"Did I dream this belief? Or did I believe this dream? Now I can find relief... I grieve!"
Harry Potter clenched his teeth together, fighting to keep the scream in. He sat bolt-upright in bed, his hands reflexively clawing the air in front of him as he grabbed for... something... nothing... whatever it had been, in the fleeting nightmare, it was gone, vanished into the mists of sleep. For a moment he had no idea where he was or how he had got there. The bed was soft and comforting, despite the terror of the dream, and for a moment he was tempted to believe the last year had been nothing but one long, horrifying nightmare.
Every movement he made caused some part of his body to hurt with the deep ache that only true exhaustion and long-term injury could cause. His headache alone would stun any fifteen other people. Absent-mindedly he lifted his right hand to rub at his scar, only stopping himself when he realized the thing felt different under his fingertips.
As he stood, Harry reflected on the fact that every muscle in his body was screaming at him. He could only grin. He'd been in worse pain, but other than when under the Cruciatus, he'd never hurt this much all over at once. He stretched for a moment, trying to soothe the ache; it didn't work very well, truth be told. But while he was stretching he caught a whiff of his own aroma. He was long overdue for a shower. The watch he'd received on his birthday told him it was early morning... which meant he'd slept for at least twenty-four hours. Possibly more. He was certainly tired enough.
"Hey, Ron..." Harry padded over to Ron's bed, hoping he wasn't about to intrude on something intimate. Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger had followed him back up to Gryffindor Tower, all the while giving each other sappy looks. While Harry had fallen asleep almost immediately, it was clear that his two friends had other plans; Harry cringed at the thought of catching them in a delicate position. Carefully, he drew back the curtains. "Ron? Hermione?"
The bed was empty. This was unexpected, and for a moment Harry was stumped. A quick check around the room showed that no one else was here. Neville had slept somewhere else, apparently, as had Seamus and Dean. In addition, no one had taken up the chance to sleep in the empty beds. It wasn't greatly important, but it was puzzling. Undaunted, he searched around, finally pulling a bath towel out of the bottom of Seamus's trunk. He'd apologize to his roommate later. Right now, he just wanted the shower.
Harry let the hot water cascade over him as long as he could before starting in on the soap. He removed as much dirt and sweat ("Not to mention blood..." Harry thought to himself) as he could. As he stood under the water, allowing it to sluice away the soap and the grime, a procession of faces popped in and out of his thoughts. Some brought him brief moments of happiness. More caused great sorrow. He allowed himself to slide down the tiled wall and sat there, the water pounding over him as he hung his head and cried.
He wasn't truly sure how long he sat there, but he was amazed that no one had come in to interrupt. Perhaps no one was interested in talking to or seeing him right now, everyone was dead asleep themselves, or someone had left strict instructions that he wasn't to be disturbed. Out of the three, Harry judged the latter the most likely possibility. He could even see Kingsley Shacklebolt himself issuing orders to that effect.
He toweled himself dry, and then searched around for some clothes to wear. Years of wearing Dudley's old things had inured him to mismatched sizes. He found a shirt he could fit into in Dean's trunk, and a pair of pants that were the right size around the waist, but far too long in the leg. Quick transfiguration made them approximately the right size. He slipped on his trainers, forbearing his utterly wretched socks, and made his way out of his dormitory.
When he reached the Gryffindor common room, the first thing he saw were his friends. Ron and Hermione were curled up together on a pile of cushions and pillows built up on the floor in front of the empty fireplace. While the pair themselves were sleeping under a large red-and-gold blanket, their clothing -- and it looked to Harry as if it were all of their clothing -- was folded and stacked neatly in piles next to them. But that wasn't what shocked him.
Sitting in a chair just front of the portrait-hole, his back to the room and blocking any possible entrance into the tower, was Neville Longbottom. His hand gripped the pommel of Gryffindor's sword, and its naked blade lay across his lap, ready to be used. It took Harry several long moments to realize that Neville was standing guard; he was making sure that Harry, Ron, and Hermione were safe while they slept.
Harry smiled, wondering how he ever earned such true and devoted friends. He reached the bottom of the stairway before Neville noticed him. The other boy stood and, as Harry approached, extended his hand.
