The summer rain made Diagon Alley look charming, but Knockturn Alley transformed it into a hazy murkiness, something that managed to be hot and damp and gloomy all at once as Harry hurried down the street. He whirled round a corner and into Borgin and Burkes, pushing down his hood as he did, breathless.
Draco looked over, raised his eyebrows, and said, “I’ll be with you in a minute, sir.” Then he went back to talking to the creepy looking woman in robes that were much too heavy for the weather. Harry thought she looked a bit green, though it was hard to tell in the horrible light in the shop.
He poked around a bit while he was waiting, until one jewellery box snapped menacingly at him and he decided it’d be better for his fingers if he just put his hands in his pockets and waited until Draco was free.
Draco turned to him after he’d finished ringing up the woman’s purchase and said, “Well?”
“Come over here,” Harry said pleasantly.
Draco ground his teeth.
“Please,” Harry said. “I’m just interested in this lovely table, here--”
“Fine,” Draco said, and came slowly towards Harry, as the green woman ducked back out into Knockturn Alley with a jingle of the bell. Harry moved fast, grabbing Draco’s shirt and dragging him in and they kissed, the tightness in Harry’s chest easing up, Draco making a muffled sound and then sinking against Harry, arms draped over Harry’s shoulders, mouth sweet and hot.
Then Draco pulled away and said crossly, “I’m at work.”
“Mm,” Harry said. “I thought you were coming with me to visit Monster yesterday.”
Draco looked at him, blank-faced and polite, which meant he was preparing to lie. “I got called into a last minute shift,” he said. “Sorry. I need the money. I’ve got to pay you back for that fine.”
“I’ve told you, you don’t,” Harry said, but Draco looked at him with that infuriating blank look. Harry sighed. “Okay, sure. Anyway, I know that, I stopped by your flat. Narcissa told me.”
He was getting better at saying Narcissa’s name without flinching; better, too, at seeing Narcissa without having to throw up or feel as though the Forbidden Forest was closing in on him again. The sight of her still made him taste something metallic and bitter in his mouth, set his bones buzzing as though with a drill, but still. He was getting better. He wanted Draco to know it.
“Mm,” Draco said. “She mentioned.”
“Here,” Harry said, and pulled out a polaroid Hagrid had taken, a grumpy looking Monster with Harry slinging his arm cheesily around her neck and pulling a face. “She misses you, I think.”
Draco looked away. “I’m visiting as often as I can. I’m very busy.” After a moment, he reached out and took the photo.
“I know,” Harry said. “I’ve hardly seen you in weeks.”
“Harry,” Draco said, low, which was also not a good sign. The tension in Harry’s chest amped back up again.
“I had tea with McGonagall while I was there, too,” Harry said. He looked Draco in the face steadily. “She said that you’d written back to say you weren’t returning to Hogwarts this year.”
Draco turned away, slipping the polaroid into his pocket. “You already knew that,” he said, moving over to rearrange some things that very clearly did not need rearranging.
“I thought you’d changed your mind,” Harry said.
“Why would you think that? Because you changed your mind about me? Because you’ve decided that you can handle monogamy, that just means everything in the world is going to form perfectly around you?” Draco sneered at him. “You’re good in bed, Potter, but I don’t want to be your boyfriend.”
“You’re such a fucking liar,” Harry said, rolling his eyes and hopping up onto the desk. “You were the one who got all dramatic and--”
“Potter,” Draco interrupted, “I really don’t - I think you’re mistaking me for someone else again.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Harry said.
“You are,” Draco said. “This is what you do. You decide you don’t like someone, so they must be evil, or you do like them, so they must be wonderful people. That’s not how the world works.”
“I really don’t think you’re a wonderful person, Malfoy,” Harry said dryly. “You’re quite annoying, to start with.”
Draco ignored him. “I’m - I do, you know how I,” and his voice had almost dried up, it was so thin and quiet, “how I feel about you. But it doesn’t - it doesn’t change anything, just like the fact that you’ve decided you could bring yourself to - to date me or whatever new madness you’ve got in mind--”
“What,” Harry said, too loud in the dim shop. His heart was beating hard; he was pissed off again. He’d come here with such good intentions. “You mean how I - how I care about you, is that what you’re talking about? Is that what you mean, with all this shit?”
Draco had gone very pale again. Harry didn’t think he’d said it out loud before, and he felt stupid and embarrassed and unsure, but he plowed on. “I think that does change things,” he said. “I think both of us - both of us wanting - that does change things!”
