For Draco, the summer seems to fly past. He takes Scorpius to the National Wizarding Archives and Scorpius absolutely adores it. He likes a trip to the planetarium, too, and the zoo. He discovers the book Harry sent Draco, the one about Muggle technology, and reads it over and over before demanding trips to London to visit the Science Museum. Scorpius is enthralled, tugging Draco from exhibition to exhibition, marvelling over interactive displays and asking Draco endless questions. They visit the Natural History Museum and, more specifically, its butterfly house. Scorpius seems entranced by the hundreds of butterflies flitting around him.
Draco can't begrudge Scorpius any of it. He's just happy to finally see Scorpius as he always imagined him to be — a bright and intelligent boy, full of natural curiosity for the world around him.
Of course, Scorpius spends plenty of time hiding in the manor gardens with a good book. But those moments are good, too; some of Draco's favourite memories become lazy summer afternoons with Scorpius curled up in the arms of an ancient apple tree, reading books while beneath the soothing shade of the branches, Draco idly flips through his Domesday Book
The smell of summer — of cloudless blue weather, of crushed lavender and bright wildflowers — seems to become forever trapped between the pages of Harry's gift.
The thirty-first of August arrives far too quickly.
It's a leisurely evening at the manor. Summer has lingered this year and the evening is mild and balmy. A faint breeze picks up leaves and petals, sending them skimming across the gardens and through the open doors. Draco completed a number of genealogy projects over the summer and had been paid handsomely for his efforts; as a result, the renovations have hastened. The manor has opened up. Walls have been removed; windows installed; skylights placed in strategic areas. Together with the freshly-painted walls, the manor has taken on a distinctly light and airy feel. Of course, it's a long way from finished and many rooms are still filled with dust and cursed antiques, but it's a start.
"Packed yet?" Draco asks Scorpius after dinner.
Scorpius feeds Pan a crumb from his plate. "Not yet."
So they go to his room, and Draco waits patiently by the trunk as Scorpius chooses what to take and what to leave.
"Only ten books," Draco says preemptively, noticing the calculating expression Scorpius is giving the bookshelf.
Draco relents. "No."
Scorpius lights up as if it's Christmas and immediately sets about choosing his favourite books. After the books, everything else seems like an after-thought; Draco ends up packing all the clothes, if only to make sure Scorpius has any at all, while Scorpius pores over other items. He selects a collection of objects, a few Muggle puzzles that Draco bought him from the museums as souvenirs, and lastly, the telescope Draco had given him for his birthday.
"You can't take that."
"I'll shrink it."
"And then what'll you do when it's full size again? Everyone in your dormitory will trip over it."
"No they won't," Scorpius says stubbornly. "I've got the bed nearest the window, I'll just put it there. Besides, I'm a member of the Astronomy Club. I've got to have a telescope."
"You can use the ones in the Astronomy Tower."
"All right," Scorpius says, but his expression is mournful and Draco finds himself conceding defeat.
"You can pack it, then, but I don't want to hear any complaints about it being broken or lost." I'm spoiling him, he thinks, but he can't help it. Besides, in his opinion Scorpius deserves to be spoiled.
Soon enough, everything is packed. The trunk is levitated downstairs, ready by the front door; alarms are set, robes are cleaned and pressed and laid at the foot of Scorpius's bed.
They while away the rest of the evening in the library. Draco works on the Evans family tree while Scorpius reads a book on botany, interrupting Draco's work every now and again with an interesting fact or two.
It's a quiet evening, filled with comfortable silences and lazy page-turning, and Draco couldn't think of a better way to spend it.
For Harry and James, the evening is spent in a wild rush of haphazard packing and frantic searching.
"Where's my Charms project?" James demands as he upends the drawers of the hallway credenza.
"In your mess of a room, no doubt," Harry says with exasperation, rescuing a stack of photographs from James's wrathful searching. "I told you a hundred times to clean it up over summer — "
"Well, there's no use lecturing me about it now," James snaps, and Harry frowns.
"Don't talk to me like that, James. And be careful! That vase was a gift from Andromeda."
"So?" James retorts, setting the vase aside rather carelessly. "It's ugly, anyway."
"You are behaving very childishly," Harry says warningly.
"It's not in here!" James dumps the drawer on the ground, then disappears into the living room.
"James! You've left this hallway a complete mess — "
"I'll clean it up later!" James shouts angrily from the living room. "I was working on that stupid Charms project all summer, I bet you've thrown it out!"
Harry groans and walks to the living room. "I have not thrown out any of your school projects, James. You need to start being more organised — "
"Ugh, stop lecturing me!" James grabs a handful of books from the shelves and angrily throws them across the floor. Harry has had enough. He crosses the room.
"You're far too old for tantrums, James Sirius Potter," he says, taking ahold of James's arm to prevent any more books being thrown. "Go to your room, and I don't want to hear another peep out of you until you've calmed down."
James shakes him away, a murderous expression on his face, but nevertheless he stomps from the room.
"Fine! I'll go to my room, and I'll never come back out! Then you'll be happy!" James shouts as he leaves.
