A/N: I have come back. I promise. I am so very sorry for the wait.

II. Aftermath

"Ginny."

He didn't know what to say or what to think. He knew nothing of ghosts, of how the dead could come back as echoes, but here sat the girl he had failed to save.

She had been tiny in life and this had been amplified in her death. She seemed brittle and near vanishing- fainter than other ghosts he had encountered. He remembered the flush of her cheeks when she stuck her elbow in a butter dish, but now she lacked any color at all.

"Harry, I can't stay long. Nick says I can't." Her voice was thinner and higher than he remembered. "Nick says Mum wouldn't…" she stared hungrily in the direction of her sleeping parents. "I'm not allowed to see them. Nick says it will hurt too much. I don't know."

Harry pictured seeing his parents in the Mirror of Erised, and he can't help but agree.

"But Harry, Nick said I have to tell you-"

"Ginny, I'm so sorry," he interrupts. He can't help himself. He feels the tears starting to choke him. "I'm so, so sorry."

"It's not your fault. It was Tom." She trembles. He watches her whole outline flicker in and out of sight and it chills him to the bone.

"Listen, please, Harry."

He nods, swallowing hard.

"Nick's telling me everything, he's taking care of me, I don't know what I would do without him- he said to tell you that I didn't chose. When people die, they chose, they pick if they want to be a ghost, but I didn't get a choice and we don't know why."

The floorboards creak and they both jump.

"I have to go," she hissed out, "I'm sorry, Dumbledore didn't want you to know, but Nick said you needed to. I can't tell you anything else."

She moves through the motions of standing and he tastes bile in the back of his throat.

She smiles at him. "I'm glad I finally have your attention."

It's a punch in the stomach that he thoroughly deserves. She turns and drifts off through one of the castle walls.

He starts to tremble. His mind spins and narrows to the simple, inescapable fact: there is a dead girl and it is his fault.

His breathing sharpens, becomes tight and fast, and his vision starts to blacken.

Ginny Weasley is dead and he could not save her.

The nausea overtakes him them and he violently vomits over the side of his bed. He feels something awful twisting in him, rising up, and it's desperate and sad and he is woefully unprepared to deal with it. He chokes on his vomit and starts to cry.

"Harry! Merlin, you poor child."

He feels a hand rubbing his back but feels disconnected from it. He shouldn't be crying. Dudley hurts him when he cries.

But he is not with Dudley, he is at Hogwarts, where he is supposed to be safe, but he's not. None of them are. He wondered how he didn't see it before.

Harry turns towards the warmth of the person's hands and sees Mr. Weasley. He immediately recoils. This man should not be helping him.

"It's okay, son. It's okay." Mr. Weasley grabs a towel out of the bedside drawer and cleans Harry's face before gently pressing him back against the pillows.

"I"m sorry, I'm sorry," Harry manages.

Mr. Weasley shakes his head tightly. "This is not your fault, Harry. Do not let anyone tell you this is your fault."

Harry watches him stand. He can't read the look on the man's face, but he feels something click into place when Mr. Weasley sadly meets his eyes.

"Son, this war will never be fought with children again."

Mr. Weasley presses him into taking some sleeping potion and Harry immediately falls into an empty, dreamless sleep.

-

He doesn't know when he wakes up but when he does, a Hermione shaped blur is curled up in a chair by his bedside. He gropes for his glasses.

"Hermione." He manages to get them on. "You're okay?"

She smiles. It doesn't meet her eyes. "I'm awake."

He nods. He knows the difference now. He looks around the now empty hospital room. "Where is everyone?"

"Mr. and Mrs. Weasley took Ron to the Burrow to recover."

Harry's chest tightens. "Is he-" he tries to find the words. Does he hate me? Is he still my Ron?

"He's not much of anything. We didn't speak much before he left, he just said he was glad I was okay. I think he blames himself for…what happened."

Harry nods. He doesn't find the strength to shout out his own guilt. Something in the way Mr. Weasley had spoken to him the night before made him think it wasn't the right way to talk about things.

"Harry. Oh, Harry." She grips his hand. He grips back.

"I don't know how to fix this," she whispers, looking slightly wild. It must be a foreign feeling for her, Harry thinks. Hermione solves everything with books, but books can't solve grief.

He thinks about coping with his parents being dead, but knows it's not relevant. Fresh grief is different. His parents have always been gone.

"I don't think we can, Hermione."

They're quiet for a moment when it strikes him that Hermione, as always, can still be useful.

"I have to tell you something that Ron can't know."

Hermione nods, eyes wide.

"Ginny is a ghost. She visited me last night."

To his shock, Hermione isn't surprised. She just nods some more. "I thought so. She is- she was so young, a lot of the time young people who pass choose to become-"

He senses the babbling stream of thought as soon as it begins. "No, Hermione. She told me she didn't have a choice. She said Nick told her to tell me. She didn't choose."

"That's impossible, Harry," she says, frowning.

Harry shrugs. "It's what she said."

And Dumbledore didn't want me to know, he adds silently. That part is private. That part can hurt him on his own. He has a feeling Hermione won't have an answer.

"I can go to the library and look into it."

She seems glad to have a mystery to latch onto, and he is glad (or something close to it) for the piece of normality.

He's not sure what normal will look like from now on, but he still has Hermione, and Mr. Weasley doesn't hate him, and he quietly hopes that everything will somehow turn out okay.

-

Hermione leaves for the library when Madam Pomfrey comes to check on Harry. She is uncharacteristically quiet, and soon sends him along, telling him to go to dinner. He can't bring himself to move past the double doors, however, and heads up to Gryffindor Tower.

