Low waves broke gently on the beach below the cliff. The sea was calm today. Yesterday it had been choppy, and maybe the day before too, but Harry didn't remember. He tried not to think back that far because not much farther back—only a week or a month—were chaos and pain. Before that had been terror and death. To keep the chaos, pain, and death as distant as possible, he had stopped keeping track of the days. They had all become the same, anyway: empty except when people screamed or shouted angrily or wept.
A loud pop interrupted his dispirited thoughts, and a moment later Hermione appeared around the corner of the cottage carrying a small wicker basket and a large bouquet of flowers. Harry nodded to her but said nothing as she set the basket down and sat beside him, leaning back against the pink stucco.
"Hi, Harry," she said. "I brought you some breakfast, porridge and bacon. Charlie thought you might like a break from cornflakes and doughnuts." She gave him a smile and Harry briefly returned it.
"Charlie's making breakfast?"
"Yes. I also brought some flowers for Dobby. Shall I put them on the grave or would you like to? And . . . here's one for you." She picked out a yellow rose and handed it to him.
Harry gave her a questioning look but took the rose. He placed it on the ground next to him, took the bouquet of daffodils, lilies, and other flowers he didn't recognize, heaved himself up, and walked into the garden. He stood over the small mound of earth with the large, white stone resting on it, thinking of his friend lying in the hole at his feet. He thought of all the others lying in their own holes at Hogwarts, at the Burrow, here, there, and everywhere. Some, like Moody and Hedwig, didn't have holes.
He placed the flowers on the grave and went back to where Hermione was taking covered dishes from the wicker basket and laying them on a small green cloth. She paused and looked up as Harry sat. "How are you?" she said.
Harry only grunted. "How are you? How is Ron?" He picked up the yellow rose and gazed at it. "Thanks for this. It's nice."
"You're welcome. We're fine. Ron went into town yesterday and his father took him around to a few departments. He wants to start working. He's not really interested in going back to school." She peered at him but Harry wouldn't look up. He dropped the rose and took a spoonful of sugar from a bowl Hermione handed to him and sprinkled it over another bowl of porridge. He began slowly stirring it, but stopped, and for several seconds sat without moving, staring at the food.
"Harry," Hermione said, putting her hand on his, "why don't you come over today? It's no good, sitting here by yourself. People miss you. People want to see you."
Harry didn't look at her. "I can't, Hermione. The last time I went there everyone was just . . . miserable. After two minutes I felt like jumping out the attic window. I get it that their son died, their brother died, but . . . enough already." He ate a spoonful of porridge and grinned at her. "It is better than cornflakes."
"Mrs. Weasley does cook every once in a while. Her meals are just as good as ever."
Harry shook his head. "I can't. I have enough to deal with. Andromeda came over a couple of days ago, maybe a week, I don't know, and she brought Teddy, and it all came back." In his mind he saw two bodies laid out along the wall amidst the wreckage of the Great Hall, the last Marauder lying dead next to his bride, his final hope of happiness in a tormented life, now ended. He pushed the bowl away; he had lost his appetite. "Besides, I'm not here by myself. Bill is home every evening and Fleur is here a lot during the day."
"And you go off by yourself all day. Bill told us. Harry, when I said people want to see you, I also meant that there are people who need you. You know who I'm talking about."
"How is . . ." He stopped and sighed. "The last time I was there she didn't want to see me, and I don't blame her. When she came back to Hogwarts with everyone, I didn't treat her very well, I shouldn't have told her what to do. And she blames me for Fred, I know she does."
"Harry, no! How can you say that? It's not true!"
Harry shook his head. "I walked out on her twice. Ron was right; I ditched her and then I was too weak to stay away. It wasn't right." He looked at her. "You know what?"
"No, what?" Hermione wiped her face; she was trying not to cry, which visits to Harry often made her do.
"When she pulled me into her room last year, I would have tried to. . . to make love to her if I thought I could get away with it, if I thought no one would bust in on us. I was that weak. Can you imagine what it would have done to her, what she would have been left with if I had been killed?"
