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Two Houses

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The heavy red velvet curtains hissed as they dragged across the floor to reveal a darkened stage. With a loud click, a spotlight burst into life, illuminating the ominously empty stage. A long, awkward silence followed and the audience seemed to hold its collective breath, waiting for any indication of life. All eyes flitted to the right of the stage at the sound of nervous footsteps approaching; the shuffling grew louder with each step and soon a young man, no older than fifteen, came into view. He stepped into the intense spotlight, recoiling slightly at the blinding light, blinking desperately although he could see nothing. He was so frail in appearance that he looked as though a strong gust of wind would blow him away. His mousy brown hair was plastered flat against his head, whether from overheating thanks to the heavy leather breeches he wore, or fear, or a combination of the two. He quickly swiped the back of his hand over his pale brow, blinking rapidly as the sweat stung his eyes. His breaths were coming out in short, nervous pants, audible to the first few rows of the expectant audience. He wrung his hands together, staring out into the blackness, struggling to find the words as the silence seemed to stretch out for all eternity.

After an awkward few moments, he slipped a shaking hand into his doublet pocket and closed his eyes, taking a steadying breath, and the tension appeared to ease in his shoulders. When his eyes slid open again, he had stopped shaking, and when he finally spoke—to the surprise of everyone there, including the young man—his voice rang loud and clear...

“Two households, both alike in dignity,” he began, his voice carrying across the large audience as though someone had applied a Sonorus Charm to it. “In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”

Everyone listened intently as the boy spoke and the lighting on the stage began to change, the left side illuminated in pale green light, the right in a soft red hue. The boy walked slowly across the front of the stage and the spotlight followed him.

“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,” he declared, his voice growing in strength with each word that he spoke. “Whose misadventured piteous overthrows doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.”

The boy stopped dead in his tracks and glared down at two people sitting in the front row, anonymous and unseen by the rest of the audience. He allowed the silence to stretch out to dramatic effect before turning away and continuing his introduction to the play.

“The fearful passage of their death-marked love and the continuance of their parents’ rage—which, but their children’s end—nought could remove, is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.” He turned dramatically towards the audience again before sinking into a low bow. “The which, if you with patient ears attend, what here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.”

The young boy vanished from view as the spotlight fell and the audience erupted into uproarious applause, hundreds of eyes struggling to follow the dark outline of his shadow as he strode across the dimmed stage and out of sight, which was still glowing an ominous emerald green and ruby red.

Chapter Text

July 31st 1998

In the two months since the Battle of Hogwarts and the end of the Second Wizarding War, Minerva McGonagall had been run ragged. Determined to have the school repaired and ready for the new influx of students come September first, she had divided her time between coordinating large portions of the castle being rebuilt, writing condolence letters to the families of students and staff members who had perished in the battle, as well as sending out acceptance letters to the new wave of students for the upcoming year. Her task was made doubly difficult considering the high volume of Muggleborn students who hadn’t received their letters the previous year, and a large number of students who, understandably, sought to repeat their seventh and final year.

Hogwarts is going to be rather cramped this year, she thought ruefully.

She also had to contend with finding replacements for several of the teaching staff who had died, been jailed, or had quit. Her first year as Headmistress hadn’t even officially begun and already she had developed a permanent headache.

Although the volume of work seemed insurmountable, Minerva was determined to fulfil her duty as Headmistress and get everything ready on time. She had little time for distractions, but she could not help but be distracted by the most recent article posted in The Daily Prophet. She bristled as she read the article for the third time:

 

In a controversial move that critics say echoes the latter days of Cornelius Fudge’s tenure, Minister Kingsley Shacklebolt has sought to implement sweeping Educational Reforms at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The Ministry has faced harsh criticism for keeping certain elements of the previous administration’s reforms in place as well as making controversial appointments at the school, in a move that some argue undermines the authority of the headmistress, Professor Minerva McGonagall.

As many of our readers well know, Muggle Studies was made a compulsory subject during the Dark Lord’s regime in an effort to indoctrinate children by exposing them to grossly inaccurate and hate-filled materials about Muggles. Minister Shacklebolt, however, has defended the decision to keep it as a core subject alongside Charms, Potions, History of Magic, Defence Against the Dark Arts, Astronomy and Herbology.

“It is an important subject for students to learn,” he argued at a recent press conference. “Now more than ever. Many children from Wizarding families have no experience of the Muggle world and my administration aims to address that.”

The Minister vehemently denied comparisons to the reforms introduced by his predecessor, Cornelius Fudge, who appointed then-Head of the Improper Use of Magic Office, Dolores Umbridge (formerly Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic, latterly Head of the Muggle-Born Registration Commission, now convicted felon and imprisoned at Azkaban Fortress. For a more detailed profile, see page 19), to the position of High Inquisitor and passed sweeping legislation giving itself an unprecedented level of control at the renowned educational institution.

Minister Shacklebolt has denied accusations that the Ministry is overreaching its authority, dismissing claims that Educational Decree Number Twenty-Two had been reinstated.

“The conduct of previous administrations are hardly comparable to my tenure and I take offence at such,” argued Shacklebolt. “The Ministry wields no such power or influence at Hogwarts and it would be inappropriate to do so. Headmistress McGonagall and I are both in agreement that it would be immeasurably beneficial if Muggle Studies remained part of the core curriculum at Hogwarts. That decision was ultimately hers to make and I support her fully.”

It is perhaps worth noting that when the Daily Prophet reached out to Headmistress McGonagall for comment, she refused to speak to our reporters. Perhaps this is a sign that there is already tension between the new headmistress and the recently-appointed Minister for Magic?

“More the case that I didn’t want to give you buggers the time of day,” she muttered darkly to herself.

She had had enough trouble in the past with The Daily Prophet to last her nine lifetimes. She thought back to the articles that they had written about Potter, lauding him with praise one day and deriding him the next, whichever best suited them at that moment in time. She felt white hot anger swell inside of her at the memory. It was one thing to criticise Albus; he was a grown man and could handle the criticism, but to target a child...she’d never forgive them for their treatment of the boy.

Her eyes fell on a smaller article above the main headline: ‘Harry Potter Returns to Hogwarts!’

Minerva couldn't deny that she was pleased that he would be returning for his seventh and final year of education. She peered closely at the photo of him: it looked as though it had been taken at one of the many Ministry hearings that were taking place that summer. Potter was looking decidedly more dishevelled than usual: his mop of black hair was messier than ever, his round glasses doing little to hide the dark shadows under his eyes. He still looked as though he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. Minerva supposed, until recently, he had.

She rather hoped that this year, finally, would be one free of worry, woe, and drama for the young man. Although, this is Harry Potter, she thought wryly. Trouble follows that boy everywhere. She could only hope that whatever drama inevitably darkened his doorstep this year wasn’t anything too dangerous this time.

Minerva had kept a close eye on Potter’s activities over the summer. She had been sorry to hear (through the blasted Prophet, no less) that he and Miss Weasley had parted ways over the summer, although she didn't put much stock in the rumours that the pretty redhead had fallen into the arms of another man. She thought back to the ridiculous stories the Prophet had publicised suggesting Potter and Miss Granger were an item, the reporters wildly off the mark as usual. Minerva would have laughed at the suggestion had it not been so serious; Miss Granger had been hospitalised after an overzealous ‘fan’ of Mr Potter’s had sent Miss Granger bubotuber pus in the owl post. No, Minerva had no time or patience for reporters, especially ones from the Daily Prophet.

When the reporters had owled her for comment on the article that they were writing, she had let her anger get the better of her and had ignored them.

After reading the published article though, and seeing how they had even managed to twist her silence into a thinly-veiled and unfounded criticism of Kingsley, she realised that perhaps that had been short-sighted of her. She would write to Kingsley later in the evening to discuss the article and reaffirm her support of him. Pushing her glasses which had slid to the end of her long nose up, she continued to read:

While Minister Shacklebolt attempts to brush off the changes in the curriculum as of little note or interest to the public, it has come to the attention of The Daily Prophet that more insidious forces are at work than the Ministry would have us believe. While Minister Shacklebolt continues to project an image of unity and strength in the aftermath of the Second War, Ministry officials—some who wish to remain anonymous—have argued that things are not going as well as the Minister and his administration would have us believe.

“There are growing concerns within the current administration that the fall of the Dark Lord’s regime has left a power vacuum that is ripe for smaller, but no less dangerous, extremist groups to emerge from,” said Elphias Doge, Special Advisor to the Wizengamot. “One particular area of concern is Hogwarts. The students at the school were at the mercy of the Death Eaters for a year. The children were brainwashed for months; it was drilled into them that Muggles were inferior, less than human. Merlin knows the damage that was done.”

And the subject that was the regime’s primary interest?

“Muggle Studies was viewed as an important subject to ‘re-educate’ the children into the Death Eaters’ way of thinking, although the entire curriculum was altered to reflect pureblood ideologies and priorities,” said one high-ranking official who wished to remain anonymous. “The textbooks were rewritten, especially in history and biology, to promote the Dark Lord’s 'greatness', pureblood 'supremacy' and anti-Muggle propaganda. Children’s minds are impressionable and they are easily susceptible to manipulation, particularly from authority figures. There is a real concern that a number of the students may have adopted this extremist ideology. The question is how to tackle the problem head-on; re-education of the student body seems the most sensible course of action.”

So it would appear that the Ministry’s motives for keeping Muggle Studies as a core subject and the as-yet-unknown changes in teaching materials may be an effort to ‘de-program’ at-risk students with extremist ideologies and behaviour. When challenged on these claims, the Ministry have been reluctant to respond, and the curriculum for the upcoming year has remained shrouded in mystery.

Perhaps the greatest evidence in support of this theory is the appointment of Olivia Tonks (former Head of the Muggle Liaison Office, O.M. First Class) to the position of Muggle Studies Professor. When asked about her surprise and controversial appointment, Ms Tonks said that she was ‘excited’ to meet the children and to start her new job.

“I’m happy to be swapping my stuffy old office for the classroom,” she said, speaking to us from her quaint seaside home in Porthdinllaen, Wales. “Relations with Muggles has always been a subject close to my heart and I look forward to sharing that passion with young minds who are eager to learn about the world around them.”

Olivia Tonks, a Shacklebolt loyalist, was recently awarded The Order of Merlin First Class for acts of valour during the Second Wizarding War (for more details on her award ceremony, see page 4).

When asked if her appointment was the Ministry’s attempt to tackle the growing threat of extremism amongst the student body, we were promptly removed from her property amid claims that she was ‘too busy’ to continue the interview.

Minerva scrutinised the photograph of Olivia (or Liv, as she had preferred to be called during her school days) closely. She remembered her well from when she had been a student—hardworking, with a thirst to prove herself—well-suited to Slytherin house. She had heard about Liv receiving the Order of Merlin, she and numerous others. Even Minerva had received one for her actions during the Battle of Hogwarts; she had discarded hers in the bottom drawer of her desk under a pile of parchment almost immediately after she had received it.

She didn’t know what Liv had won hers for—there were too many hearings, award ceremonies and memorials to keep track of in the last few weeks to remember them all—but she supposed Kingsley had a good reason to give her one. It was only on Kingsley’s suggestion that she was even considering Liv for the position of Muggle Studies Professor. The Prophet were right about one thing—Minerva didn’t want to repeat history by installing a Ministry strawman in her school just so that they could spy on or undermine her. Not that she really believed Kingsley would do that; he was a good man, loyal to the Order and a long-time friend of Minerva’s. That was the only reason she had even agreed to interview Liv. The Prophet had once again jumped the gun—there was no guarantee that Liv had the position yet. She would have to convince Minerva that she was up to the task first.

Minerva took a sip of her tea and turned her attention back to the article:

Some argue that the decision to install a former Ministry official into such a key role at Hogwarts is in response to the recent controversial announcement by Headmistress McGonagall with regards to student attendance.

Her judgement came into question when she announced publicly that “All children are welcome at Hogwarts. Your blood status, background, and those of your parents have no bearing. Hogwarts is a place of learning for all magical children.”

The implication that the children of Death Eaters were still welcome was praised and derided in equal measure. We spoke to Mrs Saoirse Finnigan, 47, whose son, Seamus, is a returning seventh-year student.

“I don’t like the idea of Death Eaters’ kids being allowed back into the school,” she said from her Donegal home last night. “For all we know, some of them could be Death Eaters themselves! I didn’t want my Seamus going back this year, but he’s eighteen now, so the decision was his to make. Despite the dangers, he insisted on going back and getting his N.E.W.T.s. He’s a Gryffindor through and through, that one.”

Mrs Mora Zabini, 40, whose son is also a returning student, welcomed the Headmistress’s decision.

“Every magical child deserves an education,” Mrs Zabini told the Prophet, from her Notting Hill residence. “I’m pleased that Headmistress McGonagall agrees.”

When asked about her own involvement with the Death Eaters, Mrs Zabini had this to say:

“I would like to make it clear that the rumours that myself and my son are in any way associated with Death Eaters are lies. My son has suffered a lot of abuse in the past couple of months simply because he is a Slytherin. There is a lot of unfounded prejudice against Slytherins in general. There were Death Eaters from all four houses, not just Slytherin. The tripe that you post in your newspaper doesn’t help matters.”

Mrs Zabini has been married seven times, each of her husbands dying mysteriously and leaving her a sizable widow's inheritance (for a more detailed profile of Mrs Zabini and her dearly departed husbands, see page 17.)

So it would appear to be the case that these reforms are in response to the rising threat of extremism within the Wizarding World and that Hogwarts’ Headmistress, however well-meaning, is ill-equipped to deal with the real threat of extremists infiltrating the institution.

We are currently left with more questions than answers. Has Hogwarts indeed been infiltrated by an extremist movement? Will the rumoured programme of rehabilitation via the newly revamped Muggle Studies class be effective in combating this new threat? Are Headmistress McGonagall and Minister Shacklebolt to be out of a job sooner than we expect?

Only time will tell.

Minerva pushed the newspaper away in disgust and sank back into her tartan winged armchair, feeling irritable.

“Did you divine any greater insight from the article after reading it again, Minerva?” asked Albus Dumbledore casually.

Minerva glanced up at the old headmaster’s portrait hanging above her desk, his bright blue eyes twinkling down at her behind his half-moon spectacles. It was easy for him to look so relaxed in such a time of crisis, she mused. He was just a painting now, free from the pressures of headship. Lucky bugger.

“No,” she sighed. “I got the gist of things from reading it the first time.”

“Then you are a glutton for punishment,” Severus Snape sneered from his portrait placed to the right of Albus’s. He didn’t speak up as often as the other former headmasters and headmistresses that adorned the walls of the office, and when he did, it was usually a criticism of some kind. “You know that the Daily Prophet is a red top tabloid on its best day, why waste your precious time concerning yourself with what they have to say?”

“Because a lot of people listen to them, Severus, even if it is a rag,” she pointed out. “The war may be over, but people are still on edge and they’re taking advantage of that, stirring a Billywig’s nest just so that they can sell a few extra papers.”

“Anyone who believes anything that The Prophet has to say at face value is a fool,” he declared.

“I agree with Severus,” Albus nodded. “As a wise friend of mine once said, worrying only means you suffer twice. You cannot control what is published in the newspapers, Minerva. Your primary concern ought to be the school and its students.”

“The students are who I’m worried about,” she argued. “I’m concerned about how many parents believe the tripe that is written in this article and are now second-guessing whether or not to allow their children to attend Hogwarts.”

“So a few less troublemakers are in attendance at Hogwarts,” Severus shrugged. “You should count your blessings.”

“That is their choice to make,” Albus countered, ignoring Severus’s remark. “What I am concerned about is the inevitable disharmony between the four houses, particularly the mounting animosity directed towards Slytherin students. Mora Zabini is right: Slytherins must contend with a most unfortunate reputation.”

“Not an entirely unfounded one,” Minerva pointed out darkly. Albus gave her a sharp look.

“If you really believe that, then you’d best remove Severus’ and Phineas’ portraits from these walls.”

“She daren’t!” piped up Phineas Nigellus Black suddenly, no longer feigning sleep. “I earned my place here; you can’t remove us based on your own personal prejudices!”

“Take my portrait down if it so pleases you. All that I ask is that I be rehomed in the Slytherin Common Room. I may as well be where my endeavours are appreciated,” huffed Severus.

“I’m not going to remove you from the wall!” Minerva assured them both with an exasperated sigh. She cast a brooding look at the ancient patchwork Sorting Hat perched atop a high shelf. “I know that there are a lot of good people in Slytherin House—you the best among them, Severus.”

“Don’t try to butter me up, Headmistress. It is unbecoming of your position,” he protested, although he looked pleased at the compliment.

Minerva rolled her eyes and continued, “Right or wrong, when it comes to Slytherins and Death Eaters, people have an unfortunate habit of conflating the two. Slytherin has always set itself apart from the other Houses, but this…” She shook her head slowly, looking despondent. “The animosity that students will face when they return to Hogwarts will go way beyond mere inter-house rivalry for the House Cup or winning the Quidditch Cup...people died, Albus. The students were traumatised and abused by members of staff. Students were instructed to torture and report on each other for perceived treachery, and most of those involved were from Slytherin. It’s going to be an uphill battle trying to restore their reputation.”

“I expect there will be a lot of unruly behaviour from students towards the Slytherins this year—moreso than usual,” said Severus. “But Slytherins are, by their very nature, resilient. We have survived a war; they will survive this, too.”

“We can but hope,” she sighed wearily. “I’ve already received several owls from concerned parents wanting assurances that there won’t be ‘Death Eater offspring’, as Romilda Vane’s mother so eloquently put it, allowed on the school premises.”

“And what did you say to that?” asked Severus.

“The same thing I’ve been telling everyone—that Hogwarts is open to every magical child who wishes to learn here.”

“An admirable response,” Albus nodded approvingly.

“One that might see me ousted from this job sooner than Severus,” she quipped. “No offence.”

“None taken,” he replied lazily.

“I’ve also had a few parents owling me wanting assurances that their child won’t be turned away at the school gates,” said Minerva. “I even received a letter from Azkaban from Theodore Nott’s father begging me to grant his son readmission. Although, I must admit, I was surprised that Narcissa Malfoy contacted me requesting that Draco be allowed to resit his final year.”

“And what did you say in response?” asked Albus.

Minerva cleared her throat and rifled through the biscuit tin on her desk, avoiding his piercing gaze. “I haven’t replied yet,” she admitted quietly.

“Why not?” he asked sharply. Minerva flinched. Even though he was only a painting now, a shadow of the former man, he was still quite an intimidating figure.

“I’ve been busy,” she protested weakly, taking a bite from a piece of shortbread. “I’ve had quite a lot on my plate, you know.”

“You wouldn’t be ignoring Mrs Malfoy’s correspondence based on your own personal grievance with the boy?” he asked accusingly. All of the other portraits in the office were now listening with rapt attention. Minerva felt heat prickle her cheeks but she glared at the old headmaster.

“Of course not!” she replied hotly. “Although, I must admit that I’m surprised that you’re so keen to have him back on the premises, Albus.”

“We have been through this before, Minerva,” said Albus angrily. “Draco Malfoy was a mere pawn in Voldemort’s schemes. He was not the one who killed me.”

“No, I got that illustrious honour,” Severus cut in bitterly. “The very reason why I’m here now and not living a long and miserable life.”

“Well, I appreciate your company, Severus,” Albus offered kindly.

“Draco Malfoy as good as killed you,” Minerva countered darkly. “He gave Greyback and his ilk entry into this castle, putting everyone’s lives in danger. Bill Weasley almost died. You did!”

“He had no choice,” said Albus forcefully. “He acted under duress. His life and the lives of his parents were at stake.”

“I know that! I was at the Ministry hearings, I heard all about it,” she snapped, waving her hand dismissively. “I still don’t trust him, Albus.”

“Hogwarts is in crisis, Minerva. The four houses have never been so divided. How can you hope to bring unity to the school when you cannot look past your own misgivings?” he challenged.

“I don’t know!” she cried, throwing her hands up into the air. “Would you like an honest answer, Albus? I don’t know what I’m supposed to do! I’ve got Kingsley telling me that our staff should be on the lookout for odd behaviour from the students, which is a ridiculous request considering we’ve just spent the last year at war—odd behaviour is a bit of a given when the entire student body has been traumatised! We have too many students and not enough staff. It’ll be a miracle if the construction of the school is completed in time for the start of term. And on top of all of this, you want me to forgive and forget what that boy did! I know that I ought to be objective about this—consider the greater good…” She spat the last words with such force that Albus flinched as though they had struck him and Minerva shook her head woefully. “I just can’t do that. I’m not a mastermind like you and I don’t have the endurance that Severus did. I’m out of my depth here. Maybe...maybe I’m not cut out for this.”

Minerva buried her face in her hands and burst into tears. Albus and Severus watched her silently as she cried freely, Albus’s brow furrowed, concern set in deep lines in his ancient face. Severus’s expression remained impassive, but he didn’t criticise her like she had expected him to. He had been in her shoes, after all, and knew all too well the incredible strain headship at Hogwarts could put on you.

It was easier to be angry at Draco Malfoy than it was to sympathise with the impossible position that he had been put in. Because if she couldn’t blame him for her friend dying, who could she blame? She had blamed Severus, of course, not knowing until the closing moments of the final battle that Albus’s death had been orchestrated by the old headmaster in the first place. She was angry at them for not trusting her, but she had loved them both in life and had forgiven them in death. She wasn’t sure if she was quite ready to forgive Draco Malfoy yet. If only he had come forward and asked for help, things might have been so very different—Albus, Severus, Merlin knows how many others, might still be alive. It was easier to blame a boy who was foolish and afraid than it was to blame herself. She should have listened to Potter when he’d voiced his concerns over Draco’s behaviour, but she had dismissed him, convinced that his accusations were unfounded. She should have done more. If only she had listened, they might all have lived.

The last year had been the most challenging of her life. She had lost Albus, her mentor and oldest friend, and she hadn’t even had the chance to grieve his loss properly because, in one fell swoop, the Ministry and Hogwarts fell under Voldemort’s control. She had pushed her grief and fear aside and had returned to the school in an effort to protect the students as best as she could, although she didn’t feel as though she had made much of a difference. She had fought against Death Eaters and her own fear at the Battle of Hogwarts, watching helplessly as colleagues and students fell, dead and injured, all around her. Then she had seen Potter’s body, certain that he had died and all hope along with him, and her heart had shattered.

Mercifully, his death had been a ruse on Potter’s part. In the ensuing chaos, Minerva was caught up in a whirlwind of bodies and screaming and fighting. Then, just as suddenly, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, Voldemort was dead, the Battle was won and the war was over. She hadn’t even had time to catch her breath when the monumental task of repairing the school and everyone’s lives had begun. In truth, busying herself with her work had served as an excellent distraction from dealing with her own feelings.

Minerva closed her eyes and took several deep breaths, trying to compose herself. As her breaths evened out, the spiral of morose thoughts that had momentarily consumed her were tempered and pushed aside. She didn’t have time to be self-pitying: there was too much work to do, too many people were relying on her.

“My apologies,” she said evenly, running her hands over her hair, smoothing it out. “I felt a little overwhelmed there for a moment.”

“Comes with the territory, I’m afraid,” sighed Phineas. “To be appointed to such an illustrious position has overwhelmed us all at some point or another.”

A murmur of agreement rippled throughout the room as the portraits bearing generations of headmasters and headmistresses nodded in solemn agreement. Minerva McGonagall wasn’t the first person to cry in this office and she certainly wouldn’t be the last.

“We’ve all had our moments,” Severus relented softly. “Better losing your temper here, with those of us who can truly empathise with your position, than out there with the rabble.”

“The burden of headship is a heavy one to bear,” said Albus sadly. “But you are not alone. We are here to provide guidance and support.”

“Thank you,” she mumbled, brushing away the tears from her eyes. “I just don't know how to bring unity to the four houses when we are so divided amongst ourselves.”

“May I suggest that you start with an olive branch?” said Albus, smiling slightly.

Minerva suppressed a snort. An olive branch, he says. Where in the love of Morgana was she going to find that?

“Your guest has arrived, Minerva.” drawled Severus. Snapped from her morose revery, Minerva frowned and looked up at his portrait.

“Sorry?” she asked, confused. Severus arched an eyebrow at her.

“Miss Tonks is here,” he explained. “For the interview.”

“Oh!” Minerva quickly tidied her desk and shoved the newspaper into the top drawer out of sight. She had completely forgotten that she had arranged for Liv to come for a job interview this evening. Pushing her glasses up her nose again, she sat up straight in her seat and poured herself a fresh cup of tea.

“Thank you, Severus. You can send her up now.”

Severus rolled his eyes and slinked out of his portrait without another word. They still hadn’t gotten round to replacing the gargoyle that guarded the office after it got destroyed during the final battle. For the time being, they had resorted to placing an empty portrait by the office door and the former heads of Hogwarts took turns guarding the entrance—some more reluctantly than others.

“How much longer must we play guard duty?” whinged Phineas. “It is below our station!”

“Professor Flitwick is hard at work repairing the gargoyle,” sighed Minerva wearily. How many times did she need to repeat herself?

“But how much longer is it going to take?” Phineas pressed. Minerva shot him a sharp look.

“As long as it takes,” she replied stiffly. Phineas sniffed indignantly and slunk out of his portrait.

“You know, patience is a virtue, Phineas,” Albus called after him, winking at Minerva. She smiled at him and felt some of the tension that she had been carrying around all day ease a little. While a portrait was no substitute for the man, she was still glad of his company.

Knock knock knock.

Three polite chaps at the wooden door signalled the arrival of her guest and Minerva opened her mouth to call out to her, but Albus spoke first.

“Minerva…” he asked cautiously. “With regards to Draco, I don’t expect you to forget what he did, but I implore you to at least try to forgive him. You will write to Mrs Malfoy, won’t you? You’ll give the boy a chance?”

Minerva wanted to say no. She wanted to toss Narcissa’s polite but pleading letter into the fireplace and forget all about her and her awful family. She’d had enough of the Malfoy’s schemes and prejudices. She wanted to say no and she was finally in a position where she could and nobody could argue otherwise. But instead, she thought about what was best for the school, what was best for the students, and ultimately, what was best for Draco. If Hogwarts was going to have any chance of reconciliation, she needed to include everyone, regardless of her personal feelings for certain individuals.

“Of course,” she nodded vigorously. “I’ll owl her after the meeting...to confirm Draco’s place for the next term.”

Three more chaps, slightly louder, followed. Minerva cleared her throat and called out in a clear voice.

“Come in!”

Chapter Text

The heavy oak door creaked open and a pretty woman with a pale, heart-shaped face popped her head into the office. Her dark, twinkling eyes scanned the room and her face broke into a big smile when she saw Minerva.

“Professor McGonagall!” said Liv brightly, stepping into the room and closing the office door behind her. “It’s a pleasure to see you again. It’s been a long time.”

“It has indeed.” Minerva nodded in agreement, rising to her feet to greet her guest.

Liv strode towards Minerva, her hand already outstretched when suddenly she tripped over the hem of her long robes and stumbled forward. She barely managed to stop herself from falling flat on her face but the contents of the folder she was holding spilled all over the flagstone floor.

“Whoops! Sorry…” Liv mumbled an apology and quickly gathered up her papers, her blush matching the crimson robes that she wore. Minerva struggled to suppress a smile at the woman’s clumsy antics: evidently, Nymphadora had inherited her cousin’s gracefulness as well as her looks.

“Not to worry,” she assured her, taking Liv’s hand in a firm handshake before they both took their seats. “Tea?”

Liv nodded vigorously. “Please.”

Minerva conjured a fine bone china teacup and poured a fresh cup for Liv, placing the drink in front of her guest before topping up her own. Liv flashed Minerva a quick smile before picking it up and taking a sip.

“Mmm, that’s lovely,” she sighed, carefully placing the teacup back onto the desk. “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome.” Minerva gave a polite nod and took a sip from her own cup, giving Liv a thorough once-over. She hadn’t changed much in the twenty years since she had attended Hogwarts. A few streaks of grey had appeared in her fair hair and wrinkles now formed around her eyes when she smiled, but then the stress of working for the Ministry—especially in the last year—would turn anyone grey. Minerva’s eyes fell to the maroon robes and she smirked.

“If you think that wearing red is going to appeal to my Gryffindor sensibilities, you are sorely mistaken,” she warned. Liv chuckled.

“I wouldn't dream of it, Professor,” she grinned. “I appreciate you agreeing to see me. I must admit, after reading today’s Prophet article I was a little worried that you were going to cancel the interview.”

“It did cross my mind,” Minerva admitted.

“I don’t want you to get the wrong impression of me,” Liv continued. “What they quoted me as saying in the article, they twisted my words: I merely confirmed that I had put my name forward for the position. I wouldn’t presume to think that I had gotten the job before seeing you about it personally.”

Minerva huffed out a derisive laugh. “Yes, The Prophet does have a habit of twisting one's words to suit the agenda of the day. Don’t worry, I take anything that they say with a large pinch of salt. But enough chatter about The Prophet, let’s discuss the reason why I invited you here today: the Muggle Studies post.”

Liv sat up attentively in her seat, a look of steely determination in her eyes as Minerva pulled a piece of parchment towards her and scrutinised it closely. “You have quite an impressive C.V., Miss Tonks—”

“Please, call me Liv,” she implored. Minerva gave her a small smile.

“Very well, Liv. As I remember correctly, you graduated in nineteen seventy-four with five N.E.W.T.S. including an Outstanding in Muggle Studies—”

“Naturally,” Liv joked, rolling her eyes. Minerva ignored the interruption and continued her examination of the parchment.

“It says here that soon after you graduated, you emigrated to the United States and spent five years working for MACUSA at the Office for Magic Relations and Education. What did that job entail?”

“Well, broadly, the office was charged with issuing cultural and educational content to the Wizarding public. My work was primarily liaising with No-Maj-borns and their families who had no previous knowledge of the magical world until they had received their admissions letter to Ilvermorny,” she explained. “It was my job to help them make a smooth transition from No-Maj to Wizarding life as well as get them up to speed with Wizarding Laws and Regulations. You see, the Americans spend a large amount of their resources toward keeping the Wizarding community hidden from Muggle. Their legislation is incredibly strict, much more restrictive than it is here, to the point of being regressive in my personal opinion.”

“That’s something that we can both agree on,” Minerva muttered under her breath. “It appears that you only spent five years in the position. You didn’t like the job?”

“The job was fine.” Liv shrugged. “But after my dad died, I wanted to come home. I missed my family.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Minerva sympathised. “What made you choose to work at MACUSA in the first place, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Liv hesitated a moment before admitting, “If I’m completely honest, at that point in time the First War was escalating and I wanted to get as far away from it as possible.”

“Understandable.”

“I applied for a lot of jobs at the time,” Liv continued. “I’d had interviews at the Canadian Council of Magic and the Ministère des Affaires Magiques de la France…”

“You speak French?” asked Minerva interestedly. Liv grinned.

“Oui, principale.”

Minerva smiled. So far Liv was doing a good job of impressing her. “So, you had a number of opportunities open to you after you graduated, what made you choose America over the others?”

“My dad. He said that I should take the job at MACUSA: the money was better...and it was further away from the war.”

Minerva nodded in understanding. After Voldemort’s return, a lot of parents had opted to send their children overseas to other institutions like Beauxbatons and Ilvermorny instead of Hogwarts. She fleetingly wondered how many parents would choose to do the same again this year.

“So, you moved back to Britain and took up a post in the Ministry at the Muggle Liaison Office where you have worked for the last seventeen years,” she continued, perusing the parchment.

“That’s correct, Professor.”

“You started out as a Junior Assistant in Muggle Relations—I contacted Myra Curio, she spoke very highly of you.”

“Oh, that’s lovely to hear.” Liv blushed, looking pleased. “She was a great manager, I learned a lot from her.”

“Yes, I quite agree. I had the opportunity to work with her myself during my Ministry days. So, you worked your way up the ranks until you were appointed the Department Head two years ago upon Myra’s retirement,” Minerva looked up from the parchment and gave Liv a searching look. “It’s a very impressive C.V. You’ve achieved a lot for someone so young.”

“Thank you, Professor.”

“As Head of Muggle Liaisons, you’re well on your way to a successful career in politics. You might even be a shoo-in for Minister for Magic in a few years,” she mused.

Liv continued to smile, but it seemed a little forced. “I suppose so…”

“The money would certainly be better than a teacher’s wage at the very least,” Minerva chuckled. “You are a talented young woman with an illustrious career ahead of her. Why would you throw all of that away to take up a position at this school?”

It had been the question that Minerva had been bursting to ask since she had received Liv’s owl a few days prior inquiring about the vacancy. Even if she decided not to employ her, Minerva had to satisfy her curiosity and ask why she was so interested in applying for a job that was effectively a demotion. Liv, who had been all smiles and jokes up until now, looked incredibly reluctant to divulge this information.

“The Ministry and I have come to an impasse,” she replied evasively. “I want to take my career in a new direction. It’s a year of fresh starts for everyone, including myself. I’m sure you can understand that.”

Minerva, however, wasn’t satisfied with this paltry explanation. “If I were to give you this job, I would be entrusting you with my students’ education, and there is nothing of greater importance to me than the safety and well-being of my students. I will not employ anyone that I do not trust, and I don’t trust that you are being entirely honest with me in your reasons for wanting this job.”

“Is it really relevant to my qualifications for the position?” asked Liv testily.

“A well-written C.V. only says so much about someone’s character,” Minerva argued. “As much as I trust Kingsley, we haven’t had the best experience with Ministry-appointed staff members at this school. It would be naive of me if I didn’t ask why you were leaving a better job for this one.”

Liv screwed up her face as though she were about to argue with Minerva on this point, but instead, she sighed and drew her wand, placing it on the desk. Minerva frowned at the curious-looking wand, it was deep brown in colour with strong, oil-like grain patterns along the shaft.

“I understand that you don’t trust me because you don’t know me, so I am willing to explain to you how I came to this decision in order to gain your trust. The why and how are long and complicated, so I think it would be easier just to show you what happened than try to explain it.”

Minerva considered the proposition for a moment before giving her a curt nod. “That sounds acceptable.”

With the flick of her own wand, a cupboard in the far corner of the office swung open and a shallow stone basin slowly levitated through the air, coming to rest on the desk between herself and Liv. Liv, meanwhile, pressed the tip of her wand to her left temple in order to retrieve the relevant memories. When she withdrew her wand, she teased out a delicate string of wispy, silvery-looking thread from her temple. It hung suspended in the air for a few moments like a spider’s web, strung between the tip of her wand and the side of her head, but with a slight tug the connection was broken and the memory, clinging precariously to the tip of the wand, was tossed into the Pensieve.

As the memory struck the smoky surface of the Pensieve, its contents began swirling rapidly like a translucent whirlpool. After a few moments, the vortex slowed and an image began to take form. Minerva peered into the basin and saw Liv’s face come into view. The memory-version of Liv looked much the same as the woman in front of her minus the streaks of grey hair. Evidently, this memory wasn’t a recent one. She looked up expectantly at Liv.

“After you,” she indicated, nodding to the basin.

Liv pursed her lips and looked as though she were considering refusing the invitation, but she leaned forward into the Pensieve, dipping her face beneath the surface. Minerva followed suit, lowering her face beneath the smoky surface, and was immediately transported to an unfamiliar office. There were several people milling around the office although there appeared to be very little work getting done; several paper aeroplanes with Ministry of Magic stamped along the edge of their wings swooped overhead, landing on various desks around the room, but they were being ignored as everyone chatted animatedly to one another.

A burst of laughter drew Minerva’s attention towards the centre of the room where the memory-version of Liv sat atop a desk, howling at a joke from none other than Nymphadora Tonks. She proceeded to change her hair colour to match the pointed green party hat that her cousin was wearing, making her laugh even more.

“June eighteenth, 1996,” said Liv, smiling sadly. “It’s my birthday.”

Minerva’s head snapped away from the festivities and towards Liv in surprise, “The same evening as Potter and his friends fight in the Department of Mysteries.”

Liv nodded solemnly. “That it is. Of course, this is much earlier in the day, before any of that took place. Little did I know that on this day, my life would change forever.”

