Harry was talking quietly with Hermione and Ron when the doors to the hospital wing flew open and Dumbledore swept in, a washed-out and bleary-eyed Winona in tow. Harry all but tripped over himself in his haste to reach her.

Despite her exhaustion, Winona didn't hesitate to sweep him up into a tight embrace. Harry clung to her like a frightened child during a violent storm. Winona held him just as tight, smoothing a hand down his untameable hair. He was shaking. She squeezed him tighter.

"I'm all right, Harry," she eventually told him, because it was what he needed to hear.

"I thought you were dead," he said, the words muffled by her shoulder. "I thought – I saw the blood and – and I-"

She hushed him, stroking his hair again and letting him cling to her like he needed to. Letting him feel the breath in her chest, the warmth of her skin. Reassuring him she here, and she was alive. She understood his panic. Were their roles reversed, she'd be an absolute cot-case.

"I'm okay," she promised again.

It took a long few moments, but finally Harry was able to peel himself off her, scrubbing hastily at his eyes to keep anyone from seeing him cry. But the way his eyes were rimmed with red was telltale, and Winona smiled tiredly. Everybody had politely turned away to give the two a moment to reunite, but now their attention returned. Winona attempted another smile that fell flat.

Harry stood straighter and asked, "Sirius-?"

"He's fine," she assured him, then cast a look to Ron. "So is Bill and your father. And the twins, too, though I s'pose they weren't involved. They've officially joined the Order – being that they've left school and are out living on their own. But despite that, they haven't yet proved themselves well enough to get called out on emergency missions."

Ron snorted from his hospital bed, though Winona could tell he was relieved by the news. "Bet they had a few choice words to say about not getting an invite."

Winona's smile became a little more genuine – a little more wicked – and her eyes flicked to Dumbledore, who stood patiently off to the side, hands folded in front of his dark robes. "Well, they were cross, to say the least."

"I don't blame them."

Hermione looked up at her from where she was perched in the chair beside Ron's bed. "What did the healers say about your injury?"

"It'll scar," said Winona with a flap of her hand. "But other than that, no lasting damage."

The fifth-year smiled. "That's a relief."

"You guys are still stuck here?" Winona asked, glancing at the clock on the far wall like it might tell her how long had passed. "I thought I was out for days; shouldn't the three of you be up in the common room, spending time with your friends while term's still on?"

"Hermione needed an extra night of observation, and Ron's scarring still hasn't completely gone away," said Harry from his place beside her. The tips of Ron's ears went red, but otherwise he didn't react. "Mostly we're all back to ourselves."

"Ginny? Luna and Neville?"

"They'd be here, but I think they've gotten as sick of the Hospital Wing as I have. They're all right as rain," Hermione assured her. "Although, the same can't be said for…"

Hermione trailed off, eyes drifting to the far side of the room where a figure in a hauntingly familiar shade of pink was laid on a bed, motionless and stiff as a board. Winona's exhaustion disappeared like the cold in a room when someone spelled a fire into existence, replaced instead by hot, fiery brilliance.

Umbridge's power over her – over all of them – was gone. And without that power, she was nothing more than a dark-hearted bully. Winona had faced enough of them to know how bullies were to be dealt with. Umbridge thought pain taught people lessons – Winona was about to prove her right.

Storming towards the unmoving Umbridge, Winona's hands were already tightening into fists when the hulking purple-and-silver form of Dumbledore stepped in her path. Some of the red leached from her vision and Winona tipped her head back to peer up at the Headmaster, nostrils flaring.

"Delores has suffered a great deal already, Winona," Dumbledore said patiently.

Her eyes flashed. "I think she could stand to suffer a little more."

He smiled, a frustrating curl of his lips from behind his long beard, but there was a darkness to his eyes that told her he wasn't protecting the ugly old hag for her sake, but rather Winona's. "She will answer for her crimes," he said slowly, pronouncing each word with care. And when his blue eyes darted down to the scarring on her left hand, she knew he meant every syllable. "But she is still Under-Secretary to the Minister, and attacking her would be counter-productive."

She saw the comment for what it was beneath the surface, and Winona forced herself to let the air out of her lungs through gritted teeth. Harry's hand touched her shoulder, and she glanced back at him through eyes she hadn't realised were blurry.

"She's not worth it, Win," Harry told her quietly.

If it was a free world, and if Winona wasn't bound by Vows and promises and plans that nobody but her and Dumbledore knew about, she'd have marched over to Umbridge and snarled, in no uncertain terms, "If you ever come near me, or my cousin, or our friends again, I'm going to kill you – slowly – and enjoy every single violent, bloody second."

But this wasn't a free world, not anymore. And Winona wasn't a free woman.

So she bit down on her tongue and turned her back on Umbridge, who continued to stare unseeingly up at the ceiling, like she had one foot in the castle and one in the past – which Winona avoided like the plague. Harry was right, Umbridge wasn't worth it. But at the same time he was wrong – because Umbridge was very valuable indeed. Just perhaps not in the ways Harry could understand.

The others seemed genuinely surprised when Winona let it go without a fight, turning her back on Umbridge like it were in any way an easy thing to do.

"You've got yourselves a bit of a haul," she said with as much of her usual pep as she could muster. A tower of sweets was teetering on Harry's bedside table, along with a large collection of handmade cards and a poorly-knitted woollen hat which Winona assumed was from Dobby.

"Guilt is a powerful motivator," said Hermione wisely. She usually wasn't the type to indulge in sweets (her parents were dentists, so it was all rather self-explanatory), but even she couldn't resist grabbing a bubblegum-flavoured Sugar Quill and peeling off the plastic, though it was with a guilty look on her face.

Winona was just reaching for a peach-flavoured Sugar Quill when Madam Pomfrey burst through the curtains surrounding Ron's bed like a Niffler on the hunt for treasure.

"Miss Black, there you are," she said briskly. "They said you were coming back for graduation – why don't you take a seat on that cot and I'll give you a look over."

"There's no need, Madam Pomfrey," Winona was quick to assure her. "The healers at St. Mungo's cleared me to come back-"

"You'll forgive me if I don't take your word for it," said Madam Pomfrey with a sniff. "You're a notoriously difficult patient. It wouldn't surprise me if you'd snuck out under their noses just so you wouldn't have to take a simple potion."

