Title: Stepping Stones (1/4)

Disclaimer: J. K. Rowling and associates own these characters. I am writing this story for fun and not profit.

Pairings: Harry/Ginny, Harry/Draco, Ron/Hermione

Warnings: Sex (het and slash), infidelity, angst.

Rating: R

Summary: Harry agreed to marry Ginny because he honestly believed that he couldn't fall in love with anyone. And then he found himself falling in love with Draco Malfoy. From there, the next steps may be inevitable.

Author's Notes: This is the first part of a four-part story. I can't say when the other parts will be posted, since the chapters will all be different lengths. The title comes from the steps along the way.

Stepping Stones

Chapter One—The First Step

It wasn't long after the war when Harry decided something was wrong with him.

It wasn't something he could explain, or it would probably have come out in one of his drunken, late-night chats with Ron. Or he would have dragged himself to Hermione, the way he always did when his problems got too big, and confessed it. Hermione would have listened with pinched eyebrows, hammered more of his problem out of him, sighed, and finally given him good advice.

Instead, he kept it to himself and thought about it until he could put it into simple words, where it went like this:

He couldn't fall in love with people.

Oh, he'd tried. Right after the war, it seemed like it would be a good idea to fall in love with Ginny. She was there, after all, and she looked at him with such worship that even Harry, who was oblivious to that sort of thing most of the time, had to notice. And Harry knew that Ron had decided not to object. And Hermione was Ginny's best friend. It would have worked.

It should have worked

But it didn't. Harry went on several dates with Ginny, and still didn't feel anything. Oh, he could smile when she smiled, laugh when she told jokes, and listen in true sympathetic horror when she told him stories about what had happened at Hogwarts during the war. He could hold her hand and smile at the people who winked knowingly at them from the corners of the Three Broomsticks.

But it wasn't more than that. Harry didn't feel the sensation of fireworks bursting in his chest when he looked at Ginny that Ron had described happening to him when he looked at Hermione. He didn't want to kiss her all the time, the way that Neville did with Hannah Abbot. He didn't stare at her, practically drooling, the way Blaise Zabini did with Daphne Greengrass.

He tried to tell himself that everyone was different, and just because he wasn't Ron or Neville or Zabini didn't mean he couldn't fall in love. He would just fall in love the way Harry Potter did it, that was all.

But nothing happened, still.

There was no passion. After Harry broke up with Ginny—he couldn't lead her on anymore—he tried to look at other women. He got drunk and looked at them. He took strong potions and looked at them. He wanked and thought of them. In desperation, he wanked and thought of men.

It didn't work. There was still never anything more than the momentary pleasure. Harry could have gone the rest of his life without dating or marrying anyone, and he thought he would be just as well off.

He wondered if something had been damaged in him when he died and came back after defeating Voldemort. But that wasn't the sort of thing he could ask about. Ron would clap him on the back and tell him that of course that hadn't happened, and then look at Harry with an uneasy glance for weeks or months. Hermione would burst into tears, which would confirm that she had feared some of the same things.

Harry had enough to deal with—Auror training, NEWTs, people screaming in his face for imaginary sins and even more imaginary acts of heroism—without adding that. He just kept the worry to himself and turned it over, wearing it down with the handling of his thoughts, until he could admit that it was probably the truth.

It was just the way he was, the way George was missing an ear. In a way, it was almost a relief to admit it. No more lying awake in the night, staring up at the ceiling, and wondering what the fuck was wrong with him.

And then it became a problem of what to do about Ginny, who was obviously and distractedly in love with him.

"Maybe you should find someone else, Gin."

Harry hesitated at the entrance to the Burrow's kitchen. He'd been coming to see if Hermione needed any help with the dishes after dinner; Molly was still hugging George, who'd announced that he was engaged to Angelina Johnson tonight, and so hadn't done them herself.

He hadn't known Ginny was here. And although it wasn't the best or most ethical thing to do, he leaned against the doorframe and listened.

"I don't want to find someone else." Ginny's voice was quiet, but definite. It was the tone Harry had heard her use when her parents wanted her to do something else besides being an Auror. Harry himself thought she only wanted to be one because he was in the training program right now, but her parents had tried to talk her out of it because she was a girl. Harry could have told them that that was the wrong way to handle this particular stubbornness.

"But what if he never notices you?" Hermione sounded desperate. "I like Harry, he's my best friend, but he's not that observant, Ginny. You could pine yourself to death over him, and he'd attend your funeral politely and obliviously."

Harry scowled and folded his arms. He didn't think he was that bad. He had noticed that Ginny still wanted him, after all. He just didn't have a clue what to do about it.

"Then I'll die," Ginny said, and abruptly laughed, so abruptly that Harry jumped a little. "God, Hermione, you're melodramatic. Who dies of a broken heart outside of romance novels?"

Harry smirked. He could practically feel Hermione blushing.