They watched in silence as Liv slid off of her desk and placed a large slice of birthday cake onto a plate, then followed her as she marched across the room towards one of the private offices at the opposite end of the room. Liv tripped over the leg of one of the office chairs and almost dropped the cake in the process, but she managed to steady herself before knocking politely on one of the private office doors before entering. Minerva and Liv followed her inside and were met with what appeared to be a solid wall of parchment. Upon closer inspection, there was a desk underneath the precariously balanced piles of loose papers and folders. Sitting behind the desk, hidden behind the mountains of paperwork, was a small, serious-looking woman with large, square-rimmed glasses who Minerva recognised to be her friend and old work colleague, Myra Curio.

“Still got the nose to the grindstone, Myra?” Liv teased lightly, sidling past several boxes strewn across the floor so that she could hand the slice of cake to her boss. “You should come out and join the celebrations. Dirk and Dora have snuck out of their offices for a bit and he’s brought along some rum punch for us.”

Myra grunted in response and tossed the parchment that she had been reading onto her chaotic desk.

“Believe me, I’d much rather be out there partying with you lot. Thank you.” She took the plate from Liv and sat it on the desk without touching the food. “Take a seat, would you, Olivia? I’d like to have a word with you about something.”

Liv did as she was instructed and sat in the seat on the opposite side of the table, giving her boss a puzzled look.

“Is everything alright, Myra?” she asked, concerned. “If the rum punch is an issue, I’ll tell Dirk to make himself scarce…”

“No, no, it’s not that.” Myra shook her head and sighed, worry etched across her face. She looked as though she were of two minds about saying what was on her mind, but finally, she asked, “Olivia...have you noticed that our office has been a lot busier in recent months?”

Liv thought for a moment then nodded. “Yes, I suppose it has. There have been many more instances of Muggles coming into contact with the Wizarding community. Arnold says their office has been run ragged lately with the number of Obliviations that they’ve had to perform.”

“There’s been an increased number of violent incidents involving Muggles, too,” Myra added. “I spoke to Arthur Weasley about it in the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office and he’s informed me that they’ve been happening across a lot more insidious items, not just prank items, but things created with the sole purpose of hurting Muggles.”

Liv frowned. “Oh right.”

“I’ve also compared notes with Amelia Bones,” continued Myra. “They’ve also seen an upsurge in the number of suspicious disappearances involving Muggles. Of course, Fudge is doing his damnedest to keep that out of the papers and he’s wasting our time and resources going after the Potter boy. Bloody fool...”

“What do you think it all means?” Liv asked cautiously.

Myra wrung her hands nervously. “Well if I’m honest, much the same thing happened on the lead up to the First Wizarding War.”

Liv’s eyes widened with shock. “War? Surely you can’t be serious.”

“I am,” Myra nodded gravely. “You know the rumours—that You-Know-Who is back...”

Liv scoffed, “There’s been rumours for years, Myra, you can’t believe every one that you hear.”

“I’m talking about empirical evidence, Olivia,” Myra argued. “It isn’t rumour and conjecture anymore: Death Eaters are on the loose. Muggle attacks and disappearances are on the rise, just like before. The Ministry did a good job of burying its head in the sand the first time around and they’re doing it again. Merlin, it’s like history is repeating itself. You were fortunate enough not to work here during the first war, so you don’t know how bad it got.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Liv asked nervously. Myra gave her a warm smile.

“Because I like you,” she said. “And more importantly, I trust you not to repeat my concerns to anyone else.”

“I won’t,” Liv assured her, shaking her head vigorously.

“If things go the way I think they will, then soon enough we’re going to have bigger things to concern ourselves with than the logistics around hosting the next Quidditch World Cup,” Myra grumbled. “You should start to seriously consider how much longer you want to keep working here at the Ministry.”

Liv gaped at her. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that you need to think about your options,” Myra replied evenly. “I worked here throughout the first war and it was a bloody nightmare. Being a Ministry worker put a target on your back and a lot of people got hurt or killed, but I’m too old and too tired to go through that again. You’re a smart lass, Olivia, and I’m just warning you about what is likely to come.”

Myra picked up the birthday cake and took a large bite out of it. Liv stared at her, shell-shocked at her grim predictions. The office scene dissolved into abstract shapes and colours and another began to take form. Liv turned her attention away from the changing scene to Minerva.

“We all came into the office the next morning to hear that Voldemort was back and that, effectively, we were at war,” she said. “Myra handed in her notice later that week and I got offered her job.”

“And you took it.”

“Naturally,” she shrugged. “I didn’t take Myra’s warning lightly, but I wasn’t ready to decide one way or another what I was going to do. Then things began to escalate—the Brockdale Bridge fell, giants destroyed large portions of the West Country, and then Amelia Bones was murdered.” Liv’s voice wavered a little as she recalled the death of her colleague, but she cleared her throat and continued, “Yes, Voldemort was back, but life continued as normal for most of us—we had work to do and bills to pay, war gave us no reprieve from our responsibilities. So, for the next year, while the number of disappearances and murders of Muggles and Magic folk increased, I kept going to work. I hoped, rather naively, that the Ministry would catch Voldemort and everything would go back to the way it used to be.”

The scene quickly dissolved and reformed into the same office from the previous memory, only this time it was Liv who sat behind the desk, looking nervous. If anything, the office appeared even more chaotic than it had previously, parchment spilling onto the floor and bulging out of the overfilled drawers of her desk.

“August second, 1997,” Liv continued. “Earlier that morning, I’d received an owl from my cousin, Ted, telling me that Minister Scrimgeour had been murdered the previous evening and that the Ministry had fallen.”

Minerva raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Yet you still went to work?”

“I was afraid of what I’d find when I went into the office that morning, but I was equally scared that if I ran, I’d make myself a target,” Liv explained. “I was scared witless, but I decided that, for the time being, it was safer for me to stick to my usual routine until I figured out what the hell I was going to do.”

They watched as Liv peered out of her office door, which she had purposefully left open. A number of her colleagues had also shown up to work but a few were conspicuously absent. Liv pulled a blank piece of parchment towards her and began furiously scribbling a note. Once her note was finished, she tapped it with her wand and it folded itself into a paper aeroplane before taking flight out of the office and out of sight.

“I wrote a nondescript memo to Nymphadora just to see whether or not she had turned up for work,” Liv explained. “I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by going to her office without good reason.”

A few minutes passed and another paper aeroplane flew into the room, landing on the messy desk. Tearing open the letter, Liv read the short reply and sighed, thumping her head against the desk. She looked equal parts relieved and distressed that her younger cousin had also decided to turn up for work.

“Hem hem.”

Liv’s head shot up from the desk at the sudden interruption, the note still stuck to her forehead. Standing on the other side of her desk was a woman that Minerva hated more vehemently than anyone else in the world.

“M-Madam Umbridge,” Liv stammered, tearing the note off of her forehead and stuffing it into the top drawer of her desk, out of sight. “How can I be of assistance?”

“Not sleeping on the job are you, dear?” Umbridge sneered, her pouchy eyes narrowing. Liv shook her head vigorously.

“No, Madam.”

Umbridge’s slack mouth stretched into a false smile. “Good. Well, I’m here with important and exciting news for you, Miss Tonks: you’re getting a promotion.”

Liv gaped at her. “A promotion?”

“Yes indeed. You might have heard that, as of this morning, the Ministry is under eh...new management. As such, a few changes have been made,” she simpered, handing a bright pink folder to Liv. “There will be no need for a Muggle Liaison Department anymore, so your Department has been dissolved, effective immediately. You and your staff now work for me in the newly-formed Muggle-Born Registration Commission. You are now Deputy Head of The Muggle-Born Registration Commission, quite a step up from your previous post.”

“Th-the what now?” Liv stammered, her hands shaking as she flicked through the lurid-coloured folder.

“The Muggle-Born Registration Commission,” Umbridge repeated slowly in a condescending tone. “The new Minister for Magic has ordered for all so-called ‘Muggle-borns’ to present themselves for interview in order to prove that they haven’t obtained magical power by nefarious means. I will need all of the records that your department has collected over the years of Mudbloods and to begin issuing summons letters to them.”

Anger flashed across Liv’s face when Umbridge said the word ‘Mudblood’ but she quickly schooled her expression into a forced smile.

“As you wish, Madam,” she replied, her voice slightly higher pitched than usual. “As much as I appreciate the promotion, I hope that you don’t mind me asking why my department has been dissolved? Only, it’s going to take some time for everyone to wrap up their current case work and…”

Liv’s speech faltered as Umbridge’s fake smile fell. “It isn’t your job to ask questions, Miss Tonks; it is simply your job to do as you are told. That isn’t going to be a problem, is it?”

Liv lowered her gaze and mumbled, “No, Madam.”

Umbridge grinned. “Excellent! I look forward to working with you, Miss Tonks, you came highly recommended.” Umbridge turned on her heel and strode towards the exit. Pausing at the door she turned to Liv and said, “Be sure to get those records to me as soon as possible. And congratulations on your promotion.”

“Thank you, Madam,” Liv replied flatly, staring at the pink folder in her hands.

“You didn’t put up much of a fight,” Minerva pointed out accusingly.

“No, I didn’t,” Liv admitted quietly.

The scene began to dissolve again, the colours diffusing into a swirl of shapeless colours before slowly reforming back into the office again. Liv remained seated behind her desk, looking considerably thinner and paler than before. She yelped in surprise as someone knocked loudly on her door and a moment later a dishevelled-looking man slipped inside without waiting for an invitation.

“Dirk,” Liv hissed, looking panicked. “What are you doing here? If Umbridge saw us talking...”

“I need your help, Olivia,” Dirk pleaded, sinking into the seat in front of her desk. “I got a letter from your office this morning. I’m being summoned to speak to the Commission about my heritage.”

“Shit,” Liv hissed under her breath. “What are you going to do?”

Dirk looked pleadingly at Liv. “I, um...I was hoping that you could help.”

Liv blinked. “I...I can’t, Dirk. I wish that I could...I’m sorry.”

“But you have access to all of the files,” he argued, his voice shaking. “You could just go into the cabinet, take out my folder and throw it away. There are so many names in there, they’ll never notice that one is missing…”

“They would notice,” she argued, shaking her head. “They’d find out and then we’d both be thrown into Azkaban! Can’t you...can’t you just leave? Leave the country for a bit until this all blows over?”

“I can’t afford that!” he cried. “And it’s not just me, I’ve got Cheryl and the boys to think about. If I quit now, Yaxley and his lot will know why and arrest me anyway. If I’m going to make it through this bloody war in one piece, I need to keep my head down.”

“So do I,” she countered stiffly.

“Please, Olivia,” he begged. “We’ve been friends for years, haven’t we? That must count for something!”

Liv’s shoulders sagged and she shook her head. “I’m sorry but there’s nothing I can—”

Knock knock.

Both Dirk and Liv jumped as someone knocked and the office door burst open. They both visibly recoiled as a tall man with long, pale blonde hair tied into a neat braid down his back entered the room. When he caught sight of Dirk, his eyes narrowed.

“Am I interrupting something?” he asked in a low, scratchy voice.

Liv shook her head vigorously. “No, sir. Mister Cresswell was just leaving.”

Despite his cue to exit, Dirk hesitated. He drew Liv one more silent look of pleading before he hurried out of the office without another word. The man Minerva recognised to be a Death Eater, Corban Yaxley, waited until Dirk had left the office before speaking again.

“Why was he here?” he asked accusingly. “He wasn’t bothering you, was he?”

“No, sir. We were wondering whether or not England would be participating in the Quidditch World Cup next summer,” she lied. “We heard Senegal is in with a good shot of winning. It was a trivial conversation, we shouldn’t have been speaking about it during work hours. I’m sorry, sir, it won’t happen again.”

Yaxley didn’t look entirely convinced by the lie, but he appeared to let it slide as he changed the subject.

“Very well, see that it doesn’t. I need you to stop whatever it is that you’re doing at the moment and start pulling all of the information that we have on the Mudblood Hermione Granger,” he said, eyeing her small, cramped office with mild interest, every inch of which was covered with boxes and files on confirmed and potential Muggle-Borns. Liv frowned.

“Why?”

The words slipped past her lips before she could stop herself and she shrunk under the sharp look that Yaxley drew her.

“If you must know, we’ve been trying to track down her parents but, so far, to no avail,” he explained. “I need you to double check that your office haven’t neglected to give us everything when we requested her files the first time.”

“Trying to find Miss Granger’s parents as leverage, I suppose?” asked Minerva, her voice brittle with anger. Liv confirmed with a curt nod.

“I’ll get on that right away, sir,” said Liv and Yaxley gave her an appraising smile.

“You’re always so polite,” Yaxley mused. “Always eager to help.”

Liv’s mouth twitched. “Just doing my job, sir.”

“Maybe...it would be nice if someone helped you out for a change, wouldn’t it?” he crooned, leaning over her desk with hands spread apart. “You spend a lot of hours cooped up in this office, Miss Tonks. A pretty little bird like yourself should be seen on the arm of someone worthy of your time. Scum like Creswell aren’t worth wasting your breath over.”

Liv’s expression hardened as Yaxley leaned closer. “What exactly are you suggesting?”

Yaxley’s pale blue eyes lingered on Liv’s left hand. “Am I to presume correctly that there isn’t a Mister Tonks waiting for you at home?”

“Oh, Merlin,” grumbled Minerva in disgust. Liv sighed wearily and shook her head.

“Don’t get me started,” she muttered.

The memory-version of Liv drew Yaxley a forced smile. “No, there isn’t. But then again, there’s a higher chance of there being a Misses Tonks waiting at home for me than a Mister.”

Minerva couldn’t help but snort at the shocked expression that flashed across Yaxley’s face before it hardened again into an ugly scowl. He quickly straightened himself to his full height, his hands clenched into fists at his sides.

“Dig out those records quickly if you know what’s good for you,” he warned before marching out of the office, slamming the door shut behind him.

A satisfied smirk teased the corners of Liv’s lips but it fell just as quickly. Sinking back into her seat, she looked around her office, looking contemplative.

“I’m trying to make up my mind what to do about Dirk,” Liv explained quietly as though she might interrupt her memory-version’s train of thought. “We’d been friends since our Hogwarts days, you know. I met him in Professor Sprout’s greenhouses on the first week of term. He rescued me from getting strangled by one of her beloved Devil’s Snare plants. We became good friends after that.”

Liv quieted as she watched the memory-version of herself spin around on her chair to face the cabinets behind her and proceed to rifle through one of them. After a bit of searching, she pulled out two files, one bearing the name Dirk Cresswell and the other, Edward Tonks. She slipped the files into her handbag before proceeding to trawl through the other cabinets in search of the files that Yaxley had asked for.

“Dirk was right: years of friendship had to count for something,” said Liv grimly. “I’d sat on my hands and done nothing for long enough. I went over to his house that evening and doctored his family tree and birth certificate to show that he was a half-blood—he wasn’t going to pass for a pureblood, but as a half-blood, he’d be afforded some protection. I went over to Ted’s later that evening hoping to do the same thing for him. Of course, these sort of things seldom go as we plan them to…”

The scene quickly changed and reformed into a small cottage kitchen. Liv sat at the kitchen table arguing with her cousin, Ted, while his wife, Andromeda, looked on in wary silence.

“What do you mean ‘no’?” asked Liv incredulously. Ted crossed his arms and shrugged.

“I mean that I won’t lie to those bastards about who or what I am. And I won’t be registering with that Committee you work for, either.”

“I’m putting my bloody neck on the line doing this for you!” she hissed, pointing accusingly at him.

“I didn't ask you to,” he snapped. “Who else are you helping? Are you trying to help out others in my position or just the ones that you care about?”

“What does it matter who else I’m helping? That’s not the point, I—urgh…” she spluttered. “This is serious, Ted. If you don’t do this, they will come for you. They’ll send you to Azkaban...or worse. Stop being an idiot and just let me change the papers for you!”

“No,” he replied shortly, but firmly. Liv snarled and slapped her hand against the table in frustration.

“Why are you being so bloody stubborn about this?”

“It’s a matter of principle,” he argued. “I won’t pretend to be something that I’m not. I’m not ashamed of what I am or where I came from.”

“Principles won’t mean shit if you’re dead!” she shouted. A stunned silence followed that declaration and Andromeda stared fixedly at her husband, waiting for his response. Ted, however, remained defiant.

“I appreciate the offer, Olivia,” he replied steadily. “But my answer is still no.”

“You and your bloody principles,” muttered Andromeda in a low, shaky voice. She jumped to her feet and stormed out of the kitchen, tears streaking her pale face. Ted stared after her, looking despondent, but he didn’t go after her. Liv shook her head in disbelief.

“Alright, so my intentions are selfish,” she admitted. “But you’re the only family that I’ve got left. I don’t want to lose you.”

“You’ve got Dora and Andromeda as well,” he reminded her. Minerva noticed rather ominously that Ted hadn’t reassured her that she wasn’t going to lose him—evidently he was well aware of the danger he was in.

“Please, Ted,” Liv pleaded desperately. “Let me do this for you.”

“And what will they do to you if they find out that you helped me?”

“They won’t find out,” she argued, but Ted gave her a sad smile and shook his head.

“Even if I didn’t have my ‘bloody principles’, I wouldn’t put you in danger for my sake, Liv,” he said gently, squeezing her hand. She looked up at him, her eyes wide and shining with tears.

“What are you going to do?” she asked in a small voice. Ted was silent for a few moments.

“I don’t know.”

The scene dissolved and a quick succession of memories followed: they cut between Liv doing her best to make herself invisible at work and avoiding Yaxley and Umbridge, while her evenings were spent in her small bedroom listening avidly to Potterwatch for news.

“Ted and Dirk were on the run at this point,” Liv explained as they watched her memory-version lean close to the radio, chewing her lip worriedly. “Doctoring Dirk’s paperwork bought him time but eventually they found out it was a forgery.”

“And Ted?” Minerva inquired.

“I heard word around the office that Yaxley was sending Death Eaters to pick him up,” she explained. “I sent him a Patronus warning him that they were coming. He managed to get out just before they arrived at the cottage.”

Minerva drew her a curious look, “Only Order members know how to cast the messenger spell using the Patronus. How did you…”

“Dora taught me,” she said with a fond expression. Minerva gave a curt nod in understanding and turned her attention back to the scene unfolding before her.

"Listeners, that brings us to the end of another Potterwatch,” came the familiar, staticky voice of Lee Jordan from the radio. “The next password will be 'Meadowes'. Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night."

They watched as day in, day out, Liv repeated the same routine: filing paperwork, listening to the radio, crying herself to sleep, going to work, filing paperwork, listening to the radio… With each passing day she grew paler and thinner and more grey hair sprouted from her fair head.

“Every show that their names weren’t called was a moment of sweet relief before the dread quickly set in again; tomorrow could be the day that they said their names in the list of victims,” Liv said quietly, watching herself trying to tune the radio again. “And then one day...they did.”

Liv turned the dial on the radio and suddenly Lee Jordan’s voice rang clear through the small speaker.

"—take a moment to report those deaths that the Wizarding Wireless Network News and Daily Prophet don't think important enough to mention,” he announced in a solemn voice. “It is with great regret that we inform our listeners of the murders of Ted Tonks and Dirk Cresswell…”

Liv’s eyes widened with shock and she shoved the radio away from her as though it had stung her. It clattered to the floor with a loud bang, cutting Lee off mid-sentence. Liv clung to the vanity table for support, gasping for air, unable to catch her breath. She had turned deathly pale and Minerva worried that she might faint from the shock. Suddenly, the mirror on the vanity table cracked and Liv burst into tears, her head buried into her hands as she wailed like a wounded animal, her grief spilling out of her. Minerva cast a wary glance at the woman standing beside her; it couldn’t be easy for her to relive this moment, particularly when the events had transpired only a few months prior.

“Are you alright?” she asked gently. Liv kept her eyes to the ground, pointedly ignoring the scene unfold in front of her, but she gave a curt nod.

“I’m fine,” she choked. “This’ll be over in a moment.”

The scene dissolved and reformed one last time, this time following Liv as she marched through the Atrium at the Ministry of Magic, looking eerily calm.

“When is this?” asked Minerva.

“The next morning,” Liv replied and Minerva drew her a sharp look.

“You went into work?” she asked incredulously. “After what you had just heard?”

Liv shrugged. “In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the smartest decision I ever made.”

They followed Liv as she made her way through the Atrium, struggling to keep up with her pace as she hurried past the Magic is Might monolith that dominated the centre of the great hall without giving it a second glance, then down the golden lifts that shuddered to a halt in front of her office. Nobody gave her a second look or thought; she might as well have been invisible, and that suited her just fine.

Stepping into the confines of her small office, she slammed the door shut behind her. Turning slowly on the spot, she looked around despairingly at the numerous cabinets, boxes and folders, each one containing the names of Muggle-Borns that she had meticulously filed herself.

“It began to hit me, then,” Liv whispered. “What the price of my silence was. Countless lives were ruined because I kept my head down, too afraid and too selfish to help anyone other than myself. There’s a famous Muggle saying, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’. I wasn’t any better than Umbridge or Yaxley…Ted and Dirk were dead, and I had done nothing to stop it.”

Minerva opened her mouth to argue this point, to assure her that she and those monsters were nothing alike, but her attention was drawn back to the scene before her as Liv pulled her wand from her robe pocket—different from the one that she had brought to her office this evening, she noted—and pointed it at the office door.

“Colloportus,” she muttered and the door clicked shut. She flicked her wand through the air again. “Fianto Duri. Repello Inimicum.”

As the locking and protective charms took hold, Liv turned to face her desk again. Her expression was stony, but her eyes had a mad glint to them. She raised her wand again and pointed it towards the piles of parchment that littered her desk.

“Incendio!”

 

Minerva gasped as the desk burst into flames and the parchment quickly shrivelled and turned to ash. Liv slashed her wand through the air again, causing several jets of flames to fly across the small office space, exploding on impact as they hit cardboard boxes, sending paperwork, ash and red hot sparks flying in all directions. As she raised her wand to strike again, she paused as she heard loud banging and angry, muffled voices coming from her office door.

“I’d put up locking charms,” Liv piped up suddenly. “But I had forgotten to cast a bloody Silencing Charm. Idiot.”

Evidently set to destroy as much of the paperwork as possible, Liv ignored the interruption and proceeded to slash her wand through the air several more times, determined to set alight every last piece of paper. As the flames leapt higher, feverishly devouring the names and locations of every Muggle-Born that they had on record, Liv grinned maniacally to herself at what she had done before collapsing to the floor, coughing and gasping for what little air remained in the sealed room. The fire encircled her, trapping her in the centre of the room as the flames began to emit copious amounts of black smoke that choked her, but she didn’t care. She wouldn’t unlock that door for anyone.

Suddenly, the office door exploded off of its hinges and, amidst the smoke and flames, Yaxley’s imposing figure came into view. Pointing his wand at the doorway, he extinguished some of the flames so that he could reach Liv. Barely conscious, she used the last of her waning strength to raise her wand at Yaxley in a feeble effort to hex him, but he simply kicked the wand out of her hand. The wand skited across the floor before disappearing into the flames.

“Stupid bitch!” he snarled, grabbing her by the hair and dragging her out of the burning office. Several Ministry workers and Death Eaters stood outside the office, staring wide-eyed with shock and fright as flames and plumes of smoke poured out into the larger office. Yaxley threw Liv roughly onto the floor, his wand still pointed at her as he glowered at the dumbstruck crowd surrounding them.

“Well, don’t just stand there!” he bellowed. “Put the fire out!”

His booming voice seemed to snap them out of their trance. Several Death Eaters drew their wands and hurried forward to try and put the fire out.

“Quickly! We might be able to recover some of the files!” Yaxley barked. He pointed at another Death Eater who stood nearby. “You! Take her down to Interrogation.”

“We’re keeping her alive, sir?” asked the Death Eater, sounding surprised. Yaxley drew Liv a predatory grin that made Minerva’s blood run cold.

“Clearly she works for The Order. We need to extract any information she has before we dispose of her, but that doesn’t mean that her stay here needs to be pleasant.”

As the final scene began to dissolve, Minerva lifted her head out of the Pensieve and slumped back into her chair, feeling drained.

“Yaxley was convinced that I was part of The Order, so he kept me in the holding cells at the Ministry, determined to get information from me that I just didn’t have,” said Liv matter-of-factly. “The last few weeks of the war were unpleasant, to say the least, but I was beyond caring at that point—I had lost Ted and Dirk and I just wanted to hurt the people who had taken them from me. Destroying the files, throwing a spanner in the works of their operation, that was the only way I knew how. Not that it made much of a difference: when the Aurors finally released me from the holding cell, they told me that the war was over. I’d sat on my hands for the whole war and then I sat in a bloody cell, oblivious as the final battle raged on. The story of my life…”

“This...this is a lot to take in,” sighed Minerva, draining her cup of the last of its tea. It had long since gone cold but she barely noticed. She was trying to process everything that Liv had shown her. “The fire you set, I don’t remember it being reported in The Prophet.”

Liv shrugged. “I suppose that they didn’t want to advertise the fact that they had lost all of the Muggle-Born records. It might have emboldened some people to fight back and given others the opportunity to run.”

“Destroying the records...presumably that is why Kingsley awarded you an Order of Merlin?”

Liv screwed up her nose in distaste. “It was, not that I deserved it. What I did wasn’t out of bravery, it was only out of anger.”

Minerva frowned at her. “Your actions would have indirectly saved the lives of a lot of people, Miss Tonks.”

“Not the ones that mattered to me.”

Liv’s face burned red and she lowered her gaze as she realised what she had just said. She seemed to have momentarily forgotten that this was a job interview, but Minerva appreciated her speaking honestly about her feelings.

“Whatever your intentions, you earned that medal,” she argued. “Kingsley wouldn’t have given it to you otherwise.”

Liv shook her head, looking miserable. “I’m not brave like Potter or Dora or yourself, Professor. I just tried to keep my head down and get through the war in one piece. When I finally chose to act, it was too little too late.”

“It’s never too late to redeem yourself,” Minerva countered, her eyes unconsciously wandering towards the letter Narcissa Malfoy had sent her. Liv didn’t look convinced, so Minerva thought it was better to change the subject. “It’s been two months since the war ended, what have you done since then?”

Liv let out a weary sigh. “Well, Kingsley was quick to re-establish the Muggle Liaison Department and he wanted to keep me on as the Department Head. I tried to go back to work but after everything that happened there...I don’t feel comfortable being there.”

She doesn’t feel safe there, mused Minerva. Knowing what kind of monster Yaxley was like, that didn’t come as a surprise to her. She knew better than to ask Liv about the finer details of her imprisonment at the Ministry—it wasn’t her place to ask. Instead, she did what she often did in times of crisis and opened up the large tartan biscuit tin on her desk.

“Would you like a biscuit?” she offered. Liv raised her eyebrows in surprise at the gesture before giving Minerva a small, but genuine, smile.

“Thank you,” she said, sounding relieved for the distraction, and took a ginger snap. Minerva placed a slice of shortbread on the edge of her saucer before topping up both of their cups with fresh tea.

“I understand why you were reluctant to show me what happened, but I appreciate your honesty,” she offered. “Thank you for trusting me.”

Liv nodded mutely and took a bite from her biscuit.

“I hope you understand why I had to ask.”

Liv smirked. “And I hope you understand why I chose not to include it on my C.V. You put ‘Dark Lord lackey’ on your application form, most people would turn tail and run,” she joked. “Besides, it wasn’t like I could ask Umbridge and Yaxley for a reference. In truth, I knew that it would come up during the interview. I hoped that it wouldn’t but I knew that it would. I hope that I have earned your trust now.”

“Trust is something earned over time, Miss Tonks,” Minerva argued. “So tell me why, after what you have just shown me, do you think that I should employ you?”

Liv looked up at Minerva again with a determined expression.

“Because, as you pointed out yourself, I’m more than qualified for the position,” she reminded her. “I possess a unique combination of skills and experience that others can’t bring to the role. I have over twenty years of experience in Muggle Liaisons and I have faced a lot of unique and challenging cases, but as I’ve already demonstrated, I’m adaptable to any given situation.”

“Indeed,” Minerva replied drily.

“And more importantly than any of that, I want to do something good,” she continued. “For once in my life, I want to be a positive influence, to use my knowledge and experience to help others, and this job provides me with the perfect opportunity to do that.”

“That it would be,” Minerva mused, taking a sip from her tea before continuing, “Have you brought a provisional lesson plan, as I requested?”

“Yes, Professor,” said Liv keenly, handing over the emerald folder that she had been clutching throughout the interview. “If you don’t mind me saying, I believe the previous curriculum was a little outdated. I think there should be less focus on how to cope with non-magical technologies and greater emphasis on understanding Muggle society from a historical and sociological perspective. I’d also like the classroom to be more of an active learning environment for the students; I want them to participate more in discussions and activities as opposed to passively listening.”

“Interesting…” Minerva carefully read through the proposal before pausing at one page in particular. She frowned and looked up at Liv.

“This…” she said flatly, jabbing the page with a bony index finger. “This is part of your plan?”

“Yes, Professor,” she replied confidently. “I know it’s a little unorthodox, but I think it'll be just what the students need right now.”

Minerva reread the proposal again to make sure that she had read it correctly the first time. “This is an unusual approach.”

“You don’t approve?” asked Liv nervously. Minerva shook her head.

“No, I think it is an inspired idea,” she countered. “Although I am uncertain if you will be able to enlist the students’ participation.”

Liv drew her a sly grin. “You just let me worry about that, Professor. Is the rest of the lesson plan to your satisfaction?”

Minerva scrutinised the papers for a few moments, but she had already made up her mind. She looked up at Liv and extended her hand across the table. Liv broke out into a wide grin and shook the proffered hand.

“Your lesson plan is sound, Professor Tonks. I look forward to seeing you put your plan in action. Welcome to Hogwarts.”

Chapter Text

Harry James Potter’s tale was one as old as time itself: a young boy who believed that he was unexceptional in every way until one day his life is changed forever. The once-ordinary boy achieves extraordinary things and embarks on many adventures; it’s a familiar story that we’ve all read before, stories that Harry himself read as a child. Long story short, he beat the bad guy, saved the day and got the girl, and they all lived happily ever after.

Well, that is, until a few weeks ago when his girlfriend broke up with him.

He knew that girls breaking up with their boyfriends was pretty normal, that it happened all the time. For a boy who had wanted nothing more than to be normal, this wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind. For once in his life, he would have been content to live out the hero’s fantasy by walking off into the sunset with Ginny on his arm. Of course, Harry’s life was anything but easy or straightforward, so he really should have known better.

So instead of enjoying story-ending sunsets, Harry was currently sat beneath the shade of a large apple tree at the bottom of the Weasleys’ garden, feeling irritable. His summer had started out better than he could have ever have hoped. He was alive, for one thing; that was an unexpected bonus. The war was over and he had come out the other end of it relatively unscathed. Knowing that he never had to see his aunt and uncle again was another plus. He and Ginny had reconciled, and Mr and Mrs Weasley had opened up their home to him until he and Ginny found a place of their own. All things considered, life couldn’t have been better. Then, predictably for Harry, things had gotten...complicated.

“Harry!”

Mrs Weasley’s voice echoed in the distance but he didn’t reply to her summons. Instead, he sat quite still, hoping that she would leave him be. Even after the break-up, Mrs Weasley had insisted that he continue to stay at the Burrow on account of Harry practically being her son anyway and that Grimmauld Place, in her words, ‘wasn’t fit for Doxys to live in’, let alone one of her boys. Although he and Ginny had parted amicably, living under the same roof as his ex-girlfriend was a little awkward. But for the time being, his options were limited, so he remained at the Burrow, trying his best to keep out of everyone’s way. He had mastered that over the years living at the Dursleys’, long before he ever received his father’s Invisibility Cloak; he knew how to make himself small, invisible and unnoticed if he wanted to.

As upsetting as the breakup had been, he had been relieved that it had happened while Ron and Hermione were in Australia. Ron’s reaction to the news had been what Harry had expected—a Howler arrived at the breakfast table a few days after the fact and Ron’s bellowing voice threatened to beat his best mate senseless for breaking his little sister’s heart. Mrs Weasley had been mortified to hear her youngest son use such colourful language and Mr Weasley had stared fixedly at his morning paper, pretending he couldn’t hear the voice screaming insults in the small kitchen. When Ginny had written back to him explaining that she was, in fact, the one who had broken up with Harry, a confused but abated Ron had written back to Harry apologising for losing his temper and offering his condolences and support.

At least for the briefest of moments, Harry had come close to achieving his happy ending. And as much as Harry’s life and head were in a mess, he would be lying to himself if he’d said he’d rather be anywhere else but here, at the Burrow, in the orchard and under this well-shaded apple tree, taking a few moments rest from the constant circus that was his life.

When Mrs Weasley didn’t call on him again, Harry relaxed against the rough bark of the tree. He took off his trainers and socks and wiggled his toes into the cool grass and soil, enjoying the blades of grass tickling the bottom of his hot feet. It was a pleasant sensation and something that he had always enjoyed doing as a child, although heaven forbid his Aunt Petunia ever caught him doing it; getting grass stains on her peach carpet would have earned him at least a week in the cupboard. Not that he had to worry about that anymore, he supposed. He doubted the Dursleys spared a thought for him and he didn’t care much to think of them either.

Pushing the Dursleys out of his mind, Harry focused on his beautiful surroundings. Long lines of apple trees stretched out in all directions, obscuring Harry’s view of the nearby village and Burrow. Their century-old branches sagged under the weight of the swollen red Braeburns, ready and begging to be eaten. He reached out for one particularly fat apple dangling from a low branch just above his head. With a slight twist, he plucked the fruit free from its stalk and inspected it closely for blemishes before taking a bite, his mouth already salivating as his teeth sunk into its soft flesh. Sweetness spread across his tongue and he licked his lips, savouring the sweet-tart flavour and crisp bite of the delicious fruit.

Harry had visited the apple orchard several times over the years, usually to play Quidditch with the Weasleys, but this summer, it had been his little oasis away from the rest of the world, a peaceful place where he didn’t need to think or worry about anything, where he could simply be. Granted, those peaceful moments had been few and far between in the four months since the war had ended, but right now he was enjoying a rare, blissful moment of solitude.

He made quick work devouring the apple, tossing the core into the tall grass and out of sight before settling back against the tree trunk, licking the juice from his sticky fingers. The apple had quenched his thirst, but it did little to abate the heat of the scorching afternoon sun. The leaves in the trees whispered as they swayed in the light breeze and cool air caressed his clammy skin, a small respite from the intense heat. It had been one of the hottest summers that he could remember, far too hot to do anything in his opinion; even thinking was too taxing in this weather.

Harry had hoped that since the war had ended, he might have some time to catch his breath and process everything that had happened in the last year (or the last eighteen years of his life, really), but even that was asking too much. Instead, he’d had countless funerals, testimonies and award ceremonies to attend, the latter of which he particularly detested. But he, above anyone else, was expected to bear witness to the destruction and mayhem that he had contributed to, and the guilty part of his conscience agreed that attending these events was the least that he could do. The only good thing about these events was that they distracted him from thinking about Ginny too much. So, he had appeared at innumerable memorials and celebrations without complaint. He had very little to say at these events beyond constantly reminding his admirers and well-wishers that the victory of the war was hard-fought for and won by many, not just him alone. This proclamation, however, mostly fell on deaf ears. He was sick to the back teeth of being lauded as a great war hero when he knew that he was anything but, contrite at the undeserving praise and irritated by the persistent use of the titles ‘Chosen One’ and ‘The Boy Who Lived.’

Harry grunted irritably and swatted away a fly that persistently buzzed around his face. It was embarrassing enough to be a grown man and still be dubbed ‘The Boy Who Lived’, worse still to be credited for the work and sacrifices of greater men and women than himself. He thought of Professors Dumbledore and Snape, of Remus and Tonks, Sirius, Fred, Dobby...all of those who had given everything to the fight and his stomach twisted unpleasantly at the paltry comparison.

“Bollocks,” he sighed wearily to himself. He had come out here with the intention of not thinking about all of these things. Closing his eyes, Harry tried again to clear his mind but it was no use; as peaceful as the orchard was, he was struggling to find any kind of peace within himself. But then, how could he find peace when his whole world had been uprooted and left in ruins? Every time he closed his eyes he saw the dead and dying; they haunted his dreams and occupied his thoughts every waking hour of the day. And as much as he tried to dress it up, Harry’s current situation was far from ideal: he had no home, no useful qualifications, and no plans for what the hell he was going to do with the rest of his life. He had even lost the Dursleys. Admittedly, he wasn’t sorry to see the back of his aunt and uncle, but he lamented the fact that what little normality he had known had been destroyed. His life was a mess and no amount of apples and orchards was going to fix that. And worse than all of that, and through nobody else’s fault but his own, he had lost Ginny. Harry unconsciously rubbed his chest; it felt constricted as though someone was squeezing his heart every time he thought about her.