"No, really, I'm fine-"

"Sit. Down."

There was nothing left to do but comply, so Winona collapsed on the nearest bed and let Madam Pomfrey draw the curtains around them. She nearly said it wasn't necessary, but then the thought of the others seeing her newest scar hit her and she realised it wasn't something she was ready to flaunt quite yet.

Madam Pomfrey lifted her shirt to get a good look at the scar running over her torso. "That was a very brave thing you did, Miss Black," the healer said as she gently prodded at the fresh, angry scar with the tip of her wand. "Going all the way to the Ministry…fighting Death Eaters…all to save your father," she tutted. "Reckless and stupid, but brave. I suppose you really are a Gryffindor after all."

Winona arched a brow. "There was some doubt?"

Madam Pomfrey's lips quirked upwards. "You were so cunning as a child, I sometimes wondered if you weren't truly a Slytherin in disguise."

"Well, I can hardly blame you for that."

"Any excuse to stay out of the hospital wing," Madam Pomfrey tutted.

"I've never liked the smell."

It was both true and a wild oversimplification. Somehow, Madam Pomfrey seemed to know, a certain twinkle in her eye that reminded Winona of the look Dumbledore got when he knew something she didn't. "Those twins of yours, though – I worry how they'll cope without me around to patch them up," she confessed in a hushed tone.

Winona smiled again at the thought of the twins. "They'll miss you too, Madam Pomfrey."

The older witch's eyes seemed misty, but her voice was perfectly even as she pocketed her wand and declared. "You're well enough – but don't you go getting into any trouble. The wound's still fresh and the last thing it needs is a traipse into the lake or to find itself on the wrong end of a jinx."

"Witch's honour," said Winona, tossing in a salute for effect.

Madam Pomfrey rolled her eyes, straightened her robes, then disappeared through the curtains with a humph. Winona stood to her feet and went back towards the others. Dumbledore had quietly slipped out of the room while she'd been checked over, and Neville, Ginny and Luna had appeared in his stead.

"Winona, you beautiful idiot," blurted Ginny, rising from the seat beside Harry and pulling Winona into a tight embrace. Winona softly chuckled into her hair, squeezing in return. "We saw the medi-witches take you away – we thought you were dead for sure."

"So I've been told," said Winona, pulling back to make a face. "Apart from some scarring, I'm good as new. How's the ankle?"

Ginny batted the question away, irritated. "Healed in minutes. You're the one who was laid in a pool of your own blood!"

"And I'm fine." Ginny didn't look convinced and Winona dropped her hands onto her shoulders, ducking to meet her eyes. "Ginger, really, I'm okay."

Ginny sniffed, turning away with a huff. "Fine, but just don't go doing anything like that again," she ordered Winona without looking at her, collapsing back into her seat and grumpily taking the Cauldron Cake Harry held out in offer.

"I have a feeling this was a one-time thing," Winona assured her as she hopped up onto the end of Ron's bed and pointed at a nearby Sugar Quill. "Gimme."

Ron made a face but didn't argue, handing her the sweet and turning back to his conversation with Harry and Hermione.

Winona stayed in the hospital wing with the six of them for hours. The thought of venturing out into the rest of the castle, where news of their exploits had no doubt already saturated the gossip mill, was about as soothing as needles to the tongue. But Winona knew she couldn't hide up in the hospital wing forever.

How ironic that the place she'd been most afraid of in the beginning had now become the one point of refuge in the whole castle. Life was like that, she'd found; always coming full circle.

Eventually the sun began to set, and while Hermione and Ron were stuck in the hospital wing for another night at the least, Winona and the others were ushered out by a stern Madam Pomfrey, who insisted her patients needed rest. Winona reluctantly tagged along with Harry, Ginny, Luna and Neville as they made their way towards the Great Hall, where dinner was getting started.

"You're a hero, Winnie," said Neville in an attempt to soothe her anxiety. "You and Harry are all anyone's talking about."

Winona felt herself go white. "I'd rather be forgotten entirely," she told him. Neville seemed disappointed that his attempt at cheering her up had failed, but Ginny whispered something to him and Winona sped up to fall into step with her cousin. "How bad is it?"

"Everyone wants the inside scoop," Harry told her – nothing she didn't already know. "Just do what you usually do and tell them all to buzz off."

"That doesn't sound like something I'd say."

"No, you're much too vulgar."

"I resent that."

Harry shook his head in exasperation but didn't engage. "I was wondering," he began hesitantly and Winona felt her muscles go tense, half-afraid of whatever he was about to ask, "did you want to skip dinner in the Great Hall? I don't know about you, but… Well, I'd just really like to talk to you. Alone."

Winona knew there must have been a thousand and one things he wanted to talk about – and even if she had been able to deny him anything, Winona wouldn't have denied him that. "I've got the perfect place," she told him, then turned to look at the others, who were lost in their own conversation. "You guys go on without us."

Their friends were intuitive enough to know the two of them needed some time alone to talk, and so Ginny led the way down the flight of stairs that would take them to the Great Hall. Winona wound an arm through Harry's and began to guide him towards the bowels of the great castle, where they could eat in the kitchen without any eavesdroppers (other than the house elves, but they were notoriously good with secrets).

The kitchens were filled to the brim with bustling house elves, all scrambling to make the desserts that were to be sent up to the Great Hall at the end of dinner. But their busy schedule wasn't enough to stop them from eagerly welcoming Harry and Winona into their domain.

"Harry Potter!" squeaked the familiar form of little Dobby. He looked entirely too delighted to see them. "Did Harry Potter come all the way down to the kitchens to visit Dobby?"

Harry and Winona exchanged a glance; neither particularly wanted to be the one to burst the elf's happy little bubble. Winona raised her brows and looked pointedly at Dobby. Harry tried not to make a face as he said, "Hi Dobby. Winona and I needed to get away from the rest of the school for a while. Do you think we could just sit by the fire and talk?"

Dobby looked hardly disappointed, hopping up and down on his little feet and all but clapping his hands in excitement. "Dobby would be very happy indeed to serve Harry Potter and his cousin personally," he squeaked.

