months tracking down Horcruxes, Ron knew without a doubt it was something he did not want. He didn't suffer things like privation and discomfort with any sort of equanimity. Harry, on the other hand, seemed to thrive on it. And while Ron knew his instincts were good, and according to Harry, better than some of the blokes in the Aurors, his emotional equilibrium couldn't handle it. And unlike Harry, he wasn't able to channel his emotions into something constructive. And like everyone else, he wanted nothing more than to leave that part of his life behind. 'I've learned a lot about myself, and yeah, being an Auror sounded like something, well, cool, I suppose. But it's not like the stories, eh?' He nodded toward a small battered bookcase crammed with dog-eared novels featuring a crack Auror who solved the seemingly unsolvable with a flair and panache real wizards couldn't match.
'I'm fine working with George, Mum,' Ron assured her. 'I even have a bit of a knack for it. Not like the two of them working together, but George and I aren't total rubbish together.' He slid his wand from the pocket of his pajama bottoms and sent the scones into the oven, then leaned over and kissed Molly on the cheek.
Molly cupped Ron's face between her slightly work-roughened hands, searching for the little boy that used to lurk behind his bright blue eyes. 'I just wanted to make sure you went into the shop with George for the right reasons, and not just because Fred's gone… And that you didn't not go into the Aurors because of that year…'
Ron looked into his tea, hitching one shoulder uncomfortably. 'Initially,' he admitted. 'But after seeing what Harry has to deal with every day, I think I'm much happier where I am.' He draped an arm around Molly's shoulders. 'Don't worry, Mum.' He returned to his perusal of his tea, turning the thought over in his head. He did eventually want to marry Hermione, but he didn't want to marry her, unless he could fully provide for the both of them. He realized how ridiculous it all was, considering Hermione was more than capable of taking care of herself, but some stubborn place inside insisted he had to be able to stand on his own two feet, before he offered her more than the idea of something more permanent. And furthermore, would being a mere shop proprietor be good enough for someone of Hermione's intelligence?
It was something he thought about more and more as the days drew closer to Hermione leaving school.
Harry blinked blearily at the ceiling. He turned his head to peer at the alarm clock. The small square of parchment Peter pressed into his hand caught his eye, and Harry picked it up, squinting at the address. Peter's wife, Marianne, had stopped by his cubicle the other day. Harry didn't know her very well. She coordinated the Aurors working in Muggle professions, so he had little interaction with her. I imagine it will last well into the evening, she'd told him. Just stop by any time. Things like this… it's sometimes easier when you're with others who know exactly how you feel…
The problem was, in Harry's opinion, none of them really knew exactly how he felt.
He flung the bedding away and heaved himself out of bed and padded to the bathroom, the polished wooden floor warm under his bare feet, turning cool as it changed to tile in the bathroom. Harry washed and shaved quickly, then found himself standing in front of the open wardrobe, swathed in a damp towel, shivering slightly, as he stared at its contents. Unthinkingly, he reached for the dark suit he'd bought for himself, and draped it over the foot of his unmade bed. A pale grey button-down shirt joined the suit, along with a tie of swirled muted navy blue and forest green. Before he could give himself time to ponder his choice of attire, Harry donned the suit and struggled to neatly knot the tie, before slipping on a pair of black Oxford shoes, then sliding his wand into the pocket of the trousers.
Prayer wasn't something Harry resorted to very often. He couldn't even rate it as a nodding acquaintance, but before he opened the door of his flat, he offered a hasty, wordless prayer that he'd manage to make it back home at the end of the day, without his presence attracting too much fanfare. He was determined not to be the focus of the day.
Harry made his way into the Atrium, well after Kingsley began speaking. He was mercifully brief in his remarks, and it seemed nobody else was scheduled to speak. Harry peered around a pillar and watched as Kingsley stopped briefly at the name of each member of the Order. He let his gaze roam over the assembled crowd, ducking behind the pillar when he saw too many people were looking at him, rather than the names engraved along the walls. He didn't see Percy slip through the throng and join him behind the pillar. 'Harry?'
Harry spun around. 'Oh… Hi.' He glanced over his shoulder at the Atrium. 'I thought I'd come for a bit…' he explained lamely.
