A/N: Another update! Special thanks to all of you who reviewed last week, especially my reliable reviewers: Gryffindor1045, Tangled Desires, redstarpuppy, uchiha.s, Majerus, and anyone else who consistently gives me great feedback. Your reviews genuinely make my day! And just to mention once more, this story should still be coming to a close by Chapter 50 or so. Three chapters and an epilogue.

Anyway, I'll let you get to it.

Chapter 46: Always

Being who he was, Harry Potter had more reason than most to wonder what exactly fate was, and he was uniquely suited for a broad and ever-changing perception of its role in his life. At times, he was inclined to believe that fate was in fact a very real and very powerful force that intruded into his existence on a whim…for better or for worse, an inescapable paradox that capriciously dealt the cards from which people were obliged to build the precarious framework of their lives.

Harry suspected many were inclined to lean toward this idea. After all, people were almost invariably disposed to blame anyone or anything but themselves for the failures within their lives. Fate, after all, was an easy choice for a scapegoat. Therefore, it was often not 'I was to blame' for this or that misfortune, but rather 'fate was cruel' to have brought this or that misfortune into my life.

Although Harry, after all he had been through, was reluctantly prone to having a similar view of fate, he did not delude himself into thinking fate was in any way cruel. Because fate was not cruel. Fate was an unbiased dealer of circumstances, and this is where its interference ended. What you chose to do with what you were dealt was where things could go right or terribly terribly wrong.

When you fold too early and miss out on the chance of a lifetime.

When you go all in and lose everything.

So no, fate is not cruel. It seems ruthless only when you play the game wrong and wind up with your pockets empty, merciless only when you call a bluff and fail, like a shepherd who refuses to run from a wolf and winds up between its jaws.

Harry felt all of this with a deep certainty, and thus felt an even deeper sense of self-loathing as he took in the shambles of his life and knew it was his fault. Knew it was his fault that his wife of almost fifteen years lay withering away in a bed at St. Mungo's, a distorted imitation of what she had once been a mere three and half months ago. She had been kept alive this long only through the substantial and extremely expensive efforts of highly trained Healers, and of course specialists in everything curse-related.

He remembered the first few weeks very vividly, perhaps because it had been so early, when Ginny was still mostly herself, when there was still hope that the shattered remains of the porcelain figurine would reveal their secrets and a cure.

There had been no such luck.

And so here he was, signing papers to discharge his wife from the Wizarding hospital so she could be at home for Christmas—her last Christmas, as his unwilling thoughts were too ready to remind him.

Harry dropped the quill once his final signature had been firmly inscribed on the last sheet of parchment and immediately strode back through the corridor to Ginny's room, past the smiling receptionists that had become as familiar to him as his co-workers at the Ministry, and past the pair of towering Aurors that had been stationed on either side of the door since Ginny had taken permanent residence there. Just as there were Aurors stationed around his home, around the Burrow, around Ron's house, around Hermione's flat. Each had been reinforced with every ward imaginable, but Harry was done taking chances.

Two female Healers were already within the room—one was Ginny's typical, very experienced Healer Atwell, and the other looked as though she had come here straight off the Hogwarts Express. The older witch was performing a final, routine set of spells to okay Ginny's return home. After months of watching the procedure, Harry had grown quite adept at analyzing the information the spells revealed, and had been privy to the gradual decline of his wife's vitals.

The younger witch, curly blonde hair swinging about, was performing a simple spell to test for heartrate by pressing her wand to Ginny's pale wrist, from which her darkened veins stood out vividly. Harry, as he noted what seemed to be a small, portable radio settled on the girl's hip, discerned a strange conglomeration of noises filling the air as she went about her spellwork. Listening as he approached Ginny's bedside, he detected the sounds of a babbling brook, the chirp of crickets, the rustling of fallen leaves, and the occasional whistle of a songbird.

Harry also noticed that Ginny was also examining the girl, a look of perplexed intrigue on her haggard face.

"What's that supposed to be?" Ginny asked, her voice coarse, as she gestured to the radio.

