The train ride to King's Cross after Voldemort's defeat was unlike any other Harry had experienced. Though this was his seventh return trip from Hogsmeade Station, it was the first time it would bring him... home. Number four, Privet Drive had always been a residence, a roof over his head, but it had never transcended that into a special place of belonging and comfort. But this time when he got off at platform nine and three-quarters, he would head for 12 Grimmauld Place, perhaps stopping off in Diagon Alley first. He would need to buy an owl so that he could keep in touch with his friends, and also he wouldn't mind having some company around besides Kreacher (although in his heart he knew that no pet could ever replace Hedwig in personality or beauty).
The few days after Voldemort's defeat had been a whirlwind mixture of mourning and celebration. Very quickly a tribute had been held for those who had fallen while fighting Voldemort's forces. Hogsmeade had become overrun with witches and wizards who had come to honor the dead. All had agreed that it was only fitting that those brave souls–teachers and students and magical creatures alike–be buried at Hogwarts to commemorate their sacrifices. The centaurs set off a special part of the Forbidden Forest that was now open to all to be used as a cemetery and memorial. Great speeches had been made, sad ones, but triumphant ones also, ones that highlighted the new era of peace and freedom that their bravery had helped usher in. It was a wholly cathartic and exhausting experience, and Harry left it craving a bit of normalcy and routine.
Thus he had decided to ride the Hogwarts Express home instead of Apparating. Ron opted to accompany Harry on the ride, even though his parents were already at Hogwarts; they agreed to meet him in London. Hermione was eager to go retrieve her parents and fix their memories, but she too felt riding the train was the right thing to do. Leaving Hogwarts without it didn't seem right. As soon as they arrived in King's Cross, she and Ron (for he was adamant about coming along with her, and she didn't refuse him) were going to Disapparate to Australia and begin the search for her parents.
It was a less rowdy and more somber ride home than usual, but every now and then a compartment would burst into a victory song that Peeves had taught them, and Harry couldn't help but smile a bit.
He was sharing a compartment with Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Luna, and Neville. It was surreal to ride the train and think of those students who should have been there filling seats but never would again. Harry thought of Colin Creevey and his throat tightened. No one was very talkative. Harry tried to lighten the mood by buying a mountain of Cauldron Cakes and Pumpkin Pasties from the trolley witch and sharing them with everyone. That helped a bit.
As evening approached they all grew deathly quiet again, knowing that soon they were to separate. Ginny leaned her head against Harry's shoulder and squeezed his hand.
Luna, who had been acting strange the whole day–she hadn't uttered a single blunt, odd, or out-of-place comment, a new record–suddenly threw down the copy of The Quibbler her face had been buried in, and burst into tears. She sobbed loudly, sounding rather like a tortured monkey.
Hermione rushed over to her and began patting her back. Neville gave her a sympathetic look; Ron, however, was staring at her in disbelief. His face gave quite the impression that he was thinking, Blimey, she even cries weird.
Harry finally ventured to ask, "What's wrong, Luna?"
Luna looked up at him with puffy, red eyes, her speech interrupted by fierce hiccups.
"We'll–be gettin'–off the train–soon–and then we'll–never see–each other–again!" And she burst into sobs anew.
"That's not true," Harry said.
"Of course we'll see each other," Ginny added. "We're your friends!"
"I know I'll see you, Ginny," Luna said, a bit quieted. "I'm glad of that. You and I have got another year of school left. But the others..." Here a large snot bubble issued out of Luna's nose and popped loudly.
"Actually," Neville said, "I have to come back and do Seventh Year over again. I missed my N.E.W.T.s during the two weeks I was hiding in the Room of Requirement from the Carrows." Luna wiped her nose, looking astonished and pleased. "Plus, I didn't exactly get much studying done this year, with everything that was going on. And the good teachers were sort of distracted, trying to keep us safe. And the bad teachers... well, let's just say I'd like to take a REAL Defense Against the Dark Arts class this time. Gran thinks I'll be able to wrangle an Outstanding, even, after all that's happened." Neville blushed a bit. Even recalling a compliment from his grandmother made him proud.
"That's great, Neville. But still, I'll miss you guys," Luna said, looking at Harry and Ron and Hermione.
"No, you won't," said Harry, and here Ron gave a knowing smirk, "because we're coming back too."
Luna suddenly let out an odd squeal that made everyone jump. Then she stopped and said abruptly, "Wait, you guys aren't teasing me, are you?"
"No, it's the honest truth," said Hermione happily.
"Yeah," Ron said, thumbing in Hermione's direction. "You think this one would leave school before earning two dozen N.E.W.T.s?"