'I'll speak to the reporter and photographer,' Percy offered. 'So they'll leave you be…'
Harry opened his mouth to say "yes", but said, 'No, it's fine…' He rubbed the bridge of his nose. 'Can't hide forever…' He took a deep breath and stepped from behind the pillar.
Contrary to what he'd believed, the assembled witches and wizards didn't rush to gather around him. Several nodded in acknowledgement of his presence and more than a few murmured a greeting. A couple solemnly shook his hand. But most were gathered around the names of family and friends. Just as it ought to have been.
Harry slid his hands into his pockets and paced around the atrium, fingers brushing over his own names. James Potter, Lily Potter, Cedric Diggory, Sirius Black, Albus Dumbledore, Alastor Moody, Ted Tonks, Fred Weasley, Colin Creevey, Remus Lupin, Nymphadora Lupin. He returned to his parents' names. Only two out of what seemed to be hundreds carved into the black marble, and yet they stood out to Harry, as if they were many times larger tan the surrounding names. And he was conscious of how alone he was just then. He didn't begrudge the other people their friends and family members that were with them. He knew where he needed to go.
Unhurriedly, Harry made his way out of the Atrium to an Apparition point. He pulled out his wand, picturing a small house, surrounded with pansies and hydrangeas. Before he could blink, he was standing outside Andromeda's home. Harry knocked on the door, but Andromeda didn't answer. He pointed his wand at the door, whispering, 'Hominum revelio.' The door remained the same. He looked around, trying to gain his bearings. Harry hadn't been to Remus' grave since the funeral last year, and he didn't remember much about that particular morning, either. It was north of the house – that much he remembered. Holding his wand flat on the palm of his hand, Harry murmured, 'Point me…' The wand spun to his left, and Harry began walking up the slight hill. He saw Teddy's bright turquoise hair glinting in the sunlight and began to walk a little faster. He arrived at the cemetery gate just in time to see Teddy take a few uncertain, wobbling steps, then plop unceremoniously onto his bottom. 'That was brilliant,' he said enthusiastically.
Andromeda's head turned in his direction, and Teddy's face split into a wide grin, thrusting his arms into the air. 'Da!' he screeched gleefully.
Andromeda watched the stricken expression that came over Harry and quickly told him, 'He says that to everybody. Arthur, the milkman, the butcher. Even the greengrocer's boy, and he can't be more than twelve.'
Harry swallowed. 'Oh… Well…' He opened the gate and joined Andromeda on the quilt, loosening his tie. He gestured toward the gate. 'Staying home today?'
Harry studied the pattern of the quilt. 'Molly's having everyone over for lunch today…'
'I don't think –'
Harry interrupted her. 'Andromeda, you shouldn't be alone today.'
'Harry, I assure you –'
'Do you think Ted would have wanted you to shut yourself away?' Harry asked pointedly. 'Or Tonks?'
'I've imposed my company far too often on Molly and Arthur Weasley the past year,' Andromeda said stiffly.
'It's not an imposition,' Harry countered.
'And I'm not hiding,' Andromeda murmured.
Harry snorted. 'Tell me another. If anyone knows what it's like to hide, I do.'
Andromeda brushed non-existent grass off the quilt. She desperately didn't want to be alone in the house Ted had found for them just after their marriage. It held too many memories that she didn't want to think about. The first time Nymphadora spoke a word that resembled English and not Gobbledegook. The first time she'd seen the shadow leave Remus' face as he held Teddy just after his birth, counting the baby's fingers and toes, fingers brushing over the downy widow's peak that dipped into Teddy's forehead. The last night with Ted, before he left, in a last effort to protect her. And Molly had lost a child as well. Molly would understand. 'Very well,' she acquiesced. 'Just let me change Teddy…'
'I'll do it,' Harry volunteered.
'That's very kind of you.' Haltingly, Andromeda reached over and brushed the hair from Harry's eyes. 'So much responsibility at such a young age,' she said quietly. The wariness still skulked in his eyes, but much of the hostility and anger had faded. 'Go corral Teddy, hmm? And we'll go to Molly and Arthur's.'
George sat cross-legged in front of Fred's headstone, leaning back on his hands. 'So I've moved in with Katie. Sort of just happened without me realizing it. I went to stay with her for a few days, and the next thing I knew, all my things were at her flat. Mum's doing. Seems she's not quite as prim as we thought. I'm not telling Ron, though. It's sort of a laugh to see him twist himself into knots trying to explain where he was with Hermione until the wee hours and not let on they've been shagging like crazed bunnies.
