Tell me, sweet lord, what is't that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep?
Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,
And start so often when thou sit'st alone?
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks,
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and cursed melancholy?
Shakespeare, Henry IV
The house reached out and embraced him, its arms chilly and cruel, and Harry couldn't help crumpling into the embrace, sinking down onto the old, worn wood of Grimmauld Place's kitchen, allowing the crushing weight of everything to wash over him.
It had been two months of ecstatic, euphoric, maddening victory—the breathless ache of hundreds of celebrations and hundreds of funerals, all crushed together. He had spent weeks at the Ministry pronouncing testimony after testimony, reaching the Burrow only to collapse shortly after crossing the door as the voices of victims and survivors and Death Eaters all merged into one perpetual buzzing sound. The sound had persisted in the crowds that followed him as he had headed ceremonial marches, as he had spoken—unwillingly—at Hogwarts, and at the ruins of Ollivander's Wand Shop, and over and over again at the Ministry. His fingers had been cut and blistered by the letters he'd opened and the signatures he'd scrawled on official statements; his ears had been turned numb by, "We can never thank you enough, Mr. Potter," and, "We are all indebted to you, Mr. Potter," and, "Harry, do you think you could manage one more…?"
And then, just as he had been starting to adjust to it all—as he had adjusted to the sudden appearance magic in his life, as he had adjusted to flying, as he had adjusted to Voldemort's return, as he had adjusted to living in a tent in a forest for days on end—just then, it all came to a halt.
Suddenly the days turned slow. Conversations that had been hushed and solemn for months began to relax and grow louder, until one day Ron let out a laugh at the dinner table and nobody even flinched in surprise. With a jolt, Harry realized that he had stopped feeling that ache in his chest every time George came through the door.
Routine, routine of a different sort, had dug its claws into all of them. Harry could predict what time in the morning he would awake. He became accustomed to his daily trip to Weasley's Wizard Wheezes with Ron and to his evenings answering letters with Hermione. For the first time in a very long time, he was used to something. And it… it bothered him, in a way he couldn't remember anything else bothering him before.
So on a Thursday afternoon, when the sun was perfectly sunny, he Apparated at Grimmauld Place and sat down in the kitchen and let the memories consume him.
He sat there, silently, for what felt like hours, feeling the old house creak around him. Kreacher was likely there somewhere, but Harry didn't see him. The kitchen, instead, seemed to be full of ghosts—and Harry acutely missed what it was like when the kitchen meant something. When the table was the meeting place of the Order…when he had yelled at Lupin for trying to throw his life away on their Horcrux hunt …when he had interrogated Kreacher and brought in Mundungus Fletcher…when there had been a burning, painful sense of urgency, the fire of having a purpose…
Harry didn't notice Ginny until she was already there, dropping her bag on the kitchen table with a clunk that made the ghosts wobble and fade away slightly. Her red hair lit the shadows as if she were a goddamn phoenix.
He stared at her blearily, feeling numb in all his joints, incapable of doing much more than look up.
"Harry," Ginny said, and she was staring at him oddly—but not in the way, he realized somewhere deep inside his brain where he was still able to think clearly, that he would have expected.
He made a noise that was meant to be hello, but that got strangled somewhere along the way.
"I got home early," she said, still standing on the other side of the table. "I was going to invite you to this Quidditch match—Katie got us free tickets. I guess it's a double-edged sword, but it can't hurt to go, and Ron and Hermione are off somewhere…"
"Sorry," he mumbled, and knew that it wasn't quite clear what he was apologizing for, but he didn't know how to say that he was somehow incapable of just being bloody grateful for what he had.
But then Ginny was at his side, although he didn't see her move, and she put a hand at his elbow and looked him squarely in the eyes, and even in the dim light of the grimy kitchen windows that probably didn't look out into anything, he could make out each freckle on her face and the bright blue of her eyes, which were far from confused or bewildered or accusing. It had been an eternity since he'd been this close to Ginny.
"It's just—it's over, isn't it."
Ginny stared at him for a beat longer, and then nodded. Once. "Yeah, it is."
"I just…" Harry trailed off, trying to find the words. "I—all those years, y'know? And now…"
"Yeah," she said. "I know."
His jaw clenched, and when he spoke again his voice came out clearer than he felt. "I got the post for your mum today—she asked me to sift through what was important and what wasn't. There was a discount twelve-month subscription for The Quibbler, and I gave it to your mum, and she said I'd rather not, Harry, but you can keep the coupon if you like, and…"
He trailed off, not knowing exactly how to put into words how it had made him feel. The mundaneness of the question had shaken him: the prospect of twelve months, stretching out before him, with no end in sight…it was too much, too foreign. He had spent the past years bent over one mission after another, focused more on staying alive than on what day it was, hoping that they might just have enough time. To hold a coupon in his hands and realize the vast field of opportunities at his reach was a staggering, overwhelming weight.
