Author's Note: Character death (not H/D), rampant Australianisms, and convenient ignoring of the Deathly Hallows Epilogue occur in the course of this fic. And, for our American cousins, it is very common to run away to Australia for a year (admittedly more usual after finishing school) because it is cheap and sunny and filled with decent beer.
Beneath Boundless Skies
It was, without doubt, the strangest owl that Harry had ever received.
A firm hand, using a broad quill, had spelt out "Potter, Thank you. Malfoy" A finer, more elegant hand had added a "Dear Mr" at the beginning, and a penultimate "Draco".
He blinked at the owl, a small brown that seemed vaguely familiar. "What time is it?" he asked, still groggy from sleep. The owl hooted at him. Harry did not need a bird to tell him that birds could not tell the time.
Bright sun shone in through the castle's open window beside him. Someone, presumably Kreacher, had been in and left clean clothes at the end of his bed. And there was a meal, the dishcovers were still warm. Harry guessed it might be two o'clock, maybe a little later.
He took the dishcovers off and grinned at the sight of shepherd's pie, roast vegetables and treacle tart. His favourite comfort meal. He sat on his bed and began to eat, grateful to Kreacher. Images of the house-elf at the head of a band of armed warriors played in his mind. That had been a good moment. Merlin he was hungry.
The brown owl hopped over and clicked its beak hopefully. Harry passed it a roast carrot, which was apparently acceptable. He picked up the parchment it had borne again. Such a strange letter. He supposed he had saved Malfoy's life, but was that the sort of thing one sent a note regarding?
Clearly Narcissa Malfoy thought so, if Harry was any judge. Which meant that she might very well be expecting a similar note from him. Harry grinned at the owl. He looked over at the trunk beside him, yes, there was a quill and ink. Eating with his left hand, he penned a reply with his right on a scrap torn from the original parchment.
"Dear Mrs Malfoy, Thank you for your courage and kindness in not betraying me to Voldemort in the final battle. It meant a great deal to me, and, I suspect, to the war effort. I hope your family is well. Sincerely, Harry James Potter."
There was no room for more. "Halfbloods can be polite, too," Harry told the owl, tying the note to its leg. The owl continued to be interested only in the contents of Harry's plate, and was rewarded with scraps before being sent on its way.
Harry finished his meal and contemplated a shower before heading down to face what remained of the day and find Ron and Hermione. Maybe just a quick nap to digest first.
Harry woke to the sound of his name being called. He sat up, shoving his glasses on, just in time to see Kingsley stepping into his room. The light was longer now, evening rolling in, or was it the next morning?
"Did I wake you?" Kingsley asked.
"No. Well, yes, but I need to get up. Come in," Harry invited, swinging himself out from underneath his blanket. He was still dressed in yesterday's clothes, and suddenly aware that he smelled terrible.
Kingsley came over and patted Harry's shoulder, then sat on the bed opposite his. "How are you feeling?"
"I've had some sleep and food," Harry replied. "Could do with a shower, though."
"Couldn't we all?" Kingsley smiled. Harry noticed that he, too, was wearing yesterday's clothes. "You did well, Harry."
"We all did. It's hard to believe it's over."
Kingsley leaned across and patted Harry's knee. "It's over. You did it. And I've come to tell you that the Prime Minister sends his regards and that the Interim Minister for Magic requests you dine with him tonight."
"Well he can sod off for a start."
Kingsley turned the corners of his mouth down comically. "I thought we were friends."
Harry grinned. "That's great! I go to sleep for a few hours and already things have started improving. It was just a few hours, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it's seven. Dinner will be half an hour. Everyone's down in the Room of Requirement, Minerva's created a new hall there …" Kingsley didn't need to explain, the memory of the Great Hall was unlikely to fade for either of them.
Harry nodded, happy to hear that the Fiendfyre had not destroyed the Room itself. "Okay then, I'll shower and get dressed."
Kingsley didn't get up. "There's two more things …" He reached into a pocket and pulled out a copy of The Daily Prophet. He held up the front page, with its banner headline of 'SALVATION' and underneath it an artist's impression of Harry killing Voldemort – which was substantially more dramatic than the real sequence of events.
Harry couldn't help laughing at the absurdity.