“The media will crucify us,” Draco said, and Harry made an incredulous noise but Draco kept going, voice rising. “They will! And people will hate us - they’ll hate me for obvious reasons and they’ll hate you because you’ll have forgotten about all the shit I’ve done--”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
“Well, it’ll be hard to prove you remember when I’m fucking you,” Draco said, and Harry felt himself go red, hot with embarrassment and a tug in his stomach that made him want to reach out. It had been far, far too long. “We’ll be loathed, Potter, and it will be awful, and I can’t stand it and even you will realise eventually that hey, this ex-Death Eater isn’t that great after all--”
“I won’t,” Harry said, walking forward, making a grab for Draco. Draco darted out of reach. “You’re being -- first of all, I think you’re overestimating your own importance. People’ll be interested for a week. I’ve had the media be interested in me before, remember? I know what it’s like. It’ll be kind of annoying and then it will be over--”
Draco shook his head, white-faced and tight-lipped.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” Harry said, raising his voice. “It’s like you want to be miserable. How long are you going to keep martyring yourself about the war?”
“That depends! How long are you going to pretend that because you killed the Dark Lord you get a free pass for the rest of your life, and everything you ever want will fall into your lap?”
Harry stared at him. Draco was breathing hard, blotches of angry red on his cheek, and Harry ran his hand through his hair and said, “What do you - what do you want, then? What was the point of telling me everything if you’re just going to work here and refuse to be seen with me and not come back to Hogwarts--”
“There’s no point to anything, Potter,” Draco said. “What’s the point to my, my dad dying, or your friends dying, or - I told you, nothing’s ever better or worse, it’s just going to be--”
“That’s a load of shit,” Harry said. “You know it is. You’re just being a coward again.”
Draco tilted his chin up, defiant and upset. “I don’t know why you expected me to ever be anything else.”
“Draco,” Harry said, and came forward again; this time he caught Draco’s hand, tried to pull Draco toward him, wrapped an arm around Draco’s reluctant shoulders and pressed his face against Draco’s neck. He felt useless, heavy with fury and exhaustion. There was no way to fight with Draco properly, not in a way that made sense. They were too fundamentally different. Harry didn’t think they could ever live in the same way, even though some days he wanted to, more than anything. He breathed in. Draco always smelled good, like soap and fresh rain. “Listen. Just - just come back to school. Just try it. Please. For me.”
Draco was quiet for a long time. Harry closed his eyes, gave up pretending he was doing anything but holding onto Draco, and after a moment Draco’s hand came up to his hair, petting at him, soothing as though Harry was the dragon caught in a storm.
Draco said, voice distant, “I think we should stop seeing each other.”
Unsurprisingly, they were worried about him.
“It makes a nice change,” he told Ginny, who’d stopped by his flowerbed to lie down and take a nap next to him, ladybirds landing in her hair.
“What, you being full of yourself?” she murmured. “Mm. Very nice. Wake me up when you want to go flying.”
In many ways, it was like the six months before he met Draco. Every now and then he got rounded up to help catch some of the Snatchers, although they were less and less frequent. They went out dancing, and to pubs, and he had meals at the Burrow, and played games of Quidditch. It was all fine. It was dull, and the days crawled by, and Harry was almost constantly sexually frustrated, but it was fine.
He thought about sleeping with Seamus again, or maybe Luna, or even just picking someone up in the club. It wouldn’t be hard, and all those options were nice enough. But he never really mustered the energy.
He saw Draco twice. Once, Draco came around, wild-eyed, and shoved Harry up against a wall, and Harry only just managed to get them stumbling up the stairs and into a bedroom - he wasn’t sure whose, but it was empty, which was all that mattered - before Draco was shoving him down and unbuttoning his trousers. Harry had been - not happy, exactly, but more awake than he had been in weeks, and afterward he’d clung to Draco, kissed him exactly as fiercely as he’d wanted to.
“What - what happened?” he asked, but Draco shook his head and wouldn’t speak, and after a while he got up and left, and the next day Harry got a letter that said: I’m very sorry. It won’t happen again.
There was no reply to the letter Harry sent back, which read only it can.
The next time was the last time he went around to Borgin and Burkes. Draco had discovered a new and annoying sixth sense for when Harry was about to arrive and most of the times Harry tried to drop in on him at work it was to be treated to a flash of Draco’s hair as he ducked into a back room.
Except one Wednesday, when he found Draco leaning against the counter. He looked exhausted. Narcissa was standing in front of him, and when the bell jingled with Harry’s arrival she turned around, annoyed.
“Oh,” Harry said. “Sorry. I just - I wanted to talk to Draco.”
“Yes,” Narcissa said. “It’s fine. I’m done. I’ll see you at home, Draco.” Draco gave her a sulky look, and Narcissa walked past Harry and said, “Good luck, Potter.” Harry prided himself on not jumping.
He said instead, “Are you fighting with your mum?”
“Oh, Potter, I’m fighting with everyone,” Draco said. “It would be rude to leave my mum out of things.”
