Harry Potter and the End of Innocence.
Harry felt alone. He had slept a little in the boys' dorm following the battle. Enough that the sun had changed position in the sky. It was now beginning its decent toward the western horizon.
Dumbledore was gone. Fred Weasley was gone. Remus Lupin, Tonks, Lavender and Colin. Gone.
Kreacher had brought him a sandwich, and Harry sent him back to the kitchens. Now Harry was beginning to feel a little hungry again.
Harry still didn't feel like being around people. He blamed himself for the death of the others; he could just imagine how those who survived the battle felt.
Ron and Hermione didn't blame him. He had started to talk to them a little, but they seemed to have a need to be alone. Luna, who had been kind enough to help him slip away so he could go up to the dormitory, she didn't seem to blame him either.
Harry knew the one person he wanted to talk to. He knew he needed to talk to her, but he hadn't the first clue as to what to say. How must Ginny be feeling?
The thought of Ginny brought a familiar ache to Harry's chest. She was downstairs when he left the Great Hall. Harry wondered if she was down there still, even now. He suddenly felt an urge to go find out, then stopped himself. What if she didn't want to see him?
An idea struck Harry; he still had his invisibility cloak. Harry slipped it on an let the cloth fall over him. He then made his way carefully, quietly, down through the rest of the castle to the Great Hall.
It struck Harry how few people there were in the castle. He only passed a handful on his way down the corridors, and past the classrooms. He figured that most people were still gathered in the Great Hall. That was where everyone seemed to congregate when the battle ended.
The damage to the castle was clear. It was a mess. Holes in the walls, tapestries torn. Suits of armor and demolished statues were strewn all over. Those paintings that were still on the walls and in one piece were crowded with the residents from others. Harry recognized Sir Cadogan the Night, the Fat Lady, and many others.
Then the Great Hall came into view. The doors were open but there was very little noise coming out of it. Then a thought occurred to Harry.
What if she wasn't there?
What if she was with someone else?
True, she did seem upset when Harry was playing dead in front of Voldemort and his Death Eaters, but that didn't mean she wasn't finding comfort now with someone else.
That thought truly bothered Harry, but then that's why he chose to come down in his invisibility cloak. If she has found someone else, that's her right, thought Harry, I've put her through enough.
Harry stood outside the doors to the Great Hall, taking a moment to resolve himself toward what he might see. Then he stepped around the door, and into the room.
The Great Hall was largely empty. Most of those who were in there when Harry left several hours ago were gone. The Malfoys were gone, Harry noticed. It looks like most of the wounded and dead were removed as well.
Harry looked around the room. Professor McGonagall was standing in a small group of people, and all seemed to be in a quiet discussion. Kingsley Shacklebolt was there, as were Professors Flitwick, Sprout, Trelawny, Slughorn, Grubbily-plank, Vector, and even the ghost teacher, Professor Binns.
Hagrid was tending to Firenze, and the centaurs Bane and Magorian were with him. That was new. Harry remembered that Firenze had been rejected by the herd.
Then Harry's eyes were greeted by a pleasant sight; the Weasleys. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, surrounded by George, who had clearly been crying, Percy, Bill, Charley, and sitting at a nearby table was Ron and Hermione holding hands. Harry started to wonder where Ginny was, and was walking deeper into the room when he heard her talking, and realized she was in the center of the group that her parents and brothers were a part of.
As Harry drew closer to them, walking quietly so that no one could hear him approaching, he began to hear their conversation. It was with a little shock that he realized it was about him!
"…..but Mom, I want to talk to him!" Ginny said.
Mrs. Weasley was looking at her daughter, and there was sympathy in her eyes.
"Ginny, dear, if Harry wants to be alone, we should let him. He's earned that right."
"What makes you think he doesn't want to see you?" asked Mr. Weasley.
Hermione interrupted before Ginny had a chance to answer. Harry was quite surprised at how exhausted she appeared, and it was even more evident in her voice, which now spoke quietly with a patience Harry recognized as the kind she usually reserved for him when she felt he was being particularly thick about something.
"I don't think that's it at all." she said thoughtfully, "I think Harry blames himself for all of this….this stuff that's happened." Hermione waved her hand around tiredly.
"But that's stupid!" said Ginny, frustration clear in her tone.
"Is it?" asked Ron, "Don't you remember when we got to the Room of Requirement, what Harry said? He didn't want anyone fighting with him! It took a long time for me and Hermione to convince him to let us go with him."