“HARRY!”

Speak of the devil, he thought to himself. Ginny’s cry was much closer than Mrs Weasley’s. Evidently, she had been sent out to look for him. Not wanting to be found quite yet, he instinctively reached for his Invisibility Cloak but paused when he realised that he had left it along with his rucksack back at the house. Pulling his wand from the front pocket of his shorts, he twirled it around himself as though he were coiling an invisible rope around his body. He shivered as the sensation of cold, raw egg travelled down the top of his head and down his back. After a few seconds, he looked down and smiled to himself; his body was now the exact colour and texture of the grass and tree. Now invisible to the naked eye, he would just have to keep quiet enough until Ginny walked past.

“Harry, I know you’re out here,” she called, dipping in and out of view between the trees as she drew closer. She stalked forward in Harry’s direction and he held his breath as she walked past him without a second glance before coming to a stop between two trees. Turning in all directions as she searched in vain for him, she let out an exasperated sigh, brushing her long mane of red hair off of her pale, freckled shoulders and looking increasingly annoyed. She stepped under the shade of the larger of the two trees, causing a mosaic of shadows to dance across her sun-kissed face and Harry couldn’t help but think how beautiful she looked in that moment.

Ginny looked as though she was ready to give up the search when her gaze paused at the tree Harry was sitting under and her eyes narrowed. Harry’s heart missed a beat. Surely she couldn’t see him?

Drawing her wand she marched towards him then pointed it above Harry’s head and called, “Flipendo!”

The tree shuddered violently and a cascade of dislodged apples rained down on Harry, several striking him on the top of his head and shoulders as many more thudded and bounced across the soft grass. Harry shouted in protest and pain and he scrambled out from under the tree towards Ginny, who had a satisfied smirk spreading across her face. She flicked her wand lazily in Harry’s direction and muttered, “Revelio.”

Harry felt the effects of the Disillusionment Charm lift and he reappeared at Ginny’s feet on his hands and knees, looking up at her with a sheepish expression.

“Hi,” he greeted her a little too brightly.

“If you’re going to hide from me, you’re going to have to try harder than that,” she replied, slipping her wand back into its holster. Harry clambered back to his feet and brushed leaves and twigs out of his mat of thick black hair.

“I wasn’t hiding from you,” he began to argue, but Ginny drew him a sharp look and he relented, “Well, from not you specifically. How did you see me?”

“I didn’t, but your shoes gave you away,” she replied simply. Harry turned to look at the apple tree and grimaced as he noticed his scuffed, white trainers sitting at its base.

“Ah. Right…”

“Any particular reason that you’re out here hiding from us?” she queried lightly, crossing her arms. Harry shrugged.

“I suppose I just needed someplace to clear my head,” he explained. “I hoped coming here I might find...I don’t know, a piece of serenity, or something.”

“And how is the search coming along?”

“Not great,” he admitted. Ginny’s expression softened. She grabbed Harry’s arm and pulled him back under the shade of the apple tree.

“Serenity isn’t a place, Harry, it’s something that you need to find within yourself.”

Harry snorted and flopped back onto the grass. “Fat chance of me ever finding that, then.”

“You won’t if you keep carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders,” she warned. They both sat at the foot of the tree, Ginny sitting cross-legged in front of Harry while he rested against the trunk again, avoiding her gaze. She gave him a searching look.

“Don’t think I haven’t noticed how distant you’ve been the last few weeks,” she accused. Harry grunted.

“I think the reason for that is pretty obvious,” he muttered, but Ginny shook her head.

“I know you well enough to know that’s not the reason—at least, not the only one. If something’s bothering you, you don’t have to sit out here mulling it over on your own. You could talk to me about it. We’re still friends, you know,” she reminded him. Harry pulled fistfuls of grass out of the ground, ignoring the query, but he stilled as Ginny rested her hand on his knee.

“Please, Harry,” she asked gently, her voice laced with concern. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“What isn’t?” he quipped. Ginny withdrew her hand and glared at him.

“Are you going to tell me what’s on your mind or am I better leaving you here to brood on your own?”

Harry sighed. He knew that Ginny meant well, but he wasn’t exactly famed for being open and honest about his feelings. Their friendship might be on rocky ground at the moment, but he still valued her opinion. “This summer...it’s been a bit mental, you know?”

“A bit,” she conceded with a small smile. “A lot of big changes. Some good. Others...not so much.”

You and me especially, he thought miserably. “You know I had no expectation that I would survive this war.”

“I know you didn’t.”

“Beyond searching and destroying Horcruxes and beating Voldemort, I didn’t spare much thought for what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Now, it’s all over and I’m just feeling a bit…”

“Lost?” Ginny chanced. Harry nodded. Ginny gave him a sympathetic pat on the arm.

“If it’s any consolation, I don’t think most people our age know what they’re going to do next week, let alone have the rest of their lives planned out,” she mused. “Well, everyone except Hermione.”

Harry chuckled. “Yeah, I’d be more concerned if she didn’t have her whole life mapped out already.”

Ginny gave Harry an understanding smile. “While your particular situation is unique, you’re not alone in feeling adrift. But now...well, you’ve got all the time in the world to figure out who you are, who you want to be, what you want to do...”

“I suppose so,” he mumbled. “A few people have asked whether or not I plan on applying for the Auror Academy.”

Ginny gave in an expectant look. “And?”

Harry hesitated before answering, “I mean, I did want to join the Aurors before the war and I think I still want to do it. Just...not right now.”

“Is that why you’re going back to Hogwarts?” she asked. “To give yourself some time to think about what you really want to do?”

“A bit, yeah,” he nodded. “And I’d like to have at least one year at school where I don’t have any kind of drama: no Dark Lords or Death Eaters or Dementors…”

“Or Basilisks and evil diaries,” Ginny interjected.

“Or Umbridge,” Harry added with a smirk.

“Urgh, please no more Umbridges!” she cried dramatically to the sky. Ginny and Harry laughed and smiled at each other and it almost felt like the way it used to be, how Harry thought it ought to be, between them. He picked one of the freshly fallen apples from the ground and handed it to Ginny in an unspoken peace offering. She plucked the proffered apple from his hand and took a large bite out of it, humming in satisfaction.

 

“Mmm, tasty,” she mumbled through a mouthful of apple. She swallowed hard to clear her mouth before speaking again, “You’ve more than earned a break from all of the drama, Harry. It’s about time you started to think about what you want, about what makes you truly happy.”

Harry looked nervously at Ginny before declaring, “You make me happy.”

Ginny’s smile fell. “We’ve been over this, Harry…”

“I know we have, but…Ginny, you know that I love you,” he pleaded.

“I know you do,” she replied stiffly, staring at her feet. “And I love you, too. But that’s not enough.”

“Why not?” he implored. “I can do better. I can try harder. Just tell me what to do, Gin, and I’ll do it. What can I do to change your mind?”

“Nothing,” she replied firmly. Her shoulders sagged when she saw the despondent expression on Harry’s face and replied more gently, “Look, you didn’t do anything wrong, but you can’t change who you are.”

“I can try,” he argued weakly but Ginny snorted a derisive laugh.

“No spell or incantation can change your sexual preference, Harry.”

“I’m not gay!” he protested hotly. Ginny raised her eyebrows in surprise and Harry withered a little under her gaze. “At least, I don’t think I am. Well, it’s not like I have any experience in that department to know for certain, have I?”

“While you might not necessarily be gay, I think based on our previous attempts...I think it’s safe to assume that we, at least, are not compatible,” she replied carefully. “There’s a difference between loving a person and being attracted to them.”

Harry groaned and buried his face in his hands, great waves of shame and confusion cascading over him at the memory of their fleeting and awkward sexual encounters. When they had briefly dated in his sixth year, they hadn’t done anything beyond kissing. That had suited Harry fine; he enjoyed Ginny’s company, and while he enjoyed kissing her—she was undoubtedly a great kisser—he had no real desire to do anything beyond that. He’d put it down to how stressful things had been at the time—they were on the brink of war, and he had the combined stress of exams and Dumbledore’s task to contend with. And of course, he had spent an inordinate amount of time tracking Malfoy throughout the castle, convinced that he was up to something nefarious. He felt a little bit embarrassed thinking back on it now, the amount of time wasted following that git instead of spending quality time with his girlfriend. Well, I was right about him being up to something, he thought to himself. Vindication on this matter, however, brought him little comfort considering what had transpired on the Astronomy Tower.

With all of that to worry about, sex had been pretty low on his agenda. When they had rekindled their romance at the start of May, Ginny had been keen to progress their relationship to the next level. Harry, on the other hand, felt strangely reluctant to be more intimate with her. Ginny had been patient and understanding, but as the weeks went by, Harry’s feelings on the matter hadn’t changed and he had started to worry whether something was seriously wrong with him. Shouldn’t he want to be intimate with his girlfriend? Sex had been discussed and dissected obsessively in the dormitories during his time at Hogwarts, but Harry had never felt that ‘burning desire’ the other boys described for anyone, not even Ginny. He reasoned that he would feel it at some point; it was just going to take some time.

Finally, on a rare evening that Mr and Mrs Weasley were out at dinner and they had the house entirely to themselves, Harry had decided it was time to bite the bullet and take their relationship to the next level. Things started out well enough: lots of kissing and groping, all pleasant enough. He recalled in excruciating detail lying on Ginny’s bed in nothing but his boxers, his heart racing with nerves. Ginny had stood at the foot of the bed and peeled off her clothes to reveal herself to him for the first time. Straddling his hips, she had bit her lip nervously as he drank in the sight of her: light brown freckles smattered across her slim shoulders and soft, supple breasts. His eyes had migrated lower towards the soft bed of red curls between Ginny’s legs and—

And panic had struck him then. He had looked down at his boxers where his erection should have been and seen, to his horror, that everything remained quite dormant. Ginny had taken notice of this too and had frowned at him.

“Is everything okay?” she’d asked uncertainly.

“Uh, yeah. Just...give me a minute to warm up,” he’d said with a nervous laugh. But try as he might, he could not rise to the occasion that night. Ginny had been understandably disappointed but Harry had brushed it off simply as his nerves getting the better of him, sure that next time would be different. But it wasn’t. After their third failed attempt at intimacy, Ginny had sat Harry down for ‘a chat’ and asked him if he had something that he wanted to tell her.

“Not really,” he’d shrugged, unsure of where exactly this conversation was going. Ginny had taken his hand into her own, given it a reassuring squeeze and had suggested (ever-so-delicately) that while Harry might love Ginny, he might not be in love with her.

“What’s the difference?” he’d asked obtusely.

“Well…Ron loves you, yes?”

Harry had frowned slightly. “Of course, he’s my best mate.”

“But he’s in love with Hermione.”

“Right.”

Ginny had waited patiently for the Galleon to drop. After a few more moments contemplating these words, Harry’s eyes had widened with shock at the sudden realisation at what Ginny was suggesting.

“Oh,” he had replied weakly. “Right.”

Despite Harry’s protestations, Ginny had ended their relationship that evening. She assured him that they were still friends but he hadn’t been overly keen to speak to her since the breakup. He was still embarrassed at what had happened and he felt irrationally annoyed at her for pointing out something about himself which was now glaringly obvious. That said, he was more annoyed at himself for leaving it to Ginny to point it out to him rather than coming to this realisation about his sexuality himself.

“It’s nothing that you should worry about,” Ginny reassured him, snapping Harry out of his miserable revery. “People don’t wake up one day and decide one way or the other if they’re gay or straight or asexual—”

“Asexual?” Harry cut in, looking slightly alarmed. “Christ, I don’t even know what that is!”

“Asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction to others or low or absent desire for sexual activity,” she explained. “I’m not really an expert on the subject, if I’m honest. I’ll get Hermione to dig out a book for you that explains it better than I can.”

Harry snorted. “I’d rather you didn’t!”

Ginny frowned. “Why not?”

“I’m not talking to Hermione about...this,” he muttered, his cheeks turning as red as the Braeburns. Ginny raised a sceptical eyebrow at him.

“You’d rather talk to Ron about it?” she challenged.

“Not really,” he admitted. “I think it’s best if we just don’t talk about it again. Ever.”

Ginny burst out laughing and Harry drew her an incredulous look.

“This isn’t funny!” he snapped.

“No, but you are,” she countered. “Being gay isn’t a big deal.”

“It isn’t?” he asked cautiously and Ginny frowned at him.

“No, not in the Wizarding world, at least,” she replied slowly. “Is it a problem in the Muggle world?”

“That would be putting it mildly,” he muttered. “I mean, it’s better than it used to be, I suppose. It’s not illegal anymore, at least…”

“What was illegal?” she asked, looking horrified. “Being gay?” Harry nodded and Ginny’s expression transformed from one of shock into anger. “That’s ridiculous! What difference does it make who you love?”

“Dunno,” said Harry glumly. “Suppose it’s like purebloods who don’t want to marry Muggle-borns, or in America where Muggles can’t marry wizards. They think it’s abnormal.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” said Ginny quietly. “Rapport’s Law, or something…so, gay Muggles can’t get married, either?”

“Nope.”

Ginny screwed her nose up in disgust. “I know my dad thinks Muggles are fascinating but the more I learn about them, the more I dislike them.”

“They’re not all bad,” Harry argued.

Harry couldn’t immediately recall meeting any Muggles that he had particularly liked and Ginny didn’t look entirely convinced at this assurance but she decided to drop the subject.

“Look, I’m not going to push you on this,” she sighed. “Working out your sexual identity doesn’t happen overnight; it’s something that you need to work out for yourself, at your own pace. But I really think you should talk to someone about it—Ron or Hermione, or me if you really want to. I could write to Charlie, if you’d like? He’ll be able to tell you more than I can.”

Harry’s eyes widened with shock. “Charlie’s gay?”

“Uh, yeah,” she chuckled. “Who do you think that dishy blonde bloke he brought to Bill and Fleur’s wedding was?”

“I dunno, I just assumed that it was a friend that he worked with in Romania.”

Ginny shook her head despairingly at him, but she was still smiling. “Oh Harry…”

“Why are you out here looking for me, anyway?” he asked, keen to change the subject.

“HARRY! GINNY!” cried Mrs Weasley’s voice. Ginny’s head snapped towards her mother’s voice and she jumped to her feet.

“Merlin, I forgot—once I found you, I was supposed to bring you back to the house,” she said, brushing grass from her legs. “We’re going to Diagon Alley today to get my school supplies. Are you coming with us?”

“Suppose I’ll need to,” he said reluctantly, slipping his socks and trainers back on and rising to his feet. He peeled his t-shirt off of his back when he realized that it was so sodden in sweat that it clung uncomfortably to his skin. He wasn’t looking forward to wearing his school robes in this heat.

Ginny grabbed his arm and pulled him in the direction of the Burrow. “Come on, they’ll be waiting for us.”

As they made their way up the garden path, they saw Mrs Weasley waiting for them at the back door. Harry felt a pang of guilt at the worry etched on her face which only eased as she caught sight of them. Mrs Weasley had always been protective of her children, but her anxiety had reached new heights since Fred had died. She had even reverted back to carrying the Weasley clock around with her everywhere she went, constantly monitoring the well-being of her family. Harry had overheard Mr Weasley talking to her about it a few nights previously, saying that carrying the clock everywhere was an unhealthy coping mechanism. Harry, however, could empathise with how she must feel. He had often thought if he’d owned a similar clock with Sirius’ name on it, things might have turned out quite differently.

“Where on earth have you two been?” called Mrs Weasley as they approached, worriedly wringing a tea towel in her hands. “I was about to send out a search party!”

Ginny rolled her eyes and stepped past her mother into the small kitchen. Harry made to follow her but Mrs Weasley grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him to face her.

“Are you alright, Harry dear?” she asked, brushing his messy hair out of his face and giving him a thorough once-over.

“I’m fine,” he replied a little testily. While he appreciated Mrs Weasley caring for his well-being, he wasn’t accustomed to being molly-coddled.

“Are you sure? You had me worried,” she said, her voice a little strained. “Your hand on the clock moved to ‘Lost’ and I thought—”

“We were only in the orchard,” Ginny assured her, tugging Harry free from her mother’s grasp. “We were perfectly safe.”

Ginny sat down at the kitchen table next to Ron and Harry took the empty chair across from her. The family clock sat on the kitchen counter and Mrs Weasley scrutinised it closely.

“But I thought it said...maybe I misread it,” she muttered quietly to herself. Harry watched as the hands with his and Ginny’s faces shifted from ‘In-Transit’ to ‘Home’. He still got a pleasant feeling bubbling at the centre of his chest every time he laid eyes on the clock and saw his face alongside the other Weasleys, but the happiness was immediately marred with sadness at the absence of Fred’s name on the clock. He had always seen the Weasley clan like the family he never had, but when they had added his own hand to the clock, it had meant more to him than he could express in words. They were no longer like his family, they were his family.

“What were you two doing in the orchard?” asked Ron suspiciously. He had a plateful of sandwiches in front of him while Hermione sat to his right, perusing over what looked like their school supply list for the year.

“Nothing,” Ginny replied evasively, snatching one of the sandwiches from Ron’s plate. Ron glanced between Ginny and Harry and a knowing smile spread across his face.

“A likely story,” he chuckled, taking a large bite from his bacon sandwich. Ginny shot him a dirty look and Harry concentrated on pouring himself a drink from the large decanter at the centre of the table, ignoring the insinuation in Ron’s comment. Ron seemed to have convinced himself that his best friend and sister were merely going through a rough patch in their relationship and that they would eventually work things out and get back together. As much as Harry would like that to be the case, he knew that was about as likely as the Chudley Cannons winning the league.

“Have you had anything to eat today, Harry?” asked Mrs Weasley.

“Yes, Mrs Weasley,” he replied. It wasn’t entirely a lie (he had eaten the apple in the orchard) but Mrs Weasley shook her head and drew her wand.

“Well, clearly you’re not eating enough. You’re practically skin and bones! We’ll get you fed before we go shopping.”

“I’m not hungry,” he protested half-heartedly, but a fresh plateful of bacon and egg sandwiches fashioned into a small pyramid was already soaring past Ron and Hermione’s heads, landing with a clatter in front of Harry. One of the sandwiches fell off of the overfilled plate onto the table, which Ron swiftly snatched up before taking a bite out of it.

“Five-second rule, mate,” he smirked through a mouthful of food. Hermione tsked at her boyfriend's atrocious table manners but said nothing, instead turning her attention back to the school list.

“It’s a rather unusual selection of books this year,” she mused.

“Yes, there’s a few there I haven’t heard of before,” said Mrs Weasley, looking over Hermione’s shoulder at the list. “Austen, Orwell, Shelley...who are these people?”

“They’re all Muggle authors,” Hermione answered, sounding impressed. “I must admit, I had some trepidations when I read about the new Muggle Studies professor, but if this reading list is anything to go by, we might be in for a treat this year!”

“A treat?” Ron snorted. “Look at the number of books she’s assigned us! That’s more than our other subjects combined!”

“No, it isn't!” she argued, pointing at the list. “These six texts are the core reading list for the year and everything else is supplementary. You don’t necessarily have to read these other books—”

“Good, I won’t be bothering with them, then,” he muttered, turning his attention back to his sandwiches.

“But if you want to have a more in-depth knowledge of the subject, then you really should read them,” she argued, folding the list in half and slipping it into her shirt pocket. “Well, I’ll be buying everything on the list, just in case.”

“Of course you will,” Ron teased. “So, will you be letting Harry and I copy your homework this year?”

Hermione let out a dry laugh. “Certainly not! I think it’s about time you two learned to study on your own.”

“But it’s practically a tradition!” Ron protested. “You make lesson plans for each of us, Harry and I ignore ours, we let all of our homework pile up and try to catch up at the last minute, then you go over our work and fix everything that we got wrong. It’s how we’ve always done it!”

“Not this year,” said Hermione lightly, taking a sip from her glass of orange juice.

“Come on, Hermione,” Ron begged. “You know that Harry and I are crap at studying!”

“Speak for yourself,” said Harry defensively, although he couldn’t really disagree with Ron. Harry’s strength was practical demonstrations, while written assessments had always been Hermione’s forte.

“But what if we fail?” Ron argued. “Do you really want that hanging over your head?”

“Not my problem,” she shrugged. “If I’m going to have any chance of achieving eight N.E.W.T.S. then I’m afraid that I’m going to be much too busy to help either of you this year. Maybe Ginny will be kind enough to help you out?”

Ginny snorted, “Sorry lads, you’re on your own.”

“Less chatting and more eating!” said Mrs Weasley briskly, stuffing the family clock into her oversized handbag. “We’re running late as it is.”

Once everyone had finished their lunch, Mrs Weasley hurried them over to the fireplace.

“We’re running behind schedule today, so once we’ve been to the bank we’ll have to split up if we want to get everything done in time before the shops close,” she said. “Boys, you get the books from Flourish and Blotts and pick up supplies from Slug and Jiggers. Here’s a list of everything you’ll need. Hermione, Ginny and I will go to Muggle London to pick up the rest of your books.”

“What about our school robes?” asked Ginny.

“And our Quidditch gear?” Ron chipped in.

“Go get measured for your robes after you’ve grabbed everything else,” Mrs Weasley instructed. “We’ll meet back at the Leaky Cauldron at five o’clock. Harry, if you get lost or trapped Flooing this time—”

“I’ll be fine,” Harry grumbled, snatching up a handful of Floo powder from the flowerpot on the mantelpiece. Ron and Ginny made no attempt to stifle their snickers and Harry glared at the pair. “It was one time I went to the wrong grate! One time and it was years ago! Merlin, will I ever live it down?”

“Nope,” said Ginny lightly, smiling broadly at him.

Harry sighed and stepped into the fireplace, resigned to the fact that as an adopted Weasley he was fair game to any and all jokes from his family. Tossing the Floo powder into the grate, he made sure to cry “Diagon Alley!” clearly this time before he was pulled forward and the Burrow’s living room disappeared in a whirl of emerald green flames.

Chapter Text

There weren’t many things that Harry missed about the Muggle world. He’d grown up feeling like he never really fit in there: not with the Dursleys, not at school, or anywhere. In his earliest memories, Harry had always felt, and had always been, alone. So when Hagrid had appeared one stormy night shortly after his eleventh birthday and whisked him away to the magical world, despite everything being new and strange, for the first time in Harry’s life he felt that he truly belonged. Once he stepped through the threshold from the Muggle world into Diagon Alley, he had never looked back.

No, he couldn’t think of anything that he missed from the Muggle world. Nothing, except the anonymity. Going from living an almost invisible existence to suddenly being the most recognised face in every room he entered had been a shock to the system and it was something that Harry had never quite grown accustomed to. If he thought that he was famous before the war, it was nothing compared to the level of near-hysteria that followed him everywhere that he went now. It was another reason that he had seldom ventured beyond the boundaries of The Burrow all summer except for official engagements. Everywhere that he went, reporters and groups of ‘fans’ lay in wait for him. Harry didn’t know how they always seemed to know where he was going to be, but their pursuit of him had been relentless, and they were the main reason that he had been so reluctant to venture out to Diagon Alley for his school supplies. Today, however, Harry wasn’t going to let anyone deter him from a day out with his friends and family. Today, Harry came prepared.

Stepping out of the fireplace into the Leaky Cauldron, Harry was greeted by a stooped, bald man who gave him a wide, toothless grin.

“Pleasure to see you again, Mr Potter!” Tom, the pub’s wizened barman, greeted Harry cheerfully, holding his hand out to him. Harry took the proffered hand and gave it a firm shake.

“Pleasure’s all mine, Tom,” he replied, smiling warmly at the old innkeeper. “Thanks again for letting us Floo into your kitchen.”

“No problem at all!” Tom assured him, ushering Harry away from the fireplace. “I can only imagine how difficult it must be for you, travelling about without an entourage of reporters and well-wishers on your tail.”

“Yeah, it’s quite annoying, actually,” he admitted. Tom chuckled.

“Well, it’s a good thing that you arranged to Floo into my private quarters. There are two reporters sitting at the bar right now.”

Harry grimaced. “Seriously? How long have they been here?”

Tom shrugged. “A few weeks. They’ve been taking it in shifts, see, waiting day and night, hoping that they might catch a glimpse of you. I suppose they heard that you’ve spent time here in the past. Not that I’m complaining mind; so long as they pay for their drinks and don’t bother the other patrons, they can sit and wait for as long as they like. I figured if I tried to coax them into leaving the pub today, that might arouse suspicion.”

“Makes sense,” said Harry with a wry smirk. “We wouldn’t want to interrupt them if they’re enjoying their pints, would we?”

Tom chuckled and winked at him. “Certainly not, Mr Potter.”

It amused him to no end thinking about the reporters sitting anxiously waiting to see him and knowing full well that wouldn’t be happening, not today at least. And if Tom got some business out of it, then all the better. The fireplace erupted in green flames and Ginny stepped into the small kitchen, flashing Tom a brilliant smile. She was closely followed by Ron, Hermione, and finally, Mrs Weasley.

“Is this everyone?” asked Tom brightly. “Excellent. Follow me…”

Tom led Harry and the others out of the side exit, bypassing the bar completely, to the small, walled courtyard where the entrance to Diagon Alley was hidden. Harry pulled his Invisibility Cloak out of his backpack and slipped it over his head. Once Harry was hidden from view, Mrs Weasley tapped the wall three times with the tip of her wand and an archway into Diagon Alley slowly began to take shape.

“Will you be coming back here after your shopping trip?” Tom called after them.

“Yes, if you don’t mind us leaving the same way that we arrived?” Mrs Weasley inquired.

“Not at all, Madam. I’ll have supper waiting for you upon your return. Free of charge, of course,” he said, winking at the empty space where Harry stood. “It’s the least I could do, after everything you’ve done for us.”

Tom waved goodbye to them as the group set off down the twisting cobbled street, bustling with shoppers who were enjoying the summer sun. Harry had grown adept at dodging people over the years so he wound his way easily through the thronging crowds without being detected. As they approached the burnished bronze doors of Gringotts Bank, he noticed that two goblins stood sentry, each holding gold spears. They bowed Mrs Weasley and Ginny through the silver doors into the main entrance of the bank but quickly straightened as Hermione and Ron (and, unbeknownst to them, Harry) walked past. Ron frowned as he passed the goblin guards.

“How come you get a bow and I don’t?” he asked Ginny accusingly.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied sarcastically. “Maybe it has something to do with you three breaking in and stealing treasure and a great bloody dragon from them?”

“Oh yeah,” said Ron slowly. “I’d forgotten about that.”

“It was only four months ago!”

“Yeah, well....a lot’s happened since then, hasn’t it?” he shrugged.

The guards weren’t the only ones to give Hermione and Ron an unwelcome reception. As they made their way down the vast marble hall, every goblin that caught sight of them glared at the pair. Hermione stepped closer to Ron and whispered, “They don’t look very happy to see us, do they?”

“I don’t see why!” he grumbled. “We helped get rid of Voldemort, didn’t we? You’d think that they’d be grateful!”

“Evidently not,” Harry muttered. Although he hadn’t paid too much attention in his History of Magic lessons, he knew well enough that relations between goblins and wizards were tentative at best. He doubted their recent antics at the bank would have endeared them much to the goblin community.

The group made their way down the hall, passing two long counters on either side where numerous goblins sat on stools, scribbling in ledgers and weighing precious jewels. It was only when they reached the opposite end of the hall and approached one of the free goblins that Harry finally removed his cloak. As soon as he whipped it off, the goblin did a double take at his sudden appearance. Upon seeing the scar on his forehead, the goblin’s eyes narrowed.

“You!” he hissed. His beetle-black eyes darted between Harry, Ron and Hermione. “The three of you! What are you doing here?”

“Afternoon. Umm…” Harry hesitantly pulled out the small gold key for his vault and slid it across the table towards the goblin. “I’d like to make a withdrawal, please.”

The goblin drew him a withering look, “It wasn’t so long ago that you three committed innumerable crimes against this bank: breaking and entering! Identity theft! Thievery!”

“Well, it was a life or death situation…” Ron muttered.

“Destruction of property!” the goblin continued furiously. “And the loss of an incredibly valuable Ukrainian Ironbelly. The list goes on! Yet you saw fit to stroll in here as though none of that happened and request to make a withdrawal?”

“Uh, yes. Sorry about all of that,” Harry laughed nervously. A long pause followed. “So...about making that withdrawal…”

The goblin clicked his long fingers and several armed goblins approached, the tips of their golden spears pointed at the trio. Harry instinctively reached for his wand, but Hermione grabbed his arm and shook her head.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she warned in a low voice. Reluctantly, Harry withdrew his hand from his robes and raised them into the air. This wasn’t a great start to his incognito shopping trip.

“What is the meaning of this?” cried Mrs Weasley, stepping between the trio and the goblins’ spears. “Is this how you treat all of your customers?”

“These three,” said the goblin, pointing accusingly at Harry, Ron and Hermione, “are not welcome here!”

“These three helped save your bloody bank from You-Know-Who and his lot!” she shouted.

The goblin gave a derisive laugh. “By destroying half of it in the process?”

Harry and everyone else in the marble hall watched in stunned silence as Mrs Weasley proceeded to have a heated argument with the goblin, each gesticulating wildly as their voices rose higher and higher. Even Ginny, whose fiery temper was the stuff of legend, stood quietly as her mother made perfectly clear how despicable she thought the bank was treating her children. After Mrs Weasley threatened to close the family vault, the goblin grudgingly conceded and said that Harry, Ron and Hermione would be permitted to make a withdrawal from the bank, but not without taking ‘extra precautions’ to ensure that there was not a repeat of what had happened the last time. The trio agreed to the terms, desperate to get this visit to the bank over with as quickly as possible.

The ‘extra precautions’, much to Hermione’s horror, came in the form of a large security troll flanked by several armoured goblins who were to accompany them to each of their vaults. Hermione and Ron took the cart at the front, followed by Ginny and Mrs Weasley in the next. Unfortunately for Harry, with no one else to accompany him, was forced to share the final cart with the security troll. He tried leaning over the edge of the cart in a vain effort to put distance between himself and the foul beast, which smelled like one of the public toilets at the Quidditch World Cup. The troll glared down at Harry and snarled, roughly pulling him back into his seat as they hurtled through the winding tunnels of Gringotts. Harry tried bunching his t-shirt up to cover his face to block out the stench, but it made little difference. Resigning himself to his suffering, Harry sunk back into his seat, defeated. Surely his day couldn’t get any worse than this.

After their visit to the bank, the group went their separate ways: Mrs Weasley, Hermione and Ginny headed for Muggle London, while Harry (safely hidden back under his Invisibility Cloak again) and Ron wandered in the direction of Slug and Jiggers Apothecary.

“I’ll never get used to talking to you hidden under that cloak,” whispered Ron out of the corner of his mouth. “Folk are staring at me chatting to myself. They must think I’m mental.”

“Nobody thinks you’re mental. They’re staring at you because you’re Ron Weasley, the war hero,” Harry countered. An uncertain but hopeful smile teased Ron’s lips.

“Yeah?” he asked. “You really think so?”

“I know so,” Harry assured him, smiling to himself. As much as Harry hated being famous, he couldn’t begrudge Ron enjoying his newfound fame. At least one of them should be able to enjoy it.

They came to a stop a few meters away from the Apothecary and Harry groaned. Several journalists and photographers were standing outside the shop looking around impatiently for someone—looking for Harry. Ron turned around and began heading back up the cobbled street.

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll just go to Flourish and Blotts first and get the potions supplies later,” he said. This plan, however, was also scuppered as several more journalists stood outside of the bookshop. There were so many of them that disgruntled customers had to push them out of the way when entering and leaving the shop.

“How am I supposed to get past that lot?” Harry hissed in Ron’s ear. Ron rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a moment, then he grinned.

“I have an idea,” he began slowly. “How about I go and distract them? I’ll get the books and the potions supplies while you go to Madam Malkin’s? It means I’ll need to put up with them following me about for a bit, but at least you can go and get your robes fitted in peace.”

Harry was glad that he was invisible because he couldn’t help the amused grin that spread across his face at this suggestion. “Yeah, that’ll work. You’re sure you don’t mind?”

“Nah, it’s fine,” Ron assured him, checking his reflection in a nearby shop window. “I mean, seeing me isn’t as good as seeing you of course…”

“It’s as good as,” Harry disagreed. “Thanks for taking one for the team, mate.”

“Any time,” said Ron, striding in the direction of the photographers.

Harry snorted as Ron waved to the reporters and was quickly swarmed by them. He made his way further down Diagon Alley in the direction of Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions but stopped dead in his tracks when he saw, yet again, several more journalists lingering outside the shop entrance. He cursed so loudly that a passing woman screamed in fright at the angry, disembodied voice and dropped her shopping bags. A couple of shoppers stopped to help the poor woman pick up her scattered belongings while Harry marched back up the road in a foul mood. Everywhere he turned he met resistance in the form of disgruntled goblins, trolls and reporters. He just wanted to buy his school things in peace for Merlin’s sake, and they wouldn’t even let him do that.

He couldn’t reach Ron with all the journalists following him around and he had no clue where in Muggle London the girls had gone. He considered heading back to the Leaky Cauldron and hiding out in Tom’s kitchen until the others returned, but the one thing that he really needed, that he could not purchase by owl, was his school robes. Scanning up and down the busy street for inspiration, his eyes lingered on Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, its bright orange signage easily discernible at the top of the street. Hadn’t George mentioned getting his swanky dragonhide suit from some posh clothes shop on Diagon Alley? Twittings, or something? Harry remembered him saying it was on the south side of Diagon Alley, close to the Owl Emporium. Casting one last look in the direction of Madam Malkin’s, Harry turned and headed in the direction of the Emporium, keeping his eyes peeled for other robes shop on route.

When Harry saw Eeylops Owl Emporium, he paused outside the shop window to admire the many birds on display. Scops, barn and eagle owls sat snoozing in their cages. A large grey owl opened an eye and stared sleepily at Harry for a moment before closing it again and hiding its face beneath its wing. There were even a couple snowy owls for sale that looked a little like Hedwig. Thinking about her made the empty feeling in the pit of Harry’s stomach spread; it was a cold and sickly feeling, so he turned away from the shop window. He knew that it would be worthwhile getting another owl as they were useful to have, but Harry felt an irrational rush of anger at the thought of replacing Hedwig. No, he wouldn’t be getting a new owl, now or ever.

He hadn’t really considered getting another pet, but he wasn’t completely opposed to the idea, either. Maybe he ought to have a look in the Magical Menagerie after he had his robes fitted? He didn’t have a particular fondness for rats for obvious reasons, and he didn’t think Crookshanks would appreciate the company of another feline in Gryffindor Tower. Maybe he could go see George about getting a pygmy puff? It might be a good talking point with Ginny. Not a good enough reason to adopt it as a pet, he reasoned. He could always get a toad...but considering the trouble that Neville had with Trevor, he didn’t fancy a pet that went missing constantly. He wasn’t sure what he’d buy, if anything. He’d need to think about it.

Moving away from the Emporium, Harry’s eyes fell on the next shop window, and his intended destination: Twilfitt and Tattings. The exterior was unremarkable in appearance, a whitewash stone building with a plain wooden door. If he hadn’t been looking for it, he probably would have walked past the shop without a second glance. The display in the shop window, however, was another story altogether: an array of top hats in a variety of colours and materials sat atop a variety of wooden mannequin heads, each of them smiling and winking enticingly at Harry. This looked like the sort of place that wealthy wizards like the Malfoys would buy their clothes. While Harry would have been more than happy purchasing his robes from Madam Malkin as he had always done, he wasn’t keen to face off against the reporters. Glancing up and down the street to make sure the coast was clear, he slipped off his Invisibility Cloak and stuffed it into his backpack before entering the shop.

The doorbell tinkled and Harry quickly closed the shop door behind him, taking in his new and unfamiliar surroundings. The interior was not unlike the many bespoke tailors that one would find on Savile Row in Muggle London, only in place of three-piece suits were robes of the finest silk and pointed wizard’s hats with silver and gold buckles. Harry felt rather underdressed standing next to such fine wear in his grass-stained shorts and t-shirt. He caught sight of his reflection in one of the nearby mirrors and tried in vain to flatten his messy hair but quickly dropped his hand by his side when he heard hurried footsteps approach.