"I was hoping you'd say that," Kingsley said with a smile. "And then there's the Malfoy question. Did Narcissa Malfoy really help you in the final battle?"
Harry frowned. "Yes, she did, immensely. But how did you know?"
"We read your letter. Andromeda Tonks insisted on it. She has Narcissa and Draco with her."
"He's with us."
Harry thought for a moment. "Draco helped, too," he added. "When we were imprisoned at the manor, he refused to identify me. And last night – this morning – he stopped Vincent Crabbe from killing me."
"That's good." Kingsley's voice was gentle. "I have no taste for prosecuting children."
Harry remembered something else. "Gregory Goyle," he blurted out. "He's just an idiot. He was in it because he's a bully who thought the robes and masks were cool."
"He participated in Death Eater raids," Kingsley told him. "No murders, at least. A lesser evil, perhaps. Or maybe just a more banal one."
Harry pushed a hand back through his grotty hair. "It was all banal," he whispered. "All those people dead for Tom Riddle's fear. Such a stupid waste."
"Not a waste." Kingsley's voice was surprisingly loud and resonant. "None of us wasted our energies or lives so long as we were able to stand up and say that we wanted a world in which everyone walked free and equal. Courage is never wasted, Harry."
Harry nodded. "Remus said something like that once." At the name, a flood of other memories intruded. "Andromeda Tonks, how is she? How's Teddy? What's she doing with the Malfoys? Is there someone else with her?"
Kingsley raised a calming hand. "They are both well. She has taken her sister and nephew in for the moment. Sybill Trelawney has gone to her house with them to help manage things."
"She was quite keen to help," Kingsley smiled. "And mysticism aside, she's a fine witch with a bit of a temper on her."
"Did you see her with the crystal balls?"
"A memory that will keep me warm in old age."
Harry stood up and gathered his clean clothes. One more thought occurred to him. "Where are Ron and Hermione?"
Kingsley's grin was mischievous. "I sent them off to bed. I insisted they needed to sleep as much as you did."
Harry grinned back. "I'm glad you're the new Minister."
"Interim Minister," Kingsley corrected him. "Now go and shower, dinner's in twenty-five minutes."
Dinner was not the trial Harry had expected. In a strange way it was comforting, there was a tangible bond among the survivors. Immense relief buoyed them, and made bearable their shared grief.
As he walked in through the doors, there was a chorus of "Harry!", and then another of "Neville!" as Longbottom came in behind him. Harry turned to greet his classmate, but was too late. Hannah Abbott and Luna Lovegood swooped in and took Neville by his arms, escorting him to their table-full of DA members. The three of them flashed smiles at Harry as they passed. He, bemused, was beckoned by Kingsley over to a table full of Order members.
Professor McGonagall insisted that Harry sit between her and Kingsley. Several times through the evening he caught her simply looking at him. "Sorry, Mr Potter," she apologised on the fourth occasion. "I'm just … very pleased to see you this evening."
Harry knew exactly what she meant, but, like his old teacher, had no idea how to say it. He smiled, and she patted his arm in understanding.
It was a strange meal. The house-elves divided their time between delivering food and sitting at their own table, apparently consuming a great deal of butterbeer. A buzz of particular excitement ran under everything. Several times Harry looked up to see senior students sneaking from the room in pairs.
Hermione and Ron appeared halfway through dinner and sat at the end of Harry's table, with Charlie Weasley and Professor Flitwick. Harry exchanged looks with them and laughed out loud when Ron grinned broadly and Hermione blushed as red as Weasley hair. He was happy for them; after the past year, they deserved it.
Emotions were less intense than they had been that morning. Some of the younger students were being hugged by family and friends, some of the adults and seventh years sat alone, looking for a spot of peace.
"Are there more Death Eaters to be rounded up?" he asked Kingsley suddenly.
Shacklebolt shook his head. "The ones we know of are all accounted for, dead or in custody. There are more supporters out there, and snatchers and the like. I'm sorry to say that no one's seen Dolores Umbridge since yesterday, but the main danger is really over."
Harry smiled crookedly. He wondered if something similar was said sixteen years ago.
Kingsley guessed his thoughts. "It won't be like last time, Harry. They revealed their hand too thoroughly. The Ministry has been gutted and will be rebuilt only with those who can genuinely be trusted. I don't care if I have to make it so ninety per cent of the staff are Muggleborn, it ends here."