Hermione nodded her head, and added, "It would be just like him too. I know he felt bad about you being involved, all of you. Now people have died, in a battle started by him. Voldemort himself told Harry that. He all but called Harry a coward for allowing it. You don't think that didn't affect Harry on some level?"
"Stupid Git," said George.
"Now George," admonished Mrs. Weasley, "Do you really think so, Hermione? Do you really think he blames himself?" Mrs. Weasley's voice was full of emotion.
Mr. Weasley placed his arm around his wife's shoulders.
Hermione nodded. She looked at Ron, and then went on.
"I think that Harry loves you all very much. You're exactly what he never had. You've always treated him like he was a part of the family, indeed I think you are more family to him than his aunt and uncle ever were." Hermione's eyes started to tear up, and Ron placed his arm around her shoulders protectively.
Harry felt a lump in his throat. He had never thought of it before, but he knew Hermione was right. He remembered the time Mrs. Weasley held him after he won the Tri-Wizard cup, when everything was just too much. It was she and Charley who had come to see him and support him at the third task too. Mrs. Weasley always included Harry in the gifts given at Christmas, and even gave him the traditional watch, handed down from her family, for his seventeenth birthday.
It was Fred and George who had helped him with his trunk that time when he first boarded the Hogwarts express, and that was also only the first time of many that they came to his aid. The memories came flooding back, and with it his own emotions over the loss of Fred.
"Dumbledore always said Harry's greatest gift was his ability to love." said Mr. Weasley. Mrs. Weasley only nodded.
"And now," Hermione continued, "Harry likes Ginny,"
"He does?" asked Ginny. "Still?"
"Yes, I think so." Hermione sighed. "I don't think he knows that I know this, and I really don't think he'd like it if I told you, but I saw him several times staring at that map of his for hours. Sometimes he would even say your name when he slept. " Hermione spoke directly to Ginny, but Harry could see that everyone in the Weasley family was paying attention to her. Ron nodded confirmation behind her.
"Why doesn't he say anything then?" asked Ginny.
"I think I know," said Ron, "He broke things off with you last year. Then when I caught you two snogging just before the wedding, I got really mad at him."
"Ron!" said Mrs. Weasley, "that was a terrible thing to do!"
"Well, I saw how cut up Ginny was over it! I didn't want him to hurt her again!" Ron said defensively.
Bill spoke up, the first time Harry had heard him say anything since the battle.
"I think we've all known that there was something between Harry and you. A person would have to be blind not to notice it."
Mr. Weasley added, "I think its wonderful. Harry has always been there for our family, and I really don't see him going anywhere." He looked at his wife, then his only daughter and smiled.
Mrs. Weasley added wistfully; "Now maybe this whole business is over," she said waving her hand around, "Maybe now you two will have a chance to be together and see what happens."
Ginny sat down, next to Ron and Hermione.
Harry felt like his question was being answered, and it touched him deeply that the entire Weasley family seemed to feel so strongly about him. He was rooted to the spot, and had no idea what to say.
"Do you know where he is?" Ginny asked them.
"Upstairs I expect," answered Ron pointing towards Gryfindor Tower. "He usually went up there when he wanted to be alone."
"I want to go find him." Ginny said with conviction. She started to get up, and Harry took that as his queue to leave the Great Hall. He did so, quickly and quietly. His steps carrying him out of the Hall and part way up the grand stair case. There he stopped, quickly made sure he was alone, and removed his invisibility cloak. A feeling of joyous relief crept into his chest.
It was safe to talk to her. Harry felt like a coward for spying on Ginny this way, but now he knew what he needed to know.
Harry stuffed the Invisibility Cloak under his robes, and then turned around to go back down the stair case. This time he made no effort to hide his steps. In fact they felt lighter than they had in some time.
Making his way back to the Great Hall, he slowed down, and came back around the door way. The only change to the scene Harry left was that Hermione, Ron and Ginny were now standing, and Mrs. Weasley was speaking quietly to them. Harry couldn't hear what she was saying, but the look of frustration on Ginny's face was clear.
Then she saw him, and gasped loudly enough Harry could hear it across the Hall.
All the Weasley's turned to face him, and Harry felt a little self conscious.
"Do you mind if I join you?" He asked quietly.
At the sound of his voice, all of those in the room turned to look at him. There was no hostility in anyone's eyes. No blame.
