UPDATE 12/20/12: I've just finished my first original novel, which I plan to self-publish, and I'm looking for beta-readers to give general feedback as I brush it up. It's the first entry in a planned YA adventure series that, while not set in a world like Harry Potter's, should very much appeal to Potter fans. If anyone reading this would consider checking it out, please PM me and I'll give you more info. I'd greatly appreciate it!
The World I Leave Behind
Epilogue: After the Prophecy
Hermione Granger took a deep breath and spoke to her reflection.
"Calm down, there's nothing to worry about. After everything you've been through, you can't be scared of this, surely." A giggle slipped past her lips, but it was frantic, not joyful. She watched her smile quickly fade from the bride-to-be in the mirror.
Hermione studied her reflection, her eyes roaming over the simple, traditional Muggle wedding dress. Her hair had been painstakingly pinned up to leave her neck and shoulders bare save for a borrowed necklace. Ginny, Fleur, and Mrs. Weasley had done a very good job on her, but Hermione's eyes were drawn only to the patchwork of discolored skin that covered every inch of her exposed exterior; the burn scars, caused by cursed flames, that could never be removed.
Hermione turned away from the mirror and stepped aimlessly into the center of Ginny's room, which was lit only by the dim, hazy rays of midday sun that soaked through the window's closed curtains. For the hundredth time Hermione wished she had found a gown that hid more of her, but this was the best she had come across during her short shopping trip that morning. The dress at least met the two requirements upon which she absolutely would not compromise: it had long sleeves to hide the Dark Mark on her forearm, and it was a traditional Muggle wedding gown, in honor of her parents.
With a shaky sigh, Hermione began to pace around the room while wringing her hands and fidgeting nervously with her dress. She had asked for a few minutes alone before joining the others downstairs to begin the ceremony. She could hear the muffled chatter of what sounded like a massive crowd in the orchard beyond the window – doubtlessly a much larger turnout than the more intimate gathering she had imagined – but had resisted the urge to peek through the curtains for fear that the sight would only increase her anxiety.
Was she crazy to go through with a wedding less than twenty-four hours after the final battle? When Ron proposed she had said yes without hesitation, but at the time it seemed unlikely they would both live another day. Hermione still trembled when she thought of everything they went through at Hogwarts, not to mention the traumatic past couple of weeks. She still had not begun to truly grieve for the loss of her mother and father . . .
No, this could not be the right time for a wedding. It seemed disrespectful somehow to hold any kind of celebration so soon after so many people had suffered, and while many still struggled to recover from everything they had endured. Hermione thought of those who had been wounded at Hogwarts, some very seriously, who still bore injuries despite the best efforts of Madame Pomfrey and the healers of St. Mungo's, who had worked tirelessly through the night. When Hermione had left Ron to go to bed – in Ginny's room, for the first time in several nights – he could barely stand. Hermione had not seen him since, and she grimaced as she imagined him laboring to put on dress robes.
Hermione quickened her pace as her restless mind continued to compile evidence that she was about to make a big mistake, one that she could not avoid for fear of hurting Ron. She truly loved him and could not imagine a future in which they were not together, but now that the danger had passed – now that a long life stretched out before them – they suddenly seemed too young to rush into marriage.
Hermione took a deep breath and worked to bring her worries under control so that she could present a calm façade – she would not burden Ron with her distress – but her nerves were stretched so tight that she jumped at the sound of a soft knock against the open door. When she shot a startled look at the doorway, however, she felt the first faint sense of relief.
He stood there in dress robes – his hand still raised, frozen in its last knock – and gazed at her with a slightly slack-jawed expression.
"Wow, Hermione. You look . . ."
"Where have you been?" Hermione interrupted. She crossed the room as fast as her dress would allow and threw her arms around Harry's neck, pulling him into a tight hug. "We waited for you for as long as we could after we received Kingsley's owl, but then all of the guests arrived and we could only make them wait for so long, and –"
Harry cut in when Hermione took a frantic gulp of air.
"I'm really sorry, Hermione. I went as fast as I could, but Kingsley had a lot of questions – we were at it all night – and . . . and I just wanted to get through them and finally be done with it all, you know? But I wasn't going to miss this, not for anything."
Harry stiffened as Hermione sniffled against his shoulder. "Are . . . are you crying? Hermione, I'm really sor –"
"No, it's . . . it's not that," said Hermione, who pulled away and began to wipe her eyes before catching herself. "Oh, Fleur will have a fit if I mess up my makeup." In a flash, Harry conjured a handkerchief and handed it to her. "Thanks," she said with a flicker of a smile as she carefully dabbed at her eyes. Harry waited patiently and did not press.
