The door to the Boy’s Seventh opened and closed, and a stooped house-elf passed through, muttering to himself. He took up residence outside in the Gryffindor common room, armed with a frying pan, his ears swiveling to follow the noise coming in from broken windows. An array of mixed sounds filtered through: crying, laughing, the crumble of rock and the roar of a crowd, and the sound of fireworks bursting and booming in the air. A pair of bagpipes blared in the distance, accompanied by bird calls and an eerie, screeching song Kreacher attributed to the Merpeople. Copious wisps of white hair sprung from his ears, which wiggled occasionally as he stood by the door, eying the back of the Fat Lady for movement.

Down below in the Great Hall, an elf in a blue dress tramped past others, balancing a pitcher of lemonade on her head and a stack of clean glasses in each hand. Bandages threatened to burst one of her pockets, while piles of pumpkin pasties filled the others. She passed a tall, bespectacled red head towing a sack of rubble behind him and levitating before himself the still-talking top half of an armored knight, who seemed to be treating the man to a blow-by-blow recall of his efforts in battle.

“I think your actions were quite admirable, of course, but, I’m sorry- what did you say your name was? Or should I just call you Sir?” Percy sputtered.

“Smoke and fog, flashing lights from wand tips shooting at us, blasting holes, got me in the buttocks, then another one took out my legs, but I still hobbled on, I tell you! See here, young squire, I took out two with one stroke of my sword, cleaved off from the knee down! They will remember the time they committed themselves to battle with Sir Llevins, the-“

“Surely not, wouldn’t they be dead by now?” Percy interjected. He set the offended Sir Llevins in an alley beside one of the customary wall niches, where he clanked up and down, attempting to follow Percy.

“I see you are not one to revere the honorable deeds of those who have come before you, you vile-“

“Yes, yes, good day-“ Percy began, but cut off upon spying Winky in the distance and the heavenly sight of ice-cold lemonade.

“It’s like I was telling you, Mione, it’s going to take months- no way they’re going to be done with reparations before September!” whined a second tall redhead. Percy approached the pair and nodded, grabbing a proffered glass of lemonade; Ron returned to convincing a still-scorched Hermione whose frizzy hair threatened to block her eyes that they didn’t need to consider “when to return to their education” just yet. At least, not for the next twenty four hours. Hermione pulled frazzled bangs out of her eyes and glared at him, pointing her wand. Ron flinched but Hermione merely shouted “Reparo! Llenodo!” and the three watched as the giant hourglass reformed from millions of sparkling shards in the pink light from the setting sun, ruby beads melting through the glass to fill the bottom half. Accepting a glass of lemonade from a sheepish Ron, they turned to finish the other house hourglasses. In the background, Lavender, Seamus and Dean rounded a staircase, each carrying stacks of torn books, while Neville’s Gran walked from portrait to portrait, settling the pictures at right angles, though her glasses seemed to be off, and several portraits were rotated to hang sideways. Flitwick followed, covertly correcting her mistakes. 

Magical balloons, glistening like melted silver globs, bounced off the cloudy pink ceiling of the Great Hall, which was alive with house elves scurrying like a colony of ants, scrubbing, hammering, lifting, and dragging. The house tables drifted of their own accord, causing squeaks of surprise from bumped witches, rearranging to pass shattered or damaged furniture from one side of the hall to several assorted piles at the other end. A team in neon-green kept stopping passersby, waving orange wands over their length and nodding to one another.

“Already checked this one, Bairns,” drawled one Mediwitch, recognizing the short wizard by his top hat. Dedalus stumbled back only to hit a moving table and fly atop it to the end of the hall, to be ceremoniously tipped and dumped into a pile of mangled desks. Hestia chuckled to Kingsley,

“Perhaps you should call off the furniture, Minister,” who sighed and walked past to dig a struggling Dedalus out of the rubble. He passed a group of four red heads: Charlie, covered in grime with a ripped green t-shirt, Bill, supported by a consoling Fleur, who stroked his arm covered in deep cuts, Mr. Weasley, who sat, silent, cradling Fred’s hand in his own, and George, splattered with dried blood, who had refused to let either the team of professional disaster Mediwitches or Madam Pomfrey look at his broken arm. George’s head lay on Fred’s chest, his gap from the lost ear facing up, as though listening for a heartbeat or hiding his eyes. Percy suspected it was both, and turned away to find his mother, who was conspicuously absent.

