No one is quite sure when Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasley disappear. That is, nobody is sure until it occurs to Luna Lovegood to placidly tell them all that she distracted the gathering so that the three could slip away privately, but she has no idea where they've gone, and thinks everyone should leave them alone.
Hers is a minority opinion.
Eventually, they find a note tacked to the gargoyle who guards the passage to the Headmaster's office. It is in Granger's handwriting and signed by her at the bottom, and tells them that, the danger being over and the initial aftermath winding down, she feels that the three of them need some time alone to recuperate and will reappear exactly three days from that day, at four o'clock. It is considered evidence that Miss Granger really did write the note that it goes on to say:
I know some of you will have profound objections to our doing this, but frankly, at this point, I don't care. In order to save us some time when we come back, I would like to preemptively supply some answers to the questions I just know will be asked over and over again.
1. Yes, Voldemort is really dead this time.
2. Yes, we're very, very sure.
3. No, Harry didn't exactly kill him, but yes, Harry was very definitely the proximate cause of his death.
4. Yes, what we've been doing since last autumn has had everything to do with what happened today. We'll explain it later.
5. No, Harry is not even remotely interested in having any official ties to the Ministry or any other governmental or official body. He wishes to remain a completely private citizen. So do I. Ron will get back to you.
6. Yes, Harry is now the Master of the Elder Wand.
7. No, he's not going to keep it.
8. Neither is Ron.
9. You can't have it either.
10. We'll deal with it, and we're not telling you how.
Finally, considering everything we've done (especially everything Harry's done, but believe me everything Ron and I have done as well), if anyone even breathes the word "duty" when we come back, I will hex you like you've never been hexed before, and believe me, by now I know some excellent ones.
It is agreed by everyone who shared her house, or many of her classes, that the note sounds exactly like a Hermione Granger at the end of her patience. It even brings a slight smile to the faces of Neville Longbottom and Ginevra Weasley.
Some are not satisfied by this, and in the end seek out the house-elf Kreacher, who is presently engaged in tending to the wounded among his fellow elves. His response is short and to the point: yes, Harry Potter is just fine. Yes, Harry Potter and his companions (Kreacher's word, though nobody really pays attention to it) have gone away to rest for a while. No, Kreacher is not going to tell them where Harry Potter is, and if the rude wizard takes that tone of voice with him again, he will send the rude wizard to go converse with the Mer-people at the bottom of the lake, see if he doesn't, the rude wizard is not Kreacher's master and Kreacher does not have to put up with that sort of cheek from him.
At this, the house-elf's aspect is so fierce that Horace Slughorn backs off slightly, bewildered.
It seems, at this point, that there is nothing left to do but wait, and begin the process of sorting out the mess made by the past year.
Harry had wavered, but Hermione had been absolutely adamant, and Ron didn't seem to have an opinion as long as somewhere the immediate future involved one, food, and two, a horizontal surface on which to lie down, preferably with both of them.
Harry had pointed out that Gryffindor Tower hadn't been touched, and was full of beds, but Hermione had said, shortly, "Why, so they can wake us up again at six in the morning and demand you play hero and explain everything that just happened? Are you really up for that, Harry? Because if so you can start with m - " and then she had stopped herself. And Harry had looked slightly guilty, and thoughtful, but then admitted she was right.
Where to go had stymied them, until the portrait of Phinneus Nigellus Black had cleared his throat and pointed out that the Black holiday house (which also now belonged to Harry, had he never bothered to look at the will? Really!) would be, if rather dusty, also perfectly empty and perfectly safe. Kreacher, of course, knew where it was, and had told them; it had taken some fast talking to convince Kreacher not to come and fix the entire house up immediately, but in the end, he had contented himself with sending food with them after Harry had sincerely and repeatedly insisted that it would be better if Kreacher stayed at Hogwarts and helped with the clean-up and fielded questions.
Harry had wavered one last time just before they actually left, saying, "I think maybe - " before Hermione had taken his hand and nodded firmly at Ron to take the other.
"We're going, Harry," she said, her voice flat, and in the end, they did.
She has never made a better choice. She is very sure of that. It's even a slightly better choice than any of the ones that got her mixed up with Harry Potter and Ron Weasley in the first place, or the one to make damn sure Harry didn't try to go after the Horcruxes all by himself like a stupid, if heroic, idiot.
Hermione feels the spells that have kept the house in order the minute they reappear in the house, as they stumble and blink stupidly in the dark, and Ron clicks the Deluminator a few times. The balls of light hover in the air and then, almost like they're searching, dart around in uncertain lines until they settle into lamps and the fixture in the ceiling.
It's warm here, and the air smells of salt and water. The house is tidy and fairly clean, but still has the air of long disuse. It wakes up, though, now that they are here, the preservation spells broken.
"How the hell is it this clean?" Ron asks, looking around, putting the basket Kreacher had pressed on them on the table in the middle of the sitting-room they'd Apparated into. "D'you reckon - "
"No," Hermione interrupted, "it's a summer-house, a holiday-house, they must have set charms every time they left and just never come back after the last holiday. I mean, after all, the Grimmauld Place house just didn't have anybody come home one day, no time or reason to set spells."
"I guess that makes sense," Ron says.
Harry has sunk into one of the chairs, looking a bit bemused and blank, his wand held fairly loosely between two fingers. Hermione puts a hand on his shoulder and shakes him gently. "C'mon," she says, "let's check the house just to make sure, and then we can have a quick clean-up and get some sleep before we decide or think about anything else."
Hermione knows she's sharp, probably sharper than is fair. But she's pretty sure, pretty sure that for at least a few seconds Harry was actually dead, and he was certainly in a hell of a lot of danger - all of them were in a hell of a lot of danger - and now she has the ridiculous, unfocused irritation she always gets when the danger is over and there's just the clean-up.
Ron immediately moves to find the kitchen, as Harry blinks up at her and says, "Right. Good idea," in a voice that tells her he would have agreed if she'd said, "I think we should all go jump in the ocean right now," if only because it meant he didn't have to think of what came next.
Dim light and exhaustion don't do the house justice, but Hermione doesn't care. She'll think about all the beautiful things they've passed (and, given the Blacks, how many of them might be evilly enchanted) in the morning. For now, Ron has found the kitchen and put the food away where it belongs, Harry's checked the downstairs, she's checked the upstairs and cast protective charms in general, and found a very nice bathroom right next to a room with a -
Well. A big enough bed.