Harry's eyes widened in alarm. "Oh, no, Dobby – thank you – but we just want to sit quietly and-"

"What would Harry Potter and Winona Black like for dinner?" he asked without listening to the rest of Harry's argument. He was smiling so wide, you'd have thought they'd offered him a bed in Gryffindor Tower, rather than a chance to serve them some food.

Before Harry could plough on ahead with his protests, Winona swept in, sensing it was going to save a lot of time to simply agree to being waited on. "Do you have any leftover shepherd's pie we could have?"

Dobby was nodding before Winona could even finish speaking. "Dobby will make some right away," he said, and was gone before Harry could argue.

Winona pulled out one of the chairs by the fire – it was human-sized, she realised dimly, meaning that either the elves were so used to her and the twins' visits that they got furniture for them, or that perhaps the three of them weren't the only visitors the kitchens got on a regular basis.

Taking a seat on the right, Winona watched as Harry pulled out the chair on her left, a small table between them. They'd barely been sat there five seconds before another house elf was there, a large pitcher of pumpkin juice carried like a boulder in her thin little arms.

Two glasses appeared before them and the elf set the pitcher on the small table, disappearing again without so much as a word. Winona called a thank you after her, but the house elf just hurried off to her next task.

The cousins were left to their own devices, but she was glad for it. For the first time in many, many hours, Winona shut her eyes and simply allowed herself to breathe.

Harry said nothing, seeming to sense she needed a moment to just feel the air in her lungs and the warmth of the fire on her face. Finally, once she was feeling more like herself, Winona opened her eyes and turned to Harry, who was staring silently into the flames, lost in his own tumultuous thoughts.

"I heard that Dumbledore finally told you the truth," she began quietly, the words like a finger dipping into tea to check if it was cool enough to drink. Harry's jaw tightened, but he didn't look angry, even if his gaze did remain on the hearth before them. "How are you doing?"

"Pretty shite," said Harry honestly.

It was enough to startle laughter out of her. When Harry looked over with a grin, it was tired but sincere. "I think that's the first time I've heard you swear, Boy-Wonder," she laughed, reaching out to nudge him with her toes and trying not to wince when the motion pulled at her injury. "Well," she said, smoothing a hand down the place where the new scar lay and sighing, "at least you're honest."

Despite being the one to want to talk, Harry was quiet, running a finger over his knuckles as he stared into the flames. Winona got the feeling he was simply trying to put his thoughts into a comprehensible order.

"I wanted to tell you-" she began tentatively, but he spoke before she could finish.

"I'm not mad at you, Winnie," he assured her, finally looking up from the fire to meet her eyes. "I know by now that you took that Vow to try to protect me. And I know that if there'd been a way, you'd have torn this world apart to tell me the truth."

She smiled, reaching out to gently take her cousin's hand. "You know now."

Harry's smile was a grim thing. "I know now."

They were quiet a few more minutes; the easy sort of quiet that came from a deep understanding of one another. Harry knew Winona, and Winona knew Harry, and by now, long silences weren't awkward but rather a moment of peace stolen in the middle of a war that was only just getting started.

"Thanks for saving Sirius," Harry eventually said.

Winona looked away from the dancing flames to raise her eyebrows in surprise. "As if I was going to let him die," she scoffed, shaking her head at him in a way that said 'you silly goose' without actually using any words.

Harry smiled wryly and looked away. Winona continued to watch him, taking in the shine of his green eyes and the way the firelight glowed off the surface of his glasses.

"You don't seem to have completely crumbled under the weight of your new destiny," she said in her usual blunt way.

Harry's lips quirked up at the corners, just the faintest hint of a smile. "I s'pose it's easier," he confessed, "when I know I don't have to bear it completely alone."

Now it was Winona who smiled. "I'm considering strong-arming Dumbledore into letting me mope around the castle for the next two years – so you don't have to be without me," she joked.

"No you're not," Harry rolled his eyes. "You want to get out in the world. And I know the last thing you want is to repeat another year of classes," he said the word like one might say 'flesh eating spiders'. Winona laughed; he certainly knew her well enough.

"I am sorry that I'm going to be so far away, though," she told him, now more subdued, the laughter fading like embers in the breeze. "It's gonna be hard, not sharing a common room with you for most of the year. What if you get into trouble? What if you get into a fight, and I'm not around to pull you out of it?"

"Winnie, when have you ever pulled me out of a fight?" he countered. "You're much more likely to join in."

She smiled, a tad rueful, and took a deep sip of pumpkin juice. "Are you going to be okay without me, though?" she asked softly, tracing a fingertip around the rim of her goblet. Harry chuckled. "I'm serious, Harry. What if you need my help?"

"I'll write you a letter," he shrugged.

"From now on the post's going to be watched more closely than ever. It won't be safe to be honest in our letters."

"I suppose then you'll just have to come visit me here," he said like it were the most simple solution in the world. At her incredulous look, Harry smiled. "Winnie, I doubt your meetings with Dumbledore are going to disappear just because you've graduated. Get word to me when you'll be visiting, and we'll see each other."

It would probably have sounded pathetic, were anyone but the house elves listening. Like the two of them couldn't go a few months without seeing each other while some parents went nine months without being in the same room as their own children. But Winona and Harry had always been an exception to the rule. For five years now they'd lived in the same tower and ate at the same table and been a stone's throw away whenever the other needed a kind ear. Winona had always known with absolute certainty that she was available if Harry ever needed her; but now – well, nothing was certain now, was it?

That was the price of uncertain times.

"I have something to tell you," she told him suddenly, and Harry glanced up from his pumpkin juice in surprise. "It's sort of … Order related."

He looked wary. "You're not going to die immediately after telling me this, are you?"

Winona laughed. "No, I have permission to tell you – at least, to some extent," she assured him, leaning forwards across the small table between them, her eyes alight. "You know what I told you the other month, that day under the tree by the lake?"

He nodded.

"Well, I took the idea to Dumbledore…"

Harry leaned closer, eyes wide as he seemed to sense she was about to tell him something important. And she did; she let their whole plan spill from her lips like a torrent of water, the words coming fast and with an edge of relief; a blister drained dry.

