A/N:/b Although I originally intended this chapter to be NC-17, by the time I got there, it just didn't feel right for the flow of the story. Hopefully you can all use your imaginations.
Harry was back outside, sitting on the ground near Dobby's grave again, staring at the sea. Bill had left to take Luna and Dean and Mr. Ollivander to Muriel's almost two hours ago, and though Harry tried not to, he was thinking about why Bill wasn't back yet. And Ginny.
Ron and Hermione hadn't said anything when Harry had abruptly gotten up from their discussion about the Gringotts' vaults and gone outside. He'd been completely unfocused for the last 24 hours and in the back of his mind he knew he owed a thanks to his friends for letting him be.
He hadn't told them about Ginny – afraid that giving words to his hope would cause her not to come.
He couldn't quite get his head around what Bill had told him – that Ginny had been hurt, and that Hogwarts was a lot more dangerous than he'd imagined all these months. It had been comforting to picture her safe in her bed, to pine over his ex-girlfriend as if they'd broken up over some stupid reason and wish he could be with her. Now it was taking all his effort not to imagine Ginny writhing on the ground in pain, screaming the way he'd heard Hermione scream at Malfoy Manor. It made him suddenly angry.
What had she been thinking, not telling anyone what was happening at Hogwarts?
Harry took a deep breath. It would not be a good idea to start yelling at Ginny the second he saw here; Bill would probably turn right around and Apparate her back to her Aunt Muriel's. For probably the twentieth time Harry looked behind him into the growing darkness, wondering where they were. The wind was picking up and he had to reapply the warming charm he'd set around himself. He didn't want to go inside if he could help it.r
And then suddenly Ginny was there. She had approached so quietly that Harry didn't even realize it until she said his name. Her voice was rough and sounded like it hadn't been used in a while. He turned around and his heart stuck in his throat.
She was painfully thin; the cloak wrapped around her shoulders seemed to engulf her even though Harry recognized it as the same one she'd worn all last year. She had a faint bruise under one eye and an almost healed scratch on her cheek, but it wasn't the physical injuries that made Harry freeze.
She looked exhausted, as if she hadn't slept properly in weeks. Having traveled hard with his friends and little sleep himself for most of the year, Harry recognized the way Ginny's eyes seemed to sink into her face, shadowed by dark circles that were her most prominent feature. He stared at her for longer than was probably proper, horrified.
Out of the corner of his eye Harry saw Bill give him a tight smile before turning and walking back towards the cottage. Harry looked back to Ginny, trying to force his muddled brain to say something. If he kept staring, she'd probably hex him.
But she just kept watching him with an expression he'd never seen before, almost as if she was waiting for something. Usually Ginny was all action – but now her body barely moved, other than her hair, whipping around in the wind. Even her hair seemed pale to Harry, and he could barely see her freckles, faded as they were into her face. She looked so . . . beaten, and with a sick feeling Harry knew that whatever she was going to tell him was a million times worse than he had imagined.
He scrambled to his feet. Even if he didn't know what to say, his body somehow knew what to do. Opening his arms he gathered Ginny into them, wrapping her securely in his cloak.
"Ginny," he murmured into her hair.
She swayed stiffly away from his touch and Harry froze, worried that he'd already made a mistake.
But a second later she melted into him, laying her head on his shoulder and letting him support her weight. She didn't move to wrap her own arms around him and so Harry stood there awkwardly for a minute, practically holding Ginny up, letting the realness of her being there batter his senses. He didn't try to think and she didn't speak, but then she shivered and Harry realized how cold it had gotten.
"Do you want to go inside?" he asked quietly. She shook her head.
"I'm going to cast a warming charm then, so we can sit down," he said. It seemed very important to tell Ginny everything he was going to do, to not surprise her. She nodded and straightened, supporting herself upright.
Carefully Harry set the warming charms all around them, adding a cushioning charm to the ground for good measure before slowly taking Ginny's hand and lowering them both to the ground. The charms were strong; she wasn't shivering anymore, but she wasn't speaking either. Harry rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand and quelled the urge to do more – to take her face in his hands and kiss her the way she had kissed him on his birthday and try to make them forget everything that had happened since.
Instead he said, "I missed you."