"Oh!" the blonde girl said, lifting the device off her hip for Ginny to observe more closely. "You mean the music?"

"Yes, the music," Ginny said, although her tone of voice suggested calling the cacophony of noises 'music' was quite a reach. "What is it?"

The girl let the radio fall back to her hip and smiled, seemingly pleased Ginny had asked. "I'm doing an experiment to test if peaceful sounds can lower a patient's heartrate," she said. "Muggles use it all the time—listen to things like the ocean and what-not while they sleep. This one emulates the sounds of a forest. It's supposed to relax you."

"What if you're afraid of bears?" Ginny said, raising an eyebrow.

Ginny's primary Healer chuckled as she exchanged her wand for a notebook she withdrew from her robes.

"And that, Landry, is why we marked 'cheeky' on her chart," she said, smiling at the bewildered blonde intern as she jotted down a few figures. She directed her attention to Ginny as she tucked it away once more. "Well, that's it—you're good to go home. We've arranged for a Portkey, just as you requested."

"Thanks," Ginny said as she leaned forward with effort. "For everything."

"It was my pleasure, Ginny," Atwell said, genuine warmth and a touch of sadness in her voice. She shooed her intern out of the room before pressing a small, lime-green orb inscribed with St. Mungo's crossed wand-and-bone emblem into Harry's palm.

"Activate it and count to ten," she said emotionally, and then bustled from the room.

Harry turned to Ginny, who was tiredly attempting to tie her dry, lifeless hair into a ponytail. Her lethargic, clumsy fingers made this simple task take twice as long as it would under normal circumstances. When this was done, Harry assisted her in swinging her legs over the side of the bed and standing.

"Are you sure you want to take the Portkey?" Harry said, his arm wrapped firmly around Ginny's waist. "We can still drive, if you'd like."

"No, I want to get home as soon as possible."

"Okay," Harry said, knowing that would be her response. He laid the orb on Ginny's bed before extricating his wand. Then he tapped the lime-green sphere, replaced his wand, and picked up the Portkey, holding it out for Ginny to touch as well. The familiar sensation of being pulled by the navel overwhelmed him, and then they were gone, leaving the empty hospital room in their wake.

The next few days leading up to Christmas passed in an emotionally-draining blur for Harry.

The flurry of visitors to see Ginny would have been overwhelming under less stressful conditions, but now it became almost unbearable to everyone involved. It was soul-numbing to watch the various Weasleys trail through the house like a depressing parade, always beginning with a strained sort of joviality before descending into inevitable tears.

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were always the quickest to break down, the prospect of burying yet another child—their baby girl—a burden they could hardly face.

Then there was George, lifeless, as he was re-submerged in that dark place he had occupied in the months after Fred's death, that had loomed just out of sight ever since.

Bill, with whom Ginny had always been especially close, often made the bravest attempts to be strong, but was especially inconsolable once his sister was out of sight.

The endless procession of nieces and nephews, most recently home for the holidays, and almost all faced for the first time with death.

Percy and Charlie.

Teddy and Victoire.

Luna, Neville, and Dean.

And, always, the guilt, dense as lead in Harry's gut as he watched it all.

The few moments that Harry was away from Ginny were just as challenging to the flimsy state of sanity he clung to. James, Albus, and Lily each presented their own unique manner of dealing with their mother's illness, and Harry found himself at a loss of how to help any of them. James was feverishly angry in the way only a teenager can be; Al was practically mute from the effort of bottling up his emotions, seemingly willing to talk to no one but Rose; and Lily, the only one of the children to have been around for all three months of Ginny's decline, was heartbreakingly confused.

Harry could understand the rage, the numbness, the turmoil, but he felt fiercely inadequate to help his children process them, especially when he was so directly involved in causing them.

And so here he was, sitting in the hall just outside the living room, paralyzed by his inability to do anything of use. He had just left Ginny there, lying on the couch in front of the fireplace, with the excuse of fetching tea for the both of them. He didn't know if it was the strange quietness of the house, the lack of chattering guests and continuous footsteps, but he had suddenly become overwhelmed by the prospect of that emptiness, that haunting silence, following him long after Ginny had gone.