The curtains at the rear of the shop flew open and a tall man in impeccably tailored charcoal grey robes swept towards Harry. His appearance was as striking as it was strange, for he appeared to be entirely monochrome: his grey hair was styled in a hard side parting paired with a pencil moustache (also grey) and his eyes, like cold steel, surveyed Harry’s appearance with reservation. Even his skin seemed to have a grey quality to it and Harry was reminded of Count Orlok from the film ‘Nosferatu’.

“May I help you, sir?” he drawled, standing with his hands behind his back. Harry pulled his backpack higher up on his shoulder and stammered.

“Yeah, I um...I need to buy some robes.”

The corner of the man’s mouth twitched but he kept his expression impassive. “Indeed sir, then you have come to the right place. Do you require a particular style of robe? Something casual, or light for the summer? Perhaps dress robes for a special occasion?”

“No, nothing like that,” Harry objected, shaking his head. “I’m going back to Hogwarts this year and I just need a set of plain school robes.”

“Ah...yes, I can certainly help you with that. Right this way, sir.” The man nodded his head in the direction of the curtain and Harry followed him through to the back of the shop. “If you don’t mind waiting a few minutes, I’m just fitting another gentleman for his school robes at the moment.”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Harry agreed.

He rounded the corner and came to a stop when he caught sight of who the other customer was. Standing in front of the three-panel dressing mirror was a tall figure with white-blonde hair and a bored expression on his pale face. Draco Malfoy was wearing, to Harry’s shock, a brand new set of Hogwarts robes, glittering with pins around the hem and the edges of the sleeves.

“What are you doing here?” Harry blurted out without thinking.

Draco stiffened at the sound of Harry’s voice. When he caught sight of Harry’s reflection in the mirror, his light grey eyes momentarily widened with panic before he quickly schooled his expression into its usual sneer.

“Standing in front of the mirror admiring my reflection for the hell of it, Potter. What does it look like?” he bit back.

“It looks like you’re getting a new set of Hogwarts robes, but my eyes must be deceiving me because there’s no way you’re ballsy enough to go back this year. Not after everything that’s happened.”

“Well, thankfully you don’t run the school, even though you like to act as if you do!” Draco snapped.

The tailor eyed the pair’s heated exchange with interest. “I take that you gentlemen know each other?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Harry replied.

“No,” Draco lied.

The two men looked daggers at each other, each incensed to see the other. The tailor cleared his throat and interrupted their glaring contest, beckoning Harry towards an identical set of three-panel dressing mirrors to Harry’s left.

“Right. Well, if you could please stand on the stool, sir,” he instructed politely but firmly.

Harry hesitated. He didn’t want to spend any more time than necessary in Draco’s company, but he was even more reluctant to face off against the gaggle of reporters that waited for him at Madam Malkin’s. Harry concluded that he could just about manage to occupy the same space as his old enemy: Draco was, by a very slim margin, the lesser of two evils. Reluctantly, he dropped his backpack at his feet and stood on the free stool, facing the mirrors which were placed directly behind Draco’s so that no matter where either of them looked, they couldn’t avoid seeing each other.

“Excellent. Now, if you could please raise your arms, I can begin taking provisional measurements,” the tailor explained.

Harry did as he was instructed and raised his arms either side of him, posing like a scarecrow. The tailor drew his wand and gave it a slight flick. A small gasp escaped Harry’s lips at the sudden appearance of several measuring tapes floating above his head. He watched with interest as they uncoiled themselves like white snakes and proceeded to take measurements, slithering along his arms, legs, waist and collar. Several lengths of black cloth and a box of silver pins then flew out of a nearby drawer and began pinning themselves to Harry’s body. He couldn’t help but smile to himself at the elegant dance of fabric, tape and pins floating around him as they constructed a basic outfit; no matter how mundane, he would forever be enchanted by magic in all its forms.

“I’ll be with you in a moment,” the tailor said to Harry before kneeling at Draco’s side. “I’m just putting the finishing touches to this gentleman’s order.”

Trying his best to ignore Draco, Harry distracted himself by watching the pins and fabric set to work and slowly a set of long, black school robes began to take shape. He couldn’t help but notice Draco’s eyes darting up to look at him, narrowing, then flitting back down at his own feet.

“How much longer is this going to take?” Draco mumbled.

“Not much longer, sir,” the tailor assured him, pinching the fabric around the sleeves. “Just a few more minor adjustments…”

The shop doorbell tinkled again and the tailor paused in his work. Rising to his feet, he brushed the front of his robes flat and bowed to Draco.

“Apologies for the interruption, sir, I shall quickly see to this customer’s needs and I will be right back,” he simpered. Ignoring Draco’s mutterings about ‘slow service’, the tailor nodded to Harry as he disappeared behind the velvet curtains and out of sight, leaving him and Draco alone.

An incredibly awkward silence followed as neither Harry nor Draco wanted to acknowledge the other, while at the same time taking several furtive glances at each other’s reflections and then quickly turning away whenever one managed to catch the other’s eye. It was the first time that they had seen each other since the Battle of Hogwarts. Harry remembered seeing Draco sitting with his parents in the Great Hall after the battle, looking uncertain as to whether he should even be there. He had the same uneasy expression on his face at the moment, like he was about to turn tail and run out of the shop with the unfinished garment still attached to him. Harry wished that he would, as it would bring a swift end to this most unwelcome reunion. He rolled his shoulders, trying to ease the cramp from keeping his arms aloft for so long. Merlin, what was taking so long?

The seconds dragged by at a torturously slow speed, but Draco made no attempt to leave, much to Harry’s disappointment. He watched as Draco fidgeted with his sleeves, his expression set in a deep frown as though he were experiencing a great deal of discomfort. Harry knew exactly how he felt: his arms were beginning to ache and he was hot and stuffy in his robes. He had to resist the overwhelming urge to tear them off and make a run for it himself. He kept glancing at Draco, the same question repeating over and over again in his mind until he couldn’t help himself from asking, “Are you serious about going back to Hogwarts this year?”

“Evidently,” Draco replied shortly, keeping his eyes fixed on his feet.

“Why?” Harry pressed on. The frown on Draco’s face deepened.

“What’s it to you?” he spat.

“Nothing,” Harry muttered, trying to sound like he didn’t really care. “I just don’t fancy having to put up with you for another year.”

Draco’s head snapped up and he opened his mouth, a vicious retort on his lips, but he paused before saying anything. A calculating expression spread across his face that made Harry feel uneasy. What was he going to do?

“Why are you going back to Hogwarts, if you don’t mind me asking?” Draco inquired.

“I do mind, as a matter of fact,” Harry replied coolly.

Draco raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Deary me, Potter, I was only trying to make polite conversation.”

Harry snorted. “That’ll be a first.”

“I thought that you’d be joining the Ministry,” Draco drawled, sounding not unlike his father. “Hogwarts is so isolated from the rest of the Wizarding community; McGonagall won’t permit you to give those daily press briefings you’ve become so accustomed to.”

“They’re not press briefings, Malfoy. Journalists just follow me everywhere that I go and make up things about me to suit their stories,” said Harry defensively. “How do you think I ended up in here in the first place?”

Draco pouted and simpered, “Poor Potter, it must be a real burden being so popular. How do you cope?”

“How do I cope with your stupid remarks?” he sneered. “With difficulty.”

Instead of being affronted, Draco looked pleased. Evidently, this was just the reaction he wanted from Harry.

“I’m surprised to see you in here, Potter,” he continued in a light, conversational tone. Harry suppressed the urge to groan in exasperation. He knew that he shouldn’t ask, that he should just ignore Draco altogether...

“Why?” he asked stiffly.

Draco gave a careless shrug.

“Given what you usually wear…” He cast a disparaging look at the summer Muggle attire Harry was wearing. “This establishment seems a bit upmarket for your usual tastes. I thought you’d be across the road at Second-Hand Robes with Weasley.”

“For once in your life, do what’s good for you and keep your mouth shut, Malfoy,” Harry snarled through clenched teeth.

“Merlin, you’ve gotten quite sensitive of late, haven’t you?” he teased. “Still smarting from the Weaslette dumping you?”

Hot anger flared up inside of Harry at the taunt. He turned to face Draco and snarled, “Shut up!”

“Make me,” Draco dared him.

Harry’s fingers twitched but he resisted the temptation to reach for his wand. The last thing he needed was to be caught duelling Draco Malfoy of all people in a clothes shop, and he’d already promised himself that he was going to try and keep out of trouble this year. The dance of measuring tapes, pins and fabric finally came to a halt and Harry was able to lower his sore arms by his sides.

“You’re in no position to be making fun of anyone,” Harry reminded him coolly. “Your name and your reputation are in the gutter. Your father is too ashamed to even show his face in public anymore and after everything that happened, I’m surprised that you can. Despite everything that’s happened, you haven’t changed a bit. You’re so insecure that you’ve spent years making fun of me and my friends, just to make yourself feel better, so the only joke here is you.”

Draco wasn't smiling anymore. He slowly turned to face Harry, looking him up and down as though sizing him up. Harry braced himself in case he needed to grab his wand...so much for staying out of trouble.

“You’re right: unlike you, I don’t have many friends or allies,” Draco admitted quietly. “Most Slytherins don’t.”

“And even fewer Death Eaters,” Harry sneered.

“True,” Draco agreed, keeping his tone even. “I must learn to accept that my reputation is in the dirt. My family name is in ruins. Despite remaining considerably wealthy, it seems unlikely that we will be able to buy our way back into high society’s favour this time around. But it may have escaped your notice, Potter, that I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks about me. Most people didn’t like me before the war anyway, so what difference does it make if they’ve got the balls to say it to my face now instead of behind my back?”

Harry said nothing. He was a little taken aback by the sincerity of his words; it was probably the first time he had ever heard Draco speak without any form of pomp or pretence and, against his better judgement, he was interested to hear what else he had to say.

“I am many things, Potter, but I am not stupid: I know that going back to Hogwarts this year is going to be...difficult. I’m a social pariah, and I fully anticipate being harassed and avoided by almost everyone in the student body. Even amongst those in my own house, my return won’t be a welcome one. While I might not have much going for me, there is one thing that I have that no one can take away from me, a particular skill in my arsenal, something that will sustain me no matter how difficult this year will inevitably be.”

“And what’s that?” Harry asked curiously. A satisfied smirk spread across Draco’s face.

“That even now—despite everything that has happened between us—I can still get under your skin.”

Before Harry could muster a response to that taunt, the curtains flew open and the tailor strode back into the room, looking flustered.

“Apologies again for the delay, gentlemen. It is a very busy time of year,” he sighed, moving back over to Draco’s side. Harry glared at Draco’s smug expression in the mirror, trying to think of a clever retort but drawing a blank.

True to his word, the tailor finished Draco’s robes within a matter of minutes. He carefully removed the robes and draped them over his arm. Draco stepped off of the stool, an amused grin still plastered to his face.

“I’ll have these along with your other purchases delivered to you no later than this evening,” the tailor assured him and Draco nodded appreciatively.

“Thank you, Douglas. A pleasure as always,” he turned to leave and as he disappeared through the velvet curtains he said silkily, “See you at school, Potter.”

After Draco’s departure, no other customers came into the shop and Douglas the tailor was able to spend the rest of the time constructing Harry’s robes. He took a little longer than Madam Malkin normally would, but Harry couldn’t deny that the man had a talent for making normally shapeless robes fit in all the right places. Harry twisted and turned, admiring the expensive-looking outfit from all angles. He wasn’t one to waste much time on his personal appearance, but these made him feel…nice.

“You approve?” asked the tailor. Harry nodded vigorously.

“Yeah, these look...great, actually. Thank you.”

The tailor looked pleased at the compliment. “My pleasure, sir. I’ll have these wrapped up for you.”

Before leaving, Harry bought a few sets of casual robes in a variety of colours and materials, much to the delight of Douglas, who threw in a dragon-leather belt for free as “A small thank you for your generous custom.” It was the first time Harry had ever bought clothes for himself simply because he liked them. He even considered going into Muggle London to get some more clothes before heading back to Hogwarts and he wondered if Ginny or Hermione would want to go with him.

On his way to the Magical Menagerie, he stopped by Quality Quidditch Supplies for a look at the broomsticks. He’d lost his precious Firebolt during his escape from Privet Drive the previous year and now the only gift from Sirius that he still possessed was the broken piece of mirror that he still kept in the mokeskin pouch around his neck. He didn’t really need to the pouch anymore but he continued to wear it more out of habit, packed with a few essentials in case he ever needed to make a quick getaway.

Losing his old broom had been a crushing blow, more for its sentimental value than its actual cost, but he thought that Sirius would want him to keep up the flying, so he made a mental note to order a new Firebolt and have it delivered straight to the Burrow. His eyes scanned over the Firebolt displayed in the shop window to the one below it. The Nimbus 2001 was a fine looking broomstick, a highly polished black body with silver revolving stirrups. Harry glared at the innocuous object, which had done nothing to offend Harry other than it immediately reminded Harry of Draco Malfoy.

Draco fucking Malfoy, he thought irritably. Clearly, despite everything that had happened, Draco hadn’t changed one bit. He was the same pompous git who delighted in getting a rise out of Harry at every opportunity. He thought back to the childish insults his old school rival had shot at him and the infuriating admission that he enjoyed winding Harry up. The most maddening part of what Draco had said was that he was right: Harry did let Draco get under his skin and he had done so since the first time that they had met in Madam Malkin’s in their first year. And it seemed like Draco had no intention of letting up this year, either.

It’ll be like old times, he thought to himself.

Harry mentally berated himself for finding a strange kind of comfort in that—his and Draco’s sparring sessions were never pleasant, but there was a familiarity to them that Harry desperately craved. He and Draco hating each other was perfectly normal and what did he want, if not normality?

Merlin, what is wrong with me? he thought miserably. Maybe what he really needed was a holiday.

Chapter Text

September 1st, 1998, 10:45am

Platform 9 ¾ was abuzz with activity as students ran back and forth, wishing farewell to loved ones and reuniting with old school friends after a long summer apart—and in the case of Muggle-Born students, much longer than that. Cats yowled and owls hooted in their carriers and cages, waiting impatiently to be loaded onto the magnificent scarlet steam engine which would take students, new and old, to Hogwarts.

Draco Malfoy fondly remembered the first time he had set eyes on the Hogwarts Express; he had been instantly entranced at the sight of the shiny red train, billowing white steam across the busy platform like a huge, metallic dragon. He recalled how excited he had been to get to Hogwarts, to learn magic, and to make friends. But the journey aboard the Hogwarts Express had symbolised more than his first day at the renowned institution. The journey held the promise of unknown wonders that awaited him, of boundless possibilities and opportunities.

Of course, Draco’s school experience had been nothing like what he had expected it to be. Memorable for all the wrong reasons and more challenging and painful than he could ever imagine, some of it had been self-inflicted, but the worst of it was thrust upon him unwillingly. Some described Hogwarts like a second home, but that sentiment was not shared by Draco. The thought of going back there, especially after everything that had happened—at the Astronomy Tower, in the Room of Requirement, the atrocities he’d witnessed during the final battle—Hogwarts was the last place in the world that he wanted to be.

Yet here he was at King’s Cross Station, his school trunk and owl cage already stowed on the train, preparing himself to embark on his seventh and final year of education. He was careful to stand apart from everyone else, with only his mother by his side. Looking at the scarlet steam train now, he felt none of the excitement or hope that he had as a child. He cast a wary eye over the strangers on the busy platform; he didn’t want anyone hassling his mother after he boarded the train. He had told her not to come but she had insisted that she see him off.

“You’re still angry at me,” she stated quietly, interrupting his train of thought. Draco shoved his hands in his pockets and avoided his mother’s penetrating gaze.

“I wouldn’t be if you would just let me come home,” he mumbled.

“Staying at home would be of little use to you,” she argued. “Going back to Hogwarts and getting your qualifications is a far more constructive use of your time. You have your future to consider.”

Draco scoffed, “What future?”

“Whatever you make of it,” she countered testily. “I know that the last couple of years have been difficult, but you are a young man, Draco, you still have your whole life ahead of you. You must take opportunities when they present themselves and use them to your advantage. See this as an opportunity.”

“This is an exercise in futility, Mother. Going back to Hogwarts isn’t going to change anything. Not that it matters, you’ve already made it abundantly clear that my thoughts on my own future count for nothing,” he replied accusingly.

“It will be difficult, but it will not be pointless,” she argued. “Returning to Hogwarts is in your best interests. You cannot spend your life hidden in the Manor, too afraid to confront the world.”

“Like Father, you mean?” he sneered.

“Don’t speak about your father like that,” she warned in a low voice.

Draco rolled his eyes but bit his tongue. He was still angry with his mother for enrolling him in Hogwarts this year without consulting him. Draco had never argued with his parents before—he’d never had reason to fight with his mother and he had always been too afraid to confront his father about anything—but when Narcissa had told him about her correspondence with McGonagall, he had been furious. The argument that followed had been unpleasant: Draco accused his mother of meddling in his affairs and trying to control his life even though he wasn’t a child anymore. It was then that his father had stepped in and informed his son that so long as he lived under their roof, he would do as he was told. With no counter-argument and nowhere else to go, Draco had retreated to his room where he had remained for the duration of the summer holidays, pointedly ignoring his parents as much as he could.

It may have been a small and childish rebellion, but his options at this point were limited. Hogwarts, loath as he was to admit, was probably his best option. He knew that his mother believed that she was acting in his best interests, but he would have appreciated being consulted in the decision-making process. But then Draco had seldom been consulted about what he really wanted, all the big decisions in his life being made for him. He supposed that he should be used to it by now. That realisation depressed him immensely.

“Please don’t be angry with me, Draco,” Narcissa pleaded. “I can’t bear for us to part on bad terms.”

Draco sighed and finally looked up at his mother. Her face, normally a porcelain mask, was pinched with worry. Draco felt some of his indignant anger ebb away when he noticed that her icy blue eyes were glassy with tears. Evidently, she was as reluctant to send him away as he was to go. Draco took his mother’s hand into his own and gave it a slight squeeze.

“I’m still angry with you,” he admitted. “But I still love you.”

Narcissa’s face crumpled and she pulled Draco into a tight hug, hiding her face from view. Draco wrapped his arms around her and rested his head on her shoulder. Her long, blonde hair tickled his nose but he didn’t complain or move it out of the way. Instead, he closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, his mother’s perfume, which smelled like hyacinths, filling his nostrils. It was a comforting scent that reminded him of home. He wanted to stay there, hugging his mother until the train had pulled out of the station and left without him; that way, he could just go home. But too soon, Narcissa pulled away, brushing invisible dirt from his shoulders and tucking his hair behind his ears.

“Owl me so that I know that you have arrived safely,” she instructed him, her voice a little strained with the effort of keeping her emotions in check. Draco nodded and stared at his feet.

“I will,” he mumbled.

A shrill whistle blew, signalling that the train was about to depart. Narcissa smiled encouragingly at her son.

“Go on now, you don’t want to miss your train,” she gently pushed him towards the nearest carriage. Draco bent down to kiss his mother on the cheek before turning away and boarding the train without looking back. Much like that first day he boarded the Hogwarts Express, today felt like the beginning of a new journey for Draco. The unknown awaited him at the other end and he was afraid of what he’d find there.

Draco stumbled a little as the train jerked into motion and began slowly pulling out of the station. The corridors were still bustling with students but Draco was careful to avoid eye contact with anyone. If he couldn’t feel the eyes of the other students as they followed him, he could certainly hear their stage whispers as he made his way down the train towards the rear where the Slytherins usually sat. Keeping his eyes peeled for friendly company, Draco paused when he spotted a hulking figure in one of the compartments. Peering through the window pane, he felt a surge of relief when he saw Gregory Goyle: at least he wouldn’t be completely alone this year. Sliding the compartment door open, he stepped inside.

The chatter in the room came to an abrupt halt and all eyes turned towards Draco. That surge of relief that had briefly risen in him swiftly retreated as he realised that his sudden appearance was not a welcome one. Theo Nott sat nearest the window to Draco’s left, a polite smile fixed upon his face that didn’t reach his eyes. Beside him sat Blaise Zabini, his haughty expression usually only reserved for non-Slytherins now fixed firmly on Draco. Across from him was Pansy Parkinson, whose eyes darted between Draco and Gregory Goyle, who was sat beside her. Goyle wouldn’t meet Draco’s eyes, a deep frown set on his face as he stared at his hands rested on his lap, clenched into tight fists.

“Malfoy…” Theo Nott greeted Draco. “There’d been a rumour floating around that you were coming back this year.”

Draco fixed a smirk to his face as his heart began to beat harder in his chest. “For once the rumours about me are true. Unfortunately, the stories about me eloping with Myron Wagtail were pure hearsay. His loss, I say.”

“I must admit that I’m surprised to see you,” said Theo lightly. “I didn’t think that you’d be back this year.”

Draco chuckled. “You’re not the only one. Still, I’m glad to see that so many of the old gang are back. It should be an interesting year, if nothing else.”

“Hmm…”

An uncomfortable silence followed and no one invited Draco to sit down. Panic began to rise in Draco then; this was a much frostier reception than he had anticipated. He cleared his throat and turned to Goyle.

“I wrote to you over the summer, but I didn’t hear back from you. I’m sorry about your father. That Ministry ruling was a farce, in my opinion.”

“Yes, well, not all of us have the money to bribe our way out of a prison sentence, do we?” Theo cut in before Goyle could answer. He still had that fake smile plastered across his face, but his eyes betrayed his anger. Draco swallowed hard but his mouth suddenly felt very dry.

“I know how it must look, Theo, but that’s not what happened,” Draco tried to explain, but Theo didn’t look particularly interested in what Draco had to say.

“How is your father getting on these days?” he inquired. “Nobody has seen him in public since his trial. Not since he bought his freedom and scurried back under his rock at Malfoy Manor.”

“He’s been busy,” Draco replied stiffly. It was taking all of his willpower to ignore the jibe, but he knew that Theo was just trying to goad him into a fight. Theo let out a derisive laugh.

“I’m sure he is. He’s a Ministry man now, your father, isn’t he?” he sneered. “Running his mouth off about the rest of us to save his own skin—”

“That’s a lie!” Draco snapped.

“That’s the truth and you know it!” shouted Theo, all trace of a smile vanished. “Your family betrayed the Dark Lord, Potter won, and now our fathers are stuck in Azkaban!” He nodded towards Goyle who clenched his fists so tightly that his knuckles audibly cracked. “And you think that you can just stroll in here and act as though nothing has happened? As if we’re still friends?”

“We’re...what do you mean?” Draco asked, confused. Theo glowered at him.

“I’m saying that we are not friends anymore, Draco. How could you think that we’d still be friends after everything that’s happened?”

“But...we’ve always been friends,” he replied weakly.

“Not anymore, we’re not.”

Draco felt winded by those words. Not friends? He had known Theo longer than anyone and he was Draco’s first and, for most of his life, only friend. He stared between Theo and Goyle, the two people he had been certain would be by his side, his only hope of getting through what was sure to be one of the most hellish years of his life. Of course, nothing would beat living under the same roof as the Dark Lord for a year, but losing the only friends he had left in the world was coming in at a very close second. He had to salvage this somehow...he could not bear to think of facing a year at Hogwarts completely alone.

“I’m sorry about your father, Theo. And yours, Goyle,” he said carefully. “But you know me, we’ve known each other longer than I can remember. I’m a lot of things, but I am not like my father. I am not him!”

“I’d rather not take the chance,” said Theo coldly. He turned to the others and said, “I don’t think there’s enough room in here for another person. What do you guys think?”

“Nope,” said Blaise brusquely, crossing his arms. Goyle grunted in agreement and Pansy stared at her feet, looking miserable. Betrayal and shame bubbled up inside of Draco like hot bile. How could his friends single him out like this? At the moment he needed them more than ever, they were abandoning him, for circumstances that were completely out of his control. Tears stung the corners of his eyes but he kept his expression impassive; he wouldn’t let them see how hurt he was.

“Fine. Be that way,” he drawled. “I was growing tired of you lot anyway.”

“Yeah? Well, good luck finding anyone else willing to sit with you!” Theo shouted after him.

Draco stepped back out into the corridor and slammed the compartment door shut behind him. He had to get as much distance between him and his friends (ex-friends, he reminded himself) as possible. As he made his way down the corridor, he heard the compartment door slide open and someone called his name.

“Draco, wait!”

Draco paused and turned to face Pansy, who hurried towards him.

“What do you want?” he muttered.

“I’m sorry about what happened in there,” she said. “I just came out here to check that you’re okay.”

“I’m perfectly fine,” he lied. Pansy gave Draco a pitying look which just made him feel worse. Merlin, don’t pity me, that’s worse than hate...

“You know, Theo and Greg are going through a tough time at the moment and they’re upset about their dads. And with yours getting off, well…to them, it feels like you’re rubbing it in their faces a bit,” she explained.

“It’s not my fault that their fathers are in prison!” he snapped. “I didn’t ask for any of this to happen.”

“I know that,” she said gently. “But it’s easier to be angry at you than everyone else, isn’t it? They’re hurting right now, but they’ll come around eventually. It’s just going to take some time.”

Draco sincerely doubted that. “And what about you? Are you still talking to me?”

Pansy bit her lip. “Well, I’m about as popular as you are at the moment. We’re still friends, but I need to choose my alliances carefully. You understand, yes?”

Draco lowered his gaze and nodded. “I get it. Better having three friends who’ve got your back than just me.”

“You know how it is,” she shrugged.

“I do,” he sighed. “I can’t deny that if I were in the same position I wouldn’t do the same thing.”

Pansy smiled sadly at him. “We wouldn’t be Slytherins otherwise. Self-preservation is paramount.”

Pansy gave Draco’s hand a slight squeeze before heading back to the compartment to sit with the others, promising that she would be there for him if he ever needed her. He could have really done with her help there and then, but he just stood in the deserted corridor, unsure of what to do with himself. As angry as Draco was with Theo, he was right about one thing—if his own friends didn’t even want to sit with him, he doubted anyone else aboard this train would either.

Draco began slowly making his way back down the train, keeping his eyes peeled for an empty compartment but knowing that he wouldn’t find one. Every single compartment that he passed was full, except for one.

“Bloody typical,” he muttered under his breath.

Peering into the only compartment with extra seats, he saw Harry Potter sitting with Neville Longbottom and another boy that Draco didn’t recognise. He briefly considered popping into Harry’s compartment just to wind him up—it would serve as an excellent distraction from his miserable situation—but as though he could hear Draco’s thoughts, Harry suddenly turned and for a second they locked eyes. Draco quickly dipped his head and kept walking, his heart pounding. It was a little embarrassing getting caught staring at Harry in passing, but that would be nothing compared to the humiliation of admitting that nobody wanted to sit with him.

Checking the time on his pocket watch, he grimaced. They were still hours away from reaching Hogwarts and he didn’t fancy standing out in the corridor like a pleb for the remainder of the journey. After walking the full length of the train and confirming that there was nowhere else for him to sit, Draco had no choice but to slip into one of the unoccupied toilets. Locking the door behind him, he flipped the lid down and sat on the toilet, looking around with bemusement at the small, windowless room where he would spend the remainder of his journey.

Well, at least he had found a seat.

The train jerked suddenly and Draco bashed his head on the side of the wall with a dull thud. Cursing under his breath, he gingerly rubbed his right temple while he continued to sway side to side as the train rattled and creaked loudly. He shifted left and right trying to make himself more comfortable, but his legs were too long to allow him to move much around the cramped space. Letting out a long sigh of resignation, Draco crossed his arms and settled himself in for the long and lonely journey ahead of him.


September 1st, 1998, 10:50am

Harry balanced precariously on his tiptoes to look over the heads of the many people hurrying about Platform 9 ¾, his gaze fixed on two figures with platinum blonde hair standing at the opposite end of the platform. He still couldn’t believe that McGonagall had really given her blessing for Draco to return to Hogwarts. What on earth had possessed her? He had rather hoped that Draco had been playing an elaborate prank on him when they had bumped into each other on Diagon Alley, but seeing Draco here confirmed his worst fears. When Ginny noticed who Harry was ogling, she tsked and elbowed him in the ribs.

“Stop gawking at Malfoy and help me get the luggage on board the train,” she instructed. Harry rubbed his ribs and glared at her.

“I wasn’t gawking!” he mumbled in protest. “I just can’t believe that he’s actually showed up. He’s got some nerve…”

“Yes, I know what you think about it, Harry,” she huffed as they each took an end of her heavy trunk and shuffled towards the nearest carriage. “You’ve spoken about nothing else for the last few weeks. I’m not thrilled about Malfoy coming back either, but there’s nothing we can do it about it, so can you please drop it already?”

Harry glowered at her but kept his mouth shut. He didn’t think he’d mentioned it that often. Of course, it was the first thing that he had told Ron, Hermione and Ginny after their shopping trip to London. Ron had been as incensed as Harry, but surprisingly, Hermione had very little to say on the explosive revelation. When Harry had pressed her further for her opinion on the matter, she noted simply that while she was surprised that he would be returning to Hogwarts, she wasn’t necessarily opposed to the idea. Harry couldn’t believe his ears.

“This is the same Draco Malfoy that would have happily have seen you kicked out of school for being Muggle-born,” he had pointed out. “Why would you want anyone like that at Hogwarts?”

Hermione had closed her book and looked up at him then. “Because I believe in the same principles that Professor McGonagall preaches: that Hogwarts is a place of learning for all magical students, regardless of their creed, colour, blood status or background. If I were to deny Malfoy and the other Slytherins a right to an education, I’d be a hypocrite—to treat them the same way that they treated other Muggle-borns doesn’t make it justifiable. We shouldn’t exclude others based on our personal prejudices, Harry, even if we want to...even if we think that they deserve it.”

Hermione had then disappeared behind her book again and had refused to discuss the matter any further. Fine. If Hermione wouldn’t talk about it with him, Harry could always rely on Ron to have his back. His best friend had always been more than happy to sit and abuse Malfoy’s character until the mooncalves came home, but even he had grown a little weary of Harry’s complaints after the first week.

“Mate, I agree with everything you say and then some,” he’d said carefully. “But do we need to talk about it while we’re playing chess? It’s putting me off my game.”

Okay, maybe Harry had laboured on his point a bit too much.

Once all of their luggage was stowed on board, Harry hopped back onto the platform to wish Mrs Weasley goodbye. She hugged each of them in turn, tears streaming down her face as she told each of her children how much she loved them.

“Don’t cry, Mum,” Ron implored, patting her gently on the back as she cried into his shoulder. “You’ll see us again soon enough. Christmas is just around the corner.”

“I know,” she sighed, releasing her youngest son from her vice-like grip and dabbing her eyes with a sodden handkerchief. “It’s just...well, it never gets any easier to say goodbye.” She turned her attention to Harry, “Ready to go, dear?”

“Almost,” he smiled before pulling her into a tight hug. “Thank you for everything.”

“Oh, not to worry, dear,” she chuckled, stroking his hair. “Will you be coming home for Christmas?”

Home. Harry couldn’t help but grin at that. “That’s the plan, yeah.”

“Take care of yourself, Harry dear,” she said before adding, “And please try and stay out of trouble this year.”

Harry rolled his eyes and chuckled. “You know that trouble usually finds me. But I’ll try my best.”

A loud whistle blew and the students still standing on the platform began hurrying onto the train.

“We better go,” Ron said, throwing his rucksack over his shoulder and kissing his mother on the cheek. “Bye Mum. We’ll see you at Christmas.”

“Remember to write!” she called after him as he boarded the train.

Harry snatched the pet carrier off of the ground and boarded the train, Ginny and Hermione following close behind. Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny waved to Mrs Weasley out of the open window as the train began to move. As the train rounded the bend, Mrs Weasley and the platform disappeared from sight.

“Will your mum be okay?” asked Hermione in a worried voice. “She seemed really upset.”

“Well, she wasn’t all that keen about us heading back this year,” Ginny admitted. “Not because she didn’t think Hogwarts isn’t safe or anything. Just...you know, after what happened.”

While no one mentioned Fred’s death out loud, the memory of it weighed heavily on all of their minds. This would be their first time returning to the school since the battle and, while Harry was looking forward to returning, he wasn’t sure how he would feel about the place when he got there. He didn’t expect things to be the same as they used to be—they had all changed so much in the last year, in the last few months, even—but there was a niggling fear in the back of Harry’s mind that after everything that had happened, Hogwarts would no longer feel like the home that it used to.

“Right, well, we better head down to the prefect’s carriage.” Ron picked up Pigwidgeon’s cage in one hand and the handle of his trunk in the other. “We’ll come and find you later.”

“I still can’t believe you got made a prefect,” Harry smirked at Ginny, who grimaced.

“Neither can I,” she admitted. “George threatened to disown me when he found out. At least I wasn’t made Head Girl, I think that would have been the death knell of our friendship.”

Harry waved off Hermione, Ron and Ginny as they headed towards the front of the train to sit with the other prefects, feeling a little lost without his friends by his side. Harry headed in the opposite direction, struggling down the narrow corridor with his pet carrier and trunk in tow. Peering through the glass-panelled doors into the compartments he passed, he wasn’t surprised to see that each of them were already full. Even less surprisingly—though no less embarrassing—a lot of people were staring back at him open-mouthed with shock while several others waved and pointed at him as he shuffled past. He hoped that he wouldn’t have to put up with that sort of behaviour all year, but there was little he could do about it either way. Just as he was beginning to worry that he wouldn’t find anyone to sit with, he paused when he spotted a familiar and friendly face sitting in one of the compartments. Knocking on the glass, he slid the door open and popped his head inside.

“Got room for one more?” he grinned. Neville looked up from his copy of The Quibbler and smiled.

“Harry!” Neville jumped to his feet and pulled Harry into a tight hug, thumping him hard on the back. “I read in the papers that you were coming back but then, you never know what to believe. It’s good to see you, mate.”

“Yeah, you too,” said Harry. “How’ve you been?”

“Good! Really good, actually,” Neville’s face took on a dreamy expression and he gave Harry a lopsided grin. “I don’t know if you heard, but me and Luna, um, well…”

Neville’s grin broadened and Harry raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You and Luna?”

Neville nodded vigorously, “We spent a lot of time together over the summer and, I dunno, something just...sparked.”

Merlin, first Ron and Hermione, now Neville and Luna? Harry couldn’t help but feel a little jealous of his friends’ happiness. Not that they didn’t deserve it, but only because that elusive spark that Neville spoke about was something that he’d never felt himself. Still, he was happy for his friends, so pushing aside his musings about his own lacklustre love life, he smiled at Neville and patted him on the shoulder.

“That’s great, Neville. I can’t think of two people better suited to each other.” He glanced over Neville’s shoulder. “Where is Luna, anyway?”

“Prefect’s carriage,” Neville explained. “Here, let me help you with your trunk…”

Neville helped Harry stow his heavy trunk in the overhead luggage rack before they both collapsed onto the empty seats, panting for breath. It was only then that Harry realised that there was another person in the compartment: a small, frail-looking boy with mousy brown hair sat staring out of the window, although he didn’t seem to register the countryside whizzing past in a green blur. Harry realised with an unpleasant jolt that the boy was Dennis Creevey.

“Hi Dennis,” Harry greeted him carefully. “How was your summer?”

Dennis turned to face Harry and gave him a withering look. “How do you think?”

Harry could have kicked himself for asking such a stupid question. “Of course, it must have been awful. I’m sorry about what happened to Colin, he was a—”

“Don’t talk about my brother,” Dennis warned. “You’re the last person in the world I want to speak to about him. Just leave me alone.”

Suddenly, Dennis jumped to his feet and strode out of the compartment, slamming the door shut behind him with such force that the glass pane rattled. Neville stared after him, looking torn.

“Should we go after him?”