The boys run their heads under the water; Hermione just plaits her hair back as tightly as she can and washes every bit of skin she can get at with the water. It gives her something to do, and something to feel, which doesn't involve thinking about anything. Especially not thinking about today. Or the day before. Or everything that has happened - not Voldemort, not Bellatrix, not how Neville looked, not -
Not anything. Just herself, just getting clean, and making sure Ron and Harry were OK, and then going to sleep. Tomorrow is for thinking about things. Tomorrow they would wake up, and it would be lovely and they would have food and then maybe in the afternoon they might talk about what just happened and ask questions and get everything sorted out.
There is a brief, slightly awkward moment where they don't talk about how they're going to sleep, or the fact that not one of them (and she can tell) wants to let the others out of their sight, and everything that happened just between them at Hogwarts, and what that means, and everything it changes, and everything it doesn't - But the awkward doesn't last long, because Harry just shakes it off and tosses himself, still in the clean clothes borrowed from Hogwarts onto the bed, right in the middle.
Which Hermione supposes makes sense anyway. So she follows his lead, and after a moment's hesitation so does Ron, clicking the Deluminator until all the lights are out before he puts it beside the bed on the floor.
They all lie on the same bed, but for now, they're all apart, each in their little space, and Hermione thinks that they'll fix that tomorrow, too. Or at least talk about it. Do something. For now (and Harry's breathing is already even and regular, and she can hear Ron's getting drowsy, and her own eyes are heavy even after she's closed them) they'll sleep through the night and tomorrow, tomorrow is for everything else.
This is the last thing Hermione thinks, before she falls asleep.
It doesn't work out that way.
It's Ron who gets up, but they're all awake, in the end. Two hours or a little less of fitful drowsing, and Hermione is almost ready to cry with frustration. She can feel how exhausted she is, feel how much all of her longs for proper, deep sleep. But she can't get there, somehow. Can only drift in and out of half-dreams that make no sense, full of faces she almost doesn't recognize. Things that happened, and things that didn't.
So when Ron mutters something about some part of Merlin's anatomy and rolls to his feet, clicking the Deluminator so that one of the lights down the hall flares back to life, it only takes Harry and Hermione a few seconds before (as if in unspoken agreement) they get up, too. Harry yawns and looks around for his glasses. Without thinking, Hermione takes them up from the low bedside table, unfolds them and puts them on for him. It feels as natural as anything, until they look at each other, and then Hermione wonders if it was natural for him at all.
It strikes her, suddenly, that people didn't tend to touch Harry very much. At least, not when they weren't either trying to kill him, or checking to see if he was alive after someone else had recently done so. To cover the awkwardness of the moment, Hermione gives a small smile. It takes Harry a second to echo it; he seems pale and distant, even taking into account the fact that the light is wan and that he must be as tired as Hermione.
Then a crash comes from down the hall, along with Ron's voice finding even ruder ways to talk about Merlin, Agrippa and a name Hermione's never heard but sounds like it's a witch instead of a famous wizard, especially considering what part of (presumably) her Ron is swearing by. Harry and Hermione exchange a look, and then hurry down the hallway to the kitchen.
It isn't as bad as it sounded; Ron only broke a glass, although to be fair, it is a pretty spectacular break, with pieces all over the place and a sliced thumb. Hermione cleans up the glass without comment while Harry digs inside drawers to see if he can find a dishcloth or a dishtowel, something like that. It's a wizarding house, there isn't likely to be any Band-Aids around, but Hermione's the only one of them who's figured out how to fix things like that and she doesn't feel up to it. Too tired.
"It slipped," Ron grumbles, as Harry hands him a cloth and Ron wraps it around his thumb, pressing down. "Stupid glass."
"Here we thought you threw it on purpose," Harry replies, with a little half-smile. "Here." He reaches up to get another, and then digs around in the kitchen to see where Ron's put the food.
Hermione finds herself standing and really looking around at the place they're in, for the moment. It's very obviously a house built for wizards and witches. She can see, for example, why Ron dropped the glass: the things are on the top shelf, where there'd be no problem getting them down with the flick of a wand, but where it's a bit awkward to get them by hand. There's no fridge or ice-box or anything like it, with food expected to be kept cool and fresh by charms, or by the fact that you could just Transfigure the raw ingredients into a finished recipe. And everything's organized to leave lots of room over all the cooking and mixing surfaces, to account for the things that might go flying through the air.
The colours here are more welcoming than at Grimmauld Place. The cabinets are all warm honey-coloured wood, and the walls are off-white with a careful bordering wall-paper covered with vines of flowers Hermione recognizes as bringing good luck or healing, from her books. She wonders why the difference. If this place had been chosen by someone a bit less harsh and proud than the Black's proper home had been. Or if it was just that even Sirius' mother had a softer side, something warm and loving, laughing and even playful, that you just couldn't see after years of neglect and disappointment in her old home.
It reminds her that, in the end, Harry is alive because Narcissa Malfoy cared more about saving Draco than anything else. Because whatever deep magic saved Harry from Voldemort's curse, Hermione doesn't think it could possibly have done much for, say, a knife through the heart.
"I'm hungry," Harry says, "I'm going to make a sandwich or something." Hermione finds that her arms are wrapped around herself, and the matter-of-fact tone he uses makes her want to laugh. And that, she knows, is hysteria.
"No you're not," Ron says, looking up from scowling at his thumb like it's offended him. At Harry's blank look, he goes on, "Kreacher doesn't think much of our cooking skills - he sent us with meals, not the ingredients for meals. I'm starting to get really curious about house-elf magic, frankly. They're all charmed and everything. And come with really, really explicit instructions."
Harry looks bemused, and digs in one of the cupboards where Ron was putting things away earlier. When he comes out with what looks like a cloth-wrapped lumpy ball, he also has a bit of parchment in his hand, and is laughing. It's the laugh of someone so tired and worn out that anything is funny, and has its own edge of hysteria. "You're right, Ron," he says. He holds up the lumpy ball and looks at Hermione. "Chicken dinner?"
