A/n: I started this a while back, and have written a fair bit now. Due to other commitments it has taken a bit longer than it planned to get it posted, but here it is: my first attempt at writing something longer. It's a gentle, slow-building fic, but heading to more slashy times by the end. It will be 9 or so chapters long, and it will to update every Friday (I hope!). Thanks to birdsofshoreandsea and evilgiraff82 for pre-reading and betaing.
Chapter 1 - Saying Goodbye
Harry sat on a fallen stone, two sides smooth, one rough and scorched. It lay amongst the other broken rocks which had once been part of the walls of Hogwarts. Although it had not been his home for the past year, it was still shocking to see it damaged by battle. The acrid scent of fire, magic, blood and death was heavy in the air. He looked up, his eyes wandering over the huddles of the shocked, sitting or walking aimlessly, in stark contrast to the purposeful Aurors dotted around. He knew that behind him, inside the castle, were the bodies of the fallen, and with them the Weasleys and his friends. Harry closed his eyes to shut out some of the painful memories, but a deluge of images rose up anyway. He had seen too much in the past twenty-four hours. He had seen too much in his life.
Harry just wanted to rest. Exhaustion dragged him down. He had ignored most of the people who had tried to talk to him, and in the end they had left him alone. He stayed near Ron and Hermione, the only constants in his world. He had given them some space to be with the rest of the Weasleys, and Fred. When a red-eyed Molly hugged him tight and insisted he join them when they left, he did, in need of the people who were the nearest he had to family. He had nowhere else to go.
"It's lovely to see you two together," said Molly, causing Hermione to blush but Ron to tighten his arm around her, proud and gentle. "It's not like it's a surprise, anyone one could see from Ronald's face–"
"Mum!" interrupted Ron.
"–Well, you do wear your heart on your sleeve, dear. Always have. Do you remember, Arthur, when he broke his first broom? It was as if his face couldn't decide whether to be mortified his broom was broken, or petrified he'd be in trouble!"
There was a terrible silence around the table, until George whispered "Fred, it was Fred."
Molly's face crumbled. The fond light in her eye darkened and flickered out. "So it was," she said, her eyes flashing up to the clock with the one hand now permanently pointing at 'dead'. She stood up and took her plate to the sink, her back turned to the table.
"He loved that broom," said Arthur. "He made me write its name on it, remember?"
"The Dashing Dazzler," Ron and Ginny spoke as one. "He told us about it," Ginny added.
They all sat quietly, remembering Fred. After a while, Molly turned back round, her eyes full of tears. Arthur went to stand with her and as he embraced her, her tears started to flow in earnest, and she buried her head in her husband's shoulder. After holding onto each other for a long moment, they walked out of the room, Arthur's arm rubbing soft circles on her back. At the table George had bowed his head, his thick hair obscuring his face. Ginny leant close to him and whispered something in his ear, then looked up at Ron for a second, her eyes sad. George and Ginny got up and went out the other door, to the garden.
Ron, Hermione and Harry were left alone in the kitchen. The mealtime was over. Ron ran a hand through his hair, and let out a long sigh. Hermione snaked her arm round his back and pulled him closer. There were no words to say. Harry got up and started clearing the table, then washed up, the Muggle way. It helped to calm, soothe him. He had done it so many times before, as a child, that he slipped into a mechanical routine, lost to his thoughts.
One of the hardest things, Harry thought, was that in a family so large, everyone had a different way of mourning. Molly Weasley spun between trying to be there for her children, cooking and gentle and full of hugs, and a frightening blankness during which she sat silently for hours, sometimes crying. Only her husband seemed able to reach her in those moments. Harry watched as the others in the house moved around each other and found their own paths through grief. Altogether though, after several weeks of living at the Burrow, Harry was beginning to find the atmosphere oppressive. It hadn't helped that they'd been to so many funerals in that time. Death was a constant theme. He felt like a burden, and seeing the family in moments like this had made him realise that however much the Weasleys had taken him in, he wasn't quite one of them. He was on the periphery of their grief, and felt he couldn't do anything to help them, any of them.
As the last of the water swirled down the drain, Harry shook himself out of his reverie. When Harry turned back round, Ron and Hermione were still sitting at the table. He had forgotten that they were there.
"Ron, I–" Harry began, but he still didn't have the words, not really. He tried again, anyway. Even though they'd been staying under the same roof, he'd hardly got to talk to his friend. "I'm so sorry for... about Fred. I... I miss him too." He remembered laughter, the thrill of being given the Marauder's Map.