“She’s upstairs. Dad gave her some of her own tea and carried her to McGonagall’s room. Pomfrey’ll be up later to handle her,” Ron supplied from beside Percy, who did a double-take upon finding his brother right behind him. They both looked back to their family, silent and tired, and turned away almost simultaneously to see Hermione off in the corner, pulling the pitcher of lemonade off the head of a resisting Winky. Hermione seemed to be arguing to help, but was surrounded immediately by six or seven irate house elves, who each attempted to take the pitcher from her while an eighth scooted her into a chair and a nineth pressed three pumpkin pasties into her hands. Ron held in a laugh, covering his mouth, and glanced over to see Percy grinning.

“So when did that happen?” Percy asked.

“What happened?”

“You and Hermione. You were always crazy for her, Ronald, and I assumed she must like you too if she put up with doing your homework for so long. And you were away a whole year with her, sleeping next to her.” Percy replied smoothly.

Ron stared for a moment, considering. “Naw. She does Harry’s work too. But he doesn’t make her laugh, that’s the difference. Mione’s too good for me, but she wants me around, and she’s willing to forgive me for being a prat- I dunno how, but she is. And she drives me crazy, but not always in a good way. She can be mental when she’s pissed off.”

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be, I figure. Penny is always ready to kill me when I’m late coming home from work, and she wouldn’t speak to me for three weeks when- well, when I was being a prat. She told me last year that if you all didn’t forgive me, I’d deserve it, and I hated it because she was right.”

Ron’s eyes slid over to his brother, then back to Hermione, who had removed herself from the chair and was spinning her wand in complicated rings, as the stone arches reformed from chunks of rock in the entire Great Hall. Neville, covered in dirt and a sheen of sweat, passed behind her levitating six gigantic stacked pots that towered over Hagrid, who waved and picked up one of the broken pumpkins Grawp had slammed into the windows. No one had stopped to ask Hagrid why the pumpkins were so big this early in the season. Ron laughed to see four morose students, each weighed down with bags of dragon dung fertilizer, following Neville through the Hall.

“What’s Penny like?” Ron questioned quietly.

“Penny is . . . wonderful. Very graceful, very astute; she has a quiet calm about her.”

“Erm, that’s . . . nice.” Ron managed.

An awkward silence followed. Ron felt horribly aware of the fact that he had no idea what to bring up with his own brother, and the memory of the two-years lapse in communication pressed into both their minds, filling the void with anxiety.

“Penny’s pregnant!” Percy blurted suddenly. Ron stared wide-eyed at his brother, who resolutely watched Hagrid chuck a pumpkin half his size thirty feet to land near some desks, then hurry over to pull Dennis Creevey, who had been fixing them, out from under it. When Percy continued to feign disinterest, looking at his watch with studied nonchalance, Ron smiled and clapped a hand on his back.

“Suppose I should say, well done, Perfect Percy?” Ron asked innocently. Percy turned the famous Weasley red and they both started laughing while Hermione walked over to steal Ron.

Laying her head quietly on Ron’s shoulder, she whispered into his ear and Ron, nodded, blushing, then turned to Percy.”

“So you’ll be off, then?” Percy grinned.

“Yes, we’re both awfully tired, and I think we’ll get some dinner if the kitchen is open,” Hermione yawned.

Ron’s stomach growled right on time. “I see you know him well enough,” Percy mentioned approvingly. He looked at Ron and said pointedly, “Don’t forget the spell. Mum’ll kill you if it’s both of us at once and she’d never let you hear the end of it if you ruined Hermione’s chance to go back to school.”

“What spell?” Hermione questioned, looking at Ron.

“Don’t know what he’s talking about,” Ron muttered as he steered Hermione towards the stairs past a chuckling Percy and flipped him a hand gesture behind her back. The pair rounded the last staircase to see a long mane of wet red hair come out of the girl’s showers. Ginny was pink and wrapped tightly in a towel, holding some crinkled robes in her hand.

“How are you two holding up? Have you eaten yet?” Ginny asked. Hermione held out the hand that wasn’t intertwined in Ron’s and pulled Ginny’s dirty robes onto a table, then pointed her wand at them and did a quick cleaning spell. As steam floated up between them, smoothing the robes, Ron looked down at his own dirty cannon’s shirt, retrieved from the beaded bag hours earlier after their 15 hour “nap” as Bill had wittily dubbed it, which was covered in dust and smears of grease. “Tergeo,” he said softly, then directed some steam at Hermione’s hair, softening the ends to lie flatter. Hermione glanced at him with a beaming smile, handing Ginny’s clean robes back, and Ginny glanced at Kreacher, who still stood guard over the door to Harry’s bedroom.