So he sat, his arms draped across his raised knees, his forehead pressed into his forearms, the tray of tea-things lying forgotten next to him.

When Hermione arrived an hour later, Rose and Hugo in tow, the tray still sat on the floor, the tea long-gone cold. But Harry was nowhere in sight.

Hermione picked up the tray, frowning.

"Rose, why don't you take Hugo up and see what Lily and the boys are up to. I'll go check on Aunt Ginny."

"Okay," Rose said, grabbing Hugo's hand and immediately beginning to climb the staircase.

Once the two children had disappeared onto the first landing, Hermione stepped into the darkened living room, the blazing fireplace casting a pulsating golden glow over the furniture. She glanced about the room, still clutching the tray, until a stirring movement drew her attention to the sofa.


Hermione stepped further into the room, into the light of the fire and into Ginny's line of vision. Ginny was lying lengthwise on the sofa, reclined slightly by a stack of pillows, and an afghan covered her legs.

"Oh. Hello, Hermione. And you've brought tea. Excellent, I've been waiting for some."

Hermione glanced down at the teacups and quickly set the tray down.

"Waiting how long?" she asked, pressing one of the teacups into Ginny's frail hand.

"About two hours," she said, taking a sip. "It's a bit cold."

Hermione immediately pressed her wand to the other teacup, warming it before exchanging it for Ginny's icy brew.

"Where's Harry?"

"No idea," Ginny said. "He went out for tea and haven't seen him since."

Hermione sat down in the overstuffed chair opposite the sofa, and flicked on the lamp on a nearby table. The room was not significantly brighter, but it provided a steady, dependable source of light to observe Ginny's expression, which was surprisingly neutral. She looked unperturbed at Harry's absence, and even seemed mildly gratified by Hermione's company.

"Did Ron come?" she asked.

"No, he's at home. I thought I'd bring Rose and Hugo by for a few hours before heading over there."

"You didn't have to do that. It's Christmas Eve; we'll see you tomorrow."

Hermione shrugged carelessly. "Either way, it seems I came in the nick of time—clearly you were in desperate need of tea."

"If you had arrived in the nick of time, my tea would've still been hot," Ginny said, a weary smile blossoming on her gaunt face.

"I stand corrected," Hermione said, also smiling.

A moment of silence stretched between them, the crackling and occasional sharp pop of burning lumber the only noise permeating the room. It was a peaceful moment, and Hermione felt herself sinking further into her armchair, relishing the sight of the flickering flames as much as their warmth on her skin.

But the fire could only keep her attention for so long. She glanced away, towards Ginny, and was met by the sight of her bright brown eyes, undiminished by illness, focused intently on her own. Her brow was furrowed in contemplation, and Hermione felt slightly exposed under her scrutiny.

"Do you need anything, Ginny? More tea?" she asked, although she could see the first cup had barely been touched.

"I…well, there is something."

"What?" Hermione asked, bracing her hands against the arms of her chair as she moved to stand.

"No," Ginny said quickly. "Don't get up."

Hermione blinked, perplexed, as she sank back into her chair, although she sat up a bit straighter than before.

"Then what is it?"

"There's something I need to talk to you about. Just you. And I don't know if I'll get another moment to do it."

The gravity of Ginny's tone caused Hermione immediate discomfort.

"What would you like to talk about?" Her throat was suddenly dry, and she reached over to grasp the delicate handle of the second teacup, gulping some down before remembering that it was ice-cold.

Ginny hesitated, her eyes drawn to the cherry-red embers of the fireplace. "I'm not exactly sure where to start." She glanced to Hermione again. "I suppose cutting straight to it would be best."

Hermione didn't reply, instead reaching forward to set her cup back on the tray.

She heard rather than saw Ginny's deep intake of breath; her words came in a single expulsion of air.

"I know about Rose."

If Hermione had really cared, she would have been grateful that she had almost set down her teacup as Ginny spoke, resulting in the loud tinkle of china against china as she dropped it instead of the even louder sound of shattering porcelain.