'I think Katie might want to get married. Not that she's said anything, and she won't, but it's not quite fair to her. I don't think I'm cut out for marriage. Katie wants things like babies, and considering how much she's had to take care of me, it wouldn't do, would it? It scares me how much I – I dunno if love is the right word, but it's the best I've got – how much I love her. She's one of the few things keeping me sane. And if something were to happen to her… I've barely survived losing you. I can't lose her.'
'I thought you'd be here.'
George twisted around. Percy stood behind him. 'Nice togs.'
'Thanks.' Percy reflexively straightened his tie.
'Mum send you to track me down?' George asked.
'No. Came on my own. Wanted to see if you were going to go to the Burrow.'
George ran a hand through his hair, revealing the ugly scar just behind his jaw. 'Perce…'
The corner of Percy's mouth turned up. 'I seem to remember you and Fred frog-marching me to the common room of Gryffindor, declaring I wasn't to spend Christmas Day with the other prefects. It was a time for family. Well, this is a time for family, and you're not to spend it by yourself. If you're going to wallow, you're going to do it with the rest of us.' Percy gripped George's arm and hauled him to his feet. 'Come on.'
'You've gotten even bossier,' George observed.
'Doubtful,' Percy muttered. 'You're just now paying attention to me.'
'Where'd you go so dressed up?'
'Merlin's pants, I'm glad I don't have to do all that.'
Percy chuckled lightly. 'I find it fascinating.'
'You would.' George flung an arm around Percy's shoulders, a somewhat difficult task, given that Percy was several inches taller than he. 'I've never thanked you,' he said, not looking at his older brother.
'For reminding me to breathe,' George said softly.
Ron turned at the sound of the back door opening. Bill shouldered his way through carrying two large wicker baskets. 'What is all that?'
Bill eyed the table in the scullery where Molly folded the laundry. It was covered with the results of Ron's baking efforts. 'I could ask you the same thing. Mum's work, I presume?'
'Mine,' Ron said shortly.
Bill shook his head. 'Both you and Fleur…'
Bemused, Ron watched Bill set the baskets on the table in the kitchen, and proceeded to unpack their contents. 'I shall do it,' Fleur said, gliding into the kitchen. She slapped Bill's hands away and shooed him into the sitting room. 'Zat is your handiwork?' she inquired of Ron, indicating the piles of biscuits, scones, and pies.
'Yeah.' Ron turned back to the pile of peas he had been shelling. 'Couldn't sleep.'
Fleur set a cassoulet on the table. 'Et moi aussi. Me as well.'
'Kept my mind off things,' Ron said with a dismissive shrug.
'Oui.' Fleur unearthed a roast chicken, then a large tureen of soup, several onion tarts, coq au vin, and ratatouille. 'I zought I would help your maman.'
Ron's thumb split the peapod. He wasn't certain Molly would appreciate the help, but he looked up at Fleur, her face slightly anxious. 'It's brilliant.' A breathtaking smile lit Fleur's face and Ron grinned back. He wondered why he no longer went tongue-tied and awkward in her presence any longer. Perhaps he was merely used to her, or she didn't turn the charm on full blast like she used to. Ron liked to think it was because he was devoted to Hermione, and could now see Fleur for what she was without the blinding Veela aura. 'I don't think Mum's had much French food. And it's a nice treat for her not to have to do the cooking.'
The door swung open to admit Harry, carrying Teddy, who squirmed restlessly to get down, and at a slower pace, Andromeda. 'There's enough food in here to feed a Quidditch team,' Harry breathed, setting Teddy down. Teddy crawled through the kitchen and headed straight for the sitting room.
'I shall zend zome of eet home wiz you,' Fleur promised.
'Brilliant. I won't have to cook for a few days,' Harry said. He noticed Ron's amused glance at his clothing. 'Ministry do.' Harry doffed the coat and tie, hanging them on a hook in the scullery. 'Who's trying to buy my love with treacle tart?'