Harry nodded soberly. "I believe you."
Neville appeared at Harry's elbow. "Heya," he said, smiling. "I've finally escaped!"
Harry couldn't help smiling back. "From a table full of our friends, and girls who keep touching you."
"It's been like that all day." Neville grinned. "Probably because you were busy sleeping."
Harry poked his shoulder happily. "Idiot. It's the sword thing."
"Yeah, well," Neville muttered. "Would have been more than just crispy eyebrows if not for your protective magic. That was good work."
Aside from thinner eyebrows, Neville actually looked better than he had last night. Healers must have been at work, Neville's bruises and cuts were gone, leaving one rather rakish scar along his jaw.
Neville frowned. "I hate to ask, but were you actually dead? Because that's how they're saying you did it. Like you said this morning – the same way your mum protected you."
"I don't think so," Harry answered, aware that the other conversations around them had stopped and more ears than Neville's were listening.
"I think I was mostly alive and that Voldemort only killed his connection with me. It was all pretty strange."
He looked for a way to phrase the experience "I was somewhere else for a while. Dumbledore was there. He told me he thought I was alive, but that because I was prepared to die if I needed to, that would be enough."
Neville looked at him for a long moment. "Shit, Harry, that's pretty serious," he said at last.
"Says the bloke who stood up to the Dark Lord single-handed."
Neville shrugged. "Eh, somebody had to, you were just lying around."
Harry's guffaw was so loud that conversation at other tables stopped and people turned to look at him. He knew he should have felt guilty for laughing, there were so many dead, but he was alive. And people he had expected to die before dawn were alive, too.
The level of volume in the hall went up at that, and laughter and anecdote began to flow more freely, along with the butterbeer and firewhisky. Harry lifted his first glass to Neville. "To the heir of Gryffindor," he said, only half joking.
"To the saviour of the wizarding world," Neville replied, with considerably more tongue in cheek. They tossed back the drinks. Neville's face was more serious after he had finished. "Someone should say something," he lifted his chin towards the masses on the other side of the table, "to them. A sort of toast. It should probably be you, Harry."
The problem with Neville, Harry realised, was his habit of being right on uncomfortable topics.
"All right. Stand with me?"
Neville nodded. Harry poured more firewhisky and the two young men stood, glasses in hand. A ripple of silence spread out from them, and all eyes turned towards them.
Harry took a deep breath and held his glass high. "To those who stood, and to those who fell. Every single one of you bought Voldemort's defeat, let us go on from here in ways that honour the sacrifices made. To victory."
Hundreds of voices echoed: "To victory." Hundreds of glasses were raised, and downed.
"Nice one," Neville whispered.
Kingsley was smiling at Harry, and Professor McGonagall reached out and squeezed his arm. There were tears in her eyes, and she was blinking them away crossly. Harry smiled a crooked smile. He rather felt the same. Ron and Hermione raised their glasses slightly to him, and Harry returned the gesture, flooded with memories of the past year. The air felt heavy.
Luna's voice floated out across it. "It's moments like these where we really need a single tune for the school song."
The heaviness receded. Someone transfigured a plate into a drum, someone else made a guitar out of a chair. Fiddles and a bass were formed, a knife became a flute, the scratch band conferred briefly and started in on one of the Weird Sisters' better-known dance tunes. Tables were pushed back and people began to dance. Those who stayed seated turned to their neighbours and shared their stories.
Professor McGonagall surprised Harry by pulling a photograph from one of her pockets. She held it across to him with a small smile. There she was, small between the figures of Fred and George Weasley, who were looking down at her with great affection. "Colin Creevey gave me this last year," she told him. "He thought I needed reminding of jollier times." She tilted her chin up and smiled more determinedly. "I've carried it with me and found it immensely helpful. I suspect several copies might be in order."
Harry looked at the twins waving goofily at the camera. George was making the classic bunny ears behind McGonagall's head, while Fred mouthed that Colin ought to hurry up. The image of the young Muggle-born boy snapping away popped readily into Harry's head. "I'd like one of those copies," he said.
"Charlie Weasley might want to see this, his dining companions have deserted him." McGonagall indicated meaningly with a chin lift.