But in that moment she couldn't have cared less. In fact, broken china would have probably been preferable right now, given her an excuse to do something besides sit there, frozen, her hand still extended over the tray.

When she could move, she did so slowly, easing herself back into the armchair with a forced casualness that she was sure seemed anything but casual.

"What about her?" she asked.

Hermione finally turned to Ginny as she said this. Any trace of good humor or hesitancy had vanished from her face, to be replaced by a chagrined, although not overtly hostile, expression.

"Don't do that, Hermione. Don't…don't play dumb. We both know you're not."

Ginny glanced downward as she drew her afghan higher, enveloping herself more tightly in its folds. When she looked up again, Hermione saw a fierce determination in her eyes.

"We both also know that I don't have time for beating around the bush. Or the patience for it."

"Ginny," Hermione began, "you've got it wrong, Harry and I are just—"

"Just what? Just friends?" Ginny laughed, real amusement hiding an undercurrent of frostiness.

"Yes," Hermione insisted, her heart thundering in her chest. "He—he saved me from that troll and we've been best friends ever since…"

"And you fell for him before or after the troll?" Ginny asked, raising an eyebrow.

"No! We've never—"

"Give it a rest, Hermione!" Ginny snapped as she sat up, her voice surprisingly strong as she cut her off. "Stop trying to feed me excuses and lies! I know! I saw you on the porch that Christmas, I saw the looks you gave each other! I know about the affair, I know about Rose, I know!"

Ginny stared hard at her, her chest heaving, before falling back against her pillows, seemingly exhausted by her short outburst.

"I know," she said once more, much more softly. "And I think the least you can do, the least you owe me, is a little honesty. Can you do that much for me?"

Hermione gazed back helplessly, feeling as though she were strapped to her chair by the truth of Ginny's words. She swallowed, trying to get rid of the lump in her throat, fighting to control the haze of tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks.

She didn't deserve to cry.

"Yes," she finally breathed, her voice quavering. "Ginny, I can't begin to tell you how sorry—"

"No," Ginny said, raising a hand. "I really don't want to hear it. I don't need to hear it. I know you're sorry. I bet you hated yourself for it, just like I hated you for a long time afterward. But I didn't bring this up to get an apology from you. Yes, I was angry when I realized what had happened, when I figured out that my husband and best friend had betrayed me like that, had betrayed my brother like that. Or when Harry would leave work early to see you. When I'd sit at home, wondering if I'd brought this on myself, hadn't done enough, hadn't been enough for him."

Even through the horrible, sickening guilt (which Hermione had not experienced in such concentration since that sweltering August night over a dozen years ago), she could not help but be mesmerized by the calm neutrality of Ginny's words, even if the content itself made her want to close her eyes, press her fingers into her ears, and hum until she could drown out their validity.

"But I've…I've had a long time to come to terms with it," Ginny continued. "I know—or at least I think I know—nothing happened after Rose was born."

"It didn't," Hermione interjected quickly, eager to absolve herself and Harry of at least this much shame, little as it was.

"Well, regardless," Ginny said. "I had to stop dwelling on it. It just hurt me more than I cared to hurt. So, I guess what I'm saying is that, as hard as it was, I forgave you. I had to forgive you, if only to maintain my sanity." She paused, fiddling with a hole in her afghan. "I had to forgive you…because I had to forgive him."

Ginny stopped messing with the blanket and instead laced her fingers tightly together before fixing her eyes on Hermione once more.

"And now I'd like it if you could forgive me."

Hermione stared at Ginny, astonished. "What for?"

Ginny smiled sadly. "For taking him away from you."

Hermione continued to stare, uncomprehending and utterly confused.

"I don't understand."

Ginny was beginning to look agitated again, as though she would have preferred to not have to spell it out for Hermione.

"Look," she said. "Whenever I came to terms with everything, I realized that, in an odd, indirect sort of way, I had brought it on myself." She shot Hermione a sharp look. "That obviously doesn't remotely begin to excuse you for what happened, of course."

