Hermione hadn’t taken much notice, she realized, of the damage being done to the castle as it was happening. Amid all the dust and confusion, it was the best she could do to keep Harry and Ron in her line of sight; everything else seemed to happen in her periphery, and was erased by dust or darkness almost as soon as it occurred. Now the dust had settled, and the sun had been up for hours. It cast a fierce, summery light through the shattered windows of Gryffindor Tower. In defiance of it, the Boy Who Had Now Lived Twice lay on a common room sofa, sleeping the sleep of the dead.
Hermione removed his glasses and placed them on the cushion beside him. She noticed as she did so that the lenses were scratched. She sighed. Broken frames she could repair in an instant, but lenses were more difficult: if you weren’t careful, you’d change the prescription as well. And it had been so long since she’d read an ordinary spellbook. So she conjured a blanket instead, covered him with it, and left the glasses until later.
She resumed pacing the common room, repairing the furniture and levitating it back into place as she went. A defensive contingent must have stationed themselves there the night before, firing spells into the battle from above. They’d built a complex barricade out of tables and chairs in front of the window, as an extra line of protection. It seemed to have been effective: some of the tables had large scorch marks across their tops, and others had burst into pieces not much larger than splinters, but there were no signs of human injury that Hermione could see. She hoped they were fighting for Harry. She did not like the idea of Death Eaters being in Hogwarts at all, of course, but Death Eaters in Gryffindor Tower was even worse. It was a little like finding out Voldemort had been sleeping in her bed.
She had a sudden vision of Voldemort wearing her dressing gown and slippers. She couldn’t decide at first whether it was funny. He had killed rather a lot of people, after all, and been responsible for the deaths of countless more.
But his power was broken. Soon, witches and wizards would be able to say his name aloud, to toss it around in conversation like a Quaffle, without fear. After that, laughing at him was the logical next step. So she grinned a little at the thought of Voldemort enswathed in pink terrycloth.
Then she shuddered, remembering that his corpse still lay in the castle. It was shrouded and locked in the dungeons, yes, but it was still too close by. She hoped he would be moved soon, that his remains would be burned and scattered at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, or jettisoned into space—or Vanished entirely. She knew she was being irrational, but it infuriated her that in death he had become in essence the same as Lupin, Tonks, Colin Creevey, or Fred. He didn’t deserve to be treated the way they would be. He didn’t deserve a proper burial.
The anger gave her the burst of energy she needed to keep working. She finished with the furniture, and swept the glass on the floor into a pile before repairing the windows. It was an important step if she didn’t want shards flying from all directions. She would have to remind Harry and Ron of this if they chose to help with clean-up in the morning.
The Weasleys were still with Fred in the Great Hall. She, Harry, and Fleur had been with them at first, but though Mrs. Weasley insisted they were family too, they knew this wasn’t quite true. None of them had grown up at the Burrow. They did not remember the days that Bill and Charlie lived at home, or the reason that Percy refused to eat chicken, or the time Ginny’s birthday cake burned because Ron had climbed the tallest tree in the orchard and couldn’t get down. She supposed they couldn’t have helped it, as they simply hadn’t known the Weasleys yet. Still, they hadn’t been there, and as a consequence, it didn’t seem right that they should be there now.
Still, they stayed for a long while. Hermione held Ron’s hand tightly in her own, watching Harry’s eyelids sag lower and lower as the minutes silently passed. He may have just defeated the most evil Dark wizard who ever lived—and in doing so, changed in ways she didn’t quite understand—but he was also a human being who had gone over forty-eight hours without a minute of rest. During which time he had apparently died and come back to life, an activity Hermione imagined must be rather taxing. So when Mrs. Weasley at last began to speak, her voice cracking with grief, Hermione was glad to let Fleur usher them away.
“We’ll be in Gryffindor Tower,” she whispered in Ron’s ear as they went. He gave her a look that plainly said he did not want her to go, but then his eyes fell on Harry, and he nodded.
