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Me, You and the Moon

Chapter Text

Harry sits in the living room of Grimmauld Place, alone, empty and drinking a cup of tea. The rain trickles faintly down the window pane next to him, the noise of it soothing the headache that was growing with the evening. His tea is a dark brown, not quite comparable to burnt toast but somewhere close, he thinks- builders, as the Muggles call it.

In the corner of the room, a clock ticks with irritating persistence, despite the fact that Harry doesn’t even recall owning one. Maybe Sirius’ old house has had a change of heart. Maybe it is giving him presents now, Harry thinks bitterly, as he reflects upon all the grief he has endured at the hands of the Black’s ancestral home. Not only a week prior had the middle stair evaporated under his feet, mid-step, causing him to fall and adding another hole to the sizeable collection steadily increasing on his jeans. He burrows his feet in the fluffy socks that Hermione had gifted him for his birthday, because if his own home is going to mess with his mind, he can at least feel insane in the comfort of woolen Star Wars socks.

He taps his fingers against his mug, enjoying the reminder that he can move. For the last few months, Harry has felt like he has come to a halt. Not just his life and the events within it, but he himself. He has lost the ability to say ‘yes’ to plans definitely; the guarantee that he can function on any given day has faded. Like a machine gathering rust, Harry is beginning to feel like has more in common with the objects in his house than with the people in his life.

Some days, he is able to make it to nearby Muggle London and push through cake in a cafe with Ron and Hermione, wary of the looks both they and passing wizards send him. Those are becoming more and more sparse as the year progresses. Occasionally he manages a trip to the Burrow, where he spends all evening choking in their mourning and strangled in the hugs that Molly forces upon him, covering her shame at just wanting her real son back. It’s these that send Harry into panic everytime Ron brings it up. Mostly he just sits in his living room, drinking tea that Kreacher makes for him and wishing oh so desperately that he could comprehend something more than the Chinese takeaway menu without drowning in overwhelming and relentless waves of this is too much.

Sinking further into the sofa, Harry prays to whichever higher power is sitting in the heavens that nobody should come knocking until his headache, at the very least, passes. Or preferably until whatever this is- this nothingness- goes with it. A wasted wish, he supposes. Hermione wouldn’t allow it- at least, he doesn’t think she would. He has forgotten how long it has been since she had last paraded through his house with a flare of big hair and the scent of her earl grey cologne, demanding he “Sort himself out, Harry Potter, or God help you.” before concernedly straightening out his jumper. Merlin knows whether she actually lies awake at night fretting over the state of his fridge, as Ron dutily reports she does.

It is of course at this exact moment that the doorbell rings, loud, shrill and obnoxious, as if the completely silent house doesn’t hear even the quietest of noises. Luckily for the visitor, or perhaps unluckily, depending on how one looks at it, this appears to be one of Harry’s good days. As he disjointedly shuffles his legs off of the sofa, he cannot help but feel impressed. However, this is followed quickly by shame, an unwelcome shadow, at his low standards.

At the door, Ron stands, wriggling his toes and looking as disgruntled as Harry feels. His ginger hair is matted against his forehead, darkened and abused by the weather. As Harry takes a moment to breathe in and consider the weight that comes with company, he sees in the corner of his vision a raindrop plop onto Ron’s long and freckled nose.

“Hey, Harry.” Ron says, gently shoving him aside. He kicks off his shoes, hitting the skirting board in a manner that would have had Aunt Walburga screaming like a banshee, had Harry not finally blasted her off of the wall. He almost wants to piece her back from the twelve dozen splinters she shattered into, just to elicit a reaction. Who knows, it might even make him laugh, and wouldn’t that be something. The smell of rainwater clings to Ron as he blunders down the hallway.

“Hey,” Harry replies, following Ron into the living room and glaring with malice at the pizza box on the table, which has apparently not miraculously cleared itself up. Like the good friend he is, Ron chooses to ignore, or perhaps genuinely doesn’t notice, the chaos around him. They both sit down on the sofa and for a moment, everything is peaceful. The rain pelts a little harder on the glass and it’s just two best friends on a stormy day. In another life, maybe they would chat mindlessly about the party that they had both got pissed at last night, and perhaps Harry would still be with Ginny rather than achingly single. Reality hits and its them again: two best friends, traumatised, suffering and still at war with everything.

After a stagnant pause, in which the ticking of the clock seems to chime like deafening church bells in Harry’s mind, Ron settles his blue eyes on him. If Harry could pinpoint the instance in which everything would change, it would doubtlessly be now. He doesn’t have to be a seer to recognise the pain in Ron’s gaze, flickering like a slowly burning flame.

Before Ron could even open his mouth, Harry inches towards the doorway, panic rising inside of him. “Ron, please, if you’re about to ask me whether I want to come and live at the Burrow again, then the answer is no,” he runs a hand through his hair distressingly, feeling the length he has accidentally let it grow to, “I know your mum means well, but it feels like I’m invading. And I know you don’t like the idea either.”

It’s an ongoing argument, but Harry knows that he is a poor substitute for Fred, and no matter how much the Weasley’s insist that that is not how they see the matter, he doesn’t want to attempt to fill the hole that has been left, gaping open and refusing to close. And he suspects they would come to resent him too, for not being what they need.

“It’s not that. It’s Hogwarts, mate.” Ron says with a regretful groan. The small flutter of relief at the dismissal of changing Harry’s living situation disintegrates with the mention of the place Harry had once thought of as home.

“What? What about it?” asks Harry frantically, his mind already beginning to shutdown. Ron moves a bit closer, and the sight of his outreached hand pulls the trigger. Images of dead bodies, swimming in filth and despair, flash through Harry’s head. They are lit bloody red and sickly green from the lights of spells, which are being shot like bullets from foe to foe. In the distance, he hears a blood-curdling cry, and it’s echoed beside him as a sandy-haired fourth year falls to the pulsating stream of an Avada Kedavra. As he falls, he makes eye contact with Harry and vomit rises in Harry’s throat. He’s going to be sick. The bile is crawling up his insides, outstretching and digging it’s long claws into his flesh, and he wishes it would just fucking come up for Merlin’s sake, he has a certain Dark Lord to kill. This is too much. All he can see are the eyes of the fourth year. This is too much. What even was his name? This is too much. The life is ripped from his eyes as he stares hopefully, and then blankly, at Harry. This is too much. This is too much. This is too much

This is too much.

Harry lets out a choked scream as he pulls out of the torture of his own mind. Ron shakes his shoulders gently, his face torn with confusion and understanding all at once. It’s all Harry can do to not rip himself away from the touch and he feels the vomit in his stomach begin to surface again. Fortunately, Ron seems to comprehend the situation and backs off. Slowly, Harry sits back down from where he had launched into the air. He breathes deeply, but jaggedly.

As Harry closes his eyes, he thanks Merlin that Hermione isn’t here. Ron, the trustily emotionally constipated man that he is, would never force confessions and miserable truths out of his best mate, not without being confronted with facing them himself, and Harry is aware that Ron would rather snog Madam Pince’s wrinkled lips than do that. Or, he at least would never without a bottle of half-drunk Firewhiskey and a game of Exploding Snap to break the tension.

“You alright, Harry?” Ron inquires, in a soft voice. One really has to admire his development. Before the war- before everything- Ron had almost as little emotional empathy as dear old Uncle Vernon. Now, his question treads carefully.

After another exhale, Harry murmurs “Yeah, fine. Sorry.”

“S’fine,” Ron shuffles awkwardly, “But are you sure? You looked a bit peaky back there, mate.” And Harry almost has to laugh at the understatement.

Instead of the outrageously loud cackle he wants to burst out with, but can’t, for his lack of energy and willpower, Harry simply chuckles under his breath. “Yeah, no. It’s all fine.” he repeats. The look on Ron’s face is telling of his doubt at the truth of the statement.

“I’ve got some news,” says Ron, as he pulls a letter out of his pocket. Crumpled at the edges, it’s almost illegible without Harry’s glasses, but he can still make out the Hogwarts stamp bold and red, looking like a pool of blood. “Mcgonagall owled ‘Mione yesterday. Apparently under this new law that Shacklebolt is putting into place, everyone has to get their NEWTs. Unless you’re like, in Azkaban, or something. Like Goyle. But, uh, obviously, we aren’t,” Ron blunders through the words with as much subtlety as the pink of Umbridge’s office. Still, Harry appreciates the effort. “So, um. Yeah...” he trails off, twiddling with his ears as he has always done when he is nervous. The implication of his words dawn on Harry and his internal monologue gives a short, but sweet oh shit.

“We have to go back to Hogwarts.” Harry phrases it as a statement, not a question. He doesn’t need an answer from Ron now, he knows with all the fibres of his being what it will be. Inside of him, his heart pounds like a drum. And yet, in this moment, he disconcertingly feels more alive than ever since the Battle, his blood coursing its way through his body in a manner which is very much indicative of life.

He thinks of this new law, this stupid, godforsaken, completely ridiculous, new law, and he is suddenly blazing with anger. How dare Shacklebolt make him go back? Back to the empty and dilapidated halls of the castle which haunts his every thought, both awake and asleep. Harry had had a sombre conversation with Kingsley in the aftermath of the Death Eater trials. He had noticed the dark bruises seemingly permanent under Harry’s eyes, and they had come to a quiet yet awkward agreement that it would be best for him to not return. Special circumstances would be made for Harry’s induction into Auror training, when the time eventually came. This had been embarrassing at the time, but the staggering sense of relief had almost floored Harry upon his return to Grimmauld Place that evening.

Not that Harry has ever appreciated nor desired special treatment. In fact, the memories of Dumbledore’s ignorant Gryffindor favouritism amongst other things, make him flush with irritation and cause his fists to clench. But he does feel that if ever he was granted a wish, the one where he isn’t forced back into the place of his nightmares would be a good choice to go with.

The tick tick tick of the invisible clock decides to chime in again and Harry wants to throw his mug at wherever it is hiding.

“Right. Okay.” he says, trying to tune back into the conversation.

“Yeah.” Ron plonks his large ginger head in his hands.

“That sucks.”

“Yeah.” repeats Ron, still not looking at Harry.

“I was just kind of hoping that I wouldn’t have to, you know, go back there. What’s this law anyway?” Harry stares out of the window, watching a Muggle man carrying a tartan-patterned umbrella walk past in blissful oblivion. “Seems like Hogwarts is still out to send me into an early grave.” The man disappears out of sight, and Harry peers down at Ron again, who seems to be hitting his head on the coffee table in time with the satanic sounds of the clock. With all the vigour of an Erumpent, his heart still beats aggressively inside his chest.

Eventually, Ron raises his head from his hands and Harry notices for the first time that he has his own black shadows framing his eyes. Their intensity shocks him for a moment, and his insides curl at the thought that he has been neglecting his best friend’s issues. “Yeah I know. Apparently, Mcgonnagall suggested it, the old cow. I think the number of students coming to Hogwarts went down this year, which makes sense, I guess.”

Harry frowned as he processed this information, “So, what? We’re supposed to be examples or something?” The idea of the pair of them leading the first years into the lonesome and echoing corridors, as if they are their superiors, causes a shudder to go down his spine. In his eyes, it would probably help if he could even lead himself to the corner shop for some milk first, before he goes gallivanting off as some Percy Weasley prefect-type. Hermione would probably be a natural at it, at the very least, and that is a small grace.

“Yeah, S’pose,” shrugs Ron, his face painted with annoyance, mirroring Harry’s inner turmoil. “I think if we, as, y’know, the year to proper face Voldemort, went back, then in Mcgonagall's mind, everyone else will follow.” Harry thinks Mcgonagall has a point, but he will still call her barmy when the occasion arises. “There was also something about not being able slack under no circumstances. ‘Mione says she thinks that we need the encouragement anyway, or whatever.”

“Right, okay.” says Harry, feeling a sudden wash of tiredness fall over him.

He knows that it is logical. In Muggle England, it is law for students to be in some form of education until they are 18. It makes sense that the same be translated for the wizarding world. However, this doesn’t mean that he can’t throw tantrums until Kingsley lets him remain in his own company, holed up in the dim and dark of a house that hates him. Sod the students, and their parents, who are too scared to enter the castle walls. Privately, Harry feels the exact same way. He wishes he was as brave as they are, being able to vocalise their fears. Harry’s just dwell in his head, buzzing around like the fly that you just can’t quite catch.

Ron slumps back on the sofa, kicking his feet up and reaching for the TV remote. At some point since Harry came into ownership of Grimmauld Place, he installed electricity. Or he hired a specialist to do it. Whatever. Call it nostalgia for his comfortable and most joyous upbringing, if you must. Upon reflection, Harry ponders whether this might be why the house is so aggrieved against him.

Like the pureblood he is, however muggle-loving he may be, Ron still struggles with it. For instance, take now, as Harry watches him press the rewind button as a means to turn it on. Baby steps, he guesses. “How the bloody hell do you do this?” Ron irately slams his thumb on several buttons, before finally landing on the jackpot. The TV flickers and the BBC news flashes into existence. “Harry, mate, I think this might be a bit broken”

Harry laughs, an actual real one, and settles down into the dip next to Ron. He reeks of rainwater and the mud drying on his jeans, but it’s soothing, and he realises how much he misses sharing his space with his best friend.

For a moment, he is enlivened at the thought of sharing a dorm room with Ron again. Memories of their midnight escapades and stashed Honeydukes sweets float dreamily across his mind, tainted in a wash of childlike excitement, before they are replaced by the roaring blaze of the Fiendfyre. Ron’s frightened face is drenched in the orange of the flames, as he stares up at the tidal wave of fire. On second thought, he’d rather have their erratic TV, mindless chatter and greasy eating habits, all of which are the very foundations of the New and Most Noble House of Potter.

They prod teasingly at the news presenters, and as his heartbeat begins to calm, Harry tries to forget about what is to come.

---

Later that night, after Ron is gone, Harry lets himself cry. The emptiness he has so long felt, the hollowness that has carved itself inside of him, temporarily stops to instead allow an overflowing rush of emotions. He buries his face into the pillow and scrunches his hands in his sheets. The pain of the past, the present and the future knock at his head like unwelcome guests.

Kreacher taps once on his bedroom door, but when Harry’s muffled cries grow a bit louder, he plods away down the hall.

It’s a while before he can bring himself to stop crying. And when he does, he stares at the ceiling, unable to feel anything but trickles of anxiety. There is a spider weaving a web above him, intricate strings of silk following her as she sweeps in between the boards. She is nothing but a blur to Harry without his glasses, but he has developed the habit of not wearing them. There is nothing much to see when you spend all day in your bed.

His tears cause her to glisten as she works. That’s the life, he thinks. She knows her goal, and just continues to weave throughout the dark of the night.

For hours, he watches this spider. The sun begins to rise outside, but this only serves to illuminate her handiwork, the web gleaming in the light streaming in from the window. Harry finds himself unable to sleep. Her relentlessness amazes him. It’s perhaps silly that later he would realise it was the persistence of a spider that inspired him to just get up and keep on going, but it’s the truth nonetheless.

He names her Cindy after much debate, and as he manages to pull his weight out of bed, he whispers his gratitude for the motivation that she has given him. As he butters toast the Kreacher hands him in the kitchen, he acknowledges that like Cindy, he will simply do what needs to be done. If that must include Hogwarts robes and classrooms, then so be it.

At the very least, he no longer has to deal with Snape. And it is at the thought of the former Head of Slytherin that Harry realises something profound. Draco Malfoy was acquitted of all crimes, largely, if not entirely, thanks to Harry’s testimony at his trial.

Draco Malfoy, under law as an underage wizard, will also be returning to Hogwarts. Draco Malfoy, who has plagued Harry’s nightmares since the night after the Battle. Brooms racing through fire, a pointy face staring at his disfigured one, a wand shakily pointing in the direction of Dumbledore’s frail frame.

I’ll just ignore him, Harry tells himself. He refuses to get wound up in the company of his enemies. He’s going to be like Cindy: do what you know, put your head down and just get through what is expected of you. Keeping to this idea is the only thing protecting his sanity in the face of the fear that lurks at Hogwarts. Pull yourself together, Harry, he instructs himself, you’ll be fine.

No distractions.

Chapter Text

Hermione picks Harry up from Grimmauld Place a week later. He thinks that Ron might have warned her of his need for space, since he was pre-empting a much earlier visit. Either way, he is grateful for the chance to process the upcoming year. All things considered, he reckons he has been handling it pretty well, if you can exclude, well, the crying fit. And the second. And the third. Not to mention that he has been dressed in the same clothes for five consecutive days. Recovery is a work in progress, as Hermione has always said.

As she embraces him in the hallway, her earl-grey scented perfume soothes an ache he didn’t even know he had and he releases a long sigh of contentment. When all goes to shit, one can always count on Hermione’s ability to spark a burst of motivation, even if it is brief. He doesn’t think that he would have ever made out of the cave, as he has taken to calling his bedroom in an attempt to force him to leave it, had it not been for her persistence. There is grace and excellence in being the bossiest one in the room, he ponders fondly.

She looks especially beautiful today, he thinks, as he registers her warm smile and eyes which twinkle brightly. Dressed in a light cotton trench coat, with a white blouse that compliments the depth of her dark skin, he wishes that he was deserving of her friendship. She reaches out a hand to him, and they are apparating to the Leaky Cauldron in a whirl of colour. Upon arrival, Harry squeezes Hermione’s fingers, seeking comfort. Every head in the pub twists to stare at Harry, gawking and judging like tourists at a zoo, who are trying to gage how to react to a particularly dangerous snake. Frankly, he’s a little surprised. Not to sound self-centred, but he had anticipated a screeching mass of both reporters, fans, and fundamentally anyone with a desire to use his fame for themselves. Instead, there is an awkward scrape of a chair in the silence, and slowly everyone begins to return to their conversation.

Hermione squeezes his hand back tightly, meaningfully, and he immediately realises that she must have sent a warning to Tom ahead of their entrance. His suspicions are confirmed when he sees Doris Crockford almost bursting out of her seat in the corner of the room. Next to her, her friend elbows her side sharply. He turns away uncomfortably, trying to get Hermione to follow him out of the stuffy and tight confinement of the pub. Thankfully, she seems to understand his message and they hasten out, through the brick wall, into Diagon Alley.

In hindsight, Harry is not quite sure why he thought the best place to initiate his return to wizarding society would be the busiest and most well known street in Non-Muggle Britain. Diagon Alley, as always, is an eruption of colour, noise and smell. He gazes solemnly at Olivanders for a second, remembering the chilling emptiness of the shop the last time he had visited. Now, a pink haired teenager walks through the door, hand in hand with her younger sister and from the looks of it, a sparkling new wand. From further down the cobbled road, he can detect the whiff of the strawberry and peanut butter ice cream that he had once purchased from Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour with Ron and Hermione, and if he really strains his senses, the smoke of an explosion from Weasley Wizard Wheezes sifts through the air. He knows that, currently, Lee Jordan is running the shop completely singlehandedly, and he mentally sends him good fortune. Nervous first years and bubbling second years, eager to see their new-found best friends again, are flooding the streets with parents in one hand and bags of sweets in the other. However, as Ron had said there would be, he notes with sadness the significantly smaller than normal amount.

The gaps -the things that are missing- are more noticeable to Harry. They stand out in stark contrast to what he remembers from Diagon Alley during the war. On the wall of an alleyway leading away from the main street, he sees remnants of the Wanted posters that had firstly been up for the Death Eaters, and then for him. Gringotts, now standing tall and proud once more, crumbles before him again in his mind’s eye, as it had done on that fateful day of the Battle. He can almost hear the alarms blaring and the goblins crying out to each other as the Dragon shattered the building into ruin- at least, that is what he had assumed. At the time, it had felt like he would never get past the terror, the running, the fight. He had presumed that the destruction left behind would be the same.

Passing Ollivanders, Harry considers that he still owns Malfoy’s wand. He courtly wonders how Malfoy is handling that situation and spares a snigger at the pain he hopes it is causing him. Imagining Malfoy living Muggle-style brings Harry great joy, but when he tells Hermione, she just looks at him disapprovingly.

“Harry, you do know what happens when a wizard loses or breaks their original wand, right?” she sniffs, glancing in at the small queue of customers waiting, “Because I would hope that you would recognise how horrible of a situation it is.”

“Well, yeah. After mine broke, it was utter shit.” he responds, remembering the days in the forest with his spare wand. It is as if he was controlling an arm that wasn’t his own. He was aware of what he wanted it to do, but when he put it into practise, he could not translate his thoughts into action. The levels of frustration he had felt at the disjointed magic had made him want to punch the nearest tree until it fought him back.

“Exactly”

“But it’s just Malfoy,” he groans, “You can’t say you don’t find the image of him wearing washing up gloves just a little bit funny.”

The corner of her lips upturn, as if she is trying not to agree, but soon she has returned to frowning at him in displeasure. Oh to have a Hermione-level of restraint, it must be so helpful. He drops the subject but keeps the picture of Malfoy on his pointed knees, whilst scrubbing a toilet, in the back of his mind for further amusement. Sue him.

Soon, Ron is joining them and following in tow is Ginny. This is only slightly awkward. He’s fine. They smile at each other halfheartedly, Ginny tapping her foot in that impatient manner of hers, and Harry coming close to fainting with each counting second.

Actually, he is lying. It’s terribly awkward, and he only hopes that soon she will run off to find Dean, as the latest gossip tells, and by that he means Ron. Who told him this with a bucketful of bottled anger, an accusatory finger pointing at the wall for emphasis on the particularly harsh notes, and a chopstick funnelling Pad Thai into his mouth.

It’s strange that he finds now that the pain comes from losing her as a friend, rather than from a lack of romance with her. They were never particularly skilled with that side of things anyway. Unluckily for Ginny, his experience with Cho did not seem to gain him any points in the kissing department and he was painfully aware that the whole time with Ginny, he was kissing like a child eating their vegetables, unwillingly, stiffly and with an air of ‘Can I go now?’. Looking back, it really is not surprising that their relationship came to an end. He’s certain that Dean, with his easy looks and built muscles, which Harry sometimes guiltily caught himself staring at as he sauntered past in his low-slung tracksuits, snogs like he was born for it.

Blushing at the thought, he moves beside Ron as they walk down the road, conscious of Ginny’s fiery gaze behind him. She had been the one to call time, after one particularly bad week in which Harry had refused to see her. It had been two months since the battle at that point. There was a wedge between them, which had been cruelly forged during his absence in seventh year, perhaps even before. No matter how forcefully either of them shoved at it, it prevailed- strong, solid and fixed.

Harry thinks she’s better off without him. He’s not so sure about himself, but he recognises now that he was devastating her, as if she could have been any more so after Fred’s death. And he could not cope with the pressure and responsibilities of a relationship, not when a trip to the bathroom to brush his own fucking teeth is more uncommon than not. She thought it was disgusting, Ron doesn’t understand it, Hermione tries, and Harry? Well he’s just proud of the days where he does manage the trek along the landing, no matter how heavy his legs feel, and how much he just wants to collapse right there on the wooden floorboards. Kreacher would probably eat him for dinner if he died in the house.

They all enter Madame Malkin’s together, shoving each other to get through the door like rowdy third years. You can avoid a new cauldron, and even your new books if you are cheeky enough to just borrow them all year long, but one of the many flaws of adolescence is the perpetual growth that comes with it.

“Welcome, my dears!” Madame Malkin startles, busy tailoring and trimming a petite girl’s robes next to the expanse of mirror, which seems to stretch for miles somehow in the tiny room. “Do try to not cause a fuss in my doorway, if you will.”

“Sorry, Ma’am.” Hermione mumbles respectfully, as Ron snickers in her ear. She swats at his ear and he lets out a dramatic moan.

“Yes, yes.” She replies distractedly.

Harry peers around and tries to remember what everything looked like when he was eight inches shorter, with even more knobbly knees than he has now. Certainly Madame Malkins appeared much more intimidating than the short and greying witch she has become. He thinks of Malfoy, baby faced yet still so angular (how is that possible?), and almost feels nostalgic.

How deluded has he become, he thinks, shaking off the memory, that he’s missing Malfoy’s posh arrogance.

They get their robes measured, Harry still feeling the immature embarrassment that comes with the combination of an old witch’s hands, and his body. That never quite goes away.