'I thought I'd tempt you with my baking,' Ron said with a perfectly straight face. 'We could throw over Hermione and Ginny and run off to… Oh, I don't know… Brazil…'
Harry unfastened the top two buttons of his shirt, pretending to consider Ron's offer. 'You're not my type. Sorry, mate. Too high-strung.'
Ron laughed. 'Just as well. Hermione could take you in a duel.' He examined Harry, noting the shadows under Harry's eyes. 'You all right?'
Harry blinked. 'Yeah,' he said, surprising himself. 'I am.' He joined Ron at the table and grabbed a handful of peapods, and began shelling them. 'It's been like waking up from a bad dream…'
Charlie gave his clothing a quick once-over, checking to make sure they weren't pockmarked with scorch marks or burn holes. He opened the door of his cabin and Disapparated, exchanging the view of the craggy valleys of Wales for the rolling hills of Devon. He walked through paddock, making sure the small lump in his pocket was still there. He was sure Molly would hex him thoroughly for what he was going to do, but he was just as certain Fred would approve, although he felt a twinge of pity for Percy.
The kitchen was crowded with people: Molly, Arthur, Bill, Fleur, Percy, Penelope, George, Ron, Harry, Andromeda, and Teddy. 'You're just in time,' Molly told him, patting his cheek, as she passed, levitating a stack of plates to the table. 'Sit yourself down, then. Next to Percy.' Charlie had to bite back a grin. This was too easy. He took the empty seat next to Percy, and pulled the serviette off his plate. Pretending to drop it, Charlie dropped a Mr. Filibuster's Fabulous Wet-Start No-Heat Firework under Percy's chair.
George helped himself to a large portion of the coq au vin and suddenly began to snicker. His fork hovered over his plate, as his laughs grew louder, and he gasped for air. 'Do you remember the first time Fred and I made something explode?'
Molly's hand clapped over her mouth, lest she spew water everywhere. 'I thought I'd never get the stench out of your clothes!'
Bill's face grew redder and redder until he could no longer hold back the guffaws. 'Remember when Gin was born and we took that photograph with Uncle Gideon and Fabian?'
Percy's lips twitched. 'I've tried to forget it.'
'What happened?' Fleur asked curiously.
Charlie smiled. 'Fred and George tossed a Wet-Start No-Heat Firework under the chair Percy was sitting on, then Fred… Well, he…'
'Took a piss on it,' Bill said bluntly.
'Percy must have jumped a foot off his chair,' Arthur told Fleur.
'We weren't even four,' George said proudly.
'A rather auspicious beginning for the two of you,' Percy said loftily, as Charlie stealthily aimed his wand at the firework. The second the cold water hit it, it burst into a shower of multi-hued sparks, surrounding Percy, who ignored the accompanying deafening bang. 'A nice effort,' he said when the clamor died down. 'But entirely too predictable.'
Ron joined Harry under the apple tree, each of them cradling a plate of treacle tart. 'How hard would it be to go up to Hogwarts today do you reckon?' he asked, folding himself to the grass.
Harry shrugged, his mouth full. Swallowing he replied, 'Dunno.' He watched Molly and Andromeda set off down the lane, their arms linked companionably, heads titled toward one another. They made a rather incongruous picture, but like most people that passed through the Weasleys' lives, she'd been absorbed into the family with no questions or comments. Harry imagined they were talking about Fred and Tonks.
Ron idly traced a line through the filling of his slice of treacle tart with his fork. 'I was thinking about going up…'
'So was I.'
Ron carefully sliced through the sweet. 'Do you think McGonagall would let us?'
Harry set his plate down on his knees and looked at Ron. A sly look crept onto his face. 'I'm Harry Potter, damn it,' he said seriously. 'If there's any time in my life where I'd want to play that card, today will be it.'
Ron began coughing, spraying them both with bits of pastry. ''Ave oo los' ur min?' he wheezed.
Harry shook his head carefully. 'No, I don't believe so. Seems to still be there.'
Ron wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. 'So you just intend to walk through the gates?'
Harry nodded. 'Yeah. We wouldn't be the first to go up for a visit.'
Ron blinked and crammed the rest of his treacle tart into his mouth. ''ess oooh.' He jumped to his feet.
'Yeah, now.' Ron checked his watch. 'It's just after two. Lunch is over, and we can leave before dinner starts.'