Harry listens to James storm upstairs. A few seconds later, there's the unmistakeable bang of the attic door slamming shut. Harry flinches, then slowly exhales. His shoulders slump.
James has been moody all summer. Oh, sometimes everything seems fine — James can spend whole days or weeks in a good mood, enjoying visits to Diagon Alley and trips to London, and he especially seemed to enjoy their brief trip across the Channel, to France.
But his moods change quicker than the London weather and rainclouds rapidly gather on the horizon. Sometimes James seems downright melancholy and spends his nights in the fields, stargazing. Sometimes — like tonight — he seems petulant and childish, losing his temper over the slightest things and refusing to listen to reason.
Is it normal? Is this just what it's like, having a teenager? Harry winces at the thought of dealing with this for the next five years.
He sighs and slowly places the books back onto the shelves.
James kicks a toy snitch across his room; it rattles along the floorboards before becoming caught in the corner of the rug. He huffs and gives it another kick for good measure.
It's no use. The anger is already fading, to be replaced with guilt. He slumps onto his bed and sighs, thinking regretfully of the way he'd snapped at his father.
He hadn't meant to. He'd just gotten fed up looking for that stupid project, and he still has to pack everything, but it's nine o'clock at night and they leave early tomorrow. And Harry had kept reminding James to pack, but he just kept procrastinating, and if he asks his father for help now then Harry will want to know why James left it so late, and…
James picks up the snitch and looks at it. Quidditch trials will be held this year, and this time he'll be allowed to try out.
Everyone knows your dad was the youngest Seeker…
Best one on the team…
Won every Quidditch Cup, I heard…
Truth be told, James isn't even that interested in Quidditch.
He should've practised more over summer, he thinks worriedly, instead of spending all his time at the local swimming pool. Maybe he could have asked Harry for Quidditch coaching. He could've given James some good advice about how to catch the snitch.
Or how to make friends. Harry has not even one, but two best friends. And countless more — there's Neville Longbottom, the hero who killed Nagini. Or Luna, the girl abducted by Death Eaters and imprisoned for months because of her family's outspoken support for Harry. Or Seamus Finnegan, who helped train Dumbledore's Army in his seventh year, or Dean Thomas who returned to Hogwarts to join the battle even though he had no wand.
Friends like that.
"I don't want to go back to Hogwarts," James whispers, testing the words aloud. Maybe he can stay here, in this endless summer, and he can forget all about the first year…
There's a knock at the door. James blinks quickly and sits up straight.
Harry pushes the hatch open and slowly ascends the ladder into the attic. "Supper's downstairs."
Guilt nibbles at James's heart again. He looks down at the snitch in his hand. "Right." He pauses. "Thanks."
Harry sighs and takes off his spectacles, rubbing at his eyes. James suddenly thinks of how tired his father looks.
"James," Harry says, crossing the room to sit beside him. "If something's wrong, you know you can always tell me."
"Yes. I just...it's nothing. Just...annoyed about my Charms project."
"That's all? There's nothing else?" He speaks so earnestly that James nearly squirms.
"No," he lies.
"Is it something to do with your row with Scorpius Malfoy? You've been in a mood ever since then," Harry says, and James looks up, startled.
"Why would I be bothered about a silly little fight with him?"
"All right," Harry says warily. "Didn't mean to imply otherwise. Just...I don't like seeing you upset. I know something's the matter."
"It's fine. I'm perfectly all right." James hates to see his father looking sad, and he tries his best to fix things. "Just been a little stressed about homework this summer, that's all. D'you want to help me pack all my stuff?"
That does the trick. Harry smiles. "Safe to assume you haven't packed a single thing?"
"Not even a sock," James says shamelessly, and Harry laughs.
"Come on then. I'll help you after supper."
Feeling just a little better, James trails Harry downstairs.
The second time Draco has to farewell his son at King's Cross Station, he thinks it will be easier.
But it's not.
They stand near the wall portal to Platform 9¾. Scorpius is looking rather stoic, his luggage neatly stacked beside him and Pan in his pocket. She pokes her head out, looking around sleepily.
"You shouldn't keep it in your robes," Draco says. "It'll chew holes in your pocket."
"No, she won't." Scorpius gently pats the rat; her eyes drift close. "She'll go to sleep soon, anyway. Rats are nocturnal."
Draco gives him a look. "I'm already putting in an order at Madam Malkin's." He glances at the wall, noticing a family disappearing through it. "Shall you go through?" he asks, recalling how Scorpius left by himself at Christmas.
Scorpius nods, but then he pauses and reaches into his pocket — the one not currently containing a sleepy rat — and takes out a camera. Draco recognises it as an old camera, belonging to Narcissa; Scorpius had found it during the summer renovations and wanted to play with it.
"Could we take a picture?" he says hesitantly. "Of us, I mean."
"Oh." Draco looks around, wondering if he should ask someone to take the photograph. He doesn't particularly fancy asking a stranger for a favour.
But, as ever, Harry Potter comes to his rescue.
"Hey, Malfoy," Harry calls out, wandering over. "Haven't seen the Weasleys anywhere, have you? James saw his cousins twenty minutes ago, just outside the station, and they all wandered off chatting to each other. Haven't found them since."