To his credit, Harry was quiet for the most part, listening to her speak with a furrowed brow. He asked questions when he had to and he struggled to fully accept what he was telling her. But Harry was smart and Winona was convincing. In the end, he had no choice but to sigh like he were the eldest in this scenario, lost to the stubborn will of his cousin.

"I still don't like it," he finally said, sulking just a little bit.

"I didn't expect you would," she nodded calmly. "But I don't particularly like the thought of you having to be the one to kill Voldemort, either, so I guess both our hands are tied."

And for the life of him, Harry didn't have a good response. Winona's smile was softer than it normally was – missing its usual, wicked edge.

"No matter what, Harry, I'll always be here for you," she promised. "No force in this world – magical or otherwise – will stop me from keeping you safe. Even if it means putting myself in danger to do it."

A shudder rattled down her cousin's spine and his expression twisted in a wince. "Don't say things like that," he begged. "You're going to be fine."

But it was without conviction, because he didn't know that for sure. Neither of them did, not even with his skills or her Sight. There was just blind, desperate hope. But for now it would have to be enough.

"I think I've always known, deep down," Harry confessed some time later, once there was nothing left of their meal but crumbs and the dregs of good pumpkin juice. Winona looked up from the cup of hot tea she was stirring, eyebrows raised. "That it would end this way, I mean," her cousin continued, his eyes unfocused as he gazed into the fire. "That it would always be me against him. Only one of us making it out of this alive."

He was quiet a moment, then when he continued on, he sounded somewhat choked up, as if the words were tangled in his throat like Devil's Snare.

"It's just hard to … to accept it, you know? That the only way this ends is…either I die, or I live but become a murderer."

The words made Winona want to cry. They made her want to shout and scream at the sky, as if some nameless god might hear and feel remorse for the pain he was putting her cousin through. It wasn't fair. But that was the trouble with fate; it didn't care about fair. It never had.

Knowing to open her mouth would mean to cry, she kept stirring her tea long after all the sugar was dissolved, letting Harry mull over his own thoughts in quiet contemplation.

"Are you going to miss it?" he asked her suddenly, and for a moment she thought he was still talking about the prophecy and was confused. But when she looked up at Harry she found him staring across the kitchen, taking in the house elves, who by now had begun to finally slow down and begin the long, arduous task of cleaning up after themselves.

Winona realised he was talking about Hogwarts, and she returned her eyes to her teacup, ignoring how they suddenly stung.

"Yes," she said honestly. "For so long, this was the only home I ever knew. Truth be told…I don't know what I'm going to be without it."

"That's stupid," said Harry baldly. "You're still going to be Winona – just hopefully with a little more sleep and time to get even more paint caked under your nails."

It was enough to make her laugh, and Harry smiled like a man with a difficult task accomplished.

"Hogwarts isn't all you are, Winnie," he promised her. She smiled at him over the rim of her teacup. "Hogwarts didn't make you into anything – you made Hogwarts better, just by being here. And it was lucky to have you. We all were."

Despite the warmth glowing hot and proud and wordless in her chest, Winona laid a sarcastic hand over her heart. "Why, Harry James Potter," she playfully gasped, "who knew you were secretly such a poet?"

His cheeks flamed. "It's not poetry," he grouched as she laughed. "It's just the truth."

She kept laughing, ignoring the way her chuckles pulled at the still-healing injuries to her body.

"Well, fine," Harry grumbled, "that's the last time you'll catch me being so nice."

Winona's laughter began to slow, and she took a sip of tea, smiling around her mouthful. "You know, I really am going to miss it," she said after a minute, taking another look around the kitchen, appreciating (maybe for the first time) the beautiful design of the room – the massive, roaring fires and the tables and chairs sat before them, ready to be sat at and enjoyed, even though students weren't technically allowed down here.

She took in the crown moulding around the ceiling and the four giant tables that were mirror images of the ones a floor above them, still currently teeming with life – friends gobbling down treacle tart while they laughed with their friends over old jokes, young lovers whispering sweet nothings in each other's ears, hands clutched out of sight.

For a moment the knowledge that she was about to leave it all behind ached like a second Severing Spell across her heart. But then the feeling faded and she was just left cold.

Don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened, was a saying she'd once heard in the Muggle world. She wished she could put it into practice right now, but she figured that saying was for people whose future wasn't quite so bleak; for those lucky few who weren't on the terrible precipice of war. It was a lot harder to smile when the peace wasn't in front of you, but behind.

"Are you scared?" Harry asked, the question whispered more quietly than any of the dangerous secrets they'd so far shared. Winona realised she'd been silent for so long that her tea had turned cold, and Harry was looking sleepy. "About leaving school? I can't even imagine… I mean, life outside the castle…"

"It's really scary," she agreed, voice brittle to her own ears. "But it's like you said," she gently nudged him under the table, "it's easier to bear when you know you're not alone."

Eventually all the juice and tea and dessert was gone, leaving just two cousins with tired eyes and full stomachs. Winona thanked Dobby for a wonderful meal, and he blushed as he tugged sheepishly at the eight or so beanies he had stuffed onto his tiny head. She and Harry left, making their way up to Gryffindor Tower, light with the knowledge they didn't have to worry about running into Umbridge or any of her shadows.

The Gryffindors were mid-party when they arrived, and the room broke out in happy cheers at their appearance. Winona managed only to squeeze Harry's hand before he was taken by the sea of students to be plied with Butterbeer and praise. People tried to rope her into the celebrations, too, but she was much too scary to bother with, particularly when she glowered at the kids who tried.

"Winnie!" came a voice over all the others. Winona found Angelina at the hearth, waving a hand above everyone's head to get her attention.

Releasing a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding, Winona shoved her way through the crowded common room to reach her friends, who were clumped together by the fire, in the middle of what looked like a truly rousing game of Gobstones.

Winona slammed into Angelina with perhaps a touch too much force. They'd have gone tumbling into the roaring fire if not for Lee, who caught them and laughed.

Angelina was tall and warm as they embraced, smelling of broom polish and lavender essential oils. She held Winona tight, and even without words Winona could feel how worried she'd been; could imagine her getting word of Winona's brush with death and fretting over it ever since.