"You did it, Harry. You really did it," Neville whispered. He shrugged toward the portrait hole, eyeing Ron and Hermione's sleeping forms all the while. "Come on."
Harry followed Neville out, only to be shocked again. Seamus Finnegan, Dean Thomas, Ernie MacMillan, and Michael Corner were all standing outside, obviously alert and on guard, protecting the entrance to Gryffindor Tower. When Harry exited, to a man they stepped forward and greeted him warmly.
"Guys," Harry began. "You didn't have to stand guard like this. We would have been fine, yeah?"
Ernie shook his head. "This was Neville's idea. He thought that if anyone deserved some rest without anyone bothering them, it was you."
"Not only that, but Death Eaters are still creeping around out there, Harry. Some of them snuck away after you put paid to You-Know-Who... they even caught one hiding in the Charms classroom. We couldn't let you just fall asleep defenseless now, could we?" Dean interjected. The other young men nodded. "You deserve it, Harry. After you did what you did, it was the least we could do."
Harry just shook his head, amazed at the attention. "All right, guys... um... I wanted to sneak down to the kitchens, see if I could find something to eat. I'm half-starved. Um... carry on, I suppose." He paused. "Um... Neville... later on... after I've eaten... could we... um... could I have a word with you?"
Neville nodded. Harry could see no trace of the unsure, bumbling boy he had once been in the man Neville was now.
As Harry made his way down to the kitchens, he couldn't help but stare at the obvious damage the old castle had suffered. Everywhere he looked, there were cracks and chunks taken out of the walls, portraits that had been shattered and burned or simply vanished, suits of armor missing or in pieces. All around him Harry could see dark stains everywhere; he didn't know if they were scorch marks from spells or already dried bloodstains, or some other, unidentified source.
His heart broke at the sight of it all. This venerable castle had been, for the longest time, the only home he had ever known, and no matter what happened next in his life, he'd always consider the school fondly. It was always the place he knew he could come and be taken in, even at the worst of times.
He approached the hidden door to the kitchens, pausing only to take a quick look into the side door of the Great Hall. Without really knowing that he was going to change them, he altered his plans entirely and stepped through the door.
It took him a minute to take the entire scene in. Various people -- many of whom Harry simply did not recognize -- were milling around the students and teachers from the school. The bodies had been removed and the damage caused by the battle had, mostly, been repaired. There were still great gouges in the walls, but the scorch marks and the blood were gone. McGonagall sat nearby, talking in hurried but hushed tones with Kingsley Shacklebolt and Arthur Weasley. As they noticed Harry's arrival, they all stood, obviously waiting for him to speak.
He appreciated the implied respect created by such a gesture, but the fact that these three figures of authority were obviously deferring to him bothered him. Shacklebolt was an Auror, and a fairly high-ranking one, and Arthur was as good as a father to him. And McGonagall... If anyone counted as a mentor in his life other than Dumbledore, it was McGonagall.
"I... uh... good morning..." Shacklebolt looked to say something but was obviously hesitant. "Can I do something for you, Mister Shacklebolt?"
Before Shacklebolt could speak, McGonagall interrupted. She sounded curt, but almost apologetic. "Potter... Harry... Auror Shacklebolt has been appointed interim Minister of Magic."
"Oh." Harry turned back to the other man. "Is there... um... can I do something for you, Minister?"
"Harry, yes... and please, call me Kingsley. Headmistress McGonagall and Director Weasley here," Shacklebolt nodded toward Arthur, who looked slightly puzzled at the inclusion of the title, "have been discussing how to properly memorialize the fallen. We've decided to inter the honored dead here, where they died defending us all, and we'll have a mass public ceremony, after the families involved have had a chance to hold private funerals. I would see it as a personal favor if you would speak at the memorial ceremony."
Harry wasn't quite ready to deal with funerals or memorials, and it must have shown. He suddenly looked lost and helpless. Arthur leapt to his defense. Placing a gentle hand on Harry's shoulder, he said "Minister, I'm sure Harry would love to, but for now I think we need to let him recover from his ordeal."
