I know I promised not to leave the house, but they're threatening to hurt Andromeda and will go after Teddy next, and I know neither of us wants that. You were right when you said I should have never lied to you. I should have asked for help immediately, and if I had, maybe we could have avoided all this. Let me atone for my mistakes now and do this one thing right, please?
It's been fairly obvious that they're after you. They probably will blackmail you, but don't turn yourself in, Harry. I know I have no right to ask that of you, but don't do it; it's not worth your life.
I'm so sorry I had to break my word again. Can you tell the others that I'm sorry? I really had no choice.
"Yes, that's good, and remember to hold on tight, okay? Now, when you want to get going, lean forward – but only a little at first, you need to get the feel of it –"
"Harry, what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be at the party?"
"Oh, Hermione, hi. Teddy's having a flying lesson." Harry reluctantly turned around to face his friend after she had interrupted him. He didn't let go of Teddy's shoulder, though; he kept a firm grip, as Teddy was hovering in the air on Harry's old Firebolt. The broom was a little too fast for a four-year-old, but Harry reckoned it was the best he had to offer; he had another one, too, but that was newer and faster, and he needed it for himself in case Teddy got too excited and forgot his instructions.
"You're teaching him to fly on the same day Molly's holding your birthday party?" asked Hermione, in tones that weren't surprised or accusing at all, but gentle instead. She knew him too well.
"The party looked like it would go on without us," replied Harry with a casual shrug. "Listen, I'll take Teddy in the air for a while and talk to you then, if that's all right with you?"
At Hermione's nod, Harry turned back to his godson and started the commentary again. Fifteen minutes later, he and Teddy were landing next to Hermione.
"That was really good for a first time, Teddy! I think you're a natural," praised Harry, ruffling the bright yellow hair of the excited little boy after Teddy was safely off the broom. "Now, what do you reckon, should we go back to the party? Your grandmother would probably like to make sure you didn't fall off."
Teddy's wide grin didn't diminish in the slightest when he handed the Firebolt back to Harry and started skipping back towards the Burrow, well ahead of the adults.
"Teddy, slow down a little or you'll be out of sight!" Harry called out, quickly going after him, and Teddy gave his godfather a sheepish smile before slowing his pace to a bouncing walk. Next to Harry, Hermione smiled.
"You and Andromeda are really careful with him these days," she remarked. "We're inside the wards now, and he knows not to go too far from you."
"Well, yeah, I think I've had enough of putting him in danger, and it would kill Andromeda if anything happened to him. You've seen how she's been after the whole ordeal with Fenwick," said Harry, shaking his head slightly. Andromeda's obsessive behaviour would worry him if he wasn't inclined to do the same: anywhere she and Teddy went, Andromeda would constantly be looking over her shoulder. She would let her grandson go nowhere without her unless Harry was with him. It wasn't good for her to feel so stressed constantly, but Harry didn't know what to say to put her mind at ease.
No matter where he was or who he was with, he was watching his surroundings. It had been ingrained to him before, but it had grown worse, and now he found himself aware of everything around him, all the time. When he had been declared healthy and fit to work again, a month after Fenwick's arrest, he had even considered getting a hipflask for a brief second - at least until he realised he was acting a little too much like Mad-Eye Moody. The tension wouldn't leave him, however, and he compulsively kept an eye on everything. It was even worse whenever he was with Teddy.
"You know, you would make a wonderful father, Harry," said Hermione with a soft smile. Harry let out a strained laugh. "No, really. You're great with Teddy."
"It doesn't mean I'd do well with having children of my own. Besides, I'd need to have someone to have them with," retorted Harry, eliciting a sigh from his friend.
"People are talking about the fact that Ginny hasn't got a ring. It's practically public information that you were going to propose before she left," she said, shaking her head. "I think it's a small miracle you're even living together."
"She's still Ginny." Harry's voice took on a defensive edge even though he didn't mean to defend anything. Hermione wasn't attacking him, after all. "I mean, I suppose it's a big step to instantly ask her to move in with me, but she's still the woman I thought I'd marry. We haven't really changed, and we love each other and all, we just need to work through... a few things. It's easier if we're in the same house while we do it. And I think everyone knows we're not about to give up - she went through all what she did for me, and even that wouldn't drive me away, so..."