They'd had their moments over the years, her and Angelina, but in the end they were friends and they always would be, even if it suddenly felt horribly like they were saying goodbye.

"C'mon, Ange, quit hogging the Seer," whined Lee. Angelina laughed as she finally pulled back, passing Winona to Lee, who snatched her up like a Snitch and began to spin her in playful circles.

Winona laughed and let him play, ignoring the twinge of pain the movement brought. Once they were both satisfactorily dizzy, he set her on her own two feet and gently prodded at her stomach.

"C'mon, show us the scar," he urged. "George said it was wicked."

"He did not," she rolled her eyes.

"Okay, the word he used was 'awful', but I read between the lines."

Winona reluctantly lifted the hem of her teeshirt just enough to show off the end of the ugly scar, then dropped it again and turned her attention to Katie and Alicia, who'd climbed to their feet to greet her.

"We're terribly angry with you," said Alicia as she pulled Winona into a much more gently embrace than Lee had bothered with, taking great care with her middle.

"Are you?" Winona smiled into her shoulder. She smelled of cinnamon, and vanilla pudding. It was a comforting scent, reminding Winona of long nights spent gossiping and braiding hair.

"Well, for starters, you lot got rid of Umbridge – and for that alone you deserve a bloody award," said Katie, pulling Winona into a hug too, just as gentle as Alicia. "But you broke out of school, stormed the Ministry of Magic and fought about a hundred Death Eaters-"

"It was more like a dozen, actually-"

"And we didn't get so much as an invitation?" Katie continued blithely.

Winona pulled back and rolled her eyes once more. "You sound like George."

Katie's cheeks went the tiniest bit pink. "That's besides the point," she said, struggling to keep a straight face.

Winona opened her mouth to begin talking only to glance over her shoulder, suddenly acutely aware of the eyes trained on them. She couldn't tell her friends everything – no matter how much she might have wanted to – but what she could tell them, she didn't want overheard by a bunch of nosy third-years.

"Why don't we take this upstairs?" she asked instead, nodding to the girls' dorm.

"No fair!" cried Lee. Alicia snickered and Angelina huffed in exasperation. "Come on," he said instead, "with the twins gone, I've got plenty of space up in my dorm. And this way I can actually attend."

So it was decided. They gathered a small hoard of butterbeers and made their way up the boys' stairs one at a time, sliding into the near-barren seventh years' dorm, shutting and locking the door after them with a flick of Katie's wand.

"So? Tell us everything," Alicia demanded, hopping onto George's old bed and bouncing on the mattress with a grin as she twisted off the cap to a butterbeer and settled in like a child getting ready for a bedtime story.

Winona began at the very beginning, and although she'd already been through it all more than once today, she didn't begrudge telling the story again. Her friends deserved the truth – about this one small thing, if nothing else – and she knew how they must have felt, to be left out of (what they thought to be) such an adventure.

By the time she was finished, Winona's voice was hoarse and she was so tired that her eyes felt dry and sore. Half of her wanted to burrow down into the warmth and safety of Fred's old bed and let sleep claim her, but there was another part, just as stubborn, that wanted to stay awake and savour this time with her friends. Graduation was mere days away, and suddenly all Winona could think about was everything she was going to miss once it was over.

"But your dad's okay now, right?" Alicia asked once she was done. Winona cast her a grateful smile – most of her friends were still on the Sirius-Black-is-a-mass-murderer train. She couldn't blame them, and besides, they wouldn't be thinking that much longer, if she had any say in the matter.

So, that being said, it was very nice of Alicia to pretend the mere mention of Winona's father didn't send horror dripping like ice water down their spines.

"Right as rain," Winona confirmed.

"Huh," said Lee from where he was tossing a red gobstone up into the air, catching it with his other hand. He always had had trouble sitting still, even at the most serious of times. He and Winona were alike in that way. "So, what you're saying is, you're basically a hero."

Winona snorted at his typical blasé attitude. It was nice to know some things never changed.

"If you start kissing my bare feet, I'm going to smack you," she warned him.

He shot her a roguish grin. "I think I'll leave the kissing of your feet to Fred."

Angelina, Katie and Alicia all groaned, and Katie even tossed a pillow at his head for the comment. The gobstone he toyed with fell to the floor and rolled underneath George's old bed.

"What?" Lee laughed.

"We agreed no more sex jokes," complained Alicia.

"Come on," he whined. "It's our third-to-last night in school. I'm not about to break with tradition this late in the game, am I?"

Winona glanced to Angelina and the two shared an eye roll that could have levelled a small city from sheer exasperation alone. Lee hopped off his bed and dug around in his trunk until he produced a small bouquet of colourful Sugar Quills. Holding them out to Winona, there was the slightest gleam of sorrow in his eyes, and she knew in that moment he was thinking about how much he didn't want to leave Hogwarts and all its simple wonders behind.

Winona picked out a bubblegum-flavoured Quill and watched as he offered the rest to the others. Angelina grimaced and shook her head, but Alicia took an apple-flavoured one, while Katie happily grabbed a cherry.

"It's weird, isn't it?" Angelina mused, sipping on her butterbeer as they each enjoyed their treats. "Knowing it's only a matter of days before we say goodbye to this place?"

"Weird, for sure," Alicia nodded. "But also a little bit exciting, no?"

"Oh absolutely," Angelina agreed. "Merlin, I mean, now you've got that job lined up, I'll bet you're the most excited out of us all."

Some of the sleepiness faded as Winona shot upright and peered at Alicia shrewdly. "What job?"

Alicia's smile was a tad embarrassed – she never had much been one for the attention of others. "Well, you'd know if you hadn't landed yourself in hospital, wouldn't you?" she asked without any bite, a teasing grin on her lips.

Winona grabbed her shoulder and shook her. "Don't keep me in suspense! What job?"

"You mean you haven't Seen it?" Lee sang.

She cast him the dark look that had made lesser men wet their pants, but before he could take cover, Alicia spoke up. "I applied to be a junior designer at Madam Malkin's," she confessed, cheeks turning a rosy pink. "I just got the owl yesterday; they accepted me."

For a moment Winona could only gape.

Lee cackled. "You've sent her into shock," he said brightly. "That's a rare one. Fred'll never believe this."

"You're serious?" Winona asked Alicia intently.