Despite her teary eyes, Hermione rolled them, and Harry couldn't help smiling at his friend's mannerism. "Harry, that's almost as disrespectful as you imagine you were. I can't say what her reaction would have been to a seduction attempt, but I guarantee that if she had gone along with it, she would not have a single regret, no matter what happened to you."
"Well . . ." Harry picked up a slice of bacon and took a bite; it was crisp and still warm; he finished it. "That doesn't change anything. She was down by the grave a couple of weeks ago, and I tried to talk to her but she ran away. And like I said, I understand, I don't blame her."
Hermione was silent, and Harry picked up the bowl of porridge again. "So Charlie cooks now. Tell him he makes a good breakfast."
"Why don't you tell him yourself?"
Harry let out an exasperated puff of breath. "I will, okay? Just not today."
She reached her hand out and again put it on his; he stopped eating. "Harry, come to the Burrow. Molly worries about you. Things are very hard for her, but they would be a little easier if she knew you were okay"
"Look, I'm sorry, I know I'm not helping anyone get over it, but I have to get over it too." He frowned, feeling irritated, even angry. "Maybe I should walk around with a list of the people in my life who died, and hand it out when someone bitches about themselves. It would be a lot longer than anyone else's list."
"Harry, that is so unfair."
He put his arms on his knees and rested his forehead on them. "Yeah," was all he said, looking at the ground.
Hermione stood. "Are you finished? I mean with breakfast, not your self–pity session."
Despite himself, Harry looked up with a grin. "Yes, I'm done. I'll shut up."
"Harry," Hermione said, squatting in front of him, "you do owe a lot to the Weasleys. Don't you think you could do something to try and cheer them up?"
"Hermione, you are a pest. Okay, I'll go over later, but just for an hour. I guess I can avoid . . . certain people."
She patted his hand. "Thanks." She stood again and waved her wand. "Pack!" she muttered, and the dishes, spoons, and cloth flew into the basket. "Will you come for dinner?"
"If Charlie cooks," he grinned.
"I won't tell Mrs. Weasley that."
In a moment she was gone, and Harry pondered what to do with his day. Bill would be coming downstairs soon; he usually ate breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron where Tom's chef had a knack for preparing undercooked yet tasty meat dishes. Fleur liked to sleep late, so Harry rarely saw her in the morning.
He sat where he was, leaning against the wall facing the sea. Hermione had made him uncomfortable, and he was certain that she had come in order to talk him into paying a visit to the Burrow, not to provide him with a little variety for breakfast. He probably would honor his word to go there, but the more he thought about it, the more he regretted giving it. And he knew exactly why: he did not want another scene at Fred's grave, or at the kitchen table, or anywhere; he had witnessed or been part of too many.
But there was more. People were expecting him and Ginny to make up, to lift everyone's spirits by being a young couple in love, holding hands, wandering around the countryside picking flowers. Harry suspected that those expectations were part of Ginny's disinclination to have anything to do with him. Besides that, he had abandoned her; he had humiliated her in front of her family and friends in the Room of Requirement; and his actions and choices had led directly to Fred's death. He had hurt her too much.
He stopped himself from going any further with those thoughts; they would only make him more depressed. She simply didn't want him, and if that was the case, he might as well get on with his life. Maybe he would do something different today to take his mind off things, and instead of wandering around the countryside or the beach, like he had been doing, he would go into Diagon Alley and try to find a job in some obscure cauldron shop or even in the Quidditch store. He would start a new career, a new life. He would no longer be The Boy Who Lived, but The Boy Who Sold Quaffles.
He got up and went inside the cottage as Bill was descending the stairs. But to Harry's mild surprise, Fleur was right behind him. They both smiled when they saw him.
"'Morning," Bill said cheerfully. "It looks like a nice day out, and the water's calm. I decided to take a day off, so we're going to walk up to the village and hire a sailboat for a couple of hours. Why don't you come along?"
"Yes, 'Arry." Fleur smiled sweetly. "Why don't you come? It will be a nice change for everyone."