The Fat Lady clucks at him disapprovingly but allows him to pass. He sits in one of the squishy armchairs by the fire- and sits, and sits. Dinner lets out and he hears the noise around him, but he is given a wide berth by the other students. He waits for Hermione to tell him what happened.

An hour after the other students flood in she is suddenly in front of him. She drops a formidable stack of books by his feet and sits cross-legged to sort them.

"You weren't at dinner."

He remains silent.

"Dumbledore told us the school would remain open next year, but with precautions. He did not tell us what precautions. He said he wasn't able to explain what happened in the chamber but that he did not want to lie and say Ginny's death was an accident. He told us that we would know when the time was right, but that we were safe. Exams are canceled, can you believe that? I don't like it, Harry, things need to progress as normal-"

When she mentions Ginny a worry Harry didn't know he felt passed. No one should think she had stumbled foolishly into death. But another fear pervaded.

"We're not safe, though," he interrupted, louder than he meant. A group of students went silent nearby. He glared at them before sliding to the floor closer to Hermione. "Tom. Tom got out, Hermione, he got away," he hissed fiercely.

"Tom?" She was confused.

He remembered that Hermione had been in a coma. There was so much to catch her up on.

He spoke quickly and quietly, in flashes. Tom Marvolo Riddle. I am Lord Voldemort. Dumbledore appearing in a burst of flames. Tom escaping the chamber.

Hermione listened carefully, eyes wide.

"He said he'd find him, Harry?"

Harry nodded.

She was quiet, contemplating. "I don't understand," she said. "Did he mean the spirit that possessed Quirrel? If they are both You-Know-Who, how can they both be alive?"

Harry didn't know.

-

Harry is called to Dumbledore's office the next morning. He wanders, slower than he should, through the castle. Half of him hopes to see Ginny again. The other half hopes she has faded in the night.

It's not right, he thinks, that she did not have a choice. She was very young when she died, but that didn't mean she was not capable of making the choice. He remembers Mr. Weasley's gentle touch and feels a stab of pity that Ginny will never be comforted by her father again.

He would help. Hermione would help. They would find out why she had not passed on yet, and maybe Harry's father would be able to comfort Ginny once she got there.

Abruptly, he is at Dumbledore's door without remembering the end of his walk.

"Come in, Harry."

The door swings open of its own accord. He blinks and he is sitting in front of Dumbledore's desk.

"Hello."

He nods. "Hello, sir."

He doesn't know what to say. His eyes wander to the diary sitting on the desk. He expects anger or sorrow at the sight, but he just feels tired.

"How are you, Harry?"

He doesn't know how to answer, so he stays silent. Dumbledore nods.

"In light of…what's happened. I wanted to offer you something. How would you feel about staying in the castle this summer?"

"I'm sorry, what?"

Harry is shocked- completely shocked. A summer away from the Dursleys? A summer where he could stay here, in his home?

"Why? Why now?"

"I would like you to stay here, Harry. That is my wish for this summer."

Harry is confused, but comforted. He is wanted here. Isn't that all that matters?

He nods.

"Is that a yes, Harry?"

"Yes, sir."

Dumbledore smiles. "Wonderful."

There is a short silence that doesn't quite become uncomfortable. Harry senses that Dumbledore is waiting for him to ask a question, and he weighs his options.

"Sir? Will the Weasleys be okay?"

Dumbledore looked suddenly older. It unsettles Harry, but he says nothing.

"Harry, losing a child is unexplainably difficult. Losing a sibling is also…very trying. It will be very hard for them for the next few months and, in some ways, for the rest of their lives. But yes, I do believe they will eventually be okay."

Harry nods. He is still overwhelmed and tired and sad, but if Dumbledore thinks they'll be okay, then maybe, just maybe…

"Are you okay, Harry?"

He shakes his head no without thinking about it.

Dumbledore nods at him. "Of course you're not."

"I just," he can't help the words from spilling out, "it's my fault she's dead."

"Harry. Harry, no."

Harry nods, firmly, reconfirming his statement.

"Harry. This is Tom Riddle. This is Lord Voldemort. This is not you, Harry."

Dumbledore sighs, heavily. "But yes, you will feel guilty for a very long time."

The silence stretches a while. Harry is grateful for it.

-

Harry told Hermione about staying at Hogwarts. Her mouth thinned and her eyebrows rose and Harry knew that she had already formulated a theory about why Dumbledore wanted him there. He didn't ask. He was too relieved to question it too thoroughly.

The rest of the term passed quickly and quietly. Gryffindor forfeited the Quidditch cup after Fred and George chose to go home early, and Harry doesn't mind. Some things are more important.

He spent time in the library with Hermione, who quickly tore through half of the section on death without finding an answer- not that either of them really believed she would.

He didn't go to the leaving feast. Hermione brought him back a sandwich. They didn't discuss it. She said goodbye that night and he did not walk her to the train station the next morning.

Harry wanted to be alone, and the castle seemed to respect it. Most of its inhabitants left, so Harry ate by himself in between napping in the sun and essay work in the library. Seeing Ginny was a constant worry, but oddly, all of the ghosts seemed to be in hiding. Harry was too tired to question it. That's how he always felt- tired. Strung out. He channeled his curiosity into his essays when it bubbled up, but mostly he wanted his mind to remain blank.

He simply did not feel capable of understanding what had happened to him and his friends.

He knew the quiet couldn't last long. He knew Dumbledore had his reasons and he was not in the castle out of the sheer goodness of the old man's heart.

One night, his solitude was broken.

A thin man with shabby clothing waited for him in the Great Hall. He stood when Harry entered, and Harry could not place the emotion on the man's face.

"Hello, Harry," he rasped. "My name is Remus Lupin."