Charlie seemed self-contained as he watched the dancing, but he smiled as Harry sat beside him. "Heyup, Harry. Was looking for you earlier, but word has it you were dead to the world. Again. It's a habit with you."
Harry snorted. "That's appalling, Charlie."
"I've been waiting hours to use it, thanks for the chance." Charlie grinned, though it didn't reach his eyes. "What's that?"
"Photo. Professor McGonagall thought you might like a copy. It's … it's Fred." Harry held out the photo and Charlie took it gently.
He smiled, and this time it did reach his eyes. "It is indeed," he murmured, as the Fred in the photo left off teasing Colin and waved at his brother. Charlie handed it back. "I'd like a copy very much." They sat in silence for a minute or two, then Charlie went on. "I have some photos of Tonks at home, from when we were at school, and then when she came to visit me over the last few years. I'll find some good ones and make you copies."
Harry paused. "I'd like that. I can share them with her mum and Teddy."
Charlie stood up. "I should probably go home. Mum's trying to fix up the house at the same time as sorting the funeral. George said that you are not to come tonight, because he wants you to stay here and have a chance at a bit of a party. He says that Fred would return from the dead and kill him if he let you leave your celebration, and then the beauteous Gred visage would be gone from the world altogether. I think that's pretty close to the exact wording. He said come tomorrow, with Ron. And slap Ron if he refuses Hermione's advances."
Charlie grinned. "Already sorted? Brilliant. I'll let George know, that'll cheer him up." He reached down and drew Harry into a swift, fierce hug, then released him just as quickly. "See you tomorrow. And don't worry, Ginny will come round."
Charlie was several steps away before Harry called after him: "Tell her to stay at the Burrow, I'll see her tomorrow." Charlie's steps paused for a moment, then resumed their path to the door.
The next morning, Harry was woken by Ron and Hermione. Like most of the younger inhabitants of the castle, they had still been dancing when he left for bed, but he was so tired. At least today's waking light was considerably earlier than yesterday's.
"Is he awake?" Hermione whispered, not quietly.
"I'm checking!" Ron replied.
"People are awake in Hufflepuff with the noise you two are making," Harry grumbled, sitting up and fumbling his glasses into place.
Ron and Hermione flopped down on his quilt. "Sorry," she said. "But we wanted to make sure you saw this before you came down to breakfast."
"In case it puts you off your food," Ron interjected.
Hermione pulled a hugely thick edition of The Daily Prophet from under her jumper. "This," she said.
Harry looked down at the paper. The front page was him again, with Neville this time, under the banner 'HEROES'. He turned the page to find a long feature: 'The Longbottoms' Legacy of Courage', with many more shots of Neville and a series of proud quotes from his grandmother.
"This is brilliant!" he laughed. And there were Ron and Hermione on page three: 'The Brains and the Heart: Behind Harry's Success'.
"You look great, Hermione!"
She held back a smile. "It's on page five …"
Harry flicked over. There was a large photograph of Andromeda Tonks with her husband and daughter, and a smaller one of Narcissa and Draco Malfoy. The headline beside them read: 'How the Dark Lord's Most Trusted Helped to Defeat Him', it was written by Andromeda. Harry let out a quiet sigh.
He scanned the paragraphs. His letter was there in full, and Kingsley was quoted repeating Harry's words regarding Draco. Neither of the Malfoys commented in the story, just a single mention that Lucius planned to throw himself on the mercy of the Ministry.
"What do you call that?" Ron poked the paper.
Harry looked up at him and smiled faintly. "A family. I can't blame her."
"Who didn't give us up at the Manor, who stopped Crabbe killing me. He may not have been any real use to us, but he did help, even if he didn't mean to." Harry looked at his two friends very seriously. "His mother saved my life when Voldemort wanted me dead. I owe her."
"What about Lucius?" Hermione asked.
"Prison," Harry answered immediately.
"Well, that's something," Ron muttered.
A new worry occurred to Harry. "Do you think your mum will mind?"
Ron shook his head. "Things will be a bit crazy at home, I don't think they'll be worried about the paper."
Harry looked at Ron closely. "How're you holding up?"