"You just need to really learn to trust her again and she needs to believe she's forgiven." Hermione knew them too well.
"Yeah. Besides, I can't give her a ring when I haven't got one," muttered Harry, fixing his gaze on Teddy's back to avoid seeing Hermione's expression. Her faint gasp said enough.
"You said you couldn't bring yourself to get rid of the ring! What happened?" Hermione sounded aghast, and it strengthened Harry's resolve not to look at her.
"Fenwick. You know how Ginny left me notes in the box where I kept it? Well, he read the notes and decided not to take them, but he did take the ring. I suppose that was another message from him. He wanted me to know he'd seen them all, and perhaps he thought that was one more way to hurt me," he replied. "I don't really mind, though. I'll just get another one if I need it."
Hermione was quiet for a short moment, and apparently decided to change the subject.
"You didn't tell me why you chose to give Teddy a flying lesson now," she said, prodding gently. "The Weasleys are trying to apologise and you disappeared."
"They don't need to throw me a party to apologise," retorted Harry shortly.
"You won't let them say they're sorry or do anything else. They're running out of ideas," Hermione pointed out, and Harry shrugged.
"They don't need to apologise. They're her family. If she breaks up with me, they shouldn't feel bad for not taking my side," he told her. Quite honestly, he was surprised this was the first time Hermione had brought it up, seeing that he had been denying all attempts of apologies ever since he had woken up in St. Mungo's.
"They feel bad for having taken sides in the first place. This is just hurting people, Harry. Let them do it if it means so much to them, please," she asked, and Harry was finding it hard to tell her no, although he very much wanted to.
He had come to think of the Weasleys as his family, too. He had thought they were close enough, and yet when Ginny left him, even if she assured everyone multiple times that it wasn't because of Harry, they had cast him out. Some had done it faster and smoother than others, and in the end Ron and George had been the only ones who were still friends with him. Yes, he had felt hurt and betrayed, but he didn't want apologies. He wanted to move on and forget it and try to learn from it.
The Weasleys didn't see it that way, and at first Harry had just wanted to stick to his rule of no asking for forgiveness. Then it had turned into some sort of a game for the brothers, and Harry didn't find it amusing at all. When it had gone on for a few days, he wouldn't let them say they were sorry because he didn't know what he would have said in response. Molly and Arthur had long since been absolved, but they still felt the need to somehow make it all up to him, and that, too, was getting tiresome.
A part of him was still resentful, even more so after Fenwick had been arrested and Ginny had moved in with him. The man who had started it all was locked up and that hadn't made him feel any better, and Harry knew it would be counterproductive to give his girlfriend the silent treatment. He couldn't take his frustrations out on men who were in prison, and he knew from experience that he couldn't properly function without Ginny, so it only left him Bill, Charlie and Percy. It was childish, and against most of his principles, but he was taking it out on them anyway, even if it was just by not letting them apologise.
"I know I'm being a git," was his only response to his friend, and Hermione seemed to notice he wasn't promising to play nice. She sighed again and shot him an exasperated look, but didn't say anything as they were now within Teddy's hearing range. The little boy had stopped to wait for his godfather right by the Weasleys' garden. Harry smiled, but the expression froze on his face: Ginny was standing right next to Teddy. Her arms were crossed over her chest, but her stance wasn't angry. It was more like that of an unsure person attempting to form a shield with her arms, or someone who was cold and trying to keep from shivering.
The thing that struck Harry the most, however, was the look on her face. The corners of her mouth were turned slightly upwards in a soft smile, but her eyes were sad. She seemed exhausted.
Gently but firmly, Harry ushered Teddy and Hermione to go on without him. It appeared that he would need a little time alone with Ginny.
"I was wondering where you were," said Ginny, keeping her voice at a low murmur. Harry stepped closer instinctively; he wasn't sure if it was because he wanted to be sure he heard her, or only because he wanted to be closer. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
"I was with Teddy," replied Harry, mimicking her and keeping his voice down. "Flying. I'm sorry I didn't say I was going."