Harry hurriedly ate the rest of his pudding and Banished both his plate and Ron's back into the open kitchen window. 'Knight Bus or Apparition?'
'Neither,' Ron grumbled, disliking both modes of transportation. 'Apparition,' he sighed. It was the lesser of two evils. He pulled his wand out. 'On three?'
Harry's wand lowered. 'Wait, are we going on three or right after three?'
'Never thought about it…' Ron frowned. 'Right after three?'
'Then that would be four,' Harry argued.
'Now you're just being a git,' Ron said mildly. 'Right after three, then. One, two…'
'Three!' Harry shouted, and the both turned.
Ron's eyes were tightly closed. He'd never tried to Apparate so far before. 'Harry?' he whispered.
'Did we make it?'
Ron inhaled deeply, the peaty tang of Scotland tickling the back of his throat. 'Oh, thank Merlin,' he breathed, slowly opening his eyes to see the gates of Hogwarts towering above them.
'What time is it?' Ginny asked, as she and Hermione walked down the stairs.
'Ten minutes until two.'
'So, we can sort of mingle with the others and slip out…'
'That could work.'
Ginny and Hermione froze, then looked over their shoulders. Professor Trentham stood behind them. 'Professor…' Hermione said with what felt like a sickly smile.
'Do I need to remind the two of you that you're not permitted to leave the grounds today?'
'No, miss,' Ginny muttered.
'We didn't want to go to the memorial,' Hermione said. 'We thought we'd go outside the castle for a bit…'
'Did I ask?' Trentham asked archly. 'I merely meant to emphasize that while today is something of a holiday, normal rules and expectations of behavior do still apply.'
'Yes, ma'am,' Ginny murmured. She and Hermione nearly ran down the stairs and burst through the heavy door, exhaling with relief. 'Interfering, meddling old bat,' she grumbled.
'She's just doing her job,' Hermione reminded her.
'Normal rules and behavior do still apply,' Ginny mimicked.
'You are frightfully good at imitating people,' Hermione said, shading her eyes and looking over the Black Lake.
'Used to do Mum all the time. Fred and George used to shove whatever they were creating in their jeans or jumpers. Sometimes they'd sit on it…' Ginny grinned slyly. 'Worth it after they made me lick a sock when I was four.' She glanced at Hermione, studying something on the far side of the lake. 'What are you looking at?'
'Does that look like…?' Hermione mused. 'No… it can't be…'
Harry stopped on the shore of the Black Lake. The castle loomed in front of them. It still gave him a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach to see Dumbledore's stark white tomb on the other side of the shore. The castle was mostly repaired, save for a few greenhouses that were still in disrepair, but not a priority, and some of the outlying walls, and parts of the architectural details of the bridge that were seen as unessential and would be done last. 'I think I'm going to walk for a bit…' he said tightly. 'I'll see you inside.' He struck off toward the Forbidden Forest.
Ron watched him trudge on the edge of the lake, then continued to the broad stone steps of the castle.
'Ron!' Hermione breathed. She hurtled down the steps and flung herself into his arms. 'You have no idea how glad I am to see you,' she said softly in his ear.
Ron looked over the top of Hermione's head. Ginny hung back, toying with the ends of her hair. 'Harry went that way,' he told her, gesturing with his head toward the Forbidden Forest.
Ginny mouthed, 'Thank you.' She slipped down the steps and scanned the crags surrounding her on the edge of the ancient forest. She saw a lone figure stop on one of them, where the castle was more-or-less hidden by a copse of trees, and sit, looking out over the valley. She looked back over her shoulder at Hermione, who was gently, but emphatically steering Ron in the other direction. Ginny felt inexplicably as if something had suddenly shifted, and a twinge of sadness arose. Pushing it aside, she began to make her way to Harry.
Ron reached into the pocket of his jacket and handed Hermione a small box. 'Brought this for you.'
Cautiously, Hermione lifted the lid of the box, revealing several handfuls of assorted biscuits. 'Did you rob a bakery?'
'Couldn't sleep,' Ron sighed, tired of explaining why he felt the need to bake his way through several pages of Molly's cookbooks.
'Ah.' Hermione nibbled the edge of a ginger biscuit, humming in appreciation.
'Hermione?' Ron slipped his hands into his pockets. 'You're all right with me staying with George?'
