Written for psychee's 'Outdo Yourself in >4,000 Words' Challenge
For everyone who knows loneliness, and who has found it to be lifted for just a little while
Breathe, he reminded himself mentally, sitting up and coughing. He could get so caught up in time that his mind would forget it needed oxygen. Another forced breath, and he laid back down.
His back cried out in anger, in pain against the hard mattress, but he only turned onto his side. It had been a long twenty years sleeping on this bed alone, and now he sighed to see her side still empty. He was only fifty-seven, but that was far too old for the adventures of his youth.
He rolled to his other side and looked at the clock. The alarm-red announced the time as 5:32 a.m. He sighed heavily and sat himself up. He ran a hand over his face, feeling the rough straggly facial hair he hadn't shaved yet. Yawning, he put his feet in slippers and grabbed his dressing gown.
The floorboards creaked as he shuffled to the kitchen to put on the kettle. He could hear her scolding him, but waved the thoughts aside. Her light still shone brightly in his life, in the old house in Godric's Hollow, in his slowly decaying mind.
The water groaned as he turned on the faucet. It dribbled out lethargically, and he sighed, massaging his forehead with his palm. He had been working so hard lately, trying to forget her. All he wanted was to move on, but every day he was pulled back farther into a life twenty years gone.
He threw himself into a chair, forgetting the tea, and exhaled deeply. His back screamed, but he tried to ignore it. He rested his head and closed his eyes. It was too much work to do anything anymore. He would make tea when his daughter visited later in the day.
His eyes were drooping again and he let himself fall fitfully asleep.
His dreams were murky, faded pictures of his days with her in school. Holding hands, Ron, Dumbledore. It was a blur almost four decades later. He still loved her. He always would.
He jumped when he heard the phone ringing. His joints creaked as he hurried to answer it.
"Hello, Harry speaking," he announced after clearing his throat.
"Hey, Dad," a feminine voice said. "Figured you'd be up. Hope I'm not calling too early!"
"No, no," he assured. "Of course not, Lily."
"Just wanted to let you know I have to stop by a little early today, because I have to interview somebody for Uncle George today."
"Yes, yes, of course. How soon?" he asked, throwing himself from the past to the present.
"Is half an hour enough time?" she asked quietly. He could see the corner of her mouth pinching as she waited for the rejection.
"That's lovely, Lily," he assured. "I'll just cook breakfast instead of lunch. Sausage and eggs sound fine?" It had been her favorite breakfast when she was little--Ginny made it for her twice a week when the boys were at Hogwarts without her.
Lily could tell her father was feeling nostalgic and said as enthusiastically as she could, "That would be amazing, Dad. I'll be there soon."
"Love you, Lils," he said.
"Love you too, Dad."
He was grateful for the distraction, far more than she could realize. She knew he needed to see his children, respected it more than the boys, and came once every two weeks, always called two days in advance and sometimes came more often than that. He encouraged her to put some of her zeal into her brothers.
Albus called every Monday afternoon, during his break. James wrote letters as often as he could and phoned more often in the summer, but being a teacher was demanding.
Harry stood and stretched, checking the clock. It read quarter after eight and he dragged his feet to the kitchen.
He hummed to himself as he began to fix breakfast for more than just himself-- he hadn't done that in a very long time. He couldn't remember when Lily lived at home, it had been so long ago.
As the smell of sausage filled the house, Harry remembered orange juice. He searched and found it at the back of the fridge. He checked the date and was slightly alarmed. Heaving a sigh, he dumped the juice down the drain.
A sharp crack came from outside his door. He rushed to it, opening the door as Lily straightened herself out. A smile erupted, crinkling her eyes.
"Hey Dad," she said, hugging him. "Smells wonderful."
"Your favorite," he replied, trying to figure out about her life without asking. The left corner of her mouth sagged and her makeup looked a little too heavily applied under her eyes. Her hazel eyes were lackluster, dim and far away.
"Come," he suddenly said urgently, ushering her in. "Sit, sit, sit." If there's anything he learned from Molly Weasley, it was how to usher people to a table.
He quickly served up an old style breakfast and poured some milk.
"I think you're beginning to lose some of your mind, Dad," Lily joked. "I used to have orange juice."
Sheepishly, Harry replied, "Expired."
Lily rolled her eyes and piled her fork. She took a bite and groaned in delight. "Wonderful as ever."
He smiled his thanks, pushing his food around on his plate. "So what's going on in your life?"
"Busy with work," she replied, shrugging.
"A man in your life, perhaps?"
Lily laughed, shaking her head. "Just you, Dad."
"That's what you think I want to hear," he protested, grinning despite himself.
She winked cheekily, taking another bite. Swallowing, she turned to her father and asked, "What about you? How's the Head of the Auror department?"
He shrugged, his eyes darting away.
"Uh-oh," Lily said, setting her fork on her empty plate. "Something's amiss."
He rubbed his temples; he'd wanted to tell all of his children his decision at Christmastime, not one-on-one this way.
"I'm going to retire," he finally blurted, her eyes boring into his soul.
"Why? You're an amazing Auror," Lily protested, shaking her head slowly.
"I can't save anyone anymore, Lily." He sighed and looked out the window. "I have to give up, because I'm not up to par anymore." He knew it sounded ridiculous, but he couldn't help it.
"Dad," whispered Lily, shaking her head frantically. "Dad, you're Harry Potter. You can't give up."
"I can't do it anymore, Lils," he told his only daughter quietly. "All I do is see your mother when I close my eyes. I couldn't save her when it counted. I'll never be able to save anyone again."
Lily sighed and reached into her bag, searching the pockets with her hand. She had hoped it wouldn't come to this, and she intended to destroy it after today, but her father needed this.
The Resurrection Stone was still in the ring, broken in two. Harry wouldn't have recognized it for what it really was until Ginny appeared beside him.
"Where did you get that?" he whispered open-mouthed.
"I found it during detention in the Forbidden Forest," she said quietly, "years ago."
"You've kept it?"
"Talk to Mum about it," Lily said, standing up and heading to the kitchen.
"Ginny," he breathed, looking at her. She still looked every bit the woman he had married so many years ago, just diluted a bit.
"Harry," she began, smiling gently at him, "Lily is right. You need to get back into your life, instead of waiting for me." Her face concealed her sadness as she added, "Don't hurry to me."
"Let me go, Harry," she whispered. "I will always be with you, just as your mother, father, and their friends guard you each and every day, but I cannot be your shield anymore."
He took in her translucent form, wishing he could simply hold her for eternity. Swallowing the knot in his throat, he nodded.
She wanted to kiss his forehead but instead nodded back. "Goodbye, Harry."