Ginny nodded, looking down at the ground. "I missed you too," she said. Her words sounded hollow in the wind and Harry wondered if she even knew what she was saying. For lack of anything better to do he continued talking, the words bubbling over before he had time to consider what he was saying.
"I passed the time at night by watching your dot. On the Marauder's Map, I mean. It was the closest I could get to being with you." Ginny didn't say anything but she leaned against him more heavily and didn't move away when Harry put his arm around her shoulder. He wanted to acknowledge her year, her injuries, and what she must have dealt with, but he wasn't sure how to bring it up. She had agreed to come see him when she refused to speak to her family, so that must mean something, but Harry didn't know what. They hadn't been together long enough last year for Harry to learn what Ginny's silences meant, and what she needed from him when she was hurt or upset.
And of course, she'd never been hurt or upset like this before.
Twisting slightly towards her, Harry lightly traced the scratch on her face. She flinched when he touched her, but didn't pull completely away.
"Who did this to you?" he asked quietly.
Ginny shrugged. "I don't know."
"You don't know?" Harry struggled to keep his voice calm.
Ginny shrugged again.
Harry let it go. "What about this one?" he asked, now brushing his fingers along the bruise under her eye.
At his touch, Ginny curled into herself and dropped her head. "I'm sorry," she whispered against his chest.
Harry could feel her shaking against him. He wrapped his arms tightly around her in a vain attempt to calm her. "Ginny, what is it?"
"I didn't mean to, I'm sorry," she said, so quietly Harry had to strain to hear her over the wind.
"Didn't mean to what? I don't understand." Harry tried to look Ginny in the eye but she kept her head resolutely down. She wasn't moving away but she didn't seem to be speaking to him as much as muttering to herself.
Harry cast a panicked eye back towards Shell Cottage, half hoping that Bill or someone would be outside. But it was quiet and the shades were drawn.
Harry tried again. "What are you sorry about, Ginny?" But she shook her head and wouldn't say anything else. Harry held her silently for a couple of minutes, trying not to think about what kind of trauma would be enough to make Ginny act this way. The Ginny he knew fought the Death Eaters and never let anything scare her. Lacking any sort of plan, he began talking again.r
"It's been quite a year for all of us, I guess," he said. "Ever since Bill and Fleur's wedding – before that, even." He considered for a moment and then decided to say it anyway. "I think the only really good day I've had since Dumbledore died was on my birthday, when you gave me your present."
At his words, Ginny shuddered but still didn't say anything. Encouraged, he went on.
"And then Ron and Hermione and I have been traipsing from one end of Great Britain to the other, looking for . . . well, you don't even know, do you? What we've been doing all this time. A lot of people think I've done a runner, apparently."
"I didn't." Ginny's voice was quiet, but sure. "I knew you were doing something important."
Harry squeezed her close. "I never doubted you. You've been on my side since the start." He was starting to feel like he was making some progress; Ginny was sitting up a little more and she's started tracing her finger along the back of his hand.
He wanted to do something more to show her how much he trusted her and how much she meant to him.
"I wish I could tell you everything we've been doing," Harry told her. "You'll find out eventually, I know. But for now, I think it's safe to tell you some of it. I know I can trust you . . ."
His sentence was cut off by Ginny's cry. "No!" she practically yelled. "Don't tell me anything – nothing! You can't!" She twisted away from him until she wasn't in the circle of his arms anymore and when Harry looked at her face, her eyes were filled with pain and . . . guilt?
He automatically reached for her, but Ginny pulled back and wrapped her arms around her knees. She kept repeating "I'm sorry," over and over.
"Stop it." Harry spoke more harshly than he had intended, but he was too frustrated to be gentle. "You don't have anything to be sorry about, Ginny. I'm the one who left you alone at Hogwarts."
"You didn't have a choice, I know that," said Ginny, looking up. "But I . . . gave them . . . I didn't . . ." her sentence broke off in a quiet moan and she buried her head in her arms.
"You didn't what?" Harry resisted the urge to grab Ginny and shake her in an effort to get her to speak. He took a deep breath, thinking. She felt guilty about something. What does Ginny think she did wrong?
"After Ron . . . left," he began hesitantly, "I felt like a complete failure." He paused, considering. "It started before that, actually." He assumed she didn't need him to explain what had led to Ron leaving. She didn't look up, but her shaking had calmed.