Her eyes dry, Hermione sighed and let her arm fall limp, where her hands joined to absentmindedly clutch the wadded-up cloth. She plopped down onto her bed without thinking, causing her skirt to puff up and bunch around her legs. "Great," she groaned. "Now I've probably ruined my dress."
Harry slid a chair next to the bed and sat down. Hermione looked around the room, unsure of what to say until a new concern surfaced and caused her to refocus on Harry.
"How are you doing?" she said, scrutinizing the circles under his eyes and the faint scratches that still marked his face. She felt a pang of guilt for obsessing over her own worries when her best friend had been through much more.
Harry gave a small smile. "Fine. Never better."
Despite his casual tone, Hermione could tell that he meant it. Looking more closely, she saw that Harry was different somehow – that despite the fatigue and lingering injuries, he seemed more at peace than she could ever remember seeing him.
"You did it," she said, as pride, gratitude, and love for her friend burst inside her. A wide smile spread across her face, and Harry's grin stretched to match.
"Yeah. We all did."
Hermione continued to beam at Harry, her worries temporarily pushed aside. Against impossible odds, they had survived. And until that moment, Hermione had never allowed herself to seriously consider how improbable that outcome had always been. Although she could not simply forget her current concerns, she knew they were nothing compared to what she, Harry, Ron, and the others had already overcome. Before her swelling emotions could threaten to undo more of Fleur's hard work, Hermione shifted to a safer subject.
"Have you seen Ron or Ginny?"
"No, I Apparated out front and came straight inside. I looked for Ginny downstairs and in our room – thanks for leaving these robes out for me, by the way – but I couldn't find her so I came to check in here."
"Ginny picked those out," said Hermione, with a nod toward Harry's dress robes. "She's outside with everyone else, waiting for me."
Harry's gaze turned serious again. "Everything all right?"
"Yes . . . well, it's just . . ." As the mass of swirling worries spilled back into Hermione's head, she struggled to put them into words, and hesitated to delve too deeply into her concerns. "You know me; always worrying over the details. I just can't seem to turn my brain off."
"Well," said Harry, shrugging, "isn't that what Ron is for?"
Hermione stared at Harry, blank-faced, as his simple observation hit her with a surprising force.
She knew how she felt about Ron and could list all of the qualities she admired in him, but until that moment she had never put it all together to fully understand why, despite being so different, they fit together so well – how his playful, carefree attitude was the perfect balance for her drive and obsessive nature; how she had come to count on the comfort of his presence.
Of course she had been on edge all morning – half of her had been missing.
It may have been obvious to Harry, but for Hermione – who tended to observe and categorize everything in life in an analytical, bullet-point way – it was a revelation. How could she have any reservations about marrying Ron today, this minute, when they were already two parts of a whole?
She had only one lingering concern.
"You don't think it's too soon, do you? I mean, having a wedding just a day after . . . everything?"
A crease formed between Harry's eyebrows as he considered his response. After a brief pause, his face softened and he appeared to come to a realization of his own.
"I can only speak for myself, but I've spent years – my whole life, really – with Voldemort hanging over my head, and I'm not giving him another day. Living life, being happy – that's the real victory." With a nod to himself, he turned a soft smile to Hermione. "The only bad thing about having a wedding today is that you couldn't have had it sooner."
With no care for Fleur's carefully applied mascara, Hermione – bleary-eyed and beaming – leaned forward to crush Harry to her.
"Thank you," she whispered. "I love you, Harry."
"Love you too, Hermione."
Harry patted her back, and Hermione – sniffling but still grinning wide – released his neck to take his hands in each of hers. Riding the surge of emotion that she felt for him, she looked into his face and acted on a sudden inspiration.
"Would . . . would you walk me down the aisle? I was going to go by myself since, you know, my father can't . . . can't be here. But besides Ron, obviously, you're the closest thing I have to family now."
Harry sat stunned for one brief moment before he could respond.
"Is that . . . can I do that? I mean, that doesn't break any rules, or –?"
"The number-one rule at a wedding is that nobody can say no to the bride . . . not even the 'Chosen One.'" Hermione leveled a severe stare at Harry, but her eyes glinted with mirth. Harry relaxed.
"Then, yeah . . . I'd be honored, Hermione."