Ron stood up, his face paler than normal. He stared at Harry, his eyes wide. He looked... angry. "You miss him? Harry, you hardly knew him! Stop trying to be a Weasley. You're not!" his voice was bitter, a barely contained shout. Or sob. "You don't, you can't understandwhat it is to lose a brother, so stop pretending that you can!"
Harry stood, white-faced with shock, trembling with a rage of his own. As he opened his mouth to name his parents, Sirius... all those he had lost, he caught Hermione's eye, and the look of sorrow and gentle admonishment she gave him was enough to keep him silent. He felt a hot rush of shame, followed by a deep discomfort. Ron was right. Fred had not been his brother. He turned away as she moved towards Ron, holding onto his hand and talking quietly in his ear. It was a painfully intimate moment, and it was not until her soft murmur had receded as she led Ron out of the room that Harry's breathing slowed and returned to normal. The sick feeling in the pit of his stomach remained. He made himself a cup of tea and sat at the empty table, alone.
Later that night, Harry stood outside watching the stars. He looked first for the Dog Star, as he always did. Hermione joined him. They stood, side by side, in silence for a while. All their years of friendship, the months alone in the tent, had forged a bond between them which was a great comfort, especially in these moments. When she spoke, he could hear the tears in her voice.
She reached out and slipped her arm through his. "It's just such a horrible time. I spent all those months so focused on finding the Horcruxes, on keeping myself going. And now... now there's just this hole." Harry squeezed her arm, understanding exactly how she felt. "And Ron, oh Harry, Ron! He's such a mess. We've only just found each other, and he's so broken." A tear ran down her face, and she visibly reined in the ones which were threatening to follow. Eyes glistening, she continued. Harry could hear the lump in her throat. "And I've got to find my parents, and I'm terrified."
Harry said nothing, there was nothing he could say, really, so he just stood there, with her. This time, it was Hermione who squeezed him. "Today, Ron was... I'm sorry it was so bad," she said, turning her eyes on Harry. Harry felt a twinge of hurt because he knew that maybe he was the one who should be saying sorry. "I think it would be a good idea if I took Ron with me and we went to find my parents."
Harry nodded. He'd known it was weighing on her mind, and had been wondering when she'd be ready to go.
"Yes, and... not me?", he asked, but he knew the answer already.
Hermione looked relieved as she smiled weakly at him, her eyes shining dully in the starlight.
Harry suddenly knew what he had to do, what he had to say. "I've got to go too. It's not helping, me being here," his voice cracked as he stumbled on to the hardest part of his revelation. "I don't belong here," he stared off into the distance. "I've hardly spoken to Ginny, did you know that? I thought we would be comforting each other," the way you and Ron are, "but it's as if everything that happened between us happened in a dream. And now we've woken up. There's no place in this world," he paused, before continuing with a trace of bitterness, "the real world, for the two of us. I just don't feel anything for her any more."
He looked up with a start as he heard a crash behind him. Turning, he saw Ginny, pale-faced, standing above the broken remains of two mugs of tea, steam rising from the shard-strewn puddle at her feet. Hermione broke away from him, brushing her hand on his arm and giving him one last look of understanding, before whispering "I don't think it's me you need to have this conversation with," and disappearing indoors.
Harry looked at Ginny, standing in the kitchen doorway, eyes burning. She was beautiful in that moment, the light from behind her framing her head in a fiery halo, her long frame silhouetted. She took a step forwards and gestured to the worn-out seats leant against the wall. "I think we should talk, Harry," she looked down, and added softly, "we should have had this talk a long time ago."
They sat down together, close, but not touching. Harry shivered, suddenly cold on the summer's night. Ginny made no move to comfort him. A gentle breeze blew across them, moving the wheat in the fields in a whisper of doubts.
"When I was a little girl, I remember hearing the story of Harry Potter, the Boy who Lived. George and... Fred would tell me it, to frighten me on nights like this. It didn't frighten me though, it excited me. It seemed like real magic, the magic of love, the miracle of the darkest curse defeated. When you made friends with Ron, it was... it was unreal and it made me feel special. We were special, my family. And then you saved me," she laughed bitterly. "I was possessed by that... mad man. And it brought me into your sights."
Ginny looked up at him. "We were good Harry, we were," and this time, she did reach out to him. He closed his eyes and swallowed. He held her hand, looked at it, looked at her. Harry cleared his throat. "Yeah, I remember," he whispered.
"When you came back to Hogwarts, the hero, you filled me with hope, with pride. I thought we could be so happy." She looked at him. "I heard what you said to Hermione. You're right. It was just a dream, it wasn't real."
Harry felt something change inside of him. He felt broken.