With the common room put mostly to rights, Hermione found that she too was having trouble staying awake. The chairs by the fire, though it had long gone out, looked so inviting. But she had promised herself she would wait up for Ron.
All of a sudden, with a brilliance that made the sunlight seem dim in comparison, the idea struck her that Harry would be safe if she left him here. She no longer needed to keep watch over his sleep.
She dashed out of the portrait hole and down the stairs, all the way to the doors outside the Great Hall.
When Ron and his family emerged, they said quiet goodbyes. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Charlie, and Percy would be staying at the Three Broomsticks, where Madam Rosmerta had offered them rooms free of charge “until the necessary arrangements could be made.” Bill and Fleur were going back to Shell Cottage. Ginny, Ron and Hermione would stay in Gryffindor Tower with Harry, because no one wanted to wake him or to leave him alone. Lastly, though Bill and Charlie had tried, George could not be persuaded to leave his brother’s side.
“Not yet,” he had said, and that he would hex them if they tried to make him.
“He’s an adult now,” said Mr. Weasley, his face grey as the little hair left on his head. “He can make his own decisions.”
His voice sounded so broken, Hermione wanted to throw her arms around him. But she had never actually touched Mr. Weasley before, and she found she could not bring herself to hug him yet. She made a mental note that she would, soon; in the meantime, she laid a hand on his shoulder. He looked down at her without really seeing her. She hoped he understood anyway.
“Merlin, I’ve missed my bed,” said Ginny once her parents had left. She yawned. “I hope it’s still there.”
Ginny feigned nonchalance, but Hermione wasn’t fooled. Though everyone else—George, Ron, even Harry (though Hermione wasn’t quite sure he’d noticed it)—had cried freely by Fred’s side, Ginny had not shed a tear. Every muscle in her body radiated tension; she was wound tightly enough to break. Hermione hoped she would cry herself to sleep and awake better, or as much better as she could be with a brother now growing cold on the flagstones of the Great Hall.
“The staircase looks all right,” Hermione said. “I didn’t go up, though.”
“It’s worth a try. If not, I’ll be in the boys’ dormitory,” Ginny said. She cast what was meant to be an impish look at Ron, but it came off looking slightly deranged.
Hermione’s brow furrowed with concern, which Ginny noticed and turned away. She set off for Gryffindor Tower at high speed before Hermione could open her mouth. Hermione supposed it was just as well. She hadn’t the faintest idea what she might have said.
“Stay out of Harry’s bed!” Ron called after Ginny. “I have to sleep in that room, too, you know!”
Ginny didn’t reply.
“Harry’s on the sofa,” Hermione told Ron.
“You know, we should probably get some sleep, too,” Hermione said. “We’ve been awake for almost 48 hours now.”
She couldn’t remember being so tired in her entire life. Ever. Not even during her third year, when her exhaustion became so acute she fantasized about falling asleep and never waking up.
“Don’t want to,” Ron said quietly.
He hadn’t spoken much while they had gathered, with the rest of his family, around Fred. Now that he did, his voice sounded horribly like his father’s had. Hermione felt as if she’d just walked through a ghost.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “It has been a while since Aberforth brought those sandwiches up. I think the kitchens made it through okay. We could—”
He shook his head. “M’not hungry. Just don’t want the nightmares,” he said.
He looked so tragic it tore at her heart.
Madam Pomfrey, Hermione knew, had a stock of potions for dreamless sleep, but Madam Pomfrey more than had her hands full at the moment. Of course, she could make one herself. The recipe was in their sixth year potions textbook, which was in her beaded bag...oh, but it needed to simmer for at least eight hours, otherwise it caused violent hallucinations.
Her shoulders slumped. She felt useless. She looked up at him, his face streaked with dirt and tears, his clothes filthy, his hair unwashed and standing on end. Before she quite knew what she was doing, she was kissing him again. She meant for it to be brief—just to remind him she cared, since she didn’t seem to be able to do anything to actually help him—but he latched onto her as if she were the only thing keeping him upright.