"Well then, I suppose I've kept everyone waiting long enough." Hermione, bubbling over with renewed excitement, sprang to her feet, smoothed out her dress, and hurried to the mirror to check that everything was perfectly in place. When she turned to Harry, ready to leave, he smiled and held out his arm. She reached to take it, but paused as she noticed something. She took his sleeve – which had bunched around his elbow, exposing part of his arm – and pushed it all the way up.
"Harry," she breathed. "Your Dark Mark – it's gone!"
"Oh, yeah," said Harry. "I almost forgot . . ." He reached inside his robes and pulled out the Elder Wand. Hermione gasped.
"You still have it?" she said in a shocked whisper. Hermione stared in awe at the wand, which seemed to radiate power.
"Yeah, just for today; this thing draws too much attention. Tomorrow I'm taking it to Hogwarts to put it back where it belongs, with Dumbledore. Without a new master, its power should be canceled when I die a natural death. It's what Dumbledore had intended to do when he arranged his death with Snape, to keep anyone else from ever abusing the wand." Harry gave a wry grin. "But considering what we had to go through to get it, I thought we deserved to use it for just one day. See, when I combine the power of the wand with my extra magical abilities . . . well, let me just show you."
Hermione felt her heart beat faster as Harry turned the world's most powerful wand on her, but she did not flinch from it.
"Now," said Harry, smiling encouragingly. "Just hold still . . ."
Ron Weasley stood in the orchard under the leafy canopy of a large, shady tree he had often climbed as a child. The midday sun shone directly above in a cloudless blue sky, but its warmth was comfortably mild. A gentle breeze swept across the grass and rustled the leaves, joining other soft sounds that Ron had always associated with summer.
He stood across from Ginny – Hermione's maid-of-honor, who wore the same golden dress she had used for Fleur's wedding – and between them was the aged, tufty-haired wizard who had married Bill and Fleur, whom Ron's mother had been thrilled to locate on such short notice.
Ron watched the backdoor of the Burrow expectantly, with nary a thought for the many eyes that watched him. Nearly three hundred witches and wizards had shown up for the wedding, most of them uninvited but welcome just the same. Some bore the marks of having fought alongside Ron not even twenty-four hours ago, while others had just come out of hiding. As word of the wedding had quickly spread from those who had been at Hogwarts to witness Ron's proposal, the event had taken on a larger meaning: a gathering to celebrate a bright new chapter in the wizarding world. The mass of people – most of whom stood, as there weren't nearly enough chairs – were divided into two enormous halves by the empty aisle that stretched from Ron to the Burrow.
Had Ron, as a younger man, somehow been able to glimpse this day, he would have fixated on the shabby, second-hand nature of the event, on his borrowed dress robes and mismatched leftover decorations. Far from the grandeur of Bill's wedding under the marquee, Ron's hastily arranged event was little more than an impromptu party in the backyard of his family home, a place that he had always regarded as something of an embarrassment. But Ron no longer thought of himself as poor, or as the last in line for his brothers' hand-me-down possessions. He had the best of friends, a loving family, a limitless future, and the perfect person to share that future with. On this glorious day, Ron felt as though he were the richest wizard in the world. His only discomfort came from the empty space at his side reserved for his best man.
"A Galleon says he cries when he sees her," said George, who was seated a few feet away in the front row with the rest of Ron's family. George had addressed Percy, but had clearly made sure to speak loudly enough for Ron to hear.
"Hmm," pondered Percy. "Are we talking about a slight tear in the eye, or proper waterworks like Bill at his wedding?"
"What?" said Bill, who sat farther down the row with his wife and daughter. "I did not cry."
"I wouldn't take that bet, Perce," warned Charlie, ignoring Bill. "Look at Ron – he's about to bubble over, just standing there."
"Oh, bugger off," said Ron with a glance at his brothers.
"All right then," George continued, "the bet is two Galleons; Ron must shed tears from both eyes, properly wet both cheeks, and at least one tear must drip onto his dress robes. In short, he has to cry even more than Bill did."
"I didn't cry!" Bill repeated.
"Eet was so romantic," said Fleur, wistfully. "When I saw you begin to cry, I could not hold back my own tears any longer."
"I, well," Bill fumbled. "You . . . just looked so beautiful coming down the aisle . . ."
George and the others sniggered as Bill lost himself in Fleur's adoring gaze, and were shushed by Mrs. Weasley, who sat with her husband at the end of the row, next to the aisle. The boys quieted immediately and were silent for several seconds until their mother, who beamed at Ron, spoke.
"George, put me down for two galleons."