"Nah, it's okay. To be honest, I think Ron and I were the only ones who noticed. I suppose it attracted Ron's attention mostly because Hermione went looking for you," said Ginny, and now her smile had a tint of amusement in it. "No offence, but you haven't been the life of the party lately. Even I thought you'd just gone inside for a moment until Hermione disappeared."
"I'm sorry," Harry said again, and he meant it. Seeing Ginny almost downtrodden because he had left for half an hour brought out a tightening in his chest. He recognised the feeling as guilt.
"Yeah, I'm sorry, too. And I can keep repeating that, but it doesn't feel like it's making much of a difference. You say you've forgiven me and you really try to act like it, as well, but I'd rather have you taking it out on me than my brothers. I'd at least deserve it." Ginny's resigned tones were a bigger blow to Harry than the actual words, although they did sting. Combined with her tired appearance, the tone of her voice made Ginny seem defeated.
Something told Harry that his way of dealing with the mess his life had been had made that happen to her.
As gently as he could in his state of mind, he put his hands on Ginny's shoulders and pulled her closer to him. Wrapping an arm around her back, he tried to come up with the right words. What the hell could he say to make this better? How could he explain it?
"You don't deserve it," he finally said. "You did what you felt was right and needed in order to save my life, so there's nothing to forgive, but you already know that - I've told you a hundred times. Your brothers don't need to constantly act repentant, either, because I've always known you're their first priority, and that's how it should be. I'm really not angry."
"Then why are you acting like this?" Ginny's voice had a hint of desperation in it, and Harry bit back a curse. He was getting angry with himself now. He should have explained all this earlier. They had had plenty of serious talks lately, but this hadn't really been brought up.
"Because I'm scared," he answered honestly, and he could almost feel Ginny's confusion, even though he couldn't see her face. He would've had to let go of her in order to read her expressions, and in light of that, it didn't seem so important. "Bloody hell, Ginny, I lost you for almost two years because one man was holding a grudge, and then I had to watch as he was killing you. Do you know how many bitter people are out there? I'm looking over my shoulder now anywhere I go, and it's exhausting. I can't relax even in here, and it just gets worse around Bill, Charlie and Percy. They get too close. I snap easier these days, and I'll probably need a little more breathing room for a while, but I'll behave, all right? I promise."
Ginny nodded, and with a kiss on her temple, Harry loosened his hold on her. He still kept an arm around her shoulders as they rejoined the party and didn't let go for the rest of the night. It was easy to see the tension slowly ebbing away from her, and in no time she was joking and laughing with her family and the friends they had invited. Harry, too, participated actively in conversations, even with Ginny's eldest brothers.
They cornered Harry – and Ginny as well – after he had spoken with Andromeda and assured her that Teddy hadn't been harmed at all during the flying lesson. When Andromeda had made Harry promise not to take Teddy out for another session if she wasn't present, Bill was suddenly tapping on Harry's shoulder.
"It's good to see you two attached at the hip again," joked Bill, talking about the way Harry and Ginny both had an arm wrapped around the other. "That's a sight we've all missed lately."
"Have you got a minute, Harry?" Charlie was there, too, and they wouldn't let Harry get a word in edgewise before Bill launched into a speech. Considering Harry's previous tactics, it was a probably good idea.
"Listen, we're sorry, okay?" Bill blurted the words out quickly, as if he was afraid Harry would cut in and escape. "You've been Ron's best friend for years; you've got him into a lot of trouble but out of a lot, too. You've saved Ginny's life, and our Dad's, and you helped Fred and George with the joke shop. We know many good things have happened to our family because of you, and we shouldn't have blamed you for anything. We're sorrier than you know, and you don't have to instantly forgive us, but it'd be nice if you stopped avoiding us, too."