Since moving here from the Burrow, Harry had discovered that he was putty in the hands of the veela. He had tried to resist her sparkling eyes, her laughing voice, her subtle body movements, her fetching smile. Somehow those attributes and the way Fleur used them were not a come-on, but she was always able to get him to do what she wanted, to make him feel that he wanted the same thing, no matter how much he thought he didn't. Only one other person had been able to manipulate him like that, but now she obviously did not care.
"Okay," he said, not at all reluctantly. "I already ate breakfast. Hermione brought some from the Burrow."
"That is okay," Fleur said with a twinkle in her eye. "I think you do not like undercooked sausage."
"No, I don't." Harry smiled, but didn't' know why; the thought of eating raw sausage made him slightly queasy. Fleur could make anything sound appealing. "I'll be down on the beach, whenever you're ready."
He left them inside and walked a hundred yards along the cliff until he came to a path that led down to the beach. He sat on a boulder, watching the waves break on the sand. The morning sun was warm on his uplifted face, and he closed his eyes and let his mind wander. He did enjoy their sailing trips, although there was often more magic than wind involved in the boat's propulsion. It felt good to be out on the water, away from his life on land, where everything was unsettled, uncertain, sour. The Burrow especially had become a place where Harry no longer felt welcome. He was uncomfortable there, not knowing how to behave, how to respond to the Weasleys' irrational and emotional behavior. Molly was always teary, and you never knew when she would break down into a fit of hysterical sobbing. She could be doing anything—cooking, knitting, reading—and suddenly she would start crying and moaning about her lost son. Once, in the middle of one of these fits, she had hexed poor Ron when he made a crack about the death of Bellatrix. They had to go get Bill to break the Curse, and for two days Ron wouldn't come downstairs.
And then there was George. He had not left his room for days after the funeral, and when he finally emerged Harry had wished he would go back inside. He was foul–tempered and abusive to everyone, including his sister, who had fled from the house, crying hysterically. Harry had followed her into the woods behind the garden, wanting to give comfort, but she told him to leave her alone. Harry had retreated in confusion, and then had lost his temper at both Ron and Hermione when they tried to talk to him.
The final straw came when George started waking up in the middle of the night, screaming and beating his fists on the walls in a futile rage against Fred's death. Of course he also woke up the rest of the house, including his mother who now had more anguish—if that was possible—added to her burden. Those outbursts had been too much for Harry. The morning after the third episode he Apparated to Shell Cottage and asked Fleur if he could stay there. Bill had hurried to the Burrow; when he returned later in the day his scarred face was grim and he would not talk to Harry about it, except to say that he understood why Harry did not want to stay there. The Burrow, once a refuge, had become an insane asylum.
Harry looked up when he heard voices. Bill and Fleur appeared, coming down the path. The three walked along the beach for half an hour until they reached a small fishing village perched on a bluff above the water. Just past it, in a small cove sheltered by high cliffs, were the village's docks. Bill went into a tiny cottage with a sign over the door, Boat To Hire Daily And Weekly, and emerged in five minutes with the proprietor. Ten minutes later they were tacking out to sea in a small dinghy.
Bill was at the tiller and Fleur sat in the bow. Her silver hair swirled around her face and she leaned forward, reminding Harry of pictures of old sailing ships with carved figures of women on the prow. He sat next to Bill and ducked whenever the helmsman swung the sail as they came about on a new tack. The sea breeze was light, and soon Bill's wand was out and their speed picked up. They moved south along the coast about a quarter mile offshore, back towards Shell Cottage.
Fleur moved to a thwart at the stern and she and Bill talked as they sailed. Harry didn't speak, but looked towards the shore and watched seagulls floating in the air, their wings outstretched and motionless; it looked like magic was holding them up. The morning at sea was sunny and warm and peaceful, and he felt some of his melancholy abate.
It was hard to be gloomy on a day like this, especially around Fleur. She chattered away about yesterday's dinner, today's breakfast, and family gossip from her mother. There didn't seem to be any particular connection between any of it, but Harry enjoyed her voice, and so apparently did Bill because he stopped talking and just listened. Harry leaned back against the gunwale and felt content for the first time in weeks.
