Harry could barely keep his eyelids from drooping as the trio made their way back to Gryffindor tower. Each step seemed to require Herculean effort, but the enticing promise of a warm bed, and perhaps a late-night snack from Kreacher, kept him pushing forward until at last he found himself staring at the portrait of the Fat Lady, head sitting increasingly heavily on his shoulders.
“We don’t know the password.” Hermione stated rather lamely at the painted woman, a vague helplessness in her voice.
“That’s quite alright; I’d be a great fool if I didn’t know who you three were.” She responded jovially, and Harry heard the surrounding portraits laugh uproariously. Some were shouting congratulations, others seeking confirmation of outlandish rumours circulating the castle’s fixed residents.
“Is it true, son? Did you really take on six of them Death Eaters at once? Take ‘em all down single-handed?” Harry heard one shout at Ron, who, stifling a yawn, responded dismissively.
Harry clambered quickly through the portrait hole as he saw Hermione, beside him, begin to roll her eyes, herself much too tired to go about correcting the misinformation.
Despite the state of most of the castle, the common room had remained fairly intact, a shattered window, some upturned furniture and the absence of several suits of armour the only indication that anything unusual had happened in the building in the last 24 hours.
There was no fire in the grate, as the school house elves had been otherwise occupied, but Harry’s weary body barely recognized the chill as he headed with single-minded determination to the dormitory stairs, which seemed an insurmountable feat of mountaineering in his current state. It is for this reason that he was nearly halfway up the old familiar staircase before he noticed that no one was following him. Though he would have loved nothing more than to continue his climb, Harry turned half-heartedly back toward his friends, the need to know that nothing was wrong overcoming the deep desire for rest slowly taking hold of him.
Hermione stood at the bottom of the stairs, staring off in the direction of the empty female dormitories. Though her face was turned away, it was clear from her stance she wasn’t looking with favour toward her familiar sleeping quarters. Ron, too, had stopped three steps up, but his eyes were locked directly on the back of the girl’s head, features etched with concern, unsure of what was wrong.
“It just doesn’t seem fair,” She said finally, noticing the absence of footsteps behind her and observing that her stillness hadn’t gone unnoticed. “After all these months when you were never more than a few steps away....” she sighed heavily, though Harry could hear the sobs being wrought by sheer emotional and physical exhaustion slipping through in her voice. A quick glance at Ron confirmed that he was not the only one who noticed. “I just don’t think I’m ready to be alone yet.”
A clear sense of relief flooded Ron’s face and he seemed almost to glide back down the stairs. Harry sighed heavily and turned back toward the three remaining steps with new determination, as behind him he could hear Ron leading Hermione up behind them. If he was honest with himself, really, Harry was grateful. The rhythm of Ron’s snores had become essential night noise, as had the softer harmony of Hermione’s gentle breathing. It would feel unnatural, he mused, for quite some time to sleep anywhere if the other two weren’t next to him.
The familiar room of the seventh floor boy’s dormitory looked heart-wrenchingly empty with only two trunks in it. Harry, Ron & Dean’s beds were unnaturally well-kept and there was a thin layer of dust gathering on each set of covers, the curtains all pulled aside and tied back in the same way. He guessed the two remaining boys had felt quite alone up here, and wondered how many nights Neville and Seamus had stared at the gathering dust and dreamt about where they all were, what Dean was doing to stay alive, the heroic deeds he, Ron and Hermione could have been getting up to. It explained so much about everything Neville had done in the past year to stand up to the Carrows, it would have felt like having a part of the three of them back, like it was fifth year again, and they were quietly undermining the Ministry’s not-so-hidden agenda.
Struggling to rid himself of the guilt accompanying this thought, Harry stumbled into the bathroom to wash the grit of battle from his face as Ron rummaged in Neville’s trunk, grabbing the largest pair of pyjamas he could find for himself and throwing a smaller pair on the bed for Harry, while Hermione found an old pair of Ron’s under the bed, where they had clearly been discarded close to second year, when they no longer fit.
When Harry finally emerged from the loo, hair, face and arms now drenched and clean, he found his friends asleep facing him, Ron’s arm protectively around Hermione’s waist.
Harry himself peeled his sweat-soaked and battle-stained clothes off as quickly as possible, scrambling gratefully into the pyjamas Ron had retrieved for him and was asleep before his head hit the pillow, the first dreamless sleep he had had in a long time.