They have to resort to Accio cutlery to find forks and knives, which turn out to have been in a locked cabinet in the other room, and actual silver. They don't sit in the dining room or the breakfast nook, because both feel odd and like they're faking something. Instead, they settle down in the sitting room, all three of them finding somewhere to sit in one corner of it, so they're not very far apart. Harry winds up in an arm-chair, Ron on the sofa, and Hermione sits cross-legged on the ottoman that goes with Harry's chair. They're all a deep, rich emerald green, upholstered in worn velvet, and smell only very faintly of dust.
For a little while, they don't say anything, as they discover just how starvingly hungry they all are. Hermione keeps shooting both of them surreptitious glances, and wonders if they're doing the same, if she'll catch them at it. Ron looks pale, freckles standing out stark against the rest of his skin, and wobbles back and forth between the grumpy feigned indifference that is Ron when he's feeling something so complicated he doesn't understand it and doesn't want to, a kind of bleak sadness (and that's for Fred, she knows) and then a kind of -
Well she doesn't know what to call that look. Wonder, maybe. That's the one where she does catch him glancing at her and at Harry, although you might say he catches her, too. And she feels a vast swell of affection and wants to crawl onto the sofa with Ron and catch Harry's sleeve and pull him over and somehow try to find room for all three of them (and probably, says her dry and practical half, wind up all three of them on the floor, which would be ridiculous) and maybe never let go.
Harry looks mostly at his plate, until he finally blurts out, "I think I died." He pauses, looks up, and adds, "But then again, I didn't. I mean, obviously, I'm not dead, but I wound up - " He stops, looking frustrated, eyes blinking rapidly behind his glasses. It's on the tip of Hermione's tongue to tell him that they don't have to talk about this now, that it can wait, but Ron beats her to it.
"We're listening, mate," he says, his voice slightly hoarse. "Try going in order. We've got all night."
And that, Hermione thinks, was the right thing to say. Between that, the Basilisk fangs and the house-elves, she's beginning to wonder when Ron got so smart.
So, slowly and with a lot of pauses and back-tracks, Harry tells them what happened. Hermione's tired enough that when he gets to the part about Snape's memories she can't keep her eyes from filling up and spilling over, and hating the world a little bit for being so full of people hurting each other and themselves. Ron makes a slightly strangled, low noise when Harry gets to the part of those memories about Dumbledore saying Harry had to die. Harry's staring hard at his own plate when he tells them about actually going back out to the forest, about the Resurrection Stone and everyone -
When they get to the part where Voldemort killed him, Hermione finds her hand over her mouth, and finds herself looking at Ron, who is looking at her, and then both of them looking at Harry, who stops. He clears his throat, and looks up at them. "You're going to think I'm crazy," he says.
"No we're not," Hermione says, at the same time as Ron speaks.
And he says, "Well, yeah. You walked out into the middle of the Forbidden Forest to get killed by Voldemort, Harry - " and Hermione thinks that may be the first time he's said the name without hesitation, " - that's pretty much the definition of the word. But we've known you for seven years, we're used to it by now." Hermione tries to swallow a giggle at the tone of fond exasperation, and a ghost of a grin crosses Harry's face before he sobers again.
"Then I was . . . somewhere else," he says, seriously. "And I talked to Dumbledore."
They listen again, and he tells them, almost haltingly. And it untangles the riddles of what he said, in that last fight, and he finishes, "And then I was back, but I had to wait, because maybe Riddle couldn't kill me but I'm pretty sure one of the others could and, I mean, if nothing else they could have stabbed me, right?" His eyes search both Hermione's face and Ron's, and she thinks he might be apologizing but for just a moment, all she can think of is Bellatrix and her knife and it throttles her, makes her silent.
Ron says, "Yeah. But that was a really bad moment, Harry." His voice is very serious, and Harry nods.
"I know, I could hear. Anyway. You know the rest - when Neville had his moment, I put the Cloak on and sort of waited for mine." He spreads his hands, which knocked his knife on the floor. Hermione bit back another giggle.
"Well," Ron says, consideringly, "I suppose we might be able to forgive you, as long as you promise not to ever do it again."
For a moment, Harry and Hermione both stare at him. Then Hermione's giggles bubble over, and Harry makes a choking sound that turns into soundless, helpless laughter and it is only by profound good fortune that either of them manages to put their plates down, rather than dropping them crashing to the floor from the spasms of hilarity. Harry takes off his glasses and wipes his eyes. Ron looks remarkably pleased with himself, puts aside his own plate, and stands up.
He pulls Harry up, too, into a rough, tight embrace that's probably the best he can do for now, and Hermione finds herself (as her last spurts of laughter hiccough to a close) thinking oh boys. But it's alright: in the end they cling to each other, with Harry's glasses askew, so that Hermione can get up and make use of the fact that she's smaller and narrower even than Harry to worm her way in.
They all need a real bath, and to brush their teeth. And some clean clothes, and she wonders if Kreacher had thought of that or if she'll have to, oh, Transfigure the curtains or something. But it doesn't matter. She's alive, and Ron's alive, and Harry (in spite of everything he tried to do to the contrary) is alive, and damn it, now she's crying.
At least, she supposes, she isn't alone.
It is hard to tell how long they stand there, in a little wobbly triangle of clinging hands and pressing bodies, but eventually Hermione says, "And now we all really, really need to sleep. A lot."
"Hermione," Ron says, "sometimes you have absolutely no romance in your soul."
What makes this as funny as it is, is that both she and Harry can tell he's absolutely serious.
If there's a better way to wake up than discovering you're in a warm and actually quite comfortable tangle of arms and legs with the two people most important in the world, Ron doesn't know what it is. He thinks this, as he's waking up, but of course the moment he's thought it another part of his brain answers with, yes you do. It's all of that, except first of all you haven't lost half a dozen other important people in the last twenty-four hours, let alone months, and knowing that nothing's going to make it blow up the minute you do something wrong.
On the whole, Ron thinks, he'd prefer if that part of his brain kept its observations to itself, and let him enjoy the moment.
The second time they'd collapsed into bed, this time with good food and Harry's story behind them, they had not wound up lying like three parallel lines. Whether Harry had wound up in the middle by design or some kind of subconscious impulse or just by chance, it fortunately didn't matter: the nice thing about being taller than either of his - and here Ron's mind stumbles over the appropriate word, and he settles on friends still, for now, anyway, the nice thing about being taller than either of his friends is that his arm is long enough to reach right around Harry and rest on Hermione's hip and apparently, at least for tonight, none of them minded sleeping very close.