“No, he probably wants to be left alone,” said Harry, knowing from his own experience that he preferred to grieve in private. Having people chase after him when he was upset only made him feel worse. Dennis was one of many people who had suffered great personal loss during the war: his brother, Colin, had been killed during the Battle of Hogwarts. Harry couldn’t help but feel somewhat responsible for what had happened to Colin because he had always been an avid fan of Harry’s and Harry wondered if that had been a contributing factor in his decision to sneak back into Hogwarts to join the fight. Evidently, Dennis held Harry somewhat responsible for his brother’s untimely death as well. “Maybe I should leave. I can find somewhere else to sit…”

“No, don’t do that. I think if Dennis really wanted you to leave, he would have told you to already,” Neville argued. “I think he’s just angry. Not necessarily at you, just angry about what happened to Colin, and maybe angry at himself for not being able to prevent it. We’ve all been there, sometimes when we’re angry and upset, we push people away. The best thing that we can do in situations like that is to stay put so that when they’re ready to talk, they’ll know that they’re not alone.”

Harry was still of two minds about staying in the compartment because he didn’t want to upset Dennis any more than necessary. He decided that if Dennis did ask him to leave then he would do so without complaint. But when he returned to the compartment a little while later, he didn’t say anything to either Neville of Harry. Instead, he avoided their gaze and continued to stare out of the window, ignoring them both. An uneasy silence followed which Neville mercifully broke when he nodded towards the carrier sat beside Harry. “Did you get a new pet?”

“Oh, yeah, I did…” Happy for a change in subject, Harry opened the cage and a snow-white ball of fur shot up his leg and disappeared under his t-shirt. He stifled a laugh and squirmed in his seat. “Asha! Cut it out, that tickles!”

“Is that a Jarvey?” Neville asked with a worried note in his voice.

Harry shook his head and managed to grab ahold of the small, mustelid mammal before it scurried down his shorts. Thank Merlin for his quick Seeker reflexes.

“No, it’s just a ferret,” Harry assured him. “I saw her in the Magical Menagerie a few weeks ago. She’d managed to escape her cage and was causing havoc in the shop. Apparently, she’d garnered herself a reputation as a bit of a troublemaker.”

Neville chuckled. “So, you felt a bit of an affinity towards her in that regard.”

“Maybe a little,” Harry shrugged, smiling at the little ferret which was now sitting docilely on his lap.

Dennis cast a furtive glance at the ferret before staring back out of the window. Asha stared up at Harry with big, grey eyes, wagging her tail happily before curling into a ball and closing her eyes. Soon enough, she began to emit a quiet, squeaking sound as she snored.

“How’s Trevor faring these days?” asked Harry. Neville sighed and rolled his eyes.

“I swear, that toad will be the death of me! I suppose he’s doing well enough, he’s still escaping at every given opportunity. Thankfully, I’ve got him safely locked in his tank at the moment,” he said nodding towards the glass box stowed in the overhead compartment.

“Uh, Neville,” Harry began cautiously. “That tank is empty.”

“What?” Neville snapped. He leapt to his feet, pulled the glass tank down and sat it on his lap, peering desperately inside for the slippery amphibian, but the tank was indeed empty. Neville closed his eyes and groaned. “He’s escaped. Again! How does he keep doing that?”

“Do you want me to help you search for him?” Harry offered, but Neville declined.

“Nah, just forget it,” Neville slid the tank back onto the rack and slumped back into his seat. “I’ve learned over the years that keeping him locked up is a fruitless endeavour. I suppose he just likes his freedom. I trust that he’ll come back in the end, he always does.”

Harry heard movement by the door and turned to see, to his surprise, Draco Malfoy peering through the window at him. He thought for a moment that Draco might come into the compartment—probably just to torment me as usual, he thought—but Draco’s expression hadn’t been taunting or smug. If anything, he looked jealous. But almost as soon as they had locked eyes, Draco lowered his head and strode out of sight. Harry frowned to himself: since when had Draco Malfoy been jealous of him? And what was he doing lurking about the train on his own? He had to temper the temptation to pull out his Invisibility Cloak and follow Draco to see what he was up to. The last time he had done that, it hadn’t ended well for either of them.

“I do have something new to show you, actually!” said Neville excitedly, grabbing Harry’s attention again. On the table in front of the window sat a small potted plant which Harry thought looked like a bonsai tree. Neville sat the pot on his lap so that Harry could take a closer look.

“It’s a Wiggentree sapling,” he explained with a note of awe in his voice. “Gran got me one for my birthday this year. They’re quite rare but they’re dead useful: the bark is used to make Wiggenweld potions and anyone who touches the trunk of one of the trees will be protected from Dark creatures. When it’s fully grown I’m going to plant it in my garden and, hopefully, it’ll attract some Bowtruckles!”

“That’s brilliant, Neville,” said Harry, eyeing the little tree with interest.

He didn’t know what else to say about it—Herbology had always been Neville’s speciality—but he was content listening to his friend chat away about the finer details of magical plant care, revelling in the fact that he no longer had to worry about Death Eaters and Dark Lords. The rest of the journey was pleasantly uneventful: Harry and Neville bought a large pile of sweets from the trolley witch—they offered to share them with Dennis, but he declined—and chatted about their subjects for the upcoming year.

“Professor Sprout’s thinking about retiring in the next couple of years,” said Neville, popping a Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Bean into his mouth and pulling a disgusted face at the unpleasant flavour. “Bleurgh, tastes like grass. Anyway, she’ll be looking to take on an apprentice soon to train up as her replacement. She says that if I get an Outstanding in my Herbology N.E.W.T., she’ll consider taking me on as her apprentice!”

“That’s great,” said Harry, absent-mindedly stroking Asha, who remained curled up on his lap. “I’ll need at least an Exceeds Expectations in Herbology if I’ve got any chance of joining the Auror Academy.”

“How do you feel about achieving that?”

“Not that confident, if I’m honest,” he admitted.

“I feel the same way about Muggle Studies,” Neville’s shoulders sagged. “Okay, ‘not confident’ is a massive understatement—full disclosure, I know nothing about Muggles. The only part of the Muggle world I’ve ever visited is King’s Cross Station so I could board this train! How in the name of Merlin am I going to pass that class?”

Neville looked despairingly at Harry for an answer. Neville had undoubtedly gained a lot of self-confidence in the last couple of years—not four months ago he defied Voldemort, to his face no less, and beheaded a great bloody snake in the process. But every so often, the old Neville—the one who suffered from crippling self-doubt—bubbled back to the surface. He would never admit it aloud, but it gave Harry an odd sense of comfort that, in spite of everything that Neville had experienced, he could still be worried about something as seemingly mundane as his exams. It gave Harry hope that he, too, could feel the same way about normal things, like any normal eighteen-year-old.

“You know, I grew up with Muggles,” Harry reminded him. “Tell you what—I’m going to need all the help I can get passing Herbology this year. How about you help me out with that and I’ll help you with Muggle Studies?”

“Would you really?” asked Neville, wide-eyed with hope.

“Absolutely,” Harry smiled. “We’re friends, aren’t we?”

Neville looked as though he could kiss Harry then, but he refrained from doing that and instead offered Harry a pumpkin pasty, which he gladly accepted. If the worst thing that he had to worry about this year was passing his Herbology exam, this was going to be his least eventful and most relaxing year ever.

Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Luna visited their compartment later in the journey, each of them receiving the same muted response from Dennis, so they left him alone while they chatted and caught up on the events of the summer holidays. Asha took a real shine to Luna, dooking happily as she tickled the ferret’s soft belly. Crookshanks eyed the ferret warily, but he didn’t chase her like he had done with Scabbers. While Asha might not have completely won over the affections of Hermione’s loyal pet, she was at least permitted to stay in the same room. As far as Harry was concerned, that was practically a resounding endorsement. As the sun began to dip below the horizon, Harry knew that it wouldn’t be long before they arrived at Hogsmeade Train Station. While the others headed back up to the prefect carriages, he and Neville pulled on their school robes and gathered their belongings as the train began to slow down. Dennis pulled his luggage off of the shelf and left the compartment without saying a word, Neville and Harry staring after him.

“He looks like he’s had a rough time of it this summer, hasn’t he?” said Neville gently, clutching his Wiggentree sapling securely under his arm.

“A lot of us have,” Harry pointed out, carefully placing Asha back into her pet carrier. “I don’t know if coming back here was necessarily the best idea for everyone.”

Neville left the compartment to go find Luna, but Harry wasn’t in a hurry to depart the train. He was happy to wait for the rest of the students to get off ahead of him before finding a quiet carriage up to the castle. That way he’d avoid being stared at by the entire gaggle of students. When the station platform quietened down, Harry picked up his trunk and pet carrier and shuffled down the carriage towards the exit. Despite his trepidations about returning, Harry couldn’t help but feel excited about coming back to Hogwarts. For Harry, it always felt like coming home.

Chapter Text

Draco was suddenly jerked awake when the train slowed to a stop and he hit the other side of his head on the bathroom wall.

“Ow! Bugger…” he grumbled, rubbing his sore head. He yawned and stretched out his long limbs, aching from sitting in such a cramped space for several hours. The journey had been an uncomfortable one, but at least they had finally arrived. Draco listened intently as students scrambled off of the train, waiting until it had quietened down before making his exit. The last thing that he needed was for anyone to see that he had been hiding in the toilets for the entire journey.

“Oof!”

“Watch it!”

As luck would have it, Draco opened the toilet door and walked straight into none other than Harry Potter. Their bodies crashed together with such force that Draco stumbled back into the small toilet, grabbing the door frame to steady himself. Out of instinct, Harry fumbled for his wand and pulled it out of his robes, but he paused when he realised who he had bumped into. Draco was still an enemy, but evidently, he hadn’t been deemed a particularly dangerous one since Harry quickly stuffed his wand back into his pocket.

“Malfoy?” he said curiously. “What are you still doing on the train?”

Surprised at his nemesis’s sudden and unexpected appearance, Draco was left momentarily dumbstruck, but he was quick to regain his composure. Smoothing down his robes he glared at Harry.

“Merlin, Potter, are you as blind as you are stupid?” he snapped, slamming the toilet door shut behind him. “Watch where you’re going!”

“I’m not the one swinging doors into people’s faces!” Harry raged. His eyes narrowed and he gave Draco a curious look. “Why were you hiding in the toilet?”

“I wasn’t hiding!” he replied defensively. “I was...well, I’m sure you can guess. Just get out of my way, will you?”

Draco tried to push past Harry but was stopped by his large trunk which blocked the path along the narrow corridor. He turned to Harry and looked impatiently at him.

“Move your trunk out of the way,” he demanded.

Harry snorted. “Not bloody likely.”

“Fine.” Draco drew his wand and pointed it at the trunk. “I’ll just blast it out of my way.”

“What are you playing at?” Harry spat angrily as he grabbed Draco’s wand arm. “That’s my stuff!”

“And? It’s probably full of rags, anyway,” Draco huffed as he tried to pull his arm free from Harry’s vice-like grip. “I’ll be doing you a favour blowing it up!”

Harry tried to wrestle the wand out of Draco’s hand but Draco wouldn’t relent. Twisting and pushing against each other, Draco took a step backwards and tripped over the trunk. He reached out for the only thing within reach and grabbed a fistful of Harry’s robes to stop himself from falling over, but Harry lost his footing and both of them tumbled over the trunk and landed with a loud thud on the carriage floor, arms and legs akimbo. Harry’s pet carrier flew out of his hand and clattered to the ground with a loud bang and the little ferret inside squeaked with fright. Harry’s eyes widened with horror.

“Shit! Asha, are you okay?” he cried.

The creature squeaked feebly in the affirmative and a white furry head popped out of the cage door, which now lay ajar. Harry let out a long sigh and his body relaxed against Draco’s, relieved that his pet wasn’t injured. Draco grunted as Harry’s body continued to pin him to the floor.

“Get off me, you great lump!” Draco wriggled helplessly under the weight of Harry’s body. Harry, however, did not move.

“Not until you drop your wand,” he countered, glaring down at Draco.

“I’ll blow you up if you don’t. Get. Off. Of. Me!” he snarled, articulating each word for dramatic effect, but still, Harry wouldn’t budge. Instead, a playful smile teased the corners of his lips.

“Make me,” he challenged.

Draco glowered up at him and opened his mouth to reply but his angry expression transformed into one of horror and he began squirming violently under Harry.

“What are you doing?” asked Harry, sounding confused.

“Something’s run up my trouser leg!” squealed Draco, kicking his legs out and howling in unbridled panic as a small lump scurried up his leg towards his crotch. Harry looked up to see Asha’s cage conspicuously empty, so he quickly rolled off of Draco and pulled him to his feet. Draco proceeded to dance on the spot, tearing at his clothes. “Get it off me! Get it off!”

“Hold still, will you?” Harry ran his hands up Draco’s leg trying to grab hold of the elusive ferret, but even with Harry’s lightning-quick reflexes, Asha managed to slip from his grasp and proceeded to scurry up the back of Draco’s shirt. “Bugger! Where did she go?”

“Don’t let it bite me!” Draco begged.

“She won’t bite you! Just—oh for god’s sake, stop fidgeting!”

Harry had just begun unbuttoning the buttons of Draco’s shirt when, suddenly, Asha’s furry white head popped out of the top of the shirt collar. Draco yelped in fright as the ferret crawled on top of his shoulder before he tore off his robes and tossed them unceremoniously onto the floor.

“Careful!” Harry shouted, checking the robes for the ferret. “You might hurt her!”

“Hurt her?” Draco exclaimed indignantly. “I’m the one who was attacked!”

“Don’t be so dramatic, she barely touched you!” Harry carefully stowed Asha back into her pet carrier. Draco scoffed and pointed accusingly at the mischievous mustelid.

“Look at those teeth!” he raged as Asha looked innocently back up at him. “She could have done some real damage!”

“I didn’t realise that you were so fragile,” Harry teased. “The great Draco Malfoy, felled by a little ferret. What would your father say?”

“What’s going on here?” came a sharp voice.

Draco spun around and came face to face with Professor Grubbly-Plank, who looked none too amused at the bizarre scene that she had stumbled upon. Harry was kneeling at the feet of a dishevelled-looking Draco, whose shirt was half-buttoned and his normally perfectly sculpted hair was sticking out in all directions. Harry quickly clambered to his feet and stepped away from Draco, clutching the pet carrier tightly to his chest. Grubbly-Plank cast a disapproving glance at Draco, who quickly straightened his shirt and buttoned it back up again.

“That’s quite enough canoodling, boys,” she said brusquely. “Gather your things and depart the train, please.”

Harry and Draco looked at her with matching expressions of horror.

“Canoodling?” Harry stammered. “We weren’t—we wouldn’t—”

“I was attacked, Professor!” Draco declared. Professor Grubbly-Plank smirked.

“Yes, I can see that,” she replied dryly. “I’m not interested in the particulars of what you boys were up to. Just gather your things and leave your trunks and pets on the platform with the other students’ belongings. Quickly now, the train is due to depart the station again soon.”

Without another word, she stepped off of the train, leaving Draco and Harry staring after her.

“But we weren’t canoodling!” Harry cried after her in protest. Draco shook his head in disbelief and attempted to sort his hair in the train window’s reflection.

“Canoodling...” he muttered under his breath. “She’s out of her mind.”

Harry snatched up the robes from the floor and tossed them at Draco’s head. “Never mind that, hurry up and grab your stuff or else we’ll be stuck travelling back to London together.”

That threat spurred Draco into action. He quickly pulled his robes back on and retrieved his owl and trunk from the luggage car. He and Harry left their belongings beside the mountain of other trunks, pet carriers and cages on the platform, where Professors Grubbly-Plank and Sprout had their wands drawn and were performing the (now customary) security checks on all of the luggage while the caretaker, Argus Filch, rummaged through one of the trunks.

“Contraband!” he declared gleefully, pulling a large bottle of sherry out from the bottom of one of the trunks. “Someone has secured themselves detention with me on their first day!”

Professor Sprout checked the name on the trunk and chuckled. “That’s Sybill’s trunk, Argus. You’d better put that back unless you want her hexing you.”

Filch looked crestfallen. “Oh. Right…”

“Better luck next time!” she shrugged.

Filch tossed the bottle back into the trunk and slammed it shut before slinking off to search one of the other trunks for illicit items. Harry and Draco stalked up the deserted platform in the direction of the school entrance gates, keeping as much distance between them as possible.

“No sneaking off into the bushes you two!” Professor Grubbly-Plank called after them. “Head straight to the carriage waiting for you by the entrance gates. Chop chop!”

Harry and Draco’s cheeks turned a matching shade of crimson and they both hurried away from the professor and her outlandish accusations. Harry cast a disparaging glance at Draco, who marched with his head held high and a haughty expression fixed on his face as if the world owed him something. Harry rolled his eyes and stared straight ahead, trying his best to ignore Draco. As if he and Draco would do anything that Grubbly-Plank had suggested: they hadn’t even made it through the castle gates yet and already Harry was having to resist the urge to hex the smarmy git. The sooner he got up to the castle and away from Draco, the better.

Draco’s cocky demeanour quickly receded, however, as they approached the last thestral-drawn carriage that waited to take them up to the castle. His pace slowed and he came to a complete stop a few meters from the carriage, looking uneasy. Harry paused and turned to face Draco.

“What is it now?” he sighed impatiently. He was in no mood for more of Draco’s amateur dramatics. Draco crossed his arms across his chest and frowned.

“I’m not getting on that carriage with you.”

Harry groaned. “Are you so childish that you’re not even willing to sit next to me on a bloody carriage? You know what? Suit yourself. You can walk up to the castle for all I care…”

Harry began to climb into the carriage but paused when Draco shouted after him, “It’s not that! It’s—” Draco stopped speaking abruptly, pursed his lips and stared at the ground, looking embarrassed and, to Harry’s surprise, a little frightened. Harry looked curiously between Draco and the carriage, trying to figure out what exactly the problem was. One of the thestrals huffed and pawed the ground impatiently and suddenly Harry realised what was going on.

“Oh,” he said quietly. “You haven’t seen the thestrals before.”

“They’re bad luck,” Draco bit out defensively, looking anywhere but at the winged creatures. “They bring all sorts of horrible misfortune to those who can see them and I’ve had quite enough of that lately, thank you very much.”

The temptation to mock Draco for believing such silly superstitions gripped Harry then. If the shoe were on the other foot, Draco would have delighted in teasing Harry for being frightened—he’d done as much throughout their third year when Harry was so adversely affected by the Dementors. The temptation to get a little payback was strong...but Draco’s awkwardness and fear quickly tempered that feeling and, against his better judgement, he actually felt sorry for him. The implications of being able to see thestrals was no laughing matter; Harry knew all too well that they served as a constant reminder to the death one had witnessed. He fleetingly wondered who it was that Draco had seen die, but he pushed that thought aside and took a tentative step towards Draco.

“They’re not dangerous, you know,” he said gently. “They’re really quite nice. Here…”

Draco watched cautiously as Harry stepped up towards one of the thestrals and gently patted it on the neck. The thestral whinnied and tossed its head happily in response and Harry smiled before turning and giving Draco a look of encouragement. Draco uncrossed his arms and let them fall limp by his side, but he remained rooted to the spot.

“See? There’s not to be scared of,” Harry reassured him.

“I’m not scared!” Draco snapped.

Harry gave a careless shrug.

“Fine. If you’re not scared then getting on the carriage isn’t going to be a problem, is it?” He climbed aboard the carriage leaving Draco alone on the dark, deserted pathway. After waiting a few moments, Harry popped his head out of the carriage window and called to Draco, “Are you coming or not?”

Draco still looked in two minds about whether he wanted to join Harry. He glanced uncertainly between the thestrals and the pitch black wooded path that led up to the castle.

“Maybe I’ll just walk…” he mumbled.

“Suit yourself,” said Harry lightly. “Although you’ll probably miss the feast by the time you make it up there. Personally, I wouldn’t want to risk ruining my shoes walking up that muddy path, but it’s up to you.”

Whether it was the threat of ruining his school shoes or going to bed with an empty stomach that finally persuaded Draco to climb aboard the carriage, Harry didn’t care to ask. Draco flopped down into the seat opposite Harry, arms crossed and scowling, and a moment later the carriage jerked forward and began to trundle down the darkened path towards the castle.

“You’re not going to be the only one seeing thestrals this year,” Harry reminded him. “I imagine quite a few people saw them for the first time tonight.”

“I know that,” Draco replied stiffly.

“When I saw them for the first time, I was a bit freaked out by them as well,” Harry admitted. “They do look kind of spooky at first, but you quickly get used to them.”

“I don’t want to get used to them. I want to put as much distance between me and them as possible,” Draco replied irritably.

Harry rolled his eyes but said nothing. He was already regretting not leaving Draco at the school entrance. Draco glanced at Harry a couple of times before speaking up himself.

“I must ask what on earth possessed you to buy a rat as a pet?” he asked huffily. “They’re vile little creatures.”

Harry raised a surprised eyebrow at Draco. The one and only time Draco had previously attempted to engage in small talk with Harry was during their very first time meeting at Madam Malkin’s when they were eleven. That attempt had been as tactful as this one.

“Asha isn’t a rat, she’s a ferret,” Harry explained patiently. “I wouldn’t buy a rat as I’m not all that fond of them myself.”

“It looked like a rat to me,” Draco muttered.

“Well, then you need to get your eyes checked,” Harry sniped. Draco tsked and was silent for a few moments before speaking again.

“Why are you buying another pet, anyway?” he inquired. “You already have an owl and students are only supposed to have one pet. Is McGonagall giving you preferential treatment already?”

Harry’s expression grew stony and he stared out of the window.

“Her name was Hedwig,” he replied shortly. “She died.”

Shock flashed across Draco’s face and he shifted awkwardly in his seat. “Oh. Right...sorry to hear that.”

Harry jerked his head towards Draco in surprise. “Did you just say sorry? To me?”

“No,” he replied quickly, looking embarrassed. “You must have misheard me.”

“You did,” Harry chuckled. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say sorry before, to anyone or for anything. Ever.”

“Yes, well...don’t read too much into it, I was only being polite,” Draco warned. Harry couldn’t help but snort at that and Draco’s eyes narrowed.

“While the same can’t be said for you, Potter, I’m not completely lacking in manners,” he drawled. “My mother taught me well. Why are you laughing?”

Harry couldn’t help but burst into fits of laughter at that, and the indignant expression on Draco’s face only made him laugh harder. Draco couldn’t understand what was so funny and the angrier he got, the more Harry laughed.

“It’s not funny!” he fumed. “You know what? I retract my condolences. You and that rat of yours can bugger off!”

Ignoring the retort, Harry chuckled and wiped tears from his eyes. “You must admit, you saying sorry does sound a bit weird. You must have hit your head really hard when you fell.”

Draco rubbed the sore spot on the back of his head, he could already feel a lump forming under his hair. “Yes, I did hit the ground quite hard. No thanks to you, you’re a lot heavier than you look.”

“I wouldn’t have fallen on you if you hadn’t pulled me on top of you,” Harry pointed out. Draco scoffed.

“I wouldn’t have fallen over in the first place if you hadn’t been manhandling me.”

“You were threatening to blow up my stuff!”

“Your trunk was in my way!” argued Draco.

Their brief foray at small talk quickly descended into another argument as they proceeded to sling verbal insults at each other for the remainder of the journey. As the carriage jerked to a halt at the castle steps, the great oaken front doors swung open of their own accord to welcome them into the vast flagged Entrance Hall. They continued to bicker furiously as they marched up the steps into the castle and across the entrance towards the Great Hall.

“For the love of god, will you shut up already about being attacked?” Harry hissed. “A ferret ran up your trouser leg, get over it.”

“She could have bitten me!” Draco seethed.

“What, are you afraid that she’d bite you and you’d turn into a Were-Ferret?” Harry mocked. “You needn’t worry about turning into a weasel, Malfoy, you already are one.”

Draco opened his mouth to reply but Harry shushed him as they approached the entrance to the Great Hall. Draco gaped at Harry in utter disbelief.

“Did you just shush me?” he said, his voice rising.

“Quiet!” Harry hissed, peering through the door into the Great Hall. “I think the Sorting Ceremony’s started.”

Draco looked incensed at being silenced, but he kept his mouth shut and they both listened intently as Professor Flitwick’s distant voice echoed out of the Great Hall, followed by intermittent and rapturous applause. Draco tapped his foot impatiently on the ground while Harry watched the proceedings for a few moments before stepping back again.

“Looks like they’re almost finished,” he said quietly. “There weren’t many students left waiting at the side to be sorted. We should slip in after the ceremony’s wrapped up.”

“Why can’t we just go in now?”

“I’m not barging in in the middle of the ceremony!”

“I thought you enjoyed making grand entrances?” Draco teased. Harry glared at him.

“I wouldn’t do that because I’m not an attention-seeking prat like you.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” Draco drawled. “Weren’t you the one who decided that taking the train wasn’t exciting enough and flew a car into the Whomping Willow? I’m surprised you didn’t hijack the carriage and ride it through the middle of the feast.”

Harry couldn’t help the mental image of him crashing into the Great Hall atop the thestral-drawn carriage at top speed flashing through his mind. He struggled to suppress a smile as he envisioned Filch and Mrs Norris diving out of his way and the other students scattering in all directions before he came to an abrupt stop in front of a livid Professor McGonagall. Harry quickly turned away from Draco to hide his face; he didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing that he’d made Harry laugh.

There was another round of applause and then chatter broke out amongst the students. Harry peered into the hall again and said, “Looks like the ceremony’s over. I’ll go in first and you follow in a minute.”

“Why do you get to go first?” Draco whinged. Harry closed his eyes and took a deep breath, it was taking all of his willpower not to knock Draco on his arse with a Bat-Bogey Hex.

“Fine, you go first if it’s so important to you,” he replied through clenched teeth.

“Of course, the saviour of the Wizarding world wouldn’t want to be seen walking beside an unsavoury character like myself,” Draco teased. “People might get the wrong idea and think that we were in cahoots.”

“Or canoodling,” Harry quipped.

Draco blushed furiously and scoffed, “As if.”

“Are you going or not?” Harry asked irritably. Draco rolled his eyes and strolled past him.

“Alright, I’m going,” he sighed dramatically. “I’m going to enjoy the feast and think up a whole host of other things I can say and do to annoy you this year.”

“Wanker,” Harry muttered but Draco just smirked and sauntered into the hall. He watched as Draco weaved his way between the students towards the Slytherin table, several eyes and whispers following him as he passed. Harry couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for Draco then since he knew all too well what it was like to be the focus of so much unwanted attention.

Even so, he’d probably have felt more sympathetic towards him if Draco didn’t act like such an insufferable git all of the time. He was definitely getting a kick out of winding Harry up; on the train and in the carriage, he looked more amused than affronted by Harry’s retorts, which just annoyed Harry even more. That said, a part of him, deep down, had missed their little sparring sessions, although he would never admit that to anyone. It seemed that Draco had missed them, too. Harry sighed and shook his head. Merlin, they were as bad as each other.

Harry took a deep breath before rounding the corner and striding into the hall, his eyes fixed straight ahead as, like Draco, he tried his best to tune out the hushed whispers that followed him wherever he went these days. He felt relief sweep over him when he finally caught sight of Ron and Hermione sitting at the Gryffindor table. When Hermione saw him, she waved him over and patted the empty seat beside her that she had kept for him.

“Where have you been?” she exclaimed, her voice slightly higher pitched than usual. “You missed the Sorting Ceremony!”

“I got stuck riding in the last carriage with Malfoy,” Harry explained, sinking into the empty seat and slipping off his cloak. Ron gave him a thorough once-over.

“No cuts or bruises or broken bones this time,” he mused. “Did you turn him into a slug again?”

Harry laughed. “Not this time, we only exchanged a few verbal threats.”

“Ah. Well, nothing’s changed there, then,” said Ron cheerfully.

“Well, that’s progress of sorts,” Hermione encouraged. “You did say that you were going to try and stay out of trouble this year. Well done for not losing your temper with him, Harry. I know that couldn’t have been easy.”

A hush fell over the crowd as Professor McGonagall rose to her feet to address the school. Harry had seen her at a couple of funerals over the summer, but he noticed that her expression looked more pinched than usual. She cleared her throat and fixed a smile to her tired face.

“Welcome, students, to a new year at Hogwarts,” she greeted them with her usual polite but firm manner. “I’m pleased to see so many familiar faces return.”

“Some more than others,” Ron muttered, glancing towards the Slytherin table.

“Before we begin our feast, I have a few important announcements to make,” she began. “Reconstruction on the school is nearing completion. However, as the Quidditch pitch was completely destroyed, it will not be ready in time for a new season to take place this year...”

Groans of disappointment rippled throughout the crowd and Ron looked horror-struck at this revelation. One of the main things that he and Harry had been looking forward to upon their return to Hogwarts was the chance of winning the Quidditch Cup for one last time before graduating.

“...And until further notice, sections of the seventh floor and the North Tower are inaccessible,” Professor McGonagall continued. “Alternative classroom arrangements for Divination lessons have been posted on the notice boards in each house common room. We also have alternative plans to replace the Quidditch tournament this year, details of which will be revealed in due course.”

“Alternative plans?” said Ron curiously. “What do you think that means?”

“Dunno,” Harry shrugged. “Whatever it is, it’ll be no substitute for Quidditch.”

Ron’s eyes widened and he gasped. “You don’t think it’s another Triwizard Tournament?”

“God, I hope not,” Harry groaned.

“I doubt that’s what it’ll be, Ron,” said Hermione quietly. “Not after what happened the last time.”

Ron’s face fell and he looked apologetically at Harry. “Sorry mate, I didn’t think…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Harry assured him with a small smile. “If it is another Triwizard Tournament, you’re old enough to qualify this time. If you get picked, I’m happy to cheer you on from the sidelines as you do battle with dragons and merpeople.”

“You really think I’d be in with a chance of being the Hogwarts Champion?” asked Ron hopefully. Hermione tsked.

“It’s not going to be a Triwizard Tournament!” she insisted.

“Let a man dream, Hermione,” Ron sighed, his expression turning dreamy. “Eternal glory…”

Hermione looked ready to argue with Ron but she quickly closed her mouth as Professor McGonagall began to speak again.

“And now for some good news,” she continued. “I am delighted to introduce two new members of staff to our ranks. Professor Liv Tonks has kindly consented to fill the post of Muggle Studies teacher.”

A pretty, fair-haired woman sitting at the staff table jumped to her feet and waved enthusiastically at the students who applauded politely in return. Harry scrutinised her closely: after Liv’s photograph had been published in the Daily Prophet, Harry had been taken aback at the resemblance she and Nymphadora bore. She appeared friendly enough, but he couldn’t help but find the physical similarities between her and his dearly departed friend a little unnerving. Sporting moss green robes and styling her long hair into a simple twisted bun, Liv was a more subdued version of the Tonks he knew.

When Liv sat back down, Professor McGonagall spoke again, “I would also like to introduce you to Professor Hestia Jones, who will fill the post of Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher.”

A young, black-haired woman with rosy cheeks rose to her feet and gave a curt nod to the students before sitting back down again. Harry immediately recognised her as one of the Order members who had been tasked with protecting the Dursleys during the war. He had only met her briefly on the day he had departed Privet Drive for the last time, but she seemed like a nice person. She had been taken aback at how little interest the Dursleys had in Harry’s welfare and she hadn’t been shy about telling his aunt and uncle exactly what she thought of them. He only hoped that they hadn’t given her and Dedalus Diggle too much trouble. Hestia caught Harry’s eye and flashed him a quick smile and a wink before leaning over to speak to Professor Trelawney, who was sat to her left.

“That concludes all the important announcements for this evening,” said Professor McGonagall with a genuine smile. “Let the feast begin!”

In the blink of an eye, the empty dishes on each of the long tables piled high with every type of food imaginable: sausage casserole, gammon steaks, buttermilk fried chicken and poached salmon were just a taste of the countless offerings available. Harry’s stomach rumbled loudly at the sight of so much delicious food and it was only then that he realised how hungry he was. He made sure to wrap some food up in a paper towel for Asha before filling his plate with a little bit of everything—he might not have Quidditch to enjoy this year, but at least he still had the daily feasts to look forward to.

“How was the Sorting Ceremony?” he asked before shovelling a large mouthful of mashed potato into his mouth. Looking up and down the Gryffindor table, he saw a few new faces looking nervous but excited. He remembered feeling the same way when the Sorting Hat had been plonked onto his head.

“Uneventful,” Ron shrugged. “Mind you, the kids that got sorted into Slytherin didn’t look too happy about it.”

“No surprise there,” Harry mumbled through a mouthful of food.

“One girl actually burst into tears,” said Hermione quietly.

“I’d be crying too if I were sorted into Slytherin,” Ron said grimly. “I’m surprised McGonagall doesn’t just disband their house altogether.”

“You can’t just disband one of the houses because you don’t like it!” Hermione exclaimed.

“Why not?” asked Ron. “Nobody wants to be there anyway.”

“If you’re going to disband one house then you’d have to get rid of all of them,” she argued.

“I only remember one of the founding members sticking a great bloody basilisk in the school to kill students!” Ron pointed out. Hermione let out an impatient sigh.

“I cannot deny that Salazar Slytherin was an...unsavoury character—”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Ron cut in, but Hermione ignored his interruption and pressed on.

“But we cannot tar all Slytherins with the same brush,” she implored. “There are just as many good ones as bad.”

Ron let out a mirthless laugh. “Name one good Slytherin!”

Hermione looked thoughtful for a moment before saying, “Merlin was in Slytherin and he was one of the greatest wizards of all time.”

“Merlin died about a thousand years ago!” Ron laughed. “So you admit that there’s been no half-decent Slytherins since then?”

“What about Regulus Black?” she replied confidently. “He died trying to destroy the locket Horcrux and defied Voldemort.”

“Oh wow, one person out of how many?” he replied sarcastically rolling his eyes.

“Well, there was Snape,” Harry offered. Ron screwed up his face in disgust.

“Snape?” he sneered. “He was a foul git!”

“I’m not saying he wasn’t,” said Harry mildly. “Still, he did save my life, more than a few times. And he was on our side.”

Ron didn’t look entirely convinced by this argument, but rather than argue he gave a careless shrug. “Yeah, well...he was still a foul git.”

“What about Professor Slughorn?” asked Hermione. “He fought at the final battle, he and Professor McGonagall duelled Voldemort together!”

“Alright, Slughorn’s earned a free pass,” Ron relented. “But it’s not an impressive list, is it? A Hogwarts Professor, two ex-Death Eaters, and a warlock who died centuries ago. Thanks for proving my point, Hermione: most Slytherins are nothing but trouble.”

As Ron and Hermione continued their argument, Harry’s eyes drifted towards the Slytherin table. He noted that there were a few more miserable faces there than the other three houses; several of the older students looked nervous to be back at Hogwarts, and unlike the rest of the school who chatted excitedly with one another, few of the Slytherins were speaking. He scanned the table and was surprised to see so many familiar faces had returned: Goyle was sitting with Theo, Blaise and Pansy, the four of them leaning close to each other, whispering amongst themselves. Someone was noticeably absent from this gloomy little group and Harry scanned the table for a platinum-blonde head. He was surprised to see Draco sitting at the opposite end of the Slytherin table, hand resting on his face and looking incredibly bored. Harry watched him curiously for a few moments—why wasn’t he sitting with his friends?

Ron drew Harry’s attention away from Draco by nudging him and nodding to the opposite end of the Slytherin table.

“Check out Goyle,” he muttered. “Is it just me or is he giving us the stink eye?”

Usually, Goyle’s facial expressions ranged between vacant and confused, so Harry was a little taken aback at the intense expression on his face: his heavy brow was furrowed into a deep frown and his mouth was set in a thin line. Harry thought his expression was that of a person trying to decipher a complex mathematical equation, but he very much doubted that was why Goyle was glaring in their general direction. Whatever he was thinking, he wasn’t happy about it.

“Oh my,” Hermione sounded slightly alarmed. “He doesn’t look like a happy camper, does he?”

“What’s his problem?” Ron wondered aloud as he speared another porkchop and dumped it onto his plate.

“Well…” Hermione began. “It could have something to do with his father being handed a life sentence in Azkaban. Or his best friend being killed in a fire…”

“Neither of which is our fault,” Ron argued.

“I quite agree.” She shrugged. “But we were somewhat involved in both events, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he blamed us a little bit for what happened.”

“He wouldn’t be sitting there looking so bloody miserable if it weren’t for us!” said Ron irritably. “We pulled him out of that fire—a fire that Crabbe started—so he should be thanking us!”

“I wouldn’t hold your breath, mate,” Harry muttered, focusing on the food on his plate rather than Goyle’s death stare. Harry had tackled with far worse in his life than the likes of Gregory Goyle, so whatever his problem was, Harry wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it.