Ron scrutinized his mother's strange smirk and tried to discern the mystery behind it. Minutes ago she had gone upstairs to check on Hermione, then hurried back – strangely overjoyed and with watery eyes – to usher Ron and Ginny into taking their places. Before Ron could puzzle over his mother's odd behavior for long, however, his attention was snatched away by the sudden start of violin music that signaled the impending arrival of the bride.
The seated guests stood to join Ron in watching the backdoor, and for the first time, Ron felt nervous. He gulped and glanced anxiously at Ginny, who gave him an encouraging smile.
And then Ginny was gone, along with the rest of Ron's family and the hundreds of guests. In that moment, only Hermione existed as she stepped lightly from the house onto the grass. She was radiant in her white wedding gown, and somehow – impossibly – every visible inch of her pale skin was smooth and clear, and no longer bore any reminder that Ron had nearly lost her in the blaze.
Ron felt his face twist as he began to cry, but he did not care. Hermione's beaming face found his, and her tears spilled over, too. She became so overcome with emotion that, for several seconds, she appeared unable to take another step as she watched Ron and wept. Ron knew exactly what she was feeling, because he felt it, too. This moment, more than any other – more, even, than witnessing the Dark Lord's destruction – made everything real, made Ron realize just what they had accomplished and what they had been given. Months – years – of pent-up dreams and longings, of fears and frustrations, now came pouring out.
Ron noticed that Harry was at Hermione's side only when he helped her forward. Ron's best man had made it after all. The crowds on both sides of the aisle stood in silence while Hermione and Harry walked slowly between them, across the garden and up the slight hill to the tree where Ron waited. When Hermione at last stood before him, Ron tried to speak but could not find the words. The couple simply stared at each other, grinning ear to ear while wiping at their eyes. Ron became aware of his mother, who was sobbing so hard that it looked as though she was being held in her seat by his father's arm around her. And standing across from him, Ron noticed that Ginny, too, had tears streaking down her cheeks, but her eyes were set solely on Harry, whose gaze returned the same desperate kind of devotion that Ron felt for Hermione in that moment.
"W-Well," said Hermione, who had turned her wide smile to Ginny. "What are you waiting for?"
Ginny spluttered a single laugh and stepped forward to fling her arms around Harry, who met her with a passionate kiss. The crowd roared its approval, cheering on the couple that had saved them all, as Ron and Hermione added their applause.
The ceremony was brief – or rather, it seemed short to Ron, who focused only on Hermione's glowing face and was largely unaware of the proceedings until prodded to recite his vows. But he would never forget the joyous tears in Hermione's eyes as she said, "I do," or their incredible first kiss as man and wife.
Ginny Weasley struggled to focus on her duties as maid-of-honor and not on the boy who had once again come back to her, this time to stay. Thankfully, Harry stuck by her side and helped usher the bride and groom from place to place, otherwise Ginny was sure that she would have abandoned her brother and new sister-in-law to find Harry and settle into some quiet, secluded spot where they might never have been heard from again. She and Harry led the new Mr. and Mrs. Weasley through the mass of mingling guests, who all filed forth to convey their congratulations. The happy day seemed to shine even more brightly against the backdrop of the dark times they were leaving behind. As Ginny was met with countless smiles, it was hard to believe that she still stood in the same world in which she had spent years in constant danger; where she had been forced to endure the ruthless rule of the Carrows, live as a prisoner in her own home, and suffer the loss of loved ones. But as she constantly exchanged glances and fleeting touches with one such person she had believed lost, it began to sink in that this truly was her world now, one filled with boundless love and hope instead of dread and despair.
Only a month ago Ginny could barely manage to leave her bed, but she had finally reclaimed her strength and had at last stood at Harry's side, proving to herself and others that she belonged there. But as overjoyed as she was to have Harry – and she could barely fathom the enormity of the opportunity they had been given – Ginny's heart also swelled for her family. She shuddered as she thought back to the private goodbyes they had exchanged before heading to Hogwarts, when it seemed impossible that they would all make it through the day alive. But here were her mother and father as happy as Ginny had ever seen them as they greeted guests, never letting go of each other's hands. George was chatting up a group of pretty witches with Percy at his side looking awkward but eager. Charlie laughed heartily with Hagrid, and Bill – whose scarred face Harry had at last returned to normal with the power of the Elder Wand – held his daughter close and stared unblinkingly into his wife's misty gaze. And although there would always be a hole in the family where Fred should be, his absence was not as keenly felt now that they knew him to be happy and at peace.