He'd overheard Bill, once, remarking that Fleur wasn't very good at being a close-sleeper, because she kicked. It had sort of stuck in the back of his mind since then, along with all the daydreams, wondering how that was going to work. A bed big enough to keep Bill from being beaten to death in his sleep by Fleur still wouldn't be big enough for three.
Ron has always gone for broke in his daydreams. If he was going to imagine everything going impossibly well, he might as well imagine it going impossibly well. And now it was, except for all of those things the inconsiderate bit of him had just pointed out, and apparently it wasn't a problem.
Ron realizes he's lying here thinking deeply inane things (as Hermione might say) because he's slightly scared of actually getting up, scared of the world crashing down on them and bringing them down in a crash, too. The brutal whiplash of elation (at the kiss between them, inside the Room of Requirement) to desolation (at Fred's body on the floor, at Harry's body in Hagrid's arms) back to elation (at victory, at Harry not being dead, at surviving in general, at the amazing display that had been his mum in a duel) to relief (at Hermione's suggestion that they go away and hide for a while) was still boiling away in him, and left him feeling as if the inside of his head, or maybe his heart (he could think that, even if he'd never say it out loud), was battered and bruised and tender.
And that's without even letting a lot of it settle. Like that whole bit with Dumbledore saying Harry had to die. And, well, all of it.
But, he realizes, his arm is starting to fall asleep and he's hungry, and could use a drink of water, and a number of other things, and grumbling at his body he tries to get up with as little disturbance to the others as he can. Fortunately, Hermione doesn't stir, and frankly Ron isn't surprised that Harry doesn't make so much as a sign. Even ignoring everything else (and you'd have to be mad to), getting killed-but-not-really and then coming back again had to take it out of you.
It's got to be mid-morning, at least: the sun is bright and clear through the windows that aren't covered over with drapes. Ron helps himself to some of the cold chicken in the kitchen and then looks in the basket. And either Kreacher or some other maniacally helpful house-elf did send them new clothes, so Ron figures he might as well investigate the bathroom and see if it was possible to actually have a bath in it.
He's half-dressed and towelling off his hair when he comes out to find Hermione sitting half-perched on the arm of the sofa with a cup of tea in her hands and a sort of a vacant expression. He sort of hurriedly finishes with his hair as she blinks at him, and then pulls his shirt over his head. "The bathtub in there works, anyway," he says, like it's an explanation, although he's not quite sure what he's explaining. "And we've got clothes."
"Oh," Hermione says. "Good." Then she frowns at his attempts to sort out his hair without a mirror, leans over to put her tea-cup down on one of the side tables and beckons. "Come here, you're making yourself look like a damp haystack."
Ron has to half-crouch for her to reach his head to fiddle with his hair, but that's alright. "Harry still asleep?" he asks. It's at least a little easier to be casual because she still mostly smells like battle instead of Hermione.
"He woke up enough to go 'ghzzzmuh?' when I got up," she replies, "but I told him to go back to sleep. I was hungry and I wanted some tea. Lucky there was some left over and I don't take milk. I made a pot, if you want some." Her voice is a little distracted, and she's chewing on her fingernails.
"Mum always said that would make them bleed," Ron points out, and steers resolutely away from thinking about how Fred and George had always elaborated on that threat into profoundly gruesome detail. Hermione starts and looks at her hand.
"She's right, I used to do terrible things, my dad taped my fingers up for weeks to get me to stop."
She's thin, is Hermione, and come to that, so's Harry, and probably so's Ron, as he thinks about it. There are dark circles under her eyes, and she looks like she's not quite sure of something. And biting nails is a nervous habit, anyway, so he leans on the sofa back beside her and says, "What is it?"
Obviously without thinking, she puts her finger in her mouth again and chews at the side. Her eyes have narrowed. "When did you get so perceptive?" she says, in a kind of mock-complaint, and Ron figures it's safe to grin.
"Clearly I've been spending too much time with you, haven't I," he replies, and gets a smile and a push on the shoulder. "Seriously, Hermione, what?" he presses, and she sighs.
"I'm just wondering how it'll work out," she replies. "Us, I mean. It's a bit complicated, isn't it - "
Her eyes widen; Ron hasn't said anything, but her words settle in behind his chest like cold fists - but now she's shaking her head, "No, I didn't mean that, Ron," she says, holding up a hand to put at his elbow. "Not if, I mean, I'm pretty sure we can, it's us, we always manage what we set out to do somehow, don't we? And I want it to work. I'm just wondering how. With, I mean, other people. What it'll mean."
The ice-fists unclench and Ron takes a couple of deep breaths, pretending that he isn't. His head is a little light. "Well," he says, faking calm consideration as best he can, "I don't suppose Mum'll object, I mean, she gets you as a daughter in law and Harry as a son in law, she'll be over the moon. What about your parents?"
Hermione sighs again. "I really don't know," she says, and then gets a wry little smile around her mouth. "I suppose I should wait to worry about that until after I've found out how they're going to take the fact that I Confounded them and sent them to Australia as someone else."
Ron frowns. She actually sounds a bit worried about that, and he says, "But it was to protect them, wasn't it? So they should understand."
"Would you understand if I'd done it to you?" she asks, and shakes her head. "It doesn't matter. We'll cross that bridge when we get there. And I should really go have a bath, now that you're clean I can tell I'm filthy and I smell awful."
"Well," says Ron, "I wouldn't say awful - "
She smiles at him again and then, as she goes to get the clothing from the basket, she leans over to kiss him on the cheek. Once, lightly, and almost carefully.
Then she's closing and locking the door to the bathroom so that Ron's left blinking at it, at where she's gone. Her question, her wondering, lingers in his head, but in the end he pushes it away: it'll work out fine. He figures after they've just saved the world, the world owes them a bit. The only thing he can really see going wrong is if one of them - but he doesn't want to think about that, so he doesn't.
Instead, he starts poking around the room, into closets and cupboards and drawers. He does it carefully, remembering all the things they found in Grimmauld Place, but apparently the Blacks didn't take their dark magic with them on holidays. He does find a chess set, and sets up on the coffee table in the sitting room.