When they saw Shell Cottage perched atop the cliff, they turned back. They were in port an hour later and decided to eat lunch at a restaurant in the little village. By the time they got home, Harry realized that he had just experienced the best day of his summer, maybe of the year. He suspected that his host and hostess had seen how badly he had been feeling for the past few days and had taken him out on purpose to shake his mood. It had worked. He no longer felt like moping around Diagon Alley feeling sorry for himself. He even thought he might enjoy dinner at the Burrow this evening. Maybe Ginny would talk to him.
He decided to speak to Bill about the situation. He felt comfortable with the eldest Weasley brother. It was not like it had been with Sirius, who was, for a very short time, truly like a father. Maybe Remus would have come to fill that need, but he was gone. Bill could never be like a father—he was only ten years older than Ron, after all—but he seemed much older than that to Harry.
He found Bill alone in the kitchen; Fleur had gone upstairs. "Thanks for taking me along today," Harry said as he sat at the small table that took up most of the room. "It was fun."
"Glad you liked it. I think we all needed a break." Bill was writing in a small notebook and closed it. "Gringotts stuff," he explained. "Did you know that you lost a lot of money for a lot of goblins by killing Voldemort? They made quite a few investments assuming he would last a while. You upset a number of applecarts."
"Too bad for them," Harry replied curtly. "What am I supposed to do, write them a check?"
"Hardly," Bill laughed.
"Well, they'll get over it, I'm thinking." Harry paused, trying to find a way to broach the subject he was really interested in. "Can I ask you something about your, um, your family?"
"Sure, anything." Bill had a look on his face that told Harry he knew what was coming.
"Well . . . this is kind of hard for me to say, but . . . Have you been over there lately? I mean, the Burrow."
"Yes, and I know how bad things are. Harry, don't take any of it personally. It's going to take people a lot of time, and I don't know if my parents or George will ever get over it." He shook his head. "I can't imagine losing either a child or a twin. George and Fred were almost like one person. It must be a little like losing your own life."
"So . . . so you think that aside from your parents and George, the rest of them, I mean, the others, might get over it, I mean, eventually?"
A sympathetic and knowing smile appeared on Bill's face. "There is no doubt in my mind that Ginny will be fine. But you also have to keep in mind what she went through while you were gone. She missed you terribly, and she was in danger the whole time. I still don't know why they didn't arrest her while she was at school. They used Luna Lovegood to get to her father, and he was small potatoes compared to you. When I first took her to Aunt Muriel's I thought she wouldn't stop crying; it was very unlike her. She had been in constant fear that they would use her to force you to surrender, and then they would kill you. So when she was safe, all of a sudden there was hope. But then the Battle came, and Fred was killed. It was too much: despair, then hope, then despair again." His voice dropped and he looked down at the table. "She's so young."
Harry had thought all those thoughts himself. He didn't know what to do, though; he didn't know how to break through her despair. He sat silently.
Bill finally spoke after a few moments. "I know it's hard, but try to remember how you felt when your godfather was killed. You were so distraught that you committed a crime. She's just as distraught. However, I do think it would help if she knew that you were there."
"She doesn't act that way," Harry murmured. "She runs away from me, and I can't say that I blame her. I haven't treated her very well."
"You did what you had to do. Don't dwell on it, Harry. That won't do you or anyone else any good."
Harry heard Fleur coming down the stairs and stood up. "I'll try to remember that. Thanks for listening."
The door opened and Fleur bounced in. She had changed into a pair of white shorts and a halter-top. Harry had to snap his mouth shut to keep from looking like he had been hit by a Bludger, but Bill just gazed at her with a besotted grin.
"Ave the men been chatting?" she asked. "I don't want to interrupt anything."
"I was just leaving," said Harry. "I think I'll have dinner at the Burrow tonight."
"Good!" Bill and Fleur both said at the same time; they looked at each other and laughed. As Fleur bent down to kiss her husband, Harry left the room and closed the door behind him.
He decided to put on a clean pair of jeans and a shirt with a collar, and when he came back downstairs the kitchen door was still closed. He went outside and Disapparated to the front gate of the Burrow. All was quiet, at least on the outside. Inside he found Molly in the kitchen; it was filled with the tantalizing smell of something baking.