"This is goodbye, Harry," she started to cry. "When you told me about the Deathly Hallows, about dying, I..." Ginny stopped, her face crumpling, red and wet with tears. She sniffed and ran the back of her hand across her nose. After a few shaky breaths she carried on. "I can't... I'm angry. Why should you die and live again? Why should you get to see your lost ones, talk to them? What about us? What about Fr... Fred?" Ginny released Harry's hand, shook it off and held it in her other, tight between her knees. "I just can't, Harry, I can't. Not now. I need..."
And with cold certainty, Harry knew that a part of his life was over. He could see, all of a sudden, why there had been no comfort for them in each other. "I'm sorry," he choked out.
Ginny stood up, crying again. "So am I," she said. She gave him one last look, a wet kiss on the cheek, and went back into the warm kitchen, closing the door behind her. And with that she was gone from his life, leaving behind only the clean scent of hay and roses, of Summer, that was all hers.
"Goodbye," he whispered, to the stars and the breeze, the wheat and his dreams.
Harry went up to the room he had been sharing with Ron, now thankfully empty, and packed. He was gone within an hour.
The night was still when Harry Apparated into the quiet streets of Godric's Hollow. He didn't really have a plan, he just felt he should be there. Aimless, he wandered down the dark and narrow lanes to the ruin of his parents home. Once he was there he knew that he had meant to come here all along. This was where his story began, after all.
He sat in the tall wild weeds, littered with the bricks of his first home. It was cold now, deep in the small hours of the night. Harry wrapped his cloak tightly around himself, and for the first time in weeks really thought. He spent some time just reflecting on what he'd been through. He remembered Ginny, her laugh, her soft warmth, and his time with her a year ago. It hurt to know it was over, but too much had happened to return to that innocence. He'd been a fool not to see how they had both been changed by their year of hardship and struggle. And by the way death had touched them, both. He sighed, his heart aching for something that probably never was.
Harry looked up at the stars, twinkling oblivious above him. He thought of the happiness he'd hoped to find with Voldemort's defeat. Somehow he'd never really imagined life beyond that end point. He'd been unable to see how it would happen, how he'd kill Voldemort, and certainly nothing of the future after. He was still walking in the pain of loss. He had been to funerals, all the people there like empty ghosts. It did not seem to him to be a time of celebration.
A few days after the war had ended, Harry had sat in an impersonal room for his 'full debriefing' at the MLE, which had been long and painful. And already geared towards trials for the Death Eaters. Something of the air of vengeance left him queasy. Harry went through all his memories: the graveyard and Cedric Diggory's totally unnecessary death (although when wasn't the death of a seventeen year old unnecessary?); his time searching for the keys to killing Voldemort – the vague way in which he and his friends had decided to describe the Horcruxes; his experiences at Malfoy Manor and finally, the final battle itself. He had become more and more detached, whilst also maintaining a deep undercurrent of unhappiness. He had watched the horror on the faces of the men and women questioning him as they viewed his Pensieve memories of his glimpses through Voldemort's and Nagini's eyes. He wasn't sure how much of that horror was directed at him, for having had that link to the wizard they'd feared so much that some of them still had trouble saying his name. Privately he wondered just how they would feel if they knew he'd carried a part of that mad man's soul inside him for most of his life.
The whole experience had left him cold, numb. He felt there was no space left to escape to in his own head. No one had offered him the warmth he needed, as they were all too deep in their own loss and pain. He shivered in the cool night air, the memories chilling him despite the layers of clothes and warming charms. He felt emptied by his life so far. It had been marked by death, and the joys and comforts he'd found at Hogwarts were fleeting. He wasn't a school boy anymore, but he didn't know how he could be an adult either. Everyone seemed to think that having killed someone made him a man. Why should ending a life, no matter how evil or twisted, qualify him for adulthood? Harry would rather that the beginning of his adult life was marked by something a little more... positive. Fear and sacrifice shouldn't have been his only preparation for being a man. It wasn't what he would have chosen as the most important milestones so far. He sighed. He would have chosen his first ride on a broom, or his first sight of Diagon Alley, or his friendship with Ron and Hermione... Well, they were all part of him too. Everything was just jumbled up inside of him, as of he'd been picked up and shaken until all the parts of himself had broken and fallen into a chaotic mess. He just needed to sort them all out, put himself back together.
Harry sat until the sky began to lighten in the east. The first birds sang and colour began to unfurl above him, the stars fading. By the time the sun had risen Harry knew that somehow he had to find out where he should be, who he was. He wasn't going back to Hogwarts, or the Dursleys or the Weasleys. For the first time in his life he was free to choose.