'Why does it matter what I think?' Hermione snorted.
'It just does…'
'It's not prestigious or anything,' Ron explained. 'And I want to wait to… Well… I want to… Well, it doesn't matter what I want to do, but I want to be in a position where I can do more than just get by.'
Hermione's nose crinkled. 'I'm afraid I don't follow…'
'I like working with George,' Ron said in a low voice. 'It's something I like doing, and I don't even have to compare myself to Fred. But if you think it would be best for, well, us, if I did something else… Something with more importance, I'd send word to Kingsley I've changed my mind…'
Hermione tugged on Ron's arm, to make him slow his gait. He'd subconsciously lengthened his stride as he spoke. 'Let me make sure I understand you properly,' she said evenly. 'If I think it would be best for our relationship for you to do something where you will potentially be unhappy, you'll do it?' she asked incredulously.
Ron sighed heavily and slid to the ground at the base of a large tree. He waited until Hermione joined him, then pried the box from her hand, and thumbed the lid open. He took several biscuits and picked at the edge of one. 'Do you know what I've been thinking about today? While everyone else was thinking about the past, I was thinking about what I wanted in the future. I don't want to think about the last seven or eight years anymore. I want to get on with life. And hopefully, one day that will include you…'
'I want you to do what you like…' Hermione paused, then shyly said, 'You think about, well… later?'
'Yeah.' Ron looked so serious, Hermione nearly laughed, but he was so earnest she couldn't help but kiss his cheek. Her head rested against his shoulder, and she had to clap a hand over her mouth to stifle the sudden rush of giggles. Ron gave her a quizzical glance down his long nose. 'What's so bleeding funny?' he asked indignantly.
'I was just thinking about the day I met you,' she spluttered. 'I don't think even Professor Trelawney could have predicted this.'
Harry sat back against a moss-dappled boulder, his eyes closed, face tilted up to the sunlight. With the castle partially hidden behind the trees, he could imagine he was on a Sunday afternoon outing, and not on some sort of private mission he couldn't quite identify. If someone had bothered to ask Harry why he felt the need to come to Hogwarts today, he wouldn't have been able to give a reply. At least not one filled with all sorts of awkward silences. The ceremony at the Ministry that morning had been… nice. But the Ministry didn't represent the magical world to him. It was just a place where laws were made that affected people, often without much thought about the people they would affect. It was the place where he worked, where paperwork often threatened to drown not only him, but the other Aurors, ensuring everything was above board and above suspicion. No, the real magical world to Harry was Hogwarts – home to floating candles, talking paintings, moving staircases, centaurs and unicorns in the Forbidden Forest, a riot of magical herbs growing in the greenhouses, delicious meals that appeared out of thin air. Certainly, the Ministry had its share of magic, but Harry could recognize that after his dreary childhood, Hogwarts held the promise of an escape. It was – and would always be – his first real home.
He heard the sound of shoes scraping against loose pebbles on the trail that wound to the copse of trees and his eyes popped open. He didn't change his relaxed pose, but like a sleeping cat, there was a sense of hyper awareness about him. A scent of mingled lavender, sage, and chamomile wafted toward him; borne on the soft breeze that seemed to accompany the clear sunshine at Hogwarts, enhancing the halcyon aura he gave the school in his mind. The scent carried memories of apple trees and fairy lights, snowy nights gazing at the stars, and sun-warmed river currents. His lips curved in a slight smile, while his mouth formed the soundless shape of a name.
Less than three feet behind the boulder, Ginny stilled. She'd seen the slight tension in his outstretched feet and legs that told her he knew she was there, and wondered if there would ever be a day where Harry could totally relax and release the vigilance he'd lived with nearly half his life. She softly cleared her throat, and waited for Harry's head to turn. 'Hi,' she said, as she closed the last few inches between them.
'Hiya.' He smiled, then, with a blazing sweetness she now realized he reserved strictly for her.
Ginny lowered herself to the space he made for her and leaned into him, surprised by how much the stiffness that had taken up residence in her shoulders seemed to dissipate at the simple act of Harry's arm winding around her shoulders. The fingers of his other hand, gently traced the lines of her face before his mouth lowered to hers. 'What brings you here?' Ginny asked.
Harry gestured vaguely behind them. 'I had to see it,' he explained awkwardly.
