Seeing Dumbledore again filled Harry with millions of questions and millions of emotions. The heart, life, and joy behind the twinkling blue eyes stirred up a certain curiosity in him. There was so much that Harry wanted to talk about—so much that he wanted to ask. The man behind the half-moon spectacles, however, brought the meeting to a close.
"My dear boy," he said abruptly. "It appears that among your many rare and useful talents, you have mastered the art of sleeping while standing up. While this is very impressive indeed, I must insist that you go find yourself a more comfortable place to rest. I believe that, were Madam Pomfry here, she would order you to take a nap of no less than thirty hours."
"But sir," Harry protested, fighting back the haze of unconsciousness that threatened to overtake him. "I want to stay here with you!" Hermione and Ron murmured in tired agreement.
"As delightful as that sounds," Dumbledore quipped, "I must decline. You've had quite enough excitement for one day, don't you think? You may come back again whenever you like, provided that the next time I see you, you are well rested. I wouldn't dream of keeping the three of you from your beds for one moment longer."
"Professor…" Harry began, but before he could continue, he was interrupted by a cross, sneering voice.
"What did I tell you, Albus?" The familiar voice was dripping with boredom. "The boy accomplishes a few small tasks like saving the world and surviving death and now he feels that he's above bedtime! How arrogant and perfectly predictable." Harry wheeled around and was shocked to see a pair of beady black eyes scowling down at him from behind curtains of greasy black hair—for hanging on the wall in a large frame of silver and green was the perfect likeness of the most recently deceased headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
"Snape!" Harry, Ron, and Hermione gasped in unison.
"Professor Snape," Dumbledore cheerfully corrected. The portraits around them burst out in a mixture of cheering and laughing. Snape held his menacing expression for as long as he could, but as Harry's eyes filled with tears, it softened. "Thank you," Harry whispered. "For everything." Snape's countenance was troubled.
"Everything was my fault," the sallow-faced man said, his voice breaking. "It was all my fault. She was so brilliant…so brave…so beautiful, and if it weren't for me, she'd still be alive."
"I know," Harry said quietly. "But I understand now. I forgive you." He heard Hermione squeak a little behind him as she blubbered, and heard a shushing noise as Ron put his arms around her. Snape's thin lips frowned.
"For seventeen years, remorse has followed me like a ghost. A thousand times, I've longed to go back and do things differently."
"Remorse," Harry said slowly. "The one thing that Tom Riddle did not possess and the one thing that could have saved him."
"Not a day has gone by in which I haven't tried, in some way or another to pay penance for the terrible crime I committed. All these years, I acted my part well, and you hated me for it. It was all for your protection—because you were her son. Surely you now know that."
"Six years of punishments, insults, and name-calling; all for my protection and wellbeing," Harry said, grinning at the irony of it. "Who'd have thought?" Ron and Hermione crowed with laughter. Phineus Nigelus and several other portraits joined in.
"I saw what you did in the Great Hall tonight," Snape said, ignoring the guffaws coming from the portraits of Armando Dippet and Dexter Fortescue. "I was wrong about you all this time. Lily would be very proud of you. I believe that you have more of her in you than just her eyes."
"She'd be proud of you too," Harry said. "I know it—because I'm proud of you. I was wrong about you as well. Last year, I called you a coward, when in reality, you're the bravest man I've ever met."
"How touching," Dumbledore said loudly. "But I must ask, Severus, that you bid Harry good-night. I fear that Molly will kill me if she finds out what bad shape our boy is in on account of his wanting to converse with us."
"But my mum can't kill you!" Ron said. "You're already dead!" Dumbledore tilted his head to one side.
"Ah…yes. I suppose that I am. Dear me! I'd nearly forgotten."
As the trio descended the stairs and made their way past the confused stone gargoyle, Ron gave Hermione a strange look.
"You kissed me," he said slowly. Hermione's face turned pink.
"I—I don't know what came over me," she faltered, stumbling over a piece of loose rubble as she tried to regain her composure. She began talking very fast, refusing to make eye contact with him. "What, with people dying, a confrontation with You-Know-Who, and the desperateness of the situation—you know, people do weird things under intense pressure—I read it in The Mystery of the Magical Mind, by Mallory Muck…" Ron looked at Hermione incredulously, as though she'd just suggested that, in celebration of Voldemort's demise, they go study flobberworms.