"Maybe they're driving to Hogwarts," Draco says archly, and Harry stares at him blankly for a long moment before his eyebrows rise with surprise.
"Did you...you actually remember that?" Harry asks. "Merlin, you have a memory like a pensieve. Oh, you have no idea."
"I have some idea. Professor Sprout said the Whomping Willow needed therapy for weeks."
"It needed therapy? You should've seen me and Ron! I got very close to being The Boy Who Lived to be Killed by a Tree."
"That," Draco says, unable to stop himself from smiling (and failing that, trying to turn it into a smirk), "would have been a very interesting footnote in the history books."
"It's like you enjoy re-living all my worst moments," Harry says conversationally. "You don't see me bringing up first year in the forest, do you? That first detention we had together? You were terrified of everything, and if I recall correctly, you shrieked like a banshee and fled as soon as you heard a noise."
"Then I'm afraid you don't recall correctly."
Harry just grins.
"Speaking of memories," Draco says, suddenly remembering Scorpius standing patiently beside him, "could you take a picture of us?"
"Oh, you and Scorpius? Sure." Harry takes the offered camera. "Stand up straight, Scorpius, you must've had a growth spurt over summer, you look almost like a third year. Oh, is that your pet rat? Make sure it's in the picture too, then."
Scorpius straightens up — secretly proud of Harry's observation that he might pass for a third year, Draco thinks — and at Harry's mention of Pan, he removes her from his pocket and perches her on his shoulder. Unexpectedly, he laughs as the rat sniffs at his ear.
"The whiskers tickle," Scorpius explains to his father.
A flash of a bulb. Harry lowers the camera.
"Has your rat got a name?" he asks Scorpius, handing the camera back to Draco.
"What, like pots and pans?"
"No," Scorpius says, smiling faintly. "Pan, after the second moon of Saturn. Everyone in my family is named after stars and moons."
"I know someone named after a star," Harry says, but then he pauses and his smile fades. Scorpius waits and somehow, Draco senses, Harry feels obliged to say more. "Sirius."
"The dog star," Draco says, and Harry turns to frown at him. "It's a nickname for it," Draco adds.
"You know the constellation Draco," Scorpius says. "And my own name is a constellation too."
"Well," Harry says, "I suppose you're right. I know three people now, named after stars." He smiles at Scorpius, then glances past him. "Oh, I think just spotted a Weasley. I'll see you later," he tells Draco, before turning to Scorpius. "Have a good year, Scorpius. Hope you enjoy it." And with that, he's gone.
Scorpius bids his father farewell, promising to write often, before turning and stepping through the wall. Draco watches him disappear, then turns and leaves.
After he's Disapparated back to the manor, he makes himself a cup of tea. Scorpius will already be on his way to Hogwarts now, sitting in a compartment, catching up with his friends and looking forward to the new school year.
And come eventide, when the stars appear in the fading sky, Scorpius will be sitting in the Great Hall beneath a ceiling of night. All the stars, all their ancestors shining in the sky.
Draco has known darkness too well to fear it; the night steps into his heart like an old friend.
James is greeted like a celebrity. The first years stare at him with awestruck expressions; they point and nudge each other.
"Next best thing to meeting Harry Potter himself!"
Paul and Martin are there, chatting with great excitement about the Quidditch World Cup they both attended during the summer. Nate and Iwan are sharing stories about their travels. They're all trying very hard to be nice to him, James thinks, especially after all the nastiness of last year. Rose said they'd grow out of it, didn't she? First years, with their stupid mindsets inherited from their parents…
He glances across to the Ravenclaw table. Scorpius is there. He's talking to a sixth-year girl whom James recognises as the head of the Astronomy Club. After he finishes speaking, a Ravenclaw across from him says something and Scorpius nods. They all smile.
James stands up. "I'm going to bed," he says. Paul exchanges a confused look with Martin.
"It's barely past eight."
"I'm a little tired."
He leaves them without further explanation, only pausing to get the password from one of the prefects ('tiddlywinks') and makes his way to the common room without incident.
The common room looks exactly the same as last year. The same armchairs, the same portraits and tapestries. There's the fat tartan armchair by the fire, the same one in which James used to hold council all last year, the other first years clustered around him with awestruck expressions. And those four armchairs in the corner, where he used to scheme with the rest of the boys. Stupid schemes, he thinks with a sudden flash of contempt. Scaring the house-elves by appearing suddenly in the kitchens, or chasing suits of armour down the hall.
He goes upstairs. The second year dormitory looks exactly the same as the first years' room, except the windows have a slightly different view. Last year, James claimed the bed where he could best chat to everyone in the room. Always the centre.
He's gotten the same bed this year, apparently, but he soon fixes that. Martin has the bed by the window; James swaps their trunks. Farthest away from everyone. He begins to unpack and, after a long moment, puts a locking spell on both his trunk and his bedside table to prevent people from rifling through his things. His own fault, really, for sharing his possessions so much and telling his friends to help themselves anytime.
A sudden commotion of noise and excited chattering comes from the common room below. The feast must have properly finished. James draws the curtains around the bed and lights his wand with a whispered 'Lumos', settling down with the latest serial of The Adventures of Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle. He's a little too old for the comic now, but he used to read it every Sunday morning with his father.