He leaned on the counter, rubbing his eyes, and Harry resolutely did not let himself soften, even though Draco looked tired and sad again. Instead he said, “You’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding me lately.”
“Well,” Draco said, and looked away. “I just - I think it’s for the best.”
“That’s a bit shit of you, isn’t it,” Harry said, trying to keep his voice level. “Have a massive go at me that night like it’s my fault we can’t - we’re not - and then the moment I turn back, you, what, run away again?”
Draco didn’t say anything, staring at the countertop. It was gleaming, polished. Everying in this store was bright and organised and clean, a weird contrast to the gloomy lighting and dismal colour scheme. Draco looked fidgety.
“You must be going out of your mind with boredom,” Harry said thoughtlessly, looking about, and Draco glared at him.
“If you’ve just come to criticise me and my career choices--”
“Your career choices?” Harry echoed, disbelieving. “Draco! You tamed a dragon, what are you doing here? You’re just going to play shop for the rest of your life? This is mad!”
“I didn’t tame her,” Draco mumbled. “She was just lonely, it was - it’s fine, whatever, I wish you’d leave me alone.”
“No, you don’t,” Harry said, feeling himself lose his temper. “You don’t, you’re just being a coward, you’re--”
“People get over crushes all the time, Potter,” Draco said sharply. “I’m sorry if I got your little hopes up, but it was a very stressful time and the whole getting laid thing was new and exciting and I got a bit carried away! I wish you’d stop throwing it in my face like we were - what, the great romance of the century? Fuck off.”
Harry stared at him. Draco stared back, flushed and angry, almost panting for air, and then Harry whirled around and left.
He didn’t go back. Draco had made it more than clear - and if he’d gotten over it, Harry would, too, eventually, he was sure. He went out clubbing that night and kissed a blonde girl under the lights, long curly hair tumbling down her back, but after a while he wandered off to get a drink and never really wandered back.
The summer was too hot now for the attic room to be cold, though Grimmauld Place did its very best to remain as gloomy as ever.
What Harry didn’t really understand was how there were still Slytherins in his life, even after Draco had made it so very clear what he thought of Harry. Pansy Parkinson just kept on dropping round, having formed a weird sort of friendship with Ginny where she sat and complained about things and Ginny listened and then demanded that Pansy play Quidditch with her. Pansy traded half an hour of Quidditch for an hour of complaining and Ginny seemed bizarely satisfied with the whole thing, and sometimes Hermione and Neville would sit in and talk wizarding law with her as well.
It was all very strange.
Plus Pansy would bring various people hanging on, a boy once who stared at her like she’d hung the moon - Pansy seemed fairly oblivious to his presence, and Harry half wondered if he’d followed her home without her noticing - and every now and then with a bored looking Blaise Zabini. Once - to Harry’s horror - she came with Narcissa.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, stopping cold in the doorway. Normally he managed to avoid Pansy when she was here, but with Narcissa there he felt suddenly conscious of how small the house was. His hands were trembling. Annoyed, he stuck them in his pockets.
Narcissa gave him a cool look. “Hello, Potter,” she said, with a slight sneer. Harry wasn’t sure when she’d dropped the Mr. He couldn’t decide whether or not it was worse. “Pansy mentioned to me that this house had been having some problems with my aunt. I thought I’d come along and take her away.”
“With - wait, with Mrs Black?” Harry said, astonished.
“Unless you’re very attached to her, of course,” Narcissa said.
Harry held his hands up. “Be my guest.”
He trailed behind her in the hall, uneasy and wanting to watch, as Pansy led her chattering up to Walburga’s portrait. Walburga - rarely quiet these days, she’d never really gotten over the shock of Draco leaving - ceased her grumpy mumbling to stare at Narcissa in disbelief and say, “Why, my dear. You’re looking old.”
“Hello, Aunty,” Narcissa said, smiling. “I hope you don’t mind but I’ve come with a proposition that you come back with me. I live in London, now, with Draco - you remember Draco?”
“That darling boy,” Walburga said, and the portrait fell neatly down off the wall and into Narcissa’s waiting hands.
Harry gaped. “You’re fucking kidding me. We tried to get her off the wall for ages.”
“Portrait magic’s quite tricky, Potter,” Pansy said. “What were you going to do with her?”
“I think Sirius wanted to burn her.”
“There you go, then,” Pansy said, rolling her eyes. “Ready, Narcissa?”
“I can’t believe you want to take her home,” Harry said, shaking his head. “What are you going to do?”
“We’ll put her up,” Narcissa said, and then gave him a look that felt weirdly pointed. “The house gets lonely, with just Draco and I. I think we could both do with some company.”
Pansy made a face. “Seeya, Potter,” she said, and strolled away.