For his part Shacklebolt had the good grace to look ashamed and sympathetic. "Certainly, Arthur. My fault entirely. I'm sorry... too much too soon and all that rot. I'll contact you later on this week about reforming the Department of Magical Law Enforcement." Shacklebolt smiled at Weasley's confusion. "Good day, Director. Congratulations on the promotion."
Arthur shook his head, and then returned his attention to the young man before him. "Harry... Harry... Son, come with me. Come on. Let's sit." He led Harry over to one of the nearby benches. Arthur stared at Harry for a moment. "Harry... Please be honest with me now. How...", he let the question hang for a moment. "Is there anything you need to talk about? Anything you just need to let out? I'll always be there to listen, if you need me to. I hope you know that, Harry. You're as much a part of my family as any of my own s-sons."
Harry rubbed his face with both hands and nodded. He understood. But he couldn't bear to unburden himself on this, the man who was if anyone as close to Harry ever had been to having an actual father. He couldn't do it, not right now. Later, there would be time for heartfelt talks and soulful encouragement. Just right yet, though, he couldn't bear to share his emotional burden with a man he loved so much. No... right now, there was only one thing he really needed to say to this man.
"Arthur, Harry. Arthur." The older man patted Harry on the shoulder again and smiled. It wasn't the man's usual wide-and-beaming grin, but it got the job done "Who knows... maybe I'll be 'dad' to you someday."
Harry returned the smile. "I'll try and remember." He took a deep breath. "I can't say how sorry I am about Fred's death, Mis... Arthur. I am so very sorry. It happened so fast there just wasn't anything anyone could do..."
"People die in war, Harry. It's an ugly truth that cannot be escaped. And, I admit, I had more at stake than most people." Harry gave him a shocked look, to which Mr. Weasley only nodded in response
"Its true, son. Not only was I in the middle of the fight, but so was my wife. And all... ten... of our children were fighting tonight as well. I could have been killed, or Molly." Harry watched Arthur Weasley take another deep breath. A puzzled expression crossed Harry's face for a moment. Wait... the Weasley's only have seven children... no, eight with Fleur. Who...? It took Harry a moment to realize Arthur was including himself and Hermione. The sudden rush of affection he felt for this man, the only real father he'd ever known, made his ears turn pink. He suddenly felt truly honored.
But the older man looked to be on the edge of tears. "I suppose it's a minor miracle that more of you weren't hurt. Or killed. But we must carry on, mustn't we? I once heard a wiser man than myself say that life was just the home we resided in for a little while before moving on to the next great adventure. I believe that this is true, Harry... I earnestly hope that it is..."
Harry nodded, wiping tears from his eyes. "Yeah... it is. Trust me." Mr. Weasley gave him a strange look. "I'll tell you, and I'll tell you soon. But right now... I can't. Not now. Right now I need to find Ginny. I need to see her. To..."
"Make sure she's real and that you really made it through alive?" Arthur asked. When Harry hesitated, he continued, "I understand completely. Last I saw, she was over there, at the Slytherin table, talking to Luna Lovegood."
"I'm just worried she's going to hate me." Harry grimaced at the thought. "I know that what I did to her was vile... I just hope she can forgive me for it. I l-love her, sir... she..." He couldn't continue.
Arthur stood, and gestured to Harry to stand. "You need to tell her that, son. And Harry... let me say this to you as a father to his son, for whom he holds every care and whom he loves more than the entire world... if you hurt my darling girl one more time like you did this summer, I will crucify you. Now... go to her. Tell her what you just told me. In fact, tell her everything. Be honest with her."
Harry spotted Ginny amongst a sea of moving figures. Despite the smudges and scratches, despite the obvious exhaustion written on her face, she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever met. He walked to her slowly, impeded by the crowd of admirers who couldn't tell that their statements of congratulations or fawning handshakes were keeping him from what he wanted and needed most in the world.
Ginny stiffened when she noticed his approach. She stood and stared at him as he came close to her, her face blank and empty of all emotion. Since he woke, Harry had imagined this reunion a dozen times, and in none of his imaginings was she cold and aloof. His fear that she had moved on without him resurfaced. But it was too late now. In for a knut, in for a galleon.
When he was but a foot away, he stopped. She raised her hand to his face, caressing it gently. Her eyes brimmed with tears.