As the celebration continued, Ginny's day was a blur of laughter and smiling faces, even among those who still bore painful injuries. Many people approached Harry to express their gratitude for all that he had done, and to thank Ginny too, for the role she had played in the Dark Lord's defeat. But no one pressed the couple for further details, and seemed content to simply and respectfully express their appreciation.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye it was time to eat, and Ginny and Harry helped set the many rows of tables that, as with the chairs during the ceremony, were not nearly enough to seat everyone. It would have been impossible for even Mrs. Weasley to feed so many with so little time to prepare, but thankfully many of the guests had brought their own dishes to contribute to the meal. Ginny and Harry joined Ron and Hermione at the head table and sat as they had been arranged during the ceremony, with Ginny next to Hermione and Harry resuming his place on Ron's other side. Harry leaned forward to look longingly across the newlyweds at Ginny, who chuckled because she, too, felt an almost irrational need to keep in constant contact. But it was impossible for Ginny not to enjoy herself in the continuous radiance of Hermione's joy, and Harry also appeared to appreciate this special moment with Ron.
Midway through their meal, Ginny heard the voice of the old tufty-haired wizard from the ceremony and looked up to see him bent over by Harry's ear.
"Mr. Potter," he wheezed, appearing a little hesitant to disturb the savior of the wizarding world. "It is customary for the best man to say a few words . . ."
"You don't have to, Harry," interjected Hermione. "Really, we don't want to put you on the spot –"
"No, it's all right," said Harry. "It's, um . . . tradition." Ginny could sense the hesitance in Harry; could see the tenseness behind his uneasy smile. She noticed, just as Harry did, how everyone seated within earshot had suddenly frozen with their forks held in midair and their eager faces turned toward the Chosen One, desperate to hear what their savior might say. Ginny knew, as Hermione must, how uncomfortable Harry was with this kind of attention. When, after many moments, none of the onlookers returned to eating and the tufty-haired wizard did not go away, Harry put down his fork and pushed back from the table.
"No time like the present, I suppose," he said. Ron made a motion to halt his friend, but Harry shrugged him off with a smile. He stood, cast his gaze over the sea of rapt faces, and took a deep breath.
"Um . . . hello, everyone . . ."
The aged wizard, still at Harry's side, gently put his wand tip to Harry's throat and muttered, "Sonorus."
"Oh," boomed Harry's magically magnified voice, which now carried clearly across his entire audience. "Well, thanks everyone, for coming. Um . . ."
Lost for words, Harry seemed to stall for time while he looked affectionately at Ron and Hermione. Ginny sat helplessly in her seat, feeling an urge to help him somehow. It really was too soon to expect Harry to address so many people. Harry scratched the back of his neck and began again.
"You know, if someone had told me a day ago that I would be here right now to celebrate something so wonderful with all of you . . ." Harry did not finish the thought, but his point was clear: not many would have bet on this outcome to the final battle against Voldemort. "But Ron . . . Ron knew. He's probably the only one here that made any plans for today." Chuckles rippled through the crowd as Harry smiled down at his friend. "He's always been kind of stubborn like that, and let me tell you, that's gotten us through some pretty rough spots over the years. Ron is everything you would hope to have in a best mate: he's a laugh; he knows everything there is to know about Quidditch; and he's always up for whatever stupid idea you might come up with."
There were more chuckles as Ron grinned and gave a conceding nod.
"And Hermione," Harry went on, shifting his eyes to the beaming bride. "Anyone who has met Hermione knows how incredibly smart she is, but what a lot of you might not realize is that this isn't nearly the most impressive thing about her. She has an enormous heart, she doesn't back down from what she believes in, and despite her extraordinary brainpower, she's thankfully too stupid to give up on lost causes."
"Thank Merlin for that," chuckled Ron, and everyone laughed as Hermione, smiling but blushing horribly, looked down at the table.
Harry's grin faded, however, as he gazed at Hermione and appeared to consider his next words. When the crowd quieted and Harry spoke again, his tone was softer and more serious.
"Hermione, you're joining an amazing family . . . the best one I've ever known. And . . . and I'm sure that having the support of such wonderful people means as much to your parents as it does to mine."
Hermione spluttered a sudden sob and Ginny took her hand. Ron stretched his arm across his wife's shoulders, but Hermione did not seem distraught; rather, she looked at Harry with a solemn kind of appreciation in her watery eyes.