But she was back a week later, arguing with Hermione over dinner about the finer points of a law Harry didn’t even understand. Harry bolted his food down and then went to sit outside and drink with Dean and Seamus, and counted himself as having done well for having avoided her, except that after a while she followed him out.
“Hello, Potter,” she said, and Harry stared at her.
“What do you want?”
“I’m catching up,” she said, “I’m being polite. What have you been doing this summer?”
“Nothing,” Harry said reluctantly. “What have you been doing?”
“Working. We can’t all be layabouts.”
“Yeah,” Harry said. “You and Draco, you’re both pillars of society. The world would crumble without you.”
Pansy raised her eyebrows. “You’ve been seeing Draco, then.”
Harry’s stomach felt weird, twisting and defeated. “I’m sure you know I haven’t.”
“Actually,” Pansy said, “he’s become remarkably close-mouthed. It’s very annoying for me, I’m sure you can imagine.”
Harry folded his arms over his chest. “What a hard life you lead, Parkinson. Sorry I can’t help more, but he dumped me, so. I haven’t been having lots of great talks with him since.”
Dean and Seamus started up a bright conversation a few metres away, cheerfully pretending they weren’t listening.
“I always thought you were an idiot, Potter,” Pansy said, turning on her heel, “and it’s good to be proved right.”
“Wait,” Harry said, standing up. “What are you - why don’t you just tell me whatever it is you want? Instead of lounging around dropping hints all the time?”
Pansy didn’t say anything, mouth tight.
“Yeah, see,” Harry said, and knuckled at his eyes. “Look, I - I can’t do anything. He seems fairly over me, anyway, so, you know--”
“Potter,” Pansy said, very quickly, “you never asked me who Draco had a crush on in 5th year.”
“I’m just saying. You never asked.”
It took Harry a moment to remember. “What - I thought it was a teacher.”
“Yes,” Pansy said. “He recovered quite well, didn’t he?”
She turned on her heel and rattled up the steps.
“Well, ’s good ter see yeh, anyway, Harry,” Hagrid said, leaning against the wooden fence while Harry stood and talked to Monster, feeding her sardines. She seemed warier of him than normal. Harry rubbed her head, and she peered down at him, those strange pale eyes glowing in the oncoming dusk. It was getting darker earlier again. The summer was dying around them.
Harry was glad. He wanted to be back at school. He felt tired all the time, and lonely.
“She doesn’ let me get too close, most days,” Hagrid told him. “Yeh’re good fer her. Doesn’ do, a creature that lon’ly all the time. S’hard ter watch.”
“I would have thought she’d love you,” Harry said. He stroked her neck. She made a strange noise. “She’s normally all right with people, once she realises they’re feeding her and not going to hurt her. I suppose the Ministry messed her up a bit.”
“Aye, they did that,” Hagrid said. He sighed heavily. “But - it was a good thing that Malfoy boy did. Lookin’ after ‘er and all. But he doesn’ come by much these days.”
Harry made a face, furious and defensive at once. “He works a lot, I think. But he’s also - I don’t know, he’s got some thing about Hogwarts.”
“Lotsa kids do,” Hagrid said knowledgably. “McGonagall’s offerin’ counsellin’ sessions this term, did y’know? Lots of the little ‘uns are rarin’ to come back, but the older ones - the sixteen year olds, y’know, the ones who saw what happened, the ones who understood. She’s been out visitin’ them and their families, tryin’ to convince them that it’s safe now. But it’s awful hard to come back somewhere yeh thought yeh were gonna die.”
Harry kept his hand on Monster’s neck, soothing while she gobbled down the fish. He didn’t turn. The weight of the Forbidden Forest’s shadow hung heavy over him.
“Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t,” Harry said.
“Course,” Hagrid said comfortably. “Well, tha’s what she’s tellin’ em, anyway.”
“Yeah,” Harry said. “Good for her.” He stroked Monster’s neck. “Monster’ll get used to you.”
“I know,” Hagrid said. “She’s a beauty. I’m glad to ‘ave ‘er. And he did a good thing, lookin’ aft’r her. I think she’d be dead otherwise, or worse. Still, it’s a hard thing ter do, make somethin’ love you an’ turn it away.”
Harry turned around and it burst into flame.
“All right, mate,” Ron said, making a nervous face over Harry’s shoulder at Hermione that Harry clearly wasn’t meant to see. “It’s been a bit temperemental for the past few weeks but that’s not - I really think it was settling down before, maybe it just doesn’t like summer.”
“It was settling down because of him,” Harry said, furious, “it was him, it just likes fucking Pureblood bastards, that’s all this house wants, listen to it shaking--”
“Harry,” Hermione said. “I think that’s you.”
