This is the first in a post-Hogwarts trilogy. I apologize for killing off certain characters, but it wouldn't have worked so well if they'd still been around.
No sooner had Ron stepped into his childhood home then his mother was upon him. "Lord, dears, look at you, you're soaked through . . . " She relieved them of cloaks and bundles alike, clucking. "It's still snowing out there, then?"
"Like the bloody dickens," Ron confirmed, shaking his head to dislodge the small cap of snow that had settled on his hair in the short walk.
"Language, Ron," Hermione and his mother said at the same time.
He laughed and reached over to flick the snow off Hermione's head, too. One of the nice things about their closer relationship was the freedom to do things like that. Every last Weasley was an instinctive nurterer, and Hermione often proved to be the perfect nurteree.
"Happy Christmas, Mrs. Weasley," his girlfriend said, leaning down to kiss his mother on the cheek. "Where is everyone?"
"Around and about," his mother said. "They'll be in soon enough when I get Christmas dinner properly on the table, see if they won't." She took firm hold of her youngest son's arm and said in a low, intense voice, "Ron, have you heard anything from Harry?"
Ron had to shake his head. "Nothing, Mum. I would have owled you the moment I did."
"Still? When was the last one?"
"November," Hermione said. "From Japan."
"Japan!" Mrs Weasley heaved a sigh and shooed them further into the kitchen. "What can the poor boy be doing with himself in Japan, I'd like to know . . . "
It hardly surprised Ron to hear his best friend being spoken of as a poor boy. Harry had defeated Voldemort, left Hogwarts, and passed his eighteenth birthday in the past year, and Ron's mum would still call him a poor boy. He shook his head and set to the potatoes as instructed. Natural nurterers, indeed.
But Ron had to admit that he was worried, too. Midway through the summer, Hedwig had appeared at his window in the night, a short note tied to her leg. Ron, I'm going to travel for a little bit. Don't worry about me. Harry.
Stunned and dumbfounded, he'd Apparated at once to the flat Harry had rented at the beginning of May, to find it already tidied and vacant, with Muggle money in an envelope on the table for the landlady. Hermione had been already there, as taken aback as he by Harry's sudden Disapparition. After a full night of furious discussion, a scathing letter had been sent off with Pig. Harry, what d'you think you're playing at? Where'd you go? And why in bloody hell didn't you take me with you?
Pig had been sent back from Harry with a reply that said, I'm ALL RIGHT. I've got money, I know where I'm going and what I'm doing. DON'T WORRY ABOUT ME. I need to travel for a little while.
Ron had been been a Kneazle's whisker from charging off to the Continent to look for his best friend, but Hermione had stepped in. She'd noted that Harry had been through a lot in the past year--the death of Dumbledore, Sirius, and Remus, the taxing battle with Voldemort, and the tidying-up business afterwards. It was only logical that he might wish to get away for a little bit.
"Get away from us?" Ron had howled furiously.
"He'll come back to us, you know he always does," Hermione had told him. "And in the meantime, Ron Weasley, you aren't to pester him, do you hear me? I honestly think he needs this."
"If you go after him, I'll hex you six ways to Sunday, I promise I will."
Ron had too much experience with Hermione, both as friend and as beloved, not to realize she meant it. So he'd settled for leaping on Hedwig as soon as one of Harry's infrequent and not-too-informative letters came, sending grumbling, insult-filled letters of his own back at much more regular intervals, and attempting to discern Harry's position from the clues he dropped in each letter.
To his dismay, Harry had just wandered further and further with each missive. From France to Germany, down to Spain to Italy to Africa to the Middle East to China, up to Russia, and the last he'd heard, Japan . . . and that had been a month and a half ago . . .
"Oi, how many people are we feeding, anyway?"
Ron blinked at his brother's voice, and then looked down at his bowl. It was piled high with more potatoes than an army could mash. "Just us," he said flippantly, trying not to betray to Fred that he'd lost track of his peeling. "Reckon it'll be enough?"
"P'raps," George said dryly, appearing over Ron's other shoulder. He lowered his voice. "Anything from Harry?"
"Not since November," Ron repeated.
