Seventeen years. Half of her life. Seventeen years of silence, and here she stood. Dead leaves crunched beneath her feet and the wind whipped her hair. From all appearances, it should have been autumn, but it wasn't. It was August. It was her birthday.
Seventeen years. Half of her life. Was she the same person? This certainly wasn't the same place. She wondered if anyone had set foot on the stone since she had left it behind. It was a romantic idea: her departure had marked the end of life for these halls and her return...well, who knew?
It was romantic, but implausible. After all, there weren't skeletons lying about. That meant someone had been through to gather them all and give them proper, or unmarked, burials. Whichever they deserved.
She sighed. Reaching out as though she were afraid the doors before her would disappear in a vapor the moment before her fingers made contact, she gently pushed on the massive and rotting wooden portal. Creaking and groaning in protest on hinges long unused, the door swung open before her, old magic moving what should have been rusted shut.
Stepping as though she tread hallowed ground, she walked through the once grand entryway to Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The ceiling had caved in at one point and debris littered the hall. She heard the scampering of the wild inhabitants of ruins.
The Great Hall had faired only slightly better. The enchantment on the ceiling had faded and it was what it was, a cracked, crumbling, and dirty ceiling. One of the tables was turned over and the other three were pushed out of place. The faculty table was broken in half and she found it all strangely appropriate. After all, it was division among the faculty that had once long ago nearly destroyed the school and division among them again that had ended in the school's ultimate decision to remain closed after the war. She smiled ruefully when she realized that the house table overturned was Gryffindor. Surely it would have broken that man's heart to see the school now.
She turned and slowly left the dim sight. She explored the ruins for hours. Half of the towers were impassible and most of the corridors were inches deep in dust and leaves. Some of them even had plants that had taken up root and begun to grow indoors, though the whole castle seemed to be outside now. Some of the outside classrooms were completely exposed where a wall or two had collapsed. Some of the classrooms looked like they were waiting for someone to come and lift the blanket of dust, ready for students to return any minute.
Gryffindor tower still stood, though it was hardly preserved. Animals had picked apart the once luscious sofas and most of the furniture was broken. She climbed the stairs to her old dormitory and found her bed still standing, though it appeared that a family of mice had lived in the mattress for generations and the drapes had been torn apart by birds to adorn their nests.
Leaving the castle with unshed tears burning behind her eyes, she made her way out to the Quidditch pitch. Not one of the stands remained upright. Sighing heavily, she waved her wand a few times and the old Gryffindor quarter sprang up and repaired itself. She climbed up to the very top and sat there, staring at the sky, envisioning all the old games she had watched, and played. She could almost hear the students cheering. She could almost hear Lee's inappropriately biased commentary. She closed her eyes and she was a child again.
When she opened her eyes she saw a young man climbing the stands in front of her and waited silently. He took a seat beside her and watched the sky much as she had been doing. It could have been hours before he broke the silence, but it was only a few minutes.
"I wondered if you would return today. It seemed appropriate, and when I heard that someone had camped out in the Shrieking Shack last night, I decided to come up." He was a tall man, about a year older than her, and his posture spoke of great weight he had born too young. His jaw was firm and his eyes were sharp, and a scar along the left side of his neck marked him as one who fought in the war.
His dark hair no longer fell in his eyes as it had in his youth. He kept it cut neatly now and much of the carelessness that had once set him apart had matured into gentility. Even though some would say that he never did learn to take life as seriously as it deserved, he always maintained that it only deserved enough sobriety for one to survive. He simply had defined survival differently now.
"Seventeen years is a long time, Blaise." She turned to look at him. "Things change." Her words were simple, but the depths they dove were endless. Yes, she was speaking about the school and its now ruined state, but she was speaking about much more. More importantly, her eyes turned her comment into a question.
How much did things change?
How was her family? Had they changed their minds?
Had public opinion finally settled down? If so, what was the final verdict?
Perhaps most importantly of all, had he changed any?
Blaise smiled slightly and examined his hands. Very few people had ever been able to keep up with their conversations because everything meant so much. He had missed it. "Yes, quite a few things." He looked up at her a sparkle in his eye, "You're a hero, now, you know. It only took a few months for things to be straightened out, for the facts to become known." He laughed and looked down at his left arm, "Seems like the lot of us are heroes: you, me, Luna...him." He didn't know why the name wouldn't come, after all, he was speaking of his best friend. "When everything was known quite a bit changed and fast. Everyone wanted to know where you had gone and how to reach you. I'm still not convinced that your family believes we didn't know. They blamed him for your disappearance, you know." He looked at her again meaningfully, "At least, most of them did. Bill and the twins were sensible enough to let blame lie where it belonged, on everyone. The others, though, set it all squarely on him."
He stopped talking to let things sink in. She was staring off into space, lost in her memories.
"I had nowhere to go...nowhere to stay, I mean. No one wanted me here, to look at, to remind them...even Luna became uncomfortable around me, though she never would have said so." She stood and turned to face the castle. "I may be a heroine, Blaise, but I doubt any of them would welcome me home with a parade. There are too many emotions bled into those stones. All of the anger they never expressed, all of the guilt for their betrayal, all of the pain of my disappearance...it's all been dealt with in one way or another and my return will only bring it all up for review."
He remained silent. He knew her decision had already been made and nothing he could say would change her mind. He simply prayed he had helped in some way.
Whether or not he ever knew how much he had helped was never discussed. If he had not shown up, she probably would have slipped back the way she had come, unable to find the strength to make her dream a reality. With him there, however, she knew she would never be alone in the fight. He still knew her; he still understood, and he would still stand beside her.
After a moment, she asked, "Where do they go now?"
His eyes followed hers to the castle. "Nowhere, honestly. A system of apprenticeships has been set up. An aptitude test is taken at age twelve and a counselor helps the family decide where it would be best to set the kid up. Gringotts loves the arrangement, but pretty much everyone else hates it." He shrugged, "Even though, honestly, it has worked. I figure most people are just angry that their kids are being denied the experiences they still cherish."
"Why don't they rebuild?" she asked, still staring at the castle.
He shrugged. "Pain, I reckon. This is the monument to death, division, hatred, and pain. No one has the strength to face the loss; no one believes it can be done; no one believes that this place can be rebuilt for the future. It belongs to the past, to the pain. There is no healing here."
She looked him dead in the eye and he saw the strength and determination that had carried so many through the war, through that final battle. "That, Blaise, is precisely why it must be done."