Coming back had been a mistake.
Harry watched Ron rummage around the small, cramped room and was grateful for the unfamiliarity of his surroundings. This, at least, didn't feel as if he had tried to go back in time and got stuck in some pale, bleak imitation of the past instead.
Ron straightened up and slammed the lid of his trunk shut with a wave of his wand, then sat down heavily on his bed. He gave Harry, who was still stretched out on his own four-poster without even having taken his shoes off, a quizzical look. "You're not unpacking?"
Harry shrugged and kept staring at the ceiling. "Just can't be arsed."
It was quiet for a while, before Ron said almost hesitatingly, "It's – strange, somehow, isn't it? Being back, I mean."
When Harry's only answer was a non-committal grunt, Ron pressed on, "Don't get me wrong, I wanted to come back, I want my NEWTs and everything, but it's... I expected it to feel better."
Harry didn't reply; he felt there wasn't much he could say to that. He had dreaded the day when he would have to set foot into Hogwarts again, the place he'd considered home until it had been befouled and mutilated by the darkness that had touched it. The damage of the battle that they'd fought here had mostly been repaired, but the scars were still clearly visible. He wondered if he would ever be able to step into the Great Hall again without seeing blood on the flagstones and a long row of still, dead bodies laid out on the floor.
There had been no way to avoid going back, of course – vanquisher of Voldemort or not, they wouldn't let him into Auror training if he didn't sit his NEWTs first. Still, he thoroughly wished there had been another way.
He tried not to think about the Welcoming Feast that had ended less than an hour ago, about all those empty seats at the four house tables. There were many students from his own year who, like him, had come back to finish their education – Muggle-borns like Dean who had been on the run, or resistance fighters like Neville who had been forced to go into hiding during the last year. Still, they weren't enough by far to make up for all those who were dead or had decided not to return. The Sorting Hat had sung about reconciliation and the healing of wounds, but Harry didn't see any signs of either when he looked at his fellow students. Like the castle itself, they all still showed signs of the strain the last year had put them under, and he couldn't imagine how this should change anytime soon. The war was over, but it would be a long time until they all got to the healing part.
Ron obviously thought along the same lines, because his face twisted in disgust. "Can you believe what McGonagall said during her speech? I've come to realise that I alienated Slytherin house at a time when it would have been more important than ever that we all stand together? She bloody apologised to the bastards for letting them betray us!"
Harry remembered the half-empty Slytherin table and the dark looks the Slytherins had given the new Headmistress when she had addressed them. The only one who had kept his eyes resolutely on his plate had been Draco Malfoy, who was one of only three Slytherins from Harry's year to return to the school. Harry had done a double-take when he'd first spotted Draco's white-blond head at the Slytherin table; he'd never have expected him to show his face at Hogwarts again. He fleetingly wondered whether Draco had got himself a new wand over the summer – the Hawthorn wand Harry had taken from him was still stashed safely at the bottom of Harry's trunk.
He realised belatedly that Ron was expecting some kind of answer. "I suppose she thinks we need a way to get along with them in the future."
Ron shrugged. "I'll get along with the Slytherins when hell freezes over." He looked around the small room, a grin replacing the sour expression on his face. "But I really like this place. It will be great not to hear Neville's snoring any longer."
Harry smiled weakly. Since all the Gryffindor boys from their year had returned, there just hadn't been enough room for them in the seventh-year dormitory. They'd been given small rooms right under the roof of the tower instead: Harry and Ron shared one, Dean and Seamus the other, while Neville, the new Head Boy, had a room of his own. Harry, too, was glad of this – not so much because of the privacy, but going back to sleeping in his old bed as if last year's events had never happened would have added to the feeling of wrongness he hadn't been able to shake off ever since he'd stepped onto platform nine and three-quarters that morning.
"Yes, Nev can snore as much as he likes now."
"Neville Longbottom, Head Boy. Who'd ever have thought it?" Ron gave Harry a sidelong glance. "You know, Harry – everyone expected it to be you."
Harry kept his face blank. "McGonagall wrote a while back and asked whether I'd accept the position if she chose me. I said I wouldn't." He was profusely grateful when Ron merely nodded and didn't pursue the topic.
"Is Hermione still supposed to arrive tomorrow?"
Ron nodded again, his expression brightening. "She wrote last week and said that she'd Apparate to Hogsmeade straight from the airport." He rolled the word around in his mouth as if it had an exotic and not quite pleasant flavour sticking to it.
"Things still not going well with her parents?"
Ron's face fell. "Didn't sound like it. They were furious with her when they'd got their memories back and realised what she'd done – accused her of feeling superior and patronising them because of her magical skills. Don't they understand that she only wanted to keep them safe?"
Harry shrugged. "They'll come around. Sometimes you have to risk angering somebody you care for in order to keep them out of harm's way."
He realised a split second too late that he'd broached a dangerous topic when Ron gave him a piercing look. "You mean like you treated Ginny?"
He held up a hand to cut off any reply Harry might have made. "Harry, mate, I think we really need to talk about this. About you and Ginny, I mean."