"Arr . . . Mum's having--"
"Kittenfits, I know." Ron grumbled. "Damn bloody Harry anyway."
"Even Charlie's letter didn't settle her down." Harry had dropped in on Charlie in Romania early on in his wanderings. No sooner had he left than Charlie, knowing his mother, had fired off a long letter detailing the minutiae of Harry's health and well being. It was hard to say whether it had done Mrs. Weasley's worries more harm than good.
"Ginny's got it worse, you know," Fred remarked. "She never says anything, but Mum must dosed her with Pepperup Potion three times since she came home for the holidays. She about took Mum's head off when she heard there'd been three letters nobody'd told her about."
Ron frowned. "She's not still hung up on him, is she?"
"Oh, no," Fred mocked. "Just like you're not over the moon about Hermione."
Ron felt his ears go a little red, but he retorted, "Kept quiet about it, hasn't she?"
"Do you blame her? With brothers like you?" Hermione needled, coming up behind them. "Fred, George, your mum wants some help with the turkey."
One by one, the Weasleys were routed into the kitchen and drafted to help with the feast. The kitchen began to fill with voices and energy, and the smells of Christmas dinner.
Ron kept a sharp eye on his little sister, but she didn't seem to be too much quieter than her regular self. He shook his head. Fred and George were just mad, that was all there was to it.
Most of the food was ready to eat by now, but not yet on the table, and Ron's mum had gone into full battle mode. "George, don't pick at the turkey, go get your father to carve it . . . Fred, the pudding, quickly . . . Ginny, do something with all those potatoes, I'm sure there's a bowl about . . . who could that be at the door . . . oh, Ron, get that, do . . ."
Ron ducked around his father and pulled open the front door, expecting some Weasley relative, come for the feast. But there was neither red hair nor freckles on the tall, somber-eyed young man who stood outside, so thickly dusted with snow that it took Ron several seconds to recognize him.
At Ron's outburst, the kitchen was plunged into utter silence, as everyone stared at the door. After a moment, Harry said hesitantly, "I--I was just in the neighborhood," he hefted the rucksack he'd slung over one shoulder, "and I thought I'd drop off your gifts."
Ron seized his free hand and pulled him into the warmth of the kitchen, thumping him on the shoulder so hard that snow showered to the floor. "Whyn't you tell me you were back in England, mate?"
Harry was destined not to answer, for Hermione had flung aside her stack of napkins and thrown her arms around him. "Oh, Harry, we've been so worried!"
Scarcely had she released him ("Oh, get off him, do, Hermione, he doesn't bloody want you sniffling all over him,") then the twins were upon him, pounding his back and ruffling his hair. "The prodigal boy returns at last!"
Ron's mum shouldered her blood sons aside to get to her adopted one. "Come in, come in, don't be standing there in that draft--Ron, honestly, close the door, did I raise you in a barn? Heavens, Harry, you're all over snow," she fussed, unfastening his cloak and giving it a healthy shake before handing it to Fred with orders to hang it up. She had to stand on tiptoes to brush the remainder of the snow out of Harry's hair. "Lord, it must be--terribly cold out--there . . ." She trailed off as the white beneath her hands didn't brush off.
Harry ducked his head and ran his hands through his wild hair. "I'm afraid that's permanent, Mrs. Weasley."
And so it was, Ron saw--scattered here and there in the familiar bird's-nest were tufts of pure white. There weren't many, but there didn't have to be--against the deep black, they showed up like angel wings.
There was a funny little silence, and then his mum said brightly, "So they are, my mistake . . ."
His dad moved forward to greet Harry. "I am glad you're back in Britain, Harry--Hermione's quite right, we've been terribly worried . . ."
"I was all right, really, Mr. Weasley." Harry looked around the kitchen, and Ron followed his gaze to the one person who hadn't greeted him yet. "Hello, Ginny," Harry said.
She cleared her throat, but her voice still sounded tight and funny. "Hello, Harry. Happy Christmas."
Maybe the twins weren't daft, after all . . .
After a moment, Harry looked away and lowered his rucksack to the ground. "I brought presents."
Ron snapped back to himself, tucking uncomfortable speculations into the back of his mind. "Just chuck it in the other room, mate, we're about to sit down."