As he idly threw brick fragments and bits of twig into a clump of nettles, Harry had to admit that the problem with this plan was that he didn't know where to start, how to do this, how to be a grown-up. He was alone.
The sun grew a little stronger, a little less feeble. Harry began to feel its warmth on his back, and he shrugged off the cloak. His stomach rumbled, and he pulled an apple out of his rucksack. Harry felt better once he'd eaten. He scrabbled in his bag and managed to find a scrap of parchment and a bitten old biro. He chewed some more on the ragged end while he considered what to write.
He closed his eyes and focused for a minute on the feelings of guilt swirling inside him. And then he started writing.
Harry's to do list
Work out where to live
Visit the families of the dead
He paused before continuing. What else did he need to do? The last two points took longer to come up with, they made him uncomfortable just thinking about seeing the people involved. But he knew he had to do it.
Return Malfoy's wand.
Satisfied, Harry read through his list once, folded it up and wedged it into his pocket.
Stiff, he stretched and stood, shaking out the cricks in his arms and legs. He took one more look at his parents' house, and made his way back into the village. He bought himself some food - despite the small amount of fuss that inevitably arose in the shop when they realised who he was. Luckily, as he was amongst those who'd known his parents – or those who'd had to suffer the questions of wizarding tourists seeking out what had been thought to be the place Voldemort had died, the first time round – he was mostly left alone. He walked to the churchyard and went to visit his parents' grave. This time there was no rush, no one following him, but also no one to talk to, except for the dead. But then Harry had a different perspective on that, too.
He sat for a long time before he spoke, sorting through what he wanted to tell them. "Mum, Dad, it's over. I'm going to try to live my life now. The past eighteen years were thanks to you," he paused, thinking of a flash of green light. "I'm on my own time now..." he faltered, and picked at the fraying hem of his t-shirt. He cleared his throat. "I'm not sure how I'm going to do it, but I'm going to work out what to do. How to be... happy," he finished, a wistful half-smile on his face. Harry crouched in front of the gravestones for a while longer. Eventually he stood up and started to walk away. He stopped and turned round. "When I'm dead and buried," he whispered, "I don't want words about fighting on my stone." He looked down sadly. "I'm sorry that's what you've got." And then Harry walked along the quiet path, into the shelter of the church's shadow and Apparated to Grimmauld Place.
In the bright light of a summer's day, it looked less forlorn than he remembered it. With a involuntary shudder he glanced over his shoulder, looking for watching eyes, but there was no one there. He entered the house, pushing open the door with uncertainty. He hoped that Kreacher would be there. Above him, stuffed house-elf heads stared blankly ahead, grotesque and unnecessary. There was still a heavy curtain hiding the portrait of Sirius's mother from view, rendering her thankfully silent. Harry didn't think he could have coped with one of her tirades this morning.
As Harry stood in the entrance way, he felt a surge of sadness. He could almost see Sirius here, Lupin, even Ron and Hermione. Eyes blinking slightly as they adjusted to the dark of the interior, after the summer brightness outside, Harry began to register changes in the house. It took a moment for his brain to catch up. The hallway was dusted. Harry looked around him. It was clean.
Harry walked into the drawing-room. It too, was clean. The chandelier sparkled. The house looked... cared for. A lump rose in Harry's throat. He hadn't been expecting this. Suddenly, he felt a little less alone.
"Kreacher!" he called out. There was a crack! and the old house elf appeared before him.
"Master Harry Potter is home!", he crowed.
"Kreacher, you did all this?", asked Harry, smiling.
"Yes Master. Kreacher has been a good house elf for his master. Kreacher has been waiting for Master Harry to come home."
Harry felt guilty for not having come sooner. But he was grateful to Kreacher for making the house a different place to the hateful mausoleum he remembered.
"I'm here now,' Harry twisted his fingers round his rucksack strap, unsure how to continue. "I... I'll just go up to... a room and... unpack," Harry was embarrassingly aware that all his belongings fitted into the small, tatty bag on his back. He shut out thoughts of his trunk, of Hedwig. He left Kreacher at the foot of the stairs, and taking them two at a time, sought out the room he'd slept in before.
He put his bag down and walked to the window. The street below was quiet. Harry turned back to the room. Despite saying he would unpack, he couldn't bear to open his bag and expose his meagre possessions to the world. Instead, he sat at the edge of the bed and got out his list. He looked through it again, and put it down, resting his hand on his knee. It had been a long night and he'd left a huge part of his life behind him. Without thinking about it, he slid off his trainers and curled up on the bed. His eyes felt heavy and his mind whirled for a moment or two, the words from his list moving on the surface, and then went blank as the thoughts drifted further and further apart. Before he knew it, he was asleep.