The Manor's not run down, but it's a shell just the same. It sits in a wilderness of garden and broods gloomily over them, and Harry is fiercely, furiously glad that Kingsley had the sense to ask this of all three of them, together.
Hermione's hand in his is cold and dry and firm. On her other side, Ron's drawn their twined fingers up a bit, as if to kiss her knuckles; Harry looks, but does not move, away. The drizzle has plastered his hair to his head and dampened his clothes. Wet it may be, but it's not cold this June, and under his jacket he's sweating. His boots are caked with mud and there's a hole in his jeans - he tore them on the roof tiles the day before yesterday, when it was still sunny and they were at home.
Behind them the Aurors are pushing into the grounds and muttering as they spread out, make for the Manor. Nobody likes being overtaken on the career ladder by a jumped up seventeen-year-old whose only qualification for the job is that he's done what they could not. Harry doesn't care. He's found it's not as easy as he thought to give up this responsibility that Dumbledore passed to him. He's found that's mostly because there's no one else he trusts to take it off his hands.
Speaking of which, a small firm version of said limb is now resting between his shoulder-blades. He turns his head and gets a face full of blonde pony tail.
"Hi, Harry. Hermione. Ron."
"Luna, you didn't have to," says Hermione anxiously.
Luna shrugs and smiles. "Maybe not. I don't think so."
"We would have anyway," says Neville. Ginny bumps her shoulder against Luna's and catches Harry's eye. Distantly he feels an echo of wanting to twist her wet hair back from her face and kiss her, but it's not really getting through. He's fairly sure that anything she's thinking about him that's running on similar lines isn't getting through to her either. Yet when he smiles at her, and she smiles back: that gets through, comforting, steadying. She tilts her head to look past him at Ron, who pulls a face that makes her smile again.
"All right?" she says.
"No," he says. "You?"
Hermione swings their joined hands a bit, and Harry's knuckles brush against her jeans. He remembers being surprised, once, when she hugged him; light years away from how the three of them are always touching now. Hands backs shoulders, knees bumping together on the sofa, ruffling each other's hair.
"All right," says Neville, and draws a breath. "Harry, what do you need us to do?"
Harry scrubs his free hand through his hair. "Follow the Aurors," he says. "Look, you guys are the only people in this place I trust. Kingsley doesn't even trust them; that's why he's gone and put me in charge. They know what they're doing, supposedly."
"And if they do turn out to be collaborateurs and Death Eaters, you miserable gits are going to be able to deal with them?" says George from behind them.
Everyone turns to look at him.
He jerks his chin at Ginny. "Well, if you're going to leave notes lying around telling me where you're going..."
It's not as if anyone minds. He hasn't shaved in a couple days and as far as Harry can tell he hasn't washed his jeans since he came to Godric's Hollow two weeks ago, but it's George, subduedly cheerful, mouth set Gryffindor-stubborn.
"Thanks," Harry says to him, inadequate as ever.
George gives him a look that says he knows what Harry's thinking and thinks he's an idiot for thinking it.
They go inside. Fred's not with them. His footsteps follow, ghostly, in their wake.
Inside Malfoy Manor there is nothing, really, to be found. Nothing except dust and the ashes of old burnings; except bloodstains black on walls and floor, overturned furniture and doors hanging off hinges. Harry's not sure how it got in such a state, unless it was Voldemort himself in the wake of their escape.
The dungeons are empty.
Aurors take furniture apart and tear down curtains; Ron's in the parlour standing over a desk while Hera says, "you make a jab with your wand - hard, and say -"
Talk about learning on the job. And he's not even on it, not yet, it's not really fair to fetch them all here like this... Harry swallows the thought down, stamps it out of sight; he'd promised he'd give up that kind of thing, that refusal to admit his friends' own choices. It is, said Ginny, a kind of selfishness. That was right before she punched him for blaming himself for Fred's death. Andromeda fixed his nose for him, but she was completely unsympathetic.