Harry stepped back. "I can leave . . ."
Ron goggled at him. "Leave, what are you on about?"
"Leave, indeed! Oh, no--sit, sit--George, bring an extra chair would you--"
"But--are you sure you have enough?" Harry asked as a chair was produced.
"You do know which house you're in, Harry?" Ron asked, nudging him towards his seat. "Come on, we've got enough to feed us all 'til Easter." Ron wasn't exaggerating at all. They had the turkey, his potatoes, stuffing, Yorkshire pudding . . . the list went on and on.
"Tell me, Harry, where've you been?" Mrs. Weasley asked, passing him a plate piled so high that gravity was offended. "Ron says his last owl was from Japan, but you surely didn't spend a month and a half there . . ."
"No," Harry said, looking at his loaded plate with some dismay. "Um. I went to Australia for a little after that, but I spent most of December in the States."
"Really! What on earth did you do with yourself there?"
Harry shrugged, absently peeling the bacon off an angel-on-horseback. "Oh . . . this and that . . . how are you, Mrs. Weasley?" He looked around. "You've built on your kitchen."
"Oh, that was Arthur--"
"I used all Muggle tools," Ron's dad said proudly, as Ron groaned. Dad had just stopped talking about this a few weeks ago. "Just did a few simple spells to keep the water out, sort of thing. Now we can seat all of us in here if we need to, and more besides."
"And we will," George put in. "Fred didn't tell you his news, Harry."
Harry looked enquiring, and Fred's ears turned pink. "Angelina said yes," he said, grinning broadly.
"No, did she?" Harry's smile flickered over his face and through his eyes. "Congratulations!"
"Thanks. We're getting married in the summer--here, probably. You are coming for it?"
"I wouldn't miss it. That's wonderful."
"Yeah, I can see it now," George smirked. "They'll be popping out Chasers by the next March--April at the latest."
Fred's ears went pinker, but he gave his twin a good-natured thump on the head. "Oh, and speaking of babies--"
"Percy," Ron jumped in, grinning broadly. "He and Pen are going to have their own little prefect in April."
"Oh, that's right--they were married right before I--left, weren't they--"
They had, and looking back, Ron realized that Harry had been silent and distant at that wedding, as everyone around him laughed and danced, as much celebrating the defeat of Voldemort as the couple who had just been married.
A week later, Hedwig had tapped on his window in the middle of the night, signalling the start of Harry's odyssey.
"Right quick, wasn't he?" George snickered, still on subject of Percy's impending fatherhood.
"Yeah, never knew Perce had it in him," Fred laughed.
"Well he is a Weasley--"
"Hear that, Hermione? That's what you've got to look forward to . . ."
Ron could feel his cheeks flaming. "Shut it, you . . ."
"Hush, all of you," Mrs. Weasley scolded. She turned to Harry. "Percy and Penny are at her parents' for tonight, but they'll be here in the morning."
"It'll be the first grandchild, won't it, Mrs. Weasley?"
She acknowledged it, beaming. "Well, you know, Charlie and Bill still haven't gotten themselves a girl, either of them--"
"They'd better get a move on," George said. "Look at Ron, he got his girl in fifth year . . . beat all of us . . ."
All right, that tore it . . . but Hermione reached over under the table and grabbed Ron's knee, giving him a significant look. Don't, you're at the table. Reluctantly, he put down the roll he'd been about to chuck at George's head.
Harry looked at them, his eyes laughing like they'd used to, and Ron's embarrassment faded. He could resent nothing that made Harry laugh like that.
"Aww, look, isn't that sweet, Fred?"
"Just like an old married couple, George."
"Hermione," Harry said quickly, as Hermione grabbed the roll basket out of Ron's reach, "I've got a message for you. I was in Bulgaria for a bit at the end of the summer and ran into Viktor Krum."
"Did you? How is he?"
"Very well--he's teaching at Durmstrang. He sends you his love. And Ron," Harry added swiftly, "he sends you his absolute reassurance of the platonic nature of that love."
Ron had to laugh along with the others. "What's he teaching at Durmstrang, then? Quidditch? Lucky little gits, those--"
"Oh, no--Defense Against the Dark Arts."