"Here I was, dragging my best friends on a mission and I had no idea what I was doing. No plan, no one to ask, nothing. I can't even blame Ron, really." Harry looked out at the ocean, trying to figure out how much he could tell Ginny without it being too much, without it making her upset again.
"You blamed him at the time, though." Ginny's words were a statement of fact.
"I did," he agreed. "And I was so mad that I let myself get reckless. It almost got Hermione and I killed." He touched Ginny's hands lightly, pulling them apart so they weren't wrapped around her legs anymore. "Did you know I took her to Godric's Hollow?"
Ginny shook her head. Harry could see tear tracks on her face. "Did you go to your parents' graves?"
"Yeah," said Harry. He didn't really want to relive the debacle of Godric's Hollow but if it kept Ginny talking to him, he would.
"It felt . . . weird," he admitted. "Not like I thought it would. I thought . . . well, I don't know what I thought. But it was a mistake to go there then. The entire trip was a disaster. We didn't get the sword and my wand was destroyed and if it wasn't for Hermione, we'd both have died."
Harry looked up from his monologue to find Ginny staring at him with a horrified look on her face.
"You went there to get the sword?" She asked in a shaky voice.
Harry froze. "That was the idea, at the time," he said cautiously. "Why?"
"It's my fault," Ginny said. "It's my fault you couldn't get it."
Now Harry was confused. "What do you mean?"
"I tried to steal it for you," Ginny said in a quiet voice. "With Neville and Luna. Last December." She was looking down as she spoke.
"I know," said Harry. "We overheard . . . well, it doesn't matter how I know. But it doesn't matter. It turns out that . . ."
"Of course it matters!" said Ginny harshly. "It ruined everything for you. I ruined everything." She began speaking so quickly that the words tripped over themselves; Harry got the impression she'd been waiting a long time to tell him her story.
"Everyone watched me, all the time," she said. "At school. The Carrows knew we had dated and I was never left alone. I think they wondered if you'd try to contact me."
"But didn't you tell them we'd broken up?" interrupted Harry. Even to him, the words sounded ridiculous. No one would have believed it.
"No one believed me," said Ginny. "Even after I swore we'd gotten into a huge fight and you were dating a Veela."
Harry snorted in spite of himself and even Ginny cracked a smile.
"At first I tried to spend a lot of time in my room, to get away from everyone," she continued. "But then the Carrows ruled that we weren't even allowed up to our common rooms until an hour before curfew, and they conducted surprise bed-checks after that – sometimes themselves and sometimes using a detection spell. So I was never really alone for long."
Harry wondered what he would have done if he'd seen Alecto or Amycus Carrow's dot on the Map, standing over Ginny while she was in her bed. Tried to find out if you really couldn't Apparate into Hogwarts, probably.
He chanced a glance at Ginny. She was twisting her fingers together and biting the inside of her lip. He didn't really want to know any more. The carefully safe image of Hogwarts he'd constructed in his mind all year was already destroyed. Hexing the students, spying, bed-checks – he shuddered to himself. But Ginny wasn't done talking. It seemed that now that she'd started, she was determined to let him know everything.
"It was my fault," she insisted, suddenly going back to their earlier topic. "If I hadn't gotten the stupid idea to try to get the sword for you, they wouldn't have taken it away from the school and hidden it."
Harry stared at her as something finally clicked in his brain. "Is that what this is about? You think the Carrows sent the sword to Gringotts because of you?"
"I know they did," said Ginny with a touch of impatience. "If they hadn't realized you wanted it, it would still be at the school. And maybe they wouldn't have . . ." she broke off, and Harry saw that the guilty look was back on her face.
"Ginny, I promise you, you didn't do anything wrong. That sword – the one in Dumbledore's (Harry couldn't bring himself to say 'Snape's') office – it was a fake. No one knew it, but the real sword was . . . somewhere else.
"It was fake?" Ginny's voice was quiet.
Harry nodded. "Yeah. Dumbledore had his reasons, so he hid the real one. But don't worry, I got the real one a couple of months ago from . . . someone." One look at Ginny's face and Harry knew that she wasn't the silver doe. She looked utterly defeated; not even the news that Harry had gotten the sword after all seemed to arouse her. For lack of anything else to do, he kept talking.