She'd known Alicia wanted to go into fashion design eventually, but it had been a sort of far-off dream of hers. Winona hadn't expected her to find her way into the field so swiftly. "I couldn't believe it either," Alicia said softly. "I'll have to work the register part time, too, to cover the expenses of my training, but-"

Alicia let out a small squeal when Winona tackled her. They fell backwards on Fred's bed, tangled in the sheets and laughing. "Merlin's beard, Leesh!" Winona exclaimed through their giggles. "That's absolutely amazing. I can't even think of – oh, that's so wonderful!"

"Yeah, yeah," said Alicia modestly, cheeks still that dusty red tone. "You should hear Ange's news, though."

Winona wasn't sure her heart could take much more, but she turned to Angelina with wide eyes. "Don't tell me you got a position on the fucking Wizengamot," she said, knowing Angelina's dream had always been to go into magical law.

Angelina laughed and rolled her eyes. "No, not even I'm that good," she admitted. "But I've applied for the Undergraduate Course in Magical Law that the Ministry runs. My application was accepted, or at least, it has been until I get my NEWT results, which will determine whether I actually get to take the course. But if I scored high enough…well…I'm in."

"What?" Winona's words were practically a shriek.

Angelina was across the room from her, and her stomach was hurting far too much to launch across the room to tackle her, too, so she settled for flicking her wand at the ceiling. With a small pop, rainbow confetti began to float down like snow from the ceiling. Angelina rolled her eyes but looked pleased nonetheless.

"Holy shit, Ange, this is amazing," Winona gushed. Then she turned on the rest of her friends with shrewd eyes. "Anyone else have anything they'd like to share? Be warned; my heart may give out."

She fixed on Lee expectantly and he huffed. "Well, if you must know," he said with a sniff, "I'm taking a gap year. I've just come out of seven years straight of schooling; sue me for wanting to live it up while I'm still pretty and young."

"That's great!" Winona cried, no less enthusiastic. "Will you travel?"

He shrugged. "Only within Britain. I don't want to go too far, in case…y'know, in case I'm needed."

He meant the war, and despite the grim subject matter, Winona smiled. "That's good, because I think the twins might get separation anxiety if you go too far away."

"I've already owled George," Lee admitted. "He says they could use a hand at the shop for the next few weeks, and he said they'll pay me a wage, too, to help me save for my trip."

Winona smiled at that – how she loved those kind, ridiculous, ambitious boys of hers. "Lee, that's fantastic," she said, meaning it with every single bone in her body.

"What about you?" Alicia asked, stretching out on the mattress like a cat getting ready for bed. "What's your big plan for after graduation? You going to use some of that blood money to buy yourself a studio?" she asked, her eyes shining with the playful jab.

"It isn't blood money," Winona argued, slipping down beneath Fred's covers. Somehow they still smelled like him – just faintly – even after all these weeks. "But no, I'm…" she trailed off a moment, wondering what to say. She'd gotten permission to tell Harry and the twins and a very select other few the truth, but the fact was, the more people who knew, the more danger there was of springing a leak.

Winona trusted her friends with her life, but at the end of the day, she had to be careful who she brought into the inner-circle. No matter how much she trusted them, one wrong word at one wrong moment and everything they were working towards could crumble like a house of cards.

"I'm not sure," she finally said, playing off her pause as sheepishness. "I don't think I'm going to jump straight into my art… I think I'm going to just, um, assess my options and see what happens."

To her surprise, her friends seemed to buy it. "Well, where're you going to live?" Angelina asked, before ploughing forwards without waiting for an answer. "My parents want me to stay home while I study, so I don't need to worry about housing, but Alicia's parents are already talking about changing her room into a home gym."

Alicia groaned at the thought and fell back on the bed again. "They can't wait for me to leave," she complained.

"Will you move straight in with Fred?" Angelina asked Winona, not a hint of malice or jealousy or anything negative in her eyes. Only friendly curiosity and maybe a little excitement, hoping for the best for them both.

"No," Winona told them. "My dad actually bought me…"

Her friends exchanged a glance. "Bought you what?" Katie wondered. She'd been silent throughout the conversation, being in the year below them and stuck at Hogwarts for one more year to come.

Winona hesitated. "Um, he bought me a flat," she confessed sheepishly.

For a moment, they only stared. "Holy shit," said Lee, blinking in shock. "When you said he was loaded…"

Winona's smile sharpened into something playfully wicked. "Blood money has its perks," she joked. It said a lot about their friendship that her friends were able to laugh at that one.

"That's so amazing, Win. Where is it?" Alicia asked excitedly.

"London; only a few blocks from the Leaky Cauldron," Winona told them. She turned to Katie, who was picking at the label of her butterbeer. "I'll admit, my only real regret about leaving is the people I'm leaving behind," she said softly. Katie looked up from her butterbeer with a blink. "Are you gonna be okay without us, Katie?"

Katie took a shuddering breath. "I mean… I'll have Leanne," she said of her Hufflepuff friend in the same year. "And Ginny, and the girls in my dorm, Belinda, Jessie and Amara… We may not be close but they've never been cruel to me – not like they were that first year."

"Yeah, but Winnie set them right, didn't she?" called Lee from where he'd retrieved the gobstone and begun tossing it about again, his other hand holding tight to the Sugar Quill he was sucking.

Katie frowned. "You did?" she asked Winona, befuddled.

Winona only shrugged vaguely.

"She threatened to curse their kneecaps backwards the day after we met you," said Alicia, like a traitor. "You should've seen the look on Belinda May's face," she added with a laugh, seeming to have gotten over the shock of Winona's unexpected offer. "I thought she was gonna wet herself!"

Winona wasn't sure how she expected Katie to react, but the way her eyes glazed over with a sheen of tears wasn't it. Alarm shot through her and her grip on her Sugar Quill tightened. "Sorry, Katie," she told the younger girl awkwardly. Glancing nervously at Lee, her friend only threw up his hands as if to say 'you got yourself into this; now you get yourself out'. "Um, I didn't mean to upset you. I was only trying to help-"

Katie sobbed once and Winona stopped talking, afraid she was making it worse. Angelina tossed an arm around Katie's wiry shoulders and pulled her into a hug, letting her cry into her shoulder.