Harry stood very still and drew in a breath, and the house quietened down around him. He looked out the window. He closed his eyes.
Pansy Parkinson could talk all she wanted, but Draco had been pretty clear. The whole thing still felt vaguely impossible, anyway. The idea of them managing something real, something true, some sort of relationship was like a fever dream conjured out of Lucius’s death and the worry about Monster and Harry’s inability to just let things go. What Harry really wanted, suddenly, was to go back to April: those early spring days, the two of them out in Wales, alone with the dragon. He wanted to go back there and pull Draco into his lap and hide them away, untouched, where Draco couldn’t get frightened, where Harry wouldn’t get angry.
He was pretty sure, thinking about it, that he’d spent a lot of that April angry and Draco had spent a lot of it frightened. But it felt easier to deal with: less complicated, less messy, less about the queer ache he carried around all day.
He didn’t go down Knockturn Alley. He went with Hermione and Ron to Florean Foretscue’s instead, and sat in the window, and didn’t sulk.
A few nights later Professor McGonagall came around for tea again, which always made Harry feel faintly nervous, like he was thirteen again. McGonagall had long, in depth conversations with Hermione about career paths and slipped up fairly frequently by calling Harry by his first name, but she still felt like the terrifying Head of Gryffindor, about to dock points any minute.
He loved her, though, secretly and a little embarrassedly. It was stupid, to love a teacher, but every time he saw her grim face as she looked around their dirty kitchen he was relieved that she’d survived. He couldn’t think of any other person who could sit in Dumbledore’s office.
“Mr Potter,” she said that night, “I’m going to ask you another favour. Or the same favour, really.”
“I’m not sure if you know, but the Great Hall is still fairly unstable,” she said. “It was hit worst in the battle and it’s proving the most difficult to repair. I am certain we will get there - perhaps even within the next year or so - but it’s delicate work and in any case, we want to open the school up to students. We’ve created a couple of makeshift dining halls for use throughout the year but it will be impossible to fit the whole school in one.”
Harry raised his eyebrows. “I’m still not entirely sure what you’re asking me to do, Professor.”
“You’ve gotten very forthcoming, Harry,” McGonagall said severely. “I think you’ve become rather too used to bossing around the Ministry. Shut up and listen to me.”
Harry’s mouth twitched. “Yes, Professor. Sorry.”
“That’s all very well and good for the year, but we’ve decided it would be nice to have the whole school together at least for the first night,” she continued. “And for the Sorting Ceremony. So Flitwick and I have been working on creating a nice little outdoor setting, out the front of the castle, near the bridge. We’ll have some tables and some weather protection charms and we’ve decided to invite parents along, for the first night, if they wish to come. Quite a lot of families are still feeling a bit - clingy. We think it would be nice. The parents can come along for the Sorting and the dinner and we’ll have a nice little welcome for them.”
Harry was uneasy. “What sort of welcome?”
“Nothing too frightening, Mr Potter, don’t grimace at me. I’ll say a few words. And, if you’d like, you could say a few words, too.”
Harry rubbed the back of his neck. “Professor--”
“Not to mark the end of the war, Harry,” McGonagall said, voice soft. “Not even to remember anyone’s death. Just to welcome you, and your classmates, back to school.”
“I’ll.” Harry let out a breath. “I’ll think about it.”
“Thank you, Mr Potter,” McGonagall said. “That’s all I ask.”
Harry did think about it, late at night. He didn’t want to make speeches, he didn’t want to be famous, he’d never wanted any of it. But he thought about Draco by the lake, his eyes closed, the hot still air of what Harry had thought was the beginning of a promising summer: Nothing is better or worse. Every day is terrible.
He’d been wrong, Harry thought. Draco was wrong about a lot of things, but that was one of them, one of the big ones. Harry was going to tell everyone so.
He wrote back to McGonagall: Yes, I’ll do it, and she wrote back: I’m delighted. Perhaps a little less swearing than usual, Mr Potter.
“You’re an intern, Pansy,” Ron said, laughing. Harry really wasn’t sure when Ron had started getting on with Pansy. It was somehow even more disturbing than Ginny. The next thing she’d be wearing one of Mrs Weasley’s jumpers. “Forgive us if we don’t envy your glamorous lifestyle too much.”
“I’m getting there,” Pansy said, helping herself to Harry’s glass of red. He stared at her incredulously. She smiled politely back. “Another couple of months and I’ll have my boss completely helpless without me. Then I’ll leave. Then I’ll come back on the promise that she’ll give me a promotion.”
“That’s quite manipulative of you,” Ginny said, sounding interested, and Pansy smiled, showing all her teeth.
“It’s okay,” she said. “My boss quite likes being manipulated.”
“Oh ho ho,” Seamus said, who now seemed to think of Pansy’s attempt to kidnap him as some hilarious prank.