"You know," continued Harry, just as seriously, "I never really had a choice about . . . about what I had to do, but Ron and Hermione did. Most people – most sane people – would have walked the other way when they saw me coming; when they found out what a bad idea it was to be my friend. A lot of people did, actually. But Ron and Hermione didn't. And I don't know that I'll ever really understand why that was – why I deserved two such amazing friends – but I will always be thankful and I'll never be able to repay them because, if it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here today. None of us would."
The crowd sat very still as, for several silent moments, Ron and Hermione met Harry's gaze with fervent looks that clearly conveyed they felt the same way about him. With his eyes still upon them, Harry cleared his throat and again addressed the crowd.
"Like a lot of people, Ron and Hermione have suffered. But like the best of us, they never gave up hope, and never stopped fighting for the happiness they deserved. I wish I could say the same, but there have been times when I thought everything was lost; when I couldn't see a way forward. But as I look at my friends now, together and happy on this perfect day . . . I don't think I'll ever again doubt that better days are always just over the horizon." Harry turned his eyes to Ginny, and his soft smile held the promise of more dreams fulfilled. If she had not been holding Hermione's hand, Ginny very likely would have forgotten where she was and rose to embrace him.
"Well," Harry concluded, "I don't know what else to say except that I love you both, and that I couldn't be happier for you today." Harry raised his glass, and hundreds more followed his into the air. "To Ron and Hermione."
Everyone repeated the toast and drank, then applauded enthusiastically as the couple stood to trade hugs with Harry. With effort, Ginny remained in her chair. But when the three retook their seats, she leaned forward to catch Harry's eye from across the table and mouthed the words I love you. A wide grin lit Harry's face, and he mouthed back I love you, too.
As soon as they could leave the head table without being impolite, Ginny and Harry cut short their meals and stuck together for the rest of the day's events. They were the first to join Ron and Hermione on the orchard's makeshift dance floor after the newlyweds shared their first dance, and Ginny laughed delightfully at Harry's enthusiastic impromptu moves, which he performed with no care at all for those who might be watching. They stayed for song after song, no matter how much their feet began to ache, reveling in this magical moment that encapsulated everything good about their world. Family and friends twirled around them, laughing and acting as though the dark days were already well behind them. Ginny would have sworn that she actually heard professor McGonagall giggle as she danced past with professor Flitwick, who came only to her knees. And Luna, who had Neville copying all of her oddest dance moves, seemed just like her old self. Surrounded by everyone she loved at the happiest she could ever remember seeing them, Ginny wished that those moments would never end. But when the music slowed and Harry held her close, Ginny thought back to their last dance under the stars and found herself longing to leave, to find someplace where she and Harry could be quite alone and remain undisturbed for the remainder of the day.
When they had at last exhausted every ounce of energy, Ginny and Harry collapsed at a nearby table filled with several old schoolmates. They talked Quidditch with some of their Gryffindor teammates and reminisced with Seamus and Dean about their happier times at Hogwarts, with any past animosity between Ginny's ex-boyfriend and the love of her life forgotten.
Ginny left Harry's side just once more to join the other single witches in an attempt to catch Hermione's bouquet. Dozens of girls gathered, but Ginny was determined to win and had gotten to the spot early to secure a position at the front of the crowd. Hermione gave Ginny a pointed look as if to say it's coming your way before she turned and tossed the bouquet over her shoulder, but as it turned out, Ginny did not need her help. After Ginny had leapt forward and caught the flowers, it took her several seconds to realize that many onlookers were laughing, and another few moments to figure out why. All of the other girls were still several steps behind her, packed tightly together and clamoring indignantly as they pressed uselessly against some kind of invisible wall. Ginny spotted Harry leaning against a nearby tree with his hands in his pockets, and did not need his guilty smile to guess that wandless magic was at work. Jostling for position against the other girls had enflamed Ginny's competitive fire to such a degree that she felt a fleeting impulse to scold Harry for helping her win, but when she reached him, she instead responded to his gesture with such passionate snogging that her mother had to eventually be sent to pry her off him.
A middle-aged wizard who Ginny did not know had brought a camera and offered to act as the wedding photographer, and he had taken many shots throughout the day of Ron and Hermione posed with various groups of guests. It wasn't until the sun had almost set, however, that everyone from Ginny's family managed to gather for one last photo with the couple before they left for Shell Cottage, which Bill and Fleur had offered to the newlyweds for their wedding night. Bone-tired but still beaming, Ron and Hermione stood patiently in the center while Mrs. Weasley worked to direct her distracted sons into the perfect positions around them. Eventually, Mr. Weasley stood by Ron and Mrs. Weasley by Hermione, with Charlie, Percy, and George crowded onto one side and Bill, Fleur, and Victoire on the other. At her mother's instructions, Ginny stood in the very middle, her short frame doing little to obscure the bride and groom behind her. Everyone smiled and stilled as the photographer raised his camera.