Harry sighed. He'd seen it coming, of course; it would have been stupid not to expect this sooner or later. "What is there to talk about?"
"Are you planning to get together with her again, now that the war is over?"
Harry sat up, bewildered. "Yes, of course I am. I just didn't think it would be a good time so shortly after –" He fell silent, remembering the weeks he'd spent at the Burrow this summer, when he would have been hard-pressed to say what was worse: the atmosphere of heartbreak and mourning that lay over the house like a shroud, or the Weasley family's desperate attempts not to let him feel it. There were times when he Apparated away to spend a few hours by himself at Grimmauld Place because even the oppressive silence inside the gloomy old house was less crushing than the weight of the false cheerfulness at the Burrow.
He'd expected Ron to look away, but Ron held his gaze steadily. "Harry, listen to me. I had a long talk with Ginny while you were visiting Mrs Tonks and Teddy last week, and I've talked with Hermione as well before she left for Australia."
"Bully for you." Harry was beginning to feel irritated. "Anyone else you want to discuss my love life with? Rita Skeeter, perhaps?"
"Don't bite my head off, okay? You're my best mate, and she's my little sister. I want to see you both happy, is all."
Harry's shoulders slumped; he suddenly remembered how Ron had jumped into a freezing pool to save him. "Right. I'm sorry."
"Never mind. Look, Harry – like I said, I talked with Ginny about you, and – well, I don't think I've ever met the bloke she keeps nattering about. She says his name is Harry Potter, but he's definitely not you."
Harry gave him the careful look usually reserved for mental patients. "Ron, what on earth is that supposed to mean?"
"Can I ask you something?" Ron asked instead of replying to Harry's question. "What is her favourite subject?"
"Erm..." Harry hesitated, trying to remember whether he'd ever discussed school matters with Ginny. "Defense?"
"Her favourite teacher?"
Harry hesitated again. "McGonagall, I suppose. What –"
"Which animals is she allergic to?"
Harry shrugged, completely nonplussed. "Ron, I have no idea! Why on earth –"
"It's Charms, Professor Flitwick, and rabbits." Ron sighed. "Mate, have you ever talked to her at all?"
"Well, perhaps not that much," Harry admitted, "but we didn't really have much time together, remember? Or has it escaped your notice that I was rather busy last year?"
"Yes, and you were hell-bent on keeping her out of it." There was no accusation in Ron's voice, but Harry's temper flared nevertheless.
"Of course I did, I wanted her to be safe! Ron, I used to think about her all the time, hoping that nothing had happened to her! I –"
"Funny that you never talked about her, then," Ron interrupted him calmly, and Harry gaped at him with his mouth open.
"What would there have been to talk about? 'Hey, Ron, I'm still worried about your sister'?"
Ron shrugged. "I dunno, I rather like talking about Hermione when I miss her. It helps a bit."
"You didn't have to miss her much, you were together most of the time anyway," Harry snapped back.
"Yes, and that's exactly how I wanted it to be," Ron said gravely. "I wanted her by my side, even if it meant she'd be in the thick of it just like me. You, on the other hand, seem content with having Ginny stashed away safely somewhere, like a picture on your living room wall that's there for you to look at whenever you want, but doesn't get in your way."
Harry flopped back onto the bed and closed his eyes. "You know what, Ron? I don't want to talk about this any more."
Ron, however, wasn't deterred so easily. "You're still thinking about her, then?"
Harry sighed and opened his eyes again. "Of course I am. Sometimes at night, when I can't sleep, I keep picturing... erm, you sure you want to hear this?"
Ron looked rather uncomfortable, but he nodded. Harry felt his own cheeks heat up when he continued, "I sometimes picture how it would be – you know, being together with her. Living together, having a family some day, that kind of thing. I once dreamed about us putting our children on the Hogwarts Express... I think you and Hermione were there, too. Best dream I've ever had in my life; I still had a stupid smile on my face when I woke up."
He wasn't sure what made him confess his most treasured fantasy to Ron, who would probably laugh at him – but instead, Ron stared at him with an expression of horror on his face. "That's what you're fantasizing about? Putting your kids on the Hogwarts Express?"
Harry bristled. "I don't see what's wrong with it! Don't you ever imagine how life with Hermione is going to be?"
"Harry, mate." Ron seemed thoroughly flustered now, but he pressed on. "When I find myself lying awake at night and thinking about Hermione, I usually focus on things that are a bit more, um – physical than that, if you get my drift."
Now it was Harry's turn to give him a horrified stare. "Ron, are you asking me whether I'm tossing off to the image of your sister?!"
"No, of course not!" Harry half expected his head to explode any moment from sheer embarrassment. "Ron, can we please change the subject now and pretend we never had this conversation?"
It seemed as if Ron hadn't even heard his plea. "You're not?"
"Do you think this is easy for me?" Ron bellowed, his furious blush now approaching his forehead and clashing horribly with the colour of his hair. "But it seems to me you're in love with your fantasy image of the future mother of your children, and my sister has a crush on her fantasy of the wizarding world's hero! How do you ever expect to cope with the fact that you're both real, normal people when you don't even know each other?"