"Hi, Mrs. Weasley," he said tentatively when she didn't notice him.
She turned. "Oh, Harry!" she exclaimed, wiping her hands on her apron. "I'm so glad you came. Hermione said you might. Now, you're not allowed to stay in here. Ron's in his room, why don't you go see him?"
Harry dutifully left and climbed the stairs to the attic; he could tell that Mrs. Weasley was watching him. He slowed on the first-floor landing, but Ginny's door was closed and no sounds came from behind it. On the second landing the door to George's room was also closed, but he heard a loud voice from inside. He hurried past, not wanting the door to burst open and find George confronting him with his wild eyes, unkempt hair, and maybe his wand in hand. The door to the attic room was open, but Harry knocked anyway.
"Come!" called Ron, springing from his bed when he saw Harry; Hermione was seated at his desk reading The Prophet and she turned with a smile on her face.
"Hey, mate," Ron said. "What brings you here? I thought you were staying away from Bedlam for a while."
"I asked him to come," Hermione said. "Your mother wanted to—well, she wanted to see him."
"And here he is. Did she see you?" Ron said, turning to Harry.
"She was in the kitchen. She sent me up here. How—how are things? Is George any better?" He left unspoken the question he really wanted to ask.
Ron didn't catch on, although Harry thought Hermione did. "Don't go near him," Ron said darkly. "He's worse, if you ask me. The other day he—"
A loud bang from downstairs interrupted him, followed by shouts and doors slamming. Ron went quickly past Harry and onto the landing; Harry followed. Ron leaned over the railing and listened. Soon there was a shriek and another door banged open. Ginny's voice yelled angrily, "George Weasley, where the hell are you?! If I find you I'll kill you!" Footsteps clattered down the stairs and a door opened and slammed shut. For a moment the house was still, but after a moment they heard weeping and heavier footsteps come up the stairs. Another door opened and closed.
The two went back into the attic room where Hermione was standing, twisting her fingers and looking like she was about to cry. "Harry," she said, "please don't—"
He cut her off with a wave. "Relax, Hermione, I just got here. I told Bill and Fleur I'd stay for dinner. That is," he looked at Ron, "if there is dinner."
"Don't ask me," his friend replied, a little churlishly. "When Ginny gets like that I stay out of her way and keep my head down. She'll give you the Bat Bogey if you look at her cross-eyed."
"Wasn't that your mum who was crying?"
Ron sighed and sat heavily on his bed; Hermione sat next to him. "Yeah," he said. "But Dad will take care of her when he gets home. She'll be okay, I think."
"I'm sure she will," Hermione said, taking his hand. "She's always better when she has something to do, like someone to cook for." She gave Harry a look, but he only shook his head. He walked to a window and looked out, but suddenly turned and shot out of the room, leaving a startled Ron and Hermione staring after him. Ron went to the window where Harry had been standing.
"She's down by the grave," he said. "And there he goes." Hermione came to the window and they watched as Harry trotted across the lawn, past the garden, and across a field to a tall oak at the edge of the woods. Under the tree was a grave with a gray headstone, and next to the grave stood a small, slender figure. Ginny's head was bowed, but she looked up as Harry approached. They stood a few feet apart and talked; even from a distance the two watchers could tell that Ginny was crying. She gestured at the grave and Harry looked at it, but abruptly turned and strode away, back to the house. Ginny watched him, but then she turned back to the grave and stood motionless for several moments. When she finally began walking towards the house, her head was high and as she came closer, Ron and Hermione could see the resolution on her face.
"Damn!" Ron muttered.
Hermione put her hand on his shoulder. "Do you think Harry knows what today is? I don't think he does."
"That wouldn't surprise me. He's been in his own little world for weeks."
"Everyone has," Hermione murmured.
In a minute Harry was back upstairs. His two friends watched him, but didn't say anything. He flopped down on his cot.
"What?" he asked belligerently when they still didn't speak.
"We saw you talking to her," Hermione said hesitantly.
Harry sat up. "You were spying on me?"
"Mate, we were just looking out the window," said Ron. "What happened?"