Harry was, in a word, uncomfortable. A conversation like this was exactly what he had been trying to avoid, mostly because he felt the Weasleys were apologising for the wrong things. It was good to know they felt bad for casting him out, but if they regretted it because they thought they owed him something, Harry didn't want to hear it. After all, they weren't indebted to him in the slightest. He wasn't about to start ranting about that, though; Ginny's words were still fresh in his mind.
"Yeah, I know. I haven't really acted like an adult about this whole thing, have I? I've just thought that you don't need to say you're sorry. I know where you were coming from, and you certainly didn't owe me anything," he said with a smile he didn't even have to fake. If this would make Ginny feel better, then he was going to play nice. It wasn't a hardship; Bill and Charlie Weasley were very easy to get along with when they wanted to be.
For Harry, the conversation still had an uneasy undertone: he hadn't forgotten about the letter of complaint Robards had received when they were chasing Fenwick. However, Ginny's radiant smile, the one Harry had always loved the most, was more than enough to convince him to let it go. At least for now.
Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes was a mess. The windows were still boarded shut, even though the rest of the shops on Diagon Alley had reopened two weeks ago, and cobwebs and dust had taken over the entire ground floor. Harry wasn't interested in the ground floor, though. He was visiting George after Hermione's subtle prompting, and Harry only had to walk through the store to get to him.
George's living quarters were in a better shape than the downstairs; it wasn't clean by any means, but at least the place didn't look completely desolate or abandoned. George himself was lying on a sofa, with his eyes shut and the Wireless blaring next to him. He had moved back a few days ago after having gone back to the Burrow for a while. He had claimed the Burrow had too many memories of Fred, but Harry didn't really see how the upstairs of the joke shop would be any better.
Harry silenced the radio with a flick of his wand, and George sat up, startled, instinctively drawing out his wand.
"Bloody hell, Harry, you gave me a scare! D'you have a death wish, or do you just like to sneak up on people?" asked George surly. Harry shrugged.
"I didn't sneak up on you; I made a lot of noise walking up the stairs. You just didn't hear me," he replied. George lay back down as he was speaking.
"What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be hard at work? You can't have caught all the Death Eaters yet," said George after a moment of silence. Harry shrugged again.
"Hermione said I should visit. I think she's getting worried about you," he said, sitting down on the arm chair next to the sofa. He glanced around; there was a window to his left, and this one was free of obstacles. The curtains were a cheery yellow, and contrasted violently with the purple of the walls. The sofa and the matching two arm chairs were green, and the table between the chairs was bright red. Harry had a feeling that the twins had decorated the place themselves and the choice of colours had been deliberate. A wry thought entered his mind - his Aunt Petunia would undoubtedly have a stroke if she ever saw a décor like this.
"Hermione, eh? What's it to her?" asked George, and he seemed honestly curious.
"I don't know if you've noticed, but she cares about Ron. She also considers you a friend, and Ron obviously cares about you, so taking care of you is a priority because it's taking care of Ron, too," explained Harry, trying to play it off as a no big deal. He wondered how Hermione had managed to talk him into this. He didn't know what to say. "And it is rather obvious you're not doing too great."
"In plain English, that means I'm so pathetic my baby brother's girlfriend thinks I need the Chosen One to get me out of my depression," said George dully. "Well, isn't that a cheering thought."
"I'm not here to tell you to cheer up," retorted Harry, and this visibly surprised George. "And you're not pathetic. You lost someone you cared about and that's always hard. I just came to keep you company. Trust me; it's not good for you to brood alone."
"I suppose you'd know all about that," remarked George with a snort, and Harry sighed. "Aren't you getting tired of dealing with grieving people? I heard you've been helping Andromeda Tonks deal with everything, too. How the hell do you have the time for everything? How do you even do it?"
This brought Harry up short – he couldn't very well tell George the truth and say he was feeling tremendously guilty over every life that had been lost because he hadn't turned himself in earlier. It was the guilt and his loyalty to the fallen that had driven Harry into accepting some sort of a fatherly role for little Teddy Lupin, and the same feelings had brought him to George today. He knew that, logically, it wasn't all his fault, but he couldn't look at all the people who were still openly weeping over lost family and friends without having to turn his head in shame.