'The repairs are almost done,' Ginny told him.
'There's a ceremony inside…'
Harry shuddered delicately. 'No, thank you.' He eyed Ginny. 'Unless you want to…?'
Ginny's head shook, the dark auburn waves shimmering in the sun. 'No.' She studied Harry. 'So, why did you need to come and see the school?'
Harry fiddled with a button on his shirt. 'This sounds a bit… Well, it's more than a bit twee…'
Harry leaned a little closer to Ginny, where he could rest his cheek against the top of her head. 'This is where it all started. All those years ago when Riddle decided he was going to be immortal. And this is where it finished. Appropriately enough.
'When we were gone, I never worried about the Ministry, because it wasn't the center of my magical world. It was here… I just needed to see for myself, from the outside, just how far we've come since then…' He exhaled slowly, rearranging himself so Ginny sat between his thighs, her back against his chest. 'I don't think I'm ever going to be able to let go of the guilt, though. Not completely.'
'But it wasn't –'
'I know, it wasn't my fault,' Harry said over Ginny's mild protest. 'None of it was. But that doesn't erase the fact that far too many people died. For. Me. And I do know some of them had no choice, like Cedric, and the ones that did, it wasn't a real choice, like Mum or Dad. And then, there are the ones who did have a legitimate choice, like Remus, Tonks, or Fred. But then again, it wasn't a real choice, either. Do you stay home, or fight against the darkness that threatens to take away the very essence of your life?' Harry wound a lock of Ginny's hair around his finger. 'That being said, I don't want to spend the rest of my days in the past.'
'I don't either.' Ginny twisted to look back at Harry. 'That's why I'm not inside with the others.'
'My supervisor invited me to his house today,' Harry admitted.
'Are you going?'
Harry snorted. 'A load of older Aurors, getting blind drunk, reminiscing about their dead mates?' he scoffed. 'Not bloody likely.' He shook his head. 'It's not the same…'
'It is,' Ginny insisted quietly. 'And you never know… it might be just the thing for you.'
'Getting blind drunk?' Harry's mouth crimped at the memory of the last time he overindulged in drink, and his stomach cramped. 'No…'
Ginny urged Harry to lower his head, and she brushed a light kiss over his mouth. 'Go,' she said. 'All this time, you've been one of them, if not in fact, then in deed… And now you are actually one of them. Whatever it is they do, I'm sure it helps them live with what guilt they carry.' She ran her fingers through Harry's hair. 'Might help at work,' she added delicately. 'For you to sort of mingle a bit…'
'To be seen outside the usual environment, hmm?'
Harry stared at the trees in front of them, at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, the last place he'd seen his parents. 'Right…' he sighed. 'Right.'
Katie walked slowly down Diagon Alley. The cobblestones had been replaced with a carpet of soft, green grass that undulated with the gentle rise and fall of a heartbeat. At one end, by the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron, stood a small platform. Scattered down the grass, were what looked like small, brown, paper bags. Each one bore the name of a person who died in the Battle at Hogwarts. She continued slowly until she found the luminary with Fred's name. It was directly in front of Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes. Katie smiled at that. She settled to one side of the luminary, and tucked the afghan around her knees against the encroaching chill of the evening. Out of the purple dusk, figures surrounded her, dropping to the grass next to her. Oliver Wood. Alicia Spinnet. Kenneth Towler. Lee Jordan. They said nothing, but grouped around her. 'That can't be…' Alicia murmured. Katie's head snapped up, and she squinted at the figure making her way toward them.
'Angelina,' she breathed. Then louder, 'Angelina!' Katie stood, and pelted toward the other girl, throwing her arms around Angelina's spare body. 'Ang, you're here…'
'Couldn't stay away…' Angelina took a step back and closely examined Katie's face. 'How are you? It's been an age since I've gotten a letter,' she said, without censure, but noting the dark circles under her friend's eyes.
'Just been busy,' Katie said evasively, as she led Angelina to the small knot of Gryffindors.
Oliver laughed. 'It's the team. Well, most of it. Just need Harry and George…'
'Best team ever,' Alicia chimed in.
An old, wizened witch climbed the few steps to the platform, and pointed her wand at her throat. Her surprisingly rich voice rolled down Diagon Alley, reading the first name on a list that floated in front of her. As she said the name, the first luminary began to glow. As she read each name, the next luminary added its light to the darkness.