"Ron, for the last time, drop it!" Harry hadn't meant to shout, but it was too late now. In a lower voice, he added, "It'll all work out, you'll see."
"If you say so, mate." Ron still seemed doubtful, but to Harry's relief, he did change the topic after a brief, extremely uncomfortable pause.
"I can't wait to play Quidditch again, you know. That is, if you'll still let me on the team."
Harry went back to staring at the ceiling. "That's not up to me, Ron, I'm not Quidditch captain any longer."
"What?" Ron looked positively apoplectic. "McGonagall didn't give you the captaincy back?"
"She made Demelza Robins captain last year, and from what I heard, Demelza did a good job. It would be a bit unfair to take the captaincy away from her now, wouldn't it?"
"Yes, but what about you? Don't you –"
"Ron," Harry interrupted him; he suddenly felt very tired. "I'm not playing Quidditch this year. Ginny is a fine Seeker, they don't need me on the team. It's – I just don't care any more, sorry." Harry was a bit dismayed himself by his total lack of interest, but he simply couldn't muster up any enthusiasm for his former favourite pastime. After the events of the past year, getting all worked up over a ball game just seemed childish and pointless.
"Not even if it means you get to kick Malfoy's arse again? I heard he's the new Slytherin captain." The sound of Ron's voice reminded Harry a bit of a growling dog. "I can't believe Slughorn would choose him. I don't see why the bastard even came back, he was at Hogwarts for most of last year!"
Harry shrugged. "He probably didn't think it was wise to sit his NEWTs if he wasn't fully prepared for them, now that the examiners are no longer in his Daddy's pocket."
In an heroic effort, Headmistress McGonagall had managed to organise belated OWL and NEWT exams at the beginning of July, so that those students who didn't want to repeat a year would be able to finish their education. Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown had both sat their NEWTs then and hadn't returned this year. "Stop worrying about Malfoy, Ron, I doubt he'll give us any trouble."
"He'd better not." Ron cracked his knuckles in a way that reminded Harry eerily of Crabbe and Goyle. He quickly pushed the thought away.
* * *
He shouldn't have told Ron about that dream with the Hogwarts express. It had helped him through more than one sleepless night to concentrate on the memory of the dream, of the blissful feeling of utter peace and contentment that had still lingered when he'd woken up from it. Now it seemed to Harry as if Ron's disdainful dismissal of the scene had tainted it somehow, had made it feel stupid and tacky instead of sweet and comforting.
With a sigh, he turned over in his bed for the fifth time in as many minutes. The sounds of even breathing from the bed next to him told him that Ron was fast asleep, but Harry felt restless and ill at ease. Now that he was back in the too-familiar walls of Hogwarts castle, there seemed to be no safe place for his thoughts to turn to; the memories kept assailing him from all sides, and Harry knew only too well that he must not dwell on them if he didn't want to get caught up in another nightmare.
He tried to empty his thoughts and concentrate on the sound of his heartbeat instead, revelling in the fact that the reassuring pulse was still there, that he could still draw breath and feel the cool night air on his skin, the softness of the pillow against his cheek and the smooth sheets under his fingertips. He'd walked down the path that had led him straight into the jaws of death, a path he'd never expected to return from – yet here he was, living and breathing, with his wishes and dreams still intact and a future that he once hadn't dared hope for right before his eyes, his for the taking.
It all became easier during these moments, when he remembered how much it meant just to be alive. Harry thought back to his visits at Andromeda Tonks' house, to the hours he'd spent with his baby godson. He'd never held a baby before, but he knew he'd always remember the moment Mrs Tonks had first placed the squeaking bundle into his arms. Among so much death and grief, there was this new life, innocent and unaware of the dark times it had been born into, dependent on those who loved it to keep it from harm and help it grow and thrive.
Harry tried to hold on to the memory of Teddy sleeping in his arms and hoped it would calm him enough to be finally able to sleep himself. It didn't work, though; thinking of Teddy meant thinking of the still bodies of Remus and Tonks in the Great Hall, of the fact that this baby boy, like so many others, would grow up without parents to love him because they had been taken from him while fighting a fight that should have been Harry's alone. If only he'd realised sooner that –
Harry stopped himself just in time; that way lay madness. He knew he mustn't dwell on the past, must never ask himself whether he could have done more to prevent the bloodbath that had happened within the walls of Hogwarts. He'd done all he could – it had not been enough, but allowing himself to wallow in guilt wouldn't bring back the dead.
He rolled over again and tried to conjure another happy fantasy, one he'd never allow Ron to see and pick apart. At long last, he settled on the image of a cosy living room with a brightly lit Christmas tree, where he was sitting with Ginny snuggled up against his shoulder while a couple of beaming children were ripping up wrapping paper and squealing with delight over their presents. Harry concentrated with all his might, until he could almost smell the fragrance of cinnamon, wax and resin and feel the warmth of the candles on his face, the tickle of Ginny's fiery hair against his cheek and the texture of her brightly coloured Weasley jumper under his hand.
He held on to the image while he slowly slipped away into sleep, hoping it would be enough to keep the shadows at bay for another night.