“I’m looking forward to going back,” Dean said, adding to Seamus, “Going to be weird with you, though. Are you sure you don’t want to repeat?”
“I don’t know,” Seamus said. “It would be nice to do seventh year without worrying about being tortured. But also - exams.”
“Don’t worry,” Ginny said, smiling slyly at Dean. “I’ll keep you company.”
Lavender shook her head. “It feels like cheating, to go back,” she said, in the same quiet voice that always gave Harry a shock when he heard her speak now. “It feels like forgetting what happened. What we did, what we made it through.” She shrugged. “Also the exams thing.”
“Did you know our year got the worst NEWTS results ever?” Pansy put in. “Well, worst median score, but also best pass rate. Go team trauma!”
She pumped her first. Several people joined in, including Neville. Harry didn’t understand what had happened to the Gryffindors.
“You weren’t traumatised,” he told Pansy. “Far as I remember you were on the side of all the torturers.”
“Oh, Harry,” Neville said, and rolled his eyes. “Come on. At least pretend to be consistent.”
“What,” Harry said, annoyed.
“It’s okay,” Pansy said, grinning meanly. “I know all about Potter’s pitfalls.”
“Shut up,” Harry told her, and Pansy laughed and changed the subject.
The worst of it all was that if Harry was honest, he could tell why the Weasleys liked her. It was the same reason Draco had liked her: she was smart and mean and quick, and she had a streak of sarcasm that always made people do a double take. She was funny. Even Harry had to bite his cheek to keep from laughing at her jokes sometimes. But Harry liked her best as part of a pair, with Draco in their weird best friend vaudeville double act playing dumb tunes on the piano and blithely sharing each other’s secrets.
He excused himself after dinner, said he was going to get an early night, and went upstairs to sit on the top step outside the attic room, not quite ready for bed yet. His hands twitched in his lap. He missed Monster. He missed Hedwig.
A creak on the stairs made him look up, and he made an annoyed face at Pansy putting her head around the stairs cautiously.
“What,” he said, and she said, “Don’t take that tone with me. I grew up in Slytherin, I know how to handle tantrums.”
“Fine,” Harry said, and Pansy sat down on the step below him.
“What’s the school going to do about the bloody dragon?” she asked. “Honestly, do you think they have a clause? Must be at least one thing that can kill students at all times?”
Harry bit his cheek again. “Monster’s fine,” he said. “Hagrid’s looking after her. She’s going to be out of bounds.”
“Ah yes, that always worked well in the past, as I recall,” Pansy said, and laughed. “Don’t glare at me, Potter. I know it’ll be fine. I’m making pleasant conversation with you.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
“You’re very grumpy,” she said. “I can see why you and Draco get on. He’s very grumpy, too.”
Harry stiffened. “Don’t,” he said. “Look, just - don’t.”
“I just wanted you to know,” Pansy started, and then stopped. She huffed out a breath, looking pissed off. “Look. I wanted to apologise. For everything, after - after I first found out. I think I reacted too quickly. It’s just that you’re a very annoying person, Potter. But I’m sorry if I - made things worse, for you two.”
Harry laughed incredulously. “Who’s the arrogant one now?”
Pansy shrugged, and Harry turned his face away.
“Whatever,” he said. “I think he can make things worse all on his own.”
“He’s stubborn,” she said. “And he’s been frightened for a long time. A really, really long time. You don’t get it, Potter, everyone in the world knows how brave you are--”
“Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared,” Harry said, voice strained. “I wish you two would stop acting like the fact that he hasn’t been brave means he doesn’t ever have to. It’s not a Gryffindor badge that they just give you and then it’s easy! It’s - it’s--”
“I know,” Pansy said.
“I miss him,” Harry said, and then doubled over, horrified, hiding his face. His voice had cracked. After a moment, he felt a light touch to his hair. He shuddered. “Don’t. Don’t.”
“Okay,” Pansy said. “All right, Potter. I’m leaving now. I’m sorry.”
Harry stayed where he was, hunched with his face buried against his knees, long after her footsteps trailed away.
Despite himself, Harry’s heart lifted at the sight. No Hedwig to put on the train, and the platform looked emptier than usual, the smallest school year in decades to return, but it was still Hogwarts, the beginning of the return home. Harry leaned back against the wall.
“All right, mate?” Ron asked, grinning at him, and Harry nodded.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m ready.”
Harry thought it was rather a good idea of McGonagall’s to invite the parents along. Though not all of them were coming, it was enough that it filled out the Express, and they sat up one end of the carriage talking while students ran riot up and down the aisles. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Luna, and Dean found a carriage for themselves, and sat looking at each other in silence for a few moments while outside two fifth years had a rather passionate reunion.