Hermione gave Ron a look, but countered, "He's just moody because the Ministry wouldn't confer Honorary N.E.W.T.s to the great 'Roonil Wazlib.'"
Ron's face turned as red as his hair. "Well, it was worth a shot, wasn't it? McGonagall's shaping up to be stricter than Snape was, I bet," he said, for the former Head of Gryffindor had been appointed Hogwarts Headmistress before they had left.
Harry was strangely quiet. He hadn't told Ron that the Ministry had already offered him a position in the Auror Department, but he had turned them down. Despite the fact that he had seen more action in the field in his short life than some Aurors twice his age, he wanted to earn his place legitimately. He didn't need Rita Skeeter writing an article about how The Boy Who Lived was getting special treatment.
The sky was turning dark when the Hogwarts Express arrived at platform nine and three-quarters. Harry and Ginny waited for the others to leave the compartment so they could have a moment alone.
"You better write," said Ginny, in between kisses.
Harry paused for breath. "I will."
"You better visit."
"You couldn't keep me away." Harry smiled.
Ginny looked up at him and returned the grin. Then they exited the train hand in hand.
Once outside, Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Hermione said goodbye to Neville and Luna. Neville greeted his grandmother more happily than they had ever seen him greet her before, while Luna's father rushed up to her and held her tight. Oddly enough, for the first time, Luna seemed genuinely embarrassed, a response that none of her unusual attributes had ever elicited before.
Then Mr. and Mrs. Weasley rushed over (Mrs. Weasley greeted each of them with hugs). Ron said goodbye to his parents, gave Ginny a peck on the cheek, and shook Harry's hand. Hermione gave Harry and Ginny each a hug, and then said to Ron, "Ready?"
"Yep." He took her hand, and as their friends and family waved farewell, the two of them Disapparated, off to search for Hermione's parents.
Then Mr. and Mrs. Weasley invited Harry to come over their house for dinner soon, and politely looked away as he gave Ginny one last kiss. He watched as they walked away, and suddenly found himself completely alone amongst a sea of strangers.
He dawdled, standing around the station, looking around absentmindedly. He was safe. Voldemort was gone. And he didn't have to go back to the Dursley's. The world was strangely new and perfect.
As his eyes roamed the crowds, thoughts wandering, a little smile on his face, he blinked. For a second there he thought he had seen Uncle Vernon. Then a large figure emerged from the throngs, heading towards him.
Harry couldn't believe it.
"Harry!" the figure called, bursting into a strange, lighthearted smile that did not quite suit its face. "You're here!"
"What?" Harry said, entirely bewildered. "Dudley?"
Dudley Dursley, his cousin, was standing before him, clapping him on the back like they were old friends.
Harry just stared at him in disbelief. The last time he had seen his cousin was a year ago, when the Dursley's had departed number four, Privet Drive.
"They told me you might be here..." Dudley was saying.
"Who?" Harry managed to utter when he had found his voice again.
"Hestia Jones and Dedalus Diggle, of course," Dudley said. "The members of the Order who were looking after us. They came bursting in out of nowhere the other day, all excited. Gave Dad quite a fright. But they told us what happened, everything, even gave us a copy of a wizard newspaper telling about it." Dudley was talking very fast, grinning widely. "How you defeated that wizard who was after you... and–and how you survived."
Harry wasn't exactly unhappy to see Dudley, but his unexpected appearance made him weary of something. "Are your parents here?"
"No," Dudley said. "I came alone. I've got a car now."
"Oh, cool." Harry didn't know what to say or how he was supposed to react to all this. He and his cousin had never been close, except when Dudley had put him in headlocks as a kid, but this was something entirely different. Finally it just burst out of him.
"What are you doing here?" he said.
Dudley looked at him for a moment and–Harry couldn't believe it–seemed to blush slightly.
"Well, I just..." he mumbled, "wanted to see if you really were..."
It took Harry a minute to realize his cousin had been worried about him. The two of them were silent, standing awkwardly until Harry finally spoke up.
"Some year, huh?"
They both chuckled softly.
"Yeah," Dudley said, rubbing the back of his head. "It's been... an eye-opener to say the least. The protections the Order gave us... what you wizards can do..."
"We're not all as bad as your mum thinks, are we?"
"Magic, it's..." the next word Dudley blurted out before he could help it. "Fascinating."
Another awkward silence followed, and then suddenly Harry had an idea.
"Hey, Big D," he said. "Can I have a lift? I'm heading to Diagon Alley, I can show you where it is. Plenty of wizard shops there... maybe I can show you around?"
A smile lit up Dudley's face, and together the two cousins left King's Cross–for what better place to catch up than Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlor?