Disclaimer: These characters are the property of J.K. Rowling—I borrow them with humble gratitude and no intention of copyright infringement.
It was quiet. Across the horizon, the sun was rising steadily, casting amber light across the battle-worn silhouette of Gryffindor Tower. Harry watched from the window of the boys' dormitory as the sky turned from pink to brilliant blue. He had come up to the Tower to get some well-earned sleep, but now he found that his brain was intent upon processing the events of the last few hours. The commendations from the crowd in the Great Hall still rang in his mind; his last conversation with Voldemort would probably haunt him for the rest of his life. His body was weary, but his heart ached with feeling—astounding relief mingled with remnants of fear, and any presence of joy was laced with incredible sadness. It was overwhelming, feeling that much at one time, in the space of one day. It seemed unreal that only twenty-four hours ago he had been at Shell Cottage, awakening to the sound of the ocean waves. Now, here, after all that had happened, the sound seemed to echo across a gap of years, rather than mere hours.
After leaving Dumbledore's office, Ron and Hermione had followed Harry up to the Tower, perhaps with the intent of processing their own thoughts. Harry noted that, like him, neither of them seemed to be anywhere close to sleep. Instead, they had all settled themselves comfortably, content for now to watch dawn fade into morning. After a while, Ron spoke from his bed, where he was lounging lazily against the headboard.
"Nice, isn't it?" he asked.
Hermione was sitting primly at his feet near the end of the bed, and she turned her head at his words.
"What's nice?" she asked.
"This," he said simply, waving a hand in the air to indicate the whole room. "Being here. I missed Hogwarts."
Hermione smiled. "Me too."
"And I missed real food," Ron continued. "I mean, no offence, Hermione, but if you ever give me anything made out of mushrooms again…"
From his perch at the window, Harry smirked despite himself. "You'll toss it back at her?"
Silence fell, and Harry was left to ponder his words. Talk about throwing food reminded him inexplicably of last Christmas, when Percy had walked out of the Burrow wearing parsnips on his face. For their part, the food-tossers had been proud to take credit: Ginny, George… and Fred. Harry's stomach lurched as Fred's laughing face appeared in his mind. He glanced at Ron, who was now peering out the window wearing a hardened expression. Clearly, the conversation had reminded him of Fred as well. Harry looked away, embarrassed at witnessing what was obviously a private sort of grief. He knew, all too well, what it was like to mourn the dead. He hurt for Ron and his family, but any words of comfort died on his lips. He was desperately unsure of what to say, and experience had taught him that comforting words often turned out to be painfully empty. So instead, he remained silent.
After a little while, Ron spoke up. "I can't believe it's over," he said. Glancing at Harry, he added, "You finished it."
"No," Harry said firmly, "we finished it. I couldn't have done any of it by myself."
"But, Harry," said Hermione, "you did it alone, in the end. You sacrificed yourself…" She sniffed, and Harry was horrified to see that her eyes were filling with tears. "And you were alone, all alone… I can't imagine how that must have been for you, going into the forest like that…"
Hermione was crying fully now, and Harry watched as Ron scooted forward and wrapped an arm around her, comforting her silently, but doing nothing to stop her words. Sensing the seriousness of the situation, Harry moved forward to sit on his own bed. As he sat down, Ron looked up and met Harry's eyes, and Harry saw in his face the same feeling, with the same intensity as Hermione's words. He suddenly felt very uncomfortable, not because of Ron and Hermione's closeness to one another, but because of the sheer magnitude of empathy they were expressing towards him. Realizing the situation, he struggled with his words, desperate to make them understand.
"Look, without you two… without everyone, actually..." He paused, looking over at his friends as a thought occurred to him. "You know… it really was love, in the end… I couldn't have done what I did, if I didn't… well, if I hadn't…" He sighed in frustration, and said quickly, "I love you two, all right, and everyone else out there." He waved his hand toward the window, indicating the voices that were drifting in from the grounds below. "I just did what I had to, to save you all…" He trailed off, feeling his face burn with embarrassment. He was surprised when Hermione reached over and took his hand.
"We love you too, Harry," she said, smiling through watery eyes. "We always have."
Ron met Harry's eyes. He nodded gruffly, then cleared his throat and looked away quickly. Harry understood the sentiment just the same.