When they finally broke apart, gasping for air, he kept his eyes squeezed shut. She had seen that expression before, on Harry’s face the night Voldemort came back. How long it had taken for the misery Harry had carried with him from that day to abate? Hermione didn’t think she could stand it if Ron went as long without laughing as Harry had.
She took his face in both her hands. His expression relaxed a bit, but he kept his eyes closed. She ran her thumb over his cheek, and he relaxed a bit more. Suddenly, she knew exactly what to do.
“Come on,” she murmured. She took his hand and led him away.
The door to the Prefects’ bathroom had been blasted off its hinges, but it lay more or less in one piece on the floor nearby. Hermione couldn’t quite work out why. Had the Death Eaters really expected to find Harry Potter hiding out in a bathroom? It must have been the handiwork of some of Lord Voldemort’s dimmer servants; perhaps Crabbe’s and Goyle’s fathers. She realized, though, that it was actually quite fortunate, as the password might have been changed in the year since she’d last used it. Ron looked astonished, but did not protest when she led him inside, levitated the door back into place, and sealed it.
“I wondered whether that spell might still come in useful after Voldemort was gone,” Hermione said.
Ron tried valiantly to answer her, but he only managed a croak in reply. The mermaid on the wall giggled so much at this, she nearly slipped off her rock. Ron looked grateful for the diversion.
“I always reckoned she might be a few Sickles short of a mermaid’s purse,” he said.
Hermione laughed. Somewhere deep down, she knew, Ron was actually rather clever. She hoped that now, after his brilliant performance with regards to the Chamber of Secrets the night before, he might begin to recognize this fact.
Ron smiled weakly, pleased she had laughed at his joke. Hermione wasn’t about to tell him that the mermaid reminded her of Lavender Brown, so much so that for a large part of their sixth year, she’d not used the Prefects’ bathroom at all. Only after Lavender dumped Ron had she resumed using it. Then she seemed to find herself there all the time, for a nice gloat nearly as often as a nice bath.
Hermione normally tried to keep that kind of behavior to a minimum. She prided herself on being above it, for the most part. But when the stress of exams compounded with her usual worries about how the fate of the entire Wizarding world rested on her best friend’s shoulders, she had to admit that locking herself in the Prefects’ bathroom for a moment of immaturity was spectacularly calming.
Now that she thought about it, she suspected she might have learned that particular coping tactic from Ron. She busied herself with the taps while she tried to work out what, if anything, that might mean.
“Hermione?” said Ron, breaking her reverie.
“What are you doing?”
“Honestly, Ron. What does it look like?”
His face, underneath all the dirt, went very red. He looked like a freshly-unearthed beetroot.
“You realize I’m still here, right?”
She scrutinized him, trying for what must be the trillionth time to read his mind. Was she, yet again, trying to push him into something he wasn’t ready for? The war had aged him, true, but it hadn’t changed him. Not really.
“Yes, and I’ve spent the past year living with you in a tent.”
Though it wasn’t as if they’d all pranced about nude in front of one another. Harry and Ron had been downright ridiculous about protecting her modesty, preferring to leave the tent entirely while she changed clothes. Or, when that wasn’t an option, they stood together in the kitchen with their backs turned and hands over their eyes. Ron’s ears would always be pink for the next half-hour, and he couldn’t seem to stop clearing his throat.
At first, Hermione found this endearing. When he left, she missed it so much she sometimes found herself dripping tears on her shirt collar as she pulled it over her head. Then, when he returned, it infuriated her. She did not, she had decided, love him anymore. He had betrayed them so cruelly she thought the universe had been torn asunder, yet he still dared to imagine her naked! His presumptuousness had made her want to slap him until his cheeks were redder than his ears.
He should have groveled on the floor for the privilege of addressing her. He should have donned a hair shirt, and self-flagellated, and recited Hail Hermiones until he was blue in the face. He should have—but then he saved her life.