"Of course," Hermione said, inclining her head slightly.

Ginny's look dulled then. "But, nevertheless, it's true," she said. "It's true because—even though Harry may have been too thick to realize it until it was too late—I could see you felt the same way about him that I did…that you felt even more than I did. I may have had a crush on him for forever, but you loved him. Really loved him. In a way I didn't know how to for ages."

She seemed to momentarily lose her train of thought as she cocked her head, peering quizzically at Hermione. The shadows cast by the fire played over her face, accentuating the hollows of her cheeks.

"Since you were…fifteen?"

"Fourteen," Hermione murmured, a faint blush creeping to her cheeks.

"Fourteen," Ginny repeated. "Anyway, you never said it, but I knew. Practically everyone knew at some level, I think. But I never said anything. I never encouraged you to go after him, never even asked if you were really okay with me going out with him. I almost did ask you a few times. But I didn't. I never let you both have a fair shot."

She smiled faintly, glazed eyes gleaming brightly in the light of the fire.

"I knew it should've been you. Deep down. But I still didn't say anything to you. I wanted it to be me that he needed, so I convinced myself it was." She shook her head, brushed at her eyes. "There's no reason you should ever forgive me for that, but I want to ask now because…"

She trailed off.

"Because what?" Hermione asked.

Ginny laughed suddenly. "Because nothing. I'd like you to forgive me, but I don't expect you to. I kept you and Harry apart. I realize that now…that even though it hurt me so much for you to steal that moment from me, I stole so many more from you."

The tears began to spill, and she pressed the heels of her hands hard to her eyes as if to stem the flow.

"Merlin, I've said this so many times in my head, I can't believe I'm really doing it. Like I said, I could see it was supposed to be you two. As far back as I can remember. But I kept you apart, and I'm not even asking you to forgive me for that…it's not what I'm after right now. I just want you to put it right, to fix what I messed up for you."

"Ginny…" Hermione said, overwhelmed by the implication of her words.

"I just want you to be there for him, Hermione… like you've always been there for him."

In a surprisingly quick motion, Ginny reached across the gap between them, clasping one of Hermione's limp hands in a vice-like grip, her gaze entreating.

"He's…he's just so angry right now. Angrier than I've ever seen him. Pouring everything he can into finding Dolohov. That rage…" Ginny trailed off, her grip decreasing slightly. "He can't go on that way. And I need you to tell him that…well, after. That I forgive him. For everything."

Her thin fingers tightened over Hermione's hand as she gave it a squeeze.

"He needs you. If he has you, I know he'll be fine. Eventually."

Then, after Ginny had finally allowed Hermione's hand to fall from hers and fallen back into her mass of pillows, she turned her face to the fire and closed her eyes.

"It's not too late."

She spared no further glance for Hermione, who sat like a statue, her own eyes frozen on Ginny's serene features no matter how much she wanted to look away.

And so their conversation ended. In the hour or so that passed after that, there were no further words spoken between the two. Partly because Ginny was exhausted, drained by their talk, but also because there was a mutual sense that they had done enough serious talking for one day. Or at least Ginny had done enough serious talking. As for Hermione, she was reluctant to press the issue any further, worried that this tentatively delicate understanding between them would shatter. She wasn't exactly sure how Ginny was feeling, but for Hermione, once all the strong emotions had settled, once the fire had faded into dying embers…she was feeling okay. She felt as though something that had been hanging over her for ages had finally gone, even if things were still far from sorted out. She wasn't elated by any means, but there was something good there, a small shaft of light from a door that had been cracked opened.

A door that led to somewhere better.

Once Hermione had left Ginny and dropped Hugo and Rose off at Ron's house, it took her over an hour to track down Harry's whereabouts. She searched as many Muggle pubs as came to mind, as well as the Leaky Cauldron and the Three Broomsticks. In each, she was met by the sight of a few older, scraggly men, sitting hunched in the corner and staring into the depths of their tankards. For this reason, when she was met by the sight of another such drunkard in the corner of the Hog's Head, she almost turned away before realizing it was Harry. His thick woolen cloak sat heavily upon his shoulders, and his face was so hidden in shadow that only an errant glint of a lit candle on his glasses made Hermione approach.