"Still," Hermione said. "I wish we could have been there. I wish you could have told us, so you didn't have to be alone…"
"I couldn't have told you," he said. "I wouldn't have been able to… Saying goodbye would have been unbearable…" Thoroughly embarrassed now, and feeling that there had been enough show of affection for the moment, he directed his gaze decidedly at the floor. Ron cleared his throat again as he moved back towards the top of the bed, and Harry looked up to find Hermione wiping her eyes with Ron's blanket. Quiet reigned again, until Ron spoke.
"Don't know why, though," he said.
Having lost the trail of conversation, Harry was confused. "What?"
A grin tugged at the corner of Ron's mouth. "We've been with you nearly every second for the last year. I'm a little sick of you, actually—couldn't you leave already?"
Eager for some lightheartedness, Harry grinned. "You just want me to leave so you can snog Hermione again."
Hermione instantly flushed pink, but Ron chuckled. "Yeah, actually—"
But he was interrupted as the door to the boys' dormitory swung open, and Ginny swooped in, looking relieved at the sight of them. "There you are! I was worried when I couldn't find you..."
Despite the horrible things he had witnessed that day, despite what he had done, despite his weariness and fatigue—at the sight of Ginny, Harry felt a sudden and intense surge of—was it love? Surely it must be, for it was powerful enough to make him inexplicably happy on this most unhappy of days. Seeing as Harry now knew, finally, the certain power of love, he figured it must be what he was feeling towards Ginny, and determined that he would tell her as much the next time they were alone. Which will hopefully be soon, he thought, already contemplating a plan to get Ron and Hermione out of the room.
Ginny, however, had her own plan. She walked over to Harry's bed and without ceremony, leaned over and kissed him fully on the mouth. Ron made a noise of disgust, but Harry barely heard him. The kiss ended far too soon, in Harry's opinion, but as Ginny lingered near his ear and whispered, "Later," in the slightest of breaths, Harry knew he could wait a little longer, that they would in fact have a later, and the thought made him content for the moment.
Ginny settled herself down next to him, and began to inspect Ron and Hermione.
"Are you two all right?" she asked. "You didn't get hurt or anything?"
"Nah, we're fine," said Ron.
"Are you okay?" Hermione asked.
"Yeah," Ginny said. "Well… I mean, all things considered…" She trailed off, glancing at Ron, and Harry noted the tear tracks that stained her cheeks. Again, he felt the urge to say something, anything at all that might be comforting, but he was at a loss for words. Luckily, Hermione stepped in for him.
"You know," she began, "Fred… he was so brave… And Remus and Tonks, and everyone else…"
"He went down laughing," Ron said, staring down at his hands. "Percy had just made some stupid joke…"
"Really?" Ginny said. "I didn't know… How—"
"Don't know. Probably debris from the explosion."
"Oh," she said, her voice strained.
A sudden thought occurred to Harry. "Lupin and Tonks… do you know?" he asked Ginny.
"Dolohov got Lupin," she said, a hard look on her face. "And Bellatrix got Tonks. She seemed pretty thrilled about it, actually, that's why I went after her later…"
"Your mum got her in the end, though," Harry said, almost without thinking. Catching Ron's eye, he smiled despite himself at the memory of Mrs. Weasley's shouted words, which had been clearly audible despite the pandemonium of the scene. Then Hermione gave the slightest sigh of laughter, which Ginny echoed, and then suddenly they were all laughing and wiping away tears. It helped, Harry decided, to laugh a little—it relieved some of the tension. He resolved to make sure they all laughed a little more in the future.
As the laughter died down, Harry noted once again the heady presence of silence. It was comforting somehow—the stillness of the morning as compared to the wildness of the last few hours.
Eventually, Ginny broke the silence. "I—I can't believe they're gone. But it almost seems unreal that there weren't more…" She raised her head and caught Harry's eye. "When Hagrid came out of the forest carrying you…" she began, her voice shaking slightly, "I thought it was over, I thought you were—that we were all—" She broke off and took a deep breath.
"You scared the shite out of us, mate," Ron said, finishing her thought.
Harry was silent for a moment, remembering how their fearful voices had echoed across the grounds, protesting his seemingly certain death. How could he ever find the words to let them know how much that had meant to him—how it had, in fact, bolstered him up in preparation for what he had to do?
"Yeah, I know," he said, finally. Then he remembered Ron's voice, screaming provocations at Voldemort, even after it seemed all hope had been lost…
"Just—thanks, though," Harry continued. "All of you… for not, you know, giving up…" His words felt inadequate, but surely, just as he had felt their empathy earlier, they now felt his gratitude for their loyalty. Indeed, it seemed evident in the settled silence, swirling in the air around them.