“He’s exhausted, Ginny, and I’m sure he needs time to think and take in everything that happened. I’m sure he’s still sleeping,” Ron offered, seeing her wistful look.

“He’ll go to you first, I’m sure of it,” Hermione said, pulling her in for a hug. Ginny nodded quietly and with a final look back at Kreacher, followed the other two down to the kitchen, where Neville and Luna would be waiting to hear Ron and Hermione explain the last year over hot chocolate and Winky’s cakes.

Hours flew by since they’d tickled the pear to sneak into the kitchen, which was bustling with even more house elves, carrying hams and roasts past a wishful but reserved Ron for the celebration feast the following day, and the stars came out in the Great Hall. Luna slumped drowsily onto a blushing Neville’s shoulder, muttering in her sleep, and Hermione’s arms were wrapped around Ron’s middle. Ginny leaned into her brother from the other side, her bottom slipping off the stool at the bar where they all sat. The dregs of the hot chocolate, spiked with firewhiskey, cooled in their mugs and below them, a pile of rugs knitted themselves back into shape, aided by Hermione’s spellwork. The house elves were gone, mostly, except for the occasional helpers who carried sheets and blankets for those sleeping out in the Great Hall, and Ginny mumbled to the others that if Dumbledore were here, he’d conjure fluffy purple sleeping bags again. Ron chuckled and pulled Hermione up, helping Ginny to her feet.

“Mione? You awake?”

“No, I’m asleep, Ronald. My eyes are just open for kicks.”

“Ok. Well, do you want me to carry you?”

A pause followed, then a soft reply, “Yes, that would be lovely.”

Ron hoisted Hermione under her legs and shoulders, and he and Ginny traipsed sleepily back to Gryffindor tower. The sound of the portrait door clicking shut was accompanied by Luna’s carrying whisper of “and there were nargles, lots of nargles, and Neville- I want more sprinkles.”

“Mental, that one,” Ron whispered. Ginny giggled and followed him up the stairs.

They approached Kreacher in the common room, who bowed to Ron and ushered him towards the free rooms upstairs, promising to wake them before breakfast. He refused to let Ron up to see Harry, however, even though Ron argued that Harry might be having nightmares.

“Kreacher’s Master is sleeping peacefully, and peacefully sleeping he shall stay,” Kreacher warned. Ginny felt her heart plummet, and she struggled not to let her dashed hopes show on her face. She would see him in the morning, so it would be fine, right? And after all, he needed to sleep. But he also needs me, she argued to herself, and he didn’t come down at all today- not with the crowd about to hound him. Maybe he’s gone out the window to escape for some time on his own- maybe he’s cracked! She worried momentarily. Stop it, she forced. You’re being foolish. Harry’s SAFE, he’s sleeping- and anyway, Kreacher wouldn’t let him get away. Not when he needs feeding . . . Ginny forced a smile on her face .

“It’s ok, Kreacher- he always knows when breakfast is by his stomach,” she giggled. A light snore issued from Hermione’s sleeping form, and even Kreacher stared in disbelief as she shifted in Ron’s arms.

“Guess you can rule out a goodnight snog too,” Ginny muttered, looking forlornly at Kreacher as he reassumed his sentinel position.

“You is wishing to visit Master Harry, Mistress Ginny?” Kreacher croaked.

“Yes, but you wouldn’t let Ron and Hermione, so,” Ginny began, but was halted by a low bow from Kreacher.

“Kreacher knows his Mistress, Miss Ginny. When a house elf’s master picks his mate, the house elf knows. He is bound to the mistress by the master’s mind, like he is bound to the master. You is able to pass, Miss- Kreacher cannot keep you from what your mind wants. He must obey wishes.”

Ginny’s eyes went wide, and for the first time that day, tears slid down her cheeks. She had felt dead and then alive all day; grateful beyond belief that Harry and she had survived, upset for not knowing how to calm her Mum or to help George and then achingly sad for Fred, guilty for being happy that Harry was alive, while Fred and Lupin and Tonks and even Colin were not, and then empty- as though she could not handle all the extreme emotions that spilled out of her, unable to be contained and handled.

“Thank you, Kreacher,” Ginny whispered. She took her first step up the stairs.

“And thank you for not mentioning that in front of Ron,” she said, looking back with a grin.

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