Harry had to contend with a few students coming up to him during the feast to sing his praises and shake his hand, which he didn’t enjoy most of the time but enjoyed even less when he was trying to eat his dinner. The only welcome interruption was when Hagrid came over and pulled him into a bone-crushing hug.

“You’ll come down to visit me an’ Fang this Sunday, yeah?” he asked after finally releasing Harry, who staggered dazed back into his seat. “I wan’ ter hear all abou’ what ye been up tae this summer!”

Harry looked up at his oldest friend and grinned. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Brillian’!” Hagrid beamed. He turned to Ron and Hermione. “An’ you two? You comin’ as well?”

“Of course!” Ron smirked. “Hermione’s missed your rock cakes.”

“Then I’ll have a fresh batch made up fer yeh’s!” he promised. As Hagrid waved them off and ambled back to the staff table, Hermione drew Ron an accusatory look.

“I’ve missed his rock cakes?” she said flatly. Ron sniggered.

“It was either that or we risked him making us his famous treacle fudge. I figured the rock cakes were the lesser of two evils.”

“Fair point,” she relented.

After the feast had ended, the students slowly filed out of the Great Hall towards their respective houses. Harry and the other Gryffindors began the unenviable ascent of Hogwarts’s many winding staircases towards Gryffindor Tower, each step more difficult than the last as exhaustion took hold of him. When he finally shuffled into the boys’ dormitory, their trunks had been placed at the end of each of their beds and he was relieved to find Asha already fast asleep on his pillow.

After wishing everyone goodnight, Harry lay in bed enjoying the feeling of his body relaxing and sinking into the comfortable mattress. Although he was exhausted, his mind was abuzz with activity and inevitably his mind drifted towards Draco Malfoy again. While their conversation on the carriage had been strained, Harry got the sense that Draco had been making an effort to speak to him civilly, albeit with little success. They had still ended up arguing—as they always did—but their interaction had been more teasing than antagonising.

Asha stirred in her sleep and resettled herself in Harry’s lap and soon she was snoring gently again. Harry couldn’t help but smile remembering how Draco had squirmed and squealed as Asha scarpered up his trouser leg—it was a sight he wouldn’t soon forget. Asha had more than proven herself to be quite the little troublemaker, which only made Harry all the more fond of her.

Harry looked out of the window where he could see the darkened rooftop of the owlery in the distance and felt that familiar dull ache when he thought of Hedwig. It was strange being back here without her. He had worried that it would feel strange being back at Hogwarts. He supposed it did a little bit, but it wasn’t an entirely unpleasant feeling. So much had changed, but he supposed that change wasn’t always bad: suppose he and Draco Malfoy somehow came to a place where they could put aside their mutual hatred and learn to live with each other...that had to be a good thing, right?

That might be asking a bit much, he thought wryly to himself.

Still, he was glad that some things had remained exactly the same: Hagrid was still here, the food was still delicious, and most importantly, he had Ron and Hermione by his side. Harry closed his eyes and listened to the familiar sounds of the other boys as they slept: Neville snored loudly, Seamus muttered in his sleep every so often, Dean’s bed creaked as he tossed and turned (he had always been a light sleeper) and Ron made a little whistling noise every time he exhaled. It was just like old times. Harry smiled to himself and let sleep carry him away into a dreamless night, wondering what Hogwarts had in store for him this year.

Chapter Text

On the first morning of the new term, Liv Tonks sat at her classroom desk feeling excited and anxious in equal measures. Afraid that she would somehow be late for her first ever lesson as a Hogwarts professor, she had left her quarters an hour before the class was due to begin. She missed breakfast in the Great Hall, although her stomach was churning so badly with nerves she wouldn’t have been able to eat anyway. In the ten minutes that had passed since Liv had arrived in her classroom, she had already triple-checked that she hadn’t forgotten any of the books and notes that she needed. As the clock overhead ticked loudly, she proceeded to rearrange the items on her desk, first adjusting the angle of a framed photograph of herself and her dad a little to the left, then moving it back again a moment later. She shuffled her notes again and sat them carefully at the centre of her desk, desperate to keep her hands busy as her mind raced.

She knew that it was natural to feel a little apprehensive on the first day of a new job as she had felt much the same when she had started working at MACUSA (she hadn’t had much of an appetite that day, either). Starting work at the Ministry of Magic hadn’t been as bad since she already knew Dirk and Dora were close by to provide moral support if she needed it. A sharp stab of grief shot through Liv’s heart thinking about them, so intense that it left her breathless. Trying desperately to distract herself from the sudden overwhelming need to cry, she pulled a pocket mirror out of her top drawer and began fussing about with her hair instead. It was better to occupy her thoughts with mundane things like her appearance than risk being caught crying before her first lesson had even begun, and she didn’t want to give a bad first impression. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder what Ted, Dirk and Dora would make of her packing in her career to become a teacher. She liked to think Ted would approve and that he’d consider the opportunity to shape the character, calibre and future of young students, a noble profession. Dirk and Dora would probably scold her for agreeing to take such a considerable decrease in her wages.

Liv scrutinised her appearance closely and let out a weary sigh: god, she looked tired. She had faint marionette lines draping from the corners of her mouth and she was developing wrinkles around her coffee-coloured eyes. She tsked as she noticed a large toothpaste stain on the front of her olive robes. Licking her thumb, she tried to rub it off but to no avail. Never mind, she thought to herself. Nobody is likely to notice something so small. At least her hair was tidy: styled into a low, flat, twisted bun, she tucked the few loose strands behind her ears and tossed the mirror back into the top drawer. Satisfied that she didn’t look like an idiot, now all she had to do was to make sure that she didn’t act like one. Closing her eyes, she huffed out a breath and rolled her shoulders, trying to relax. Despite all of her preparation, she was still worried that she would end up making a fool of herself.

She glanced at the clock behind her desk and grimaced—there was still another forty minutes to go before the class was scheduled to start. She aimlessly flicked through her lesson plan again but she had already memorised it back to front. Leaning back on her swivel chair, she swayed from side to side, her apprehension now mercifully waning only to be replaced with something arguably worse—boredom. Suddenly, there was a loud rumbling of a borborygmus and she felt a pang of hunger in the pit of her stomach. She now regretted not heading down to the Great Hall for breakfast, but there wasn’t enough time for her to grab a bite to eat before lessons began at nine.

Objectively, she knew that she had nothing to be afraid of. She had spent the better part of a year working with the worst kinds of people imaginable—bigots, sadists, murderers—and survived to tell the tale. What was a Death Eater compared to a bunch of teenagers? Well, she actually cared about the opinions and well-being of her students, for one. But this was no ordinary group of school kids: Neville Longbottom, Seamus Finnigan and Ginny Weasley were amongst those returning students who had spent last year walled up in Hogwarts during the Carrows’ reign. And until very recently, others had been on the run, imprisoned, tortured and worse…

What surprised her was the high number of infamous names on the list of returning students: Nott. Goyle. Parkinson. Malfoy. Liv knew all of their fathers in some shape or form—she’d gone to school with most of them—and she didn’t need to ask McGonagall if they had bothered to take the Muggle Studies class before the Carrows had made it a compulsory subject. Death Eaters would see no need for their children to learn about Muggle customs and culture when they would sooner see them eradicated. Yet here they were, perhaps not as ready and willing to learn as some of the other students, but still, they had agreed to return to school and Liv thought that had to count for something. Perhaps they weren’t the lost causes that everyone else had written them off to be.

And then, of course, there was Harry Potter. Liv had been surprised to read in the papers that the so-called saviour of the wizarding world would want to return to the mundane routine of school life. Still, she was interested to see what kind of student he would turn out to be. It was a classroom full of veritable war heroes and villains, not your usual group of hormonal, opinionated adolescents. These kids had already seen and experienced more of the world than most of their peers, which presented a unique challenge for Liv: how on earth was she going to get them to listen to a damn word that she, a stranger—an outsider—had to say?

She wasn’t sure that she could, but she was going to give it her best shot.

Liv had glanced over their school records hoping to get a better idea of what kind of class she was going to teach and had chatted with Professor McGonagall at length about each of the seventh-year students. She had a rough idea about existing student rivalries and relationships and the Slytherin in her was already working out ways to use that information to her advantage—for the benefit of the students, of course. Her grand plan, which had the headmistress’s backing, was an ambitious one that ran a very high risk of failure. But Liv was as determined as she was ambitious and had never been one to shy away from a challenge.

Liv spun around in her chair to face the clock again and groaned when she saw that only a minute had passed since she had last checked the time. Throwing her head back against the headrest, she proceeded to sway from side to side again on her chair, thinking about the feast the previous evening. Professors Sprout and Flitwick only vaguely remembered Liv from her school days, but then they had taught countless students in the twenty years since she had graduated. She was relieved to have been sat next to Horace Slughorn during the meal, a friendly face amongst a sea of strangers. It helped that she was a former member of the Slug Club so they were able to reminisce about her schooldays. But as much as Liv enjoyed catching up with Professor Slughorn, her eyes kept drifting towards the other end of the table where the pretty, black-haired woman who was Hogwarts’ newest Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher.

Liv had felt like a silly schoolgirl stealing glances at Hestia Jones, wondering what she was saying that was making Professor Trelawney laugh so uproariously. When Hestia had finally noticed Liv looking across the staff table at her, she simply smiled and waved back. Mortified at being caught in the act, Liv had quickly averted her gaze and stared at her dinner plate while Professor Slughorn continued to chatter in her ear. She mentally berated herself for behaving no better than one of the students and endeavoured to act her age from now on.

Well, at least as soon as the first lesson began.

There was still a bit of time before classes were due to start, so she decided to take full advantage of her privacy and free time. Using her foot, she pushed herself further away from her desk and began spinning in circles in her swivel chair, grinning mischievously to herself as she twirled faster and faster on the spot. One of the benefits of having had her own office at the Ministry was that she could engage in this bit of harmless fun without anyone else being the wiser. Although, Dirk did join in on occasion and they would compete to see who could perform the most rotations off of one push without using magic.

“I’m not interrupting, am I?”

Liv squealed in surprise at the sudden interruption. She stopped the chair spinning so abruptly that it tipped over completely, sending her crashing onto the hard, flagstone floor. She instinctively threw her hand out to break the fall and a shooting pain shot up her arm as her hand struck the ground. It crossed her mind that she may have broken her wrist, but Liv momentarily forgot the pain when she heard the click of heels hurry across the classroom floor in her direction and, without warning, a strong pair of hands slipped under her armpits and pulled her unceremoniously into a sitting position.

“Merlin’s beard! Are you alright?”

The room was still spinning like a merry-go-round from whirling so many times in the swivel chair, but after a few moments her vision came back into focus and she found a concerned-looking Hestia Jones looming over her. Liv felt her cheeks flush hot with embarrassment and something else that she would rather not verbalise, and she became painfully aware of the large toothpaste stain on her robes.

“Oh, umm...hello,” she stammered, smiling nervously up at her unexpected guest. “Well, this is embarrassing.”

“Are you okay?” Hestia asked again, kneeling down beside her. “You didn’t bang your head, did you?”

“I’m fine,” Liv assured her, wincing as she tried to put pressure on her wrist. She inspected the damage and while, thankfully, it appeared as though no bones were broken, she had taken the skin clean off the palm of her hand. “Oh, bugger…”

Hestia sucked air through her teeth and grimaced. “That looks painful. Here, let me take a look at it.”

“I’m fine, honestly.”

Liv protested weakly but didn’t resist as Hestia took a careful but firm grip of her hand and lightly pressed the tip of her wand to the deep abrasion. “This might nip a bit. Scourgify!”

Liv grunted in pain as the wound was magically cleaned. Hestia muttered her apologies and quickly set to work conjuring a bandage and wrapping it around Liv’s hand.

“This should do the trick, but I’m no Healer. You might be better letting Madam Pomfrey take a look at it,” she said, tying the loose ends of the gauze into a neat bow. Liv experimentally flexed her fingers and wrist. It was still sore but not so bad that she couldn’t hold a wand.

“This looks good,” she said. “Thank you.”

Hestia smiled warmly at her. “No problem. I’m Hestia, by the way, Hestia Jones. Sorry, I haven’t even properly introduced myself and I’m already causing injuries to my fellow colleagues.”

“Oh no, the fault is mine!” Liv protested quickly. Without thinking, she thrust out her injured hand to Hestia then quickly dropped it before holding out the uninjured one instead. “Liv Tonks.”

“Nice to make your acquaintance,” Hestia replied, taking Liv’s hand into her own and giving it a firm shake. Without letting go of Liv’s hand, she asked, “Do you need a hand back up onto your feet?”

“Oh! Yes, thank you…”

Liv didn’t really need a hand getting to her feet, but she wasn’t inclined to turn down the offer. Hestia easily pulled Liv back onto her feet and finally released her hand from her warm grip.

“I did knock, you must not have heard me,” she said, waving towards the classroom door. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Yes, well as you can see I was occupied with important business,” Liv joked, lifting her chair off of the floor and pushing it back under the desk. Hestia chuckled.

“If it makes you feel any better, I like to do the same thing when I’m alone in my office,” she admitted. “Although, I recommend locking the door next time if you don’t want to get caught in the act.”

“Duly noted,” Liv muttered. “Well, now that embarrassing introductions are out of the way, how can I help you, Miss Jones?”

“Please, call me Hestia,” she implored. Liv couldn’t help but think what a pretty name that was.

“Hestia,” Liv motioned for the woman to take one of the chairs in the front row of the classroom while she slipped back into her own seat. “What can I do for you?”

Hestia sat on top of one of the student’s desks and shrugged. “Not much to be honest. I just figured since we’re both new here, it would be good to get formally introduced with each other. You see, I don’t know anyone else here apart from Professor McGonagall and you look like a nice person, so...well, I didn’t see you down at the Great Hall for breakfast this morning, so I thought I’d come down here and say hello.”

“Oh. Well, hello then,” Liv laughed nervously. Good lord, why couldn’t she just speak like a normal person in social situations? “Um...would you like a cup of tea?”

“Please,” Hestia replied with a slight nod. “So, today is your first day as a teacher, too? How are you feeling about it?”

Liv busied herself conjuring a teapot and pulling teabags and sugar out of one of her desk drawers. “Excited. Terrified. The usual emotions one feels when they decide to do something completely outwith their comfort zone.”

“I know how you feel,” Hestia commiserated. “Who’ve you got for your first class?”

“Year seven.”

Hestia grimaced. “Wow, that’ll be a tough crowd.”

“Yeah, I’m trying not to think about it too much,” Liv admitted, pouring tea into two china teacups.

“I’ve lucked out,” Hestia continued. “I’ve got first period on Wednesday morning free, then my day starts with some first-year students for a double period before we break for lunch.”

“You’ve taken up the Defence post, right?” asked Liv, although she already knew the answer.

“Yup,” said Hestia brightly. “Fingers crossed I last more than a year, eh?”

“Well, I wasn’t going to say anything about that, but yes, I hope you’ll be here with us for the foreseeable future,” she mused. Hestia laughed.

“I’m not one for believing in silly superstitions. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

“What made you take up the post?” asked Liv, handing one of the teacups to Hestia.

“Needed the money,” she shrugged. “I’ve spent the last year working full-time for the Order of the Phoenix but now that Voldemort’s gone, I needed to look for a proper job. With Amycus and Alecto Carrow in Azkaban—good riddance—I knew that there were a couple of vacancies going here at the school. I’ve got more experience fighting than I do with Muggles, so I asked McGonagall about the Defence post and I guess she thought I’d be a good fit for the job.”

“You worked for the Order?” asked Liv interestedly.

“Sure did,” she confirmed, taking a sip from her cup.

“Then you must have known my cousin, Dora.”

Hestia lowered her cup onto her lap and smiled sadly at Liv. “Yeah, I knew her and Remus both pretty well. She...she was an amazing woman and a brilliant fighter. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Liv felt that familiar sharp pang of grief in her chest any time those she had loved and lost were mentioned. Although it upset her to speak about them, she couldn’t help but ask the question because the opportunity to hear a story or learn some insight about Dora’s secretive life in the Order was too great an opportunity to pass up. She blinked several times, trying to prevent the tears welling in her eyes from spilling over. Fixing a brittle smile across her face, she cleared her throat and nodded.

“Thank you,” she said in a strained voice. “She was an amazing person and a great friend...but I think the thing she was best at was being a mum.”

Hestia nodded solemnly. “I heard that she and Remus had a son.”

Liv smiled fondly. “Teddy. They named him after his grandfather. Would you like to see a picture of him?” Hestia nodded and Liv handed her one of the picture frames sitting on her desk. Hestia grinned at the photograph of the little baby sleeping peacefully in her mother’s arms while Remus beamed at the pair of them.

“He’s a handsome little fellow,” she noted, passing the photo frame back to Liv.

“Handsome with a double dose of mischievousness,” she laughed, carefully placing it back onto her desk. “We wouldn’t have expected any less, considering what Dora and Remus were like.”

They chatted a little more about their families as they drank their tea and she learned that Hestia, like Liv, was an only child, but being from a pureblood family she had spent her entire life in the wizarding world. Although she had relatively little knowledge or experience of Muggles, she seemed quite interested in what Liv had to say on the subject. She seemed particularly interested in the many Muggle books that Liv had filling the shelves that lined either side of the classroom. She ran an index finger along the spines of several books and pulled one out at random to inspect it more closely.

“This one looks interesting: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien,” she read aloud with a curious frown creasing her forehead. “What’s this about?”

“You’ve never read it?” asked Liv, sounding aghast. She stepped out from behind her desk and pulled another book from the shelf before marching over to Hestia. “It’s a wonderful book, about the never-ending struggle between good and evil. There are wizards, elves and dwarves in the story, too. Although they’re quite unlike the real thing, of course, it’s still fascinating to read magic from a Muggle perspective. If you’re interested in reading it, may I recommend you check this out first—only if you’d like to, of course…”

She held out a copy of The Hobbit to Hestia, who slipped Lord of the Rings back onto the bookshelf and took the proffered book from Liv’s hand.

“It’s by the same author,” she explained, unable to hide the enthusiasm in her voice. “Technically it’s a children’s book but it’s still one of my favourites.”

“There are dragons in this, too?” asked Hestia, admiring the artwork on the front cover of the book of the giant winged reptile surrounded by gold. Liv nodded vigorously.

“Oh yes! He’s one of the key characters in the story. Tolkien does a far better job of depicting dragons than most other magical beings, so it’s definitely worth a read.”

“You don’t mind me borrowing it?” asked Hestia.

“Not at all!” Liv assured her. “You’re welcome to borrow any of my books. It’ll be nice to have someone else to talk to about them; not many wizards are familiar with these titles.”

“Which is why you’ve brought them with you,” grinned Hestia. “To try and get the other students to read them?”

“‘Try’ being the operative word,” laughed Liv.

It seemed like no time had passed at all when the school bell rang signalling the start of classes. Liv’s previous trepidations were all but gone now; whether Hestia realised it or not, she had done a fine job of distracting Liv for the past hour. But now that the first lesson of the day was finally due to start, Liv was rather reluctant to see her go. Hestia tucked the book under her arm and gave Liv a big smile.

“Alas, duty calls,” she lamented. “Well, best of luck with your first lesson.”

“Yeah, you too.”

“I’ll see you down at the Great Hall for lunch, yeah?” Hestia waved her off and strolled out of the classroom just as the first students began to arrive. Liv felt a little breathless from her chat with Hestia, but she had no time to think about it as the classroom began to fill with students. The first to arrive was a bushy-haired girl that Liv immediately recognised from the newspapers: Hermione Granger, clutching an armful of books was chatting animatedly to two other girls, Ginny Weasley and Luna Lovegood. The three of them took their seats at the very front of the classroom and proceeded to pull out parchment and ink as they continued to chat amongst themselves. They were closely followed by Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Neville Longbottom, all of whom opted to sit together at the very back of the class. McGonagall had warned her that despite Harry’s technical abilities, he wasn’t necessarily the most studious. Liv wasn’t inclined to worry about that since she had a few tricks up her sleeve to ensure every student in her class would participate.

The classroom gradually filled with Ravenclaws, Hufflepuffs and additional Gryffindors, some of them casting wary glances in Liv’s direction as she pretended to busy herself with sorting through her notes. She couldn’t blame them for being cautious of her considering their last Muggle Studies professor was a Death Eater; she knew that she faced an uphill battle to earn their trust. The last students to turn up were the Slytherins, all of whom looked as though they would rather be anywhere in the world than in that classroom. Finally, just as Liv was about to close the classroom door and begin the lesson, a tall boy with platinum blonde hair strolled in and slipped into an empty chair nearest the exit. With a bored sneer fixed across his face, he crossed his arms and stared straight ahead, not even bothering to put parchment or a quill onto his desk like the other students. She recognised Draco Malfoy from the papers as well, although for rather different reasons than Harry Potter.

A silence fell over the class as she rose to her feet and smiled at them.

“Good morning everyone,” she said with an air of confidence that she didn’t feel. “Welcome to Muggle Studies. My name is Professor Tonks, and I’ll be teaching this course.”

The students greeted her in a monotonous, unenthusiastic chorus, “Good morning, Professor Tonks.”

Liv resisted the temptation to roll her eyes then since she remembered, all too well, greeting teachers with the same level of enthusiasm when she was at school. Stepping out from behind her desk, she began to slowly pace back and forth in front of the class.

“I’ll tell you a little bit about myself before we begin, shall I? Like you, I used to be a student here at Hogwarts, though that was a few more years ago now than I care to admit. I’m curious, how many Slytherins do we have in the class?” A couple of hands were tentatively raised and Liv’s smile broadened. “Good to see a few fellow Slytherins in our midst!”

She thought that little tidbit would get a reaction and she was proven right when the Slytherins exchanged surprised looks while a few students muttered disapprovingly to one another. However, Liv chose to ignore the mixed response to this revelation and continued with her introduction.

“During my time at Hogwarts, I was a member of the Muggle Book Club and the Thespian Society—are those clubs still running? No? That’s disappointing. Well, after I graduated, I spent a few years working for MACUSA at the Office for Magic Relations and Education—yes, the job was as boring as it sounds…”

Some of the students, like Hermione and Luna, took notes as Liv summarised her credentials, but the majority of the class appeared to have already tuned her out. Ron yawned and scratched his head while Harry was paying more attention to Draco Malfoy than anything Liv had to say. While it was important to introduce herself and offer personable details, clearly it wasn’t holding their attention. Not to worry. She’d certainly be grabbing their waning attention when she got around to unveiling the big plan she had in store for them. Liv paused and leant against her desk before speaking in a more serious tone.

“I think that’s quite enough about me. Before I begin to outline our lesson plan for the upcoming year, I just want to make something clear, particularly for those of you who were unfortunate enough to be in Alecto Carrow’s class last year: let me assure you that things will be quite different from now on. I’m here to teach you, not hurt you. Differences in opinion will not be punished and any disputes will be resolved with constructive arguments, not wands. Understood?”

“Yes, Professor,” the classroom replied in a muted chorus. Liv smiled warmly at them.

“Alright then. Now let me start by saying that I know a few of you won’t have taken this subject before. Some of you may even have no experience of the Muggle world at all…” A strangled sound came from the back of the classroom and Liv saw the panic-stricken expression written across Neville Longbottom’s face. “Let me assure you now that you have nothing to worry about. Nobody in this class is going to be left struggling or fall behind. We’re all here to help each other.”

Liv continued to speak but watched out of the corner of her eye as Harry leaned forward and patted Neville reassuringly on the shoulder before whispering in his ear. Neville listened intently, nodded vigorously and appeared to relax a little.

“While I will be adopting certain elements of Professor Burbage’s old lesson plans, I will be including some newer elements to the curriculum. One thing Professor Burbage and I have in common is a passion for the Muggle world, which was why I was so keen to take up this position. I have a lot of experience in Muggle-Wizard interpersonal relations, and my hope this year is to share my knowledge and expertise with you all.”

Liv couldn’t help but notice that Draco Malfoy, although his expression remained impassive, shifted uncomfortably in his seat at the mention of the former Muggle Studies professor. She wasn’t sure what to make of his reaction considering he hadn’t been one of Professor Burbage’s students. Pushing her curiosity to the back of her mind, she focused on the task at hand. Picking up a piece of chalk, she began scribbling notes across the blackboard.

“Traditionally, Muggle Studies has focused on the history and daily lives of Muggles and how they are able to live without magic. This year we’re going to apply greater emphasis on understanding Muggle society from a historical and sociological perspective. There will also be more practical elements integrated into the course; combining both these written and practical lessons will be essential to passing this course…”

The sound of quills scratching on parchment filled the otherwise silent classroom as Liv proceeded to outline her lesson plan for the year, explaining what subjects they would be covering and advising them on which books they ought to read. Glancing at the clock overhead, she was surprised to see that she only had ten minutes left until the end of the lesson. Turning back to face the class, she smiled mischievously at her students: it was finally time to unveil her big plan.

“While the classwork will be comprised largely of written essays, as I mentioned before, this year we are introducing a unique practical element to the course.” She grabbed a worn, dog-eared book off of her desk and held it aloft for all of the class to see. “Who here is familiar with the playwright, William Shakespeare?”

Not surprisingly, her query was met with silence. Only Hermione Granger’s hand shot up into the air. Liv struggled to suppress a grin at how enthusiastically Hermione was waving her hand in the air.

“Miss...Granger, correct?”

“Yes, Miss.”

“What can you tell me about him?”

Hermione lowered her hand and took a deep breath before answering, “William Shakespeare, also known as The Bard or The Bard of Avon, is considered to be the greatest poet who ever lived. Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, he was a prolific writer during the Elizabethan age of English theatre. Some of his most famous plays include Macbeth—or The Scottish Play—Hamlet, Othello, Twelfth Night—”

“Thank you, Miss Granger,” Liv cut Hermione off mid-sentence, sure that if she hadn’t done so she would have easily rhymed off the full works and life of Shakespeare. “That is exactly right, thank you for such a detailed answer.”

A few of the students rolled their eyes at Hermione but she took no notice of them. She looked quite pleased at receiving such high praise.

“Not only is William Shakespeare considered one of, if not the greatest, Muggle playwrights, he is also perhaps one of the most famous Muggles who ever lived.” Liv tossed the book back onto her desk and turned back to her students. “On that note, I have a special announcement to make, one that I think that you’ll all be happy to hear. Unlike your other classes, there will be no formal written exam for Muggle Studies this year.”

Hermione looked thunderstruck while several other students cheered and applauded this news. Neville looked visibly relieved while Draco didn’t react at all. Liv thought that news would go over well with most of them.

“In place of a traditional written exam, we will be putting on a full production of William Shakespeare’s most famous play, Romeo and Juliet,” she said brightly.

A stunned silence followed that announcement.

“Excuse me, Professor Tonks...” Hermione’s hand shot up into the air again. “I’m not sure that I heard you correctly...did you say that instead of a written exam, we are to put on a play?”

“Of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,” Liv confirmed with a nod. “To be performed in front of the school.”

“What?”

The classroom erupted into shouts of outrage and protest. Neville looked as though he were on the verge of collapse. Even Hermione, who had a reputation as the most studious person in her year, looked mortified at the prospect.

“You can’t be serious!” Pansy Parkinson cried.

“I am,” Liv confirmed calmly. “Moreover, the production of this play is to be done the Muggle way. That means no magic will be used in the creation of costumes, makeup, set pieces or lighting. Yes, Miss Granger, do you have another question?”

Hermione lowered her hand again and asked tentatively, “I’m sorry Professor but...what relevance does Romeo and Juliet have to Muggle Studies?”

“A fair question,” she replied. “It might seem like a strange choice because, as you say, this is Muggle Studies and not a drama club. However, it’s one thing to learn about Muggle culture between the pages of books but to live it is another thing entirely. Shakespeare had a unique gift of faithfully representing human nature in his plays, something that Muggles and wizards alike have pondered on since we first developed self-concept. I believe that studying, learning and reenacting one of Shakespeare’s finest works will present the perfect opportunity for all of you to immerse yourselves in Muggle history and culture. Furthermore, the story’s themes are timeless: Love. Hate. Judgement. Conflict. Concepts that each of us struggle with in our daily lives. Reading and analyzing Shakespeare’s work will provide a greater insight into Muggle society both in a historical and a contemporary setting. And if nothing else, it presents a unique opportunity for all four houses to work together on a single project and to learn new practical skills.”

This explanation seemed to somewhat appease Hermione, but the majority of the classroom still looked confused and annoyed at what Liv was asking of them. This time Ron Weasley raised his hand.

“Miss, do we need to do this?” he asked.

“Participation in this project is compulsory,” Liv confirmed, ignoring further groans of protest. “Anyone who wishes to graduate with a N.E.W.T. level Muggle Studies qualification must participate. No exceptions.”

“That’s not fair!” moaned Zacharias Smith. Liv shrugged.

“How I choose to teach this class and the format of examination is to my discretion,” she replied evenly. “But if it will put your minds at ease, Professor McGonagall has already signed off on the project.”

Some students still grumbled under their breaths, but the protest was somewhat muted now that they knew the headmistress was on board with Liv’s plan. She gathered a large bundle of scripts from her desk and began distributing them to each of the reluctant students.

“Auditions for acting roles will begin on Friday,” she explained. “I have printed out three scenes from the play. In groups of three and four, I want you to choose one of these scenes and practice it—memorise it if you can—and then you will perform it in front of the class in our next lesson. If anyone is interested in doing one of the other roles—costume makers, set designers—please come see me during my office hours to discuss it further.”

The bell rang signalling the end of class and the sound of scraping chairs on the flagstone floor filled the classroom as students rose to their feet. Liv watched as they filed out of the classroom, quietly amused as several students cast her mutinous glances as they left. She knew that her proposal was a daunting one, but she was sure, in time, that they would come around to the idea. Shakespeare, much like the Veela, had a way of enchanting anyone who crossed his path.

Relieved to have survived her first ever lesson as a Hogwarts professor, she snatched up her handbag from under her desk and slung it over her shoulder. She had a free period before her next class and decided to reward herself with a quick bite to eat in the school kitchens. However, just as she was about to leave the classroom, she paused as she noticed that one of the scripts that she had handed out remained sat on one of the desks untouched. Luckily, she had anticipated something like this happening and had prepared accordingly. Lifting the script, she drew her wand and muttered, “Revelio” and the owner of the discarded script appeared at the bottom of the front page.

“No surprise there…” she muttered to herself.

She hastily scribbled a note on the front page of the script, tapped it with her wand again, and a moment later the script began to flap its pages like the wings of a bird before it soared out of the classroom and down the corridor out of sight.

Chapter Text

“I’m not doing it,” Ron declared, brandishing his script in the air. “I don’t care what she says, there’s absolutely no way I’m acting in a stupid play.”

Harry, Ron and Hermione walked down the busy corridor in the direction of the greenhouses for their first Herbology lesson of the year. Several of their fellow classmates had voiced their own reservations at the prospect of performing in the play, but predictably Hermione was not one of them.

“She said that it’s compulsory, Ron,” she pointed out, flipping through the pages of her own copy. “Whether you like it or not doesn’t matter: if you refuse to participate, you’ll fail the class and you won’t get your Muggle Studies qualification.”

Ron scoffed, “And? It’s not like I need it. Once I graduate I’m going to help George run the joke shop. I don’t need a Muggle Studies N.E.W.T. to do that.”

“Why on earth did you come back to school if you had no intention of actually learning anything?” she asked, sounding aghast. Ron shrugged.

“I thought it would be fun just to have a year where we got to piss about,” he admitted. “Plus, Harry said he was coming back and I wanted to keep him company. Oh, and you, of course...”

Hermione looked furious at this admission. “You really are the pits, you know that?”

“What’s the big deal?” he asked. “I thought you’d be happy I came back!”

Harry quickened his pace and broke away from his two best friends as they proceeded to argue with each other. He’d spent enough years being stuck in the middle of their arguments and he had no intention of getting dragged into a lovers’ quarrel. He spotted Ginny further along the corridor talking to Neville and Luna. If he hurried, he might be able to catch up with them...

“I expect you’ll be putting yourself forward for the starring role in the play, eh Potter?” drawled Draco, stepping up beside Harry. “You can’t resist the temptation to be the centre of attention at any given opportunity.”

Harry suppressed a groan of annoyance and sped up his pace to try and get away from him, but Draco managed to keep up with Harry and they marched side by side along the corridor.

“The only person I know who craves being the centre of attention is you, Malfoy,” Harry retorted.

“At least I’m willing to admit it,” Draco countered. “You like to pretend that you hate it, but I know deep down you get your jollies out of everyone cheering you on. Whether it be on the Quidditch Pitch or the battlefield, it doesn’t matter so long as everyone is singing your praises.”

“Piss off, Malfoy.”

“Make me.”

“Haven’t you got anything better to do with your time than harass me?” asked Harry irritably. Draco’s trademark smug grin spread across his face.

“Not particularly,” he shrugged. “As I said before, I enjoy pushing your buttons. You’re so easy to wind up that it’s impossible to resist. See you later, Scarhead.”

As they entered the entrance hall, Draco veered off to the right and up the grand staircase, leaving Harry glaring after him. Harry had met a lot of awful people in his life but Draco Malfoy was, without a doubt, the most infuriating person that he had ever met. Well, at least he didn’t have to put up with him during Herbology—it was bad enough sitting across from him in Muggle Studies. Harry couldn’t understand why Draco had even bothered turning up for the class since the smug git didn’t even pretend to be doing any of the work. Hopefully, they didn’t have any other classes together because the less time they spent in each other’s company, the better...

Still, if Draco wasn’t taking Herbology this year, Harry was curious about what he was doing instead. Wherever Draco was going, he was heading there in a hurry. Wondering where Draco was sneaking off to this time, Harry rummaged through his school bag for the Marauder’s Map. Hermione and Ron caught up with Harry then, their argument still in full swing. Ron threw his arm around Harry’s shoulders and pulled him towards the main entrance.

“What do you think of this Shakespeare malarky?” he asked. “I’ve never even heard of the bloke before.”

“Oh, what a surprise,” Hermione mocked.

“Dunno,” said Harry distractedly, still clutching the map. “I mean, I’ve heard of him before but I haven’t read anything he’s written.”

“What?” Hermione drew Harry an incredulous look. “How is that even possible? You were raised by Muggles, surely you must have learnt about him in school?”

“The Dursleys weren’t exactly connoisseurs of the theatre,” he explained. “I almost saw one of his plays once: my school arranged for everyone to go and see A Midsummer Night’s Dream the week before the summer holidays, but the play had magic in it, so naturally I wasn’t allowed to see it.”

“Oh, Harry…”

Harry felt a swell of embarrassment rise up in him at the sympathetic look Hermione drew him. It was easy to forget that his upbringing had been far from normal, but he was reminded of just how abnormal it was by comparison whenever his friends spoke about their own family experiences, which were so different and so much happier than his own. Desperate to change the subject, he blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

“Malfoy’s such smug prick,” he complained. “You won’t believe what he just said to me…”

Hermione and Ron both groaned in response to this comment and, mercifully, the conversation steered away from Harry onto more mundane topics. Sitting down at one of the free stools in Greenhouse Seven, Harry immediately unfolded the Marauder’s Map under the desk and began scanning it for Draco’s name, only vaguely paying attention to Professor Sprout mentioning something about fire seed bushes and dragonhide gloves. He checked the usual places that he might find Draco—the Slytherin Common Room, the kitchens—and just as Harry was beginning to suspect that Draco was either off campus or in the Room of Requirement, he spotted his name in a wholly unexpected place. And yet there he was, sat in one of the cubicles in the girl’s lavatory on the second floor.

What the hell was Draco Malfoy doing in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom?


“You came back.”

“Yeah,” Draco said quietly. “I came back.”

“After Professor Dumbledore died and you ran away...I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”

“Me neither,” he admitted. “But life has a funny way of proving us wrong.”

“Don’t talk to me about life,” Myrtle snivelled. “At least you can leave if you want. Fifty years I’ve been stuck in this school with nobody to talk to. Except you, of course. I’ve missed our little chats, Draco.”

“Well, at least someone missed me,” he muttered.