Seeking solace, he reached over and took Ginny's hand as the quiet stretched on. Eventually, Harry began to make out noises from beyond the open window. Skylarks chirruped as they soared in the morning sun, and quiet voices still echoed across the grounds. Neville's voice rose above the crowd—it seemed he was leading the recovery effort, and Harry made a mental note to seek him out later. He fully recognized that in many ways, Neville had been braver than any of the rest of them.
A soft, quiet breeze drifted in and around the room, tickling the back of Harry's neck, lifting a few of Hermione's curls, and fluttering the folds of a tapestry on the opposite wall. Harry watched the evidence of the unseen wind, comforted by its gentleness, until eventually, one of them spoke.
"So," Ginny said. She looked around at Harry, Ron, and Hermione. "Are you lot going to tell me where you've been for the last year?"
Broken out of his reverie by this unforeseen problem, Harry glanced at Ron and Hermione, thinking fast. Should he spill the secrets of the Horcruxes, and the Hallows, and of all the things they had learned and seen?
"We've been all over," he said, finally. "We've been living in that tent your dad got for the World Cup." He knew that that wasn't entirely what she had wanted to know, but perhaps only half the truth was in order for now. And maybe a change of mood…
"Nearly killed us though," he continued, and Ginny looked aghast. "We had to live on Hermione's God-awful cooking."
Ron laughed as Hermione sighed in frustration. "If either one of you thought you could have done better, under the circumstances…"
"Course we couldn't've," Ron said. "But that's not the point. You're the most brilliant witch of your generation, apparently, and—hey, couldn't you have just Conjured up some more of those canaries, we probably could have fried them or something…"
Harry laughed as Hermione struggled to point out, yet again, that doing so would have directly defied the Laws of Elemental Transfiguration.
"…So we couldn't have eaten them, Ron—"
"I know, Hermione, I'm kidding—"
"But I don't think—"
"Are you telling me," Ginny asked Harry quietly, "that these two spent months camping in a tent together, and they're still bickering like first years?"
"Yeah," Harry replied. "They even snogged a bit, down in the Room of Requirement, but obviously even that didn't change anything…"
"Well," Ginny said, smiling, "at least they've got that straightened out." She grew quiet as Ron and Hermione's argument petered away into silence. Harry felt awkward, fully aware that he had only half-answered Ginny's earlier question.
"That wasn't all, though, was it?" she said finally. "I mean, you weren't just camping in the woods. You were looking for something… some way to destroy him."
"Yes," Harry said, honestly.
"And you found it, whatever it was… and now he's gone."
"Yes," Harry said slowly, slightly confused. Hadn't she been there to see everything? "Yeah, he's gone."
Ginny paused. "For good, though, right?" She met his gaze, and Harry saw something like fearful apprehension flash through her eyes. "He's not going to… come back or anything…"
"No," he said, catching on. "No, he's... he's finished, he won't come back. He can't come back."
Ginny nodded slowly, and Harry knew she wouldn't ask for the details right now. He was glad for the reprieve, because he didn't really feel up to reliving the horrors of the last few months. But he decided then and there that one day—one sunny day when everything was nearly perfect—he would tell Ginny everything, reassuring her that her old enemy was indeed gone for good.
"We heard you gave them hell around here," Ron said, changing the subject. "You and Neville rounded up the old gang…"
"Yeah," Ginny said. "Well, someone had to do something, the Carrows were running the school like a prison."
"It was really bad, wasn't it?" Hermione asked. "I mean, Neville told us some things, but…"
"It was horrible," Ginny said. "They were torturing kids for punishment, and saying the most awful things about Muggles and Muggle-borns… about how they were going to be exterminated, or worse." She took a deep breath, and then raised her head with something like pride on her face. "But when we started fighting back… It was just like with the DA—doing something made it all so much more bearable.
"And then last night… you can't imagine what a morale booster it was to hear that you three were at Hogwarts again. It was almost like validation for everything we'd all been doing year."
"It was incredible, seeing everyone come together like that," Hermione said.
"I know," said Ginny. "I mean, after we were caught breaking into Snape's office—"
She broke off, and Harry felt all eyes turn to him at the mention of Snape's name. Clearly, everyone had heard Harry's revelation in the Great Hall about Snape's true loyalties. "That was before we knew, of course…" Ginny trailed off.
There was a pause, in which Harry wondered for the thousandth time at the miraculous redemption of the man whom he had hated for so long.