He's only just done this when the sound of a yawn makes him turn and find Harry in the doorway, stretching and rubbing at his eyes under his glasses. "Morning," Harry says, "or - is it still morning?"
"Figure it must be," Ron replies, "sun's still coming in from the east, isn't it?" He eyes Harry, whose untidy black hair is even untidier, and who doesn't look like he just woke up from a full night's sleep. "How're you feeling?"
Harry yawns again. "Sorry," he says, rubbing his neck. "I feel like - like you know when you've woken up for some reason in the middle night and you're actually awake but the idea of just closing your eyes again sounds like the best thing you've ever heard? Like that, except hungry. And I heard you and Hermione mention something about clean clothes."
"Yeah," Ron says, "they're in the basket."
"Right," Harry says. "How about you?"
"What?" Ron blinks at him, and then clues in and says, "Oh. I'm fine. There's left over chicken for breakfast. It's actually pretty good."
"Cool," Harry says, and walks past him to dig out some of his clothes. Ron watches him and concludes that no, Harry's definitely even thinner than Hermione. He also tries to think of something to say, or something to do, but someone appears to have put a Body-Bind on his brain, and Harry doesn't say anything either. Just puts his folded clothes on the back of the armchair and then goes into the kitchen.
After a minute, Ron gets up to follow him. He leans on the counter, and Harry asks, "Did you make tea?"
"No," Ron tells him, "Hermione did. She says there's no milk, though. Maybe we can get some nearby."
"Maybe," Harry agrees. "Or we could just live without it for three days."
Then they lapse into silence again, and only when they manage to catch each other's eye do they both realize they're surreptitiously watching one another. And then Harry laughs.
"You know she'd be rolling her eyes at us right now," he says, gesturing in the direction of the bathroom and meaning Hermione, obviously. And he's right, too, and Ron manages a grin back.
"Yeah, but Hermione's always rolling her eyes at us," he points out. "She'd pine away if we stopped giving her opportunities for it."
"Opportunities for what?" Hermione asked, and it's her turn to come in drying her hair. "Morning, Harry," she adds, as she puts her towel down and starts carefully running her fingers through her hair.
"Rolling your eyes at us," Ron tells her, as Harry finishes carving off his bit of chicken. "Since you've had so much practice."
"Why," she says, with a little asperity, "were you two demonstrating how boys can't figure out how to talk about how they feel again? Since you've got so much practice at that."
Ron and Harry exchange a slightly rueful look. "Point to her," Harry says. He doesn't bother to sit down to eat, just stands at the counter. Ron gets the feeling Hermione wants to point out that there's such a thing as a fork and knife, at least, but she's too busy frowning at her hair.
"We're going to have to work on that," is all she says, but Ron is suddenly struck by the sheer impossible wonder at having time to work on that.
"It's not our fault," he mock-protests. "Girls come with that sort of thing built in, and we haven't had any training."
Nobody could be expected not to burst out laughing, all things considered, when she rolls her eyes. Nobody. Even Hermione only feigns haughty disdain for a minute or two before joining in.
Harry really doesn't stop yawning for more than five minutes at a time. When he's finished up with the chicken and gathers up his clothes, Ron feels the need to say, "Don't fall asleep in there. It'd be right stupid-looking if you survived everything up 'till now only to drown in a bathtub."
"Yeah," Harry says, through one of those yawns. "Right."
He doesn't drown in the bathtub, or take more than five minutes, really. And when he emerges, the last of them to be clean, barefoot and pulling a t-shirt on - well, while his hair is still Harry's hair, which is to say all over the place, no bits of it are sticking straight up in snarls anymore. He's got his hands full of all their dirty clothes, and his nose slightly wrinkled. He holds them up.
"I have no idea," Ron says. Hermione frowns at them.
"I don't know either. Maybe just put them in one of the other rooms? Laundry charms weren't really something I ever went looking for." She shrugs a little helplessly.
Harry looks at the clothes in his hands and then balls them up item by item and tosses them down the hall. "Or you could do that," Hermione says, shaking her head, and Harry half grins at her. And then yawns again. This time, he sets Hermione and Ron off, too.
"Sorry," he says, when they can all talk again. "I dunno why I'm so tired."
"Well," Ron says, part of his brain actually prodding at him to be a responsible grown-up, which he'd say he found very out of character except he can't think of a way to work it into the conversation and besides, it makes him think about Fred and that's for the day after tomorrow, that's for later because it's going to be real forever, "before you or either of us falls asleep again, we ought to do a quick check of the house in daylight, and including the outside. Get an idea of what's all around us."
"You're right," Hermione says with a slight sigh. "I'll do upstairs."
"I'll do outside," Ron volunteers, which leaves the downstairs for Harry, who nods and gestures through another yawn.
It's not that Ron expects something to be a problem. He's pretty sure Kreacher would have warned them if there was likely to be anything. But after all this time, it felt like an unbearable itch not to be certain, and as long as they did it once they probably wouldn't have to do it again. And once it was done, maybe they'd run out of other things to think about and then -
He sort of leaves that thought hanging as he steps out of the front door, wand in hand. There's the remains of a lawn, over-grown and then fallen over under its own weight and full of dandelions. Down further he can see water, a lake or an ocean somewhere; he'd followed Hermione's lead, hadn't really thought about where they were going. It's warm and fairly bright, and all around the house there's what's left of a neglected garden: some things gone wild, some things just dead. The house itself is a little weatherbeaten on the outside but it must have had charms on it, too, because it's not much. But then, it was all inanimate, wasn't it? Easier to charm objects than living things, which the garden was.
In his circuit of the house, Ron doesn't find anything more exciting than the edges of Hermione's protective spells, and an irritable looking fox he manages to startle. He goes round a couple more times just to be sure. That way, when he goes back inside, it will be in full confidence that nothing's going to bother them. And it is.
Someone, probably Hermione, opened all the drapes, upstairs and downstairs. Someone also (and still probably Hermione) had also tidied away the food and the stuff in the kitchen and the clothes Harry had tossed down the downstairs hall. Finally, someone (and this was definitely Hermione) has made tea again, and this time there's a little jug of white stuff.