"Wait!" cried Ginny, who suddenly noticed someone missing. She walked past the photographer to stop at the boy standing sheepishly a few steps behind him, who watched the Weasleys as he so often did, with the wonder of a child who had grown up never knowing a father's pride or a mother's kiss.
"Harry," Ginny said softly, "you're a part of this family, too." She held out her hand and Harry took it amid calls from the others to come join them. He smiled gently and let Ginny lead him back to the group, where Ron and Hermione reached out to pull them both into the center of the shot. As Harry looked into the lens of the camera, Ginny glanced sideways to see tears welling up in his eyes. She clenched his hand tighter and, a second before the flashbulb popped, whispered into his ear.
"You're home now, Harry."
Harry Potter's stomach growled as he breathed in the delicious scent of the sausages that hissed and popped in the pan. During the month that followed the wedding, Harry had spent many mornings discovering that he enjoyed cooking when it was for someone who, unlike the Dursleys, appreciated his efforts. He was finding many new joys in simple, everyday things now that his days were no longer overshadowed by past burdens.
Harry was dressed only in pajama bottoms that hung low and loose around his hips, and the late-morning sun shone through the kitchen window to tint his bare skin with a honeyed hue. He glanced out at the rolling green hills and pictured where the Burrow must be, low enough in the distant valley to just barely be out of sight. It was comforting to know that the Weasleys were so close, but Harry was also glad to have a bit of privacy, which had been the whole point of building he and Ginny their own home.
The entire family had tackled the project almost immediately after the wedding, following two straight nights in which Harry and Ginny forgot to cast silencing charms upon their shared bedroom. The Weasleys were fairly forgiving of those embarrassing indiscretions, but everyone agreed that it would be best for the couple – who could not keep their hands off each other – to be on their own for a while. Their new home wasn't much to look at – a single-story, one-bedroom version of the Burrow, just as rickety and held together mostly by magic – but for Harry, who had known nothing but indescribable happiness there, it was the best house he had ever been in.
He heard the soft release of bedsprings from the other side of the wall, followed by the slow patter of Ginny's bare feet across their bedroom floor, but held back on looking toward the doorway to savor the effect of seeing her for the first time that day.
"Mmmmm," came an appreciative moan. "Something smells really good . . ."
Smiling, Harry finally allowed himself to take his first full look at Ginny, who stood in the kitchen entrance looking deliciously disheveled. She wore only the matching top to Harry's trousers, which rose high on her naked thighs as she yawned and stretched her arms high above her head. Harry basked in this image of perfection while the tiny part of his brain that was still capable of rational thought marveled at how her effect on him had not lessened one bit after weeks of having her all to himself. Instantly, his hunger took a backseat to other cravings.
"Watch your sausage," said Ginny, and – following her line of sight – Harry hastily pulled the pan from the stove as his breakfast began to burn.
"Thanks," he chuckled, making sure to keep his eyes away from Ginny's glorious distraction until he had properly handled his hot items. He sat the pan on the cutting board just in time, before Ginny pressed against his back and slid her hands around his chest.
"Wait'll I tell Witch Weekly that the Chosen One can cook," she teased.
"I thought you were saving all of these juicy details for your tell-all book . . . ?"
"That's not until later; this would just be for a few galleons to tide me over until I join the Harpies."
Harry laughed. They played this game often, randomly choosing different plans and possible careers, because for the first time in their lives anything seemed possible.
"Well," Harry countered, "when I'm Minister of Magic, I'll pass publishing decree thirty-seven which prevents that boring ol' git Harry Potter from appearing in newspapers or magazines ever again."
"Ooh, Minister of Magic – I like that. Much more ambitious than driving the Knight Bus."
Harry chuckled at the mention of his previously proclaimed ambition. "Who says I can't do both?"
Ginny laughed and kissed his cheek before she took a seat at the room's tiny dining table. Harry sorted the sausages and several other breakfast items onto two plates, which he then placed on the table next to a pair of glasses filled with juice. He sat across from Ginny but did not join her when she began to eat.
"What?" asked Ginny, who stopped chewing when she noticed him staring at her.
"Nothing," said Harry, who smiled as he lowered his eyes to his plate and picked up his fork. "It's just that I'd forgotten that you still look this good with clothes on."