Dealing with his own sadness would have been enough.
Harry decided that if he couldn't tell the whole truth, he could certainly tell part of it. This was a part George would more readily accept.
"It's not like that. I'm hiding," said Harry, and George sat up again, incredulous. "Honestly, I am. I don't know if you've followed the news that much, but people are looking to me to tell them what to do, and asking me to help with everything. I can't do that. I mean, I'm seventeen years old, I haven't even finished Hogwarts, and we have a Minister for Magic who was an Auror and a member of the Order. How qualified am I, compared to Kingsley?"
"Harry, you're the Chosen Boy Who Lived. Of course they'll look to you first. Who wouldn't? The way you acted in the Great Hall, they probably think you hold all the answers now," explained George in tones that made it obvious Harry should already know this.
"Yeah, but that's just it. I don't have the answers to every problem. I had a special advantage with Voldemort because I knew him so well. Hell, I'm in Auror training because the only reason I got rid of Riddle was my special advantage," replied Harry. George was quiet for a while, and then he hesitantly spoke up.
"I know you just said you don't know everything, but I have to ask – you died, right? In the forest?" he asked, and Harry nodded slowly. "How was it? I mean – did you see... anyone?"
"If you're asking me if I spoke with Fred, then the answer's no," answered Harry quietly. "It didn't hurt, if that makes you feel any better. And everything doesn't end when your heart stops beating."
"So I'll see him again, then?" asked George, blinking rapidly to keep from crying.
"You will. And you're not alone now, you know. Those who love us never really leave us," said Harry, quoting Dumbledore because he knew the man had been right. There was another long pause in the conversation before George stood up and wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand.
"Right. Since you're in here hiding, you might as well make yourself useful. I think I'll need help clearing up downstairs," he said, and led the way to the shop. Harry knew George was far from feeling all right, but he couldn't help thinking that this was a giant leap forward.
"Ginny? Are you home?" It was the week after Harry's birthday, and he had just returned home from work. At six o'clock, Ginny should have already been there, although she was having a busy week too, as she had a match the following weekend. She wasn't, but there was someone else in his kitchen – Harry was quite surprised to find George reading the Daily Prophet and sipping on a cup of tea.
A glance around the room revealed Kreacher standing by the stove. At least that explained the tea, Harry mused.
"Hi, Harry. I needed to talk to you and Ginny let me in. She said you'd be here any minute now. I'm sorry for the unpleasant surprise," said George, folding away the newspaper. Harry grinned at his friend.
"A visit from you is never an unpleasant surprise," he replied, sitting down opposite the redhead. "What did you want to talk to me about?"
"See, Harry, that is the unpleasant part," answered George seriously. "Kreacher made tea, you should have some. It's really good."
Harry knew that when George was serious and said the conversation would be unpleasant, he wouldn't like it, but he still couldn't help laughing.
"Is that a Weasley thing? The tea?" he asked, chuckling as he got up to go get a mug for himself; Kreacher had beat him to it and was already holding a cup full of steaming Earl Grey up to him, beaming. Harry accepted the cup with a thanks and a grateful smile to his House Elf. "So tell me, what is it that you want to talk about?"
"Actually, a few things. Hermione kind of put me up to it," said George with a sheepish look. "I mean, I've been meaning to bring it up for a while, but I didn't think there was any real need to tell you about it. I thought you already knew."
"All right, I'm certainly paying attention now," remarked Harry slowly, hating the feeling of dread that was creeping into him.
"I've heard you've been avoiding the rest of my brothers. I thought it was just because of how they've been treating you for a while, but then Hermione told me you have more reasons for it," George said, and Harry now knew what it was about – the letter of complaint. Well, he had known he wouldn't like the conversation, anyway.
"Why?" Harry didn't need to ask if George had written the letter, as the redhead was obviously confessing, so he cut to the chase.
He gripped his mug tighter, trying to reign in his hurt and anger. This was almost worse than the estrangement from the rest of the Weasleys that had lasted over a year; George was his friend, one of the closest friends Harry had. George knew how important being an Auror was to Harry; he knew it had been the only thing that had kept Harry somewhat sane.