"Yeah, good and bad," Ron shrugged stoically. "Been the best two days of my life in some ways, and the worst in others. It's still not real that I won't see Fred again. S'pose it'll hit when I go home. George is probably going to kill me for taking so long."
Harry coughed slightly. "Maybe not," he muttered.
Ron looked at him sharply. Harry continued, "He sent word with Charlie that he wanted you to stay here with Hermione." Harry paused as Hermione's eyebrows soared dangerously. "To make sure that she was fine because her family is still in Australia," he concluded quickly.
Both of his friends' faces expressed extreme doubt at this reasoning. Harry couldn't help laughing, and they followed, though Hermione mixed laughter with blushes.
"Good old George," Ron declared. "He's a prince among brothers."
The rest of the morning passed in breakfast and planning. Ron and Hermione went straight to the Burrow, Harry to follow in a few hours after making a brief statement to the press, a favour for which Kingsley had promised him eternal gratitude.
What Harry had forgotten was that this left an unfilled half-hour. Through habit, he wandered outside the castle – and regretted it immediately.
The lawns were gouged with the violence of battle. Stones from collapsed walls and thrown missiles littered the spaces he had marched across on the way to and from classes and escapades since he was eleven. Dark stains showed where people had fallen – wounded, dead – many of them people he knew, some of them people he loved. In the distance, the remnants of Hagrid's hut still smoked.
Hagrid himself was visible, too, with Grawp, to the left of the castle's entrance. As Harry watched they lifted stones and began to rebuild the drystone wall that held back one of the garden beds. Students and parents who were walking in the grounds came to help, spelling stones into place and replanting uprooted shrubs.
Harry wandered closer. This wall had a small plaque at the still-standing end, which had previously been hidden by a now-crisped fuchsia: 'In loving memory of those students, staff and friends of Hogwarts who laid down their lives that evil might be defeated: 1970-1981.' Harry was astonished that he had noticed dozens of ancient In Memoriams about the grounds, but never this.
It occurred to Harry that he had forgotten something important.
The journey to the Owlery was doubled by collapses and blockages across the grounds, and the Owlery itself had suffered in the battle, but there were still a good number of school birds in residence, and some sensible hand had laid in a supply of parchment, ink and ribbon so the survivors could send messages.
Harry took up an envelope and scrawled Dudley Dursley on the outside, then paused. He added: In hiding, somewhere in the South East. Look for a fat, red-faced man and horse-faced woman, Dudders will be nearby.
"Sorry," he apologised in advance to the owls.
He picked up a sheet of parchment and scrawled a hasty note to let his cousin know the war was over and that he'd survived it.
Harry tied the message to the leg of the largest owl he could find. "Good luck," he told it. "I'll appreciate whatever you can do about getting that to him."
With a Hedwig-like click of its beak, the owl flew away, and Harry trudged back inside to face the press.
Harry's sudden good mood lasted him all the way through his press interviews, especially when Luna Lovegood sat with him on behalf of The Quibbler and probed him with questions such as: what were his preferred wild herbs to eat while hiding from Dark Wizards? and what did he have to say to those who considered him to be immortal?
She had hugged him fiercely when he apologised that he had to go and be with the Weasleys, and sent all her love to Ron and his family. Then she had thanked him for his defence of Narcissa and Draco Malfoy.
"When I was trapped in the Manor with Mr Ollivander, they were not unkind to us. We always ate more when they brought us food, and they made the house-elves protect us from some of the Death Eaters who wanted to harm us. I appreciated that."
Harry sensed the calm voice in which she relayed this hid a story that was much scarier, and felt he'd made the right decision.
But stepping out of the Floo at the Burrow, Harry's cheer evaporated. Molly Weasley sat at her clearly repaired kitchen table forlornly looking at photos of her dead son. Arthur was beside her, holding her hand. They both stood up to greet him.
"Don't get up, it's just me." Harry half-smiled at Molly, aware that a like-a-son was a poor substitute for an actual son.
"No just about it, Harry," said Arthur, enveloping him a hug.
"Oh Harry," Molly hiccoughed. "When I thought they'd killed you, too …" Her voice trailed off in a soft wail and Harry and her husband hugged her in turn.
"I'm so sorry," Harry whispered. "I'm so sorry."