Afterwards, they wander down the street aimlessly. He picks up on the dilemma between Ron and Ginny of wanting to visit Weasley’s Wizard wheezes, in all its chaotic glory, but not wishing to see the place that Fred put his whole heart and soul into without him there. Hermione makes the decision for them to instead purchase some lunch in Muggle London, the animated nature of Diagon beginning to affect her too. Glancing at each of them, he notices a slightly sallow pallor to all of their faces, and he can only imagine at the horror that is most probably his current appearance. There’s a sense of relaxation at Hermione’s words, and they all set off.

Ron and Hermione walk closely together, their hands entwined as if they are one entity. He’s happy for them, he really is, but if they could save their affection for private so that Harry doesn’t have to plod alongside Ginny, as he is doing now, it would be most appreciated. Ginny’s long and auburn hair is swept into a ponytail, and he knows this means that she is going to Quidditch practise later. It’s something that he most admires about her. Her refusal to give into darkness- the way she throws it to one side like one of the Quaffles that she plays with.

“Game later?” Harry asks.

She makes a noise of agreement and smiles crookedly, her freckled nose twitching and teeth showing. “Yeah, Luna’s coming to watch so I need to get my A game on. Otherwise she’ll make some weird cryptic comment afterwards and I’ll wonder if it was an insult to my playing or not.” At this, she laughs lightly as they step into a cafe.

“I can imagine.” he snorts, “I didn’t realise that Luna was the type to, you know, come to your games. I mean I know she used to watch all of the Hogwarts ones but I thought that was only because everyone did, back then. House pride, and all that.” and he chuckles at the memory of her lion hat, because Luna supported all the houses, not just her own. “But then I guess Luna wouldn’t be the one to do something she didn’t want to just because others were.” Harry loves that about her, erratic as she is.

“Yeah, I don’t know. She seems to really like coming. And I like her coming” If Harry wasn’t becoming steadily more insane by the day, he could have sworn Ginny was blushing. A flushed pink is spreading across her face, reaching her ears. Interesting.

“I bet you’re gonna be a famous Quidditch player one day, Gin. I see it now: First successful Weasley- nation shocked!” he jokes in an attempt to change and drop the subject. If the implication of their previous conversation is what Harry thinks it is, he is both confused and a little angry. It hasn’t been that long since they broke up, he thinks heatedly. Maybe that’s unfair of him, but he recalls the weeks after it ended, and the bone-deep agony that he felt at each and every reminder of her. In his pit of despair, he had thrown away his favourite Quidditch magazines, the ones that they had shared together.

“Ha Ha, Harry. Very funny.” Ginny retorts drily.

Ron and Hermione order for them both and when the food comes, simple but delectably gooey pizza, they all dig in ravenously. Conversation bounces between them and Harry zones out, thinking of his now very apparent status as a lone bachelor.

----

Upon the departure of Ron, Hermione and Ginny for the Burrow, Harry finds himself at a loss. They had offered, even begged, him to come with them but one thought of Molly’s tears had made him firmly decline, despite feeling ashamed to do so. Ron had shrugged despondently and then they had left him, standing alone on the pavement, walking away with their arms wound around each other.

Bizarrely, Harry realises that he doesn’t want to go home, back to the dingy and musty smelling rooms. He cringes at the thought. The house will probably lock him out in it’s everlasting grudge, and Kreacher will offer him a poorly made cup of tea as he perches on the pavement. There is a reason why he prepares his own beverages, and it’s not that he is protesting against the cruel treatment of house elves. Kreacher would smack him with the remains of Aunt Walburga and then bury him alive if he dare even suggest freeing him from his loyal duty.

No, he’s going to stay outside. Do something worthwhile and, Merlin’s Beard, healthy. The sun beams brightly, which invites warmth to drizzle through Harry in a manner more satisfying than any Warming Charm.

With no goal in mind, he ambles along the busy road. Ignoring the bodies that crowd him is difficult, but as it’s noon on a weekday, it could be worse. On a street corner somewhere, a busker plays the saxophone and he wishes he had some Muggle money to drop in the top hat.

He arrives on the corner of Hyde Park without even realising it. It’s late August, a sunny day, and therefore, brimming with energy. Groups of teenagers in skimpy tops and shorts are dotted around and a few yards from him, a plump couple are topless in the sun, their pink skin sinking into the grass. Is that even legal? He’s out of touch with Muggles. And Wizards, his subconscious adds.

Wandering on, he stops at a quieter spot underneath a shady tree and drops to rest against the trunk. Although he knows that he won’t be here long, Harry feels that if he returned home now, in this rare state of productivity, he would be letting himself down. There’s a girl about his age, with shoulder length brown hair which falls in waves, resting on her elbows a few feet away from him. She has a thick book out, and her mustard sandals are kicked off, discarded in the grass.

It’s only after a few minutes that he realises she’s watching him through her round sunglasses, slipping gradually off of her nose.

“Can I help you?” he demands, maybe a bit aggressively, but he feels paranoid. And it’s rude of her to ruin his extremely uncommon bout of peace like this.

“Not really, sorry. Just thought you were quite good looking.” She grins good-naturedly and he’s shocked into speechlessness, rather humiliatingly.

This has quite literally never happened before. Well not quite, he has certainly had fan-girls, and even a few fanboys, compliment his appearance. However, he has always regarded them as insubstantial. They wouldn’t think him so had he not been the ‘Saviour of the Wizarding World’, times two. Never has a person, with a lack of incentive or alternative intentions towards him, called him handsome. Not even Ginny counts, she had only done so when she had wanted something from him. He’s truly shell-shocked. And panicking.

“I-uh. I-I- uh. Thanks? Uh.” he splutters like an idiot and she laughs at him, boldly and with great volume.

“Welcome. Don’t worry, I’m not expecting you to return the compliment.” She smiles and moves to a cross-legged position opposite him. Grabbing a bunch of daisies from around her, she starts creating a chain out of the flowers.

“You- uh..are very, uhm, pretty?” he accidentally phrases it as a question in his nervousness and he wants to slap himself for his lack of charm.

Again, she just giggles softly and continues with her craft. He studies her subtly, she has thick eyebrows and a nose ring- something he hasn’t seen since the punks that would cringe from Dudley’s bulbous figure at his old primary school. Weirdly, it looks soft on her, feminine and delicate, and he realises that it has a daisy gem on the hoop. Her small but straight nose is splattered with faint freckles, something he hadn’t noticed from afar. Ginny’s could be seen from Mars if you were looking, he’s sure.

“Thanks!” She looks up at him happily and he catches her green-eyed gaze.

Despite her obvious beauty, Harry feels a little uncomfortable, as if he’s playing a game that isn’t his. He shifts his legs and twiddles with his thumbs, and her face falls ever so slightly. They lie there together for a few idyllic minutes, her having moved back on her front and him leaning against the tree. A few leaves flitter into his lap and he tunes into the background noise of someone’s rap music being blasted somewhere near.

“Ah.” she says.

“What?” he responds, agitated by her cryptic comment. “What’s that noise for?”

“You’re in love,” she states matter-of-factly, as if she hadn’t just said something most illogical and unfounded, “My name is Erin, by the way.” The daisy-chain is almost finished as she says this, and she smiles at it, as if she is keeping a secret that nobody else is aware of.

“I’m sorry, I hate to disappoint, but I’m really not.” Harry scoffs in disbelief at her invasive and, frankly, weird comment. Butterflies flutter in his stomach, for a reason unknown to him. “And I’m Harry.”

“Oh,” her misjudgement doesn’t seem to bother her much as she carries on in her vaguely dreamy voice, “OK. Well then, you will be soon, mark my words. Or maybe you’re still in love with your ex?” Erin peers at him inquisitively, “But I think it’s the other one. No, actually, I’m certain.”

Harry feels a rush of panic? In love with his ex? Was he ever even in love with Ginny? He doesn’t even know why he is contemplating this stranger’s words but somehow, they unsettle him. He frowns at her.

“Erin, I’m sorry but you’re mistaken,” he grumbles, “And possibly clinically insane. Go check yourself in right now.” At that, she barks a laugh which sounds like a peal of bells, and he cannot help but break his glower and join in. It’s contagious. He wonders what Ron and Hermione would think of him now and he decides that they’d be both proud and incredibly disturbed.

One moment they are heaving breaths of laughter together, and the next she is shoving the handmade daisy crown onto his dishevelled and dark hair.

“There.” she grins widely, all-teeth and eyes glinting, “Ahhh, perfect. As pretty as a picture, Harry.” he flutters his eyelashes stupidly, feeling simultaneously more light and free than ever, the weight that comes with being a wizard lifted from his chest for the time being.

“My family are full of witches, did you know? That’s how I know these things.” she says seriously and he does a double take, thinking perhaps that she has caught onto him. There is a tense few seconds before she breaks character and laughs again. Her cheerful mood manages to make the heavy feeling that had been beginning to settle inside him again, dissipate.

Nevertheless, fatigue hits him, his body and mind not used to this setting, and he immediately knows he needs to leave. It wouldn’t do to have the amiable acquaintance, which he has managed to form with this sweet and pretty girl in the last few minutes, destroyed by his fucking trauma, and his fucking relentless sadness.

“I think I’m gonna have to leave now. I was only sitting here for a few, but it was nice to meet you and thank you for the daisies.” he turns to leave and she grabs his ankle, dragging her body through the thick grass as she does so.

“Wait!” she exclaimed, “I know you’re preoccupied romantically, shame that, but if you ever want to hang and hear more about my witchy talents, send me a text!” she wiggles her eyebrows and hands him a piece of paper. Harry, being a bloody wizard, has no idea what the standard response would be to someone who just gave you their contact details, of which you will never be able to use. So, he just murmurs his gratitude again, along with a farewell, and makes his exit. With him, he carries the happy spirit of Erin’s laughter.

Once he’s home, he nods his greetings to Kreacher and goes to the bathroom to rid his hands of the mud he has accumulated. In the mirror afterwards, he watches as a little daisy petal cascades down his face and into his sink. It’s fair to say he looks ridiculous with the crown around his head, but the memory makes him smile. All he can think as he winds down for the evening is that he wishes he could spend every day in the cooling shadow of an oak tree, with beautiful girls who laugh too much, instead of being shipped off to schools which double as battlegrounds.

He scarcely manages to fold up the robes that he had purchased from Madame Malkin’s, and say goodnight to Cindy, before collapsing in the vast expanse of his bed. Finding that he’s utterly exhausted, he drops into a slumber almost as soon as his head hits the pillow. Dreams of white daisy petals, a love that doesn’t exist, and the impending clack clack clack of a scarlet steam engine, plague him through the night.

Chapter Text

The morning of his return to Hogwarts comes around so swiftly that Harry feels like he has whiplash.

All week, he has been cradling his pillows and hoping that somehow, the date would never arrive. Alas, it crept up on him before he had even begun to come to terms with the idea of being a full time student once more. It is now, at the ungodly hour of five AM, that Harry is wishing desperately that his bed-sheets would swallow him up. He reckons that he could live quite pleasantly in the furrows of his duvet for the remainder of his life, should some god grant him this kindness.

Cindy watches mockingly from the comfort of her silken web, loaded with no burdens but that of her next meal. Nevertheless, Harry acknowledges that he would have still probably prevailed in finding a way to make this into a difficult task, had he been born a spider. He is just complicated like that, and Mcgonagall did always say that trouble followed him like a shadow.

He lies like that for at least an hour, leaving it until the last conceivable minute before some divine will must manage to fire up a little energy in his muscles. Stroking the crinkled cotton of his duvet, he stands up and collects his Star Wars socks from off of the floorboards. They are a little dirty, but his new robes will do a decent job of covering his ankles up, and really, the only person who would notice such a thing would perhaps be Professor Flitwick with his small stature.

Or a house elf, like Dobby, a timid and unwelcome voice in his head whispers sadly.

Harry winces as the bruise to his heart, which flares up whenever he is reminded of someone he lost, is ripped apart in its current state of healing. It is as if somebody has plunged a knife into a partially-closed wound. Suddenly, he staggers to the nearest wall at the cutting realisation that everyday will be like this at Hogwarts. It’s overwhelming and he has the urge to scream into the nearest surface.

With Sirius in mind and once he collects himself, he glances sorrowfully around at the room that had once belonged to his godfather. He had kept up the posters of the comically large-breasted women, despite their ludicrosity, as a nod to Sirius’ hatred of the house, and to all the rebellious attitudes he adopted whilst trapped within its walls. Somehow, it eases his occasional guilt when he remembers that he has taken up residence in a place that Sirius would have seen razed to the ground given the opportunity. He’s the sole leader of the revolt now; he would be betraying the cause in taking them down.

He pads over to the window, feet hitting the cold and hard wood with soft plods. The curtains have not been opened once in all the time he has been sleeping here, as he understands. The fabric is moth-bitten and musty; a cream colour with heavy drawstring ropes that hang lifelessly. Sirius would have hated them, with their haughty sense of importance in both the grandeur and scale, he knows. Along the hemline, there are chunky tassels which swing threateningly when he goes to open the curtains. He meets resistance as he tries to tug them across the rail with all the strength left in his weakened body, which is admittedly not a lot.

It becomes evident that the house doesn’t care for him to feel the sunlight which is attempting to break through the thick material, so he gives up with a huff.

Fine, he sniffs. He’s leaving now anyway and Grimmauld Place can rot in peace. He will no longer be a part of the debris left behind, as he had one anticipated.

Once downstairs, he assembles the items he needs to take with him. He grabs his robes from where Hermione had set them out as a reminder the day prior. She seemed to be fretting that he might turn up in his carrot orange Chudley Cannon pyjamas. Seamus would have a field day.

Harry trudges to the toilet to relieve himself and catches himself with displeasure in the mirror as he does so. Annoyed, he wiggles his eyebrows just to check that the figure staring back at him is not an impostor. He has gotten skinnier over the summer and his skin has an unattractive pale sheen to it, as if he is unwell. At least that would easily explain away to any questioning eyes why, in these past months, he has barely seen the outside of his room.

He sticks his tongue out experimentally at the stranger opposite him and feels peculiar as it copies his movement. Surely this shell of a man can’t be the once brave and noble Harry Potter? He snorts at the preposterous title he had been donned by the Daily Prophet, and slams the door hard on his way out.

Eating his toast and jam in the kitchen, he smiles sheepishly at Kreacher, who stares at him from across the length of the dining table. Unsure whether he has something on his face, he rubs around his mouth with the back of his hand, but it comes up clean. Outside, the sun is finishing rising and the sky is soaked in golden washes of yellow and orange, the colour spilling throughout the clouds. His kitchen is submerged in the light of it; he regards the soft gold tones covering the entirety of the room, twinkling like stars, with a sense of contentment.

It’s the silhouette of two birds, who dance together against this gilded backdrop, that he’s watching when he realises that the doorbell is ringing impatiently. He slings his satchel over his shoulder and prepares to meet Hermione and Ron for the coming day.

-----

After the blur of people, deafening and relentless, at Platform 9 and 3/4, Harry is breathing heavily and alone in the first empty compartment that he had found. He’s not sure where Hermione and Ron are; he thinks he might have lost them in the crowd in his rush to get on the train.

Hands and bodies slam down on the carriage window, trying to grab his attention. Unofficial biographies written about his life are squished up against the glass and a head-shot of himself taken by Rita Skeeter in fourth year is leering at him menacingly. The noise is unlike anything he has ever heard before. Voice on voice upon voice overlap in an unsynchronised and roaring chorus, grating at his skin and mind with every relentless note. He squeezes his eyes shut and hopes that he can control himself in front of such a large crowd. The last thing he wants is to cause a spectacle and have himself plastered on the front page of the Daily Prophet. His recent absence from society has made them ravenous, practically foaming at the mouths for a chance at a piece of gossip on their hero.

Hermione had solemnly told him once that his smiling at the 60 year old waitress in his local greasy spoon had earned him the spot on the front of the paper. His ugly mug spread out in black and white with the headline ‘Saviour needs saving from Cougar?” Since then, he hasn’t returned to the cafe out of pure humiliation for both himself and the older woman- who is, in reality, a loving mother of three, working a minimum wage job to support her family. It was shameful and he had felt nauseous at the influx of mail that had flooded his agent, all offering their aid in ‘getting rid of her’. She still smiles kindly at him every time he walks past, unbeknown to the abuse she still receives from complete strangers. He had her secretly placed under Auror surveillance.

Trying to drown out the ringing in his ears, Harry curls in on himself and screws his eyes shut as tightly as he can.

He’s not sure how long it has been when Ron and Hermione fall into the carriage, but Hermione automatically fastens the blinds shut. She then aims a silencing spell out of the window, and the world settles a little back into place, the commotion coming to an abrupt stop. Smiling at Harry, she collapses next to Ron on the seats and he notices their bedraggled appearances.

“Was it that bad for you guys too?” asks Harry, “‘Mione, your hair is mad.”

“Horrible.” Ron answers, shuddering.

Hermione whirls on him.

“Not your hair, love! The crowds, I swear.” proclaims Ron, his voice cracking mid-sentence.

Hermione grunts and narrows her eyes, but pats him on the knee as a demonstration of understanding before turning to Harry, “What about you, Harry? That was awful for us but I imagine even more horrific for you. Did anyone hurt you?” She scans worriedly up and down Harry’s body.

“No, I’m fine,” he lies, “Did we know it was going to be that bad?”

An expression of sympathy spreads across her features and Hermione’s full lips downturn at the corners. “Not at all. I was under the impression that Kings Cross even had orders from the Ministry to heighten their security today. It appears someone isn’t doing their job right.” she frowns. Harry feels hotly embarrassed at the level of fuss that surrounds them at every instance in which they are outside.

“Sorry that I left you guys,” Harry leans back against the seat and wraps his arms around his knees, the instinct to protect himself still existent, “I had to get out of there before Amelia Brundlewood ended up stealing one of my socks, or something.”

They all share a quiet snicker at the idea. The level of toxicity currently residing in Harry’s socks is probably more dangerous than Voldemort himself.

“It’s OK, Harry,” Hermione says tenderly, “I wouldn’t blame you if you had decided to run away. Frankly, I’m surprised you didn’t,” her eyes widen and she adds “and I’m happy that you haven’t!”, as if she fears he is about to bolt out of the carriage at any given second. The idea is tempting.

Before he can contemplate making a dash for it, the engine begins to pump and the train starts to move out of the station. Although the strength of Hermione’s charms had made him feel alone for a moment, bar his two best friends, he still feels lighter at the thought. Ron and Hermione start chatting about their predictions for dinner in the Great Hall that evening, and whether Mcgonagall will bother them all with a speech or not.

“I, for one, would appreciate a lift in morale. Some of us are not especially eager to be returning, and I think it would help.” she says, looking pointedly at the two of them.

“I dunno whether an accent that thick can pull off anything quite as cool sounding as Dumbledore, though.” adds Ron jokingly. Harry personally thinks now that Dumbledore sounded everything but cool, as he terrified them all with descriptions of all the ways in which they could die brutally on the school grounds. Very comforting.

It’s to their easy bickering that Harry dozes off.

----

When he awakes, Hermione and Ron are shaking him, and he realises that he has managed to sleep the entire journey. Congratulations Harry, he thinks, consistently proving the impossible, possible.

His head is fuzzy with the blanket of sleep still blurring his thoughts, and he rubs his eyes. He observes spots in his vision as he opens them, an almost satisfying reminder of his mortality. Sometimes he wonders if he actually exists, or if he’s just going through the motions of an imagination. Apparently, as Hermione once informed him, there are groups of Muggles who believe they live in something called a “simulation”. Honestly, Harry could believe it with ease, after everything that he has seen.

They are soon moving through Hogsmeade and everywhere Harry turns, he catches glimpses and flashes of ghosts of a battle once fought. He looks to the Hogshead Inn, and a memory replays in his head of Aberforth hurrying him, Ron and Hermione inside in the dead of the night. It drifts away but the recollection of the blaring alarm still screeches. Over at the Three Broomsticks, the image of Malfoy striding through the pub purposefully, his mission: to Imperio Katie Bell, is stuck in his mind's eye. He almost thinks he can see that blonde head of hair now through the window panes, a look of terror painted upon his features. He squints, and it’s somebody else, laughing and punching their friend’s arm, expression liberated in joy.

Harry begins to think that his apparent ability to live solely in the past may at least make him fascinating to Mind Healers, if not to any average functioning human being. It’s not much of a comfort, he despairs, just as a mirage of a Death Eater with bloody hands and cropped hair corporealizes right in front of him. He stumbles back into Hermione and she grabs his arm instinctively. As it fades away, Harry identifies a blast of a metallic smell that blows him into one of his nightmares.

“Come on, Harry,” Hermione whispers under her breath, “We have to move on now or somebody will wonder what is up.”

They walk through the street a little further at this but Harry finds he cannot keep his attention on the journey, and he stumbles. He can feel that his feet are growing clumsier by the second, something that happens when his body stops wanting to cooperate. Hermione grasps his arm again and this helps steady him. One thing he attempts is holding a focus point in his vision, and just not looking away from it. Using an upcoming picketed fence, it works for a minute or two and he feels a swell of pride. Until, he reaches a particularly bumpy part of the road and wobbles drastically, losing balance. He has to stop in fear of twisting his ankle.

He spies a few of the looks he is getting from fellow classmates and acknowledges Hermione’s previous point- he has to keep moving. It would not do to have others suspect something is wrong, and it also might cause his muscles to freeze up. To distract himself, he grasps her in a quick hug and breathes in her scent, which flushes away the remnants of the bloody smelling man who had stalked past him. Inches from his body. A shiver rolls down his spine and he breathes in once more the earl-grey of her perfume.

“OK, mate. Get off my woman now, or I may have to press charges.” says Ron, half kidding, half not. The alpha male in him has him cautiously watching Harry, before visibly shaking off the notion and returning to his conversation with Dean.

Hermione rolls her eyes. Harry agrees.

------

They’re sitting down to eat their dinner in the Great Hall after the sorting of the first years, when a great number of things happen.

First, Harry spots Draco Malfoy walking in late, clearly trying not to be noticed in creeping around the edge of the hall. He joins the Slytherin table at the very end, putting a considerable distance between himself and the rest of his peers. This makes the house appear even smaller than it is, the empty spaces speaking a thousand words at the current disdain of the house. Harry feels like he could be going into shock at the sight of his former enemy. He breaks out of his state to briefly laugh at himself. Enemy- really? At most, Malfoy was a pain in the arse. A melodramatic arsehole, who doubled as a bully and made idiotic decisions- absolutely. But he almost doesn’t want to grant the title of ‘enemy’ to such a weak person. Harry likes to think he deserves a more intimidating nemesis than Draco Malfoy and his stupid face.

Still, his hands are clammy and his heart is hammering, and he doesn’t understand the strength of his reaction. Harry supposes that Malfoy is just another reminder of what he is trying so hard to forget. Despite this, he’s a little too perturbed at Malfoy’s figure, now hunched over in perhaps an attempt to make himself invisible. He would have expected the twat to make a conscious effort to rebuild his image. Prior to the trials, he envisaged, whenever the thought popped into his head, a boot-licking Malfoy throwing money around in order to try and erase the reputation that surrounded them like a black cloud. Instead, Lucius Malfoy got sentenced to life in prison, rightfully so. Narcissa Malfoy had broken down into all-consuming tears at the news, and Harry had had to make a hasty exit, feeling agonised by the sight of her body crumpled on the floor, for some reason. Malfoy Junior, however, had simply remained in his seat, stony and cold, whilst his father had been condemned. He had been pardoned, but there was no sense of pleasure in his face. Staring straight ahead at seemingly nothing in particular, he looked as if he wasn’t present in the room. Lifeless, even. His grey eyes, usually quick and cutting, were sunken and like an empty chasm. The hair, which had become so widely recognised during the press release of the trials, had dirtied itself into matted clumps that drooped onto his face, obscuring his sharp features.

Eventually, after Harry had left and come back, Malfoy glanced, just once, and very, very fleetingly, in his direction. Their eye contact was short but it had made him lose his appetite for three days. Ginny hadn’t understood at all. And to be honest, neither had he.

In the warmth of the Great Hall, Malfoy looks in a better condition than he had. Eyes a little less hollowed, hair falling in white waves instead of ashy-toned clusters. Despite this, he still retains that blank demeanour that had unsettled Harry so remarkably at in the chill of the courtroom. It has the same effect now.