Draco’s return to Hogwarts had been worse than he had expected. The other Slytherins had pointedly ignored him during the welcoming feast but at least he had a plateful of delicious food to keep him occupied, although he hadn’t had much of an appetite. The worst moment was when he had entered the boys’ dormitory and all of his former friends acted as though he were invisible, chatting amongst themselves and walking past him as though he weren’t even there. It was difficult to pretend that this behaviour didn’t bother him so he had forgone his usual nighttime rituals and instead had made quick work stripping off his school clothes and drawing the curtains around his bed. He had lain awake most of the night, shame and loneliness eating away at him, wishing that he was at home in the Manor. He hadn’t felt this homesick since his very first night at Hogwarts, but at least then he’d had his friends. This time, he was completely alone. The only person who had the courage to look him in the eye since he’d arrived was Harry, but then they were hardly friends.

Well, he supposed that he could always talk to Myrtle.

“That battle was really exciting, though, wasn’t it?” Myrtle’s tone was inappropriately merry considering the subject matter. “There were so many explosions—and giants! I’ve never seen giants before. I thought for sure that they would knock the whole school to the ground. And there was so much death...I’m surprised that more ghosts didn’t appear afterwards. I could certainly do with the company.”

“Can we talk about something else?” Draco replied stiffly. The last thing that he needed right now was to relive one of the worst days of his life.

“Sorry,” Myrtle replied mildly. “After you’ve been dead for a few decades, you can’t help but let your perspective on life—or death, whatever—become a little morbid.” Myrtle slid off of the cistern that she had been perched upon and floated down in front of Draco. “Don’t take this the wrong way but I’m sorry that you didn’t die during the battle.”

Draco cocked an eyebrow at her. “I think there’s a compliment in there somewhere.”

“It is a compliment,” she assured him. “There aren’t many people I’d happily share my toilet with for all eternity. Just so you know, when you do die, if you choose to stay behind, you’re always welcome here.”

Draco gave her a wry smile. “Thanks, Myrtle. You’re certainly not the first person who wished me dead but you’re the only one who still enjoys my company, so I’ll keep my options open.”

Draco stilled then as he heard the bathroom door creak open. Most people tended to avoid this particular bathroom because of Myrtle—it was this guarantee of isolation from everyone else that had made this location so appealing to Draco—so it was unlikely that someone had wandered in by mistake, and he doubted that anyone wanted to spend quality time with the mopey ghost. No, the most likely explanation was that someone was here to cause him trouble, and that was the last thing that Draco needed.

Draco strained his ears and frowned in confusion as he heard what sounded like the fluttering of wings. Curious, he stuck his head out of the cubicle to see if a bird had flown into the bathroom and was surprised to see what, at first glance, appeared to be a large seagull soaring towards him. A bundle of white paper flew into his outstretched hand and he tutted as he recognised it as the script of Romeo and Juliet that Professor Tonks had given him.

“What’s that?” asked Myrtle curiously, hovering over Draco’s shoulder. Her eyes lit up when she read the title. “Ooh, you’re reading Romeo and Juliet?”

“You’ve heard of it?” he asked.

“Of course I’ve heard of it!” she shook her head in disbelief. “And I suppose you haven’t? Honestly, you purebloods are nothing but a bunch of uncultured swine…”

“If I wanted to be insulted by people I can easily spend my time elsewhere,” he grumbled.

“All I mean is that you’re really missing out on a great story,” she argued. “The play is set in Verona—that’s in Italy.”

“I know that,” said Draco defensively, but Myrtle continued as though she hadn’t heard his outburst.

“Romeo and Juliet are from wealthy and noble families, the Montagues and the Capulets. They both attend a masquerade ball and when Romeo sees Juliet for the first time, he instantly falls in love with her, and she with him. But here’s the problem—their families are sworn enemies! But they’re so in love that they don’t care about that, so they get decide to get married in secret...”

“Sounds boring,” Draco said, earning himself a glare from Myrtle.

“It’s not boring!” she snapped. “It’s romantic. And that’s not even the best part.”

“Which is..?”

“Their love is doomed and the lovers die at the end of the play, in each other's arms.” Myrtle sighed dreamily, her pale, misty eyes glazing over.

“I can see why you’d enjoy that,” he smirked. He looked down at the script and noticed that there was a note scribbled at the bottom of the front page:

 

Dear Mr Malfoy,

Please come see me in my office immediately.

Kind Regards,

Professor Tonks

 

“I’d rather not,” he muttered to himself, tossing the script into the nearest bin.

“What did you do that for?” Myrtle yelled. She flew over to the bin and tried to scoop the script out but, predictably, her hand went straight through it.

“Cheesy romance might be your thing, Myrtle, but it certainly isn’t mine,” said Draco. “I’ve got better things to be doing with my time than reading—OUCH!”

Draco was cut off mid-sentence as the discarded script had flown out of the bin, rolled itself up into a tube and proceeded to beat him about the head. In a panic, Draco ran out of the cubicle with his arms covering his head, but the script kept hitting him on the arms.

“Ouch! Shit! Help me, Myrtle!”

“I don’t know what you expect me to do about it. In case you’ve forgotten, I’m dead,” she huffed, crossing her arms. “And even if I could help, I wouldn’t. You deserve that for throwing it in the bin.”

“Some friend you are,” he snarled, fleeing the bathroom with the script in hot pursuit. He stumbled down the corridor shouting, “Alright! I’m going! Just stop hitting me!”

The script immediately ceased its assault but hovered ominously over his head as he stalked down the corridor towards Professor Tonks’s office. When it felt like he was dawdling, it nudged him on the shoulder, encouraging him to get a move on. Draco tried taking a swipe at it the first time it did this but it dodged his attack and struck him on the back of the hand. Draco gritted his teeth in anger and frustration but kept his hands to himself after that.

When he reached Professor Tonks’s office he stormed inside without bothering to knock and found his Muggle Studies professor sat at her desk mid-bite into an enormous turkey sandwich.

“Mr Malfoy,” with a mouthful of food she gave Draco a mumbled greeting and motioned for him to take a seat in front of her desk. “Thank you for coming to see me.”

“It’s not as if you gave me a choice!” he snapped, tossing his bag onto the floor and flopping down into the seat in front of him. The script glided over his head and plopped onto his lap, appearing quite benign now. Liv took a quick swig from her mug of tea before holding out a plate of turkey sandwiches to him.

“Want one?” she offered.

“No,” he replied shortly.

Liv shrugged and set the plate back onto her desk. “Suit yourself. I actually wanted to have a word with you at the end of the lesson, but you left the classroom in such a hurry that you even forgot your script.”

“What did you want to speak to me about?” he asked suspiciously. Liv laced her fingers together on top of the desk and smiled at him.

“How’s your father doing these days?” she asked politely. Draco frowned at her.

“Why do you care?”

“Just curious,” she replied lightly. “We went to school together, you know. He was a couple of years ahead of me but I knew him through the Slug Club. And we’ve crossed paths from time to time at the Ministry.”

Draco snorted, “And?”

“And...clearly I’m wasting my time making polite conversation with you,” she noted, leaning back in her chair. “Alright, I’ll be frank with you: in this morning’s lesson, you didn’t engage in class at all. I gave you the benefit of the doubt and put your reluctance to participate down to the fact that it’s a subject that you’re unfamiliar with. But you obviously left your script behind on purpose, and now I’m concerned that this is a pattern of behaviour I’ve to expect for the rest of the year. Personally, I prefer to tackle a problem head-on, so I invited you here to have a little chat about what’s expected of you in my lessons. I have to ask: do you have an issue with the curriculum that I’ve set out?”

Draco gave a derisive laugh. “Alright, since we’re being frank with each other...no, I don’t have a problem with your class. I just don’t care about it.”

Liv raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Really? Well, that’s refreshingly honest to hear.”

“What else do you want me to say?” he challenged. “Do I look like the sort of person who’s going to be making friends with Muggles anytime soon?”

“I don’t see why not,” she shrugged, although she didn’t look like she really believed that, either. “You never know what life has in store for you.”

Draco drew her a withering look. He had a fairly good idea what his life had in store for him after he left Hogwarts and the last thing that it involved was spending time with Muggles.

“Well, regardless of whether or not you care about my subject, attendance is compulsory. While you’re my student, I expect you to participate during lessons—that includes completing homework assignments like reading this script,” she reminded him.

“I don’t understand why I should waste my time on a subject that is of no use to me,” he argued.

“Well, have you ever flown in an aeroplane?” she inquired. “Or been to the cinema to watch a film, or listened to Prokofiev—do you even know who Prokofiev is? No? Well, wouldn’t it be better for you to experience some of these things first-hand before dismissing them? Then you can decide whether or not they’re of any use to you.”

Draco gritted his teeth and felt his temper bubbling dangerously close to the surface. Other people might have found her genial nature endearing, but he just found her infuriating. Why wouldn’t she just take the hint and leave him alone? No, she had to drag him into her office and pester him about “class participation” in her poxy class. It was like she wanted to make his life more difficult than it already was. Merlin, he could just imagine the look on his father’s face if he caught his son reading Muggle books, let alone acting in a Muggle play.

Thinking about his father only made him angrier. Despite Draco’s protests, his parents had insisted that he return to Hogwarts; while he was forced to endure constant humiliation from the student body, they got to hide in the safety and seclusion of the Manor. It wasn’t fair. At least his mother had cared enough to see him off at the train station, but Lucius Malfoy had barely left his study in months. Draco didn’t understand what his father was doing, whiling away the hours with nothing but his books for company. Evidently, whatever he was doing was more important than saying goodbye to his only son.

Draco tried pushing thoughts of his father out of his mind but couldn’t suppress the mounting feelings of anger, shame and inadequacy from rising up inside of him. Liv was still talking but he couldn’t hear her over the loud ringing in his ears. Draco clenched his hands together into tight fists and he felt the last of his resolve finally snap, his anger bursting out of him like a Blast-Ended Skrewt.

“Shut up!” he snapped.

Suddenly, the mug on Liv’s desk exploded and shards of ceramic flew in all directions, drenching the desk in tea. Liv jumped in fright and immediately attempted to mop up the mess with the sleeve of her robes but then, seemingly remembering that she was a witch, drew her wand and vanished the broken mug and spilt tea in the blink of an eye.

“Mr Malfoy!” she chided, pocketing her wand again. “That outburst was completely unnecessary—”

“I wouldn’t have lost my temper if you hadn’t been haranguing me,” he snarled.

“I’m not trying to harangue you,” she implored. “I only want to help you!”

“Help me? You don’t even know me!” Draco had had enough. Enough of Liv patronising him, enough of this school and everybody in it. He realised then that Liv wasn’t going to back off unless he made her. Leaning forward he sneered at his professor. “Don’t you get it? I don’t want your help. I’m not interested in anything that you have to say about Muggles or Shakespeare or what you think is worth my time. You say that you know my father. Well, then you’ll know what his views are on your lot: that Mudblood lovers like you are a disgrace to the name of wizard.”

Anger flashed across her face when he said that. Good, he thought viciously. He wanted to make her angry. Hopefully, he could make her so angry that she would kick him out of her stupid class—maybe she would go to McGonagall and demand that he be kicked out of the school if he was lucky. That way, he could just go home.

“Muggle Studies is a soft subject for soft minds and I don’t intend to waste another second of my life on it,” he tossed the script onto Liv’s desk. “So you can take your script and your subject and stick it up your arse.”

An unbearably tense silence followed that little speech and Draco waited for Liv to explode—he was even willing to risk being transfigured into a ferret again if it guaranteed him a train ride home. Liv’s jaw was so tense with anger that it appeared to be taking all of her willpower not to toss a barrage of curses—verbal and magical—in Draco’s face.

“You sound just like your father when you speak like that,” she finally said in a low voice. “Yes, I knew your father very well. He made his views abundantly clear to anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path, like it was something to be proud of. He thought he was too important and too clever to learn anything that he didn’t think was worth his time. But I’m not interested in hearing about your father’s views, I want to hear yours.”

Draco blinked. “My views...but I just told you—”

“You just repeated to me verbatim the same old claptrap that your father has spouted for years,” Liv cut in. “But I’m not interested in what he thinks about my subject. He isn’t my student; you are. You’re not a mouthpiece for your father, Draco. You are your own person and are capable of forming your own thoughts and opinions on things without his input. Or am I wrong?”

“I—no,” Draco stammered. This wasn’t the direction he thought that this conversation would go and he felt ill-prepared to answer. “Obviously I can think for myself!”

“Really?” she asked, sounding unconvinced. “Then whose idea was it for you to return to Hogwarts—yours or your parents?”

Draco didn’t answer. His silence seemed to confirm Liv’s suspicions.

“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? Because it’s what your parents expect of you. It’s clear that you’re not happy about returning and under the circumstances, I can understand why,” she continued. “It will be of no interest to you to hear this, but I know from personal experience what it feels like to be afraid of disappointing your parents. We often end up doing things that are expected of us but seldom do what makes us happy.”

Draco crossed his arms and stared at his lap, saying nothing. Yes, he knew all too well what that was like, but he wasn’t inclined to admit it.

“You might not want to be here but I’m not convinced by this front that you’re putting up, acting like you don’t care about anything. Whether you admit it or not, I think that you care very much about what people think about you, about your grades—”

“I don’t!” he protested. “I don’t care. I don’t know if you’ve forgotten but until fairly recently there was a war going on! I’ve had more important things to worry about than some stupid bloody Muggle Studies class.”

“I can’t argue with that,” she relented. “During the war, survival took precedence over everything else. But you used to care—at least you did up until the end of your fifth year. I’ve seen your student records and you’ve always been an excellent student: top marks in all of your classes, with a particular aptitude in Defence Against the Dark Arts and Potions.”

“That was before,” he argued.

“Before what?” she asked.

Before what?! he thought. Before The Dark Lord came back and screwed up his entire life, perhaps? Before he’d spent a solid year repairing that fucking vanishing cabinet under threat of death. Before Dumbledore was killed on the Astronomy Tower and he’d had to flee for his life. Before Charity Burbage pleaded for her life and was murdered before his very eyes and was consumed by that monstrous snake. Before his schoolmates were imprisoned and tortured and killed and Draco could see no end to the madness. Before Crabbe burnt to death, nearly taking Draco and the others with him. Before he faced public humiliation in front of the Wizengamot, escaping a prison sentence in Azkaban by the skin of his teeth. Before the looks of disgust and slew of insults that now followed him wherever he went. Before the last of his friends abandoned him. Before he realised that he was just a stupid boy way out of his depth with no means of escape.

Before what? she had asked.

“Everything,” he shrugged, refusing to elaborate any further. Liv sighed wearily and scrutinised Draco in silence for a few moments before speaking again.

“Here’s what I think,” she began. “Obviously you didn’t want to return to Hogwarts but you’re here now. As I see it, you have two options—you could take advantage of your time here, knuckle down and get some qualifications under your belt...or you can leave.”

Draco blinked. “Excuse me?”

“Either you go to Professor McGonagall and tell her that you wish to withdraw from the school since you’re old enough now to make that decision on your own. Or you stick it out, whether it’s for love of learning or because it’s the last thing that people expect you to do. Whatever your motivation is, at least you won’t leave here empty-handed.”

“Shouldn’t you be telling me that I ought to stay in school?” he asked.

“Of course I’d prefer you to stay but I’m not Voldemort…” Draco flinched when Liv said the name, but she carried on as though she hadn’t noticed. “And I’m not your father—I’m not going to tell you what to think or what you should do with your life. I’ll give you the best advice that I can and it’s up to you to take on board or disregard what I say. I just think that this little game of self-sabotage benefits no-one, least of all you.”

Draco wasn’t sure what to say to that. With a jolt of shock, he realised that no-one had ever given him a choice—a real choice—in anything before. His entire life had always been mapped out for him: what school he attended, what subjects he took, who his friends were...Merlin, even his death had been pre-planned, although it was only by a sheer miracle that the last one hadn’t come to fruition (no small thanks to Snape and Harry). Now, finally presented with the opportunity to choose for himself, he didn’t know what to do.

“The choice is yours. But, if you do choose to stay, you will continue to attend my class and I expect active participation.” Liv picked the discarded script up off of her desk and offered it to him. “All I ask of you in return is to listen to what I have to say and come to your own conclusions.”

Tentatively, he took the script from Liv’s hand.

“I still haven’t decided what I’m going to do yet…” he warned her.

“You need time to think about your options.” Liv nodded. “I understand. Well, just a reminder then that our next lesson is scheduled for nine o’clock on Friday morning. I hope to see you there, Mr Malfoy.”

Taking that as his cue to leave, Draco picked his school bag up off the floor and left Liv’s office feeling a little shell-shocked. Of all the things he had expected to happen when he was summoned to her office, rethinking his lacklustre approach to his education was at the bottom of a very long list of possibilities. Draco briefly considered the possibility that she had performed a Confundus charm on him, making him more amenable to her suggestions, but immediately dismissed the theory.

He stood in the deserted corridor with the script still in hand, trying to make up his mind what he should do next: should he turn left towards the Headmistress’s office and just get this over with? He’d been desperate to go home since the moment he’d set foot on the Hogwarts Express. But if he was so desperate to leave, why was this such a difficult choice to make?

Despite his feelings, Draco hadn’t really seriously considered leaving Hogwarts. His plan was just to muddle through the next year as best he could (more because he wanted to get his parents off his back than for any great love of learning). But Professor Tonks, loath as Draco was to admit it, had raised some valid points. When Draco chose to apply himself, he was pretty good at most subjects. He knew that as a former Death Eater, his job prospects after graduating were limited but it would be a shame to waste his talents while he had the chance to use them. And so what if everyone hated him—that was nothing new—did he really want to give everyone the satisfaction of watching him scarpering out of Hogwarts with his tail between his legs? Wouldn’t it be much more satisfying to be a Billywig in their bonnet?

Yes, watching everyone be driven to distraction by his successes would be incredibly satisfying. Everything else aside, this was Draco’s last opportunity to annoy Harry Potter as much as possible before they would part ways, probably forever. It seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.

Draco turned right in the direction of the Great Hall, supposing that there was no harm in practising some lines of this silly play with Myrtle...

Chapter Text

When Harry had decided to return to Hogwarts, he promised himself two things: that he would try to stay out of trouble and that he would make more of an effort to study. But despite his good intentions, only two days into the start of the new term, he had already managed to fail on both counts.

The morning was fairly uneventful: he sat in the Great Hall having breakfast, nose deep in the latest issue of Seeker Weekly, when Hermione cleared her throat to get his attention. He glanced up over the top of his magazine to look at her.

“Yes?” he asked.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but that doesn’t look like the script that Professor Tonks gave us to revise,” she said accusingly.

“No, it’s something infinitely more interesting than that,” he quipped, lifting the magazine again to block Hermione’s disapproving face from view. Unfortunately, it did nothing to block out the sound of her voice.

“Don’t you think you two ought to be rehearsing for the auditions?” she asked, casting a judgemental eye over Ron who still looked half-asleep as he ate his porridge.

“We have been rehearsing,” Harry lied.

“When?”

“Last night.”

“No, you weren’t. You spent the entire evening playing Exploding Snap!”

“We rehearsed while we played cards,” he countered, glad that he had the magazine to cover his atrocious poker face.

“Well, Hermione, Luna and I were rehearsing last night,” said Ginny, looking up from the copy of her own script. “The story’s not bad, actually. I’m interested to know what happens in the end.”

“What scene are you practising?” asked Harry. Ginny glanced at the script again.

“Act two, scene two,” she replied. “Capulet’s Orchard. Hermione is playing Romeo, I’m Juliet and Luna is the Nurse.”

Ron peered at Ginny’s script and snorted. “Very clever of Luna to pick the role with the least amount of lines.”

“She speaks twice,” Ginny pointed out. “Here and...here.”

Ron laughed. “So her lines are that she says ‘Madam’ twice. I think you two have been conned into doing all the hard work.”

“The Nurse’s role might be small but it’s an important one,” Hermione argued. “She functions as a go-between for Romeo and Juliet, which you would know if you bothered to read the script!”

Ron sighed and turned back to his breakfast, too tired to argue with her. Just then, the sound of fluttering wings signalled the arrival of the morning post and hundreds of owls soared through the open windows clutching letters, newspapers and parcels. Harry watched as the owls made their deliveries and he still half-expected to see Hedwig appear with a letter from Hagrid or with a dead mouse clutched in her beak. A tawny owl flew over the heads of several Slytherin students and came to a stuttering halt in front of Draco. Harry expected it was probably a letter from his mother—she usually sent him a parcel full of sweets and cakes when the new term began—but as Draco tore open the letter he suddenly yelped in pain and jumped to his feet, his hands and sleeves drenched in a yellowish green liquid.

“What’s going on over there?” asked Ron curiously, rising to his feet to get a better look. “Bloody hell, looks like someone sent Malfoy bubotuber pus.”

“What?” Hermione jumped to her feet to get a look for herself. “Oh dear…”

The trio watched in horror as large, yellow boils began to erupt all over Draco’s hands. Several students laughed as they watched Draco try in vain to wipe the liquid off, rubbing his hands across the front of his robes, but his fingers and palms were already covered in painful sores that looked ready to burst. Harry stared after Draco as he hurried out of the Great Hall, his face screwed up in pain.

“Who would do such a thing?” said Hermione, sounding horrified.

“Who wouldn’t?” Ron shrugged, sitting back down. “He’s not exactly Mr Popular around here, is he?”

“Maybe not but nobody deserves that,” she argued, taking her own seat. “Remember when someone sent me bubotuber pus in the post? It was extremely painful.”

“Well, I’m not going to lose any sleep over Malfoy missing our Transfiguration lesson,” said Ron. “It’s bad enough that we need to put up with him in Muggle Studies.”

“Malfoy was sitting on his own again today,” said Harry thoughtfully.

“What was that?” asked Ron distractedly as he shovelled another spoonful of porridge into his mouth.

“Malfoy,” said Harry again. “During the Welcoming Feast, he wasn’t sitting with his friends. I figured it was because we turned up late and there was no room for him at that end of the table, but he’s been sitting on his own during meal times. Come to think of it, he hasn’t sat next to Nott and Goyle during any classes, either. What do you suppose is going on with them?”

“Who cares?” said Ron. “We’ve got more important things to worry about than Malfoy. Like acting in this bloody play! What’s that all about?”

“I think it’ll be fun,” Ginny piped up. “I’ve never done a play before, and I’m going to need something to keep me occupied if there’s no Quidditch this year.”

“You want to take part?” asked Harry, sounding surprised. Ginny shrugged.

“Sure, why not? Who knows, maybe if I get the part of Juliet I’ll meet a hot Romeo,” she joked. She drained her goblet of orange juice before waving them off and leaving the Great Hall. Ron waited until Ginny was well out of earshot before he nudged Harry in the ribs.

“There’s the chance you’ve been looking for, mate,” he whispered excitedly.

“A chance to do what?” asked Harry.

“A chance to get back together with Ginny!” he exclaimed. Harry stared blankly back at Ron.

“What are you on about?”

“The play’s a romance, isn’t it? Think about it: if she gets the part of Juliet and you’re Romeo, you’ll need to spend all of your free time rehearsing together.”

“Right..?” said Harry slowly.

“So, you’ll be practising all of these romantic scenes together,” he continued. “The more time that you spend in each other’s company, the sooner she’ll realise how brilliant you are and she’ll want to get back together with you!”

Hermione scoffed, “That is the worst plan I’ve ever heard.”

“What’s wrong with it?” asked Ron defensively. Hermione drew him a withering look.

“Apart from the fact that there’s no guarantee that either of them will get the lead roles, Ginny isn’t going to fall head over heels in love with Harry again just because they’re cast as lovers in a romantic tragedy. This isn’t some cheesy romance novel, you know.”

Ron waved Hermione off dismissively and turned back to Harry. “Never mind her, this plan is sure to work.”

“You really think so?” he asked uncertainly.

“Absolutely! Trust me on this, mate. We’ll get you the role of Romeo if my life depends on it. I’ll even help you rehearse the scene.”

Harry wasn’t as confident as Ron that this plan would work. Ginny had made it as clear as day that she and Harry were not going to get back together; he was firmly in the “just friends” camp and, to be honest, he was beginning to think that it was for the best. He still loved Ginny—he didn’t think that he’d ever not love her—but she was right: they just weren’t compatible. Harry knew that he should talk to Ron about it, explain to him exactly why he and Ginny would never work, but that would mean admitting that he was gay and he wasn’t ready to talk to his friends about that yet, not until he’d worked it out more himself. Instead, he smiled at his best friend and nodded.

“Yeah, practising the scene together would be really helpful,” he replied weakly. “Cheers, mate.”

Ron clapped Harry reassuringly on the shoulder, “No problem! I suppose we better get to Transfiguration class, at least it’ll be a Malfoy-free lesson.”

As they approached the Transfiguration classroom, they were surprised to find their classmates still standing outside in the corridor. Hermione weaved her way to the front of the crowd to find the classroom door closed and Neville standing guard, barring entry to the others.

“What’s going on, Neville?” she asked, trying to step past him to open the door but paused as he held his hand up to stop her.

“You don’t want to go in there,” he warned in a low, hushed tone. Hermione frowned.

“Why not?” she asked curiously.

“Chimaera,” Goyle chipped in, nodding to the door.

Hermione looked more startled that Goyle had addressed her directly than the revelation that a chimaera was inside their classroom, particularly since the hulking Slytherin had been glowering at the trio since they had returned to Hogwarts.

“It’s not a chimaera,” said Neville. “It’s a lion. A chimaera's got a snake’s tail.”

“Well I wasn’t looking at its tail, was I?” Goyle grumbled. “I was more worried about its teeth!”

Harry sidled his way past the crowd to stand next to Hermione. “What’s happening? Is the door locked?”

“Apparently, there’s some wild animal in the classroom,” said Hermione sceptically. “Although there’s some debate as to what type of animal it is.”

“If you don’t believe me, take a look for yourself,” said Neville coolly, then added, “But I rather you didn’t. I don’t want you getting hurt, Hermione…”

“I don’t mind taking a look,” said Harry casually.

“Oh, what a surprise,” muttered Theo under his breath and Pansy snorted. Harry ignored their jibe and took a step towards the classroom door.

“I’m just going to have a peek,” he assured Neville. “I’m not going to run in there and try to go head-to-head with it.”

Reluctantly, Neville stepped aside and Harry cracked open the classroom door, peered inside and immediately slammed the door shut again.

“Yup, there’s a lion in there,” he confirmed. A panicked murmur spread through the crowd as everyone tried to figure out what they should do. Ron checked his watch and chuckled.

“Well, that took longer than I thought it would,” he mused.

“What did?” asked Harry.

“For something weird to happen in this school,” he joked.

Ignoring Neville’s protests, Hermione pushed past him and opened the classroom door, determined to take a look for herself. She gasped as she caught sight of the enormous wildcat sleeping soundly at the foot of the teacher’s desk.

“Good lord,” Hermione exclaimed. “That’s Professor Switch!”

“Who?” Ron, Neville and Harry asked in unison. Hermione carefully closed the classroom door again so as not to wake the sleeping beast.

“Professor Emeric Switch,” she explained excitedly. “He wrote A Beginner’s Guide to Transfiguration. But he retired years ago, how on earth did McGonagall convince him to come out of retirement?”

“Is that the one who had his photograph on the back of the book?” asked Harry. “He looked a bit like Beethoven?”

“Exactly,” Hermione confirmed with a curt nod. Ron shook his head in disbelief.

“How can you possibly tell that great bloody lion is our Transfiguration professor?”

“Well, apart from the fact that lions are native to the African continent and I think it’s highly unlikely one wandered off of the Savannah and into our classroom, there’s also the small matter of Professor Emeric Switch, a world-renowned Transfiguration expert, is also a registered Animagus,” said Hermione briskly. “Would you like to hazard a guess what form he takes?”

Harry peered into the classroom again and shrugged. “Looks nothing like the picture on the book cover.”

“Oh, haha,” said Hermione sarcastically.

“If he’s the new Transfiguration professor, how come he wasn’t at the Welcoming Feast?” asked Ron.

“Maybe he couldn’t make it?” Hermione shrugged.

“How can you be sure that it’s Professor Switch?” asked Neville uncertainly. Hermione hoisted her bag onto her shoulder and grabbed the door handle.

“There’s only one way to find out,” she declared.

Several students gasped as Hermione threw open the door and marched into the classroom. Ron tried to grab her arm to pull her back but she was too quick for him.

“Has she lost the plot?” he hissed, running in after her with his wand drawn, closely followed by Harry, Neville, and several other curious students who kept their distance and remained close to the exit.

Hermione cautiously approached the slumbering lion; her courage seemed to have waned somewhat now that she was in close proximity with the enormous beast. She cleared her throat and said quietly, “Umm...Professor Switch?”

The lion’s long white whiskers twitched a little but otherwise, it remained sound asleep. Hermione cast an uncertain glance back at Ron and Harry, who were gesticulating wildly while they silently mouthed for her to run away. Instead, Hermione turned back to the lion and took a step closer to it before speaking a little louder.

“Professor Switch,” she implored, “I’m sorry to disturb you but the class was due to start ten minutes ago. Sir?”

Still, no response.

“Sir,” she said more firmly before shouting, “WAKE UP!”

The lion’s eyes snapped open and it let out a ferocious roar. The students' screams were drowned out by the angry lion’s cry as they scrambled over each other to escape the classroom. Meanwhile, Harry, Ron and Neville rushed forward, wands drawn and ready to do battle with the king of beasts. Ron rugby-tackled Hermione to the ground and used his body as a protective shield.

“Protego!” Ron conjured an invisible shield around himself and Hermione while Harry and Neville raised their wands to attack, but before they could cast their first spell they paused and stared. On the spot where the lion had lain only moments before stood a very old man. His wild grey hair resembled that of the lion’s main except for his balding, mottled scalp that showcased his receding hairline. His old bones creaked as he stretched and yawned, blinking several times in an effort to wake himself up.

“Good gracious girl, there’s no need to shout,” he gently chastised Hermione who still lay pinned to the ground by Ron. “I was only hoping to catch forty winks before the start of the lesson.”

Hermione roughly pushed Ron off of her and scrambled back onto her feet, brushing down her robes. “I’m sorry, Sir, I didn’t mean to startle you but the class was supposed to have started ten minutes ago.”

“It was?” Professor Switch pulled a battered watch from a chain around his neck and gasped when he saw the time. “Oh dear. Well, you did the right thing waking me up. Thank you, Miss..?”

“Granger, Sir.”

“Miss Granger. Five points to Gryffindor for saving me from wasting any more time,” Professor Switch frowned at Harry and Neville who still had their wands drawn. “What on earth are you boys doing?”

Harry and Neville quickly lowered their wands. “Uh, nothing sir.”

Professor Switch eyed them both suspiciously for a moment before deciding to drop the matter. “Yes, well...today is merely an introduction to what we’ll be covering over the next year, so your wands won’t be required. Please, take your seats. Everyone else can come back into the classroom now! The lesson is about to begin.”

The other students stood hesitantly by the door as they watched the wizened professor shuffle slowly behind his desk and began to scribble notes on the blackboard, but gradually they filed their way back into the classroom and took their seats. The rest of the lesson was mercifully dull as Professor Switch outlined the lesson plan for the year. Most of the lessons would be focused on mastering human transfiguration, which Harry wasn’t looking forward to; he’d struggled in previous years to perform relatively simple tasks such as changing the colour of his eyebrows. That said, the prospect of being able to change his entire physical appearance was appealing to him; it would be nice to be able to walk about in public like a normal person without always having to rely on his Invisibility Cloak. Harry thought that would probably appeal to someone like Draco as well.

He knew that it was becoming a bad habit, but Harry couldn’t help himself; while Professor Switch was busy scribbling on the blackboard, Harry pulled the Marauder’s Map out of his bag and checked the Hospital Wing. Sure enough, Draco’s name was there with Madam Pomfrey at his bedside. He wondered if anyone would go to visit Draco while he was there. Considering Harry hadn’t seen him talking to any of his friends since they’d returned to Hogwarts, he supposed not. Harry had thought that it was strange finding Draco lurking about the Hogwarts Express on his own long after everyone else had left. At first, Harry had suspected that he was up to something—as Draco Malfoy was prone to do—but after seeing him sitting alone at meal times and during classes, Harry quickly realised that, for once, that wasn’t the case.

The phrase “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person” briefly crossed Harry’s mind, but it gave him no pleasure to see anyone, even Draco Malfoy, so miserable. He remembered all too well what it was like to be all alone. He’d still spent more of his life without friends than with. He thought back to those days at St Grogory’s Primary School when Dudley and his gang had bullied him mercilessly. The other children had avoided Harry—partly because they didn’t want to be targeted by Dudley’s gang, but also because they all thought Harry was strange. Harry supposed that he couldn’t blame them; he was strange—his malnourished, bedraggled appearance and his old, ill-fitting clothes hardly made him an appealing friend. He had spent break times wandering the playground alone, envious of the other children who played together, and lost count of the number of times he had eaten his lunch locked in one of the toilet cubicles because it was less hassle to be hidden out of sight.

It seemed as though Draco was now getting a taste of the life that Harry had lived for years. But for all of Draco’s faults, Harry didn’t think that he deserved to feel like that. Nobody did. He fleetingly considered popping up to the Hospital Wing to see Draco, just so that he would have at least one visitor, but dismissed the idea almost as quickly as he had considered it: he imagined that the only thing worse for Draco than having nobody visit him was to have Harry by his bedside.

Events took a predictably strange turn at the end of the lesson when Harry, Ron, Hermione and Neville left the classroom and started making their way down towards the greenhouses for a double period of Herbology. They were walking down a deserted corridor discussing their thoughts on the eccentric Transfiguration professor when, without warning, Goyle stepped in front of them, flanked by Theo, Pansy and Blaise. Hermione yelped in surprise and the group stopped dead in their tracks as the imposing Slytherin loomed over them, blocking their path. His expression was more threatening than usual, his heavy brow knitted into a deep frown and his hands clenched into tight fists by his sides.

Harry had worried that something like this might happen. A lot of the Slytherin students’ parents were dead or in Azkaban because of the war—because of him. He knew that, sooner or later, someone would corner him and his friends when there were no teachers around. Well, Harry had fought off worse than Goyle and his crew. Hermione and Ron shared nervous glances while the other Slytherins scowled at them.

“We don’t want any trouble…” said Neville carefully, slowly reaching for his wand.

“Believe me, we want to do this even less than you do,” said Theo darkly. He cast Goyle a sharp look. “Well, if you’re going to do it, do it already!”

Goyle moved forward and Harry drew his wand, ready to hex him, but to the surprise of everyone, Goyle didn’t draw his wand. He simply thrust out his hand towards Ron. Ron, however, stared at the proffered hand as though it were a vine of Venomous Tentacula.

“What are you doing?” he asked cautiously.

Goyle lowered his hand a little and gnashed his teeth as though he were in a great deal of discomfort. Pansy gave him an encouraging elbow in the ribs and with a reluctant sigh, he spoke up.

“During the Battle, me, Malfoy and Crabbe tried to catch you, so we could take you to the Dark Lord—”

“Yes, we remember that vividly,” said Harry darkly. “Your mate, Crabbe, nearly got us all killed when he lost control of the cursed fire.”

“I know.” Goyle bowed his head and shuffled awkwardly between each foot. “Even though we attacked you, you still saved me and Malfoy. If you and Granger hadn’t helped us, we would have died, too. So, I just wanted to say thank you and...I owe you one.”

Goyle raised his hand a little higher but was unable to meet Ron’s eye. Everyone looked expectantly at Ron for his response, but he looked just as dumbfounded as his friends.

“I...um...yeah, don’t worry about it,” he stammered.

Eventually, he took Goyle’s hand into his own and gave it a quick shake before they both swiftly dropped their hands by their sides again. There was a collective gasp when Goyle then held his hand up to Hermione. She was quicker to respond than Ron, taking his hand and giving it a firm shake before letting it go. Goyle looked relieved—whether it was because they had accepted his small gesture of truce or because the awkward interaction had mercifully come to an end, they weren’t entirely sure. Pansy grabbed Goyle’s elbow and gave it a slight tug.

“Come on, we’re going to be late for class.” Avoiding the shocked expressions of the Gryffindors who stared after them, she pulled Goyle away down the corridor, closely followed by a bemused-looking Blaise.

As Theo walked past he leaned close to Ron and whispered, “Just because he owes you a life debt doesn’t mean that you can take the piss; don’t use this to your advantage or else you’ll have me to deal with. I don’t owe either of you anything and you best remember that.”