"He knew the risks, son," Arthur patted his shoulder. "We all did, and we thought them worth running. We made choices to be there. And if Fred had known what was going to happen, he'd still have gone."
Harry nodded. There were no words to answer that. He knew Fred had possessed more overt courage than he did, and even he had chosen death to defeat Voldemort. Maybe it was easier if he thought of everyone as having made the same decision. Even if the others had been less certain.
"We've sent the children outside to do some more work to the place, and to see if they have any ideas for what they think Fred would have liked at his funeral," Arthur told him. "You go out and join them. See if you can come up with anything that isn't fireworks or a rocket-propelled casket."
Harry smiled. "Fred would have liked both of those."
"Well," Arthur conceded, "Molly and I may allow a few small fireworks. Possibly something a bit more spectacular at the end of the ceremony."
Molly sniffed loudly. "He'll have the whole fandango. Bigger than Bonfire Night. He may no longer be with us, but that's no reason to start pretending he was what he wasn't. Subtlety was never something Fred liked."
Harry smiled affectionately at her.
Molly clicked her tongue. "Go on, out with you. The others are still tidying up. Too many unwanted visitors this last year."
Outside Ron and Charlie were rebuilding one of the fences, but were happy to stop when they saw Harry.
"How goes the darling of The Daily Prophet?" Charlie asked.
Harry raised his middle fingers in a gesture of support. "How goes the building?"
"Not so bad," Ron wiped his hands on his jeans and sat down under a nearby tree. "Time for a quick rest now, though.
"Can't push Ronniekins too hard, he'll rupture something vital," Charlie agreed, sitting beside his brother.
Harry noticed the gentle nudge of shoulders between the brothers that accompanied Charlie's banter. He joined them in the shade. "How are George and Ginny?" he asked.
Ron sighed. Charlie answered, instead. "George is bearing up pretty well. He says that whenever he wants to just throw himself to the ground and wail, he imagines what Fred would say and is too embarrassed. And he says that even though he knows Fred's gone, he still feels him around, still feels comforted by him."
Harry nodded. He had an inkling of that feeling himself.
"Ginny … She's taking it hard …" Charlie sighed, too. He looked at Harry intently. "She's not really herself at the moment. Just … just don't be too hard on her."
Harry frowned, uncertain. "I won't," he promised. "I never would be."
Charlie pulled a flask of something bitter and Romanian from his pocket and passed it round for fortifying sips, then the three young men put themselves to fence rebuilding in earnest. The job was completed in less than an hour, including shoring up the wall of Arthur's shed, and finding some of his collection of Muggle artefacts, which had been scattered by some of those who had come in search of Ron.
"Good job Dad's lineage is so impressive," Charlie muttered as he returned a jar of screws to its rightful shelf. "They could hardly preach pureblood supremacy and go about offing us."
Harry nodded quietly. Until he'd seen the clear signs of repeated searches, he hadn't realised how at risk the Weasleys had been. The irony of prejudice being their salvation wasn't lost on him, but he was grateful nonetheless.
It was dinner before he saw Ginny. She and George had not appeared with Bill, Fleur and Hermione. Percy was even back from the Ministry before six, looking tired, but speaking proudly of the work they had begun. Just before seven, with food about to hit the table, she came in with her brother, gave Harry a small, tight smile, and sat at the other end of the table. George looked at Harry sympathetically and sat beside him.
"Heyup, Harry," he murmured.
"Hey George. How are you holding up?"
"Reasonably crap, but philosophical. He lived a full life, life goes on, it was for the greater good, I've heard them all in the last two days." George smiled wryly. "I am considering a line of platitude-based sweets to be handed out by the bereaved on occasions such as this. They will induce indigestion proportional to the inanity in the commenter. Possibly nausea. I'm working on it."
Harry couldn't help but hope he followed through on this. "So you're keeping Wizarding Wheezes going?"
George's eyes widened. "Harry you godless creature, you may not believe in the sure and certain resurrection, but I am a great proponent of the afterlife, and when my time comes I do not want Fred's words of welcome to begin with 'You fucking prat' and conclude with 'what the fuck were you thinking?' Of course I'm keeping it on. Ron's going to help for a year."
Harry turned to Ron. "You're not coming back to school?"