"Bloody hell Hermione," he burst out, the tips of his ears turning a violent shade of red. "I really don't care!" And with that, Harry found himself again awkwardly standing next to his two best friends, who were locked together like some writhing human pretzel, oblivious to everything around them. He scratched his head.
"Blimey. Um…right. Yeah. You two just…go on doing that. If you need me I'll be…er…well…" Ron shooed him away with one hand, not pausing to come up for air. "Somewhere else," Harry finished quickly. Feeling very uncomfortable, Harry slipped on the invisibility cloak and made his way past six butterbeer-laden parties and two groups of mourners. The familiar halls were beginning to swim before his eyes as he felt the surge of adrenaline that had carried him through the last forty-eight hours come to a crashing halt. His eyes felt like they were filled with sand. Never before had he felt so hungry, weary, or in desperate need of a shower. He pulled down the hood of his cloak as he approached the portrait hole.
"Password?" the Fat Lady demanded shrilly. Harry stared speechlessly.
"I don't know it," he said in dismay.
"No password, no entry," she said firmly. Harry felt as though he'd been hit with a jelly-legs jinx.
"Come on!" he yelled desperately. "I just defeated Lord Voldemort in an epic battle between good and evil! I was hit with a killing curse and survived! I've been awake for over two days, and I have to go to the bathroom. For God's sake, let me in!"
"Sorry," she said, holding up a mirror so that she could powder her nose. "No password, no entry."
"You know I'm in Gryffindor!" he cried in frustration. "I was sorted into this house seven years ago. I just want to get to bed so I can take a bloody nap!"
"Sorry." This time she sounded annoyed. She closed her compact with a snap. Dust flew up around it. "If I've said it once, I've said it a million times. No password, no entry."
"My name is Harry Potter!" he yelled angrily. "I'm roommates with Neville Longbottom, Seamus Finnigan, Dean Thomas, and Ron Weasley! Now let me in."
"Harry Potter?" she said, paying close attention to him for the first time. She hurried into the next painting, where she whispered something to Sir Cadogan, who was at a small table, drinking tea, apparently visiting. He stared at Harry, shook his head, and then whispered something back at her. The Fat Lady strutted back. "According to the school records," she announced. "Harry Potter, Dean Thomas, and Ronald Weasley are no longer students at this time. It appears that you all dropped out. Your beds were given to other students several months ago. You no longer have a room in this tower, even if you did know the password." With a loud hmph, she flitted back to engage Sir Cadogan in an indignant discussion on the cheekiness of students these days.
A wave of grief hit his severe exhaustion like a hammer. A flood of confusion seeped into Harry, as he realized that he had nowhere to go. His room in Gryffindor tower had been given away and he could certainly never again call Number Four, Privet Drive home. Even the tent that he'd slept in for the last year was out of his reach, somewhere in that beaded pouch stuffed in Hermione's sock. He drew a ragged breath, drawing his knees to his chest. Tears leaked through the knees of his jeans, making them itch. Suddenly, he had a thought.
"Kreacher?" he whispered. With a crack, the house-elf Apparated at his side, the fake horcrux dangling pendulously from his neck.
"Master has called!" the tiny creature croaked, happily. "Everybody is seeking Master, yet master calls Kreacher to him! Oh happy day!"
"Er, yeah," Harry said wearily. "Kreacher, could you take me somewhere where I can sleep? They've given my bed away in Gryffindor tower and I don't know the password and I really need something to eat and I don't really have anywhere I can go and I'm tired and I'm cranky and I'm filthy and I'd go home but I don't really have one any more and I can't Apparate within Hogwarts' walls and…and…" His run-on sentence trailed off. He realized that he was just babbling, but he was too sleepy to care.
"Does Master want to go back to the most noble house of Black?" Kreacher asked, his large, luminous eyes looking over his master with an eagerness to please, his bat-like ears lifting. Harry thought for a moment of the portrait of Mrs. Black screaming "Mudbloods, filth, stains of dishonor, taint of shame on the house of my fathers—"
"Not today," he sighed. He was tired, but he doubted that he could sleep through that ruckus. Besides, the place carried with it nightmares of lockets, lakes, and letters.