There was a stunned silence as Theo stalked down the corridor out of sight.

Ron shook his head in disbelief. “It’s official: the lion in the classroom is only the second weirdest thing to have happened today.”

“Well, I’m glad we managed to get our daily quota of weird stuff out of the way before lunch,” said Harry, stowing his wand back into his pocket.

“I don’t even think I’ve heard Goyle speak more than a few words before,” said Hermione thoughtfully as they continued to walk down the corridor.

“Honestly? I didn’t think he was even capable of constructing full sentences,” Ron quipped. Neville grunted, his normally jovial face set in an angry scowl.

“Yeah, well I heard him say Crucio aplenty last year,” he said darkly.

Hermione hesitated before saying, “I’m not going to try and justify what he did—”

“Really? It sounds like you’re about to try and do just that,” Neville retorted.

“I’m not!” Hermione argued. “It’s just...well, moral disengagement is not uncommon during times of war. For some people, it’s a coping mechanism. For others, like Crabbe and Goyle and a lot of the Slytherins...well, if you’re told enough times throughout your life that Muggles are inhuman and inferior, eventually you’re going to believe it.”

Neville stopped dead in his tracks and rounded on Hermione. “How can you try and defend them? After everything they’ve done?!”

“Oi! Mind who you’re talking to,” Ron warned, but Hermione didn’t look flustered by Neville’s outburst.

“I’m not trying to defend them, I just think that it’s important to try and understand why people act and think the way that they do,” she explained calmly. “Goyle’s been brought up to hate people like us, especially people like me. The fact that he’s even willing to shake hands with us, that tells me that there’s a chance that his views might change.”

“Oh, don’t be so naive,” Neville huffed. “Crabbe and Goyle were in their element torturing other students—they enjoyed it! Don’t forget that he’s a Slytherin—and a Death Eater to boot—they just suck up to whoever they think will make their lives easier. If Voldemort had won the war, he would sooner kill us than shake our hand, and that’s the truth.”

“You really believe that?” Hermione challenged. “Is it completely beyond the realm of possibility that some Slytherins only behaved the way that they did because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they didn’t do as they were told?”

“No, I think that’s probably the case for a lot of them,” Neville relented. “But that just makes them cowards in my book.”

“A lot of them were just kids, Neville,” Hermione argued. “They didn’t have a choice.”

“You always have a choice!” said Neville angrily. “We were just kids too and we chose to fight back. Look, I know that you three were busy last year, on the run from Death Eaters and destroying Horcruxes, but the rest of us had Death Eaters of our own to deal with, right here in this school. You weren’t here, you don’t know what it was like…” Neville’s voice trailed and he unconsciously scratched the deep gash that was now a permanent fixture on his handsome face. Hermione reached out and touched him lightly on the forearm.

“I wouldn’t pretend to know what it was like, Neville,” said Hermione gently. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“I’m not upset!” he snapped. Hermione quickly withdrew her hand and Neville looked embarrassed at having raised his voice. He huffed out a sigh and said more quietly, “Look, Goyle might owe you both a life debt but a Nundu doesn’t change its spots; I’d trust him as far as I could throw him. That’s all I have to say on the matter.”

Neville hoisted his bag higher onto his shoulder and marched off ahead of his friends.

“I think I preferred Neville when he was the cowardly lion of the group,” Ron joked. Hermione, however, didn’t laugh. If anything, she looked upset.

“I hope I haven’t upset him too much,” she said, worriedly biting her lip.

“He’ll be alright,” Harry chipped in. “He just needs some time to cool down. He has a point though, we’ve no clue what it was like being a student here last year.”

“Not that anyone’s been particularly forthcoming with information as to what that was like,” Ron muttered.

“Can you blame them?” Harry shrugged. “Other than filling in Ministry officials, how much have you told other people what we did last year?”

“Fair point,” sighed Ron. He wrapped his arms around Hermione’s shoulder and pulled her into a reassuring hug. “Are you okay?”

Hermione nodded mutely. She had tears welling in the corners of her eyes and she buried her face into Ron’s shoulder, shielding it from Harry’s view. Ron stroked Hermione’s hair and Harry suddenly felt as though he were infringing on something private so he followed after Neville, leaving his best friends to have a moment to themselves.

“You want me to go beat Neville up for making you cry?” Ron joked. Hermione huffed out a laugh and shook her head.

“No, he’s right,” she murmured into his shoulder. “Typical of me to play devil’s advocate when I should just learn when to keep my mouth shut.”

“Don’t ever do that. Always speak your mind; it’s one of the things I love most about you, even if we disagree a lot of the time.”

“So you disagree with me on this?” she queried. “You don’t think Goyle was being genuine?”

Ron shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t know. I’m not going to change my mind about him based on one handshake...but you’re the smartest person that I know, so I’d be pretty stupid not to listen to you.” He kissed her on the cheek and whispered, “You’re a better person than I ever could be, Mione. You’re always trying to see the good in people. Even if it isn’t there.”

“Even if it’s hard to find,” she corrected him with a watery smile before admitting, “I didn’t think it would be so hard coming back here.”

“Me neither,” Ron agreed. He kissed the crown of her head and took her hand into his own. “Come on, you know that we can’t leave Harry unattended for more than five minutes or else we run the risk of something else mental happening around here.”

Hermione choked out a laugh and brushed the tears from her eyes, relieved for the hundredth time that day alone that Ronald Weasley had come back to Hogwarts.

Chapter Text

Draco still felt unsure as to whether or not he was going to stick it out at Hogwarts, but whoever had sent him the bubotuber pus was pushing him dangerously close to packing his trunk and getting as far away from the school as possible. The only thing that was stopping him from leaving right now (apart from being in desperate need of medical assistance) was the thought of whoever who had done this to him seeing him run out of the Great Hall, never to return. No, he didn’t want to give his haters the satisfaction of watching him be run out of Hogwarts with his tail between his legs. It was going to take more than a lame prank to get rid of Draco Malfoy. He’d survived Voldemort; this would be a walk in the park by comparison...

A very slow, torturous walk through a park situated in the centre of the Forbidden Forest, perhaps.

Unable to use his hands, Draco pushed the swing door entrance to the Hospital Wing open with his back only to be met with a shrill voice crying, “CLOSE THE DOOR! QUICKLY!”

Draco ducked as three bright yellow canaries flew over his head and out of the Hospital Wing, disappearing down the corridor and out of sight. A very flustered looking witch in nurses robes rushed forward and slammed the door shut behind Draco just as several more canaries attempted to make their break for freedom. They flapped and twittered angrily around the matron’s head before flying off in all directions around the ward, perching on the window ledges and medical cabinets.

“Bugger,” she growled, bumping her head against the door in frustration. Her peaked hat was sitting off-kilter atop her head and her grey hair was sticking out in odd directions. “If I ever cross paths with George Weasley again, he will rue the day he invented those blasted Canary Creams...”

“Um…Madam Pomfrey?”

“Yes?” she sighed, lifting her head off of the door and straightening her hat. “Ah, Mr Malfoy. What seems to be the problem?” Draco lifted his hands and she grimaced. “Bubotuber pus?”

Draco nodded. She carefully turned his hands over and inspected the damage. “My first thought would be that you had a slight mishap in Potions class, but the day’s lessons haven’t even started yet. Did someone do this to you?”

“Yes, but I don’t know who,” he said quietly. “It was sent to me in the owl post.”

The corners of Madam Pomfrey’s mouth turned downward in disgust. “First students are receiving hate mail and now this! I don’t suppose whoever sent you the letter left a note?”

“Not that I could see.”

Madam Pomfrey shook her head in disgust and ushered Draco over to one of the hospital beds. “Only a coward attacks defenceless schoolchildren. This cannot continue. I’ll need to speak to the Headmistress about this.”

Draco resisted the temptation to insist that he wasn’t a defenceless child. Instead, he allowed Madam Pomfrey to peel off his sodden school robes, shirt and tie so that she could treat his wounds.

“Unfortunately, I’m going to have to burst the boils before I can treat them with murtlap essence, but this potion will relieve you from any pain. Drink every last drop.”

She held a goblet full of potion up to his lips and he drank it all in two large gulps. It tasted as bad as the bubotuber pus smelled, but Draco would have happily drank pureed flobberworms if it relieved the pain in his hands and arms. Within seconds, the pain began to lessen considerably and he let out a sigh of relief. Madam Pomfrey nodded approvingly.

“Excellent. Now that’s taken effect, I’ll have to—oh for Merlin’s sake, will you lot please quieten down? I will see to you soon enough!” Madam Pomfrey shouted at the canaries but her protests fell on deaf ears. Draco watched as the little birds continued to twitter loudly as they circled the infirmary.

“The birds,” he asked curiously, “Are they…”

“Students,” Madam Pomfrey confirmed, popping each boil and squeezing the pus out of them without even batting an eye. “Yes, they happened across a plate of Canary Creams left outside of the Slytherin common room and some students were foolish enough to eat them. Usually, the transformation only lasts a minute but someone has tampered with the biscuits and the students have been stuck like that since last night.”

Madam Pomfrey cleaned her hands in a small basin before she began applying Murtlap Essence to Draco’s wounds. “And now we have a few students flying free of the Hospital Wing. They’re going to be a nightmare to catch. Hopefully, they’ll steer clear of Mrs Norris...”

“I didn’t mean to let them out,” Draco murmured apologetically, but Madam Pomfrey waved her hand dismissively.

“Not to worry, you weren’t to know. I’ll need to go track down the escapees, but I’ll finish treating you first…” Once she had finished bandaging Draco’s hands and forearms, she slipped a clean cotton gown over his head. “I’m afraid that your school uniform is ruined, bubotuber pus is impossible to get out of clothes.”

“Fine,” Draco sighed.

He inspected his heavily bandaged hands and tried to clench them into a fist but found that it was difficult to even wiggle his fingers. His movements were restricted but at least he wasn’t in pain anymore. He moved to slide off of the hospital bed but Madam Pomfrey gently pushed his shoulders back.

“Oh no, you don’t. You’ll need to remain here overnight for observation.”

Draco gaped at her. “You are joking, aren’t you?”

“I never joke about the health of my patients,” she replied brusquely.

“Can’t you just let me go back to my dormitory?” he pleaded.

“It would be far more convenient for me if you remain here,” she countered, tucking the bedsheets around his legs so tightly that Draco now had no means of escape. “Bed rest, Mr Malfoy. The sooner you rest, the quicker you’ll heal. I suggest you use the free time to catch up on your studies.”

“How am I supposed to study if I don’t even have use of my hands?” he asked hotly, lifting his bandaged limbs aloft to demonstrate his point.

Madam Pomfrey picked up Draco’s school bag and rummaged through it, ignoring his shouts of protest. She pulled out the script of Romeo and Juliet and plopped it onto his lap.

“You can read, can’t you?” she retorted.

Turning on her heel, she left a bemused Draco to figure out how to do just that on his own. Lucky for Draco that his Aunt Bellatrix had taught him some wandless magic the summer before his sixth year. He doubted that she ever expected him to use those skills to catch up on schoolwork, but then he never did care what his dearly departed aunt thought. Settling back into the soft pillows, he levitated the script in front of his face and was able to turn the pages with ease. It was difficult, however, to concentrate on learning his lines when Madam Pomfrey kept running back and forth across the ward with a giant butterfly net, trying to catch the elusive flock of birds. Eventually, the dishevelled matron succeeded in capturing them all, placing the last screeching canary inside a large gilded birdcage on her desk.

“Now, no more escape attempts!” she warned, wagging a long index finger at them. “I need to go track down the others before I can figure out how to change all of you back. Please, be patient. And be quiet, for Merlin’s sake! I can’t even understand what you’re trying to say. Oh, what is it now?”

Just then the hospital door swung open again and Draco felt his pulse race a little quicker as Harry came in, closely followed by Professor Sprout. It was embarrassing enough being covered in a gross, sticky yellow pus in front of the whole school; the last thing he needed was for his nemesis to see him covered in bandages. He could easily imagine Harry running off to tell everyone what an idiot he looked (if the shoe was on the other foot, it’s what he would have done). Draco tried to use the script to shield his face from view but let it fall back onto his lap when he noticed that the sleeves of Harry’s robes were badly burnt. Draco felt a pang of sympathy in the pit of his stomach when he saw that the skin on Harry’s hands and arms was red and blistered and his face was etched in pain. Madam Pomfrey dashed to Harry’s side and beckoned him over to the bed next to Draco’s.

“What happened?” she asked. Professor Sprout helped Harry sit up on the bed, looking decidedly less cheerful than usual.

“Mr Potter failed to follow my instructions and tried to plant fire seeds without wearing his dragonhide gloves,” she explained. “This is the result.”

Harry recoiled as Madam Pomfrey carefully but experimentally touched the burnt skin on his hands.

“I’m sorry, Professor Sprout,” he said in a pained voice. “There’s no excuse for not paying attention. I’m an idiot…”

“Finally, something that we can both agree on,” Draco muttered and Harry drew him a contemptuous look.

“Contrary to how it may feel, Mr Potter, pain is actually a good sign,” Madam Pomfrey assured him. “It means that the nerve endings haven’t been destroyed. That makes your recovery much more straightforward.”

Professor Sprout left the Hospital Wing wishing Harry a speedy recovery and promised him that he would have plenty of homework on the proper methods of handling fire seeds to catch up on when he was well again. Meanwhile, Madam Pomfrey pulled several bottles from a nearby medicine cabinet and proceeded to mix various potions and ointments to treat Harry’s wounds. Draco pretended to be reading his script but watched out of the corner of his eye as Harry, with some difficulty, peeled off his robes and shirt and allowed the matron to begin treating him. Draco felt the heat rise in his cheeks when Harry moaned in relief as the matron began applying cool salve to his injured arms. He tried to focus on the lines that he had to learn but he couldn’t concentrate on anything but those obscene and annoying breathy noises Harry was making.

“If you’re going to die, die quietly,” he drawled. “Some of us are trying to work here.”

“Shut it, Malfoy!” Harry snapped.

“That’s enough from both of you,” Madam Pomfrey chastised, applying fresh bandages to Harry’s arms and hands. “Mr Potter, you’ve been a patient of mine more times than I care to admit over the years. Usually, you manage to refrain from injuring yourself within the first week.”

“Usually I’m not so careless,” he replied. “I appreciate all of the help you’ve given me over the years. I don’t think I’ve ever thanked you…”

“No need to thank me,” she assured him with a warm smile. “It’s my job to take care for all of the students at Hogwarts, including the more accident-prone ones like yourself and Mr Longbottom. But please, try to be more careful in future. As pleasant as your company is, I’d rather not see you here so often.”

Harry returned her smile. “I’ll try my best.”

Madam Pomfrey pulled a cotton gown—identical to the one that she had given to Draco—over Harry’s head. “Get into bed, Mr Potter, you’re going to be here for the rest of the evening.” Harry tried to protest but the matron was having none of it. “I’m sorry, but your health and wellbeing are my top priority. You may return to your lessons if and when I deem you well enough. For the time being, you are prescribed bed rest. Mr Malfoy…” she said, turning her attention to Draco. “How are you feeling now?”

“Better, thank you.”

“Are you in any pain?” she asked.

“No,” he confirmed. Madam Pomfrey nodded, satisfied.

“Very good. Now, if you’ll both excuse me, I need to go and track down my other patients. I won’t be long.”

Harry and Draco watched as Madam Pomfrey slung the giant butterfly net over her shoulder and marched out of the Hospital Wing, leaving them alone.

“What’s the butterfly net for?” asked Harry curiously.

“To catch her patients, obviously,” Draco drawled. The confused expression on Harry’s face amused him to no end and he decided not to elaborate any further. “So, what happened to you? I suppose you rescued a baby from a burning building or something else equally heroic.”

“Hardly,” Harry muttered, his confused expression quickly changing into one of embarrassment. “I was in Herbology and I just wasn’t paying attention. I forgot to put on my gloves before picking up fire seeds.”

“You’d think the name would have given you a heads up that they were flammable,” Draco teased.

Harry rolled his eyes and tried to turn the conversation away from himself, “Well, what about you? I’m guessing that you didn’t order bubotuber pus by owl post.”

“If I did, I wouldn’t have been stupid enough to handle it without gloves,” he quipped. “To be honest, I was half-expecting something like this to happen. I’m sure it was simply someone’s idea of a bad joke.”

Harry looked as though he wanted to say something then but instead he chewed his lip and bowed his head. Assuming that their short but civil conversation had concluded, Draco levitated the script in front of his face again and proceeded to read in silence. However, Draco only managed to read a couple of lines when Harry spoke again.

“What are the chances, eh?” he said thoughtfully. “Of you and me ending up in the hospital ward, both of us with our hands and arms bandaged like mummies.”

“Extremely unlikely,” Draco acknowledged. “And extremely unfortunate for me.”

“Unfortunate for both of us,” Harry corrected him. “I want to be here as much as you do.”

“The door’s over there,” Draco pointed out. “Feel free to leave if you like.”

Harry muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like “foul git” but Draco chose to ignore it. Another moment of silence passed and then Harry spoke up again.

“Are you going to audition for the play?” he asked curiously.

“You love to hear the sound of your own voice, don’t you?” said Draco irritably.

“Is that a yes, then?” asked Harry, ignoring Draco’s jibe. “Is that why you’re reading the script?”

“Well, I’m certainly not reading it for fun,” he quipped without looking up. “Besides, it’s not like Professor Tonks gave us a choice: auditions are compulsory.”

“I know but...why are you rehearsing?” Harry pressed. “Surely you’re not actually interested in acting in the play?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” he asked defensively.

“Well...because it’s a Muggle play,” said Harry simply. Draco lowered the script and looked at Harry.

“Have you been rehearsing?” he asked.

“No,” said Harry quickly. Draco snorted.

“I find that hard to believe. You don’t have Quidditch this year to make sure that you’re the centre of attention, but you’ve got this play to fall back on. I take that you want to play Romeo?”

“I told you, Malfoy, I haven’t been rehearsing,” Harry argued. “I’m not interested in doing the play. I’ve got better things to do with my time, thanks very much.”

“Good,” said Draco lightly, turning back to his script. “You’d make an atrocious Romeo. Better that you don’t waste your time.”

Draco smiled to himself as he listened to Harry splutter in indignation. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What?” Draco replied innocently.

“Why wouldn’t I make a good Romeo?” Harry challenged. Draco shrugged.

“Well, apart from the fact that you look more like a pauper than a prince—” Harry rolled his eyes at that comment. “—the real issue is the language; it’s a bit beyond your capabilities.”

Draco delighted at the flush of red creeping up Harry’s cheeks. “I’ve as good a chance as anyone else at getting it. Better chance than you have.”

“Really?” said Draco mildly. “You think that Professor Tonks is going to give you the lead role when you haven’t even bothered rehearsing? For someone who preaches about not wanting preferential treatment, that sounds suspiciously like nepotism to me…”

Harry snarled and reached for his school bag. With some difficulty, he managed to lift it onto his lap and, after rummaging through it for a few moments, he roughly pulled his copy of the script out and tossed his bag back onto the floor. Draco watched with growing amusement as Harry struggled to flip through the pages of the script with his heavily bandaged fingers.

“Need a hand, Potter?” he joked. Harry drew him a dirty look.

“I don’t need your help,” he replied stiffly, fumbling with the pages.

“Could’ve fooled me,” Draco mumbled.

Without prompting, Draco used wandless magic to flip open Harry’s script to the first page. Harry shot Draco a surprised look but he had already turned back to his own script.

“Umm...thanks,” said Harry so quietly that Draco barely heard him.

They both settled down in their beds to read their lines in silence. The silence, however, was short-lived, as—much to Draco’s annoyance—Harry began to mutter his lines under his breath. Draco tried to ignore it, but he found Harry’s whispers very distracting. He lowered his script again and looked at Harry.

“Would you cut that out?”

Harry glanced up at him. “What’s that?”

“Whispering your lines. Can’t you just read without making any noise?” Draco complained. Harry tsked and bowed his head.

“Stop listening to me, then,” he countered, but clamped his mouth shut and continued to read in silence. But Harry only managed to keep quiet for a couple of minutes before he started muttering his lines under his breath again. Draco sighed in exasperation and lowered his script yet again.

“You’re doing it again.”

“What?”

“Whispering your lines.”

“No, I’m not!” Harry protested.

“I just heard you!” said Draco hotly. “How can you not hear yourself?”

Harry groaned in annoyance and rolled his eyes. “Alright. What scene are you rehearsing?”

“Act three, scene one,” said Draco. “Mercutio and Tybalt’s fight.”

“Me too,” said Harry. He hesitated a moment before suggesting, “Well...since we’re both reading the same scene, wouldn’t it make more sense if we rehearsed together?”

Draco cocked an eyebrow at Harry. “You want to rehearse with me?”

“Want is a strong word,” he joked. “Look, we’re stuck in here for the rest of the day, it might make the time go by faster if we learn it together. It’s either that or you have to keep listening to me muttering under my breath.”

Draco considered casting the Langlock Curse at Harry instead, but after taking a moment to seriously consider Harry’s offer he gave a curt nod in agreement.

“Alright, I suppose there’s no harm in giving it a go.”

Harry smiled. “Great. I’ll be Tybalt—”

“How come you get to play Tybalt?” Draco cut in. Harry’s smile wavered.

“Because that’s the part I’ve been practising,” he explained.

“Well tough luck, Potter, I’ve been practising Tybalt’s part as well,” said Draco.

“Oh for the love of god…” Harry groaned. “Malfoy, we can’t both play Tybalt!”

“Well, I’m not changing roles,” Draco declared. Harry’s eyes narrowed.

“Neither am I.”

Yet another argument ensued, each of them throwing insults while arguing why they would be better suited to the role of Tybalt. Just as Draco was ready to throw his script at Harry’s head, Harry raised his hands in mock surrender.

“Alright! Let’s stop shouting at each other. Clearly, we’re never going to come to an agreement on this. There’s only one way to resolve this dispute,” he declared. “Rock, paper, scissors.”

Draco stared blankly back at Harry. “What?”

“It’s a hand game Muggles play,” he explained. “Each player simultaneously forms one of three shapes with their hand: either a rock, a ball of paper, or scissors—” Draco cleared his throat and raised his bandaged hands. Harry looked down at his own bandaged limbs and his shoulders sagged. “Oh, right...”

“You’re an idiot,” Draco smirked in a tone that was more endearing than sneering. Harry decided not to argue that point. Instead, he looked around the deserted Hospital Wing for inspiration. He noticed a bedpan sitting on top of the bed across the ward and his eyes lit up. Tossing the script to one side he leant over to grab a handful of unused bandages that Madam Pomfrey had left on the small table between Harry and Draco’s beds. Draco watched as Harry, with some difficulty, managed to scrunch a strip of the soft gauze into a small ball. Holding it precariously between his heavily bandaged forefinger and thumb, he tossed the ball onto Draco’s lap.

“What’s this for?” he asked, picking it up. Harry made another ball of gauze and tossed it across the ward. Draco watched as it arced through the air and landed inside the bedpan with a soft thud.

“Best two of three,” said Harry, making another ball. “Whoever wins gets to pick the role they want to read.”

A wide grin spread across Draco’s face and he picked up his own ball. He was never one to turn down a challenge. But much to Draco’s annoyance, Harry succeeded in throwing the next two balls into the bedpan whereas he only managed one. In true tactless Gryffindor style, Harry cheered and punched the air in celebration.

“Yes!” he hissed. “Victory is mine.”

“That was a fluke!” Draco argued but Harry just laughed.

“No, it wasn’t, I’m just better than you.”

Draco picked up a fistful of bandages from the table and tossed them onto Harry’s lap. “Think you can do it again? Prove it.”

“Alright,” said Harry with a careless shrug and a shit-eating grin across his face. “Best three out of five?”

Harry threw another missile but just as it was about to land inside the bedpan it veered wildly off to the right seemingly of its own accord. Harry frowned, confused at what had just happened while Draco struggled to smother his laughter. Brushing it off, Harry tried again only for the same thing to happen. He threw a suspicious glance at Draco who tried to look innocent but was struggling to hide the smile that threatened to spread across his face.

“Are you messing about with my balls?” asked Harry suspiciously.

“Not before you take me out on a date first,” he joked, laughing at the angry blush that spread across Harry’s face. Harry tossed another ball, this time at Draco’s face. Using wandless magic he managed to stop the missile mid-flight and toss it back at Harry.

“I knew you were cheating!” Harry cried, sounding both vindicated and incensed.

“Only a little bit…” he relented.

After making Draco promise not to use wandless magic again, the best of three quickly turned into a best of five and then seven. After that, they stopped counting. When they ran out of bandages to throw they started tearing up rolls of parchment from their school bags. They challenged each other to throw more difficult shots than the last—tossing it over their shoulders, aiming with their eyes closed...Draco took the opportunity to show off his wandless magic skills again by levitating the balls into the bedpan, one after the other in quick succession. He was pleased to see that Harry looked impressed by this small feat of magic. It pleased Draco even more when Harry burst into fits of laughter when he clambered onto his feet atop his bed and tried to throw a paper aeroplane between his legs, missing his intended target by a spectacular distance.

Draco fell back onto the soft bed, laughing hard. It was the most fun he’d had in as long as he could remember. It was strange that he was enjoying himself with Harry of all people, but he tried not to think about it too much; he just wanted to enjoy the moment while it lasted. Draco let out a contented sigh and looked at Harry.

“Unfortunately, I’ve run out of parchment,” he pouted.

Harry held up his paper missile. “Last one.”

“Better do something spectacular with it, then.”

Harry looked thoughtful for a moment. “How about...I try throwing without wearing my glasses?”

He carefully slipped his glasses off and sat them on his lap before tossing his last missile across the ward. Draco laughed loudly as Harry missed the overflowing bedpan by a good meter.

“Good Godric, your aim was better when you had your eyes closed!” he chuckled.

“It was, wasn’t it?” Harry smiled.

“Just how bad is your eyesight?” asked Draco curiously.

“Bad,” Harry confirmed. “You want to take a look?”

Draco nodded and Harry slid off of his bed to sit on the edge of Draco’s. They fumbled for a moment passing the spectacles to one another. Draco shoved the glasses onto his face and immediately burst out laughing again.

“Merlin, Potter, your eyesight is atrocious!”

“Told you,” said Harry lightly, grinning.

“You’re as blind as a flobberworm.” Draco scrutinised his reflection in the mirror that sat on his bedside table. “What do you think? Do I suit them?”

“Well, I can’t bloody well see them from here, can I?” Harry laughed, moving closer to Draco. He screwed up his eyes, the better to see, and leant forward until his and Draco’s faces were only inches apart. Draco held his breath and felt his heart beat harder in his chest. It was strange, having Harry so close to him like this; usually one or both of them would have their wands drawn by now. But what really took him aback was Harry’s eyes. Draco had never noticed how green they were before. They were the hue of the Forbidden Forest, dark but much more inviting. If they were anyone else’s eyes, he might have even said that they were beautiful. Draco didn’t dare move as Harry moved even closer, so close that Harry’s breath tickled his lips.

“You know what, Malfoy?” said Harry in a low voice. “You kind of suit them.”

“You think?” Draco breathed. Harry nodded slightly.

“Yeah, I do…” Harry’s voice trailed off as his gaze drifted from Draco’s eyes to his lips. Silence fell between them and Draco suddenly had the insane and overwhelming urge to kiss Harry then, but his bizarre thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a shrill voice.

“What on earth is going on in here?!”

The piercing cry cut the tension between Harry and Draco and they jumped away from each other in surprise. Draco was still wearing Harry’s glasses so he couldn’t see what was happening but he heard the unmistakable tack tack of Madam Pomfrey’s shoes as she hurried towards them.

“What is this?” she demanded, pointing at the mess of parchment and bandages strewn across the floor of the infirmary.

“We, umm…” Harry stammered. “We were studying and—”

“A study in idleness, perhaps!” she snapped. “Get back into your own bed, Mr Potter. Immediately!”

Harry scrambled off of Draco’s bed and back into his own while Madam Pomfrey sat a small cage with three angry canaries on one of the unoccupied beds before drawing her wand and, with the flick of her wrist, vanishing the mess that they had made.

“This is a hospital, not a frat house!” she fumed, pocketing her wand. “Either you both behave in a civil manner or I will enforce lights out before supper. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Madam Pomfrey,” they chorused, struggling to suppress laughter as she turned on her heel and marched towards her office with the small gold cage tucked under her arm. As her door slammed shut with a loud bang, Draco started snickering.

“Caught in the act,” he grinned, tossing Harry’s glasses back onto his lap. “You’d think we’d trashed the Hospital Wing, the way she’s acting.”

“I’m sure she’ll forgive us,” said Harry, shoving his glasses back onto his face and scooping his discarded script off of the floor. “That wasn’t an empty threat, though; we’ll need to stay on her good side from now on if we want our dinner.”

“I’ll try my best,” Draco smiled, levitating his own script back onto his lap. He glanced at Harry and his smile faltered.

“This is weird, isn’t it?” he said quietly.

“What is?” asked Harry.

“Us...not at each other’s throats. Having a civil conversation.”

“It is weird,” he acknowledged. “But it doesn’t mean that it’s bad, does it?”

Draco hesitated. “I suppose not.”

Harry gave Draco a warm smile and turned back to his script. “Right, do you want to make a start on this?”

Draco sighed. “I suppose so, since we’ve nothing better to do.”

“Alright, you play Tybalt,” said Harry, fumbling to open his script again. Draco frowned at him.

“But I thought you—”

“I changed my mind,” Harry cut in. “You’re more like Tybalt than I am, anyway: a bad-tempered git who doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.”

“Speak for yourself!” said Draco with indignation, although he was smiling. Using wandless magic, he flipped Harry’s script back open to the first page of the scene and settled himself in a more comfortable position in bed. “Fine. If you insist, I’ll read for Tybalt…”

They spent the rest of the afternoon rehearsing their lines, only stopping when Madam Pomfrey came over with two large trays with steak and kidney pies for their dinner. She still looked a little miffed but less so than she had done earlier in the day. Evidently, seeing her patients studying had somewhat softened her mood. Draco was happy to continue rehearsing with Harry for the rest of the evening. It surprised him how easy Harry was to work with when he wasn’t being a self-righteous git, so he was a little disappointed when Harry’s friends showed up shortly after dinnertime to check in on him. Ron, Hermione, Neville, Luna and Ginny all piled into the Hospital Wing, surrounding Harry’s bed and chatting animatedly to him while Draco pretended to read his script.

“What did I say, Hermione? We can’t leave Harry unattended for more than a few minutes without something disastrous happening to him,” Ron joked. “Who’d have thought that crossing paths with a lion would be the least dangerous encounter we’d have today? Those fire seeds should come with a health and safety warning!”

“It wasn’t a real lion though,” Hermione pointed out. Ron gaped at her.

“He was pretty convincing when he was roaring and I thought he was going to bite your head off!”

“He was only yawning!” she argued. Shaking her head she turned to Harry and said gently, “And to be fair, Professor Sprout did warn us to be careful with the fire seeds. Oh, Harry, it isn’t like you to get so distracted like that!”

“Yeah, usually that’s my job,” Neville chuckled.

“How are you feeling now?” asked Ginny, her face etched with concern. “You’re not in any pain, are you?”

“I’m fine,” Harry assured them. “The bandages are the most annoying thing. I can’t pick up a quill so I haven’t been able to write anything all day.”

“Oh, what a shame,” said Ron sarcastically.

“So, what have you been doing all day?” asked Hermione curiously.

“Not much,” Harry shrugged, casting a furtive glance towards Draco. “Been rehearsing lines for that play all day.”

“Oh brilliant!” said Hermione approvingly. “Do you feel prepared for it? I’ve been able to memorise most of my lines but I’m not convinced I’m actually any good at acting. You don’t think Professor Tonks will hold that against me, do you?”

Ron looked around to double check that Madam Pomfrey was in her office before rummaging through the right pocket of his robes.

“I brought someone to see you,” he said quietly, pulling out a small ball of white fluff and held it out to Harry. Harry’s eyes immediately widened with excitement.

“Asha!” he exclaimed.

The little ferret squeaked excitedly and ran up Ron’s arm into Harry’s outstretched hands. She curiously sniffed the bandages on his hands and forearms before settling herself down on his lap. When she caught sight of Draco in the next bed, she wagged her little tail excitedly and for a moment he was afraid that she would pounce on him again. Thankfully, she remained on Harry’s lap for the duration of her visit.

Harry’s friends only left when Madam Pomfrey told them that curfew was fast approaching and they reluctantly waved him off for the evening. At ten o'clock sharp, the matron extinguished all of the candles, plunging the Hospital Wing into darkness. Unable to read in the dark, Draco discarded his script onto the bedside table and settled down to sleep for the night. Draco heard Harry’s bed creak as the other boy turned to face him, although it was too dark to see his face.

“I didn’t think that they were going to hang out for as long as they did,” said Harry quietly enough so that Madam Pomfrey couldn’t hear him from her office. Draco frowned.

“What are you talking about?”

“My friends,” said Harry. “I didn’t think that they were going to stay as long as they did...we were going to rehearse together a bit more after dinner, sorry we didn’t get the chance to.”

“Not to worry,” said Draco lightly. “I got plenty more practice in while you were chatting with your friends, so I’m sure to beat you to top billing now.”

Harry chuckled and fell silent for a minute before saying hesitantly, “I don’t know what’s going on with you and your friends at the moment but...I think it’s pretty shitty that they didn’t come to check in on you.”

Draco immediately tensed at the mention of his “friends”. He knew that Harry meant well but he didn’t appreciate being pitied. For Draco, pity was so much worse than hate.

“I’m a big boy, Potter,” he mumbled. “I don’t need someone to hold my hand while I’m in the Hospital Wing—metaphorically speaking.”

“I know, but—”

“Just drop it,” Draco warned. “It’s not something I want to talk about, least of all with you.” Unwilling to discuss the matter any further, Draco used wandless magic to draw the curtain around his bed.

“Goodnight, Potter,” he said shortly.

Harry hesitated a minute before mumbling a quiet “Goodnight” and Draco listened as Harry’s bed creaked and he imagined Harry was turning to face the other direction. After that, all was silent. Draco lay awake thinking about his day, which had started out as bad as it could get yet had improved greatly as it had gone on, and with the most unlikely company to thank. He put today’s pleasant interaction with Harry down as a one-off, a mere anomaly. Come morning, everything would go back to normal: he and Harry would nag at each other and everyone would still hate him. Just as he was about to fall asleep, he felt something cold touch his cheek and he shivered. Opening his eyes he let out a startled gasp as large, translucent eyes stared down at him.

“Myrtle,” he hissed, sitting up in bed. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to check on you, of course,” she pouted. “Sorry that I didn’t come earlier but you know that I don’t like big crowds. How are you feeling?”

“Tired,” he said irritably. “But not in any pain, thankfully.”

“Well, that’s a relief. In a strange way I kind of miss pain—I miss being able to feel anything. Does that sound weird?” she asked.

“A little bit,” said Draco. “But I can understand where you’re coming from, I suppose.”

“Have you been here all day with Harry?” Myrtle floated through the curtain around Draco’s bed to get a closer look at the other boy before reappearing a few moments later, a mischievous grin on her face. “I think he’s gotten more handsome since the last time I saw him.”

“Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” said Draco. He was glad that it was dark enough to hide his blush from his spirited friend. He thought back to earlier in the day when he and Harry had sat so close together their lips could have touched and mentally berated himself for even entertaining such thoughts. Myrtle, however, still gave Draco a knowing smile.

“Harry always looks so peaceful when he sleeps,” she sighed. “Like only in his dreams can he shed the weight of the world from his shoulders.”

“Lucky him,” Draco mumbled.

“I don’t think you two are so unlike,” she said gently. “You’re both such sensitive souls, and you can feel so lonely, especially here at Hogwarts...and you look peaceful when you sleep, too.”

“Potter and I are nothing alike, thank you very much, I—hold on,” Draco spluttered. “Myrtle, do you spy on me when I’m sleeping?!”

“Not every night,” she replied evasively. “You look tired, Draco. I’ll let you get some rest. Goodnight.”

“Myrtle, wait!” he hissed, but she ignored his summons and disappeared through the floor and out of sight. Draco sighed and flopped back onto his bed, feeling more than a little disconcerted at that admission. He’d need to have a chat with Myrtle about boundaries.