She plunked herself into the chair across from him and, when he didn't glance up from the table, flopped her bag onto its surface, causing the sharp-smelling contents of his drink to slop over the glass's rim.

"Hermione," he said, peering up at her with glazed eyes as she removed her gloves. His voice was mildly slurred, and the H of her name was almost lost. "Fancy seein' you here. You wanna drink?"

"Sure," Hermione said. "How about I take this one?"

She slid the half empty tankard from his loose grip, and he gave a shrug.

"Suit yourself. I'll jus' order another."

He made to signal to Aberforth at the bar, but Hermione grabbed his hand before it had fully risen from the worn wooden planks of the table. Gently, she lowered it to rest between her palms.

He gazed at Hermione, blinking repeatedly as though he were seeing her through a fog.

"You have snow in your hair," he said vacantly.

"Well, it is snowing outside," Hermione said.

"That'll be it, then."

Silence fell between them, and the only sound came from the occasional thunk of a glass at the bar. Hermione removed her hands from Harry's and instead interlaced her fingers tightly around his drink.

"Where's your Auror?" she asked after a moment.

Harry waved a hand carelessly as he sat back as well.

"I have the Cloak," he said. "Still not sure about that, by the way. Besides, I should be asking why you don't have an Auror. No one's really after me, remember? They can't kill me yet. Everyone else is free game, but I'm good. I get to see it all happen, though. Cheers, right?"

He raised an invisible glass, and Hermione frowned.

"We were wondering where you got off to," she said. "Ginny and I."

"Oh, sorry about that. It was too quiet in there. I had to get out."

"That was rather selfish of you."

She spoke matter-of-factly, and Harry gave a snort of derision as he made to pull his tankard from Hermione. She let him.

"Right you are," he said, taking a swig. "That's what it comes down to, isn't it? Me being a selfish prick. If I'd just left her alone, let her marry some other bloke, everything would be fine. Now she won't even get to see her daughter off on her first day of Hogwarts…" He gave a strange half-sob, half-bark of laughter. "It's bloody ironic, isn't it? That I broke up with her to protect her from Voldemort, and then he's gone and I marry her, and she's dead anyway. Because of me!"

With little warning, he hurled his tankard away from him. It shattered on the wall, and what little remained of its contents dribbled down onto the floor.

Then he buried his face into his hands, pressing his heels into his eyes in a manner not unlike Ginny's a few hours previously.

"Harry," Hermione said. She reached over to tug at one of his hands. "Would you just look at me, please?"

He finally did, his glazed eyes shinier than ever as he allowed Hermione to pull his hand into hers once more.

"She's not dead yet," she said, squeezing tightly. "You should be with her."

He used his free hand to run down his face, and then did the same to his unkempt hair.

"It's just so damn hard, Hermione."


"Because I can't think about anything else but how it's going to be when she's gone," he said, his hand twitching in her grip. "When I'm busy…with paperwork, or the kids, or Dolohov…I have to throw myself into it nonstop, because if I stop for even a second, I started wondering if I'm doing enough to save her. And then I always realize I can't."

Tears were flowing unchecked now, and he gave another strange laugh.

"I can't even start a real conversation with her," he said. "Because every time I try I start wondering if we'll be able to finish it properly." His eyes darted to the shards of his tankard, as though regretting he had been so hasty to dispose of it. "Morbid, right?"

He shook his head, swallowed at the lump in his throat.

"She deserved so much better than me."

In that moment, as she contemplated Harry's hunched shoulders, his downcast eyes, his quivering hands, Hermione thought she had never seen him so utterly broken.

"In a lot of ways she deserved better than both of us," Hermione said. "But that's not the point, Harry. You love her. And she loves you. So much."

"Pity for her, then," Harry mumbled.

"Don't just brush that off, Harry," Hermione said, lowering her head as she tried unsuccessfully to reacquire his gaze. "People die every single day, and so many of them will have never found a fraction of what Ginny had with you. You gave her that. And if she died today, I think she would be content with that."