James turns the page of the comic. Martin Miggs, recklessly driving his automobile, careens down a narrow mountainside. Will our mad Muggle survive? Find out next week.
If he narrows his eyes a little, it all becomes blurry. He can imagine the scene as something else. The mountain can become a house, the smell of pancake batter in the air, a woman and man talking in low voices, laughing every now and again…
James attends the Quidditch try-outs. His friends look at him with astonishment when he arrives on the pitch.
"You haven't got a broom," Nate says, as if pointing out that he's missing a limb.
"You forget it or something?" Paul adds.
James shakes his head. "Not trying out. I'll just watch."
They all gape at him. "Why on earth not?" Martin demands.
I'm not a Seeker. I'm not Harry Potter. I'm not anyone.
He looks away. "I want the position of Seeker," he lies. "They're not looking for new Seekers, though."
"Go on," Paul says. "I bet they'd make an exception for you."
"It's all right." He tries to smile. "Wouldn't want to get their current Seeker fired."
They all laugh then, and make jokes about how modest James is.
"Bet you could," Martin keeps saying, the others agreeing with him. "You could have any spot on the team. Just ask and they'd give it to you!"
James doesn't reply.
They go and sit in the stands. Paul is apparently trying out for the Chaser position and they cheer him on. James watches the distant figures loop and glide on their brooms. Suddenly, he wishes he was with them, soaring into the endless blue, flying on forever until he's among the stars. Skimming along the icy surface of Pluto, darting through the interstellar clouds of dust and hydrogen, looping around Saturn's moons.
His hand tightens slightly around the railing in front of him.
Paul wins the position of Chaser. They all celebrate it that night, but James retires to bed early. The swim trials will be held tomorrow. James has spent a good portion of his life in the water, with three swim practices a week, and last year had been a very long year without his swimming. He'd done his dryland conditioning, of course, but it hadn't been the same and he'd spent nearly the entire summer holidays in the pool, regaining his lost skills and strength, training like mad. He has to make the swim team.
His friends all think he's mental.
"Swimming? In the lake?"
"What if the squid eats you?"
"Won't you freeze to death?"
They nevertheless tell James they'll be there to cheer him on, until they find out the trials will be held at six-thirty in the morning.
"It has to be before breakfast," James says, but he can't really blame them for choosing a sleep-in over a crisp morning spent by the chilly lake.
Only Iwan expresses an interest in it. "I wouldn't mind swimming," he says. "It sounds fun."
"Do you train?" James asks.
"Not formally," Iwan admits.
"Best of luck," James says doubtfully before going to bed. He doesn't really know Iwan too well, anyway – he spends most of his time with his best friend, another second year Gryffindor named Claire – and he doesn't seem to have much of a sense of humour, never laughing when the boys tease him about his Welsh heritage. It's never serious, just a bit of a joke, but Iwan seems to get irritated anyway, James thinks.
He gets up early the next morning, expecting to be alone, but Iwan is already dressed. James puts his jammers on under a robe and they make their way downstairs together. Despite James's apathy towards Iwan, it's nice to have someone there with him.
"Where are we supposed to go?"
"To the pier, the notice says."
"I know. God, I hope there's some sort of magical heating spell on the lake."
James laughs. "Yeah, right. We'll be ice cubes by the end."
They go to the pier, meeting the rest of the hopefuls: there's a medley of boys from various houses. James dismisses a few of them at once. They haven't got a swimmer's build, he thinks critically.
"Where's all the girls?" a nearby boy demands. James sizes him up. Tall, lean, with broad shoulders — definitely competition. He narrows his eyes.
"Girls had their trials yesterday. They're on a separate team," he says. "James, by the way."
"Huh? Separate? Well, that's no fun," the boy says, giving James a look up and down. Sizing him up too, James realises. "I'm Thomas," he says. "Second year. You must be first year, judging by your height."
He's trying to throw him off, James knows. "First years aren't allowed and you know it. I'm second year."
Thomas laughs. "You've got a lot of attitude."
"I take swimming seriously," James retorts. He'll be furious if he loses his place to some obnoxious boy who's only there to gawk at the girls. Maybe this Thomas will be so disappointed he'll turn around and go back to bed. Back to the Slytherin common room, if James is any judge of character. "Let me guess," he says, "Slytherin?"
"Let me guess," Thomas says, "Gryffindor?"
A short, sharp whistle pierces the air, and a woman marches up to the pier. She's short and small of stature, her greying hair pulled back into a bun with a pin jammed ferociously through it, and her eyes are narrowed. She holds her clipboard like a weapon.
"Right! Welcome to the second year trials. I am your coach, Saltworth." Her voice carries clear across the lake, sending a flock of birds rising from the forest. "Drink your warmth potions – can't have you lot dying of hypothermia this early in the season," she says, handing out vials. "You! You're a first year. Get out."
The tiny first year flees. James finds himself straightening up, as if standing to attention. Saltworth shoves a vial into James's hand, moving through the group and resuming her speech. "Time-wasters are not welcome. There are twenty-three of you here and there are eight places available. I expect you to have basic form and technique — I'm not running a learn-to-swim class here, I am training athletes. You! First year! Get out!"