By the time he woke the next morning Harry's friends were already gone, though Seamus and Dean had gone at last to bed, Seamus with half a bottle of firewhisky on his bedside table. Harry shook his head. Some things never changed. Kreacher had indeed brought Harry a sandwich, and a set of clothes most likely taken from the shelves of Grimmauld place, knowing he would be unwilling to face the mob so early in the morning. (Though Harry observed, from the position of the sun, that it couldn’t really be that early.) Still, he dressed quietly, and descended the stairs to the common room with his trainers in hand, making hardly a sound on the cold stone steps.
For a moment the sight of the room made Harry worry there had been a second attack, discarded bottles littered the floor and several bodies were scattered about the furniture. Further inspection proved, however, that these were of sleeping friends, as common room after-parties had gone into the early morning, and people had dropped over whatever sleeping spaces they could find in the packed castle. Houses had also been ignored, as Harry could see students and robes he recognized as belonging to both Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff.
Harry navigated the sleeping bodies carefully, trying to make as little noise possible as he climbed carefully through the portrait hole. He shut the fat lady’s picture hastily, though, as the surrounding portraits burst into applause. The sound of a hundred painted hands clapping together echoed through the hall, and Harry scrambled round trying to hush each of them in turn, feeling increasingly frantic, until a muffling spell sounded behind him, and all were instantly silenced. Harry whirled round to see Luna Lovegood smiling serenely, her wand outstretched.
“Hi, Luna. Thanks for that.”
“Not a problem. I expect lots of people will want to show their gratitude after yesterday, but you’ve never seemed to really enjoy the attention.”
“No.” Harry agreed, and he felt again as he had the previous night, that there were really on two people whose company he wanted today. “Do you know where Ron and Hermione are?”
An hour later, and Harry was running out of places to look. His last two attempts having been somewhat desperate (Myrtle’s bathroom, which was thankfully empty, and the library, which looked like a paper factory had exploded, and where Madam Pince was busy restoring books and looked in danger of slitting Harry’s throat for disturbing her) he was starting to accept that he’d simply have to face the Great Hall.
Determined not to cover away from the people any longer, he set off at a brisk pace, mentally preparing himself for any possible onslaught. Would they still be so grateful in the light of day, those people who had thanked and praised him the night before? Would the losses not begin to tally, once the thrill of victory faded?
The dead. All at once their faces swam before him: Fred, Lupin, Tonks. Harry stumbled slightly as he pulled aside a tapestry revealing his favourite shortcut, and promptly collided with a mane of red hair headed the other way.
“Sorry.” Harry muttered, rubbing his bruised chest where the girl had bumped into him, “didn’t see-” The words died on Harry’s lips as he noticed Ginny Weasley sitting a foot from him, the look of surprise frozen on her face.
The passageway was silent for several long minutes as they stared at each other. There was so much he wanted to say, but found that words had suddenly failed him. Everything he had whispered to her in his dreams, all the promises and declarations he had vowed to make if he ever got to see her again promptly flew out of his head. Left in their place was the same ache he used to feel looking at her dot on the map. Like if he just stared hard enough he could make her understand everything.
He extended his arm and hoisted her awkwardly to her feet, never breaking their gaze, and even as she stood before him neither of them let go.
“It was you, wasn’t it, outside the castle. You walked by me on your way into the forest.”
Then, suddenly, she was in his arms. He was wrapping his fingers through her beautiful, sweet-smelling hair and her hands were wrapped so tight around his chest he could hardly breathe.
“I thought you were dead.”
“I know. I’m sorry, it was the only way.”
She sobbed quietly, her shoulders shaking against his chest as she dampened his t-shirt. And Harry buried his face in her hair to hide the tears he dried there.
They moved eventually to the floor, and Harry marvelled at how wonderful it was to have Ginny’s head on his shoulder again as his thumb traced a pattern in hers.
“You’re going to have to face them eventually, you know,” she sighed after some time, picking at a stray thread on Harry’s trousers, “it won’t be nearly as bad as you think it will.”
Despite how much he longed to stay in this little bubble with Ginny forever, Harry clambered to his feet behind her, making the rest of the journey to the Great Hall in silence. Still, as the noise of people eating and chatting grew louder, Harry couldn’t help but reach for her hand, and relaxed a little as she squeezed his fingers reassuringly.