"Can't believe the slimy git turned out to be on our side," Ron said after a moment.
"Ron!" Hermione looked scandalized. "He was fighting for Harry, how can you call him names?"
"Well, he was still an arse, wasn't he?" Ron shot back. "I know he did his part in the end… but he didn't exactly make it easy on Harry—"
"It's understandable, though," Hermione interrupted him. "I mean, Harry, isn't everyone always saying that you have your mother's eyes? And you said he was in love with her… you probably reminded him of her every day for the last seven years."
Harry didn't respond. Not long ago, he too would have referred to Snape as a slimy git, and a few other things besides, but now, after he knew everything… His feelings towards the man were too mixed up to consider properly, but he felt a certain twinge of sorrow and guilt as Snape's face, moments from death, flashed in his mind.
Harry quickly repressed the image and instead sat quietly for a few moments, listening to the sound of Ginny's soft breathing beside him. The sun had risen completely now, and bright golden rays were inching their way across the hardwood floor near Harry's feet. Now he could hear more voices out on the grounds, and he wondered if perhaps they shouldn't go out and help clean up some of the rubble. Hogwarts would need a lot of repair, he decided. Maybe even months and months…would it even open next year?
Considering the thought, Harry was surprised to realize that he very much wanted Hogwarts to be ready for students by September—and that he wanted to be one of them.
"So what happens now?" Hermione asked, seeming to read his thoughts.
"We come back," Harry said instantly. "We finish school."
"And then what?"
"No clue," Harry said, smiling inexplicably.
"Even when we do come back, I'm ready for some quiet," Ron said decisively. "No offence, Harry, but being your mate these last few years has been exhausting."
"Well, if your mum hadn't been so damn helpful that first day on the train…"
"Talk about my mum again, Potter, see how helpful I can be…"
They grinned at each other, and Harry saw Hermione exchange an exasperated look with Ginny.
"And what are you looking put out about?" he asked her, enjoying the chance to tease. "If that troll hadn't been after you—"
"Yes, I know." Hermione smiled. "I suppose I owe something to your 'saving-people-thing' after all."
"Me too," Ginny piped up. "Several times over, in fact." She looked at Harry and smiled softly.
"Come to think of it, you saved my life too," Ron said, looking at Harry fondly. "You're a right useful old chap, aren't you?"
Harry smiled, but didn't respond. After everything, he still felt decidedly uncomfortable discussing his past feats.
"And you saved all of our lives today," Hermione said softly. "You realize that, don't you?"
He shrugged, staring at his knees. Of course he realized the enormity of had happened today, but it was inconceivable to him that he alone should be recognized, not when everyone else had made sacrifices as well. The truth was that all he wanted—all he had ever wanted—was a little tranquillity.
There was one last stretch of silence, and then Ron spoke up.
"Well, except for the hairy troll, and the giant snake, and the poisoned mead… and the Death Eaters… and, well, the near-death experiences… it's been an adventure, hasn't it?"
Harry snorted. "Yeah," he said. "But my whole life's been an adventure. I'm about ready for some quiet myself, to tell you the truth…" He glanced sideways at Ginny as a picture came into his mind of him and her, strolling in a garden… their garden, perhaps, situated behind a lovely little cottage with lots of windows… one of which might open into a nursery…
And as silence fell again amongst the four friends, Harry realized what he had been sensing all morning, what had been nudging his senses and calming him inexplicably. The silence—what had seemed to be lack of sound—was actually the soothing sound of peace. It was evident in the soft breeze that still flowed from the window, in the warm sunlight that flooded the room, and in the soft smiles of his three closest friends. As Harry considered them, and the others, whose voices still whispered from outside on the grounds and in the echoes of his memory, it warmed him from the inside, because this was what he had been working towards for all these years—quiet, tranquil moments with the ones he loved. And although there was still a bit of hurt and pain inside, and the memories of the ones who had fallen would always remain, this peaceful feeling was comforting. In time, it would heal his wounds.
As he looked around—at Ron and Hermione, who were holding hands tightly, and at Ginny, smiling at him with those familiar, blazing eyes—he knew that they too felt the overwhelming sense of hope that reigned supreme in the aftermath of the war. Maybe this peace that he had helped to bring about would comfort each of his friends, and his loved ones, and the whole wizarding world in the places where his words failed him. If this was truly what he had accomplished, if it was really what had been gained, then it was something, finally, that he was proud to take credit for.