Not in the Hands of Boys

Fourth Rose

Story Summary:
Once the final battle is won, life must go on, although it can be even harder to master than death. Back at Hogwarts for his final year of school, Harry tries to cope with everything he's been through. As the world around him struggles for a way back to normality, he is forced to realise that in the long run, living takes a lot more courage than dying.

Chapter 29 - Part 29

Author's Note:
Thanks to cloudlessnights for betaing!

Harry wasn't surprised in the slightest when he entered McGonagall's office and saw the Minister for Magic sitting in the visitor's chair across from the Headmistress's desk. He'd been expecting the summons for two days - as a matter of fact, it had come as a bit of a surprise that it had taken them two days to summon him.

"Have a seat, Mr Potter," McGonagall said briskly and conjured another chair with an impatient wave of her wand. "I think you know what this is about."

"The fact that I failed my Potions NEWT, I suppose," Harry answered; it came out a lot calmer than he felt. "Do you always tell students in person that they botched an exam?"

The Headmistress closed her eyes for a moment; she suddenly looked very old and tired. The weary expression was immediately gone when she opened her eyes again, though. "Officially, the results won't be announced for another month or so, therefore -"

"Professor, I blew up my cauldron, for crying out loud!" Harry interrupted her, which was probably a first, but he wasn't going to take any more dancing around the issue.

She gave him an icy look in return. "Yes, I remember quite vividly, Mr Potter. It's a pity no one has ever thought of casting a Shield Charm over the examiners' table during a Potions exam, but I assure you we will know better next year."

"Took me an hour to get the liquorice sap out of my ears," Shacklebolt added with a faint grin. "That stuff is fiendishly sticky, you know."

"Sorry," Harry replied with a shrug. "Don't tell me there's a chance I passed after that, though."

"None at all," Shacklebolt confirmed. "Professor Slughorn made a passionate argument that your written exam was so brilliant it should get you a passing grade overall, but he can't overrule the board's decision, and they won't go with it, no matter how much they might want you to pass. That's why I wanted to be present during this meeting, Harry. You know what this result would normally mean for your plans of becoming an Auror, but yesterday I had a long talk with old Wulfstan MacGraw - he's the acting Department Head, we still haven't got a permanent replacement for -"

Harry held up a hand to cut him off. "Let me guess: he's going to accept me into Auror training regardless of the fact that I'm not qualified."

Shacklebolt nodded. "He said that it would seem patently idiotic to count NEWTs with someone who -"

"Defeated a Dark Lord, yes, I've heard it before," Harry interrupted again. "Kingsley, are you serious? Are you really willing to bend all the rules for my sake, just so that I can have what I want no matter whether I deserve it or not?"

A small voice at the back of his mind that sounded suspiciously like Draco's pointed out that he should be used to it by now, but Harry did his best to ignore it.

Shacklebolt's face didn't give away what he thought of the question. "Most people in your situation would be quite happy about it, I'd wager."

"Yes, especially since it's not going to stop there, is it?" Harry shot back, remembering what Ron had said just a few days ago. "If I join now, how long until I'm Department Head? Ten years? Five?"

"You can't know that," Shacklebolt admonished him gravely, although Harry was sure he wasn't imagining the hint of uneasiness in the Minister's voice.

"I shouldn't, but I do, don't I?" Harry did nothing to keep the bitterness out of his tone. "And what's even worse, it won't matter whether I deserve that or not, either. Have you ever looked at it like that?"

"I have, as a matter of fact," the Minister replied; he sounded dead serious now. "Harry, I still think you would make for -"

"Don't do it, Kingsley." Harry leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath, steeling himself. Even after everything that had happened, it was still harder than he'd expected to let go of an old dream, but he knew there was no other way. "The Ministry doesn't owe me anything, and I don't owe them anything in return. I won't be singled out all my life because of something I did before I turned twenty."

"It doesn't have to be like that," Shacklebolt pointed out. "You could make a career for yourself, prove that there's more to you than just the Boy Who Lived."

Harry shook his head. He'd given the matter a lot of thought, and he knew it was never going to work out for him like that. He hoped Shacklebolt wouldn't force him to explain himself in detail, though; there were too many issues he wasn't ready to raise. A bolt of green light flashed through his memory, combined with the dangerous, intoxicating tingling of power in his fingertips. Don't hand me the means to destroy myself and everything I fought for.

"Let me fade into the background, Kingsley," he said at last. "I've been the centre of attention all my life, but I'm done with it now. People will forget. Trust me, it's better that way."

The announcement was followed by a long silence. Shacklebolt was idly twisting a loose thread from the hem of his sleeve around his finger; he seemed deep in thought. McGonagall's expression was stony; behind her, Harry spotted the portrait of Phineas Nigellus eyeing him curiously. He felt oddly relieved that Dumbledore's big golden picture frame was empty.

At long last, it was the Minister who broke the silence. "So you did fail on purpose."

McGonagall's eyebrows shot up at this, but Harry managed to keep his expression neutral. "It doesn't matter now, does it?"