“All right, then,” Ginny said, “no one cry,” and Dean laughed and slung a comfortable arm around her shoulders and Luna started reading to them from the latest edition of the Quibbler. Harry leaned against the window and watched the countryside whir by, the familiar flat green fields giving way to the slow rising land, outcrops of hills, ragged forests spreading their way beneath the train.
He’d looked, on the platform. He hadn’t meant to but he had anyway, craning his neck at every flash of blond hair, startled and annoyed every time it turned out, inevitably, not to be him. But it was okay, now. He was on the train.
Maybe in a few months, when he felt less painfully rejected, he’d try and write to Draco. He could send him some photos of Monster. Or maybe in a few months Draco wouldn’t feel like anything at all; a fleeting memory, a weird couple of weeks. Very probably Harry wasn’t - what this felt like. He’d thought he’d been in love with Ginny; he’d been wrong then.
“Harry,” Hermione said, and Harry looked back at her.
Hermione reached out her hand. He took it.
“Okay,” she said, and went back to napping with her head on Ron’s shoulder.
Everything was close enough to the same to make Harry’s chest feel tight, and he saw students crying on the platform as they climbed out in the dark. The thestrals were waiting: this time, nearly everyone could see them, and some students screamed but others came forward, curious, and Harry saw Luna teaching a bunch of fourth years the way they liked their ragged manes stroked. Harry waited to spot Hagrid and wave to him before he got into his own carriage, the four of them sleepily chatting as they made their ragged, rocking way up towards the school.
Harry had been imagining some strange, dark picnic from what McGonagall had told him, but as they crossed the bridge he startled, half hanging out the side of the carriage to better see, and Ron said, “Blimey.”
The castle was lit up, hundreds and thousands of fairy lights around long tables, and a warming charm that made it feel, more than anything, like the end of a long summer evening with the pink of sunrise still lingering in the sky. House banners hung from the stone walls above the entranceway, and there were the four house tables and the great table at the front, just the same as always, only now there was another table at the back for parents; Peeves was currently swooshing through it and making faces, shrieking, “I can see right through that Hair-Gro-Glow, sir!”
“Gosh,” Hermione said, looking pleased, “they’ve really outdone themselves, haven’t they,” and they went to reserve places at the Gryffindor table, throwing their cloaks down on the spots. It was too warm to wear them.
McGonagall came bearing down on them, looking a bit like a harried bat in her enormous robes and hat, and Harry said cheerfully, “Hello Professor! I decided I was going to talk about how important it is to blow off classes in order to celebrate being alive, is that okay?”
“Mr Potter, I don’t know who has been flattering you about your wit but rest assured they are merely trying to impress a so-called hero of the wizarding world,” McGonagall said, with an annoyed look at Ron, currently laughing helplessly and holding himself up against the table. “Meanwhile, you are distracting the first years, if I could ask you to just stand over here while everyone’s getting settled--”
And she herded them away from the tables, flapping her hands, until the three of them were standing just behind the parents’ table, tucked half out of sight, or at least not taking space up at the Gryffindor table.
“Well, Harry,” Hermione said. She smiled at him, a little tremulously. “Do you know what you’re going to say?”
“I’ll work something out,” he said. He had a vague idea. He’d tried writing something down, but it kept coming out depressing. He was sure it would be all right.
“One more year, huh,” Ron said, looking over at the castle. “You ready?”
“I think so,” Harry said. “How hard can it be?”
“Harry,” Hermione said.
“We know, Hermione,” Ron said, putting his arm around her and hugging her close affectionately. “Lots of hard work. Piles and piles of homework, Harry, you’ll hardly have the time to be sad--”
“I’m not sad!”
“Of course not, how could you be, with this much homework,” Ron said solemnly. “And when you do need to pine you can go out and do it with that bloody great dragon.”
McGongagall said, “Good evening, students, teachers, parents, friends.” She paused and then said, briskly and only a little huskily, “I must say, it’s very nice to see you all back here at last.”
“I’m not pining, either,” Harry whispered. “Pining for who, anyway? Malfoy? I’ve had more than enough of Malfoys, honestly--”
“Harry,” Hermione repeated, a little impatient, and Harry turned to her and realised for the first time that Hermione wasn’t looking up at the castle with him and Ron; she wasn’t looking at McGonagall, either, standing up the front and welcoming everyone. She was looking back, back towards the bridge, where the light from the makeshift tents outside reflected off the lake and up, the whole night blue and pink and pretty. But she wasn’t looking at the lights, either.
Draco Malfoy and his mother were walking over the bridge.
The world shifted again, quietly falling away and then building itself back up around Harry. Harry stood still, frozen; behind him McGonagall was saying his name but he’d turned his back on the castle and on everyone waiting at their long tables, and even Ron and Hermione had fallen back behind him, so that it was just Draco there, coming towards him.