"I'm…I'm not a first year…"
"Don't lie to me!"
The student sensibly retreats. Saltworth casts her gaze along the group. "Line up! Your warmth potions should be working. You'll be going in one by one. One lap freestyle, tumble turns, no stopping." She points to a gold line shimmering across the lake. "That line marks the fifty-metre mark. It's a barrier, if you try and go past it you will stop very abruptly. Please note the depth markers." She gestures to the small numbers glowing and floating in the air above certain points of the lake. "Any questions?"
Saltworth nods. "Get to it, then."
A line is quickly formed; James ends up near the end of it, shivering in his robe. Iwan is in front of him and he looks increasingly anxious.
"First up…Appleton, Philip! On my whistle…"
"I don't think I should have come here," Iwan whispers to James. "I thought we'd all be going in at once, and just sort of swim a few lengths…"
"You'll be fine," James says as the whistle pierces the air.
"Yes, but why does it have to be one by one? Why does everyone have to watch?" Iwan asks nervously. "They'll all be staring…"
"Can't do any worse than this Appleton," James says with a shrug. "Look at his kicking rhythm — absolute rubbish."
"Is it?" Iwan looks even more anxious now. "God, look — that angry lady is timing it!"
"Don't know why she's got a timer, she could time Appleton using a standard clock," James says contemptuously. Behind him, somebody laughs and he turns to look at them. It's that Slytherin boy again, he sees.
"Can hardly wait to see your time," Thomas says, grinning. "Let me guess, twenty for the fifty free?"
"Shove off," James mutters, turning back around. Though he knows Thomas is just trying to unnerve him, he thinks uneasily of his recent times. Are they fast enough? Freestyle's his strength, of course, but it's everyone's strength. An easy stroke. Eight places on the team, twenty-three people trying out…
The line moves forward. Saltworth's expression gives nothing away as she scribbles on her clipboard, her timer in one hand. Soon enough, it's Iwan's turn.
"Good luck," James says dutifully.
"You're an experienced swimmer, aren't you? You'll tell me if you think I did all right?"
"Yeah, now go." James gives him a little shove; Saltworth is looking impatient. The sun is slowly coming up over the horizon and James, after waiting through the tryouts of everyone before him, is in no mood to give a pep talk.
Iwan takes a few nervous steps forward to the end of the pier, then discards his robe and stands there, toes curling over the edge, waiting and looking as if he might be sick at any moment.
"Hope your friend does well," Thomas comments.
"He's not my friend."
"Wow, you're just so friendly and outgoing."
Thomas just laughs. James scowls and crosses his arms, watching Iwan, but his mind is elsewhere and he hardly notices a thing about Iwan's tryout, too busy mentally running over his training.
"Right! Potter," Saltworth shouts, making a mark on her clipboard as Iwan pulls himself up onto the pier.
"Good luck," he says shakily to James as he goes past him.
"Good luck," Thomas echoes.
James doesn't deign to reply, just kicks his robes aside and takes his place on the edge of the pier, waiting. His heart is racing, he realises, and his hands are shaking slightly. No, he can't be nervous, he can't mess this up…
The whistle pierces the air.
James dives into the lake.
Another long day at the Ministry, Harry thinks. A big shipment of illegal potion ingredients was discovered last night — a major breakthrough in their operation. The team spends the day hunched over pensieves and listening to recordings, carefully compiling information, making sense from the coded conversations and negotiations, trying to trace the shipment. By the end of the day, Harry's exhausted. But the plan is in place, targets have been identified, and evidence is beginning to mount.
"Night, sir," Cuthbert says cheerfully, last to leave as always.
"Goodnight." Harry collects the folders on his desk, lost in thought, and he stands up at once when he hears a footstep, hand already on his wand.
"Always alert," Williamson chuckles, stepping out of his office and closing the door behind him.
"Yes, sir," Harry says, thinking how always alert sounds very close to constant vigilance. "Just filing a few things."
"Always the last to leave, aren't you?" Williamson locks his office door with a wave of his wand, then turns and studies Harry. "Actually, Potter, I'm glad you're here. There's something I want to discuss with you."
"About the shipment?" Harry says, automatically reaching for his quill.
"Well, in a roundabout way, I suppose." Williamson walks over to Harry's desk and takes a seat opposite Harry. "You've been doing a stellar job leading this operation."
"And I don't give out compliments easily, you know that. You have to earn respect, I've always said." Williamson nods, the light of Harry's desk-lamp creating deep shadows across his grizzled face. A lifetime of Auror work has carved his skin like a landscape, creating deep valleys of missing flesh and raised mountains of hardened scar tissue. "And I believe you've earned a lot of respect from the team," Williamson continues, resting his hands on the desk, his wedding band glinting in the light. His wife died forty years ago, Harry recalls. Rumour said that she was killed by a mugging gone wrong, and Williamson had dedicated his life forever afterwards to chasing criminals and Dark magic users.
"I like to think we all respect each other," Harry says politely, but inwardly he wants to smile. This is it. The first step towards becoming Head Auror.