Everyone looked exhausted and battle-worn. Then before Harry could take a single step into the room, Ginny launched herself towards him. A missile of torn robes and fiery red hair, nearly knocking him off balance when she hurtled into him.
Her arms wrapped tightly around Harry, and cinched town tightly, as if they never intended to let go. Stunned, it took Harry a moment to return the embrace. Then when he realized he was in a moment he had long dreamed of, over many fearful nights, Harry returned the embrace fiercely. He felt her trembling, and held her tighter.
Harry wanted to hold her like that forever, forever and not let go. But he knew he had many people to talk to. He also knew that there were many who would need to talk to him.
He felt a firm hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Ron looking back at him.
Harry felt a moment's trepidation until he saw the look in Ron's eyes. It wasn't hostile or protective. It was one of acceptance.
Then Hermione appeared, her eyes glassy as she too hugged Harry. Harry added Hermione to the embrace and soon found himself enfolded in the arms of Mrs. Weasley as well.
"I'm so glad you came down to see us dear." she said kindly.
Mrs. Weasley let go, and Hermione followed. It was clear that Ginny had no such intent. She only changed her embrace so that she was tightly holding onto Harry's arm. It seemed she wasn't going to let him out of her sight again.
When the group went back into the Great Hall, Mrs. McGonagall came forward. Her eyes shining with pride. She took the hand that Ginny wasn't holding and said with much emotion, "Welcome back Mr. Potter."
"Thanks, Professor." Harry didn't know what else to say.
"Harry, I've never been more proud of any Hogwarts student. You've acquitted yourself well today. You've done what no one before you could. Professor Dumbledore always said you would do it. I must say for a while there I wasn't sure you would."
"Neither was I professor." Harry replied.
He noticed that Hagrid and Kingsley were approaching the group. He really did not want to be the center of so much attention.
That fact must have shown on his face, because Ron whispered in his ear, "Better get used to it mate. I think things are going to be this way at least for awhile."
Harry turned to his first and best friend. Ron was grinning at him. Then he said something that made Harry very grateful. "We'll wait for you."
Harry turned back to Mrs. McGonagall only to see Hagrid, who had stepped in front of her.
"Harry, I, ummm…ur…I jist wanta tell yer…" Hagrid mumbled almost incoherently.
"It's okay Hagrid. Thanks for always being there." Harry said softly, and then he found himself lifted up into one of Hagrid's great bear hugs. Harry felt his back pop in several places, but he didn't care.
"Yur parents would be proud of you. Sirius too. You did wha they tried and coul nawt. I canna give you no better praise than tha'."
Harry looked up at Hagrid deeply touched. He remembered it was Hagrid who was his first introduction into the Wizarding World since he was left on the Dursley's doorstep so many years ago.
Harry wanted to say something, but couldn't. He was too overcome with emotion to say anymore than a mumbled acknowledgement. Hagrid seemed to understand, because he smiled and stepped aside.
Kingsley took Hagrid's place. He nodded at the Weasley's and Hermione, and then turned to address Harry. His deep baritone voice commanded attention when he said;
"Harry, when you have a few minutes, I need you to drop by the Ministry. We have some things to talk about, you and I. I know there are others who want your time right now, so I'll leave you to it. Thanks Harry. I'm afraid we all owe you a debt that can never be repaid." And with that he turned and strode away.
There were others who came up to Harry and exchanged a few words with him. Some, like Luna Lovegood embraced him. It seemed a long time, but eventually the Great Hall was nearly cleared out of people.
Soon it was only Professor McGonagall, the Weasleys and Hermione who were left. The hour was late.
Professor McGonagall had announced earlier that the school would be closed for the rest of the year. Students who had attended could either finish their current year at Durmstrang or Beaubatons as both schools had announced a willingness to accept them in light of what happened. Those who did not want to study abroad could return and repeat the year next fall. The announcement was to be in the morning edition of the Daily Prophet.
Harry and Hermione were invited to return with the Weasley's to Auntie Muriel's home. It was large enough to house everyone. Then, in the morning the Weasley's would try to return to see what they could salvage of the Burrow.
Harry was reminded of Number Twelve Grimmauld Place in London, and wondered what that looked like. He hadn't been there since the day when he, Ron, and Hermione had escaped with the Horcrux from the Ministry, with Yaxley following so closely behind. He supposed he would need to go back there and look around. He wondered if Ron and Hermione, or perhaps even Ginny wanted to accompany him.
The entire time Ginny never once let go of his hand.