"I was so glad to hear that your punishment was just a night in the Forest with Hagrid," he said. "Not that the Forest is so easy," he amended hurriedly, "but it could have been a lot worse."
Ginny's answer was so soft he almost didn't hear her at first. "It was worse," she said.
"The punishment with Hagrid was a ruse. Snape set it so McGonagall wouldn't get on his case about hurting us, I think. But when we got back, the Carrows were waiting for us – for me."
"Why?" Harry asked, a sick feeling pooling heavily in his stomach.
"Because I knew you," said Ginny simply, as if that explained everything. Harry must have given her a dumb look because she sighed and continued.
"I don't know why they never used Veritaserum – maybe Snape didn't have any prepared – but they were quite determined in their methods anyway," she went on.
"Their methods?" Harry echoed faintly.
"They wanted to know what I knew about you – where you were, what you were doing, who you were with, everything. I didn't tell them anything," she said almost fiercely. Then she seemed to sag. "At least, I don't think I did."
Harry didn't want to ask.
"What did they do?" he said in a dull voice.
"They got inside my head," said Ginny. "They saw everything." She blushed and Harry cringed, remembering Snape pulling private thoughts out of his own mind.
"The bastards," he said roughly.
"They teased me. About you. I couldn't . . . keep them out. I tried though. Harry, I swear, I tried every second. And then, when they were done searching for anything useful, they . . . did other things. To hurt me." She'd begun to cry; Harry couldn't tell if the tears were from anger or shame or sadness and he didn't want to hear anymore, didn't want to know how else Ginny had been violated.
"This was in December?" he asked finally.
Ginny nodded. "The first time."
"They did it more than once?"
Ginny shrugged. "Every time something went bad at school, or with . . . You Know Who, I got called to the Headmaster's office. They thought I was behind everything, and that you were helping me. It's true that Neville and I were planning a lot of underground activities at school, but they usually left him to the Slytherins."
"Oh my God." Harry didn't know what else to say. He turned sharply towards Ginny. "Why didn't you just leave? You could have stayed home after Christmas – your parents would have figured something out. You would have been safe then."
But Ginny was shaking her head. "I couldn't."
"Of course you could," argued Harry. "Your parents could have told the Death Eaters that you caught Spattergroit from Ron or something. I'm sure if they knew what was going on they would have insisted you stay home."
"I didn't want to stay home!" They were angry tears in Ginny's eyes this time – Harry was sure.
"Why, Ginny?" Harry couldn't imagine what her answer would be.
Ginny took a deep breath, then another.
"Because," she finally said, "I had to be at Hogwarts in case you needed me." She looked up at Harry. "I kept thinking that you might need research, or potions ingredients, or to have a message delivered somewhere. I had to do something after I ruined things with the sword and I didn't know if you would suddenly show up and want me to help you. I knew I didn't have any useful information for the Death Eaters, so it didn't matter what they did to me. So I stayed," she finished simply.
"You stayed and let them hurt you . . . for me," he said quietly.
Ginny looked at him and her eyes weren't as blank this time. "Of course." she said. "Aren't you doing the same thing . . . for all of us? No one even knows it, but you are."
There were so many things Harry wanted to say to her then. He wanted to yell at her, tell her it was different for him, make her promise she would never be so foolish again, cry with her, even thank her. He'd felt guilty enough allowing Ron and Hermione come on the Horcrux hunt even though he could see now that Dumbledore had never intended he go alone. To hear that Ginny thought nothing of putting herself in continual danger for him was almost more than Harry could bear.
He looked carefully at Ginny. She still looked exhausted, the bruises were still evident on her face, the cloak she wore was still too big. But she was sitting up straighter, looking right at him. There was a spark that hadn't been there a moment ago. It was a bit of the Ginny Harry remembered from the Department of Mysteries – the one who wanted to fight beside him because it was important to her.
This was the Ginny who let him break up with her because she knew he had to, and knew that her fight would have to be away from his. As much as Harry hated to think what Ginny put herself through, he understood the reason she did. It made his next words much easier.
"You were right," he said, starting to pull her closer to him. "I do need something."
"What?" asked Ginny.