"He's quite good at teaching, too--I sat in on a class--"
"You were at Durmstrang?" Ron asked incredulously. He remembered Karkaroff being so secretive during the Triwizard Tournament, scolding Krum for letting even hints of the Eastern European school drop.
"Only for a few days. I ran into Krum in Bulgaria, and he invited me there to speak to one or two of his advanced classes--"
Hermione's face lit. "Oh, how was that? Where there a lot of them? Did you have to have a translator, or did they understand English?"
Harry's cheeks went pink. "A translator, and a Sonorus spell for both of us . . . He pulled a fast one on me--'one or two of his advanced classes' turned out to be the entire school. They had to put me in the Quidditch stadium."
Knowing full well Harry's distaste for public displays, everyone at the table burst out laughing again.
Harry, though now red as a beet, laughed a little too. "I was never so embarrassed in all my life--felt like Gilderoy Lockhart in the middle of all that mess . . . Aside from that, Durmstrang was really nice, if a bit chilly weather."
"Really?" Hermione said, frowning. Ron mentally agreed with her--he, too, remembered Krum talking about how much better he liked it at Hogwarts.
"I was thinking the same thing, Hermione," Harry said, "but I think it's become a different place since Karkaroff and his sort left." The shadows were back in Harry's eyes and face now. "A lot of the teachers are quite young--our age, almost. Krum said many of the old ones joined--or rejoined--the Death Eaters during the war."
And they were probably dead or in Azkaban now, Ron realized. There was silence for a moment, and then he said in a loud cheerful voice, "I hope you got to play some Quidditch against him, mate."
The shadows fled. "I did--just an informal match, Seeker against Seeker."
"Yeah? Don't keep me waiting! Who won?"
"I did, and it took me three solid hours. It was a complete fluke--pulled the Wronksi Feint on him and when I pulled up, it was right there, a hundred feet above my bloody head." He shook his head, smiling wryly. Then, as if to deflect all the attention from himself, he turned to Ginny. "You're still playing Chaser, aren't you?"
She nodded, and her voice was steady enough as she elaborated, "We've got a little third year girl playing Seeker for us now--Myra Creevey."
"Oh--Colin and Dennis's sister?"
"Mhm. She's pretty good, but she could use training."
"How did you do against Slytherin?"
"We beat them."
"They steamrollered them," Ron said proudly.
"We were lucky," Ginny said.
"You were bloody brilliant!" Ron turned to Harry. "Lucky, she says, with a new Keeper and a new Seeker, now that you and I've left, and a new Captain, and they beat Slytherin's team--seven hulking great brutes--by two hundred points. Ask her who the new Captain is--go on--"
Harry asked obediently, "Who's the new Captain, Ginny?"
Ginny gave a one-shouldered shrug and ducked her head. "Me."
Harry's face almost split from his smile. "Oh, well done--" and he started asking after the rest of the team.
His story about Bulgaria proved to be his last and only one of the evening. He shrugged off the rest of their questions about his travels, preferring instead to catch up on gossip of home, including Seamus and Lavender's having moved in together--"Not as if it were a surprise," Hermione said, "Seamus is her entire life--"
"His mum's having kittenfits," Ron said. "They're Catholic, you know."
"And I don't blame her in the least," Mrs. Weasley opined. "Religion doesn't have a thing to do with it. Any child of mine who did that sort of thing--"
"I think it's sweet," Ginny said. "They want to be together."
"Well, then, they can just get married, can't they . . ."
"I don't think Seamus wants to be married so young," Ron said. "I mean, they're our age . . . eighteen . . ."
"And Lavender nearly lost him about five or six times during the war," Ginny added.
"Oh, yes--she was an absolute wreck every single time--"
"Yeah, he was always in the thick of everything . . . barking mad Irishman," Ron said. Seamus had taken an awful lot of chances during the war, skating horribly close to the edge of death every time--but Harry had taken more, and skated closer.
And Ginny had not been a wreck, but mere fragments, held together by white-knuckled willpower. And at the very last, when the war had come to Hogwarts itself, she'd walked through what must have been hell on earth to get to Harry when he needed her.