George stood in the window of the flat, holding aside the curtain. He could hear every word the witch said. His grip tightened as the words, 'Frederick Weasley,' reached his ears. He slowly released the curtain, and let it fall, obscuring the image of the tiny glowing flights dotting Diagon Alley.
Angelina and Katie remained huddled on the grass, watching the flicker of the magical candles inside the paper bags in companionable silence. 'What's really going on with you, Katie?'
'I got pregnant,' Katie said tightly.
'Yeah…' An expression of wonder spread over her face. 'I've thought maybe that bloody necklace did more damage than we thought. But it didn't…'
Angelina's smile was visible by the light of the luminary. 'That's wonderful! Does George know you're going to have a baby?'
Katie bit her lip. 'No.'
Angelina gaped at her. 'Why the hell not?'
Katie swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. 'Because I didn't know I was pregnant when I miscarried,' she said. Her face crumpled briefly, and she blinked rapidly, but the tears still managed to escape. 'I didn't know I was pregnant. And it just happened. We weren't even trying or thinking about it. And before I could think anything about it, it was just gone…' She shook herself, trying to throw off the sudden melancholy mood.
'Are you ever going to tell him?'
'Someday. Just not now. I haven't even had a chance to come to grips with it myself…' Katie felt Angelina's arms encircle her shoulders. 'I will. I will…'
Harry hovered uncertainly on the pavement outside a tidy house, with a bright blue door. Ravenclaw blue, he thought wryly to himself. Peter and Marianne had both been in Ravenclaw, and the idea of them having any other shade of paint for their front door was unthinkable. He started for the door, then turned and began to walk a few steps away, only to turn back to the door. 'Are you going to Peter's?' rumbled Kingsley.
'I thought I might,' Harry said nervously. 'You're going?' he blurted.
'Just because I'm the Minister, it doesn't mean I've quite stopped being an Auror, lad,' Kingsley replied. He put a hand between Harry's shoulder blades, and gently propelled him forward, to the side of the house with the bright blue door, and through a garden gate.
Several Aurors were already sprawled in chairs or day loungers, drinks in hand. They greeted Kingsley and Harry volubly, some of them raising their glasses in greeting. Marianne approached Harry, a warm welcoming smile on her face. 'I'm so pleased you came,' she said to Harry, pressing a glass into Harry's unresisting hand. 'It's just lemonade. If you prefer something stronger, just help yourself,' she told him, waving a hand at a table laden with several bottles, with sandwiches, pasties, cakes, and biscuits.
Harry nodded dumbly, gazing around the garden. It had the air of a garden party, gone slightly to seed. Kingsley, he noticed, went straight to a bank of candles. He touched a few with his wand, murmuring a name each time, as the candle sprang to life. Kingsley's bald head tilted backward, gazing up at the starry sky for a long moment, then bowed briefly. Only then did he accept the bottle of ale from Peter.
As if in a trance, Harry set his lemonade down on the closest table. There were still several unlit candles. He touched the wick of one with the tip of his wand. 'James Potter.' The flame of the candle emitted a steady glow under the strings of fairy lights. 'Lily Potter. Sirius Black. Remus Lupin.' He smiled a little, remembering how much Tonks hated her given name. 'Nymphadora Lupin.' Each candle pushed the night back a little bit more. 'Ted Tonks. Dobby. Fred Weasley. Colin Creevey. Alastor Moody. Albus Dumbledore. Cedric Diggory. Kreacher.' A pause. 'Severus Snape…'
Harry stowed his wand into his pocket and stepped back, looking up, as Kingsley had done, into the star-spangled night. Rest in peace…
He turned around, turning his back firmly to the past and facing the life he never dared to dream he could have. It wasn't the end of a journey, but the beginning of the next one in his life.
A/N: A plygain is a Welsh Christmas Eve service that involves singing. Lots of singing.
I've spent a bit more than two years writing this, and it doesn't seem like it's been two years… It seems like yesterday. So I finish this story with the words I give to Harry. It's not just the end of this journey, but the beginning of a new one.
I can't thank those of you who took the time to read this enough. It encouraged me to write in more ways than you'll know.