He turns his attention to the easy companionship of his friends around him instead, sick to death of thinking about Draco fucking Malfoy and his fucking family.

Astonishingly, Harry has actually been distracted enough since entering the Hogwarts grounds, that he hasn’t dwelled on any of the anxieties that he is painfully aware will visit him again in the privacy of his bed chambers this evening. It has been invigorating to chat with his housemates again, not having seen them properly since the couple of ostentatious charity functions that had taken place over the summer. Merlin knows Harry had not been in the most amiable of moods at these, mostly taking to getting pissed at the bar with Ron.

Now, he converses with Neville, startled to discover that he has been dating Hannah Abbott from Hufflepuff. Over on their table, she waves at them with a beaming grin and Neville blushes furiously. Harry is seriously happy for him, seeing the glee as clear as day on his round face, and promises to himself that he will make more of a conscious effort to keep up to date with his friend’s lives.

There is a hush of voices as Professor Mcgonagall briskly stands up to make her speech. Harry sincerely hopes there won’t be anymore mentions of death and destruction in this year’s edition. She cuts a stern figure in her swooping Headmaster’s robes but the hint of a smile on her thin lips informs Harry of her true sentiments towards the scene before her.

“Good evening, all.” She begins, inspiring total quiet from the sea of students.

“I hope you are all well on this pleasant night, and I trust that you have all had a safe journey here.” says Mcgonagall warmly, clasping her hands together, “There is not much to say tonight other than I wish you all a happy and studious year here at Hogwarts. Alas, there are a few important notes that I would like to touch on before we feast.”

Harry peers at Hermione sitting opposite him, knowing from the scrutiny on her face that she is already making calculations in her mind as to what Mcgonagall might be about to say.

“Firstly, I’ll begin by mentioning that, as always, the Forbidden Forest is off limits to students and under no circumstances should you venture anywhere near its borders without the presence of a member of staff.” she says, and Harry feels as if she is directing her comment at his area of the Gryffindor table. Somewhere further down the bench, a student yawns exaggeratedly at the information, which is consistently annually repeated, and a chorus of giggles echoes throughout the otherwise silent hall.

“Thank you for that, Mr Murphy,” Professor Mcgonagall says wryly and Harry now witnesses a fifth year named Olivier shrugging cheekily in response.

“As I was saying, there are no other off limits sections in the castle grounds this year, but I must implore each and every one of you to be cautious of the ongoing renovations in all parts of the school,” and the hall falls, if possible, even quieter at the mention of the war.

“It has been a difficult year, as we all know, and the hardships that we have all faced should bound us tighter than ever. Inter-house unity has never been so important in creating a more peaceful and accepting society. Let it be known that Hogwarts will not tolerate any prejudice towards any students, and this includes towards the members of Slytherin House,” Harry glances over at Malfoy, who is trying to seem disinterested at the speech as he stares at the ceiling. The fact that he is picking at his nails gives him away.

Mcgonagall continues, “This has led me to make the decision that, this year, the normal house rules will be discarded.”

Immediately, every corner of the room is filled with the buzz of animation and frenzied confusion. It only serves to increase in volume as friends begin to discuss what precisely this means. Harry thinks he has never seen Hermione so invested. Head lolling and eyes half-lidded, Ron, on his part, has the air of somebody who could drop dead in sleep at any second.

Mcgonagall whips her wand twice sharply and it spurts out a vigorous jet of silver sparks, quelling the outbreak of discussion. “By this, I mean to say that we will no longer use the house points system. Students can visit any common room they choose, given that it is in the window of your curfew, and we have renounced the use of passwords.” Harry hears raucous whooping from Ginny and he irritably remembers Luna in the Ravenclaw common room. Already, gossip flits from person to person and he feels fondness at the childlike habits that he had resigned himself to never experiencing again. The horrors that he had faced over the past few years had certainly not made it difficult to forget the simple yet rich pleasure of childhood innocence. Rather, he had lived his life in black and white, aged beyond his years. He is unaccustomed now to the vibrant colours of youth and adolescence.

“Furthermore,” she pauses emphatically, “our additional year group, eighth year, will forgo the housing system once and for all. Eighth years, you are, from now on, one house. Please do not forget your duty to each other. You shall be sharing a new common room close to the greenhouses and your new dormitory arrangements will be assigned upon arrival. ”

The penny drops and strikes the floor. Harry will remember the moment that jaws swung wide open and outrage exploded for years to come. Zacharius Smith seems to be booing from his seat on the Hufflepuff table, his angry features distorted in indignation. For the first time since the war, Harry sees Malfoy showing emotion. His eyes widen in shock, face white as a sheet. Harry cannot gage whether this is positive or negative. Hermione hums a murmur of approval and glares at the furious students in obvious contempt for their behaviour.

Harry is not quite sure how to react to the information. In many ways, he is prepared to leave behind the confinements and restrictive boundaries of a house. He has long felt that the segregation of students into only interacting with like-minded people enforces a culture which promotes cliquey attitudes. It is unsurprising that students don’t understand each other- they are forced apart. However, Gryffindor has also long been a key part of his identity. Ever since he was just a scrawny eleven year old wearing a Sorting Hat which threatened to fall down his face it was so large, his house has represented an immense portion of who he is. Without that, he feels even more lost in this castle of broken pieces, readily growing more foreign to him. He is, not to mention, disturbed at becoming one with the Slytherins- with Malfoy. Ugh. He makes a noise of distaste.

“Silence!” Mcgonagall demands, “That will be all. Please enjoy your meal.” and as she speaks the words, the food materialises into existence.

Every student digs in at the same time and noises of delight groan in mass unison over the plates of vegetables and marinated meats which splatter the tables. Dinner is a spirited affair, debates already breaking out over house loyalties as people switch between the house tables. Harry, Ron and Hermione just continue to natter amongst themselves and with their classmates.

“As I see it,” says Ron with a mouth full of lemon chicken, “It doesn’t really matter. As long as I’m still in the same house with you lousy lot, I don’t really care who else shares it.” and with those wise words he tucks into a plate of macaroni cheese which appear miraculously before him.

“Oh bloody hell, this is too fucking good.”

They are a group of teenagers, both emotionally and physically scarred, who prevailed in the face of a madman, and who came out the other side of hell’s road. Harry feels that he is justified in having pride in that. A small island of easy camaraderie in a vast ocean of students, they dish out the food and enjoy the small luxury of friendship.

-------

As they approach their reassigned dormitories and common room, Harry observes the unfamiliar surroundings warily. It is situated in the opposite corridor of the one which leads to the greenhouses, and he has never once thought to walk down here. To be fair to him, he would not be alarmed to find out that this entire area has been fabricated using Wizard Space whilst the renovations are underway.

It’s a light and lofty corridor, and up ahead, there is a small archway which he assumes leads to their new rooms. Next to it, a sheet of paper floating with a suspended torch will dictate, he presumes, the rooming arrangements for their dorms. Whatever the outcome, he crosses his fingers in the hope that he and Ron will at least be bunked together. He digs his nails into his palms so deeply that it draws scant beads of blood. The intensity of anticipation treads on his chest, flattening the sense of calm he has managed to maintain for the majority of the evening. Fortuitously, as of yet he has coped with any invading flashbacks and memories quite well, but he is dreading the thought of going through the ordeal without his best friend, his rock, beside him. He gets the impression that he might permanently drift away into insanity if Ron isn’t there to ground him with his solid presence.

Bodies congregate the area surrounding the posted information, swarming and cramming each other in attempts to see it first. An elbows flies in his direction and almost jabs him in the eye; probably would have, had he not developed a Seeker's instinct from playing the position for six years straight.

He edges towards the sheet, noting the celebratory whoops and proclamations of disappointment from girls and boys alike, who have already read the list. Blaise Zabini marches past him, dark and striking features looking distinctly pissed off. Seamus and Dean cheer and embrace in a bear hug, appearing to have been roomed together.

“Harry, if I get Malfoy in my dorm, please make sure my funeral is dignified. And that everyone cries loads. I want to know that I'm missed when I'm watching from up there. Also, tell Hermione she cannot date my brothers.” says Ron earnestly. He gulps and pats Harry’s shoulder before inching forward with all the bravery one would expect to find in a Gryffindor. Unlike Harry, who knows he needs to move in order to find out his fate, but doesn't do anything to help accommodate this. Instead, he just stands frozen, like a deer in the headlights, rendered unable to spur his limbs into action. The idea that he could be sleeping, in close proximity, with complete strangers in the immediate future, as in tonight for Merlin’s sake, sends his mind into a wild hysteria.

Ron turns to him slowly, his body language signifying to Harry, before he even opens his mouth, that he has some unfortunate news to share. His ginger head is stooped low, his hands are furrowed in his pockets and his feet are pointing inwards. He is the picture of defeat.

“Look, mate” he says, a furrow between his brows, and he hesitantly hands Harry the sheet, “See for yourself.”

In a rush of impatience, Harry snatches it and it tears right down the middle, obscuring a large number of the names. Fingers mildly shaking, he tries to hold it together. The sense of foreboding is tearing up his insides, a million jagged shards which cut him like glass as he breathes.

Finally, it is just about legible and his hands are still enough to discern the scrawl of his name. He scans the paper frantically, eyes scouring the blotted ink letters, with feverish urgency. He just needs to know now. Someone, some idiot has blotched the nib of a quill, and a splodge of ink prevents him from being able to decipher the last name. Harry rubs at it and the black begins to fade under the heat of his thumb. Please be Ron. Please be Ron. Please be Ron.

It's not Ron.

Once comprehension strikes, he drops it to the floor in shock, letting it tumble from his loosened grasp. A numb feeling sets in his body.

It reads:

Harry Potter
Justin Finch-Fletchley
Anthony Goldstein
Draco Malfoy

Chapter Text

That evening, Harry stalls his inevitable entrance to the dormitories for as long as possible. He clings to the sofa’s armrest, a ludicrous fear haunting him that he will be dragged through by some miserable soul. His fingers clench around the aged fabric; he grips it as if he were a newborn lamb on the verge of being ripped from its mother. He feels weak and childish. Age eighteen and he is frightened of a bedroom. And the boy inside.

“It could be worse,” says Ron in a kind yet unhelpful manner, his eyebrows upturned and smiling at Harry weakly.

“No offence, Ron, but how could it be any fucking worse?” snaps Harry bitterly, feeling unreasonably resentful at his best friend. Ron had been roomed with Neville, Ernie and Zabini. Whilst Harry has some semblance of pity for Ron’s impending endurance of Zabini’s infamous vanity, he cannot help but secretly wish they could swap places. Fucking Malfoy. He’d rather take Zabini, with his smug arrogance and his twelve dozen mirrors, one hundred times over, than share his sleeping space with Malfoy. The boy might have been pardoned but his role in the death and destruction constantly rings in Harry's mind, no matter how much of a liking Witch Weekly takes to his dashing looks. Harry does not understand the appeal, personally, despite the fact that his hair looks like fresh snow, to quote their latest report.

Merlin. He’s going to die.

“I think he’s harmless at the moment. He seems very subdued. It’s curious.” adds Hermione thoughtfully and they all chance a fleeting glance in Malfoy’s direction.

It’s a modestly sized common room, much less grand than the glorious reds and sweeping tapestries of the Gryffindor counterpart, no matter how cosy it is. Harry presumes that this is due to the fact that, despite it now being law for all Hogwarts students to attend until the age of eighteen, many eighth years are absent, clearly not turning up. Unless they have decided to have a crack at beating Harry and Ron’s withstanding record for ‘latest pupils to the first night of school’.

Some are dead, like Crabbe. Some are imprisoned, like Goyle. Many just risked the Minister’s wrath and stayed home. Pavarti says that Lavender outright refused to come, stating “Azkaban, Hogwarts. What difference does it make, they’d both be prisons to me.”

Harry thinks she had the right idea; he imagines slapping his past self, the twat, for even considering coming to this cursed castle. Look where it has gotten him.

Lining the room are gleaming lights of an intricate fashion. Upon further inspection, Harry had discovered that they were each shaped like a magical creature. He has particularly taken a liking to the Hippogriff carven one- golden, proud legs struck out in a confident pose. It had squawked at him, a quiet and startling noise, for Harry still often forgets the reality of magic. Some objects should remain unsentient, he feels. Although, he cannot deny that the gentle caws of the Hippogriff, so similar to those of Buckbeak, alleviated some of his numbness after he had first stumbled into the common room, minutes after the fateful news. He had sat in a cushy armchair, stroking it’s sculpted metal wings as it stomped around his lap.

Mcgonagall has seemingly managed to avoid accusations of any possible house favouritism; there are no suggestions of Gryffindor Scarlet or Slytherin Emerald- the names interior designers have donned the shades, so commonly requested, by house-proud fools. The room is composed primarily from wood, with peachy yellow walls and mahogany furniture. Dotted around are numerous plants, both big and small in size, stretching out to meet each other and making the room feel like the inside of a tree. It’s charming, he thinks grudgingly. He is a little happy that he does not have to endure the inane colours of his previous house. It has been said that red can send you insane, he had watched a stout reporter say so on some Muggle documentary, and his brain does not need any more encouragement.

Malfoy is sat delicately over a table in the corner of the room. He is writing something onto a piece of parchment, elegant quill, which manages to maintain the same haughty nature as its owner, perched high in the air. Harry reflects that he is not sure whether he has even heard the man say one word as of yet. Good. The more posh drawling he hears, the quicker his life span dwindles.

Sauntering over, Zabini seems to say something which agitates him and his face distorts into an irritated expression. His lips curl and Zabini rolls his eyes, turning to walk back in Harry’s direction. They make eye contact. Zabini’s dark stare, sweeping cheekbones and robes which sweep behind him in a manner that suggests their expense, leave Harry fidgeting. What is strange is that Harry’s feeble gaze seems to have a similar effect on the other boy. He frowns and hurries away, tripping ever so slightly. Nobody else appears to have noticed but Harry feels bizarrely perturbed at seeing the Zabini facade slip. He has to remind himself: never see your enemies as human lest you forget the reason they are your enemy. Harry has no fucking clue where he heard that but it seems appropriate in this moment.

In the background, Harry catches a glimpse of Malfoy looking over at them. His head whips back to his paper before he notices Harry’s wandering eyes, however. Fleetingly, he wonders whether Malfoy is writing a plan on how to bring about Harry’s demise. He will probably wrap it up nicely with a silk ribbon and sneak it to Malfoy Senior in his cell at Azkaban, for his evil, scheming approval.

“Who is in your dorm then, ‘Mione?” Harry asks, trying to bring his attention to more important matters than his upcoming death.

“Pansy Parkinson,” she grumbles unhappily, but then brightens a fraction, “Padma, and Susan. I’m actually rather excited to be with those two. Susan is lovely and Padma has incredibly interesting theories on Runes in the Age of Alexandria the Forlorn which I cannot wait to hear.”

“I think that you being in a room with her is gonna encourage your Ravenclaw side, ‘Mione, and I’m bloody terrified.” teases Ron from beside her on the floor’s cushions. A fire crackles behind them and for a second, Harry could mistake it for being third year, the three of them discussing the mundane normalities of their homework and school life by the Gryffindor fireplace, Ron still deep in his awkward crush phase on Hermione. The one that lasted until earlier this year, curse them both.

“Oh stop it, you,” she elbows his side, “You should really listen some time, both of you. It’s awfully fascinating and it could do you both some good to enrich yourselves with knowledge outside of schoolwork. If only you knew how to pick up a book.”

She smirks jokingly and Harry thinks that she has become more confident in herself since the war. To be candid, he is delighted to see it. He has been concerned that the memories of Malfoy Manor, paired with the suffering of her parents who still struggle to remember their beloved daughter with real clarity, would be too much for Hermione to handle. On a good day, they don’t flinch from her touch; they allow her to tenderly repeat her name and sometimes, if they are lucky, they will have moments of recognition. Harry has seen it himself and it broke his heart into splinters. Though, clearly, she can handle it. He should have never doubted her.

Malfoy’s presence in the room suddenly seems to throw him back into a dark and shrouded place, where Bellatrix Lestrange tortured his best friend as she cackled wildly, a slave to insanity. Where he had lost his dear companion, Dobby. Anger and loss whip inside of him like a brewing storm.

“Alright, alright, ‘Mione,” says Ron lightheartedly, which juxtaposes Harry’s own mood in stark contrast, “Give a man a second to get settled again.”

“You get tonight at a push.” and she nuzzles into the crook of his arm, wound around her. Seeing their love for each other loosens the knot inside of Harry a little, but an ache of loneliness chimes up in replacement.

“Ugh,” Ron groans, “You torture me, you do. As if I won’t get enough of that with Zabini.” Then he appears to form a joke inside his head as he sniggers, “Hey, we each have our own personal Slytherin sleeping-buddy. Fun”

“Oh yeah, very. Can’t wait.” Harry says sarcastically, “My favourite part is when they string our guts up to dry. I think my intestines will look just great around Malfoy’s bed.”

“Don’t be ridiculous” Hermione scolds, although her lips wobble amusedly, “However, I won’t lie. I’m not particularly thrilled to be with Pansy. The look she gave me when we found out who we were being roomed with was almost feral. Still, we’ll see.”

“At least if I die, it will be to Zabini’s fairly nice pout. Harry gets Malfoy’s pointy bloody chin and ‘Mione, you get Pansy’s delightful pug face. Lucky me, I say,” and at that, Ron toasts his butterbeer, “To death by Slytherins.”

“To death by Slytherins!” Harry and Hermione repeat, clinking their own bottles against each other. It rings out loud in the common room, which has emptied out as the fire has died down, taking the light with them. Harry notices that Malfoy has disappeared. Theodore Nott glowers at them so hard that he looks as if he might break into two, and the three of them burst into laughter. Let him tell the rest of the snakes what they had drunk to, as if it will come as a surprise that they are full of hatred. It does tend to happen when you are on different sides of an all-consuming war.

Harry begins to think that Mcgonagall’s proposal of inter-house unity might be a load of shit. You cannot raise sheep on sole interaction with each other, and then lock them in a cage with the bulls. It is blind optimism to think they will remain unscathed at the other end. Perhaps had they been reared together, it would be different.

The Hippogriff growls in agreement from above him, shining in the flickering warm embers of the dampened fire.

--------

Harry takes his time preparing for bed. He shuffles around in the bathroom after shrugging on his newest jumper from Molly. The wool is somewhat itchy but he likes the way it warms his skin. Even agitation and the rash he feels forming are preferable to the detached state that had plagued him earlier that day, causing his body to lock and freeze. It reminds him of the lonesome months in Grimmauld place which he is trying so desperately hard to move on from, where he was incapable of understanding the needs of his mind and body. Letting himself decay.

He brushes his teeth and even manages to wash and cleanse his face, thank whatever God is blessing him with productivity on this chilly September night. Maybe it is just the adrenaline of being back. He hopes not, for this would mean impermanence.

Wizards don’t use bathrooms often, he has noticed, and it rattles him. Ron says that he actively showers about once a month, and uses cleaning charms on every other occasion. Whilst Harry understands the level of practicality, he cannot help but feel disgusted. Call him old-fashioned, call him a Muggle, but Harry would like to stick to a good ol’ plumping system, thank you very much. Cleaning charms always leave him feeling a little too squeaky; he is a fan of the insignificant, little facts of life, like allowing your hair to be dried naturally, or clipping your toenails just that slightest bit too jaggedly. These things are small, but usually manageable for him to comprehend. Which means a lot.

For a while, he sits cross legged on the cool tiles in the toilet. There is a crack running up the side of the wall and he traces it with his finger slowly, until there is no more to trace. It seems that Harry is in the habit of putting off the things that he doesn’t want to deal with, but as Hermione always says, procrastination is the temptation that we must resist. So he drags himself to the bedroom.

As he pushes the door open carefully, he notices two things. Firstly, that the layout of the room is unfamiliar, with the beds in rows of two, both rows facing each other from either side of the room. It feels empty in here, the pathway of moonlight highlighting the room’s lack of use, punching its way down the middle of the dark, bare floorboards. Secondly, that Malfoy is sitting up in his bed, opposite what Harry can see is his own.

He looks odd in his pyjamas. Harry has almost been expecting him to wear his robes to bed, with the stuffy manner he has been exuding all day. As anticipated, the nightshirt and trousers are silken and matching, very unlike Harry’s own handmade, lumpy jumper and tartan pyjama bottoms. What an idiot. Both of them. His prominent collarbones are distinct in the blue light of the moon, as are his cheekbones. It’s eerie, Harry thinks, how similar he looks to the Malfoy of the war, sickly and skinny, yet simultaneously so different, with his childlike bedclothes and bony feet sticking out of the duvet.

Frankly, Harry feels immensely uncomfortable. How does one react to seeing their former enemy, whom you and your friends on many occasions were almost murdered by, who bullied you for years, was on the opposing side of the war, yet, at the same time, was someone you couldn’t bear to see dead? It’s a complex and loaded question. Let alone one to tackle in such an intimate situation, as they are currently. Harry never wished to know what kind of pyjamas Malfoy prefers to sleep in. Maybe Ron can obliviate him in the morning.

“Hey.” He says, like a clown, in a moment of panic. May as well be civil. It is better than the alternative, and maybe Mcgonagall will be pleased enough to let him switch dorms.

Malfoy just looks him up and down in assessment, seemingly unimpressed, before rolling his grey eyes and turning over. Harry stands dumbfounded at this rejection until it appears Malfoy has fallen asleep, breathing quiet but repetitive fucking sounds that make Harry want to throw him in the Black Lake. He’d fit in there. The Merfolk are an ugly bunch too.

Fine. He won’t play nice, happy Hogwarts then.

He yanks his curtains shut in frustration, but trips over himself when he gets his feet stuck in the trailing fabric. As he lands on his arse, he hears Justin snickering next to him. He flips off the Hufflepuff and climbs onto his crisp and icy sheets, missing the undemanding company of his friends. Alone, he succumbs to the terrors of the night and the wind howls like packs of wolves outside. Malfoy's soft snores fill the barren room.

------------

When Harry awakes, he thinks that the total amount of sleep he received last night would probably amount to no more than an hour. At one point, he had gone to try and rest in the warmer lights of the bathroom as a means to escape the roaring wind, which reminded him so strongly of those long, stretched out days camping with Ron and Hermione. He had grasped his head in his hands, curled on the floor of the shower stall and recalling the sense of hopelessness that had hounded him in those relentless weeks. It doesn’t help to ease Harry’s isolation when he remembers the way that he and Ron had grossly despised each other in those moments of fury and despair, and how Hermione had privately wanted to follow him, away from Harry.

He finds it strange that back in Hogwarts, he is finding it easier to block out the memories of the battle itself. Rather, he is tantalised by nightmares, both in sleep and consciousness, of the run, the fleeing, the year prior where everything was bleak and wreaked with dread. He supposes perhaps it is because Hogwarts feels changed. Maybe Mcgonagall’s reforms were a helpful idea, after all.

Malfoy has left already, despite it being only around seven AM on a Saturday. Harry wonders whether he is a morning person, or whether he had just made it his business to be gone by the time Harry awoke. The latter would not shock him after their awkward interaction the night before. He had concluded at some point in his fits of fear that it would be simpler to return to their disdain for each other, than any model of civility.

“Hey, Harry,” smiles Justin from beside him, rubbing his eyes, “Sleep well?”

“Yeah great thanks, you?” Harry lies and produces a weak smile. Justin appears a little frightened, so he thinks it most likely did not have the desired effect of reassurance.

“Alright, yeah. Tough luck about Malfoy, what a ponce. Tony is alright though. I think he’s left already. An early bird, that one.”

Harry admits to not really knowing Anthony Goldstein and he and Justin converse easily and agreeably, snug in their billowing dens of linen. He had not expected it, remembering the snobby, upper-class boy of their youth. Now, it’s pleasant. It lights a glimmer of hope for the year he had thought would be filled with secluded nights, surrounded by people he doesn’t know, and doesn’t care to. Maybe he has found a companion here. He and Justin have spoken before, but only briefly, save that whole Parseltongue fiasco from second year. Harry notes absently that Justin is quite attractive when he smiles, all auburn curls and pearly teeth.