"She wanted him any way she could get him, that's all," his sister said now, still speaking of Lavender. "I don't blame her in the least."
Ron looked at his sister, passing George the buns. At the neckline of her jumper, pulled by the motion, the barest hint of a silvery pink scar showed, and then disappeared. She'd earned it in the Battle of Hogwarts, and it cut from her collarbone nearly down to the middle of her ribs on her left side. Ron swallowed hard at the memory of Harry walking out of the smoke and fire with Ginny bleeding in his arms, saying in a flat voice, "He's gone. Voldemort's done."
Even now it made him shiver, and it also made him wonder if his little sister would go with Harry--if he asked her.
His mum was still vocalising disapproval of the Seamus-and-Lavender solution. "I'm sure her mother isn't any too pleased--"
A rather rhetorical question too, Ron decided, shaking his head at himself. Even if Harry did ask her, and she did say yes, Mum would kill them both.
"Yes, but Mum, times are very different now," Ron said, still peering at his sister. "It's not the same as it was."
Ginny gave him a questioning look and put a piece of turkey in her mouth. Ron shook his head and turned his attention to his own food. There was no use brooding over mights and maybes, and possible relationships. Right now he had other things to worry about--like Harry himself.
"Eurgh," Harry said, wrinkling his nose at the pyjamas he pulled out of his pack. "I think I last washed these in Texas."
"You can borrow some of mine," Ron said, chucking a pair at him. They had been a present for his last birthday, from the twins, and they had pink teddy bears all over.
Harry chucked them back. "No thanks!"
Ron laughed and caught them before they hit the floor. Tapping them with his wand, he said, "Novo vestitum!" and the pattern changed to one of Golden Snitches. "It's something the twins sell," he explained, sending them sailing across the room for the third time.
Harry looked at them in admiration. "Nice job."
"Oh, yeah, they've been turning out all sorts of mad things," Ron said, shrugging into his own pyjamas--black-and-white stripes that made him look like a Quidditch referee. "Food's the least of it, believe me, mate."
A few moments later, there was a knock on the door, and when Ron called out, "Come on in, we'll be decent in a mo," it was Hermione who poked her head through.
"Very funny," she said, and came in. She was bundled in long nightgown, slippers, and her wrapper, and her hair had been temporarily tamed into a braid. Crossing the room, she gave Harry another hard hug. "We haven't had a proper chance to talk all evening," she said briskly. "How are you?"
He gave her a baffled look. "I'm fine," he said. "Really."
Hermione looked at Ron, and he looked back, seeing his own thoughts reflected in her eyes. No, he's not. She bit her lip.
Ron got to his feet. With Hermione here, he could finally ask the question that had been plaguing his mind all evening--all year, in fact. "Why'd you leave, Harry?"
Harry looked from Hermione to Ron, and back again, and then ducked his head. Pulling his glasses off and starting to polish them on the Golden Snitches, he said in a casual voice, "Well, I've never travelled, you know--thought I'd see the world for a bit. It's been interesting--I've seen a lot, and--"
"Harry," Hermione said. "Stop that. This is us, Ron and Hermione."
"Now quit messing about and tell us what's really going on," Ron ordered, crossing his arms.
Harry looked at them for a long moment, without his glasses. His face looked naked and vulnerable. Then he put them on, hooking the earpieces carefully around his ears before finally saying very softly, "I don't know."
"I don't know!" he burst out.
Ron started to say--what? he didn't know--but Hermione shot him a quick, quelling look, and he fell silent.
Harry slumped against the window frame, looking out into the yard, at the still-falling snow. "I've been like this ever since--well, you know."
The defeat of Voldemort, Ron filled in mentally. The strange thing was that Harry, who had always been so insistent on saying the Dark Lord's name when the whole world was still pussyfooting around with "You-Know-Who", avoided it now that everyone else felt free enough to speak the syllables.
Harry's voice was absent, as if he didn't even know quite what he was saying. "I feel--like a boat without an anchor, or a kite without a string. I feel like I've fallen off my broomstick and haven't hit the ground yet, and I don't know when I will." He closed his eyes. "I don't know who I am anymore."