“Oh. All right,” Ron said. He cleared his throat—twice—and Hermione had to think of Fred in order to stop herself from laughing out loud. With much determination, she kept her face straight, and offered him a compromise.
“Look, if you’re that bothered about it, just get in with your clothes on. They could do with a wash as well.”
He looked relieved. “Fair enough.”
He unlaced his trainers and, after a moment’s consideration, removed his jacket as well. His t-shirt and jeans stayed on. Hermione flicked her wand at the taps to turn them off, then bent to remove her shoes as well. Ron approached the side of the tub, took a deep breath, and leapt in with a rather larger splash than was necessary.
He took his time coming back up. Hermione took advantage of the opportunity to scramble out of her shirt and trousers. She made it into the water just as his head broke the surface of the bubbles. Oblivious, he tried to float on his back, but the weight of his sodden clothing pulled him down again. He bobbed back up and smiled at her, enjoying himself, like a child in a swimming pool.
“You’re very probably mad, you know,” he informed her. “But this was a good idea. My mum would be horrified.”
She returned the smile, pushing a chunk of wet hair out of her eyes as she did so. Once upon a time it had been fringe, but it was now long enough to cover her nose. Of course, once upon a time, her trousers had been snug on her waist, and she had feared Molly Weasley only slightly less than she feared Dark wizards.
“Possibly,” she said.
His smile disappeared, faster than a lit wand told Nox. “Now I think of it, I don’t reckon she’d care that much, right this moment.”
He was struggling to hold himself together, to keep his head above the sea of grief that lapped at him tirelessly. A year ago, Hermione would have said she’d never seen him fight so hard. Her own comparatively meager grief rose in her chest, and she gave it her voice.
“I’m really sorry about Fred,” she said. “It wasn’t fair, and he didn’t deserve it. And I’m going to miss him loads. We all will.”
“It’s fucking awful,” he said. Each word sounded as if it had been torn from him.
“I know,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
His face was already wet from the bath, but Hermione was fairly certain there were tears mixed in. She knew they were on her own face. She looked away, gathering herself. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see him like this. She just didn’t want it to have happened at all. The Weasleys didn’t have much in the way of material possessions, but they’d always had each other. That would never be completely true again, and he knew it.
“He’d be glad that you’re alive,” she offered, after a long pause.
She felt guilty that, as far as she knew, her parents were still living blissfully ignorant lives in Australia, safe and sound. She felt guilty that she was glad of it, too. Who was she to advise him about how to deal with his brother’s death? She who had been impossibly lucky, she who had lost no one.
“S’pose you’re right,” he said.
He squared his shoulders, and the tide receded once more—or was it simply that he’d drawn himself up to his full height?
“I’m glad I’m alive,” he said, wondering a little at this fact. “I’m right glad you are, too.”
With a great splashing, Hermione flung her arms around him. She hugged him so tightly she squeezed water from his t-shirt into her ear. He moved to return the hug, but his thumb caught the clasp of her bra as he did so. He jerked his hands away, gaping at her.
She had thought, as the dust settled after the battle, that nothing could embarrass her ever again. Embarrassment, she had decided, was minutiae: an insignificant emotion next to love or joy, grief or sorrow. She had thought of old Archie at the Quidditch World Cup, and smiled because he, of all people, had been wise enough to understand these things. At that moment Hermione had felt a thousand years old.
But in this moment, she blazed with embarrassment. In spite of everything, she was still eighteen years old, and there was so much she didn’t know.
“I figured I’d split the difference,” she said, cringing. “Er...I’ve got my knickers on as well.”
She wished quite desperately that she had remained dressed. It was inappropriate to discuss his dead brother without her clothes on. Really, what had she expected they’d talk about, the weather? She crossed her arms over her chest, painfully aware of the uselessness of the gesture.
Ron found his voice. “It’s okay, it just...surprised me, that’s all.”
“I’m not trying to distract you, like some sort of aquatic scarlet woman. I just—”
He interrupted her by kissing her.