"I'm not angry with you, Winnie," cried Katie in some strange mix between a sob and a laugh. "I'm just – I'm going to m-miss you all so m-much! What am I going to d-do with myself?"

Winona looked at Alicia, who was smiling sadly. As one they stood from Fred's bed and crossed the room, climbing onto George's and crawling on top of Angelina and Katie in hopes of being of some comfort.

"I'm gonna miss you too," cried Angelina. Alicia sniffled and burrowed her face in the spot beneath Katie's chin. Even Winona's eyes weren't dry as they lay there, tangled up together, a sobbing dog pile that made Lee wince.

"Um, should I leave?" he wondered aloud.

"Oh, get over here, you great lump," Winona said thickly. Lee sighed like they were all a terrible inconvenience, but still crossed the room and joined the teary heap, curling up between Alicia and Winona, who threw an arm over his shoulders and pressed their temples together.

For a long time they just sat like that, mourning the loss of this piece of perfection they'd found. Amongst all the stupid teenage drama, all the crazy professors and unexpected dangers of the last seven years, all the tournaments and fights and romances – in between it all, they'd had one another.

And despite Winona's awful future, bleak as a hurricane on the horizon, she knew she was doing the right thing – because fighting in this war (whether it be on the battlefield or in amongst the political sharks) meant saving people like Alicia, Angelina, Katie and Lee. It meant saving not only her friends, but other people's friends, and lovers, and brothers and sisters. So they too could have the freedom to dog pile onto a bed and just lay, unafraid to be sad, trusting in one another to catch them when they fell.

Winona didn't want to leave Hogwarts. She really, really didn't. But she thought to herself, pressed under the weight of Katie, Lee's temple smushed to hers and her legs tangled with Angelina's, that maybe despite not wanting to leave, she was ready to leave.

And that was sort of the whole point.

The last few days of school passed in a daze. Somehow Winona remembered every single second and yet still none of it at all. It was a blur of teary goodbyes, not just to friends, but to teachers as well. They got one last Hogsmeade trip at the last minute, and then the day before graduation they spent collecting all their things and just wandering the castle, pointing out random things they would miss, and memories they would forever treasure.

The whole thing was sappy like one wouldn't believe, but in the months and years to come, Winona knew she would cherish every single moment of it. It was cathartic, almost, to just take a few long, lazy days to say farewell to the castle that had made them who they were going to be for the rest of their lives.

The graduation ceremony itself took place out on the grounds, on the long stretch of grass between the castle and Hagrid's Hut.

The guest list was selective – in response to the recent news of Voldemort's resurrection, in an effort to keep everyone safe, attendees had to be immediate family to get an invitation – but the only people Winona really needed there were luckily granted permission.

They didn't wear ridiculous, coloured robes and little square hats like Muggles did at their graduation. Rather, the graduating class of 1996 simply wore their black school robes with their pointed witch's hats sat atop their heads, wands tucked in pockets as they hovered inside the Great Hall.

Out on the grass, their families had already arrived, chatting in small groups or else sitting in their seats and waiting for the ceremony to start. Winona knew – she just knew – that Fred and George were there, and also her father, no doubt hanging close by, disguised as Snuffles. She felt strangely nervous to parade herself in front of all those people, but she reminded herself she was about to be subjected to a great deal more public scrutiny and forced her racing heart to slow.

"This doesn't feel real. Does this feel real to you? Winona, I'm not going to trip, am I? Oh Godric, I can't feel my face," Alicia fretted, palms pressed flat to her own cheeks.

Winona carefully peeled them off her face and held her hands tight. "Leesh, it's going to be okay," she promised. "You're not going to trip. You're going to fly."

Alicia frowned. "Not literally, I hope."

"I was trying to be encouraging. Did it not work?"

"Now I'm just scared someone slipped me some sort of Levitation Potion, and I'm going to float away before Dumbledore can hand me my certificate! Oh Godric, Winona!"

Winona let go of Alicia's hands and instead pressed her own hands tight to her shoulders, hoping to ground her terribly anxious friend in the moment. "Leesh, I promise you, it's going to be fine."

She made Alicia breathe with her, and by the time her friend seemed less likely to pass out from a lack of oxygen, McGonagall appeared with a look on her face that was maybe a tad less stern than usual as her beetle-black eyes roamed over each of them.

"It's time," she announced and Alicia gave a little squeak from here she still stood beside Winona. Winona took her hand when, as one, the graduating class – Gryffindors, Slytherins, Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws alike – followed Professor McGonagall out into the sunshine.

A small crowd was gathered in chairs at the base of a large platform, and they eagerly turned as the class walked towards them. Winona picked out Fred and George right away – they were taller than most of the other family members and their flaming hair was a dead giveaway. Fred caught Winona's eyes and waved his arms in a huge arc. Winona blew him a flourishing kiss that he made a great show of catching and pressing to his heart. George slapped him and he retook his seat.

As they grew closer, she saw that it wasn't just Fred and George come to watch them graduate, but also Mr and Mrs Weasley and Bill, who were stood beside Ginny, Ron, Harry and Hermione, who had all come down from where the rest of the school was lounging in the Great Hall. At Harry's feet sat a large black dog with his tongue lolling from his mouth, and next to him sat Remus, who caught Winona's eye and gave a gentle smile in greeting.

Overcome with emotion, Winona looked away from them, not trusting herself not to cry. She didn't want to be a blubbering mess, and besides, it had taken Alicia a small age to apply all their makeup. Dumbledore was stood on the platform, dressed in elegant blue and purple robes, his half-moon spectacles shining in the sunshine.

The ceremony itself was rather simple. Dumbledore gave a long, heartfelt speech, everyone clapped at the appropriate times, then each Head of House gave a much small speech, celebrating their Houses for the individuals they were. The Head Boy and Girl got given special acknowledgement, followed closely by the Quidditch Captains. Angelina went red but still tipped her chin up and basked in the praise. Winona bit back a grin.

Then, in a move that was startlingly similar to the night they'd all been sorted into their Houses, that very first night in the castle, so very, very long ago – McGonagall pulled out a roll of parchment and began to call out their names in alphabetical order.