"I'm just concerned about you, that's all," Hermione muttered. "I think you should find someone else because Harry can never give you what you deserve."

"I think there are some people who only fall in love once," Ginny said in a thoughtful voice. Harry heard a slight scraping sound, as if she were drying a plate with a towel. "I'm one of them. Yes, Harry doesn't look at me. That doesn't mean I need to look at other people. I want to be in love with him, and if that ever changes, I don't think it'll be my doing."

Harry closed his eyes and stood very still. Distantly, he could hear Hermione protesting, trying to reassure Ginny that she could love someone else without being unfaithful to Harry, since Harry had never given her anything to be unfaithful about, and Ginny's calm responses.

He wasn't in love with anyone. He never would be. By that point, he had accepted that about himself.

Why couldn't he give Ginny what she wanted, and make her happy?

And he would gain something, too—a loyal friend, someone who would be happy to be married to him, someone who had shared a lot of the same experiences Harry had and shared the same adopted family. That would be enough. Harry would have wished for love and passion, sure, a grand romance like the one his parents had had, but he wasn't going to have it.

The only reason to refuse would have been if he had thought his damage from Voldemort would make him hurt Ginny—or if he couldn't think of a way to get Ginny to accept his proposal. But he had a plan for the proposal already, and he hadn't noticed any sign that Voldemort's effect on him was really making him behave strangely, except in that one way.

So he opened the door and walked into the kitchen, pretended to ignore Hermione and Ginny's blushes and guilty looks, and picked up a towel to help as he'd intended. Yes, they could have dried the dishes with magic, but this way let them stay in each other's presence longer.

And it let Harry have a chance to give Ginny lingering glances and gentle smiles, while he made sure their hands brushed as often as possible. By the end of the evening, Ginny's cheeks seemed permanently red and she stammered every time she spoke to him.

Harry left the house that evening with a smile. Ginny would be happy, and he would be content. That was enough.

"Are you sure that you mean this, Harry? Because I couldn't bear it if you didn't."

Harry leaned forwards and took Ginny's hands. She sat across the table from him, her eyes burning with both hope and fear. Harry had made sure that he had many candles lit before he invited Ginny to his house, and there was soft, rich food on the table—ordered from the Leaky Cauldron, of course, but at least Harry had chosen things he knew she would like. And there were glasses of wine, and a moment ago, there had been kisses.

Ginny had melted in his arms. But now she was sitting back in her chair, her gaze fixed on him as if he were a mystery that she needed to solve. Harry rubbed her knuckles gently and gave her the truth.

"I want you to marry me. I feel like I've always wanted that," he added honestly. The times that he hadn't wanted that, he hadn't wanted anything at all.

Ginny bit her lip, trembled for a moment as though she would start forwards, and then held herself back again. "But do you love me?"

Harry nodded. That was easy enough to say. Of course he loved Ginny, cared about her welfare, and wanted her to be happy.

If she had asked him about passion, now…

Harry squirmed in his chair. Sometimes he felt as if he was lying to Ginny, but he didn't know what else he could do. She was miserable without him, and she would condemn herself to loneliness if Harry didn't marry her. He knew that. He also knew, since he'd overheard her conversation with Hermione, that she had no intention of changing her mind. So what other solution was there?

Ginny lowered her eyes to the table and sat there studying the reflections of the candles in the wood for a moment. "Can you say it?" she whispered.

Harry bent his head to kiss her knuckles as he answered. "I love you," he said, and said it again after the first series of kisses. "I love you." Another series of them. "I love you—"

Ginny rose to meet him this time, hurling herself across the table and fastening her lips on his.

Harry rose with his arms around her neck, and escorted her towards the bed. He had always known this evening was going to end there, unless Ginny refused him altogether and stormed out the door. The only thing he was worried about was his lack of passion for anyone. He had arousal potions that he could take, but he hoped that he wouldn't need them.

As it turned out, it wasn't a problem. Harry's flesh responded to Ginny's shy touches, and he could make up for his slowness by the fervency of his kisses and the intensity of the way he touched her. Ginny shuddered and cried out soon enough, and then reached out for him as she lay, panting, in the bed. Harry knelt beside it, smiling and licking his lips as he watched her.

He had liked watching her come, he told himself. Surely that had to mean something.

"Come here," Ginny whispered.

Harry shifted over and above her. She parted her legs eagerly, gazing up at him as though he was a hero, a savior, her personal hero and personal savior. Harry shuddered from the appeal and hope in her eyes, and slipped inside her more tenderly than he had thought he would.

Yes, in a way he was deceiving her. He didn't feel the kind of love that she thought he did; he wasn't caught up in a whirlwind romance like his parents or nursing a long crush like she was. But she didn't have anything to worry about, because Harry would be utterly faithful to her. He would never feel that romance or crush for anyone else, and that meant he could settle for second best, while making sure Ginny got the best.

And his body found the sensation of sex pleasant enough, even if his brain still thought it was nothing to write home about, and as they lay together afterwards, panting, Ginny took his hand in hers and started whispering plans for their future life together.