“Sorry,” he said. “We do keep doing that.”
She struggled with herself for a moment, trying to get her thoughts, which were in radical opposition to one another, in order. But her head spun with exhaustion. She realized he was waiting for an answer, and gave up.
“I suppose, if it helps...” she said.
“It doesn’t,” he said, surprising her. “I mean, it’s brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but it makes me feel a bit like I’m going mad.”
“It’s like I’ve got a split personality or something...” He trailed off, struggling to find the words. “Never mind. I’m no good at explaining.”
“You’ve done an admirable job so far,” she said.
He looked up at her through his pale eyelashes, almost shyly—as if he didn’t quite believe her, but very much wanted to. She didn’t think she was capable of loving him any more than she did at this precise moment. He was absolutely beautiful, with his wet t-shirt clinging to his freckled chest and his red hair plastered against his head. Someday, she thought, she would count every last one of those freckles.
“Really, you have,” she said emphatically. He flushed, pleased.
He reached out and ran his fingers through her hair. It tangled immediately, wrapping around his fingers like seaweed. He seemed to like that. He stepped closer, pulling her to his chest, and buried his face in the top of her head. She felt a light tug as he closed his mouth, gently, around a lock of her hair.
She ran her thumb down his arm. There was a smudge of dirt just below his sleeve, so she scooped a handful of bubbles and washed it away.
He moved down, kissing her hairline, then her forehead, then her brow bones. She washed his other arm, which had a hard knot of a bruise near the elbow. Next she gathered another handful of foam to wash his neck. It was hard to see, with him bending over her, but she did her best.
Like the rest of his body, his neck was long and narrow. She could lay her fingers between the two protruding vertebrae above his collar. She moved her hands to his collarbones, or as much of them as she could reach at the neckline of his shirt. He stopped kissing her long enough to pull his shirt off. Once he had struggled out of it, he kissed her mouth.
The others had been desperate kisses: the kind that left their jaws aching and chests heaving. This one was gentler, though by no means any less enthusiastic. There was something else about it, too; something that made her back arch and her lips part. She did not think she had ever wanted anything to continue more in her entire life.
He was studying her, she realized, studying the way they fit together. Not experimenting, just taking notes, as if she were something he would need to know later. He kissed first her bottom lip, then the top; he slipped his tongue in her mouth, then brushed his closed lips across hers very lightly. Then he kissed her harder, nearly engulfing her with his gangly body as he did so.
They broke apart for a moment and regarded each other. Hermione had never fully appreciated their ability to hold whole conversations without speaking, possibly because they had learned it so gradually she had barely noticed it happening. But she was grateful for it now, as the things that were passing between them would have been very difficult to put into words, and the decision they came to might not otherwise have been reached.
His ears reddened instantly.
She tilted her head upward to kiss his neck. He moaned, a faint and guttural sound that made her own breath catch in her throat. So she mimicked it, running her soapy hands over his back as she did so. He lifted her off her feet and kissed her once more.
Then he set her down and began to wash her, as gently and carefully as his large hands could manage. He had a look of intense concentration on his face. She did not blame him for it: it took extraordinary effort to set the world back in motion.
They slept that night in Ron’s old four-poster. Ginny had magically widened the sofa in the common room, and was sleeping there with an arm wrapped protectively around Harry. Everyone else had gone home, to St. Mungo’s, or to the Great Hall, so they had the room to themselves.
Before they left the Prefects’ Bathroom, they had dried their clothes with their wands. But with the bed curtains drawn, they seemed superfluous, so Hermione folded them neatly and slipped them under the bed for tomorrow. After that, their exhaustion got the better of them.
When they woke the next day, they were kissing before they opened their eyes, both having been struck anew by the miraculous fact that they were alive. They were real, breathing, finite beings who radiated heat and currently smelled of soap, sleep, and each other. All of these things seemed impossible, but they were true.
In light of that, getting out of bed could wait.
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