"Probably not," Shacklebolt replied with a shrug, "but it's a damn shame nevertheless. You're throwing away what could have been one hell of a career."

Harry couldn't help thinking that the wording of this statement made for a rather interesting double meaning. "And yet you haven't told me how sorry you are that I won't join the Auror Corps." Shacklebolt's shoulders stiffened ever so slightly, confirming that Harry had hit a nerve. "Admit it, Kingsley, you aren't that keen on having me underfoot all the time, are you?"

Shacklebolt hesitated visibly before he finally admitted, "Perhaps not all that much, no. I had no idea I was that obvious, though."

"You shouldn't have sent your friend Quall if you didn't want to be obvious." Harry grinned as he recalled the man's scandalised expression. "You must have known that he was the perfect choice for pissing me off enough to make me spit in the Ministry's face."

Shacklebolt chuckled ruefully. "Poor Eustacius, I knew I could count on him." He grew serious again when he added, "Harry, I hope you don't think that I don't appreciate everything you've done, or that I'm underestimating what you've been through. Under different circumstances, I think you would have made for a damn fine Auror, and I'm truly sorry for the corps that you won't be joining them. But there are no two ways about it, you would be a political factor from the very beginning, and given how volatile things still are at the Ministry..."

" don't need a short-tempered boy hero breathing down your neck and stirring up public opinion against you whenever you piss him off somehow," Harry finished for him, remembering the talk they'd had at the beginning of the school year. Funny how unsettling the idea that the Minister for Magic was worrying about Harry's political influence had felt to him then, when he pretty much took it as a given now. If Harry had needed any confirmation that he'd made the right decision about his future, that would have been it.

Shacklebolt nodded. "There are still a lot of tough decisions to make, and I doubt you'll like them all. We need to bring the old pureblood clans back into the fold if we want the peace to last, and that won't be achieved without a few rather painful compromises."

"There's no need to explain yourself to me," Harry reminded him. "You're the Minister for Magic, and I'm still just a schoolboy, remember?"

"Not for much longer, though," McGonagall spoke up. "Now that you know you won't become an Auror, Mr Potter, have you decided what you want to do with your life instead?"

That brought Harry up short. The Headmistress was right, it was the question he should have been asking himself since last Friday at the latest, but somehow he hadn't got to it so far. McGonagall nodded grimly when she saw him hesitate; Harry had the impression she hadn't expected anything else.

"After the end of the exams next week, I will offer a final round of careers advice for those NEWTs students who haven't decided for themselves yet. I'd suggest you give the matter some thought in the meantime and then come see me, perhaps I can be of help."

"I will, Professor, thank you." Harry rose from his chair and held his hand out to the Minister. "Thank you as well, Kingsley - and good luck with everything."

Shacklebolt shook Harry's hand firmly. "Good luck to you too, Harry, and let me know if I can ever help you with anything."

There wasn't anything else left to be said, so Harry just nodded and turned to leave. He was halfway out the door when Shacklebolt called after him.

"Oh, before I forget - I took a look into your friend Ron Weasley's exam papers yesterday. Tell him that the character and aptitude tests will be held at the Auror office at the beginning of August, won't you?"

Harry grinned to himself as he rode down the revolving staircase; it felt good to be the bearer of happy news for a change.

* * *

They ended the day with an impromptu party for four in Ron and Harry's room. It was the eve of Luna and Hermione's Arithmancy NEWT, but Ron managed to convince both of them to abandon their books when he announced the news. Hermione gave a shrill whoop that didn't sound like her at all upon hearing them, and Harry half expected Ron to end up with a few broken ribs from the way she embraced him. Ron was grinning from one ear to the other; he'd been devastated on Harry's behalf two days earlier, but now Harry didn't blame him for thinking of himself first. Owls were sent out to his parents, to Bill and Fleur, and even to Charlie in Romania; meanwhile Luna wandered down to the kitchen and came back with a hamper full of cauldron cakes and butterbeer.

They all settled down on Harry's bed - he'd be sleeping on a heap of crumbs tonight, but he reckoned it was worth it - and toasted Ron's success and future career in the DMLE. Harry could tell that it cost Hermione some effort not to point out how Ron still had a lot of tests to pass before he was even accepted into training, and he appreciated that she held her tongue for Ron's sake. Luna seemed to have overcome her dislike for the Auror Corps now that she knew Harry wasn't going to join, and she kept making up a number of extremely surreal crime scenarios that Ron was going to resolve single-handedly.

"It's just too bad that we won't go into training together, mate," Ron said ruefully while he uncorked another bottle. "I was so looking forward to chasing Dark Wizards with you!"

"Eager for another camping trip, are you?" Harry shot back, belatedly wondering whether the elves had spiced the butterbeer because he hadn't expected that he would ever be ready to joke about that. "You'll be doing fine without me."

"Yes, but it would have been fun." Ron took a swig and wrapped his free arm around Hermione's shoulders. "So what are you going to do instead?"