Harry found that part the most pleasant of all.

"Are you sure that you want to do this, mate?"

Harry blinked, turning around. He had spoken with Ron about proposing to Ginny earlier that evening, and Ron had laughed and pounded him on the back as if his dearest wish was coming true. George had been full of good-will since he'd just proposed himself, and Bill, the only other brother at the Burrow tonight, had practically crushed Harry's hand with his grip. Molly and Arthur were still wiping away tears. Harry had assumed everything was settled.

But here was Ron, his mouth set in tight lines. Harry moved aside so that he could lean on the garden fence, too, but Ron didn't. He just stood there, arms folded, his stare boring holes through Harry.

"Of course I am," Harry said. "You know that I broke up with her once. I wouldn't have got back together with her again if I wasn't sure."

"It's just that…" Ron let his voice trail off and stared up at the stars. Harry looked up with him, but couldn't see anything special.

"It's just that," Ron went on, after a silence long enough that it had started to wear on Harry's nerves, "I never suspected you would come back to her. You ignored her for so long. And then you started paying attention to her as though someone had kicked you. Why?" He finally leaned an elbow on the fence, but only so he could stare at Harry.

"I thought she would get over loving me," Harry said, "and then I realized she wouldn't." There. Simple enough, without getting into the way he was damaged from Voldemort.

Ron waited. Then he said, "So you're only doing this for her?"

Harry shook his head. "No. I love her, and there's no one I'd rather marry."

Ron waited again. Harry scowled at him this time and shoved his hands into his robe pockets. He didn't like the questions Ron was asking him, because it made him start questioning things, and he knew that couldn't be good. He already knew nothing would change. This inability to feel passion was just part of the price he had paid to defeat Voldemort. It could have been a lot worse.

Ron sighed and reached out to put a hand on Harry's shoulder. "I was waiting for you to fall in love like me and Hermione did, I reckon," he said at last, his grin breaking across his face. "I was waiting for some grand declaration of love and explosion of passion. But you're allowed to fall in love in other ways, too."

Harry grinned back at him, glad the dangerous moment was past. "It would be hard to fall in love as dramatically as you two did. I'm not about to kiss Ginny before a final battle against evil."

"That was something, wasn't it?" Ron said fondly, and then they started discussing memories, standing in the Burrow's garden, with a mild spring wind blowing past them and the gentle spring stars above.

The door finally opened, and Ginny and Hermione came out to find them. Hermione was beautiful enough for a lot of people's tastes, Harry had to admit, stepping forwards with a smile on her face and her curly brown hair blowing around her to take Ron in her arms.

But it was Ginny Harry embraced, smaller than Hermione but fiercer, and hers was the future he would join.

Cameras flashed madly. Long red hair blew in the wind as Ginny tried to tuck her golden veil over her face and stay in Harry's arms at the same time. People laughed and tossed spells at them that changed to showers of golden sparks and good-luck tokens in mid-air. Harry could feel the bond between him and Ginny pulsing like the purring belly of a cat.

It was his wedding, and despite the press lining up along the borders of the Burrow's protected garden, Harry couldn't be happier.

It had been everything he ever dreamed of, to dress up in the golden robes and walk down an aisle of smiling Weasley relatives to speak his vows to Ginny. The wizard waiting to join them had beamed at him. Hermione was weeping, and yet trying to give him last-minute advice through her tears. Molly had already made Harry glad that the wedding robes weren't white, because she would have covered his with her tearstains if they were.

And Ginny…

Ginny had waited for him, her head tilted back, her red hair tamed and coiled gently around her neck under the silken hood. Her eyes were wide with longing and her cheeks gently flushed. She had taken Harry's hand when he came up beside her and squeezed it, twice, under the edges of their robes where no one would see.

It was everything he had ever dreamed of.

Now they were running back down the aisle of Weasley relatives, and Ginny was laughing and shaking her head as the golden light flew everywhere around them, and Harry gave in to impulse—or the memory of a photograph in the album Hagrid had given him—and snatched Ginny up in his arms.

She laughed and clung to his neck. They couldn't do anything today without laughing, and that was fine with Harry. There used to be a time when he thought laughter was over, the bleakest time of his life.

This was the brightest.

Ginny in his arms, Harry ran down the plush, scarlet carpet that had unfolded over the grass, and past Ron and Hermione, jumping and waving madly, and Arthur trying to hug them both at once, and Bill and Fleur with their two little girls on their shoulders to see, and Charlie tossing them a dragon-shaped amulet that Ginny snatched out of the air, and Molly shedding more tears than Harry had realized could come from human eyes, and George and Angelina letting off fireworks, and Percy looking awkward and smug, and the press clicking their cameras, into the future.

It was everything he had ever dreamed of.

Only later did he realize that that wasn't saying much. He didn't have many dreams anymore.

That was the first step.