"Does Master want to go to his aunt's house in Little Whinging? Where Dumbledore first summoned me to you?" Harry shook his head.
"Is there no other place Master can lay his head?" Harry hugged his knees, thinking.
"Kreacher…can you take me to the Burrow? You know…the home of Arthur and Molly Weasley?" he asked at last. "It's the closest thing I have to home right now."
"Kreacher is pleased to serve!" the dingy elf said. He placed his long, thin fingers around Harry's, and with another crack Harry felt the familiar feeling of being compressed, before materializing in the Weasley's kitchen.
The house he loved, usually so full of life and busyness, looked uncomfortably abandoned. It was dark and neglected, with dust on every surface and cobwebs crossing the corners of the kitchen. A large rat scurried across the floor, chased by three angry garden gnomes, who appeared to have made a new home out of a dying houseplant. As Harry pulled back a curtain to look out at the old apple orchard, several doxies flew out, chattering at him angrily. He glanced up at the grandfather clock, and saw, with a sense of loneliness, that each of the nine Weasley hands were pointed at "Hogwarts," with the exception of Fred's, which was aimed "Dead." His freckled face was blowing raspberries at Harry from its little portrait. He noticed, for the first time, that a tenth hand had been added to the clock, bearing a portrait of a thin face with a shock of jet-black hair, a pair of green eyes, and a lightning-bolt shaped scar. That hand was pointing to "Home." Words from long ago echoed through is head.
"He's not your son!"
"He's as good as! Who else has he got?"
"I love you, Mrs. Weasley," he whispered, as his own face waved to him from the clock hand.
"May Kreacher make Master something to eat?" the house-elf asked, hopping eagerly from one foot to another.
"Yes please. But make it quick," Harry said. "I just want to go to bed." Kreacher set to work, scrounging through the cupboards. Unfortunately, much of the food in the pantry had spoiled since the family's fast flight to Auntie Muriel's in March. Kreacher managed to find a sealed tin of oatmeal and hurried to make Harry a bowl of porridge. After so many months of scavenging for mushrooms, even the bland gruel tasted heavenly.
After he'd eaten his fill, Harry showered, wrapped himself in a towel and made his way, on auto-pilot, to Ron's room below the attic. As he flung open the door in great anticipation of a nice, long, snooze, he came to a screeching halt.
In Ron's bed was an orange haired figure, dressed in red pajamas. The stench was overwhelming.
"Sorry to disturb you," Harry said dejectedly.
"Whhauwwuwalllllbbbeeeeuuuuu" groaned the ghoul.
"Yeah…tell me about it." Harry said. "Excuse me please…I've just got to get something…if you don't mind." He grabbed a set of Ron's pajamas from the top drawer of his dresser. As he shut the drawer, he noticed the dusty copy of Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches sitting atop the bureau Chuckling, he tucked the old birthday present under his arm and left the room, carefully shutting the stench and sound of the squealing ghoul behind him.
He stumbled down the hall to Fred and George's old bedroom, where he had once stayed, and opened the door. To his dismay, he found it filled with Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes merchandise. Upon his first step through the door, a dungbomb went off, filling the room with a stench nearly as bad as what was in the last room he had been in. One foot stuck to the floor as he stepped on an unwrapped Puking Pastille while the other slipped as an Extendable Ear rolled beneath it. He swore loudly. Too exhausted to muster the energy necessary to clear the room of prank products, he shut the door and, hardly aware of where he was, opened the next one. He felt a sense of peace flood him as his eyes were greeted with the welcome sight of a Weird Sisters poster, a picture of Gwenog Jones, the captian of the Hollyhead Harpies, and a brilliant view of the old orchard. He threw on his pajamas, set his glasses on the bedside table, and tumbled into bed, unconscious before his head even hit the pillow. The last thing he remembered was a faint flowery fragrance, the same that he'd smelled so long ago from a bubbling love potion in a dungeon beneath a castle on a lake.
He dreamed that he was back at King's Cross Station, standing on the back of the Hogwarts Express. A little girl with red hair was running after the train, stumbling over the tracks, trying to catch up with him. As he called to her, she morphed into a huge black dog. The dog changed into a wolf, which turned into a stag, which became a doe. The doe ran the fastest of all, but even it didn't have the speed to keep up with the accelerating train. Finally, the doe stopped running and turned into a young woman with dark red hair and green eyes, who waved after him. As she shrank into the distance, somewhere, a phoenix sang its lament.