"First, let me clarify – I didn't complain about you," said George quickly, "I just commented on you having to be so close to Ginny. And, all right, perhaps it was a complaint, but it certainly wasn't about anything you were doing, or because of you. I just – you were going mad. Being close to her was driving you up the wall, and you weren't really fit to work, anyway, because of the bloody injury that ended up almost killing you. So yeah, I contacted Robards and asked him if it was the best course of action."
Harry just sat and started at his friend. This changed things, didn't it? George had never been a truly malicious person. Harry honestly had been about to go insane, thanks to Ginny and her tricks. And George was one of his closest friends. He could hold a grudge against Percy, Charlie and Bill, but this was George.
"And I should have told you earlier, but lately you've been a little... out of reach? I mean, you've been busy, what with work, Ginny, Teddy, and avoiding the most of my brothers. I'm sorry I did the whole thing. I should have known you'd be able to handle it," continued George, all the more nervous now that Harry wasn't saying anything.
Harry was still trying to digest it. It had never, not once, even crossed his mind that it might have been this particular Weasley behind the complaint. Or that it wasn't really a complaint. Robards had said that one of the Weasleys had "complained about the arrangement", and with the situation being what it was, Harry had taken it to be a complaint about himself. His assumptions had been inaccurate, and it threw him off his balance.
He had already taken out too much of his frustrations on the three eldest of George's brothers, and apparently, he had had even less of a right to do it than he had originally thought. And wasn't he the man who had offered Voldemort a chance for remorse? Hell, he'd forgiven Ginny. Besides, this was George.
"All right," said Harry finally, and George seemed relieved that Harry wasn't completely catatonic. "Thank you."
The stunned look on the redhead's face was amusing, and Harry tried hard to keep his expression somewhat blank.
"W-what?" It wasn't often that George Weasley was caught by such a surprise that he was reduced to stuttering, and now Harry lost the battle he was fighting with himself - the smile broke out on his face.
"Thank you," he repeated. "You were absolutely right; I would've lost my marbles if it'd gone on any longer than it did. It's nice to hear someone other than Ron and Hermione noticed. Though I completely agree on that you could have told me earlier, because now I owe your brothers an apology."
George still seemed pleasantly surprised, but he knew better than to argue, just giving his friend a grateful grin instead.
For the first time that Harry could remember, he had entered his office actually whistling, and Ron was quick to pick up on it.
"Yeah, I was catching up with Bill," said Harry, shrugging nonchalantly as he sat down and propped his feet on his desk. The office was a cheerier sight these days; Harry's desk was now adorned with the pictures that belonged on it – of Teddy, Ginny, and his best friends – and the poster of the Harpies was now tacked back where it was supposed to be: in a place where Harry could see it, as well.
"Bill? Huh," said Ron, trying to act normal despite his obvious surprise. "And, uh, how did it go?"
"Good," replied Harry with a grin, and dug a box out of the pocket of his robes, tossing it to Ron. If he hadn't been shocked before, he certainly was now; his eyes were wide as saucers as he opened the small velvet box and saw the ring. "Bill visited my vault for me. That used to belong to my mother."
"Well, that's, uh..." Ron was at a loss for words, and Harry knew why. It didn't dampen his spirits in the least.
"Too much too soon?" he asked, his grin growing even wider while Ron was trying to find the right words, probably frightened of being unsupportive or angering Harry.
"Well, it's been five months, so not exactly, but... Are you sure?" Harry just nodded, and Ron shrugged, finally smiling, as well. "That's good enough for me."
"D'you think she'll say yes?" asked Harry after a moment of quiet. Ron snapped the box shut and threw it to Harry, who deftly caught it and put it back into his pocket.
"I know she will," Ron assured him, and now Harry's smile was so wide he was afraid his face would split in two.
"I suppose we'll see tonight," he commented, again with a shrug, trying to act cool despite the butterflies in his stomach.
Yes, indeed, thought Harry as he glanced at his watch, they would see in about six hours.