Ron shook his head. "Nah, Kingsley says that it won't make a difference if I want to apply for the Aurors later, he'll just drum whatever I need to know into my thick head. Don't think I could face it, not after what happened there."
Harry bit his lip guiltily. "Sorry mate, I didn't even think."
"That's OK. If I wanted thinking I'd ask my girlfriend." Ron's grin at the word threatened to pull a cheek muscle.
Harry turned back to George. "Is there anything I can …"
George patted him on the head. "You've already done it, Harry. He didn't die in vain." George's jaw tightened for a moment, and Harry looked away as grief washed across his eyes, looked back as George sighed. "He'd have been proud of all of us. And is, I am guessing, not impressed about the fact that after all that resistance, he missed the chance to pick up at the victory celebrations. Tell me you, at least …"
Harry shook his head. "I got some sleep."
"Well, I suppose it's for the best." George glanced at Ginny, and Harry, thinking he understood, smiled.
It was the quietest dinner Harry had ever had at the Burrow. Several times he tried to catch Ginny's eye; every time he received a small smile, after which she would look away quickly.
Harry was surprised, then, when she asked him to stay at the table after dinner. Molly shooed everyone else from the room and left them to talk. Harry couldn't help noticing that even she seemed worried.
Ginny sat beside him, and hugged him fleetingly. "I'm so glad you're alive," she whispered. Then she pressed her lips together.
Harry breathed in the scent of her hair. "Ginny, I …" he began.
She raised a hand to stop him. "I'm sorry, Harry," she said, quickly. "Every time I look at you I think of Fred."
She swallowed. "I know it wasn't your fault, but you were right there. He was my favourite brother. You didn't help him!"
Harry felt as though his lungs were being squeezed. The back of his throat, too. "Ginny," he managed, "Gin, I …"
Tears were pouring down her face, but she looked at him fiercely. "I know! I know it's not fair. Percy told me what happened, I know! But it's how I feel and I can't help it!"
Harry felt his chest clench, and his breath was hard to draw. He took in a few panting lungfuls, then managed a full one, and blinked back the threatening emotion. "OK. All right. I can see that. I'll go away for a bit so you don't have to see me. And when you feel a bit better, we'll try again."
Ginny closed her eyes.
Harry didn't press the point.
"I'll stay at school tonight, and come back in the morning, so I can help put the house back in order before the funeral."
Ginny smiled a sad little smile. "Thank you."
"Can you ask Ron and Hermione if they can come up for breakfast? And tell everyone where I've gone?"
"Yes, of course." Ginny stood beside Harry and put her arms around him. "I'm so sorry. I know you tried to save everyone. I know that you never wanted this."
Harry hugged her back stiffly. "I never wanted any of this, Gin. None of it was fair."
She caught a little more meaning than he had intended to convey. With a last tightening of her arms and a sob, she fled the room.
He gazed after her for a little while, but he knew she wasn't coming back. Quietly he stood up, walked to the fireplace, stoked the fire, took a pinch of powder from the mantel and Flooed back to school. Home.
Neville, Dean, Hannah and Luna were all in the Gryffindor common room when he stepped over the hearth. Harry nodded tiredly at them.
"Thought you were staying at the Burrow, with Ginny," Neville said, somewhat confused.
Harry grinned wryly. "Yeah, so did I."
"Oh. Dear." Neville patted Harry's shoulder clumsily. "Sorry."
Harry nodded. "Thanks. Think I might go to bed early."
"Yeah, course. Um, sleep well."
Harry made his way up the stairs, past the figures of other students who had fought and their parents who had stayed with them, to the welcome of his old bed.
There was a tray of still-steaming food on a table beside his four-poster, and an owl waiting in the window. He reached across and took the letter from the school owl.
"Thanks," he said. "I'll go to the Owlery if I need to reply. You get some rest."
It was the same owl he had sent earlier in the day. Dudley's handwriting was neater than Harry remembered.
I am very happy that you are alive and that the bad guy is dead, it read. I hope that you did not have to kill him because that would be really horrible, but if you did I am sure that he deserved it. I am sorry to hear that people you knew died.
Mum sends her regards and hopes you are well. Dad is pretending that he did not see the owl. They are both well.
Dudley closed with the hope that he and Harry would stay in touch. Harry smiled. At least there was some good news to end the day on.