"Don't be daft," Ron said impatiently. "You're Harry Potter, that's all."
Harry's eyes opened and swung round to him. "Yes," he said bitterly. "I'm Harry Potter--I'm the Boy Who Lived. And you know--that's all. I feel all hollowed out now that he's gone. All right--yes I do know who I am--the problem is that I don't know why I am." He ran his hand through his hair, so that the mad white tufts flashed for an instant and then subsided. "And I have this horrible fear that I'll discover that he was the only reason I existed at all."
"Oh, Harry," Hermione said softly. "No, no, no. That's not true."
He looked at her, then, his eyes hidden by the glint of his glasses. "Are you sure of that?"
"Don't be daft," Ron said again. "D'you want us to tell you who you are?"
Harry's mouth twisted, and his voice was unHarryishly sardonic. "Yes, will you? I'd love to know."
"Fine, then." Ron pointed at him. "You're Harry Potter."
"We've established that."
"Shut up a minute and let me talk. You're terrible at potions, fair-to-middling at chess, and the best bloody Seeker I've ever seen. You've got a house-elf's head for alcohol--three butterbeers put you under the table. You're ridiculously loyal--once you love somebody, you'll stick by them forever. If someone needs help, you're there, even if it kills you. You're the eternal friend of the underdog."
"You're not too terribly concerned with rules," Hermione added. "But on the other hand, you've got a sense of fair play that's incredibly stubborn--and then a sense of responsibility that tries to take punishment for everything and credit for nothing."
"Yeah," Ron said. "Could someone explain that one to me?" Harry's lips quirked, reluctantly, and Ron felt a surge of relief. He was reachable, after all. He picked up where Hermione had left off. "Harry, you're not just the Boy Who Lived. You're you. You're Harry. You're my best friend--and dammit, I've missed you."
"Me, too," Hermione said. "Oh, me too."
Harry's voice was muffled. "I've missed you, too."
Ron almost fell over in his relief. Maybe that had been his greatest fear in all the six months Harry had been gone--that he'd lost his best friend to whatever beast was on his back, forcing him to wander through the world on his solitary way. But he hadn't. Harry was in there somewhere. Hermione had been right--he just needed to work himself out.
By the time they'd talked themselves hoarse, the moon had set, and Ron's clock read 3 am.
Hermione finally put an end to it. "It's Boxing Day already," she said, climbing off Ron's bed and making a futile attempt to smooth down her hair. Her braid (with Ron's assistance; he loved playing with her hair) had long ago given up the field of battle. "Ginny must be wondering where I am."
"She's probably asleep by now," Ron said.
"As we should be. Harry, how long were you traveling today?"
Harry thought about it. "I Apparated from Maine to London, and then out here . . ."
"Where is Maine?" Ron asked. Geography, especially geography of anywhere besides England, had never been his strong point.
"On the eastern coast of the United States," Harry replied, stretching his arms over his head.
Hermione was horrified. "Harry! You did a long-distance Apparition and then another mid-distance one? For heaven's sake! Don't you know anything about the dangers of Apparition--you could have been splinched if you'd gotten too tired, and long-distance ones are so--"
"I'm used to it," Harry mumbled, his eyes already drooping closed behind his glasses. "I Apparate all the time--you didn't think I was flying all over the world, did you?"
Ron and Hermione looked at each other, and Ron thought, Truthfully, yes. Harry's Apparition score, while not abysmal, had certainly not been up to the level of Hermione's. But then, Hermione had broken a three-hundred-year-old record in the Apparition exam.
He said, "But you took your Firebolt."
"I took Hedwig too," Harry said. "Habit."
Something was troubling Hermione--Ron could see it in the way she toyed with her hair. "You're--going to leave again, aren't you, Harry?"
There was a little silence, and Harry said, "Yes."
Hermione gave a little sigh, and Ron mentally agreed with her. It wasn't as much of a surprise as it should have been. "You will visit more often," he said.
"At least write!"
"I'll do that."
Hermione said then, "But why, Harry? What can you still be looking for?"
There was another silence, longer, and Harry's voice, when he spoke, sounded a little surprised, as if he'd only just realized it himself. "I think . . . home."