Justin pulls a device out of his bedside table drawer, and Harry recognises it as a Muggle smartphone, which Justin informs him has been adapted for Magical use. Ashamedly, he is absolutely clueless on how to use it and Justin attempts at giving him a trial. Harry quickly gets the hang of it and he entertains the mental image of Ron and his thick thumbs trying to press down the fiddly keys. Excitedly, he thinks of the number that Erin had given him whilst in Hyde Park and he resolves to stir up that famous Gryffindor courage in order to ask Justin if he might be able to contact her. Her sparkling eyes and freckles, lightly splattered like paint on an artist’s apron, had ignited a peace inside of him that he had not thought possible any longer.

“Right, I’m off to breakfast. Meeting Hannah and Neville, I think,” grins Justin, “wish me luck in being the third-wheel.” he departs, putting on his tie hurriedly and both he and Harry are stunned by it’s sudden alterations. Instead of being striped in the individual house colours, their ties are now transformed into a light orange, with a brown bear in the centre of the Hogwarts crest. It looks out of place, surreal, and something flips in Harry’s stomach at the solidity of his house being abandoned.

At ten AM, Harry is alone in the dorm and he trudges out of bed. He is walking to the toilet when he identifies a strange object at the foot of Malfoy’s bed. Suspicious- this habit never truly goes away- he goes to examine it.

Upon observation, he snorts, unable to contain his laughter. Malfoy has a soft toy. A dragon. It’s small, perhaps he thought nobody would have seen it, but it’s emerald scales have betrayed it’s master in their vibrancy. Under his amusement, he is relatively perplexed. Why the fuck does Malfoy of all people, the heartless dickhead that he is, sleep with a cuddly toy?

He places it back onto the sheets meticulously, wanting Malfoy to pick up on it's deliberate arrangement when he returns. A sick and shameful part of him is thrilled at the argument that he knows they will have once Malfoy realises his careless mistake. He has always been able to rely on the twat for a brawl when he needs one most. And it is now, more than ever, that Harry desires these constants- even if it ends with him with a black eye, no matter how fucked up that makes him. It will only truly feel like Hogwarts again once he and Malfoy settle back into their rivalry.

He straightens out the toy, ignoring the fact that it really is quite sweet, and that he would not mind one himself. Malfoy has a plush dragon- complete with comically large cartoonish eyes and a spiky tail. He cannot believe it. Wonders truly never cease.

Chapter Text

After his discovery of Malfoy’s stuffed pet, Harry had had no clue what to do with the rest of his day. He had waited for Malfoy to show up, anticipating a reaction that would have fueled Harry’s sudden hunger for a fight. Alas, the bastard was frustratingly absent from both the common room and the dormitory the entire day, and this left Harry feeling lost and a little disappointed. He was overwhelmingly bored, and concerned that if he stayed still for too long he may begin to deteriorate. So far the unfamiliarity of his sleeping quarters had both managed to unsettle him, in their strangeness, and comfort him, as he has no traumatic memories associated with them. Harry had been festering in his bed for a while, glaring at the plush dragon perched opposite him on Malfoy’s perfectly folded sheets, when the general sense of tediousness which hung around the room made the decision for him that he needed to leave. So he had exited the dorms, with no goal in mind other than keeping his mind at bay.

Now on his wander around the castle, he gazes wistfully upon the first years buzzing from corridor to corridor. They seem to share a hive mind, swarms of young bees congregating in groups only; no child appears left behind. It’s heartwarming, all things considered. However, whilst they still retain that limitless energy that only eleven year olds seem to have the power to muster up, they do appear more subdued than normal, somehow. A sandy haired, thin girl hurries past him and he wonders whether she was the sister of the boy whom Harry had seen die, their eyes locked as he fell. A silly thought, but they shared the same hair colour at least, so it could have been possible. His heart clenches painfully as she smiles at him on her way.

As he walks down the steps from the entrance hall, a huddle of girls are crowded around their friend, whose shaking shoulders give the impression that she is sobbing deeply. He witnesses a brief moment of lunacy from himself in which he wants to ask them why she is crying- some perverse side of him needing others to be sharing his pain. It would make him feel less alone though it is a horrible idea, really. But then he notices one particularly sharp looking girl, dressed in a Ravenclaw tie, glaring daggers at a boy who is sheepishly smiling back from across the courtyard. The strength of her glower still manages to wither Harry’s insides, despite the fact that he isn’t even the poor lad on the receiving end. In the midst of a deep sob, the crying girl looks up to flip the boy off.

Ah. Relationship drama, perhaps? Not every tear is a result of deep war trauma, Harry, he reminds himself. Most people have normal struggles, with normal lives and normal levels of misery. As opposed to the crippling anguish that causes his body and mind to collapse on an almost daily basis- that is. It is strangely humbling to put into perspective how ridiculous he is.

Dragging him out of his stupor, a finger prods his back lightly and he whips around to see a curious face shining up at him. Before him is a first year Hufflepuff boy, with a face peppered in moles, and sporting inquisitive blue eyes which are currently staring up at Harry unnervingly.

“Is it true that you actually died and came back to life?” he asks, humming with eagerness.

His round cheeks, flushed with innocence, have clearly not yet seen the fumbling first use of a razor. Harry cannot believe that a child this bloody young can be so desensitised to the question, as if it is an everyday occurrence and not some freakish defiance of nature which still keeps Harry up at night.

“Uh-” he falters, scrambling for the appropriate answer and not finding it, “Kind of? I don’t know.”

How is he supposed to know how to respond to that? For starters, he barely understands the answer himself. And secondly, he would really rather jump off the Astronomy tower than be here, discussing the complexities of his encounter with Death, with an eleven year old boy whom he has never met before. He looks perplexed and dissatisfied at Harry’s half answer and the expectation of a follow-up is weighing, so Harry inches away, towards the bottom of the steps. Today is not the day to ponder about whether he should be alive or not. What ifs are dangerous, he has learnt. He thinks it certainly feels like the right time to avert an existential crisis.

Moving through the courtyard, he waves awkwardly at the numerous people who greet him. He feels awful about it, but he swears that he has never met at least two thirds of them. Indeed, Neville, Justin and Hannah are sharing a late lunch on an old and crumbling stone bench. Justin signals for him to come over, seemingly desiring to be saved from third-wheeling. Well, never let it be said that Harry doesn’t live up to his title. Saviour, he snorts. What a load of shit. Unwillingly, he goes to join them.

“Hey, guys,” he says flatly, wishing he had more to contribute to the group other than his sombre demeanour. He hopes that if he is fated to woe, he is at least giving off a brooding and mysterious aura- like that of Malfoy, his brain pipes up unhelpfully. Ginny had once told him that his thick and straight eyebrows just made him look perpetually angry.

“Hey, Harry,” cheeps Neville joyfully as Justin nods to him with smiling crinkled eyes, a sandwich in his mouth. Hannah greets him with a warm expression and gestures for him to sit down next to her. He does so uncomfortably, but Hannah doesn’t seem to mind and just shuffles up to make more room for him. She has the kind of quiet and trustworthy smile that dispels all of your tension, fading all the aches and pressures- until you are just left with a tender happiness fluttering around your body. Her button nose wiggles and she clasps his knee quickly, addressing his arrival; he thinks contentedly that she is perfect in every way for Neville.

It is a sunny day- unexpectedly so after the cruel storm of last night. Basking in the rays, like a flower after a long spell of rain, Harry contemplates the idea of running away to a hot country and setting up residence in the countryside there. He could spend all his days like this- warming the cold inside of him, and learning to unthaw his muscles from their broken state. He imagines a stream trickling through a wide garden, whose unending trees and tweeting birds are privy to his eyes only. Perhaps he would take up gardening, or something else physical in nature that could keep his mind at rest. The appeal of it almost has him running to the nearest Floo, and Harry has to restrain himself from rushing off with great difficulty. Logically, he knows that denying the orders of both Mcgonagall and Kingsley would spell out his death sentence in big, bold, underlined letters. His stay at Hogwarts must be endured, however depressed that may make him feel.

Still, he holds the dream in the back of his mind, wondering whether perhaps Erin could stand to accompany him, if he ever manages to see her again. Under no circumstances would he wish for Hermione and Ron to join him- they would be a nightmare, he knows, with their sickeningly googly eyes and roaming hands. He had never wanted to know less about their sex life than he did when Ron had drunkenly informed him, in excruciating detail, of their first time together. It had been so dreadful that Harry had almost managed to forget every other terrifying thing that had ever happened to him, in light of the horror he felt in the face of Ron’s enthusiastic story. He had told Ron sternly that he never wanted to hear of Hermione’s genitals ever again in his life. Death would be too soon, in his opinion. It was positively mortifying for them both, as Ron had proven in the way his cheeks blazed bright red the next morning.

Shaking off the chilling thought, he tries to tune into the conversation between Justin, Hannah and Neville.

“My Father wasn’t happy, obviously, and that is a gross understatement. He kicked me out. Mother was upset too but I could tell she didn’t agree with his decision,” says Justin morosely, in that slightly snooty way which only exists in those with wealthy upbringings. Like Malfoy. Harry laughs under his breath darkly when he realises how aghast Malfoy would be to have something in common with a Muggleborn. He wonders whether they have anything else in common, like an adoration for soft toys.

“Oh, Justin. I’m so sorry,” says Hannah comfortingly, “You can come and stay with me or Neville during the holidays if you want somewhere to stay other than the castle.”

Harry feels like he has missed an important chunk of the conversation.

“No, it’s OK. Thank you though for offering,” says Justin, “I’m probably staying with Elliot, if his parents can stand to be around me after what they said. He thinks they’re embarrassed,” he rearranges his robes and adds, “As they should be.”

“What do you mean? What did they say?” asks Neville. During the course of the discussion, Harry’s mind desperately tries to fill in the missing gaps. He tries, and fails.

“Yeah, uh, he says that they said that we are an abomination of nature, and that they wish that I had never come into their lives,” he trails off dishearteningly and both Neville and Hannah audibly gasp at this. Widened eyes, Justin hurriedly says, “They’re kind people, really. I think they’re just scared for him because they live in such a conservative town. It isn’t really safe for people like us.”

“Still though, that’s tough, Justin. I’m sorry. I thought Muggles were generally quite accepting of you lot.” says Neville.

“They are on the whole. More than wizards, but his family are strict Christians. And mine are just full of arseholes,” and then, they all share a sympathetic laugh. Except Harry, who just sits there like an idiot, not quite understanding the full picture but feeling like he should be. Justin has been evicted from his house, but why? And what has he done to earn the disdain of his friend’s family? Sometimes Harry feels so stupid it almost makes him crawl under his bed in shame.

Neville huffs, “Religion. Merlin, it’s so confusing to me. Wizards don’t have gods in the same way. I suppose when all miracles can just be explained by magic, it sorta takes the mystery out of it. Still, that’s a Pureblood thing, I guess. Lots of Half-bloods and Muggleborns are religious, so maybe the practise might get adopted.”

Suddenly, Harry can’t take it anymore. His mind has been so mind-numbingly bored for so many months that he feels as if he is going into overdrive with expectation and information. “Sorry, what happened, Justin?” Harry inquires, feeling incredibly embarrassed in spite of their considerate and friendly faces, “You’ve been kicked out? How come?”

Justin startles and then laughs, face scrunched in amusement. He must see Harry’s face fall because he rushes to justify himself, still chuckling. “Oh no, Harry, don't worry, I’m not laughing at you. It’s just because I noticed you looking really confused a couple of minutes ago and I’ve just been waiting. Sorry if that makes me cruel,” and the twinkle of humour in his eyes settles Harry’s anxiety.

“Twat,” he laughs, a little stilted, “Are you going to tell me then, or shall I just die of old age first?”

“OK, OK, damn, give a man a second,” Justin responds, “Basically, my parents have disowned me because they found out that I’m, uh, gay.”

Upon hearing this, Harry feels a little taken aback and in him, arises an unwanted need to squirm away that he doesn’t quite understand. Not from Justin, however. But from- well...to be honest, he isn’t quite sure…the memories it lays bare?

Of course, he is aware of the concept of sexuality and he knows, has seen, that there are people out there who identify as Justin does. The knowledge has always resided in the back of his mind, smothered by Harry’s aversion to thinking about it. But he is immediately and unwillingly thrown back to his childhood- days which blurred together, hiding in the gloom of his cupboard, and overhearing Uncle Vernon curse the gay couple who had just moved in down the street.

“They’re a plague on this neighbourhood, Petunia,” he had blustered, pink neck looking as if it was about to burst. Peering through the grate in his cupboard door, he had watched as Aunt Petunia sympathetically agreed, rubbing his back in solidarity. Harry hadn’t understood his rage at all. On the days where he was forced to do work in the front garden, he often saw the pair, hand in hand, walking along the pavement. They looked head over heels in love with each other and, every few minutes, would lean in for a soft and intimate kiss. Harry had thought that Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia could learn a lesson from this affectionate and seemingly harmless relationship. Their marriage consisted of bullying Harry and spoiling Dudley, and that was about it.

Alas, Vernon’s insults prevailed and Harry had grown confused, and even a little scared, at the way that they made his stomach turn. Once, as he was on route to visit Mrs Figg, he had encountered a boy, a few years above Harry at his school, shirtless and lifting some boxes on his front lawn. He had just moved in, and it was a sweltering hot day. Harry’s heart had sped up in time with the bead of sweat that was dripping down the boy’s forehead. Conflict and fear had risen inside him, and he had sprinted off just as the boy had been about to greet him. Harry had vowed to never walk on that side of the road again and learnt, in obedience to his inner voice, which mocked him in a tone that sounded eerily like Uncle Vernon, the art of suppressing desire. The day that he first wanked over a girl, he had been hit by relief like a smack of fresh air- I’m not gay. He refuses to remember the instances in which a flash of broad pecs, or an angular jawline, would creep into his fantasies as well.

A little panicked, for reasons he doesn’t care to dwell on, but realising his silence is deafening after Justin’s admission, Harry speaks up. He furiously thinks of Uncle Vernon’s prejudice, and curses himself for entertaining the hateful comments that had tainted his mind like a paralysing disease as a child. “That’s horrible, I’m so sorry. Is Elliot your boyfriend then?” and the word boyfriend hangs heavy in his mouth.

Justin sighs, clearly relieved at Harry’s acceptance, and he feels guilty at his initial reaction. It is the cherry on top of the cake that the rock in his stomach plummets a little harder at Justin’s admittedly attractive smile.

“Yeah, he is. We’ve been friends ever since I was small but over summer we started darting.”

“Does he know that you’re a wizard?” Harry asks.

“Yeah I told him last month, once I found out I was coming back to Hogwarts. I put it off as long as possible but he wasn’t taking any more rubbish excuses.”

“That must’ve been a pleasant conversation. How did he take it?” says Neville.

“He didn’t. He ran away and when I finally found him, he refused to talk to me,” admits Justin with affection in his eyes that Harry doesn't understand, “After a while, he came to his senses and just had one request: that I make him fly.”

“And did you?”

“Yeah,” Justin grins, “And then I made him fall on his arse. Unfortunately, I made a bit of a misjudgement. Do you want to see where he landed on me? I have a fucking bruise!” and he lifts his robe to show the three of them.

Neville swats at him, laughing and teasing, “Put it away, Justin! I’m not into you like that!” and the sun beams brightly on them all, as Justin jokingly gestures as if to unzip his trousers which elicits screams and yelps from Hannah and Neville. Harry just smiles and tries to ignore that he actually would very much like it if Justin could unzip his trousers. Vernon screams, hurling violent offences at him in a wild frenzy of both memories, and imagination. Behind his fake laughter, as Justin’s plonks himself in Neville’s lap, chuckling gleefully all the way, Harry's mind crumples into a wasteland of shameful anguish.

-------

At dinner that evening, Harry feels a vast stretch of distance between himself and the people around him. Their words and conversation all merge into one hum, which rings in his ears and grates at his skin, almost itchy in the sense that Harry has the inexplicable and demanding urge to scratch at his whole body. The only definitive syllables he can discern are those of Uncle Vernon. They pound at his head the entire meal; after a while, he acknowledges, without feeling, that he has dropped his spoon in his soup. He feels, but doesn’t see, Hermione’s watchful eyes. A prickling sensation alerts him that she is looking at him, and that he should probably act normal, and fucking eat his fucking dinner like a happy and functioning person- but he can’t bring himself to care.

He thought that the worst of his memories came from the battle. He thought that nothing could top the bleak recognition he had felt in the face of his death- he had stood there, alone, in the Forbidden Forest, eyes still seeing the chaos and gore from the fight, ears still hearing the screams of torment. But yet again, his mind has managed to surprise him. He’s grateful, truly.

It is only when Malfoy slides in, late again, with such an undeniably magnetic presence, that Harry is pulled out his trance. After waiting for so long in the dorm room and subconsciously looking for him all day amongst the castle grounds, Harry doesn’t really want an argument anymore. The anger and restlessness in him that he had this morning has fizzled out into a more familiar feeling of melancholy and dull aching.

He’s so different now, Harry notes. Before the war and throughout their school years, he had walked with such confidence. Even in sixth year, a lot of the time he had swaggered about, obviously feeling a sense of self-importance, however terrified he also was. But the current Malfoy, the one who is clearly feeling the impact of the war, much to Harry’s indignation-why does he get to feel upset by it?- seems quiet and unassuming, even if he is still a pompous twat. His lean frame shuffles onto the end of the eighth year bench and Harry can just about see him reach out for a bread roll from where he is in the middle. The people around Malfoy lean away as he nibbles the roll, and Harry cannot make sense of the small flare of anger that sparks up at that.

He remembers Malfoy’s dragon and a little life gets breathed back into him again as he huffs a laugh. Watching Malfoy in his peripheral vision, he collects his soup-soaked spoon from the bowl and begins to eat. Hermione seems satisfied, if the loss of her gaze is any indication. The meal is enjoyable, but Harry’s mind cannot settle, for it is suddenly rampant with curiosity for the boy that has become a stranger.

-------

It’s only the second night back at Hogwarts, Harry contemplates, but it feels like he has been here for years already. Preparing for bed is a little easier tonight, now that he has befriended Justin. They brush their teeth together in the bathroom, Justin admitting that he also prefers the Muggle way due to his heritage. There is an unsual moment when Justin compliments Harry's hair, leaving him flushing scarlet. “I’ve always thought that it looks quite artfully messy,” he says, looking at Harry with a sparkle in his eyes. The effect is ruined when Harry hears Malfoy snort at the comment as if it were the most ridiculous thing he has ever heard, walking past them to get something out of the cupboard.

“Shut up, Malfoy.” Harry can’t help but say, through gritted teeth. He feels weirdly embarrassed, like he has been caught doing something he shouldn’t be.

Malfoy just flutters his pale eyelashes mockingly, and Harry feels affronted by this weird, weird situation, before ditching the false pretence and rolling his eyes in gross exaggeration. The pale and cool bathroom lights wash out what little colour he has, and he appears more ghostly than ever. As he leaves the room, shadows flit across his high cheekbones and jaw, illuminating the sharp angles of his face and he looks bizarrely ethereal. Harry frowns, because he could have sworn that usually the bathroom has warm, yellow lighting. He must be mistaken, because the bathroom simply cannot be giving Malfoy his own, complimentary setting. It’s unfair, and a clear demonstration of treachery from the castle- to make Harry have abhorrent thoughts about Malfoy and his fucking bone structure. Unbelievable.

Justin guffaws when the lights switch back to their dingy, normal colour upon his exit. Harry sighs and brushes his teeth even more vigorously.

Eventually, just to make this spectacular night even better, Justin betrays Harry in leaving him alone with Malfoy. He utters some excuse about needing to owl Elliot, but it’s all just words to Harry. As far as he is concerned, there has been some mighty treason committed this evening.

It’s deathly silent apart from the noise of Malfoy turning the pages of his book. Harry had somehow never imagined that Malfoy would do anything as humane as read for pleasure. This whole experience is remarkably unnerving and he wishes with great fervour that he could go back to a simpler time. One where he is blissfully unaware of the length of Malfoy’s skincare routine- it’s ungodly long, Harry will confide- and of the fact that he likes to read before bed. Earlier, Harry had been deathly disappointed to find that the dragon was not where he had left it- perched, blatantly obvious and green, in the expanse of Malfoy's bed. Whilst not knowing definitively, he can doubtlessly assume that Malfoy had arrived back in the common room at some point in the day, hidden it, and is now hoping desperately that nobody has noticed. As if that was possible- the beast is sparkling emerald, for Merlin's sake.

Scanning his eyes for the toy, he sees nothing. He pretends to not be looking and has a crack at just casually laying in bed, until he gives up and makes a cough to grab Malfoy's attention. In the back of his mind, Cindy the spider scolds him for forgoing the decision that they had made together. I thought you weren't going to pay attention to him?, she says. It's a fair point but Harry chooses not to listen.

“So,” Harry says, unable to hold it in any longer. He ignores Malfoy’s glare, not giving a fuck whether he has interrupted a good part in the book, or whatever, “You’re the owner of a toy dragon? I didn’t think of you as the ‘pet’ type, you know.”

Malfoy doesn’t respond for a moment. Harry thinks he sees something akin to humiliation flicker in his eyes, but it disappears and he distorts his face into a scowl. It all seems a little practised to Harry. A bit too robotic. Putting his book down on the duvet, Malfoy narrows his eyes dramatically. He seems to assess the situation, and then answers in a manner so calm it completely shocks Harry.

“Potter, I have no clue what you’re talking about,” he says in that posh drawl of his, looking straight past Harry rather than in his eyes. Harry realises he hasn’t heard his voice up until now, and it ignites something inside of him. What that is, Harry has no clue. It sounds a little lower than he remembers, not so whiny. Still just as infuriating.

“What? Don’t bullshit, Malfoy! I saw it earlier!” Harry proclaims, frustrated. It’s not like he even particularly feels like fighting with Malfoy anymore, but the idea that he can be dismissed so easily doesn’t sit well with him.

“Really? Hmm,” says Malfoy, “Perhaps you’re going mad, Potter,” and he raises an arched eyebrow. Whether this is an invitation for a challenge, Harry isn’t sure, but he takes it as one anyway.

“I’m not!” But as he says it, the light in the bathroom flickers madly, before turning off. The slight smell of burning that wafts through the door really doesn’t help prove his point.

“No, I suppose not. After all, unstable magic does indicate one’s sanity.” And since when had he become so quick-witted? Where is the spoilt and hot-tempered boy of Harry’s school years? Harry knew how to handle him. He feels at a loss with this boy, all blank eyes and flat voice, in front of him.

“It’s not usually unstable,” mumbles Harry, confused at the direction that this conversation has gone in, and he grasps at an opportunity to gain back the upper-hand, “Only when I’m dealing with enormous tossers who still sleep with teddies at night.” He winces at his awful and ungraceful comeback.

Malfoy just snorts drily, “That’s nice, Potter. I wonder who that could be.”

“You, Malfoy. I saw it, all green and scaly, at the foot of your bed this morning. Looked really worn from cuddling.” Harry has completely made that up. In fact, the dragon looked almost brand new when he had picked it up earlier that day, but his insults are lacking and he feels like he is sorely losing whatever battle this has become.

“Whatever you say,” he finally looks at Harry, the cold and hard film over his gaze reminiscent of the trial, and that split second where he had turned to Harry amongst all the formalities. As he had then, now, Harry silently begs for him to break the eye contact- it’s too intense, too full of emotions that Harry cannot read. Thankfully, Malfoy grants his wish and he turns away, “I will be sleeping now, Potter.” And at that, he waves his wand, which Harry notices is different from the one he had owned throughout Hogwarts, and the curtains are spelled shut. For several beats, Harry just stares at the bed-frame, before aggressively pulling the duvet up around him and lying down, irked, on the sheets.

That night Malfoy doesn’t snore, and Harry suspects that they are as wide awake as each other.

Chapter Text

The first weekend of Hogwarts has passed. Now, Harry faces, with dread, the prospect of lessons. He had never envisaged being back in a classroom again- for learning purposes, that is.

Of course he will be expected to sit through Auror training like a good, obedient little Saviour. Privately, he is dreading the idea. It seems laughable that anyone could visualise him as an Auror, as Ron and Hermione especially so often do. Harry has gotten into the habit of just smiling and nodding along whenever the subject arises, willing the sick feeling he has at the thought of going back into the field to settle. He supposes it will probably be alright. Ron will stick with him, and they will be the crime-solving, villain-defeating, heroic duo that the rest of Wizarding society expects.