Despite feeling cool, calm and collected before, now a swarm of butterflies fluttered and swooped in her gut. She felt a buzzing at the ends of her fingertips and her tongue had gone uncomfortably dry. She resolutely did not look at her family (because that was what everyone down in the audience was – every single one of them who had come here today for her; they were her family), as she knew that if she did, it would be over and she would cry.

Her last name being Black, Winona was called rather shortly after McGonagall began. Squeezing Alicia's hand once, Winona began to head up the small flight of stairs leading to the platform where the headmaster and professors now stood.

From the crowd there came a loud whistle, followed by a dog's bark, then a small smattering of over-enthusiastic cheers. Winona was rarely one to blush, but even she felt her cheeks heat up under all the attention. Ducking her head, she took the rolled certificate from a smiling Dumbledore, then took his extended hand.

As they shook, Dumbledore pulled her in close enough to murmur, "We're all very proud of you, Winona. You've done great work, and will continue to do so for many years to come. I'm sure of it."

Throat too tight, Winona just nodded at him gratefully, then when the cheers of her family became too loud to ignore she looked towards the crowd, finding Fred and George – rather predictably – standing atop their chairs and shooting celebratory sparks into the air with their wands.

Winona swallowed back the emotion boiling in her gut and settled for simply blowing them all one, heartfelt kiss, then going to stand with the rest of her classmates as they were called, one by one, to graduate.

When the role call was over, they all stood in a group while a professional photographer took their photo on a big contraption that looked like it was straight out of the eighteen-hundreds. Winona wrapped one arm around Alicia and the other around Lee, smiling wide for the camera, because hell, you only did this once in life, and she'd worked hard to get where she was. And maybe it was stupid and cringey and more than a little bit embarrassing, but so was the rest of Winona's life, so she grinned wide and soaked up the moment with all she had.

With a final short but grandiose speech, Dumbledore declared them graduated and wished them all the luck in the world in all their futures endeavours, before solemnly reminding them that Hogwarts would always be there to welcome them home, and calling an end to the ceremony. There was no hat-throwing, but there were cheers as the whole class scattered to meet their families.

Padfoot found her first and she dropped to her knees, letting her dad-in-dog-form nuzzle and fuss over her. He barked quietly, more of a yip than anything else, but Winona heard the words behind it as clearly as if he'd spoken English. "Thanks, Dad," she whispered, scratching him behind the ears just as the rest of her family arrived, each eager to pull her into an embrace.

"Well done, Winona," Remus said in her ear. "I'm so proud of you. We all are."

"I can't believe you've graduated. I'm still going to make short jokes, though," said Bill as they hugged.

"I didn't think you were coming," Winona told Mr and Mrs Weasley as they embraced her delicately – but no less warmly. "I thought, since the twins had left…"

"Oh, as if we'd miss your graduation, dear," chuckled Mrs Weasley, smoothing her hand down the length of Winona's hair in such a motherly gesture that it made Winona's throat close up. She had to cough to clear it again.

She hugged Harry, Ginny and Hermione tightly, whispering her thanks for coming, then forced Ron into a hug as well, kissing his cheek just to make his pale face bloom bright red with embarrassment.

"Oi!" called a beautifully familiar voice, and the two of them drew apart to see the twins coming towards them. "Hands off my bird, Ronald!"

Ron squawked, "My hands aren't on your bird-!"

"I'm nobody's bird-" Winona tried to argue at the same time, but was promptly swept off her feet in one of those twirling-hugs the twins loved so much. She squealed like an idiot, but couldn't find it within herself to care, breathing in Fred's gunpowder-and-soil scent and soaking up the feeling of his strong, capable arms around her.

"You did it, love," he said, setting her back on her feet then swooping down to kiss her before she could speak.

His lips were slightly chapped and tasted faintly like the coffee she knew he'd started drinking to help with the early mornings at the shop. Winona went loose against him and lazily wrapped her arms around his neck, pushing up onto her toes to kiss him more thoroughly.

She felt a gently nip at her leg and pulled away from her boyfriend with a yelp. Looking down at Padfoot, she grumbled something scathing and watched as he barked a laugh in reply. George was there, then, hugging her too.

"I'm proud of you, you little menace," he told her fondly, mussing up her hair like she did to Harry all the time. She didn't particularly like being on the other end of it and scrunched up her face in displeasure, which only made her best friend laugh.

"How does it feel to finally have graduated?" Fred asked, throwing an arm over her shoulders and tugging her into his side, where she fit perfectly, like a puzzle piece. And she thought to herself that maybe fate wasn't always unfair, not all the time. Not when it led her to this moment, where her happiness was so potent she felt like she might burst apart from the force of it.

"It feels good," she told him, wrapping her arm around his waist and holding on, feeling him against her and thinking that she almost never wanted to leave.

They stood around for a half hour, chatting and laughing and mingling with the other students and their families. It was a moment of peace in a world that was currently filled with anything but, and Winona felt humbled to be a part of it, to exist at all in this brief snapshot in time.

Then Dumbledore called them all to attention and kindly dismissed the families, who all reluctantly began to use Portkeys to leave. Winona said goodbye to her loved ones – knowing it would only be a matter of hours before she saw them again, this time at home – and then the graduating class were guided away.

They left Hogwarts exactly the same way they'd arrived; on little rowboats across the Great Lake, only instead of sailing towards the castle, the sailed slowly away. And Winona cast the giant castle a final look, sending it a thought like it might somehow hear.

She thanked it for giving her a home when she'd had none, and for helping her grow up, and helping her believe she was worth more than the world had made her think. She thanked the castle for always being there, and for bringing so many wonderful people into her life.

With that said, her thanks given, Winona blew the beautiful castle a final kiss, then turned away from it and faced resolutely towards the bleak shadow that was her future.

A/N: Finally, here we are, at graduation. Thanks so much to everyone for sticking with me this far – this is, in a lot of way, an ending – but in another it's also a beginning. There is still so much planned, and I'm so humbled by your support over these last few years. I hope you enjoyed this, and continue to enjoy what I still have to come.

Review of the Week goes to: saffron-savage – I'm sorry I stole all your tears. I hope it was worth it in the end. Thanks for your kind words, they really made me smile!