"I found some powdered milk," says Hermione's voice, from the sofa. "Who knows what they used it for, and it's not very good-tasting to drink, but it works well enough for tea." She's keeping her voice quiet-ish, and when Ron peers around the sofa he sees why: Harry's asleep leaning against her as she's gently moving him down from resting against her shoulder to using her leg for a pillow, and she has a book in her hand. There's also a tiny darker patch on the couch. "I made some for Harry," she says, "but he fell asleep holding it and spilled a little." She nods to the teacup that's now on the table.
Harry's glasses are askew, his face is slack, and his eyes are moving gently under his eyelids. Ron can sort of see where his hands would have been holding the cup. "See," he says, quietly. "I knew it was worth mentioning he shouldn't fall asleep and drown in the tub."
Hermione looks up at him, smiling. And he remembers how her front teeth used to look, and remembers how they got to where they are, and likes her hair better as a frizzy mess anyway. And wonders if, between the red, the frizzy and the permanently untidy, any kid of theirs at all is going to want to do anything but cut it all off down to the scalp.
Then he realizes he just thought about a kid of theirs and is caught, looking at them both, and wondering how they can possibly avoid it going all wrong.
After a moment, Hermione tilts her head. "What?" she asks, and Ron realizes he's been staring at them happily for maybe a bit longer than is normal. He shakes his head, almost as if he's trying to clear it. Which is a silly idea, and he doesn't want to clear it of this, anyway.
"Just thinking," he says. "How different things get. Two months ago - " he pauses before he says two months ago, if I'd seen this, it might've killed me.
"It's a good difference," Hermione says. Then she adds, "Explain why you're still standing on the other side of the chair from us?"
It's ridiculous and weird, Ron thinks, that yesterday they defeated Lord Voldemort, and yesterday they figured it out, figured out it was never either for any one of them, it was always both, and now Hermione's reading a book and Harry's sleeping and he, Ron, can just go over and sit with them. And be part of an us. It probably counted as madness, but it was the best kind.
He winds up sitting on the floor on a cushion, because it's perfectly comfortable and he doesn't actually want to wake Harry up if he doesn't have to. Besides, from here he can pull the table over and get at the chess set and try to work out the problem from the Muggle book his dad had passed along. "What are you reading?"
"A Muggle book," Hermione says, "it's about the mess the world gets into when Time has a son and he splits into two lives, and Death's granddaughter has to keep the world from ending." She pauses. "You might like it, actually. It's pretty funny in places."
Ron says, "Sure," and doesn't bother to point out that Ginny will throw a Fleur Delacour-Weasley Appreciation party before he reads something for fun. It doesn't feel like the moment to quibble.
But there's an impulse, as he sits down, and he thinks it's the right moment for the impulse (maybe) so before he can over think it, he leans forward to kiss Hermione on the temple, and then as he finishes sitting down, kisses the top of Harry's head and then settles, pretending that the whole thing was completely normal and natural and that his heart-rate hasn't gone up to keep rhythm with one of the Weird Sister's fastest songs.
As he sets up the problem, he feels Hermione's hand rest on his head and scratch through his hair.
Harry wakes knowing he has impressions from his glasses and Hermione's corduroys on his cheek and feeling a slight crick in his neck, from what he thinks might be the best sleep he's ever had. He yawns once, as he pushes himself up on his arm to right his glasses; Hermione puts the paperback book in her hand down on the arm of the sofa and says, "Oh, you're awake."
Ron is sitting on the floor in front of the sofa, and turns his head. "Nice face," he says, reaching out one hand to brush the corduroy imprints with his finger. Ron's skin is warm, even in just the brief touch, and Harry half-smiles.
"Thanks," he says. "I knew you'd like it." He finishes sitting up and stretches a bit. "What time is it?"
It's as if his waking up is a kind of spell that makes the other two move, too. Hermione gets up and stretches and goes to find more tea and something to eat. It turns out to be late afternoon, which means that she's been sitting there letting him use her as a pillow for hours, and while he appreciates it, he points out that he really wouldn't've minded if she'd made him wake up and move.
"Oh Harry," she says, shaking her head, just as she disappears into the kitchen. Harry glances at Ron.
"Do you know what that was about?" he asks. Ron raises both eyebrows.
"Do I ever know what Hermione's on about when she makes cryptic comments?" he counters, which, Harry has to admit, is a fair point. So he goes in search of a sink to splash water on his face and rinse the sleep-taste out of his mouth. And as he does so, he wonders what's going on, back at Hogwarts, back home. Whether the school has been cleared up, what Shacklebolt's decided to do, what's coming out of the negotiations or at least talks that have to be going on with the centaurs, after what they did. How everyone is, everyone who survived.
It's like a weight, striking in the centre of his chest. And it comes with guilt, for being here, for being gone when he might be needed, except that the guilt runs straight into the fact that he's just slept all the time he has, and he's still tired (if not yawning his head off anymore) and the idea of a lot of people around him, wanting him to talk and think and feel and be someone for them - well. It sort of makes him want to be sick.
At this point, the selfish part of him thinks he could be quite happy if he never saw another person, human or otherwise, ever again - except for Ron and Hermione. And there's apprehension, even there, because he realizes he has no idea what comes next, no idea what comes after: Riddle vanquished, the shadow gone, destiny chosen and fulfilled, peace on earth, good will to all men, here's your happy ending.
Harry has no idea what to do with it. He's never had a happy ending before, really. He's never been told, Congratulations, here's everything you've ever thought you wanted, have a nice day. He's especially got no idea what to do with it when so many people aren't just not getting happy endings, but are -
He thinks he's probably going to be raking things over and over in his mind, trying to think of what he could have done to end it sooner, and keep more people from dying, for a very long time. And if he feels guilty for being here, for letting Hermione overrule him completely, well. She's honestly probably as brilliant as usual, because right now, faced with all of that at once, he might just break and run without looking back.
Harry wishes it didn't feel quite so childish and so wrong to say, Here, look, I saved the world - now leave me alone.
Hermione and-or Ron has clearly decided that it's time for another actual meal. And that this time, they're going to sit at a table, which means it's probably Hermione. She's even found a table-cloth from who-knows-where, and this time the food is roast beef and potatoes and peas.