It’s Monday morning and he is currently trying to muster up enough courage to leave the confinements of his bed. Around him, rustles of activity as his roommates get ready alert him that he should wait a little longer to emerge. He doesn’t feel like sporting an uncomfortable half-smile, nor does he have the energy for small talk.

Sunday had been terribly awkward. There exists a weird tension between the four of them which makes Harry want to tear out his hair. He could probably spare some. Truly, he swears it grows quicker than everyone else’s, probably in some sort of lifelong rebellion against the memory of Petunia, with her sharp jabs and scissors. Whenever he takes a Diffindo to the hair, he seems to wake up with it twice the length it had been before the chop. It’s clearly living with its own trauma, which he can understand at least.

Goldstein flits in and out the dorm, cordial enough but not appearing to care for chatter. Sometimes Harry forgets that he even shares the room with him, as awful as that may seem, but the boy- man now, he guesses- has a habit of making himself scarce just as Harry has worked up the energy to make conversation. He doesn’t really mind- Goldstein owes him nothing, after all- and these days, he prefers to keep to his close friends anyway, lest he has a panic attack. Harry isn’t sure whether he could ever have been considered a social butterfly but he thinks, a little regretfully, that he had certainly been a great deal less closed off than he is now. Perhaps it’s his fault- perhaps Goldstein doesn’t feel welcomed.

Ugh. It’s no wonder. Not when Harry isn’t even making the minimal effort task of opening his curtains to bid them all a good morning.

He would skip Malfoy, of course, who has steadily ignored all of them, much to Harry’s frustration. His stoic face and poised expressions seem to deliberately miss Harry’s gaze, turning from him whenever there is any chance of interaction. The snubbing annoys Harry to no end. Yes, he had promised himself before coming that he would dismiss Malfoy, no matter how many taunts he would throw at Harry. And it isn’t that Harry isn’t pleased to see the need for such measures proved unnecessary. Candidly, he hasn’t the energy- but to not even warrant one single insult? Harry can practically feel the bruise on his ego. His plan was to go on as he always has, but apparently he cannot pretend that everything is normal, because in a sane world, Draco Malfoy wouldn’t act as if Harry doesn’t exist, or rather that he does, but as just some irritating bug on his shoulder. In a sane world, Harry would mean something to Malfoy- even if that something is rival, rather than bestest and most dearest friend.

However, he had been pleased to note that Malfoy’s shoulders had been as stiff as stone on Sunday evening, back snapped straight, and clearly listening as Harry and Justin recounted the names of the returning students. He had clearly been trying to appear disinterested, but the distance he has been trying to set between himself and the rest of the school had shattered at the mention of Zabini.

“He’s a tosser. I know he wasn’t technically on the Dark side during the war, but he may well have been. It’s obvious the only reason his family didn’t dedicate themselves completely is due to some political power play. I’m all for forgiveness but he’s so smug, as if he’s a saint. It gets on my nerves.” Justin had said, justifiably in Harry’s opinion, and Malfoy had frozen solid. Harry had moved to change the subject as subtly as possible, in order to avoid a fight. Whilst he may have been itching for a go with Malfoy the day prior, he wouldn’t wish such a pathetic brawl on Justin. Those pointy elbows do look as if they could poke an eye out.

At least from this instance he was able to deduct that Malfoy is, in fact, not a robot, as Harry had begun to mistake him for.

He is jerked back into reality as Malfoy leaves the room. As quiet as he is, he is easily identifiable from the clacking of his boots, probably Dragonhide, and probably preposterously expensive, the twat. Goldstein must follow, because somebody else’s footsteps echo after him.
Justin seems to wait a little on his bed, perhaps testing the waters to see whether Harry will join him. Harry can just about determine his faint figure through the material of his curtains, drawn up in a silhouette next to him. He knows he should get up. He won’t. Not today. Today is a bad day- he’s aware of it already. The ache in his brain, the freezing over of his mind, the way his limbs have gone soft- they are all indications. And he feels fatigued, despite the fact that he has only just awoken.

The return to Hogwarts was never going to be an easy ride, but he had hoped that his functioning streak would last longer than a weekend. Recovery isn’t linear, he has to remind himself again, but the memory of Hermione’s words fall upon deaf ears.

Recovery isn’t linear, yes, he knows, but it seems to have taken another form entirely. It’s not a curved arrow. It’s not a zig-zag, or a circle. It’s a full stop, an unbudging blot in the fragile paper of his life, and he’s stuck in the ink of it.

Justin sighs a little and leaves too, closing the door gently behind him and whispering as he does, “See you, Harry.”

----------

When he ultimately doesn’t show up for breakfast, Ron comes to the dorm to get him, with a levitated plate of food trailing behind him. It smells delectable, a true Hogwarts breakfast, but the scent makes Harry feel queasy.

“It’s ‘Mione’s orders, mate. I’m sorry,” Ron says apologetically.

Harry takes a moment to answer, allowing the lapse in his brain to dominate for a second, and then does no more than grunt and mutter “It’s alright. Not your fault.”

“So, are you, uh, coming to lesson?” Ron hesitates, allowing space for the answer that Harry never gives, “‘Mione, and me as well, think it’s probably a good idea- considering it’s the first one of the year, and all that. I don’t think Mcgonagall would be very happy if we missed it.” Harry appreciates the solidarity from Ron in the implication that he would, however grudgingly, miss the lesson with him should Harry wish it.

“Yeah, okay. I’ll get up in a second.”

Nothing happens.

“Harry?”

“Yes. OK.”

“I have toast, beans, eggs and bacon for you, they’re pretty good,” says Ron and Harry pointedly doesn’t mention that he more often than not cannot even manage to butter his own toast- so has it been buttered? Where is Kreacher when you need him? So many questions with pitiable answers.

“Thanks.” Harry scrunches his face tightly as the pounding headache grows.

Again, nothing happens.

“Mate?”

The cogs in his mind still only just processing the fact that he is being asked to get out of bed, Harry snaps, rather unfairly, “Yes alright, Ron! I get it. Can you just give me a second?”

Seeing the wounded look on Ron’s face, Harry rushes to apologise, awash in guilt. He is being a dick, he is painstakingly aware, and Ron is fulfilling his role as both best friend and boyfriend perfectly. It’s just a lot- all of it.

And so Harry forces himself up, grabbing some toast from the hovering plate, and just about makes it through the day.

-----------

As soon as lessons are over, Harry trudges back to the common room in as quick a hurry as his body permits. His whole being hurts, from the sole of his numb feet, to the top of his finger-scrunched hair. The lessons were gruelling, painful, and too many times he had zoned out in disassociation, only to freak out as someone's clothes brushed against him, or as a sudden noise shook him. Ron has headed out to play a game of Quidditch and Harry has never run to escape an invitation so speedily in his life. The engulfing fire which had eaten the posts and stalls like a raving beast flash in and out of his mind whenever he sees the pitch from a window. Up close, it would be even worse, he knows.

He startles upon his entrance to the common room, encountering a shocking sight. Dean and Seamus are heatedly making out on the sofa, entwined in each other’s grasp and clearly assuming that they are alone. Harry is confused. He thought that they were both straight. Up until recently, he had even thought that Ginny had been going out with Dean. All pointers say otherwise now, as Dean moves his hand up Seamus’ shirt and begins to lean over him, pinning him to the cushions. The room is silent other than the obscene noises of skin against skin, and lips against lips.

It is when Seamus moans, lightly but erotically enough that Harry begins to squirm, that he indicates his presence with a choked cough.

“Hey, guys. You, uh, having fun?” And he flinches at how awkward he sounds. Couldn’t he have just left them alone without saying anything? They seemed to be content enough to ignore his being- would have never known he was here. Stupid Harry.

Seamus looks up from under Dean, shuffles a little bit so that he is sitting straighter- but other than that, makes no apparent movements to remove himself from his entangled state. He grins, face flushed red and hair askew. Dean is surprisingly bashful, for the broad and masculine guy that he is, twisting his head away from Harry. His attempts at covering up his embarrassment are futile- Harry can see the heat rushing across his dark skin. Or perhaps that is just a result of his, uh, predicament. It looks rather comfortable from where Harry is standing.

“Hey, Harry! Care to join?” says Seamus cheekily, almost causing Harry’s body to go into some sort of cardiac arrest. Dean slaps him playfully on the chest in horror; Harry wishes he could get one in too, as revenge for the wobbly feeling that overcame him when Seamus opened his gob..

“Stop, Seamus!” Dean says, “Shut up, will you?”

“Of course. Sorry, dear,” and he mimes locking his lips with a theatrical flare, finishing the performance by pretending to throw the key away. The affection on Dean’s face as his smiles down at him is too much for Harry to bear; it reminds him of the doting couple that used to live down Privet Drive, the poor sods. It couldn’t have been much fun- what with the judgemental and intrusive collection of neighbours on the street. This is all very odd, he thinks.

“D-don’t let me stop you from your, uh, fun,” stutters Harry, repeating the same stupid sentiments as earlier. Seamus laughs but rapidly reenacts the lip-locking sequence when Dean looks daggers at him in warning. Couldn’t they just move to the dorm room? There is plenty of sweet, sweet privacy there, where upon their arrival, innocent eyes across the castle would be spared. Like Harry’s, for example.

“Hmm, yes, we could, but we like it out here, don’t we Dean? Pretty exciting? The risk of it all, all those innocent eyes just waiting to come in,” he waggles his eyebrows and Harry realises, with an internal smack to his forehead, that he has accidentally spoken his inner monologue aloud.

“Shut it, Seamus. You’re right, Harry, it’s just that our dorm seems to be plagued with a Slytherin meeting right now. Could be a cult thing, for all I know. All I know is that me and Seamus cannot be there right now. Dangerous stuff.”

Harry nods stiltedly, not really hearing what Dean is saying, and stumbles out of the room just as the pair break into giggles. It is in the nick of time, if the gasps and continued ruffles of clothing ringing down the corridor are any indication.

When he gets back to the dorm-room, Malfoy is perched on his bed, writing something on a piece of parchment. His long legs are crossed and boots kicked off, the picture of relaxation. And one that Harry doesn’t wish to see. Clearly, he has not been anticipating any visitors- he is slouched, the epitome of casual. As such, Harry feels like he has seen a tortoise without it’s shell. Malfoy’s don’t do casual, he is sure of it. Despite the fact that he, of course, got the impression, when he last visited their most cosy and not at all ostentatious home, that the family spend their spare time sitting around on plump cushions, dressed head to toe in their pyjamas, swapping fairy tales. The mounted elf heads had really helped him envisage the image. He cheers slightly at the image of Lucius Malfoy being forced to endure the Tales of Beedle the Bard.

Remembering something that Dean had said, Harry is curious- was Malfoy not invited to this Slytherin meeting in Dean and Seamus’ dorm room? The question gnaws at him but he knows better than to ask. He is quite fond of his head, thanks.

Once he notices Harry, Malfoy’s previously informal expression transforms rather magnificently into an stormy frown. Harry isn’t quite sure what he’s done, other than exist, but he supposes that could be enough to ignite Malfoy’s rage. Considering the usual aura of aloofness, Harry welcomes his fury like he is greeting an old friend. It is just his luck that it is as he thinks this that Malfoy’s countenance snaps back into the facade that Harry has come to know and hate.

Without as much as a simple hello, Malfoy sweeps out of the door, snapping up his paper and marching away. The abruptness of it all has Harry feeling like he has whiplash. Good luck meeting Seamus and Dean, he almost calls after him.

Something is wrong, and Harry isn’t sure what it is. After a few seconds, he realises that Malfoy’s walk doesn’t sound right, because he isn’t wearing those stupendous boots. In fact, the exact offenders are strewn in front of him, far more messily than Harry would have ever thought Malfoy would permit them to be. They are black leather, with a partial heel, and a dark green stripe lining the sole. Overly-fancy for school, Harry decides, as all his clothes are. Although, he won’t lie and say that his ratty and ancient trainers fare well against them. Still, he can allow their presence if it means that Malfoy is stomping around the castle in just his lavender socks. The idea causes Harry’s mood to lift a bit. It’s too good.

The fast-paced and hasty plod of Malfoy’s sock-ridden feet signals that he is returning. Harry just stands still, hands behind his back and smirking at the figure striding towards him. Despite an obvious attempt to appear unbothered, a blush creeps high on Malfoy’s cheeks as he comes into view, and it is this bodily betrayal that is revealing of his humiliation. His pale complexion is also extremely telling, letting every blemish and flush be blasted in full view. The juxtaposition of the increasingly darkening pink with his pallor is striking- and equally, hilarious. Biting his lip so as to not comment, Harry watches humorously as Malfoy brushes past him and tries to put on his shoes, still with a calm manner.

Unfortunately, the Fates seem to be working against him today and he seems to struggle to get one of the boots on. His skinny fingers yank at the back of the shoe, but to no avail. The red of his face spreads to his ears, and even they are pointed, like an elf, Harry thinks distractedly- what is in the Malfoy genes? His white shock of hair, worn longer than he used to, Harry notes, keeps falling in his face; as the minutes progress Malfoy pushes it back with ever increasing agitation.

Time ticks as slowly as the earth spins, and the sense of embarrassment grows too much for even Harry to handle, although he is finding the whole thing incredibly amusing, in a strange, what is the fuck is happening here kind of way.

Malfoy bites his lip a little as he pulls with more force. If Harry were daft, he would say that it looks as if one of the godforsaken things is actually shrinking with each attempt to force it onto his foot. Wait- actually, it really is. Quite visibly now. Harry almost wants to leave but the peculiarity of the sight before him holds him hostage where he stands. It strikes him as bizarre that Malfoy is letting this display of blatant failure happen in Harry’s presence, but he won’t complain- this is probably a once in a lifetime event. A free pass at seeing a degraded Malfoy.

He ignores the niggle in the back of his brain that tells him that he has actually witnessed that, and it was harrowing. The beaten down and weathered Malfoy from immediately after the war is not something that Harry wants to see again any time soon. Not for a while. Never, even. It was not nearly as satisfying as he had always dreamt it would be.

Malfoy seems to allow himself to clench his fingers a fraction- this is his emotional limit for the day, apparently- before just discarding the boot and stalking straight out of the room with only one on. His walk is tremendously lopsided, but he holds himself as straight as possible whilst he bobs up and down. In all fairness, Harry does think that he probably looks as dignified as one could be, considering the situation.

With one final swish of his robes, Malfoy disappears from view, turning the corner. However, the fading plod, clack, plod, clack of his steps still sounds away down the corridor. Harry listens until the noise falls silent, the ridiculousness of this little escapade bringing him copious amounts of glee.

Harry stakes out in the dorm room for a bit, not doing much of anything other than resolutely refusing to go back into the common room. He looks dazedly out of the windows to the right, noticing faintly that Professor Sprout is pottering about the greenhouses, with second years in hot pursuit. They are each handling a newborn Mandrake and the memory of their blood-curdling cries is still fresh in his head. He had been so young- they all were. The students he sees now, pointing and laughing at the ugly looking plants with wide and sparkling grins, look so small that Harry is sure that had never been him.

It has probably been at least an hour when Justin comes in, finding Harry still at the window, perched on the armrest of a lonesome chair. The sun is hanging low in the sky and a subdued wash of yellow is settling across the room, so it must be late in the afternoon. He has been glued to the spot, feeling unable to move or find it in himself to care.

“Hey, what are you doing over there?” says Justin brightly and Harry suspects that he is making an effort to be cheerful for Harry’s sake, thanks to his moody conduct from this morning. His heart warms at the thought.

“Hey,” he smiles and remembers something he has been meaning to ask, “Nothing much. Just watching Professor Sprout and the Mandrakes. Can I ask a favour?”

“Yeah?” replies Justin as he unties his shoes.

“You know your phone? Is there any chance that I could use it briefly. It’s just I met this Muggle and she gave me her phone number but I haven’t been able to contact her yet,” and he crosses his fingers that Justin says yes, “but it’s fine if not. Just wondering.”

He doesn’t know Erin, not even a little bit. It’s illogical and insane that he actually wants to contact her. In fact, their conversation probably lasted less than ten minutes in total. But it had been peaceful, and a comfort to know that he was in the presence of someone who hasn’t experienced the loaded baggage that every wizard in their current climate knows so well. She wouldn’t fire questions at him about his near-death, and bombard him until he reveals just how much he misses Dumbledore. He can thank Rita Skeeter for that thrilling contribution. And he hasn’t made the acquaintance of any other Muggles, other than the obvious, who are a big fat no.

“Yeah, of course! Who is she, eh?” leers Justin suggestively.

“It’s not like that at all, she’s just a friend. And not even really that,” Harry laughs, a little uncomfortable, “I swear.”

Justin shrugs sceptically and goes to get the phone from his draw, “OK, if you say so. It’s specially charmed so that it works in a Magical environment, but sometimes it lags a bit. It’s usually fine though, I have used it plenty of times to get in contact with my family and friends who don’t know that I’m a wizard.”

He hands it over to Harry and it lies clunky in his hand. Being so used to the slim nature of a wand, the girth of the phone feels weighty and out of place in his grip, but he supposes that for Muggles, it must almost be the substitute. Something you carry with you at all time, something that you cannot part with. The miniature font is printed with Nokia and a rectangular grey screen lights up as Justin turns it on for him.

After a little revised tutorial on how to use it, Harry is punching out the keys with the piece of paper in hand that Erin had shoved at him in Hyde Park. Pressing send feels like a big leap of faith somehow, even if the message is simple. Partly, he had no idea how to put into writing what he wanted to say. Partly, his gigantic thumbs couldn’t be bothered to continue their battle with the buttons any longer. And to think that he had been ready to laugh at Ron using the device- as if he is some kind of an expert himself.

It reads:

Hey, Erin. It’s Harry from the park, I hope u remember me, otherwise this is awkward. I hope ur doing well and I’m sorry I left in such a hurry at the park. Mayb next time I am in London we cld meet?

Justin helped him with the ‘text talk’, which apparently is the indicator of where you lie on a spectrum, starting with “cool people who you definitely want to reply to” and ending with “absolute losers who you ignore because they sound like your granddad”, to quote Justin’s own words. He feels somehow that this is vaguely embarrassing but, hey, you can’t blame a guy whose only experience with technology comes from the two seconds that he managed to haggle a go on Dudley’s computer, and the ginormous, hefty landline that the Dursley’s owned. Oh and excluding the TV- he is a mastermind in that department, as the well-loved screen in his living room at Grimmauld Place can attest to.

“I’ll let you know when she replies, but don’t be surprised if it’s a while. We don’t necessarily have a functioning mobile service here so we’ll see, I guess,” says Justin.

“Yeah, that’s fine. Thanks, Justin,” Harry smiles gratefully at his new friend, but any feelings of amity disappear when Justin jokes that he won’t put up with any sexual messages. Harry swats at him, laughing, and wonders how long it will be until he hears back.

That night, Harry cannot sleep a wink. Maddeningly, his whole body is crying out for sleep in it’s exhausted state, but it still will not come. His day had started out shit, had remained shit, and then became slightly less shit. But, ultimately, his mind and body still retain that infuriating absence of sensation that always comes, without fail, on his bad days. It is as if he is empty, carved out of all substance. People, things, feelings, come and go, fleeting in and out as temporary pleasures. But at the end of the day, Harry is left only half of a person, with a vacant mind that thinks nothing, yet simultaneously exists in permanent misery. It is almost a half state of living. He thinks he had felt more alive when he caught a glimpse of the afterlife, or whatever that place had been, than he does on days like this.

He feels pretty fucking pleased at himself frankly, for attending lessons today. But he knows that he won’t always be so lucky.

Perhaps it is because he is so blank, that the sharp exclamation of anger coming from another room, full of emotion and clear irritation, shocks him.

“Fuck!” A male voice says in annoyance, “Shit. Bollocks. Fuck.”

And it is the strangest thing. Harry’s body suddenly is alight with eagerness.

“Oh fuck this,” continues the voice, sounding resigned.

Harry creeps out of the bed, finding that there is some energy in his body after all. Call it foolish and you would be right, but he is a sucker for night time excursions and adventures. Old habits die hard, after all.

It is coming from the common room, and he hopes that Dean and Seamus aren’t attempting some kinky and painful sex thing. That would be a step too far in what Harry wants to know about their relationship.

“Shit.” The voice sounds almost sad now, and so familiar- but he can't quite put his finger on it.

As he approaches the doorway, he sticks to the wall, and curses himself for not dragging out his old invisibility cloak. But he has made it this far now, and whilst the trip to the dorms is quite literally two metres, he cannot tear himself away from the room before him- which is beginning to glow a bright, metallic silver, to Harry’s astonishment. It spreads like a flood, a landslide and a gushing river all at once- and the room assumes an ethereal quality, the metal of the lights and furnishings glinting madly in an almost radiant white glow.

In the middle of the carpet, Malfoy stands with his wand in hand, clutched to his chest in delight. Harry has never seen him look so happy. The expression completely changes his face- the angles and sharp edges of his face softened out by the blatant joy he is beaming with. It’s such a direct contrast to the Malfoy of the last few days that Harry has to do a double take, just to check that it is actually him. Yep- he confirms. Still Malfoy, still pointy and pale in every sense of the word, but completely unlike the dickhead he knows. Harry glances at his feet and notices that he is wearing neither boot, however is still sporting those fashionable lavender socks.

“Yes! Fuck. Yes.” Malfoy whispers quietly, grin widening even further. This exposes his pearly white teeth, which Harry has never seen bared so openly, except to mock and spit scathing insults. His stomach drops, remembering for him, even when his mind refuses to, all the foul comments that mouth has made over the years.

“Fuck, Yes.” Malfoy repeats, breathing in.

The short and clipped phrases are filled with such a sense of happiness that Harry realises the reason he didn’t recognise Malfoy’s voice from the dorm room. He hasn’t heard this raw side of him in a long time- perhaps never, if he truly thinks about it. Lucius probably used to write Malfoy scripts on how to be a pompous arse when he was a schoolboy. He truly doesn’t find it hard to believe, when thinking about all the Pureblood-propaganda Malfoy had spouted over the years. Unless that was all just his genuine thought. But somehow Harry finds that unlikely.

The present Malfoy lifts his wand slightly and Harry moves back, suddenly afraid that he has been spotted. Instead of aiming it at him, Malfoy waves it and mumbles something long and disgustingly Latin, and after a beat, more silver light comes tumbling from the tip of the wand. It’s like candle wax at first, dripping slowly, until it shoots up and explodes into fragments of white which continue to spark throughout the room. Once the last bursts, the walls and floor are left even more iridescent than before. Even Malfoy is glowing slightly.

However, that could be from pure glee, judging by the look on his face. He walks over the nearest wall, posture light and springy, and strokes a hidden shard of light that has positioned itself behind a slightly splintered panel of wood.

“Hello,” he murmurs and Harry feels delusional. In what world does Draco Malfoy own a plush dragon and spend his nights speaking to balls of light? An insane one, Harry will reiterate.

He stays like that, watching Malfoy poke his wand at the damn thing, undeniably mesmerised, before he turns away. As stealthily as possible, he backs away, retreating into the dorm room with one eye on Malfoy’s shrinking figure. He thinks he manages it, considering Malfoy doesn’t turn around and Crucio him.

Well that was weird.

In all the confusion, his body seems to have finally caught up with his fatigue, and he is drained of energy as soon as he hits the bed. Through the crack in the door, he can see the glimmer of silver eking into the corridor, and he falls asleep wandering what the in the world he just witnessed.

Chapter Text

It has now been a few days since the incident in the common room. Harry cannot stop thinking about it for the life of him.The more he remembers about it, the more confused he becomes. What was Malfoy practising? Why was he so happy when he managed it? Why was he doing it in the middle of the night? Logically, if it had been something for class or study, he wouldn’t have waited till the shades of the night to do it. Also, logically, he wouldn’t have looked so fucking pleased. Nobody can look that delighted doing homework. Unless you’re Hermione, and even in her case, Harry thinks that it’s not so much for amusement, but rather an intense determination.

Particularly stuck in his mind is the image of Malfoy’s face, illuminated by the glow of the effervescent silver light and elated. Harry is trying his absolute hardest to wash it out- to wipe it from his memory and move forward, forcing himself to be content with the robot Malfoy of the daytime, but his efforts are to no avail.