"Harry? Are you awake?" A gentle female voice was whispering to him from very close by. He opened his eyes, and found himself staring into a very blurry face, framed with a fuzzy outline of red hair. There was far too much light.
"Mom?" he mumbled, disoriented.
"Go back to sleep," Ginny said, sounding disappointed. "You're delusional." Harry groaned, fumbling for his glasses. He lifted his head, blinking as Ginny's bright brown eyes came into focus. She was sitting cross-legged next to him on the bed, looking at him intently. Harry longed to say something charming and impressive, but his thoughts were foggy and incoherent.
"What are you doing here?" He blurted out in a weak voice, squinting. Ginny glanced around.
"Hello! My bed, my room, my house." Her left eyebrow arched slightly. "The real question is, what are you doing here? People have been looking for you for the last day and a half." Harry, too dazzled to continue looking at her, wearily closed his eyes and allowed the back of his head to once more sink into the soft pillow.
"Trying to sleep," he groaned, pulling blankets over his head to block the sunlight. He mumbled something about passwords, purple pustules, and puking pastilles under his breath and ended up slurring all the words together into a congealed mess of jumbled nonsense.
"Would you like me to go?" Ginny asked, standing up. Harry threw the blankets off from his head, squinting again as the sunlight blinded him. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes took Ginny's hand in his and pulled her back down.
"No. As long as you don't ask for my autograph, you can stay." He sat up and looked at her, keenly aware that it was the first time he'd been alone with her in nearly a year. For a while, neither of them spoke.
"Aren't you supposed to be staying at your Aunt Muriel's?" Harry said, grasping for something to say. Ginny's freckles scrunched together as she wrinkled her nose.
"I got back to Auntie Muriel's house yesterday and found it crawling with goblins. She kept beating them with a broom, yelling that she was going to murder them in their sleep if they didn't leave her tiara alone." She shrugged. "I figured that I'd seen enough death for one day, and being in no mood to witness more, I came here." Though her tone was conversational, Harry could hear pain underscoring the word death. He suddenly realized that he would never hear Fred's voice again.
"How did the goblins get in?" Harry said, hoping to keep her mind and his off of the death of her brother. "What with the Fidelius charm and all…"
"Apparently, the Goblins were picking wands up off dead Death Eaters," she said, with a shudder. "The things Goblins can do with magic when they're in possession of wands are rather spectacular."
"Only goblins would find themselves in possession of fantastic new-found power and think that their first priority should be to annoy your aunt," Harry said, rolling his eyes.
"Anyways," Ginny continued. "I figured that it was finally safe to come back here again, what, with the wizarding world being restored back to its normal order and all." He stared blankly. She gave him an impatient look. "In case you haven't heard, someone killed Lord Voldemort."
"Oh," he said mildly. "I guess I heard something like that somewhere." Ginny gave him a playful shove and tossed him a copy of that morning's Daily Prophet. On the front was a moving photograph of Harry's disarmingspell hitting Voldemort's killing curse. Underneath was the headline:
Voldemort Vanquished by Harry's Heroic Hexes
By Rita Skeeter
"Since when has Expelliarmus been considered a hex?" Harry wondered out loud, as he glanced at the headline. Ginny grinned.
"Well, at least the rest of the story is accurate," she said, leaning back against the wall, spreading the paper before her. "Kingsley Shacklebolt appointed Lee Jordan as the new editor of the Daily Prophet. Lee threatened to sack Rita if she ever misrepresents the truth again.
"And people are accusing me of defeating the ultimate evil," Harry said. He looked down through the headlines and found another, smaller article of interest.
Doloros' Departure Due to Dementors
By Xenophilus Lovegood
"Xenophilus is working for the Prophet?" Harry asked incredulously.