Ron and Hermione are bickering about who did the most work setting up the table, and why. After a few seconds, Harry realizes he has a stupid grin on his face. He reminds himself that it'll probably take less than a day for the bickering to get annoying again, but that does nothing for right now, and the sudden giddy realization, once again, that they're all alive, that Ron and Hermione are alive and well enough to bicker, and he takes the forks out of Ron's hand and shoulders him gently out of the way while the two of them argue about who found the table-cloth.
They only have water to drink, but that's fine; the food is still excellent, and for a while they're quiet. Until Ron pauses, and holds up his glass, and says, "To absent friends." His voice is very even and a little bit hoarse, and the words bring a kind of ache. Bring the kind of ache that comes with grief. Hermione's eyes are glittering a little bit, when she lifts up her glass. Harry follows her, and manages to make some sound to echo Ron's words before he drinks.
The water doesn't do much for the lump in his throat. A few moments and some deep breaths do more, along with a few more bites of food. His own voice is calm when he says, "I think we should talk about what happens now."
Hermione swallows what she's got in her mouth and puts her knife and fork down. She glances at Ron, and then back to Harry. "Well," she says. "I said in the note I left that we'd be back the day after tomorrow at four o'clock."
Ron interrupts with, "Why four o'clock?" and Hermione shrugs.
"It was the first time that popped into my head, honestly," she says, "I just didn't want them deciding that 'three days' meant six in the morning."
Harry says, "And then?" He doesn't want to. He doesn't really want to think about and then, but and then will sneak up on him whether he likes it or not and he prods at it like picking a scab.
Ron glances sideways at him. "We'll have to go home. To the Burrow, I mean," he clarifies.
"I need to find my parents," Hermione says softly, looking down at her plate. "I don't know how they're going to take everything. Then - " she trails off. "I don't know, Harry. What happens then?"
It twists inside him like a worm, like a snake. He doesn't know. He suddenly thinks that everything he had been sort of half-hoping, not daring to look at, is completely impossible and he's probably stupid for thinking otherwise, because that kind of thing - well. He's already thought that kind of thing belongs to someone with a different life, not him, and that was kind of only a reflection.
But Ron says, "I'll tell you what happens next," in a dire voice. "Mum. Mum, interrogations, fussing, her saying that both of you two need feeding up and by the way, she'll be right, possibly Mum yelling at us for disappearing, and then probably Mum insisting she needs to meet your mum for a long tea. And then more of the same."
Harry's mind is suddenly full of the image of Mrs Weasley when they get back and he tries to cover his smile, and can't. The twisting worm lets go, a little. Because Ron is probably right. It isn't as if they'll be going back to nothing. Even if they are going back to grief, and to difficulty, and to people wanting him to be something that he's not sure how it works.
He never has. There's being Harry, himself, and then there's being the Boy Who Lived, and it's going to be even more that way now, and he's not sure what he's going to do about that.
"As long as we keep your dad from backing mine into a corner to interrogate him about aeroplanes again," Hermione replies. "Remind me to just buy him a book about general physics and mechanics, for Christmas or something. It really isn't that complicated."
"Be careful," Ron warns, "or he'll decide to make one and I'll tell Mum it was your idea."
Hermione rolls her eyes. Then she says, "Harry, are you OK?"
Harry starts slightly, and takes another bite of his food just to make sure to show everything is normal. "I'm fine," he says. "Just thinking. I mean," he says and casts about for something, lighting on, "about how to make the whole story as short as possible so that we don't lose our voices repeating it."
"Or our minds," Ron interjects. Harry snorts in agreement.
"Because we're going to have to. Repeat it, I mean, not lose our minds." He cuts a little viciously into the roast beef and says, "There's going to be your family, Ron's family, the Hogwarts staff, the Ministry, probably the Prophet - "
Hermione interrupts, looking thoughtful. "Well," she says, "for family it's probably best to tell it, but - well. Harry, you know what a press release is, right?"
Harry frowns. "Like what companies do when they're putting out something new or have got in trouble?" he asks, and she half-laughs.
"Yes," she says. "You write down the version of the story you want to give people once, really clearly, and then give it to everyone. We could do that, for the Ministry, and the Prophet, and probably even most of Hogwarts. That way we don't have to actually stand in front of people we don't know to tell it, or people who won't - "
She pauses, but Harry's fairly certain she was going to go on with people who won't understand.
"Yeah," he says, slowly. "That's probably a good idea."
"We still have to work out what our version of the story is," Ron points out through a mouthful of food. "I mean, what we want to say, and how."
"We can do that tomorrow," Hermione says. Neither Ron nor Harry argue; putting it off sounds fine to them.
Of course, that hadn't been what he meant about what then? Not really. But if he's too much of a coward to bring it up, he can't really blame them for dodging it, either.
In the chaos of the school under attack, in the Room of Requirement, with Basilisk fangs all around their feet, he'd asked Is this really the best time? and Ron had said It's now or never. Except it wasn't, because now had needed to be about something else. And it had been. And a lot of people had died, and Harry still thinks he was technically one of them - that however his soul had been dragged back into his body, for at least an instant, he'd been dead.
And now they are here, and Harry's pretty sure now is the time, exactly the time. Except now, everything is stuck. And even if they're here together, even if a lot of the things sort of imply the future, they're still sitting at a table eating in silence and occasionally watching each other out of the corner of their eyes. It's a little bit ridiculous. After all the things they've done, what they've survived, what they've been through together, what they've put each other through, this should be easy. Yet somehow it isn't.
Somehow, it isn't at all.
When it's clear they've all finished, Hermione pushes her chair back and says, "I already cleared up once today, it's your turn." Ron only looks mutinous for a second, and probably out of habit; Harry figures that probably is fair. Besides: the washing up will give him something to think about.
Other than how he wants to say, Look, I love you. I love both of you, but the thing is, I'm not really sure how to do that. I was pretty sure about how to be Ginny's boyfriend because there were sort of patterns and models I could follow, but nobody's ever written a how-to guide for falling in love with both of your best friends and being crazy enough to have a go at it, so I'm sort of lost.
Or maybe he'll just stop at the first part. He thinks this, as he gathers up the plates and drops some of the cutlery and has to pick it up again. He takes it into the kitchen, where Ron has the sink full and is muttering about there not being any soap that he can see. Hermione, who despite her declaration has followed him into the kitchen, pulls out her wand, points it at the sink and says, "Saponis."