It replays like a broken record, and not even one that Harry would have chosen- not one of the ones that he would have snuck onto the vinyl player on the rare occasions that the Dursley’s would take family days out, and Mrs Figg couldn’t take him. He had adored those- danced till the very roots of his bones were aching, in fact, no matter how much the recordings crackled.

No. It is more akin to one of Uncle Vernon’s choice- sung by old English singers which he would have dug out with an exclamation that it was his father’s favourite. Aunt Petunia would’ve dutifully nodded along to the droning voice, dragging throughout the entire house. Then it would get stuck, and Vernon would spend the whole afternoon blasting the darned thing as it replayed the same tune. He would shout, splutter and shove at Harry until Harry couldn’t remember anything but the stupid sounds of the moment. All night the song would round in his head until it was almost painful. In retrospect, it was probably so because he had had nothing else to busy his mind in his plain and uneventful life.

Harry vaguely recognises that perhaps Malfoy’s blissful face isn’t as a grotesque sight as Vernon’s pink and infuriated one, but still, both are tormenting. The memory of the incident just plays again and again and again; Harry wishes that he could drown it out like he used to do with the headphones and the ancient Walkman that he had found locked away in a ginormous box of Dudley’s unused stuff. Maybe he should ask if Dudley could send them over. At this point, he would definitely anything to stop the unwanted interest that he feels growing at the image of Malfoy in that fucking silver-lit room. He really doesn’t need a repeat of sixth year, no thank you- Hermione and Ron wouldn’t ever let it go.

Boredom- in that his life, his lessons, his conversations, the days which blur into one, feel so exceptionally pointless to him now. Sadness- in quite literally every way possible, and so bloody different to the picture of Malfoy’s beaming expression. And an overwhelming sense of this is life, I almost forgot, because, thank god, he is actually interested in something. The relief of it makes him want to break down into tears. These three things are perhaps why he is so plagued with these intrusive, unrelenting thoughts. They must be.

The contrast between the Malfoy in his mind’s eye, and the one he sees in real life is jarring. It’s almost nauseating when Harry catches glimpses of his ungrudgingly blank face in class, or the dorm, or the common room- he is fucking everywhere, as you might gather. He can’t catch a break.

One of the changes this year is that all students are required to take a Muggle Studies class, regardless of their OWL and NEWT choices- including Eight Year. Especially, even, as Harry had gathered from the way Mcgonagall had sent a brisk look at the Slytherins in his year upon announcing it. It seems that even Mcgonagall, with all her talk of house unity and forgiveness, can’t shake some prejudice. That is what the war did. It took everything you believed in, everything you thought you stood for, and turned it all on its head, until you’re not sure what the point is, other than plain survival, other than avoiding joining the pile of dead. Other than protecting the people around you.

However, Professor Caehorn, their new teacher for the subject, had posted last night that the Muggle Studies lesson is concessioned for the first week back at school. It’s Friday now and they have a free period. One being spent awkwardly in the dorm. Hermione and Ron are spending it with Ginny at breakfast. Harry is not, for obvious reasons. He would really rather not listen to his ex girlfriend talk about her new girlfriend, which he is sure Luna is, even if it hasn’t been explicitly stated. Even in his current state of being, he was apparently still able to muster up some complicated mix of misery and anger when he saw them holding hands at dinner the other evening. Ginny’s not his, not anymore, and perhaps never was- but to know that it could’ve been him, had he been able to get it together, hurts so much he sometimes feels like he can’t breathe.

To Harry’s confusion, Malfoy hasn’t scampered off to God-knows-where this morning. Instead he has joined Harry, Justin and Anthony, the latter having made a great effort to integrate himself since Monday, in an early morning game of Exploding Snap. Well, he hasn’t so much joined, but rather is peering down at them from the quaint Mahogany desk next to his bed, face plastered with an unreadable expression that refuses to give anything away. Harry suspects it probably would say I want to squash them and their common game like bugs if Malfoy were to give up this dumb facade. But then again, thinking of the Malfoy of the common room, he is not so sure anymore.

“Snap!” shouts Justin belatedly as his card spontaneously combusts in shared excitement. Harry tries not to flinch at the noise but the abruptness of it has him cringing and tapping his fingers on the floorboards anxiously. It’s just cards, he reminds himself, you can’t be hurt by cards.

“Fuck! Not again!” groans Anthony and Harry feels pleased that the guy is finally starting to feel at ease with them. “You’re some sort of Exploding Snap genius, Justin, what the hell.”

“Muggle Snap was the only thing me and my brother played when I was younger. Even when we were annoyed at each other, we’d let off steam by playing it. It’s the same game pretty much. All about reflexes.” And as if to prove his point, he scores another pair with a bang. Literally.

“Not fair, man,” Anthony says and another card blows up randomly from his pile. In the corner of his eye, Harry sees Malfoy jump and grasp the edge of the desk in support. He understands. The explosions trigger in him something he is trying desperately not to let come to the surface. However, most unfortunately, the longer he suppresses it, the more the tight the swirling storm of emotions becomes inside of him. He feels ready to explode; destructively on edge, like he might scream at any given moment. But he doesn’t want to let up, doesn’t want to concede to the fact that he cannot even play a card game. Maybe it is this embarrassment and insecurity that leads him to make this dangerous comment- insensitive, even when regarding who it is about. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

“Can’t handle a bit of Exploding Snap, Malfoy?” mocks Harry

Malfoy turns his stare on him. His eyes are steel grey and hard; there is definitely some hatred there, Harry is sure of it, even when everything else about him indicates indifference. Harry feels perturbed at the way that their eyes lock now. With the way that Malfoy has been steadfastly ignoring Harry’s wandering gaze, Harry had begun to think that perhaps the sight of him made Malfoy feel ill or something, he was that adamant with the cold shoulder treatment. He couldn’t blame him if that were the case.

The exchange is overflowing with some contorted form of anger. It doesn’t feel like hate, not really. He’ll retract his statement. It is indecipherable, certainly negative but filled with something else too. Perhaps guilt, or a perverse type of understanding- probably both. He’s not sure, and he is a little more than marginally afraid of the answer. He longs for the pure and simple childhood rivalry of their past, and the increasing tension in his body strings him of any confidence he had felt a minute ago.

Malfoy smiles coldly, “I’d prefer not to partake, thank you, Potter.”

“Ah. Yeah, of course,” Harry feigns a moment of comprehension, when in reality he has quickly lost any grip on understanding what the other boy is thinking, “You just know you’d lose. That’s fair enough. I’d be pretty embarrassed too if I was you.”

He is distantly aware that Justin and Anthony are frowning at him, probably judging him as cruel with distaste. They don’t get it. Him and Malfoy have always had this.

It is one of the Earth’s constants, much like how flowers always bloom in Spring, snow always falls and water always flows. He isn’t about to drop it just because Malfoy is having some sociopathic episode. And yes, Merlin’s beard, he knows that he had promised Cindy he would ignore Malfoy. But he can’t help himself. The twat brings out some spontaneous renewal of energy in him, ready to fight, rising from a place where he thought he had none. If only Malfoy still had the same.

Surprisingly, Malfoy actually responds instead of just assuming oblivion. “Rather the opposite, Potter.”

The answer is so clipped, so short, and clearly indicates that Malfoy has no interest in continuing the conversion. So, of course, Harry has to follow it up.

“What do you mean? You think you’d actually win?” and he pretends to laugh. Secretly, he has no doubt that Malfoy would- Harry is utter shit at the game- but he is really just grasping at straws to try and drag out the moment.

Malfoy just continues staring.

“It’s not like it's particularly difficult, Potter. Still, you do seem to be struggling.” He ends the sentence with the tiniest curl of his lips, so miniscule and insignificant, but the insulting manner of the comment, however meagre, has Harry delighted. How fucked up is that?

“Oh, so you are watching? Thought you were too above the game to be interested?” probes Harry.

“It’s proving hard not to, with the amount of noise you are making. It may come as a shock, but some people have work to do.”

“Yeah, I noticed you didn’t like those noises. Scared, Malfoy?” and their duel from second year echoes in his head. Look where he is now, still attempting to play the same recycled games.

Maybe Harry has gone too far, because Malfoy seems to shut down. Where his expression had begun to morph into one of mocking, nose scrunched and mouth twisted, it is now replaced by cool detachment. Harry hadn’t even noticed the change in the midst of the moment.

“Excuse me.” Malfoy says and strides out of the room rapidly, book still in hand and not sparing a single glance at Harry or the others. Whom Harry now remembers are still there, and with much embarrassment he turns to look at them.

Justin seems a bit disappointed by Harry’s behaviour, and he feels pathetic. Especially since Harry actually could empathise with Malfoy, whether it’s for the same reasons or not. Although, since Malfoy was very much present in the war, Harry is doubtful that it isn’t. The whole debacle was unnecessary, in spite of how right it felt to be bickering again. Anthony is actively dodging Harry’s eye, but the downward turn of his lips signifies that he also wasn’t a fan of the interaction. He is awkwardly shuffling the cards in his hands, and the noise is the only one in the wide room.

“Really, Harry?” sighs Justin.

“What?” he answers defensively, but at the same time resigned to whatever scathing critique is coming. He is accustomed to it now, thanks to years of friendship with Hermione.

“We’re not in fifth year anymore. It’s time to stop hanging on to whatever antagonistic relationship you two had in the past. I’m not a fan of him any more than you are, but he was clearly minding his own business there. C’mon, mate. Be fair,” and he does offer a smile as consolation, “Move on, now.”

It is the last comment that affects Harry the most. He knows Justin means well- is one of the friendliest people Harry has made the acquaintance of in a long time, in fact- but the implied simplicity of moving on makes his skin crawl. As if it is something that could be accomplished with the snap of your fingers. As if it is something that hasn’t inspired hours upon hours of self-hatred, as if it hasn’t rendered him awake and nauseous at the early hours of the day, beating at his head and wondering why he can’t just get over the memories. It is a reminder of just how broken he is.

“Not really as easy as that,” he murmurs curtly, because he doesn’t have the energy to explain himself.

“I know,” Justin tries to smile sympathetically, his auburn curls falling into his face, and Harry can’t help but think to himself that he probably doesn’t, not really, “But you have to try, mate. It’s not doing you any good to be clinging to old rivalries anymore. We all hate the Slytherins secretly, it can’t be helped, but you can’t be outward about it. Some of them are alright and even though Malfoy was horrible in the war, let's not cause any unnecessary grief, yeah?”

“Yeah. OK. You’re right.” Harry replies despondently and Justin taps Anthony on the shoulder, and they both stand up to leave.

As they go, Harry thinks that Justin misunderstands the situation. He couldn’t give less of a shit about the other Slytherins. As far as he is concerned, most of them are just normal, good-hearted kids caught in a bad reputation. And it’s not even really that he hates Malfoy. Yeah, Justin has gotten it completely wrong, but Harry isn’t really sure how he would even correct him.

He sits there for a while on the floor and sorts, slowly and unthinkingly, through the playing cards strewn about. He is depressed by his own behaviour and further ashamed at the fact that he had enjoyed it so much.

When he knows it's time for his first lesson, indicated by the bustle of fourth years coming out of their previous lesson in the greenhouse, he gets up unwillingly. Instead of leaving immediately, however, he just stands there for a moment, wondering whether it is possible to delay Defence Against the Dark Arts without the use of a time turner.

Glancing around the room, he scours for something to grant this distraction. Maybe chance has favoured him and some helpless animal has crawled in and needs his aid? He looks underneath the beds and the furniture but alas, no animal. Perhaps Justin, for some strange reason, wants Harry to make his bed? But one look at Justin’s bed and he recognises that he cannot find one way to perfect the already cleaned-and-arranged sheets.

On a whim, Harry wonders whether Malfoy has left his dragon out again. Despite his conversation with Justin, he wouldn’t be able to resist teasing him for that. He searches around the bed and underneath the desk, but the beast is nowhere in sight. Harry is seriously confused as to where it could be, and would be genuinely concerned that he had made it up and that it’s an object of his own fantasy, were it not for Malfoy’s dry and suspicious response the other day.

As he is rising up from his surveillance underneath the desk chair, he scans Malfoy’s papers, left in an orderly fashion across the surface of his desk. His handwriting is neat and full of sweeping loops, which Harry almost can’t read. He suddenly remembers, can’t believe he even managed to forget- perhaps he can call that some progress- the incident in the common room. Maybe, just maybe, Malfoy is plotting some dastardly deed and has just so happened to leave the plans out in plain sight. Unlikely but not impossible.

Unfortunately, upon reading the script with some difficulty, he is disappointed to realise it is just Potions homework. Boring and meticulously done, of course, and Harry almost considers taking it just to spite the dickhead, until he catches his own name on the last couple of lines, next to a profound ink blot. The scrawl is considerably messier here, written quickly and it’s crossed out- but still somewhat legible.

Potter is so fucking annoying, can he please stop pretending he is okay with this stupid game and tell Finch-Fletchley and whatever the other one is called that he needs to stop playing. Idiot Gryffindor thinking we can’t see him-

After that Harry can’t read the next few words, but he has gathered enough information for his liking anyway. He is stunned, and confused. This is the last thing he would have thought Malfoy was thinking about. Why had he written it anyway? Surely the thought was not so pressing that he had to ruin his Potions homework to- what- come to Harry’s rescue? Insult him? Observe him? He thinks that it’s probably an unnerving combination of all of the above.

He looks away, troubled by yet another insight into Malfoy’s private life. At the moment, he is incredibly torn between wanting to know more and obliviating himself from the horror of it. Scanning the desk again, curiosity winning, he is unsatisfied by the mundane nature of the rest of the items. Malfoy seems to keep things that are all of one colour and alike in appearance- like a set. His school books are bound in dark leather and his quills are the same, with the addition of ostentatious peacock feathers. There is little else on the desk, it is rather barren, apart from a couple of sweet wrappers stuffed into the corner which make Harry grin a little, the thought of Malfoy stuffing his face familiar to him. He has always had a sweet tooth, Harry had picked as much up throughout their school years, watching bitterly as Malfoy had received parcel upon parcel of expensive cakes, desserts and chocolates from his mother.

There is something, however. A case, bound in the same material as everything else- rectangular and familiar to Harry. He almost leaves it, thinking that he is silly for caring, but the inquisition gnaws at him as he backs away and he hurries to open it.

Inside, a pair of glasses lie against a green silk cloth. They are dark brown, with a frame only around half the lenses. The idea that Malfoy owns a pair of glasses is baffling. Surely they cannot be his? Harry has never once seen him wearing them. If he had, Harry would have unequivocally been spared the glasses-related insults which he has long endured from Malfoy. Despite this, the fact that their binding and aesthetic matches everything else in Malfoy’s collection, as well as simply being on his desk, indicates otherwise.

He wants to laugh. What a hypocrite. The next time he makes fun of Harry for his own pair, he will certainly receive a taste of his own medicine.

Closing the case and trying to place it back where it had been exactly, he finds that he doesn’t really want to put off class any longer. He has lost taste for trying to cling to the comfort of this room, like some sort of festering mould.

Off he goes.

----

Their new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher is an amiable guy, quite young and good looking, if you’re into golden haired, muscular superhero looking types. Most of the girls in Harry’s class noticeably like to stay behind after the lesson is over, and he can’t blame them. The man, Professor Henrison, is blatantly handsome, even from a straight man’s perspective. Which Harry is, obviously.

After dropping his chalk, he bends down and all eyes in the class zoom in on his admittedly impressive backside. Henrison stands up again and as he does so, his white shirt stretches over his muscles pleasantly and Harry can’t help but stare. They pull at the fabric in all the right areas, his biceps especially bulging in the tight fit. Harry realises his mistake when Ron nudges him in the side, with a querying look on his face as if he thinks Harry is bonkers.

“What are you doing?” he whispers madly.

“Nothing.” Harry answers, willing his cheeks not to be the bright red he thinks they are.

“I think Professor Henrison needs looser clothes. Looks ridiculous.” Ron mutters, some hints of his jealous streak shining through. Harry just nods in reply, fixating on his notes in front of him as a distraction.

They soon move into doing a practical exercise, instructed to work on their wandless magic and in particular, their wandless defence. So far throughout the week, Harry has tried his best to not make it too conspicuous that he finds this stupidly easy. Something about accessing that raw magic in him, the part that housed a part of Voldemort and perhaps another place inside him too, has made it effortless to tap into performing spells wandlessly. In fact, he finds it takes less energy to do, letting his will flow from his brain to his fingers, than if he were to channel it through his wand. That feels almost too rigid, too restricting. Magic is much greater than a piece of wood, he has come to realise. It is unpredictable. Sometimes he cannot muster up much more than a weakly flickering Lumos, and sometimes he could raze a whole house if he so desired. The latter is rare now; has almost vanished altogether.

Protego Harry thinks as Ron aims a spell at him, and he lets the familiar warmth in his belly spread to the tip of his fingers with satisfaction.

The spell is just about leaving his body when, suddenly, he hears a loud noise coming from the hallway. The whole class turns in unison, the way that students do when there is a chance of getting out of schoolwork, but Henrison yaps at them to stay focused.

The instruction holds for a minute or two but when aggressive shouting rounds up in addition to the thuds from before, all the students flock to the door.

Harry pushes his way through to see what is happening, and the sight that beholds makes his stomach drop. Malfoy’s skinny frame is on the floor, bag spilled open and a look of distress flooding his angular features. He is scrambling to pick his things up as two broad shouldered boys point their wands at him menacingly.

“Oi, Malfoy, what do you think you’re doing?” One of them grunts and aims a deep and vicious kick into Malfoy’s stomach, leaving him huffing in pain and grasping at the stone floor around him in a weak attempt to get up.

Harry is frozen. But when the taller of the bullies goes to kick him again, it only takes a split second for him to decide to intervene. He takes a step forward, and Malfoy’s ears seem to prick up. Lying there on the ground, looking dejected and covered in bruises, Malfoy catches his eye. He stares at him, a warning in his glare. Harry feels at a loss, he doesn’t know what is happening, only that he cannot stand this any longer. Then, insanely, Malfoy mouths ‘no’ at Harry, clearly signifying that he doesn’t want any help.

Whether that is in general, or just from Harry specifically, he isn’t sure- but he doesn’t care. At all. It is time to take a leaf out of Malfoy’s book and do some good quality ignoring.

“Stop!” he shouts at the two boys and they spin around, faces stricken with panic. They seem to take in the class of students all watching them, as well as Professor Henrison pacily forcing his way to the front, and make a run for it. Henrison pushes out of the crowd with a pop and takes off after them. Whoops sound up from the students. Some people are trying to follow, probably to get a first hand account of the gossip, some are heading back into the classroom and some are making moves to try and get out of class whilst they still can. None are trying to help Malfoy. Harry is being hustled and jolted, yanked this way and that, by the roaring sea of arms and legs around him but, for once, he doesn’t even notice.

Malfoy is shakily getting to his feet, his things sprawled messily across the grim stone of the floor. He stands in the middle of his puddle of things, his arms wrapped around himself as if its protection, and looking more and more like the unsure and distraught boy of the war than Harry cares for.

“Do you want any help?” Harry asks quietly, taking two steps forward. He isn’t sure why he is feeling the need to be gentle, but he gets the impression that Malfoy is fragile right now. Fuck, maybe he contributed to that. It’s hard- to realise that other people are suffering too, to come to terms that the world doesn’t end with you. It really is. But he feels it now more than ever as Malfoy turns on him fiercely.

“Stop fucking talking to me! Stop it!” Malfoy says with anger in his voice. His face is flushed, his white hair askew, and there is a beastly bruise blossoming purple on his cheek. If you weren’t looking at the wildness in his eyes, you might presume that he is weak, pathetic even. One glance at the flashing rage in his stare, however, and Harry knows that isn’t true.

“Malfoy, I was only trying to help,” he offers sheepishly. The voices behind him whisper frantically but he tries his best to tune them out. They are just water off his wings.

“Well don’t.” says Malfoy with finality and he whirls off down the corridor, not bothering to pick up his stuff. This is a recurring theme, Harry realises. How Malfoy will storm off in a fit, and leave Harry behind with more questions than answers, as well as the craving to follow after him, just to see what would happen.

Professor Henrison strides back towards them from round the corner. His shirt is sticking to him more than before, doubtlessly from the sweat he must have built up chasing the duo, who he now tells them got away with no identification. The class herds him with questions, girls huddle to his side, and Malfoy and Harry’s little episode is long forgotten by the pupils.

But not by Harry. No, he resigns himself resentfully to another day of Malfoy-related thoughts.

-------

After lessons are over for the day, Harry feels the need to do something. He is restless, and it's strange. He is so used to that numb, exhausted sensation, that he has been forgetting what it feels like to have energy, he recognises now with some semblance of horror. No good it is doing him now, though, for he cannot find anything to do. He doesn’t really want to talk to anyone. His mind is alight with one thing only and he can’t imagine having to pretend that it isn't, having to make conversation over some small and insignificant matter.

Friends are ruled out then, even Ron and Hermione. And then, by extension, so is Quidditch. It isn’t really a one-man game. He needs something, or someone, who doesn’t demand his attention. Luna firstly pops into his head, but he dismisses her on the account of her new relationship with Ginny. Coming to a standpoint in a winding staircase near the Great Hall, he stares out of the stain glass window dejectedly, already giving up at finding something. The landscape is picturesque, and stunning in a way that Harry knows he'll admire most when he isn't here, when he is at home in the gloom of Grimmauld Place. For several minutes the view remains unchanged apart from the gradual creeping of the clouds, but when he sees the silhouette of a familiar Hippogriff fly across the sky, he suddenly knows where to go.

The walk down to Hagrid’s hut is beautiful. Hogwarts is beautiful, he thinks. Despite the wear, despite the horror, you wouldn’t ever know there had been a war here, had you not seen it yourself. The castle seems to have taken it upon itself to take the reconstruction as a chance to renovate completely, and it now stands stronger than ever. All around him, flowers bloom and flourishing plants wave in the breeze of the afternoon; the grounds are exuberant with life. The battlefield, the dead, are all around him, but Hogwarts refuses to die with them. If only he could forget it all. He wishes deeply that he could appreciate the new soul of the castle without the memories and flashbacks assailing the image.

Harry reaches Hagrid’s front door and knocks loudly, not feeling much taller than he had when he was here as a first year. The door swings open and Hagrid’s hairy face beams down at him in glee.

“‘Ello, ‘Arry! Come in, why don’t ya?” and Harry nods eagerly, following him through. The hut is still as cosy as ever, even with the grand slabs of meat for Fang hanging from the ceiling. He settles on the cushy armchair and breathes in the earthy smell so distinct to him.

“How are you, Hagrid?” he asks as Hagrid puts a kettle on, and finds that he genuinely wants to know the answer.

“‘M alright! Olympe and I enjoyed a sunny holiday in Barcelona together this summer. Nice change from England, if ya ask me.” And Harry snorts at the image of Hagrid and Olympe in swimming gear on a Muggle beach. Merlin, he prays that Hagrid didn’t wear speedos.

“That sounds like fun. I’m glad you had a good summer. Are you two serious now then?”

“‘M not really sure, to tell ya the truth, ‘Arry,” and he brings over the tea- dark, just as Harry likes it- with a warm smile, “But I’d like to think so. And ‘ow is yourself?”

He wants to be honest, to spill and confide in Hagrid. It would be truly easy- the comfort of both the man and the place would ensure that. He could feel like a child again, just for one brief evening, and let it all out to this giant of a man, who he loves, and trusts.

One scan of the room, and he realises he doesn’t want to shatter the tender peace that the place invites. His words would surely destroy the ambience that Hagrid has here, and Harry can’t bring himself to do that to the man, can’t be that heavy burden that he was during the War. He doesn't wish that on anyone ever again.

“I’m great, thanks for asking.” He grins and almost feels like crying at what a lie it is.

This isn’t what was supposed to happen when he came here. He wasn’t planning on getting depressed and maudlin, and he still isn’t now.

“Hagrid?” he asks, taking a large gulp of his tea, which makes him feel a fraction better.

“Yea, ‘Arry?”

“Do you think I could help you do some gardening? Just might be quite nice, you think?” And Harry crosses his fingers that Hagrid will agree to let him.

“Sounds great.” Hagrid smiles, all hair and beard and brown beetle eyes, and Harry knows that coming here was a good idea after all.