The corridors are dark; the gaslights in alcoves are mostly shattered, and broken glass crunches under Harry's boots. His fingers slide on his wand, caressing. It's so good to have it back, to feel it fit against his palm and know it understands him; like getting a part of himself back that got lost somewhere last year, snagged on a bush in the Forest of Dean or left lying on the floor of Grimmauld Place, abandoned. (He's not been back to the house Sirius hated. Rebuilding his house, his parents' house, has brought it home to him with a vengeance how much Sirius did hate it. Imagine, now, the state he's in, being made to go back to the Dursleys.)
There's a door to his left, ajar; Harry moves forwards, wand outstretched. Unnecessary precaution in this abandoned place, except that his neck is stiff with unease, his hands tense. He'd be sort of intrigued by the fact that his body knows better than he does what's going on, but, well, something's going on.
He pushes the door open. It's a sort of cloakroom; there's a stand of boots and wellies, a few cloaks hanging up, a small cupboard, ajar again.
Harry reaches out, thinks better of it, steps back and opens it by magic, and then gives a strangled hiss.
The great snake curled on the floor of the cupboard looks up and hisses back. It's not as large as Nagini, but it's milk-white and red-eyed and Harry is forcibly reminded of Voldemort. The forked tongue flickers and its body begins to sway and unravel, whisper of coils rubbing against each other. It's hooded - which snakes are hooded - pythons? No, cobras. Bloody hell.
But Harry's never been afraid of snakes.
"Stop," he says. "Stop, now!"
The cobra doesn't take a blind bit of notice; its hood flares out, and then it begins to move, sliding out of the cupboard and rustling towards him and Harry snaps at it again, "Stop, I said!" but it's not working, why isn't it working, and now, now with those red eyes on him he starts backing away - "Stop!" - and the cobra rears up when Harry's back hits the wall of the corridor opposite the cloakroom door and Ron's voice shouts "Stupefy!" and then he flings the immobile body away to fall in a heap in a corner ten feet beyond the cloakroom door - and beyond Harry, of course, who realises he's slid down the wall and is sitting on the floor, feeling stunned himself.
"What was that?" says Ron.
"It's gone," says Harry, tilting his head back to stare up at him. "Ron, it - it's gone. I'm not a Parselmouth anymore."
Ron sticks his wand in the back pocket of his jeans, starts to say something, stops, folds his arms over his chest, kicks at Harry's left boot and finally says, "You prat - you almost died because you're upset you can't talk to snakes anymore?"
Harry takes his glasses off and folds his arms over his knees and hides his face in them to laugh and laugh and laugh even harder when Ron's hands catch his shoulders, and then he joins in, a delighted sort of laugh that he hasn't laughed for weeks or months or maybe a year, the year since Dumbledore died.
"They're not very interesting conversationalists really," he gasps out.
"Considering most of the ones you've met have been giant lunatic monster snakes who've been triyng to kill you I am not really surprised," says Ron, and Hermione finds them practically crying with glee and completely unable to explain why.
They kill the snake when it tries to attack them again and burn its corpse. Harry's not the only one who sees the resemblance.
(They burnt its master's too, and buried his ashes in some deep and inaccessible corner of the Forbidden Forest. Harry hadn't wanted his body on the Hogwarts grounds, but McGonagall had insisted. And may he never come out of it.)
George and Ginny, Neville and Luna come home with them. They have dinner in the pub and spend most of the evening talking about wallpaper and new furniture. Neville and Luna are sharing their place with Parvati, who has Firm Notions about curtains; "but," says Neville, relieved, "she's promised to move out when Lavender and Padma get out of St Mungo's."
Their bedroom's a cluttered mess; Hermione clambers over Harry's bed to open the window before they fall asleep, and Ron says "d'you have to, that git down the road bangs his doors at seven-thirty every day like he's just discovered how," and Hermione sniffs and makes some comment about his snoring, and Harry curls his fingers in the bedclothes and remembers hugging Ginny goodbye. He finds he wishes he'd kissed her, flicker of regret sharper than it's been for a while, and thinks that's probably progress too.