"Well, of course," Williamson says, but Harry can tell he's pleased. He clasps his hands for a moment, evidently deep in thought, and Harry waits. Williamson is missing an index finger and his knuckles are criss-crossed with scars, and Harry glances down at his own hands for a moment. There's a small scar here and there, but nothing particularly noticeable.
He wonders how many fingers he'll be missing when he reaches Williamson's age.
"I'm sixty-two, you know," Williamson says suddenly, as if reading Harry's thoughts. "Thirty-seven years I've been doing this job. And I've seen a lot of Aurors come through this office. Some have lasted nearly as long as me, like old Howes or O'Brien. Some have burned out in a matter of months, or even weeks. Some have been smart as a whip, or have reflexes like a cat, or they've got incredible spell accuracy. But what you need most of all is someone trustworthy. Someone who always has you as their top priority." Williamson taps a finger against the desk, the one missing a tip. "And I reckon that's you, Potter. The next Head Auror."
Harry exhales and sits back. "That's…that's quite a role."
"Wouldn't ask if I didn't think you'd be capable of it." Williamson looks down at his hands, at the ruined fingertips and cratered knuckles. "But…this is why I'm asking, not telling. It eats up your time. It's demanding, I won't lie."
"No, it's fine. Perfect timing, actually," Harry says with relief. "James started Hogwarts last year, so he's not around as much – "
"Christmas? Easter? Don't accept unless you can fully commit," Williamson says gravely.
Harry pauses. Well…Andromeda always loves doting on James, and Teddy's great at keeping him company. Besides, it won't be every holiday and important occasion. Perhaps just a few busy days here or there. And this is what he has always dreamed about. Head Auror. "You have my full commitment," he says. "It will be an absolute honour to accept the role."
Williamson nods, his eyes crinkling up in a possible smile. With a face that lined, it's hard to tell. "You'll make a fine job of it, Potter. You're dedicated to this job. Aurors, you see them come and go – they learn quickly that this isn't a nine-to-five job. But you're different. Like me. You give a hundred percent."
"Thank you, sir."
"We'll brief you tomorrow. I'll mentor you through this latest operation and then...well. We'll see how it goes. Consider it the final test." Williamson waves a hand. "I'd better let you go. Been here since six in the morning, haven't you?"
Harry smiles and stands up, picking up his cloak. "I'll see you tomorrow, sir."
"Tomorrow." Williamson turns and strides away, disappearing into the dark corridor. Harry watches him leave, then turns and smiles, almost laughing. This is it. Fifteen years he's been working towards this. He never wanted to make assumptions, of course, but part of him always hoped…Head Auror. This promotion has been fifteen long years in the making, but Harry's so close to achieving that dream now.
He settles his cloak about his shoulders and turns off his desk lamp, unable to stop himself from smiling.
Made it at last.
Harry pours his usual scotch before bed and sits in the study, considering his latest step towards Head Auror.
He turns a paperweight over in his hands. It had been a gift from Ginny. Not even a gift, really. Just something he saw in a shop somewhere, and she noticed it caught his eye and bought it.
Ginny was good at that. Buying things just for the sake of having beautiful things. Filling their home with a thousand interesting or pretty mementos. Harry always had to have a reason to own something; Ginny didn't care.
He sets down the paperweight — a large snowflake made of silver — and looks down at his desk. A clock chimes midnight somewhere within the house.
On the right side of the desk is Draco's file.
Harry takes another sip of his scotch and sets the glass down, listening to the faint clink of the ice cubes.
At the start of the file — the page marked 16th September, one exact year ago — there's a flurry of notes. Harry reads them and wonders what prejudices coloured his perspective. The notes are abrupt and unkind, Harry thinks as he reads them over, referring to Draco as being 'uncooperative' and the possibility of a formal warning.
Draco hadn't appeared deliberately unhelpful, Harry thinks, frowning at the notes. Nor had he done anything particularly deserving of a formal warning.
Nevertheless, as biased as the notes are, at least they're there. As the pages continue, the notes trickle away to nothing. The last note simply says 'Malfoy b'day 5 June, Scorpius 15 Nov'. Like it's important somehow. As though birthdays will crack the case. He's going mental, Harry thinks. There's no way he'll track down Lucius Malfoy, acting like this. He should hand the case over to someone else. All his time should be devoted to this latest operation, anyway.
He takes a sip of his scotch and looks at the silver snowflake again.
When Harry arrives at the office the next morning, he goes straight into the debriefing. Williamson and another senior Auror, Howes, discuss the evidence so far with Harry. The large shipment of illegal potion ingredients is just one of many shipments they've been tracking, and they believe a large Ukrainian crime family is to blame.
"We've had to make a choice," Williamson says. "Go for the underlings – catch the delivery people, the hired security – or let's see how much this thread unravels."
Harry exhales. "You want to go right to the top?"
Williamson nods. "We've let the first shipment go through, but nobody's claiming it. Someone's snitched. Most likely a corrupted dock worker."
They spend the rest of the morning in the office, poring over options. Cuthbert interrupts at one point.
"Excuse me, sir," he says, addressing Harry, "your cases at the moment – "
"Clear them," Harry says distractedly, looking at a map.