Narcissa looked almost bored, as though she did this every day, but Draco’s face was peaked and nervous, and as he drew closer Harry could see his eyes darting around, the white knuckled grip he had on his own wand. There were whispers behind Harry, the first terrible murmurs of people catching sight of the Malfoys. Harry took a step forward.
Draco’s foot hit solid ground, and he looked suddenly very young, and very frightened. He turned to look back over his shoulder.
Everything left Harry’s head in a rush and he half flew to Draco, except that Draco took the last stumbling step forward and they reached for each other at the same time.
Harry pressed his face against Draco’s neck and Draco clutched at him, so hard it hurt, almost desperate, his hands fisted in the back of Harry’s robes. Harry ran his hands up Draco’s side, over his neck, his hair, and said, “Oh, thank God. Thank God.”
“All right, Potter?” Draco said.
“Yes,” Harry said. He nipped at Draco’s neck and Draco squawked and hit the back of his head. Harry laughed, lifted his head enough that he could see Draco’s face. Draco still looked terrified. Harry didn’t mind, this time.
“You’re making a scene,” Draco told him.
“You can talk,” Harry said. “For someone who didn’t want to come back to school, you made a hell of an entrance.”
“How d’you know I’ve come back to school?” Draco said. “I heard you were making a speech. Obviously since I’m such a Potter fan I thought, well, this can’t be missed--”
But Harry clenched his hands in Draco’s robes, shook him lightly. “You are,” he said. “Right? You are. Draco.”
“All right, calm down,” Draco said, though he looked pleased. His eyes were all bright and shiny again. Harry couldn’t believe what an awful liar Draco was. He couldn’t believe he’d been tricked. “Yes. Obviously. I missed the damn train and we had to walk past the Apparation border--”
“Idiot,” Harry said, and cupped Draco’s face in his hand, looking up at him. Draco stared back at him, all hazy. “What - why did you change your mind?”
“Everyone kept yelling at me,” Draco said. He sounded distracted, gaze flickering down to Harry’s mouth. “And - and my dragon’s here.”
“Ah,” Harry said. “Your dragon. Yes.”
He drew in a breath, stroked his thumb over Draco’s cheek, catching the corner of his mouth. Draco’s chest hitched. Harry told him, “You look good. Really, really good.”
“You’re learning,” Draco said.
“Uhm,” Ron said. “Harry. Mate.”
“Right,” Harry said, and turned around, keeping one hand holding tight onto Draco’s robes. Quite a large proportion of the school was watching him. “Right, okay. That speech.”
“If you don’t mind, Mr Potter,” Professor McGonagall said, looking very pinched at the mouth indeed. “Mr Malfoy, you’re late, that’s five points from Slytherin. Mrs Malfoy, the parents table is there.”
“Thank you, Minerva,” Narcissa said, with perfect grace. She nodded meaningfully at Harry and went to sit down at the parents table. Several people shuffled away from her. She didn’t appear to notice.
“Five points,” Draco began, looking outraged. “School hasn’t even started yet! That’s favouritism, that’d never happen to a Gryff--”
“Sit down,” Harry said, giving him a little shove. “Shut up. I’ll come find you in a minute.”
“Don’t want to miss your speech,” Draco muttered, as he stalked off to his seat. “Probably get fifty points for making such a wonderful speech, even though you can’t string two words together, Merlin, this year’s going to be awful--”
Harry was fully aware that he had probably a demented beam as he went up to take McGonagall’s place at the podium. He tried clearing his expression, but wasn’t sure how well it had worked. Ginny was in hysterics, hanging onto Dean’s shoulder to keep from laughing so hard she fell off the bench. Seamus and Neville had identical expressions of tragic resignation. Luna gave him a thumbs up.
Ron and Hermione were smiling at him.
The Slytherin table was very empty this year. Of all the houses, the fewest students had returned to Slytherin. Draco sat alone at the end of the table, with those who remained in Slytherin whispering and darting uneasy glances at him. At the parents table, too, a wide berth had formed around Narcissa. Narcissa looked as though she hadn’t noticed it all. Draco looked as though he could notice almost nothing else.
Almost nothing else -- when Harry stared, Draco looked up and met his gaze. He nodded once, curtly, but his cheeks had gone pink again.
Harry leaned into the voice magnification spell. “Hi,” he said, “sorry,” and there was an appreciative laugh around the room. Across the grounds, he could almost feel the presence of Monster, something wild here nestled in the safe circle of Hogwarts.
Harry rubbed a hand through his hair, making it, probably, worse than ever. His heart was hammering hard in his chest. He said, “Narcissa Malfoy is a war hero.”