They sit together, finishing their tea, and Hagrid doesn’t bombard him with questions other than whether he would like to feed Fang a slab of steak. Taking one look at the vicious points of Fang’s teeth, and weighing up the likelihood that they’ll trigger him somehow, he decides that it is probably safe. He tears up the meat, cringing at it’s slimy, cold texture. Hagrid laughs at him and Fang nuzzles his leg gratefully as he is fed. It is a lovely moment, there is a bird tweeting her song somewhere outside and Harry yearns to stay here forever.

Once the tea is drunk, and the mugs washed, they head outside. Harry had had to stand on a stool to reach Hagrid’s humongous sink, and for a fraction of a second, he felt like his nine year old self, standing on the kitchen chair to reach the Dursley’s frying pans. Needless to say, cleaning the mugs side by side with Hagrid, whilst an evening breeze passed through the hut, had felt nothing like the lonesome and laborious dish-washing of his childhood

“‘Ere ya go.” Hagrid hands him a shovel and he takes it, the weight of it surprising him, “We’re gonna dig here, alright?” He shows Harry where to plant the Knotgrass seeds, and they dig together in amicable silence. It is hard work, and after a while, Harry begins to break a sweat. This kind of activity is something he never does anymore, and he finds that once he is into it, he can’t imagine stopping. The ache of his muscles is almost addictive, as he thinks delightedly of the type of pain they usually receive- a sort of creeping one, fatiguing and paralysing. Nothing like this gratifying sensation, which comes only from exercise.

“I ‘eard you’re not roomed with Ron anymore, how's that then?” asks Hagrid as he passes him a fresh basket of saplings.

“How did you hear about that?” says Harry, genuinely curious.

“‘M still a teacher ‘ere, ‘arry, in case you forgot. The staff room talks.” And Harry balks at the vision of Mcgonagall spreading gossip about him. It could be an atrocity, with the amount of dirt that woman has on him.

“Oh, right, yeah. Of course. It’s alright. Justin and Anthony are better roommates than I had expected. But I won’t lie and say that I don’t miss the Gryffindor dorm sometimes,” and he conveniently leaves out the part where he is mostly glad that he doesn’t have to deal with its rowdiness anymore. He isn’t sure he would be able to cope with Ron’s inquisition, as awful as that sounds, let alone Dean and Seamus and whatever antics they get up to now. Neville would be lovely, of course, what with his respectful and considerable manner.

“‘N the Malfoy boy?” asks Hagrid and he puts his hands up defensively at Harry’s irritated expression, “Wha! It’s common knowledge yous are roomed together!”

Harry concedes and straightens out his back, hearing a satisfying pop as his bones click back into place. Him and Hagrid decide to call it a day when Hagrid’s do the same in a vaguely terrifying, loud ripple of noise, and as they place their dirty shovels back in the tool cupboard, Harry considers his answer to Hagrid’s question. He knows he is awaiting an answer after all; is just giving Harry the room to give it, which he is wholly thankful for.

“He’s OK, I guess. He’s confusing, is what he is.”

“In what way?”

“I dunno how to explain it. Me and him, we’ve always been at each other's throats. I think we both enjoyed it in a weird way. Now we’re not, except I can’t help but fall back into the habit,” offers Harry, as a starting point, “I don’t get him. He seems really emotionless most of the time, but then there’s these moments where he all of a sudden isn’t, I dunno. He doesn’t seem to want to talk to me. I’m not sure what to do when I’m around him.”

It is not the world's most articulate answer, nor the most informative, but it is something, and that is enough for Harry. He realises how revealing it is of his messy state of mind, however- all over the place and with tendencies that he really fucking shouldn’t have. Harry blushes and puts on his jumper to hide it.

“‘Arry,” Hagrids starts, and he feels strangely nervous at what is coming, “I think you need to let go of any preconceptions that ya ‘ave about your relationship, and jus’ let it be what it is.”

Letting the words roll in his brain, Harry finds it actually makes some sense.

“Thanks, Hagrid. That was pretty wise.” Harry grins.

“‘M coming for Professor Trelawney’s job, didn’t ya ‘ear?” Hagrid smiles widely back at him in response, and Harry laughs. The advice is logical, to treat Malfoy as if he is someone new, a stranger even. It wouldn’t work though, he knows. It would be easier said than done, and would doubtlessly end up failing as a plan since Harry wants to punch Malfoy in his stupid face at almost all points of the day. He does like the notion but is almost certain that he couldn’t stick to the idea wholeheartedly, for that would require a level of forgiveness and understanding that he just doesn't have within him yet. The twat just gets to him, and Harry cannot forget their history when he is forced to relive it every day. However, it could be a beginning, a direction to guide his chaotic mind.

As Harry goes to leave, Hagrid draws him into a bear hug that crushes Harry’s windpipes, but makes up for it in the warmth it spreads throughout his body. He throws his arms around the man in a fit of gratitude and pure affection. They stay like that for long enough that Harry starts to forget where he is, before Hagrid ruffles his hair and pushes him out the door playfully.

The sun is disappearing from the horizon when they bid their farewells- Fang joins in too, and Harry departs from the hut with a lightness in his heart and an idea in his mind.

Chapter Text

A part of Harry’s grand plan includes spending more time with Ron and Hermione. First and foremost because they are his best friends, and the love that he has for them is embedded deep within him, has become as fundamental to his living as the lungs with which he breathes. Secondly, and perhaps selfishly of him, because they are a distraction.

The less time he spends alone, the less likely he is to be overrun with these dreadful thoughts. He doesn’t want to think about Malfoy and whatever might have happened to him to make him so feeble- so formal- and so secretive. Harry had envisaged the boy coming out the war relatively unchanged, still with that aggravating yet imposing presence that screams look at me even if it were more subdued than before. It is only now that Malfoy barely speaks at all that Harry realises how loud he had once been, how much of a bloody drama queen. The contrast is harrowing. Thinking back to Hagrid’s advice, Harry realises that maybe he doesn’t even need to pretend that Malfoy is a stranger. He is one already. And he didn’t realise until now how difficult that would be to admit- he has always considered himself as someone who knows Malfoy well, even if it were antagonistically.

Although, considering the brief glimpses of anger that Harry has been a witness to, maybe he hasn’t completely transformed. The livid look on his face earlier today was more akin to the boy he once knew. The curiosity kills him, but he must resist. It’s pointless to him now, when there are so many other things that need to be addressed. He cannot let Malfoy be at the front of his mind, as he had in sixth year- he cannot.

The confusion of it all- these terrifyingly unnerving emotions- could be the thing to finally crush him, if he lets it.

He also doesn’t want to think about the time bomb ticking away inside his body- loaded, wedged tightly into his skin. Every moment it counts down the seconds till his next anxiety wave in excruciating punches to the gut, which Harry feels each time with heavy dread.

Whilst Ron and Hermione can be overly inquiring, and too bloody observant for their own goods, he knows it ultimately is just because they love him as much as he does them. And he will be damned if he lets his damaged state of mind come between that. His utter lack of energy, the fact that he can only apparently find interest in the life and actions of Malfoy, of all people- Harry will not allow these obstacles to surpass the friendship between the three of them, as he is a little scared he might have been beginning to do.

One of his biggest fears is losing Ron and Hermione. If they were to be taken away from him, a colossal part of him would go too. It is essential that he doesn’t fuck up this one very right thing in his life.

He never thought he would say it, but he misses Grimmauld Place for this reason. In all it’s grimness, Ron and Hermione were the sole flowers in the winter. Now it is spring; they still shine just as brightly in the field, but are admittedly easier to lose track of.

The takeaways- Merlin, he admits freely that he would trade a Hogwarts meal for just one portion of Chow Mein Singapore Noodles in an instant, greasy as they may have been. There was something special about their tradition of watching Ron fumble with the TV remote whilst they spooned bucketfuls of fried vegetables into their ravenous mouths.

He and Ron are currently playing a game of Wizard’s Chess in the common room as Hermione reads through her Potions notes. He feels in oddly high spirits after his visit with Hagrid, and he takes in the atmosphere- jovial and animated tonight- with pleasure, rather than with anxiety. That is a start, he supposes, and smiles to himself.

“You really are shit at this game, aren’t you?” Ron pokes teasingly, although it is, in all fairness, a justified point. Harry is seemingly lousy at all games, as he has come to realise over the past few days- thank you to Malfoy for calling attention to his incompetence at Exploding Snap.

Fuck, no thinking about the git, not tonight.

“Watch me beat you,” challenges Harry.

“As if,” snorts Ron, “We’ve been playing this for years, mate, and you’re still yet to win in a game. I think that’s a sign of shitness. In fact, ‘m pretty sure the only person you’ve beat is Neville- and he’s not the biggest competition out there.”

Harry pretends to be affronted, “I’m just making it easy for you to satisfy that humongous ego.”

“C’mon, just admit defeat already.”

“Never. If I can defeat Voldemort, I can bloody well beat you in a game of Wizard’s Chess at least once.” And at that, Ron chortles, a deep and earthy sound that, in some strange feat of nature, is actually relaxing to Harry. Most people enjoy the patter of rain, or the crackling of the fire. Not Harry- no. He is unfortunately attuned to Ron and his ungraceful noises.

“Voldy has nothing on me, mate. Not when it comes to Chess,” says Ron. One of the things Harry appreciates most about his company is his understanding of Harry’s jokes, and how he takes what is uncomfortable to most in his stride.

Perhaps it’s Harry’s fault, since he has to be so fucking complicated- he wouldn’t be surprised if people are just scared shitless of pulling his trigger. He cannot find it in him to joke about the war itself. The thought of the battle, the fleeing, and the lives upon lives upon lives lost to what should’ve been his own fucking fight- they frighten him, make him lose grip of his own mind. But that last act- Harry killing Voldemort? It almost seems like a joke in itself. If he doesn’t make fun of it, of how terrifying the finality of that moment was, he might combust with the weight of it.

See- complicated.

Last night, Harry experienced real, authentic humiliation when Anthony didn’t laugh at his awkward jibe about Voldemort being only a bit scarier than Justin in the morning. Even Justin had just chuckled uneasily rather than grant him the laugh he had been expecting. Thank Merlin for Ron and his warped sense of humour, something they can attribute to their delirious days on the run.

Justin doesn’t seem to understand how to act in relation to the war, and for that, Harry can’t blame him.

“‘Gotcha!” says Ron with glee, taking his King after only about five minutes of playing. He could be cheating, could have even made the rules up, for all Harry knows. But for now he is content to admit failure. He can recognise a lost cause when he sees one- it has indeed become a talent of his.

“One day, Ron. One day,” he warns.

“If you say so, mate,” Ron shrugs and slumps down on the nearest sofa, “Maybe when the professors stop giving us so much work, we might actually have time to practise.”

Harry joins him, and together they form a sizeable dip in the cushion where their combined weight is squashing it. Eyeing up the seating arrangement with her watchful gaze, Hermione seems to deem it suitable and jumps in next to Harry. The three of them are very cosily jam-packed, but Harry hasn’t felt this comforted in a while. First, Hagrid’s all-encompassing, choking hugs, and now, Ron and Hermione on either side. It is his lucky evening, apparently.

On a normal day, he would most likely hate the contact; it would suffocate him, make him panic. But today is proving to be far from normal, and Hermione’s earl grey scent is strong enough to ground him in the moment. Instead, he feels safer than ever. It is different, but welcome. Hagrid’s hugs, for that matter, have such a nostalgic distinctiveness in his height and warm grasp, that even Harry couldn’t possibly find it in him to associate it with anything frightening.

“Ron, you didn’t really think that the workload would be light this year, did you? It’s the last year of NEWTs!” Hermione says, exasperated.

“Well, no, but you would think that since we just finished, y’know, fighting an evil wizard, they might’ve cut us a bit of bloody slack. I thought Mcgonagall was going to bite my head off when I didn’t have my Transfiguration textbook. Not like it really matters now, if we’re being honest.”

“And she would be right to do so,” says Hermione.

“Hey!” says Ron, offended and lightly reaching across Harry to smack her brown arm.

“No domestics whilst I’m here, please. Or at least free me from being in the middle first,” Harry intervenes and the three of them share a laugh. It feels like those frost-bitten nights again, where they had had to huddle for warmth, and Ron and Hermione were still sorting their shit out as a couple. Mainly, it is a pleasant memory, one which reminds him of just how much they’ve been through together- so he lets the flashback wash over him gently before it rolls away to the back of his mind.

“Sorry, Harry. Ronald is just being a brute, as usual,” Hermione says but smiles amusedly as a peace offering. The Hippogriff-shaped light twinkles above her, gliding over their heads gracefully. He hadn’t realised at first, but they sometimes move in accordance to the mood of the room. Tonight the lights all seem to be glowing a tender gold, and they slowly sail above them with ease. Over Susan Bones’ ginger head, the Unicorn neighs and gallops in circles as she throws her head back in laughter.

“Hey, did you hear about what happened with those two blokes who beat up Malfoy?” Ron suddenly asks, and Harry groans internally. So much for not thinking of Malfoy tonight.

He waits for Hermione to reply, in hope that he can keep any of this temporary interest at bay. Maybe it's just a case of being out of sight, out of mind. Or out of speech, out of mind. Whatever.

When she says nothing, staring at Harry from his left hand side with those insightful brown eyes, he realises both Ron and Hermione are expecting him to answer. He doesn’t know quite what to do with this information.

“What happened?” He sighs and tries to shrug off their perceptiveness, willing the unease it stirs in him to go away. That’s what comes with having people who are so close to you, he supposes. Sometimes he truly considers that they know him better than he does himself. Especially now has this become pertinent, with his relief at departing from Grimmauld intermixed with his terror in the face of Hogwarts, with his desire to be with his friends yet somehow completely apart from them, and with his inner conflict about everything Malfoy-related. Does he want to talk to him? Does he want to fight him? Does he want to forget him? Harry has no idea about any of it, but he’s sure Hermione and Ron do.

If only he weren’t a coward, then he would endeavour to talk to them about it all. But that’s a different life, and a different boy. He’s just Harry, who got lucky, and wishes that he hadn’t.

“Basically, they still haven’t been identified,” says Ron. “For some bloody reason, nobody seems to be able to give a proper description of their faces. Or at least not one that has led them to them. Nobody is coming forward with names, either.”

Harry is shocked. With the amount of people that were there, he is astounded that not a single person knows who they were. With a hint of sadness, he thinks that maybe they just don’t care, or even worse, believe that Malfoy deserves it. He isn’t sure how he feels about the boy anymore, his sentiments seemingly having evolved from their boyish hatred of the past, but nowhere near reaching civility. What he does know is that he no longer wants to see Malfoy beaten down. However, to be fair, he hasn’t a clue who the boys were either, but he would be happy to provide a Pensieve memory if asked.

He poses this as a solution now. “Why haven’t they done any Pensieve memory checks, or Legilimancy even?”

Chiming in with her informative voice in full place, Hermione answers partly for him. “It’s illegal to perform Legilimency now without consent, unless it’s in a life threatening situation, or Ministry duty. They decided that it was an invasion of privacy, and immoral. It’s about time, in my opinion.”

Her eyes flash with anguish and he knows that she is remembering the pain of Bellatrix trying to split her mind open with Legilimency in a rabid, hungering fit of madness, peeling it apart like a wolf rips at the flesh of its fallen victim. At Malfoy Manor. Harry feels a little sick when he recalls how Malfoy had stood there- dark mark stark against his pale skin- with cold sweat and frightened eyes. And he had done nothing. Coward. Like you, his subconscious hisses.

Harry himself also thinks of Snape and his Legilimency lessons in fifth year. He relives how vigorously he had been worked, how cruelly he had been treated for a boy only fifteen years old, and still manages to feel a flickering flame of anger. Dumbledore. Snape. They were supposed to protect him- he was supposed to be able to rely on them- but what good had they really done him in the end.

“The idea that just about anyone could read my mind is bloody terrifying. Wouldn’t want someone like Zabini digging around in there- not that he wouldn’t now, even if it’s illegal,” Ron says, “Shady git.” Harry snorts, thinking of Zabini’s mysterious poise and slippery manner, and deciding that- yes- it’s definitely an appropriate description.

“So if it’s consensual, why can’t they do it?” asks Harry.

“It’s considered an abuse of power when done from teacher to student. I’m actually not sure about between students, though,” Hermione admits, looking extremely disappointed to not know something. She scratches her nose like she does when she is in deep thought. The ink on her finger smudges onto her nose and the silliness of it takes away from her seriousness. Ron snorts but she doesn’t take any notice, doing it again and spreading the black splodge onto her cupid’s bow.

“OK,” Harry takes this on board, grinning a little, “But what about the Pensieve?”

“I heard that someone got a kinda clear one but- get this, it’s bloody weird- they have no idea who the students are. Teachers are shitting themselves because either the Pensieve memory is just not clear enough, or there are some random blokes running around the school beating up Malfoys. Might’ve broken in.” And Ron raises his eyebrows for dramatic effect, blue eyes wide and expectant.

Now, this is news. It is the exact kind of happenings he had foreseen in coming back to Hogwarts. The suspense, the panic, the constant threat. It may always be his home, in some twisted nostalgic shape or form, but it has also brought him so much misfortune that he isn’t sure he could recount it all in one sitting. Frankly, he is sick to death of it; he wants no further part in this bullshit. If only Malfoy wasn’t bang smack in the centre of it all.

“You’re joking.”

“Not in the slightest, mate.”

“Of course you’re not,” Harry sighs.

“It’s Hogwarts, what did you expect?” says Ron and Harry doesn’t know how to respond to that. Perhaps some eventual rest? A chance to heal from everything else that has happened here before another disaster overtakes all of their lives? He is a simple man, with simple needs. One of them being can everything just fuck right off.

Something occurs to him. “What has Malfoy said in all this? Surely he knows them or at least has a clearer memory?”

Ron frowns pensively before saying, “I dunno actually. Maybe I should ask Seamus, he’s the one I heard it all from.”

“No, don’t,” Hermione interjects from beside him. The ginormous ink blot has snuck onto her cheeks now, marring her dark skin, and Harry distantly thinks about how they should probably tell her. He won’t. Secretly he adores her most like this, a little frazzled, a little messy, and oh so full of ideas.

She continues, “I know what happened, not that I was purposefully listening, of course, but they were being dreadfully loud. I heard Padma talking to Hannah in the library and she said that she overheard Malfoy refusing to speak. Apparently he is feigning ignorance about the whole affair.”

“As if he could, with that massive bloody bruise,” chuckles Ron, “No clue why he doesn’t fix it up. For a Pure-blood, he's not great at using his wand, is he?” And Harry ponders about whether he should give back Malfoy's wand- his proper one- which is dusting away in a trunk at Grimmauld Place. He thinks he might have seen Kreacher crying, fondling it- probably at the sight of something new from the Black family line. Everything in that house has lived at least two hundred years, he is certain .

Then again, his new wand appeared to be functioning well on that night in the common room, when Malfoy seemed to be setting practically the whole castle alight with silver light beams. He thinks he’ll keep it, for a bit longer, if Malfoy doesn’t need it.

“Maybe he likes it, gives him more attention,” offers Harry halfheartedly, not really believing his own words as he reflects on Malfoy’s despondent, bizarre attitude.

“Maybe,” agrees Ron but, likewise, without much enthusiasm. There is a sudden influx of noise as a group of Ravenclaw girls arrive in a flurry. As he watches them scurry to their dorms in fits of giggles, the new sigil and tie for eighth years is glaringly obvious. He hardly notices it on himself but he finds it a little jarring on others.

“Hey, ‘Mione,” Ron reaches over Harry to poke at her with a wide cheesing grin plastered across his freckled visage, “You’ve got something on your face.”

“What!” Hermione rubs at her face, which only serves to spread the ink further onto her forehead and her hands. “Agh!”

“Lemme get that,” says Ron and Hermione holds out her face in anticipation. For a moment, it seems like Ron is actually being a tentative boyfriend in helping her remove the stain, before he takes a particularly wet blob and smears it across her cheek. She gasps and smacks at him in mock horror, as Harry burrows into the warm couch cushions, enjoying the familiarity of the exchange.

———

The next morning, Harry wakes up and something feels different. It takes him a while to figure out what it is, this odd fluttering sensation in the pit of his belly, but he realises that it could be some semblance of happiness. He had had an enjoyable evening yesterday, even after all the events of the day. He has also had his first nightmare-free sleep in a long time, and one he begs the Gods above is not his last.

It is the weekend now, and this is always a tricky time for Harry. In theory, they should bring him freedom, a sense of relaxation and a chance to unwind. In reality, however, it is often the prime time for him to fester in a cloud of depression, for him to think about what he should be doing now that it’s the bloody weekend, and then inescapably stressing when it doesn’t happen. For this reason, they are indeed usually his most unproductive time- the most anxiety-inducing- and he dreads them as they approach. At least in the week, he can pretend that it is okay that he lives in a sort of gloomy isolation rather than being someone who goes out every day, because, then, nobody does.

He decides now that he is going to make this weekend a good one. He will cling to this flicker of euphoria like it is his lifeline, because fuck if he’s going to let it slip from his grasp before he is ready for it to. It is inevitable that the feeling will eventually fade, he knows, but Harry just prays and crosses his fingers that he can revel in it for long enough before it does.

Greeting Harry like an old friend, the sun shines through the window, its rays reaching out to stroke every corner and surface in the room. Everything is touched by its light; it is radiant, and glimmering with the arrival of a new day.

Justin whispers “Hey” from his left hand side and he rolls over to look at the boy. His auburn curls are always particularly messy in the morning, tumbling from their naturally quaffed style into disarray- though not quite at Harry’s level. In a slightly dreamy state, still fresh from slumber, Harry admits to himself that he finds him attractive- not that it means anything.

“Hi. Morning,” Harry smiles back at him.

“Morning,” he breathes deeply, “I love days like this. Just makes you feel happy.” says Justin, returning the smile. He turns away from Harry to stare satisfactorily at the gently gleaming window frame. The paint is peeling a little around the edges, a formation of petal-like curls which are aglow with sunlight.

“Yeah, it’s lovely,” says Harry, and you can’t imagine how incredible it feels to actually mean what he says for once.

“You know, Elliot and I have a pact. When the weather is sunny like this, we have to do something with our day that we usually wouldn’t. Take it as a chance to be productive, or something. It’s silly really, but it helped me after the war,” comments Justin, sitting up a little in his bed. The duvet puffs up around him, framing his small figure in clouds of linen. “When I just didn’t feel like getting out of bed.”

Harry tries to ignore the tension in his chest which strikes him with hard blows to the stomach- once, twice, then three times- at the mention of the war. Just because he is having a better day than usual, doesn’t mean that he is excused from his normal triggers. Oh well. He can’t be too disheartened- miracles don’t happen overnight, he supposes.

Although, secretly, he deflates a bit inside. He had been getting his hopes up, however stupid that may be.

Recovery isn’t linear, Harry, Hermione's voice whispers in his head and he feels like flipping it off. Alright, alright, he gets it.

“Harry?” Justin asks, the articulate tone of his voice pulling Harry right out of the smother of fog beginning to gather in his mind.

“Yeah, no, I think that’s a great idea,” he forces himself to shake off the cold feeling and attempts to bring himself back to the room and the peace of a few moments ago. Only the genial smile on Justin’s face and the inviting warmth of the day manage to dissipate the growing pressure in his chest. He feels frustrated, but that won’t help him now, so he ignores it. “Might try that today, if you don’t mind me stealing your idea. I think it could be good to try and actually get something done rather than sit around on my arse all day.”

“Not at all! Go ahead.” says Justin enthusiastically. “In fact, want to do it together?”

Despite being pretty minor in the grand scale of things, this offer of companionship means the whole world to Harry. He has a friend- a real one- who isn’t just Ron or Hermione, and one who isn’t about to give up on him, or leave him. He hopes.

The cotton of his bed-sheets are blissfully soft against his skin, and he allows himself to be enveloped. Making way for his weight, the mattress dips, holding his sore body in its grasp- even though today feels like a good one, he still aches from head to toe. OK, to be fair, maybe he has been receiving other support as well- beds have truly been kind to him in his desperate, miserable hours of need.

Still, it is probably time to accept other help- something not from an inanimate object, no matter how much of a connection he feels with it. And even then, he can recognise that it’s not so much a loving bond, but more of an unhealthy obsession based on dependence.

So, he concludes, it’s time to get up. At least today it's easier. Small victories, Harry, small victories.