The sink promptly fills with suds. At Ron's quizzical look, she shrugs and says, "Sometimes I paid attention to what your mother was doing."
It's weird for dishwashing to be comforting, but Harry thinks maybe it's dishwashing with other people: he'd get left the washing up plenty at the Dursley's, but it was always by himself. Only at the Burrow did he wind up doing chores with someone else. Usually, come to think of it, with Ron and Hermione, bar last summer before the wedding.
Ron washes; he dries. Fairly often, their arms and shoulders touch or bump against each other. Hermione sits up on the counter, as if, despite her decision not to do the dishes, she can't think of anything else she wants to do. Her hair has less frizz and more curl to it than usual, and he wonders why. It's mostly loose, some stray tendrils against her face. Ron's sleeves are rolled up to the elbow and for all his remarks about them needing feeding up, he's pretty thin, too. And he needs a haircut, except that there's something about bits of it falling in his eyes that Harry likes.
And what he meant about what then? is that it's one thing to know it's now or never in the moment before everyone's probably going to die, and another thing when everyone doesn't die and you win and it turns out there was actually a lot of time besides now or never, and it was a different question entirely if you could, or would, follow through with that now or never promise in that newly won time after the end.
He wants to say, look, I love you. What ends up coming out, all in a blurted sound, is "Where are we going to live? I mean," he says, when Ron pauses and looks at him, his hands soapy nearly to the elbows, and Hermione sits up straighter and looks blank, "I have 13 Grimmauld Place, and I know they'd have us at the Burrow, but there's Hermione's parents when we find them and all the stuff that happened at Grimmauld Place and all the people at the Burrow . . . " He stops and makes himself take a breath. "So I was just wondering. If there were any ideas."
Hermione's eyes are oddly bright. She takes a breath and says, "You're going to laugh at me," in a warning tone of voice, "but I thought - I thought about maybe suggesting to Professor McGonagall that, well, maybe Hogwarts could run a summer term, for the OWL and NEWT students who couldn't get anything done this year, so that the OWL students could move on without any big interruptions and the students who wanted their NEWTs wouldn't have to do a whole year over." She raised her chin, as if daring either of them to laugh or to say anything.
Ron leans on the edge of the sink and, to Harry's surprise and obviously to Hermione's, he says, "That might not be a bad idea." At their stares, he says, "What? I mean, after what we've done, it's not like we couldn't decide on any jobs we want, but that feels like cheating somehow. If we take the tests, then we know it's not just accidentally saving the world that did it for us. I mean," he goes on, quickly, "not that all of it was an accident, but you have to admit, we did kind of spend a lot of time flailing around."
Neither Harry nor Hermione can argue with that, and Harry's not going to try. Hermione says, "Why, what do you think?" turning to Harry.
It comes out without stopping to ask his brain, which is probably for the best: he says, "I'm going wherever you two go. I love you. I thought that was sort of obvious by now."
Which, as far as that kind of declarations go, is probably one of the worst in history. But Hermione's eyes go from bright to outright glittering. And Ron's just go wide and shocked - the happy kind of shocked, and he says, "Oh. Well."
That joins what Harry said in the realm of the ridiculous, so before they embarrass themselves further, he takes hold of Ron's collar and pulls him into a kiss. The second kiss. Which goes a little better than the first one, in that they manage to actually coordinate it so their teeth don't crash together; more importantly, Harry thinks, it gets the point across. And he thinks that next time, he's going to take his glasses off first.
It turns out he's wrong about that, though, because the next time happens right away, when Hermione drops off the counter with a cry of, "Oh, you, you're both hopeless," and then throws her arms around Harry's neck first, pushing him back into the sink. Which he doesn't really mind, even if the back of his shirt does get soaked.
Distantly, he hears Ron grumble, "I don't think that's fair, it's not like you said anything either - " but Ron doesn't get much farther than that: Hermione releases Harry and throws her arms a little further up around Ron's neck and cuts him off by virtue of kissing him as hard as she kissed Harry.
They do manage to finish the dishes, at least haphazardly. It takes a while, because it keeps getting interrupted, mostly by kissing. Which is pretty much as good as any of them remembers it from other times, except better, because it's them.
And this is the reason, Harry thinks, that Hermione brought them here. Even if she didn't really know it. Because outside of the giddy elation he can still feel everything else, and when they go back, it's going to hurt. Everything's going to hurt, and be difficult, and if they were still all awkward and cautious, it might break something important. Especially since the whole wizarding world is going to be staring at them, all the time. They need to be ready for that.
"Mum's going to sputter," Ron predicts, echoing his earlier words. "I mean, I don't think she's going to be difficult about it, but she's definitely going to sputter." They're on the couch, in a sort of comfortable pile in descending order of height, Harry's back leaning against Ron's side, Ron's arm over the back of the couch, Hermione curled up against Harry. And Harry is happier to sit here and lean, surrounded by them, than he's ever been to be anywhere in his life. If every Dementor on the planet were to swarm them all at once, he thinks, his Patronus could hold them off forever and he wouldn't even tire.
"I don't even know," Hermione says. Harry brushes a curl out of her eyes.
"We should probably go find your parents," he says. "Before we go back, I mean. Before we get all bogged down in everything and start getting more attention."
"Before Mum and Dad want to meet them all over again," Ron put in. "Don't worry, Hermione. You saved them and then you helped save the world. What more could any parent want?"
Hermione laughs at that, a little.
"It'll be OK," Harry says, and even believes it himself. "Everything will be OK."
It Was Good
It is six o'clock, not four, when Harry Potter, Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger reappear just outside the Hogwarts grounds. When asked, Miss Granger replies, quite calmly, that they had been settling her parents back into their own house, and had been slightly delayed. Then Potter says, quite firmly, that any more questions will have to wait until they've talked with whoever is in charge of Hogwarts now.
Some people try to slip in the door when Professor McGonagall ushers the three in, but they are quite firmly turned back. One of them - a reporter from the expanded Quibbler - notices that all three of them are holding hands. He makes a note of it, but on reflection, doesn't put it in his article, because he can't see as it's very significant.
Not in a story about the three heroes.