"Yes, sir," Cuthbert says, disappearing again
"Thanks," Harry says, underlining something with his quill.
And it's only two hours later, long after Cuthbert has scurried away, that Harry suddenly realises what just happened.
He swears and jumps to his feet.
Draco is glad when the wards are set off at their usual time on Wednesday. He had removed a chandelier and inadvertently triggered some sort of ancient curse, sending the entire room into a darkness that even the Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder would envy.
He leaves the room as it is, striding along the hallways and down two flights of stairs before he opens the front door.
There's a man on his front doorstep, tall and middle-aged with hair greying around his temples. He wears the neat, hunter-green uniform of a magical law-enforcement officer.
"Good afternoon, Mr Malfoy," the man says, flashing a silver badge. "Officer Nettleton. May I come in?"
Draco hesitates, if only for a moment. Then he recovers. Don't give them a chance to punish you. "Certainly," he says, stepping aside. "What may I assist you with?"
The man — Nettleton — walks inside and gives him a look of mild confusion. "Your Wizards Under Watch program, of course. One o'clock each Wednesday, I believe?"
"I was..." Draco pauses. "Auror Potter usually handles my case."
"Auror Potter is busy with more important matters," Nettleton says, casting a look around the reception hall. Draco hates the calculating way he looks at everything and would love for nothing more than to push him back out the door. "Your case has been redistributed."
I wasn't told of this. Draco bites the words back and instead gestures to the front parlour room. "Shall we, then?" Though he might be forced to allow Ministry officers into his home, he's certainly not obligated to make them feel welcome. No tea or biscuits will be offered, and the chilly front parlour room is the least inviting of the manor. Especially since Draco's only just finished renovating it, and the only furniture is a set of wooden chairs, all sharp angles and spiky discomfort.
Nettleton perches on one of the chairs. His eyes never stop roaming the room, Draco thinks with irritation, as if he'll find secrets in the walls or floor. But the room, with its freshly-painted walls and newly-polished floorboards, is nothing but a blank slate. Not even a chip or crack in sight.
Apparently finding no Dark curses scrawled across the walls, Nettleton abandons his visual interrogation of the room and opens the folder in his lap. It looks very thin and lacking, Draco thinks critically, and Nettleton seems to think the same.
"Auror Potter has made very few observations. I assume he has a collection of personal notes, however." Nettleton turns a page. "The manor is listed as your only address?"
"I understand there is a holiday villa in Majorca."
"It has been sold."
"And a London property?" Nettleton turns a page. "In Kensington and Chelsea?"
"My father used it for business trips, but it's now privately rented."
Draco feels both irritated and nervous. These questions are trivial and will lead nowhere, but at the same time, Nettleton could choose to interpret Draco's responses as being discourteous or downright misleading, and file an official warning.
"I'm not certain," Draco says carefully. "You'll have to ask the agency that manages the property. Nuttall and Nye, I believe."
Nettleton frowns but says nothing. The agency is a popular choice for wizards and there's certainly nothing to tie it to the Dark Lord or any of his supporters. Draco knows this because past officers have already well investigated all the Malfoy properties.
"You have a son, I see," Nettleton says instead. Draco tenses. "Should be good motivation for you to tell us anything you can about your father."
Draco can feel the rage, like a magnifying glass on his pulse, make it jump fiercely beneath his skin. His son. His Scorpius, that this man dares talk about so brashly.
"Can't imagine things would be easy for the boy at school. Plenty of people still hate the name Malfoy. But if you helped us capture your father...well, some people might start looking a bit more kindly at you," Nettleton went on, oblivious to Draco's white-knuckled grip on the armrests. "If you actually cared about your son, you'd — "
Very, very fortunately, Draco thinks, Nettleton doesn't finish that sentence. He's interrupted by someone speaking.
He's standing in the doorway, looking breathless, robes askew and hair disheveled. He must have Floo'd in, Draco thinks.
"What're you doing here?" Harry asks Nettleton, in the exact tone of voice Draco would have used.
Nettleton bristles. "Your secretary gave me the file, Mr Potter."
"Well, that was a mistake," Harry retorts, taking a step into the room. "I'm handling the Malfoy case."
"Not any longer. I've got the case."
"No, you haven't. I'll take it."
It's like watching a game of Quidditch, Draco thinks; they're the Seekers, and he's the snitch. If he wasn't so furious about Nettleton's remarks about Scorpius, he might have found the entire situation vaguely amusing.
"I am in the middle of a meeting," Nettleton says. "I'll just finish interrogating Malfoy, and — "
"I meant questioning," Nettleton amends quickly, but Harry's eyes are bright with anger.
"You're not interrogating anyone. Give me that file."
"I was questioning, and I was getting results. I notice Malfoy has a son — "
"Oh, well done, only took twelve years for you to notice then," Harry says cuttingly, and Nettleton flushes.
"Well, I'm rather surprised that..." Nettleton trails off, as if suddenly recalling Draco's presence.
Draco stands up. "Go on," he says, his voice soft and dangerous. Finish that sentence.
"Let's discuss this elsewhere, shall we?" Harry says, giving Draco a look before he turns and leaves. Nettleton hesitates, then follows, closing the door behind him.