"Well…apparently, there was some sort of accident in his home, and his printing press blew up. Lee felt too sorry for him to let him go unemployed, and, after being the only writer who printed the truth for the last three years, Lee felt that he had earned the job. He doesn't let him print anything about Nargles, though." With mixed feelings, Harry skimmed the article. The first paragraph was enough to let him know that, just prior to fleeing from England (in retreat from the sudden outburst of happiness that had spread across the land), the Dementors had kissed Doloros Umbridge, drawn to the despair she felt when Kingsley Shacklebolt kindly informed her that her entire department had been eliminated. In her comatose, soulless state, she'd become a vegetable, and was now being cared for at St. Mungo's.
"Such a pity," Harry said. "Umbridge was a real peach. I always liked her."
"Whatever…Mr. I must not tell lies." He continued flipping through the paper, eager to catch up on the news he'd missed.
"Interesting reading material, isn't it?" Ginny said.
"Haven't smiled at the Prophet this much in years," Harry said with a yawn.
"I wasn't talking about the Prophet," she said. She picked up Harry's copy of Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches. She leafed through it, much to Harry's horror.
"That was a present from Ron…sort of a joke," he said lamely. She perused the pages feigning an expression of keen interest.
"Chapter one: dump her at a funeral. Chapter two: ignore her while you plan some grand heroic scheme with her brother. Chapter three: walk out on her while she's trying to kiss you on your birthday. Chapter four: deny her any contact with you for nearly a year. Chapter five: refuse to let her fight by your side during a grand battle…" Harry stood up, snatched the book from her hand and tossed it aside. He began to pace. Ginny sat up straight, dangling her feet over the edge of the bed, her hands folded in her lap.
"You know," Harry said, his voice faltering. "I've dealt with a lot of scary stuff this year. A dragon…dementors…even death. But I'm more nervous now than I ever was thoughout all that." He stopped, turned to her, and took her hands in his. "Ginny—now that I have no more mysterious quests to go on or Dark Lords to defeat or prophecies to fulfill, I'm bound to have more free time." He bit his lip and took a deep breath. "W-would you be willing to…"
"Play a game of Wizard's Chess?" she suggested, interrupting.
"What? No!" he said, confused.
"Get Ron and Hermione to play two-a-side Quidditch when they get here?"
"NO!" he howled.
"Start a organization called Students for the Liberation of Underprivileged Goblins?"
"GINNY!" he cried, shaking his head, laughing in a mixture of amusement and frustration. Her eyes danced, and he couldn't help but grin ear to ear. "Stop interrupting, and just let me get this out. Please?" Ginny closed her mouth and composed her face into a very serious expression, eyes wide, lips pursed. She was obviously having a good time with this. Harry took a deep breath. "Are we…can we…you know…"
"Really?" Harry sighed in relief. "Oh good." Ginny made a face.
"I meant 'yes' as in 'go on." Ask your question." Sheepishly, Harry started over. He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to think of something— anything—remotely charming to say.
"Ginny? I would really like it if you…no. What I mean to say is that I'd love it if you…well…" Ginny rolled her eyes.
"Blimey. I can't wait around all day for this." And with that, she stood up and kissed him. All the horrors of the past several days seemed to melt, and all seemed right with the world once more. After a few moments, he pulled back, touching his forehead to hers.
"Does this mean we're back together then?" he asked.
"I never really acknowledged the idea that we'd broken up," she replied. Harry hugged her.
"You know? I don't think I really did either," he said. He drew back, looked her in the eye, kissed her again. There was, at last, nothing to come between him and the girl he loved, nothing to interrupt this priceless moment, nothing…
"WHAT THE BLOODY HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING???" An angry voice exploded at them through the doorway. Harry and Ginny looked up, to see Ron, standing in the doorway, looking as though he'd been lit on fire by a Blast-Ended Skrewt.
"Snogging," Ginny said angrily. "What's it to you?"
"YOU PROMISED ME THAT YOU'D NEVER TOUCH HER AGAIN YOU TWO-FACED-SON-OF-A—" but Ron never finished the sentence, for Ginny had pulled her wand from her pocket, and before Ron knew what was happening, his face was covered in the flapping wings of angry bats. As he ran screaming down the hallway, Ginny flicked her wand towards the bedroom door, which slammed rather abruptly. With another flick of the wand, the door locked.
"Where were we?" Ginny asked, flipping her red hair over her shoulder, clasping her hands behind Harry's neck.
"Snogging," Harry said quickly.