Instead of answering, Harry cupped his hand around the back of her neck and pulled her head down to his. Ginny's eyes opened wide in understanding and Harry could see a hint of a smile reflected in them as he gently touched his lips to hers.
"You aren't going back to Hogwarts," he said. "So there's no way anyone will be able to find this memory in your head."
"I wouldn't care if they did," she whispered back. Her lips were as soft as Harry remembered and his hands tangled in her hair and wrapped around her waist and he as he pulled her close he realized something that had been tickling the back of his brain.
"You smell different," he said. It wasn't bad, just more straightforward, like soap bubbles instead of flowers.
Ginny made a face. "Mum hasn't been able to get to a store to buy the ingredients for the shampoo she brews. I have to use Aunt Muriel's. It smells like St. Mungos."
Harry chuckled. "No, it smells like Hogwarts."
Immediately, Ginny was serious again. "Not this year."
Harry sighed. There was no way of forgetting it. "I guess you're right." He ran his hand lightly down Ginny's back, frowning to himself for reminding her again.
"Would you kiss me again?" Ginny's voice was low, but sure.
"As many as you want," said Harry, leaning towards her.
They kissed slowly, reacquainting themselves with the feel of each other. Harry moved his lips across Ginny's jaw and up to her ear, taking care not to press too firmly on her bruised cheek. She in turn planted light kisses along Harry's neck until the tingles coursing through him were almost too much to bear.
In one fluid movement he rolled them until they were both lying down next to each other on the ground. Looking up, Harry could see the shimmering haze of his warming charm and the blanket of stars above that. Ginny's arm was still draped across his side and he could feel her breath on his face as she breathed.
"Ginny," he said slowly. A thought had come to him while they were kissing, and as much as he did not want to know the answer, he knew he had to ask.
"Yes?" she said. Her eyes were serious, as if she knew what he was going to say.
"At . . . Hogwarts, when the Carrows hurt you . . . they didn't . . . touch you, did they?" Harry couldn't say the words; he gestured weakly at Ginny's waist instead.
She understood almost immediately.
"Oh! No, not that. Not from the Carrows," she said.
"No," she assured him hurriedly. "But some of the Slytherins . . . said things. They could be pretty disgusting."
Harry took a deep breath. "Okay," he said. "Good. Because if I heard that someone . . . touched you . . ." He looked at her. "I remember how I felt when Bellatrix killed Sirius – all I wanted to do was make her hurt, to cause her pain." Harry shook his head to himself. "That's nothing compared to how I'd feel if anyone ever tried to . . ."
"Bill said the same thing," said Ginny.
"Bill could have the leftovers," said Harry grimly. "I mean it." Just the thought was making him seethe inside.
"Would it have mattered to you?" Ginny asked in a small voice.
"What do you mean?" said Harry. "Of course it would have mattered."
"No, I mean, would it have changed the way you feel about me. If someone had . . ." like Harry, she seemed to run out of words.
"No! Not at all – Ginny, it wouldn't have made a difference at all," said Harry. "Except for the fact that I would have had to hurt the person who hurt you." He spoke as vehemently as he could. "I want you no matter what."
Ginny's eyes opened wide and Harry smiled wryly. "That sounded bad, didn't it?"
"Not at all, actually," said Ginny. "I just . . . I wasn't sure you felt that way about me." Her voice got very quiet. "I feel that way about you."
The world shrunk very small for Harry when Ginny said that. He forgot they were outside, forgot that Ginny's oldest (and youngest) brothers were only meters away inside the cottage, forgot that he should really be planning with Ron and Hermione. He stopped thinking that Ginny was exhausted or that she wasn't going to be able to stay. As they lay side-by-side on the ground all that mattered was the two of them there, in that moment, in a place where the hell that was real life couldn't touch them.
The kiss Harry gave Ginny was not quite as gentle as they had been. Her response was not hesitant at all. Harry let himself go while he kissed her. He knew he needed it as much as she did.
"Do you know any good silencing or privacy charms?" she asked eventually. Her cloak was open around her and underneath it and half her shirt was unbuttoned, although Harry had no clear memory of how it got that way.
The innocence behind her question caught Harry off guard.
"Uh, yeah," he said with a wry smile. "A lot of them."