Ginny grinned. The couple had not worn a stitch of clothing for the entirety of the previous day, whether they were indoors or outside flying their brooms, simply because they did not have to. They spent every moment living in excess – they ate mountains of sweets, played countless games, and made love whenever and wherever the mood struck them. Since neither of them had enjoyed the full, unbridled exuberance of a normal childhood, they made up for it now by indulging every whim and craving that came their way.
"Well, I wish I could say the same," said Ginny, "but I much prefer you without those trousers on."
Harry caught the mischievous sparkle in Ginny's eyes, but steeled himself against its power – his usual lack of self-control had led to many of his best breakfasts being wasted.
"Well," he reasoned, "they don't have to stay on all day . . ."
"Actually, they do," sighed Ginny as she returned to her plate. "Ron and Hermione get back today, remember? Mum wants us all at the Burrow by noon to welcome them home."
"Oh, yeah," said Harry, and he was so excited to see his friends again that he felt only a faint sense of disappointment at having to temporarily leave his private world with Ginny. Ron and Hermione had not traveled far for their honeymoon, which they had taken as an opportunity to reflect on everything they had been through rather than as a typical newlywed holiday. Ron had hoped to stop by a famous Quidditch shop and Hermione intended for them to visit the birthplace of a renowned magical historian, but their trip was to have also included a visit to the ruins of Hermione's family home to search for salvageable belongings, and – with the aid of ministry officials – a proper burial for her parents. Harry and Ginny had offered to join them for the funeral, but Hermione preferred to work through things alone, with only Ron's crucial support.
Ginny, like Harry, must have also been wondering how their friends' trip had gone, because the two of them ate silently for a minute before she introduced a new topic.
"Did I tell you that dad said more reporters had come by the house?"
"Brilliant," sighed Harry. "What is that, a dozen times already? I don't see why your dad won't just let me put some extra charms over the Burrow; those prats from the Prophet wouldn't be able to get within a hundred feet."
"Don't worry about it," said Ginny with an airy wave of her fork. "Dad gets a laugh out of them never knowing that you're cuddled up here with me just a stone's throw away. But I was going to tell you that George caught Rita Skeeter buzzing around the broom shed and, well, he reckons that she still smells like Stinksap. Since he and Percy reopened the joke shop, George has taken to testing out his new products on anyone who comes looking to get the scoop on you."
Harry's frown curled into a smile. "Well, I guess that's all right, then. If George can come up with something strong enough to repel a pest like Rita Skeeter, then even the gnomes in the garden won't stand a chance."
"I think he probably could have gotten rid of those ages ago," chuckled Ginny, who stood and collected their empty dishes as Harry took his last bite. His eyes followed her to the sink where she sat the dishes on the counter, picked up the top plate, and put it under the tap. Ginny began to hum a soft melody as she worked, occasionally shifting her weight from one fair, flawless leg to the other while her hair glinted copper in the golden rays of sunlight.
As it so often happened during mundane moments like this, Harry was struck with a sudden, intense feeling of love for the woman he could still scarcely believe was his to hold onto. He pushed back his chair, stepped softly to Ginny's side, and reached into the stream of water to gently pull the plate from her fingers. When she turned to face him, Harry met her with a slow, burning kiss.
Water continued to flow from the faucet as the couple conveyed the depth of their feelings through each brush of their lips and every feather-light touch, but when Ginny slid her hands down Harry's back to dip her fingertips inside the waistband of his trousers, his feelings of tender affection began to take on a new edge.
"How . . . how long before we have to leave?" he asked, panting a little as he pulled away. Ginny glanced over his shoulder at a clock hung on the opposite wall, and groaned.
"Not long," she sighed. "We'd better start getting ready or we'll be late."
It was torture for Harry to end this, but it helped him somewhat to see that it bothered Ginny just as much. He blew out a deep breath that turned into a chuckle, and then gave her a weak smile.
"Well, I suppose this will have to wait, then."
Ginny bit her bottom lip and continued to gaze up at him with hungry eyes.
"Although," said Harry as he spotted a faint glimmer of hope, "we're going to need a shower before we go . . ."
A wicked grin grew across Ginny's face, and then she grabbed Harry's wrist and pulled him across the house so fast that he nearly had to run to keep up with her. They stumbled through the bathroom door and, just as they had done every day since their new life began, made the most of every minute.
Harry knew the time would come when he would want to rejoin society – to find his new place in the wizarding world – but he was in no hurry. He was happy, content, and desperately in love.
The rest of his life could wait; he had all the time in the world.