Harry shrugged. "No idea yet. I'll think of something."

"I haven't decided yet either," Hermione threw in. "There are several openings at the Ministry that look promising..."

"Yes, but first we're going to travel, aren't we?" Ron tightened his arm around her shoulders. "Have you heard yet, Harry? Hermione's parents are taking us on a trip round the world this summer - the Muggle way! They say I should see a bit more of how Muggles live..."

Hermione smiled softly, and Harry guessed there was more to the matter; hopefully this was a sign that things were looking up between her and her parents. "That sounds great," he said with conviction. "When are you leaving?"

"Right after the leaving feast. We've scheduled everything so that we'll be back in time for the aptitude tests," Ron replied, looking faintly embarrassed. "Dad found out for me in advance when they were going to be held - although I was a bit afraid that I was going to jinx things..."

"That is superstitious nonsense," Luna reminded him sternly. "Seriously, people believe in the oddest things while they steadfastly deny the existence of -"

"Crumple-Horned Snorkacks!" the other three chorused before she could finish.

Hermione burst into a fit of giggles, but Luna raised a pale eyebrow in a way that reminded Harry eerily of Draco Malfoy. "I was going to mention Blibbering Humdingers, as a matter of fact," she said mildly, which caused another fit of giggles from Hermione. Definitely spiced, Harry thought while he took another sip of butterbeer, but he didn't mind very much; it felt too good to just fool around like that, like a bunch of carefree schoolchildren they would never be again in their lives. He did his best not to think of how soon he and his friends would have to part ways; tonight, they were celebrating, and everything else could wait until tomorrow.

* * *

Harry had promised McGonagall that he would think about his plans for his future, but he was still none the wiser by the end of the following week, when he was scheduled to meet her for his careers appointment.

It was early evening on Friday when he climbed through the portrait hole. Several of his classmates had already had similar meetings during the day, but Harry hadn't talked to any of them (except Neville, who already knew what he wanted to do and had only gone to ask McGonagall for a letter of recommendation), so he wasn't quite sure what to expect this time. Things had definitely been easier during fifth year when he'd gone to her with a very clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life.

He was a bit early for his appointment, so he had to wait in front of the gargoyle until the Headmistress was finished with the student before him. When the staircase finally began moving downward, Harry took a step to the side to let the person coming out of McGonagall's office pass, but he froze in his tracks when that person turned out to be Ginny.

They stood staring at each other in silence for a second. Harry hadn't talked to her in months, and now he noticed for the first time how thin she had become, how there were faint lines between her nose and the corners of her mouth that made her look tired and much older than she was. His heart went out to her, and he felt a pang of guilt for abandoning her so completely during a time that must have been hard for her. Her eyes, however, were as he remembered them from their last talk, the blazing look he had always admired now cold and strangely flat.

Harry opened his mouth and closed it again, realising belatedly that he had no idea what to say. He finally settled on a rather weak, "Hello, Ginny."

"Hi." Ginny crossed her arms over her chest in a gesture that reminded Harry a bit of Mrs Weasley. "You can go up, she's awaiting you."

"Thanks." Harry hesitated for a moment before asking, "How did it go?"

Ginny shrugged. "There wasn't much to talk about for me, I already know what I'm going to do."

"Really?" Harry couldn't help wondering why Ron had never mentioned that. Thinking of it, he realised belatedly Ron hadn't mentioned Ginny to him at all for months. "What -"

"Charlie's boss offered me a job," Ginny answered before he could finish the question. "They need someone who's a good flier and has the guts to work with dragons."

Harry stared at her, aghast. "You're going to Romania?"

"Next week." Ginny tucked a strand of her fiery hair behind her ear, her eyes never leaving his. "I won't wait until the leaving feast, they're in the middle of the hatching season, and there's a lot of work to do."

"Oh." Harry had no idea what to say; the idea that her mother would let Ginny work with fire-breathing lizards half a continent away seemed too bizarre to wrap his mind around it. "I didn't know - I mean, I -"

"Don't," Ginny interrupted him fiercely, the cool facade cracking. "Whatever you were about to say, don't say it. Don't say you're sorry, don't promise to write me, and don't you dare to tell me that you'll miss me."

Harry watched her silently for a moment, his mind stuck on the fact that couldn't for the life of him remember ever writing her a letter before. He wanted to feel sorrow, or pain, or shock, anything beside the faint, strangely empty sensation of loss at the realisation that he wasn't going to miss her.

At long last, he held out his hand; he would have preferred to hug her, but he doubted she'd welcome it. "Good luck, Ginny."

He cringed inwardly at the stilted sound of the words, but they seemed to calm her, because her face relaxed into an expression that finally made him recognise the girl he'd fallen in love with two years ago that felt like a lifetime now. She took his hand, and there was a hint of the old Ginny in the sound of her voice when she said softly, "To you too, Harry."

Then she quickly let go and turned away. Harry stood in silence and watched her walk away from him until she disappeared behind a corner at the end of the corridor.