Ginny smiled sheepishly. "Right." When he finished, she picked up her own wand. "We need one more," she said, waving it between them silently.
Harry had never seen the charm before but he knew immediately what it was. "Are you sure?" he asked hesitantly.
"Very sure," said Ginny firmly. "I've had no control over my life for the entire year. This is the first thing I'm able to decide for myself." She smiled shyly. "And it's finally something I can do for you – if you want me to."
"I've had no control over my life for years," said Harry. "Of course I want it. But not if it's because you think you owe me or to make up for something you think you've failed."
"I want it for me," said Ginny.
"I want it for me too," said Harry softly. "But only because it's with you. I could live to be a hundred and I can't imagine wanting anyone else. Ever."
Ginny's eyes filled with tears that she didn't try to hide. Harry kissed away the ones that slid down her cheeks as he covered his body with hers.
For a while they just kissed, Harry lying fully on top of Ginny, his hand cradling the back of her head against the ground.
Eventually he moved off her to give more attention to her clothing, and his. During the few times Harry had ever let himself imagine getting this far with Ginny, he'd always assumed there would be some awkwardness to the moment. Instead it was as if their earlier talk had been the part that was uncomfortable and now that they were past that, there was just . . . relief.
Harry silently kissed each of Ginny's scars as he explored her naked body. There was no need to ask for the story behind each one. She ran her hands over the red oval on his chest with a questioning look but didn't say anything either, just pulled him closer to her and rested her head against his neck.
And when he was finally moving inside her it was as if all of those sunlit days from his Sixth Year had merged together into a shimmering band that darkness and fear and pain could not penetrate. They were safe within each other and Harry knew that it was right.
Ginny sighed contentedly from beneath him when they were through, holding him in place when he murmured that he must be getting heavy. He smiled and kissed her neck and watched as her eyes smiled back at him.
Not wanting to say the words, but knowing he must, Harry finally sat up and gathered Ginny in his arms.
"I think it's almost finished," he said. And for the first time, he thought it might be true. The tasks ahead of him were going to be the most difficult yet, but there was a feeling that hadn't been there before – it couldn't go on much longer.
"I don't know how it's going to end, you know." Harry didn't want to create false hope.
"I know, said Ginny. "For any of us."
"I guess asking you to stay safe and out of the way would be useless," said Harry and Ginny nodded.
"Completely useless. But I bet my parents are going to try anyway."
From the direction of Shell Cottage they heard a door open, and then Bill's voice. "Ginny?"
"He's going to worry if he can't find you," said Harry. "And I'm not eager to find out how good Bill's curse breaking skills are at breaking through privacy wards before we're dressed." He handed Ginny her clothing and began pulling on his own.
"I think he'd be so relieved to see me happy that he'd ignore the fact that we're naked," said Ginny.
"Well I don't want to test him," said Harry. He looked at Ginny. "Are you? Happy, I mean."
Ginny nodded. "I'm getting there, I think. I mean, I know that all of this could end . . . not the way we want, but I feel more in control of things now."
"Ginny?!?" Bill's voice was closer and more insistent.
Harry picked up his wand and began taking down the wards. After a minute, Bill's relieved face came into view. He stopped about ten yards away and gave Harry a questioning look.
"I'm okay, Bill," said Ginny. Bill nodded.
"We need to get back soon," he said, then turned away as if he was looking at the sea.
Harry knew there was one more thing he needed to say. "Ginny, no matter how this ends, or when I get to see you again," (he refused to say "if"), "I love you. Don't ever forget that. And although I wish and hope that we have dozens of dozens of years together, I love you enough now for all of them, okay?"
It wasn't much, but it was all he could say right now. He'd told her he loved her during his Sixth Year, but it hadn't felt quite the same then. When they'd gone out, Harry had kept expecting someone to shake him awake from his dream – to take it all away. And then it had happened, and yet, somehow, he still had Ginny. He didn't want there to be any mistake.
Ginny nodded and smiled, sadly this time.
"I know, Harry. I've known for a long time. I love you."
Harry leaned towards her again, this time for a hug. He didn't think he could bear another kiss – not with her brother right there – but he held her as long as he possibly could. br
"You're going to be okay, Ginny."
Ginny pulled back and looked at him. "I already am