He became aware, gradually, that his breath was coming out in short gasps. Beside him, Ginny had not moved an inch.
"I just didn't think that things would ever be normal," he said, and it was as if something was winding itself around his lungs, painful but inevitable. His voice was cracking and turning in his throat, and when it escaped him, he hardly recognized it. "It's almost autumn again, and last winter we were just trying to survive…"
And before he knew it, Ginny had an arm around his shoulders, and he was suddenly falling, falling onto her lap, and his face was pressed almost painfully against her knee, and he was shaking in a way he had never shaken before, and it was almost funny, wasn't it, that he was breaking down now, when there was nothing left to cry about. But his breath was strangled and he could feel hot tears streaming down his cheeks and dropping onto the denim of her jeans, and he wanted to apologize for being so bloody ridiculous, because it was all over, they were supposed to celebrate, and why in Merlin's name did he find times of peace so disturbing?
Ginny reached up and stroked his hair gently. The weight of her forearm supplied a comforting warmth to his shoulder; her body was a firm presence beneath his head, unmoving and warm and accepting. Harry couldn't even find it in himself to be embarrassed as she reached for his glasses with her other hand and pulled them away from where they were digging into his face. His chest heaved and he let the tears fall until there wasn't anything in him anymore.
Ginny kept stroking his hair long after he fell silent, even when Harry reached up and numbly wiped his face on his sleeve. He kept his forehead pressed against her knee and took deep, shivering breaths. The kitchen seemed warmer now, somehow, even though his chest was still aching.
"Harry, it's not going to be easy," Ginny finally said, pausing her hand. He had forgotten how her voice could be gentle yet matter-of-fact all at once. He could feel her gaze on his cheek. "Normal life is really fucking hard sometimes."
He let out a low, shaky laugh.
"No, I'm serious," she said, though he could hear the smile in her voice. "There's job applications, and taxes, and chores, and asshole colleagues, and probably the press—"
"Ugh, I hate the press," Harry ground out, smiling against her knee.
"And when you're trying to make a meal to impress everyone with your mad cooking skills but it comes out all wrong, and now everyone thinks you're delusional…"
He sniffed and smothered another laugh.
"And Mum with the bloody Leaky Lottery tickets she keeps making us get for her—"
He pretended to groan. "We buy one every month!"
"And Ron and Hermione are together now, so we can all brace ourselves for bloody decades of rows, and trying to figure out whatever social dynamic the three of you are going to have now that two of you are sha—"
"Yeah, yeah, okay," Harry interrupted with a grimace.
"And dating. Don't even get me started on dating."
He turned, then, and looked up at her. He could feel that his eyes were swollen, but for the moment, he really didn't care. He never felt like he had much to hide around Ginny anymore. There were tear tracks down her face, too, and though his sight was rather blurry without his glasses, he could very clearly make out the softness in her eyes.
"I was hoping I wasn't going to have to worry about that one, to be honest," he admitted.
She opened her mouth as if she was going to answer, before hesitating and closing it again. Then she smiled, and the sight of it was so brilliant that Harry felt his heart seize up inside him.
"Yeah," she breathed. "I reckon I'm going to make that one too easy for you."
Slowly, Harry sat up until he was level with her face, close enough to make out the vulnerable look in her eyes, and the tears in them. He didn't know what to say, but he reached forwards and cupped her cheek, because she knew how he felt, and if she didn't know then she had to know now…
Ginny let out a low, breathless laugh that was also a sob, and turned slightly to press a kiss to the palm of his hand. And then his lips were against hers, and he was kissing her.
She was different than he remembered—no longer just a teenager, although Ginny had never been just a teenager—but a war hero, a veteran of countless attacks during the war. A survivor of multiple cruelties. There was a new gentleness to her movements, as if she had stifled them for so long that tenderness had somehow become more precious. Harry realized that he had forgotten what it felt like to touch without urgency.
Ginny pulled away abruptly after a few minutes and eyed him impassively.
"You know, I could just…leave, now, if you like," she said, glancing at the kitchen door, her eyes gleaming with mischief. "I can draw this out, and it can be a new crisis—and then you'll have a mission…"
Harry rolled his eyes. "Oh, shut up," he said, though he was grinning as he pulled her into his lap.
And as she reached up to entwine her fingers with his, he breathed out a sigh against her lips, and suddenly felt terribly, terribly happy that there were still so many years to come.