“Course. What do you wanna do?” asks Harry.

“I know this is a bit of a stupid one but I’ve been meaning to get round to practising making a Asmandrius Potion. Want to help?” says Justin, “And then we can do something for you if you would like.”

Harry is about to reply agreeably when an aggressive vibration buzzes from somewhere in the room. He has no idea what the culprit could be, but he is certain that it’s in Justin's direction.

Groaning, Justin yanks his duvet off of his body and steps out of bed.

“Oi, shut that up will you, Justin?” complains Anthony from his bed. Harry had thought him asleep, but his wakefulness is apparent- though clearly fresh, judging from his still puffy eyes. The boy has massively come out of his shell in the past few days. Harry is glad, it has even encouraged him to do the same in many ways, but Anthony’s newfound ease with them also brought the knowledge that he can be honest-to-god unbearably grumpy.

“Yeah, yeah, stop moaning. I’m doing it” says Justin as he slams open his drawer. He reaches in and pulls out something rectangular.

“For you, Harry.” And he chucks what Harry now realises is the Muggle phone onto his bed. It is a little irresponsible- Harry has to scramble to catch it- and he can't really comprehend how someone could be so careless with something so precious, and doubtlessly expensive. But then he remembers, a little bitterly, how wealthy Justin is; how quickly his things could be replaced if necessary. Justin may be one of the friendliest people that Harry has spoken to in a while, but they have lived vastly different lives. Is that a bad thing? He isn’t sure- a common motif.

Speaking of rich bastards, he notices with discomfort another one on the opposite side of the room. He hasn’t said anything as of yet, hasn’t bothered to open that pretentious mouth of his- as if he would- but Harry knows that he is awake. How, you might ask?

One would think that with the deathly silence coming from the bed, Malfoy would perhaps just have gotten up already. Then when noticing his curtains glued tight together, with no chance of being pried open, one might presume that he is probably still sleeping. Harry, however, knows that he is neither of these things, because there is no sound.

Asleep, Malfoy isn’t necessarily noisy, but you can certainly detect his presence. The bed frame creaks, and the sheets rustle loudly whenever he moves about, which is frequently. Every now and then he even snores. Harry would’ve thought that with the amount of effort the twat is going through to pretend he doesn’t exist, he would have thought to cast a Silencing spell on his bed, but, hey, it’s none of his business.

Except, it is- since most nights he can’t sleep thanks to Malfoy’s quiet, yet ear-splitting, huffs- so strangely vulnerable, so human.

Now there is nothing. And this is what signifies to Harry that Malfoy is awake on the other side of the dorm, probably eavesdropping. It makes him irritatingly self conscious of what stupid things he might have been saying.

“Harry! Answer it! The ringing doesn’t last forever!” Justin says sharply, shoving away the image of Malfoy listening in to some deep cavern at the back of his mind. His arms flail wildly in an exasperated manner like he thinks Harry is mentally deficient.

“And thank Merlin it doesn’t,” grumbles Anthony. “Answer it, Harry, for fucks sake.”

“OK, OK. I’m doing it,” he says, bothered by their hassling.

He grabs the phone, noting that the number is unknown. Panicking for a second because he doesn’t know which key to press, he pushes a bunch of random buttons in the hope that one will be right. He must hit the jackpot, because one goes through and a voice rings out of the speaker.

“Harry? Is that you?” says a female voice, high and breathy. After a moment, he realises that it is Erin. He hadn’t even considered that she might ring him, this wasn’t something he had prepared for. He feels caught off guard, but rolls with it. She just has that aura of ease which transcends space, reaches him even over however many miles they have between them.

“Yeah! Is this Erin?”

She laughs, loud even with the phone as a buffer, and Harry is thrown back into the memory of that summers day in the bustling grass of Hyde park.

“Yep, you got it! I just got your text,” and Harry takes that as confirmation that the service at Hogwarts is truly shit, since he actually sent it days ago. He had begun to think that she wasn’t going to reply; had resigned himself to accepting this fated rejection. It had been disheartening- the fact that even strangers end up abandoning him- which doesn’t even make sense, considering that they are precisely that- strangers.

His heart is light now, chest lifted above the waves which threaten to drown him.

“Oh yeah, that’s good,” he tries to conjure up something interesting to say and finds nothing except, “The weather is nice today.”

Erin snorts and laughs for a second time, in that infectious manner of hers which has Harry joining in, whether he likes it or not, “Where the fuck are you? It’s pissing it down with rain in London.”

Shit. Harry forgot that Hogwarts is indeed in the midst of the vast and empty Scottish Highlands- at least that is what he thinks, its unplottable nature could presumably have it anywhere and he wouldn’t know- rather than central England. It has always felt so close to him no matter where he is, which is usually in the South, trapped its rich, snobby suburbs.

“Oh, forgot to say. I usually live in Scotland.”

“What! Really?” she huffs in amusement, “Harry, you really are a bit of a mystery, aren’t you?” And Harry finds that this makes him sound a whole lot more interesting than he actually is. Yeah, he killed a dark wizard. Big deal. He spent the entire time moping about it, and getting unnecessarily angry. Still does- even. In that respect, nothing has changed at all.There is not a single thing mysterious about him.

“Not at all, Erin. Not at all. So how are you?” he offers as a change of subject.

“Aha!” she says excitedly, “I see your tactic! Trying to change the subject won’t work on me Harry.” Damn it. “How come you were in London then ? Are you back in Scotland with the person you love?” She laughs again.

Shit times two. Harry has also apparently forgotten a second thing- this being Erin’s freakish and unprecedented comments about his love life. He thinks back to when they were squatted together underneath that tree, the leaves tumbling into their laps in smooth flurries, as she questioned him about his soulmate. Then, he had considered that she perhaps had Seer blood in her; his mind had been whirling with a tornado, blustering images of Ginny and their relationship gone wrong. Suddenly, he realises that he hasn’t really thought about her in the last few days.

Justin raises his eyebrows, and even Anthony stifles a laugh, breaking his grouchy mood. Having seen it used with Muggles, Harry is aware that you don’t usually have the person at the other end of the line playing out loud like this, but he doesn’t know how to change it, and he is too scared to signal for Justin’s help.

“There’s nobody like that. I thought we covered this, Erin. I was in London just for the summer, and I am genuinely just asking how you are!” he says, leaving out details about Grimmauld Place. It is probably best that she misunderstands him and the situation, in thinking that he was only there on holiday.

“Ah but Harry, I think you’ve forgotten something,” she says cryptically. A joke is coming, he feels it. Whilst he can’t even really consider himself her friend, let alone someone he knows her tells, this tone of her voice- the one which poses itself exactly as if it is building up to a crescendo- gives away her punchline without her even needing to say it. He doesn’t have to be her bestest pal in the whole universe to recognise this.

“And what’s that?”

“I’m a witch, remember?” says Erin with a muffled laugh. He hears some dishes clink, and a voice in the background.

“Of course. I’m so sorry I ever forgot, oh wise one,” he says drily and she giggles, “Where abouts are you?”

“In bed, thinking of you, darling,” she says flirtatiously, and despite the fact that it is an obvious overkill- a joke if he has ever seen one- Justin whoops in celebration and Anthony cackles, a casual, loosened side to him unseen up until now. Harry whips round, miming putting his finger to his lips in an attempt to get them to shut up. Clearly now too familiar with Harry- maybe he should’ve kept him at arms-length after all- Justin mouths something along the lines of, “Knew you two were fucking.”

With the gorilla sounds of Anthony’s guffaws rounding up again, Harry makes the sage decision to ignore them, and flips them off as he does so.

“Thought my heart was devoted to another?” he asks Erin jokingly and almost wants to bat his eyelashes in a teasing gesture, before he remembers that she isn’t actually in the room with him. He abruptly stops himself in time- thank god. Justin’s proving to be a nightmare anyway, and goodness knows what he would do if he had actually seen Harry fluttering his eyes like some floozy actress from the 50s.

“Oh yes, but I’m sure they won’t mind me shooting my shot whilst we’re here,” says Erin, “Anyways, I’m at home right now. Here’s my flatmates. Say hi, guys!” A clash of greetings boom from the speaker, a dozen voices all at once, and the volume makes Harry cringe. They sound friendly, and Harry wonders what it would be like to live normally like that: renting a flat with your mates, having a day job, doing the dishes together in the evening. Mundane things, but a merry life.

Mind, his life at Grimmauld wasn’t too different from that- minus the mates, the job, and the housework. Add a strangling layer of trauma and anxiety which cripples him daily, and then you would pretty much have his days.

“Hey!” shouts Justin and Harry swats at him. This boy is a pest, he swears. Their friendship is cancelled, over, called off- whatever you want to say.

“Who is this, Harry?” says Erin with a laugh and he can imagine her wiggling her eyebrows suggestively. The dark haired, freckle-dusted, grinning girl of his memory would certainly do so.

“Justin. He sucks, and please ignore anything he says.”

“Don’t be stupid, my love. Justin, any friend of Harry’s is a friend of mine,” she swears, as if they have been close all their lives, rather than two people who barely know each other's names, let alone any detail of real substance.

“Do you hear that, Harry?” says Justin but Harry isn’t listening, not anymore. Some part of his brain, the bit which cares about his social life- his friends, his reputation- shuts off.

Malfoy is climbing out the bed, suddenly fully dressed despite never having left the spot to collect any clothes. Harry hasn’t heard a single shuffle, rustle or breath, either. Since yesterday’s incident, since Malfoy snapped at Harry- the first real sign of, well, anything in their time back here- Harry hasn’t seen him. As much as he has been fervorously trying to not think about it, he cannot help the interest, the curiosity, the questions, which bubble within him. Just why does Malfoy not want him to speak to him? Why is he not telling the teachers exactly what happened? The more he is denied answers, the more he craves them.

In a disconcerting twist of events, Malfoy is the only other person that confuses Harry as much as he does himself. It all used to be so simple.

He looks different today, put together, and even more angular than usual. Sharp, as if he could cut Harry in two, maybe more, with just a glance. Dressed from head to toe in black, his pale skin and snowy hair stand out as starkly as the moon does in the sky. What ruins the effect is the swollen black eye, and the dark splatter of bruises which lead a trail down his cheek and neck, before disappearing beneath his high collar.

Then Harry’s suspicions about how deathly his stares are are confirmed when Malfoy looks at him, an unbothered, unfeeling mask on his face which Harry just wants to tear away in frustration, and his insides freeze. Malfoy’s right eye twitches a little, and he blinks slowly, before turning away. He gathers his books from his desk and leaves the room swiftly, not caring to say farewell to any of them.

It takes a long time for Harry to unthaw. His conversation with Erin fades into the background of his conscience; his mouth moves mechanically, abandoned by his brain, which has wandered off into an abyss of white hair and mottled bruises.

-------

Sticking to his word about his and Elliot’s pact on sunny days equalling productivity, Justin drags Harry to the Potions lab with him. Harry has never explicitly said so, but he hates this room. He hates how it looks, how it smells, how it draws some of his worst memories to the surface.

The subject has always felt like his own personal brand of poison. Perhaps had he grown up nurtured in the classroom, no doubt how his Mum would have pictured it with all her misplaced trust in Snape, he might have liked it more. But from his very first moment here, when Snape had strode in, black robes swishing behind him menacingly as if they might engulf any stray children in his path, he felt at odds with room. The cold, claustrophobic stone walls resemble the dingy, dripping ones of a prison, and feel like it too. Even with Slughorn, who had been much kinder, Harry had experienced some of the worst parts of himself here. It is where he had lied- had let that fucking book overcome him. And for what reason?

He cannot give one, at least none that he deems legitimate enough to have warranted that gruesome outcome. And yet try as he might to forget it, it still happened- Malfoy had almost bled out in the girl’s bathroom, blood pouring out of him like a flower opens its petals. The image of it makes him feel nauseous and the bubbling red liquid in the Pewter cauldron suddenly appears a lot more unappealing.

Alas, he is here for Justin.

“So what is the potion for?” he inquires. If he is having to spend free hours in this dungeon, he wants a bloody good justification for doing so.

They have been here a while already, and have been making easy conversation about a variety of topics, but primarily the things they miss about Muggle life. It is in the fact that Justin spends so little of his energy, is so full of comments himself that he doesn’t expect much from Harry, that Harry finds endless pleasure. Harry has already expressed his adoration for the TV, and Justin has been recommending him films to watch. So far in his short life, the extent of his movie knowledge stretches to the Star Wars franchise, and that is about it. He does love it though- ever since him and Ron had sat down with a Butterbeer and gotten through the whole thing. He doesn’t own a highly classy, extremely elegant, pair of merchandised socks for nothing, thank you very much.

Justin stirs the potion absentmindedly as he flips through the instructions, trying to find a specific direction.

“Fuck, I can’t find it!” Justin says manically and Harry takes the rod from him, so that he doesn’t need to worry about doing two things at once. Murmuring his gratitude, Justin wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead. For being buried under a lake, and encased in cool stone, the lab is proving to be unfairly hot.

“Aha!” says Justin in victory, pointing his finger to a smudged line in the book, “Got it!”

Harry waits patiently for him to wrap his head around the words, because he knows that distractions can be excruciating when you are having to read over the same sentence for the second, or even third time, because your brain is having a meltdown. That was him with the takeaway menu over the summer. It seems comical now but it made him feel dumb and useless.

“Just gotta add in these, and then I think we leave it to brew for a bit,” says Justin, sprinkling in the Holly leaves delicately, as if he is afraid too many at once will make the whole thing explode. Seamus’ escapades have clearly left him scarred for life. “Anyway, what were you saying? Oh yeah, it’s a type of sleeping potion. For me, not anyone else. I’m not dodgy, I swear.”

“A sleeping potion? Like Dreamless Sleep?” asks Harry curiously and with a shudder. He has come very close to developing an addiction to the substance in the past few months. On those nights where the flashbacks and fear just won’t stop flooding through the gates, he feels like Eve must have done with the Apple upon seeing the potion glimmering in his bathroom cabinet. It is a dangerous game, but oh so worth it.

Until it fucks you up forever, as Hermione had shown him. She had taken him to St Mungo’s Rehabilitation Ward with tears in her eyes after finding him unconscious on the bathroom floor, refusing to wake up even with the use of spells. The people there had shocked him back into reality, thank god. Even in the mess of a state he was in, he could still recognise how frightened the idea of a future like this made him.

He doesn’t want to end up living his life in some hospital bed- he wants to get better.

“Kind of. I get nightmares sometimes, but it became too hard to explain why I was screaming to Elliot back when he didn’t know that I was a wizard, so I considered taking Dreamless Sleep. But it would need to be every night,” says Justin, a hint of sadness in his voice. This is the most fragile and honest Harry has ever seen him, and he is unexpectedly finding it comforting rather than overwhelming. Maybe there is some truth in it being beneficial to air your feelings after all.

“Oh, Justin,” Harry balks, “Tell me you didn’t start taking it every day. It fucks you up.”

“No, no. Thank god,” he says with a profound sigh, “I might have, had my mum not found me an alternative. This. It’s called Asmandrius, and it acts similarly but the effects aren’t as drastic. It basically just dulls your senses once you are asleep, rather than actually sending you to sleep itself. It also meant that Elliot could wake me up if need be unlike Dreamless, which completely knocks you out. Might’ve freaked him out, y’know- to find his boyfriend practically like a corpse in the night.”

Harry is more than a little interested. He wonders whether Justin would judge him if he asked for some too. It wouldn’t be like him to, but Harry really doesn’t like those moments of revelation- the ones where the other person sees through your shell, directly into the place where you are most vulnerable, and realises ah, you’re fucking insane. Hermione and Ron may have gone about it thoughtfully, but he still felt it. Their scared eyes gave away their fear, whether it was for, or even of him.

Harry looks up at the curly-haired boy beside him, who is smiling timidly, appearing almost afraid, and he suddenly understands that this is that exact same moment for Justin. He needs to be there for his new friend, needs to convey that he gets it, like he wishes someone could have for him.

“I understand,” Harry smiles, “I had a similar issue in summer- unfortunately minus the boyfriend thing,” and his face flares with heat when he realises how that could be interpreted.

Justin just smirks a fraction, his thin lips curling at the corners and his eyes twinkling in amusement- but it isn't malicious, so Harry lets it go. “Look at us, eh, Harry? Can't handle a bit of sleep.”

“Hey!” he pretends to be offended and shoves playfully at Justin’s side, “Speak for yourself. I’m a strong guy.”

“If you insist. I’ll ignore the fact that I’ve seen you crying at least twice this year if you ignore how I suck on my thumb in my sleep,” Justin says grinning, and Harry can’t be mad at the comment when he remembers how utterly, hilariously true it is- he has in fact seen Justin having a gnaw on this particular body part, but hadn’t even considered it weird until now. He is just used to people’s coping mechanisms, he supposes.

They laugh and suddenly the Potions lab doesn’t seem so dismal, not when it is filled with these joyful sounds. Snape had never invited joviality, his greasy hair practically soaking wet with bad-temper, and people had been so perplexed by Slughorn’s erratic nature that his lessons had always felt off-beat. They weren’t even funny, like Trelawney's had been, just weird.

To Harry’s dismay, the moment is broken when the door creaks open, revealing Malfoy. His face blanches at the sight of them, and he doesn’t move for a moment.

“Malfoy? Can we help you?” says Justin.

With a level of kindheartedness that must be superhuman, considering that Malfoy is all kinds of aggravating, Justin has been consistently patient with the twat. Most mornings he even bothers to wish him a good day, which usually goes unanswered, apart from one anomaly. Malfoy’s face had scrunched up and, looking like it physically pained him, muttered a quiet “You too,” before his skinny legs had scurried him away.

In the dank room, where the only noise is some faint Potion-bubbling and gurgling of the lake beyond the walls, Malfoy’s silence is deafening.

“Malfoy?” Harry questions, the lack of response irritating him. For some reason, at his voice, Malfoy’s head snaps up.

“Sorry,” he says, and then he looks immediately pissed off to have apologised. All of this is gripping to Harry, whose brain still hasn’t decided whether it wants Malfoy to piss off the edge of the Earth, or whether it should attempt to try and figure him out. He concludes that there is probably a happy median, and he will find it even if it is the death of him because he can’t live in this unsure, confusing, indeterminable state of emotion.

“Do you nee-” Harry says, assuming an aura of helpfulness, even if only to mask the fact that he actually wants to know why Malfoy is here. But he never finishes his words, for Malfoy abruptly turns away and, in a split second, withdraws from sight.

He and Justin share a glance, and Justin shrugs his shoulder before exclaiming, “Crap!” as his potion begins to bubble over. Chuckling, Harry rushes to help him and, hey, if they both burnt their robes in the process, who can blame them? It is all in the name of magic.

Later, after they have been for a stroll around the grounds, Justin departs from him to head for dinner. He had implored Harry to come with him, but Harry cannot stomach the idea of food presently. If someone were to ask why, he couldn’t give an answer that made the least bit of sense. He would expect to have an appetite after a day which, in the end, turned out to be rather active. However, he finds that as soon as his mind begins to close off for the day, as he knew it inevitably would, he can only think of one thing.

Subconsciously, his body takes him back to the Potions classroom. The castle is quiet at this time, since everyone is at dinner. In the distance, he can hear the animated voices and clattering of cutlery in the Great Hall, but it fades as he heads further down the corridors and stairwells, until there is nothing but his footsteps and his head which is beginning to pound. He is tired. Today has been a good day, he managed to make it so- refused to give into any creeping anxiety- and he is proud. But that doesn’t mean that he can keep going forever. As he has said before, his pleasures are brief. When they come, he embraces them with open and gracious arms, knowing that they will soon flitter away. Like when you wake up from a dream and have it slip from your memory within minutes, he then quickly forgets what the happiness feels like.

So now his fatigue levels are rapidly increasing, but knowing that it probably comes from the fact that he has been constructive- and social- is a satisfying thought. There is little worse than being tired with everything for no reason other than life being exhausting.

The singular thing in his mind now, other than bed, is Malfoy. Surprise surprise. He wants to know all the the comments left unsaid, all the emotions being hidden, so badly it alarms him a little.

He isn’t sure how going back to the Potions lab could help him, but his intuition is leading him there, so he is following it. There isn’t much he trusts in this world, but his gut instinct is almost always right. The only advice he would take over it is Hermione’s, because he is certain that in her entire life, she is yet to be proven wrong.

Arriving at the door, he pulls back. Inside the room, he can hear some clinking of the bottles. He stays like that for a moment, in case some further indication comes to light by sound alone- but nothing happens. Because of this, and because he thinks if he doesn’t go to bed soon, his body might fail on him, he peers round the corner, chancing being seen.

Malfoy is in there, sitting at the desk by himself, and Harry inhales sharply at the image. In all the darkness, you probably wouldn’t be able to see him had he not been born with the same pallor as a ghost, and hair to match. What makes him the most startled is that Malfoy is wearing his glasses, and has his robes shucked off. They make him look so very different- much more approachable, the roundness of the frames softening the harshness of his facial structure- and they keep slipping down his nose. The perspiration in the room is making Malfoy’s shirt stick to his back, and Harry can see his backbones poking through the thin material like they are about to rip through.

He wonders why it is so sweltering hot at this time of the evening, until he realises that Malfoy is brewing a potion. The cauldron is small, and so black it is almost invisible in the shadowy room, but definitely there.

Curiosity piqued so high it makes his head feel like it is going to burst open, Harry is glued to the doorframe. Every now and then, Malfoy pauses in writing something down on the piece of paper in front of him to follow the next step in the brewing process. Without fail, each time he raises out of his chair to reach across to the cauldron, his glasses slide down and Harry can hear faint curses, of which he can relate. He never thought he would be able to say that- that him and Malfoy have something in common, even if it is something so inconsequential as greasy glasses.

Harry isn’t sure how long he is there, but he can tell by the gradual changes to the mixture that it is sometime. The night dawns even closer, making it even harder to discern what is happening in the room as the shade of twilight grows. His brain is fried, and his limbs are numb, and this is partly why he cannot move from the spot, even if he wanted to. If Malfoy were to make sudden gestures to leave, he thinks he may just have to resign himself to getting caught.

He watches as Malfoy does something else, something new in tonight’s episode of getting even more confused by stalking Malfoy. He has to admit that it is that now- stalking. The echoes of sixth year make him feel violently ill, with everything that comes with it, but he must proceed. It wouldn’t be particularly useful for him to vomit now, just as Malfoy has let down his guard. Granted, that is because he thinks nobody is watching but, frankly, to hell with black and white morals- they went out of the window a long time ago. We live in a grey world; not even one tone- dozens of different hues- and we just have to learn to deal with that uncomfortable truth.

Malfoy hurries to the store cupboard, and stuffs a plethora of various ingredients into his leather satchel. His hair is ruffled and parting in waves, nothing like his usual combed style of the daytime. He pours the contents of the cauldron into an empty flask, before shoving that in his bag too. It seems to be heavy, and the glass jangles together noisily as he moves about.

Seemingly clearing up, Malfoy tries to cast a Scourgify on his cauldron, but it doesn’t appear to work. He grabs at his hair, messing it up even further, and his glasses finally just plop off his nose. In irritation, he vigorously thrusts the cauldron into his bag too, which despite being quite petite, still barely fits.

Harry realises he should probably move, and just about manages to force his joints into action to dive around the corner before Malfoy is tip-toeing out of the room. If he were a teacher, he would think that Malfoy certainly looks suspicious- flustered, a bag which is bulging to the brim and clinks with every step, and smelling like the chemicals of the potions lab- so it makes sense that Malfoy seems a bit nervous. His eyes dart back and forth throughout the corridor, somehow missing Harry’s slim body.

Perhaps concluding that it is safe, he folds up the piece of paper on which he has been scrawling all evening, and places it in a side pocket on his satchel. Harry observes all this with hawk-eyes, despite his lids being heavy and threatening to drop closed.

Malfoy creeps away into the dead of night, a thin figure drowned by the shadows, and Harry stares at the empty space left behind until the Siren’s song of his bed cannot be resisted any longer, and he trudges off too, hoping that he doesn’t run into Malfoy in their dorm room.

Luckily, the coast is clear. The curtains around his bed are shut, announcing Malfoy’s presence, whether Harry sees him or not. For the whole duration of the night, Harry stares at the bedframe, wondering at the boy and his secrets fastened inside of it.