Harry closed his eyes as he bowed his head, and Hermione continued, leaning in closer.

"You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world, Harry, but you do have some choice in who you let hurt you. And I think she's alright with her choices."

They sat that way for some time: Harry with his bowed, dark head, his hands stretched across the table to rest in Hermione's grip, the melting candle beside them flickering faintly as the wick sank farther into the yellowed wax.

Then, with an abrupt but resolute squeeze of his hand, Harry stood up. Without another word spoken between them, Harry put his arm around Hermione's shoulders, and she put hers around his waist, and they turned and walked away from the table, out of the pub and into the gently drifting snow.

The snow had begun to fall in earnest when Ginny heard the raspy creak of the stairs.

Unruffled, she continued to watch the white flakes dance past the window, swirling in and out of her sight in what she assumed was a brisk wind. The silky sheets of her bed curled about her, caressing her skin, barely shifting against the light flutter of her chest as she breathed, and the thick comforter sheltered her thin frame like a tent, cocooning her in its warmth. Despite her frequent naps, she felt drowsy, a not uncommon ailment that plagued her waking hours as thoroughly as the curse that polluted her veins. But despite this, she felt comfortable, more so than she had in weeks.

The door scuffed across the carpet as Harry entered, and Ginny finally angled her head away from the window.

"Hey," she said. "Long time no see."

Harry said nothing, his frame silhouetted against the faint light of the hall.

"It's okay, you know," Ginny said. "I don't blame you if you needed a break."

She could see him shake his head, and a strangled chuckle escaped him.

"I wish you wouldn't try to make me feel better," he said. His voice was hoarse.

"That's what I signed on for," Ginny said. "For better or worse, right? Granted, this may be one of those latter moments, but I'm personally sticking it out. I've got too much time invested in this thing."

Harry chuckled again, more genuinely this time, and stepped further into the room. He settled himself on the edge of the bed, gently, trying not to jostle her. The mattress creaked as he swung his legs atop the comforter.

As soon as he had nestled his head into the well-formed indentation in his pillow, Ginny reached over and slid her hand into his loose fingers. She angled her head towards him and saw that his eyes were closed beneath his glasses, his hair falling more scruffily than usual upon his brow. Without opening his eyes, he brought her hand upward, pressing it against his lips, and then rested it, palm-down, against his chest, just below his collarbone. He covered it possessively with one of his hands, hiding it completely with its breadth, and then overlapped it with the other, enveloping her fingers in layers of warmth just as the sheets did for her weary body. She felt his heart beat strongly, drumming, energetic, against her own feeble pulse, lending a simulation of life, insisting upon a match of vitality.

It was a lifeline for him if not for her.

"I feel like I'm dying, Gin," he said. His eyes opened slowly as his neck twisted, just as slowly, to meet her gaze.

She smiled a little bit. "What a coincidence."

A spasm spread through his hands and into hers, which he attempted to cover it up by a stroke of his thumb. Back and forth, back and forth against her papery hand.

"Sorry," Ginny said. "Too soon?"

"Way too soon." He paused, long enough to draw in a deep breath and roll on his side to face her more fully. She did the same. He still held on to her hand, although he let them rest on the bed in the gap between them.

"Why aren't you angry with me?"

He did not elaborate, and she didn't need him to.

"Because I don't blame you, Harry. I don't," Ginny said. "You're my best friend and I wouldn't trade our years together for anything. Besides…I don't want anger to be the last thing I feel."

She shrugged as she said the last bit, a half smile on her face.

Harry reached over and traced a path through her fiery hair, from her brow, behind her ear, down to where it lay limply at her collarbone. Then he pulled her (gently, always gently) to nestle against him. His heart beat even more firmly in her ear as she rested her head against the cotton of his shirt.

His chest swelled and shrank as he pressed his cheek against her hair.

"I'm going to miss you, Gin. Always."

Her chest swelled and shrank as she fought the fierce burning in her throat.

"Same to you, Potter."