Harry felt his irritation rising; it seemed to do that a lot these days. "She was talking to Fred. She said she had something to tell him. The hell with it, I'm not going to compete with a dead man."
"Dead man? Well screw you!" Ron exploded, his voice rising to a shout. "A dead man? Do you mean my brother? You're becoming a real load, mate, did you know that? And how many times are you going to walk away from her, like we just saw you do? Can't you see what she's going through? Okay, you lost your parents, but you didn't know them. She lost a brother who she knew all her life! Why did you come here? You're only making it worse!" Ron advanced on Harry as he shouted. Hermione was right beside him, her face as angry as his.
They were face-to-face, but Harry backed off. "Fine," he said, glaring at Ron. "I'll go. Everyone here is crazy."
But Hermione stepped in front of him, pinning him against the wall. "You are not going anywhere, Harry Potter," she fired back. "What in Merlin's name has gotten into you? All you do is wallow in self-pity. People here may be crazy, but at least they talk to each other. Maybe they're screaming, but they know that everyone else is going through the same thing. Do you not understand that you are not the only one who's upset, scared, terrified? Don't you know why everyone wanted you here today? Why Bill and Fleur took you out in their boat? Why I gave you a flower?"
Harry stared at her blankly. Hermione snorted. "Obviously not. Harry, it's your birthday."
His mouth fell open. "What?"
Hermione shook her head. "Well said, Harry. I knew you had lost track of the days, but . . ."
He turned his head to Ron. "So . . . so your mum is baking . . ."
"A cake for you," Ron said.
"Why is she doing that?"
"Bugger, I guess she likes you. Who knows why, though."
Harry stood there. How could he have forgotten his own birthday? He felt like an idiot. "I'll go thank her," he mumbled, and turned to leave.
"She might still be in her room," Ron said.
"But I'm sure she'll be glad to see you," Hermione added.
Harry left and descended the staircase. He knocked softly on the door to the parents' bedroom, but there was no answer.
"Mrs. Weasley," he called softly, "it's Harry." He still heard nothing. He looked back up at the attic, but decided to try the kitchen; he really didn't feel like risking another lecture from Hermione—well deserved as it would be. He went down, tiptoeing once again past George's room, which was now silent. On the first landing he paused and looked at Ginny's door. He remembered what had happened in there a year ago, and how good her kiss—their last kiss—had been; he could almost taste her lips, feel her body against his. He had wanted her so badly then, and also now.
But did she want him? He wasn't sure; there was too much grief and confusion in the way. He didn't even know if she was inside. He turned away, but as he put his foot on the first tread, the door opened and a voice stopped him in his tracks.
"Harry, will you come in here a moment?"
He stared at Ginny. Her eyes were ablaze, staring back. Without a word, almost without realizing what he was doing, he stepped through the door. She slammed it shut behind him and pulled him into the center of the small room. Harry noticed for the first time that she was holding her wand and he took a step back. But she pointed it at the door and said, "Colloportus!" The door sealed and she turned to him.
"Hey!" Harry exclaimed. "You shouldn't do magic. You'll get into trouble, your birthday isn't 'til next month."
"But today is yours."
She came and kissed him. It was better than Harry remembered from a year ago. She was in his arms, his one hand holding her against him and the other in her silky, sweet-smelling hair. Her arms went around his neck, pressing his mouth to hers.
The kiss lasted a very long time. When their lips broke apart, Harry kept his face down, inches from hers. Her brown eyes blinked up at him. Everything bad had vanished, melted away in the flowery scent that filled the room.
"Harry," she murmured, "I know it's hard to understand, but Fred has been inside me all this time, and I know he kept me from you, but when I told him it was your birthday, and you had come back, he knew it was time. Please forgive me, and please don't leave."
He kissed her softly. "I never will."
"No," she giggled. "I mean don't leave me right now. I think no one will notice the door unless a Trace owl comes from the Ministry."
"Oh." They kissed again.
"Harry." Her voice had dropped; he could barely hear her. "I can't help it, I love you."
He put his arms around her and held her tightly. The world was now filled with glorious sunshine. "I love you too," he whispered.