A few seconds later, raised voices can be heard. Every now and again Draco catches ahold of some words. Harry seems to be doing most of the shouting.
"...not informed...think...in any way...certainly not...I assure you…"
There's a slight pause and the muffled sound of Nettleton speaking; this only seems to incite Harry's wrath further.
"Don't you dare...excuses...if you ask me...I'll certainly be filing a note...and personal integrity!"
There's another short silence, and then the sound of footsteps and the front door slamming. Another pause, and then the parlour door opens and Harry walks in. His face is flushed, but otherwise there's no signs of the furious words Draco heard.
"Hello," Harry says, smoothing his robes. His voice is forcibly calm, but there's a brightness in his eyes that Draco can't place. "Sorry I'm late. Shall we begin?"
"I..." Draco doesn't know what to say.
"I certainly don't intend to sit in here," Harry says, glancing about the room. "It's the most unwelcoming room in the house, and now that I think about it, it's one of your little strategies, isn't it? You did the same to me when I first arrived."
"You're not Nettleton," Draco says, perhaps a little emphatically, and Harry looks at him.
"Of course I'm not," he says. "Now, either we have a nice cup of tea and a game of Monopoly, or — judging by the dust on your robes — you tell me what part of the renovations requires my assistance. And if it's another damned Doxy nest, forget it. That's your problem."
There's a short silence. Draco looks down at his hands, noticing a small scar on the knuckle of his thumb.
"I removed a chandelier and triggered an ancient curse," he says at last.
Harry rolls his eyes. "Only in this manor," he says, "would you remove a light fitting and unleash Dark magic. It's a wonder you don't spontaneously combust just from making a cup of tea."
"Oh, it's happened before. That's how my grandfather's house-elves died."
Harry stares at him. "Really?"
If it wasn't for the rage still simmering from Nettleton's remarks, Draco thinks, he might have almost smiled.
He does ask Harry about it, however, as they're halfway through a game of Monopoly. Harry, busy doing some serious mental calculations about the number of houses he can buy for his pitiful Euston Road set, barely pays attention at first.
"Scorpius," Draco says, testing the waters.
"Hmm. Could I have three...wait, no...four houses?"
Draco wordlessly hands Harry the plastic houses.
"Do you think," he says, continuing his apparently one-sided conversation, "Scorpius has many friends?"
"Yeah, loads. Actually, I think I'll buy five — what?" Harry looks up at Draco, frowning. "Of course Scorpius has friends. He's a good kid."
"Right. The only thing wrong with him is his surname."
"Don't start thinking like that," Harry says warningly. "Trust me, I spent ages agonising over the same problems with James. Whether people would judge him, whether he'd be affected by special treatment — but it's a battle you just can't win."
"Nettleton said I could do things to make Scorpius's life easier."
"Nettleton is an idiot."
Draco doesn't smile. "If I knew where my father was," he says, "and I knew it would make people treat Scorpius better, I'd tell the Ministry in a heartbeat." He pauses. "But...if I wasn't sure whether it would make a difference to Scorpius, I don't think I'd tell anyone at all."
Harry considers that for a long moment. Draco's waiting for a self-righteous lecture about Lucius's wrongdoings, but when Harry next speaks he surprises Draco.
"Was Lucius a good father?"
Now it's Draco's turn for lengthy consideration. "I don't know," he says at last. "He spoiled me, and always said he had high hopes for me. He praised me often, regardless of how misguided my actions were." Draco smiles wryly. "Does that make him a good father, or a bad father?"
Harry studies his properties and carefully organises the plastic green houses. "All parents leave their imprints," he says. "Hermione once said that children are like pristine glass, and parents will always leave fingerprints and smudges no matter how carefully they handle them. Some shatter their children completely, some leave cracks and chips, but in the end we all leave our mark regardless of intentions."
Draco looks at Harry and wonders what mark he'll leave on James.
James stands alone in the corridor, gazing at the featureless stone.
"Limens," he whispers, tapping his wand against the wall. The portal opens. He steps through.
The room is cold, so cold. Perhaps the castle's heating spells don't reach this room. Perhaps Scorpius enchanted it to be warm, and the spell faded when he left. An endless summer for him and James, in fields of gold and skies of deep blue.
But the summer has ended.
There are no fields, no skies. Just a cold stone floor, a vaulted ceiling that sends echoes of James's footsteps reverberating around the empty room.
He shouldn't have come here. There is nothing here.
"Papilio," James whispers, touching his wand to a broken quill lying on the floor. It twitches and slowly curls in on itself until it's formed into a cream-coloured butterfly.
The butterfly flutters its wings and lifts into the air, dancing around James. He watches it fly higher, higher, until soon its pale wings glimmer into nothing as it disappears among the shadows of the vaulted ceiling.
Paul called him Harry today. A careless mistake, and everyone had laughed about it.
James had been angry then, but now — as he stands alone in this big empty room — the sadness and anxiety roll through him like rainclouds.
Even my friends wish I was someone else.
James makes the swim team, at least. He tells his friends.
"Great," Martin says, moving a Gobstone piece across the board. Opposite him, Paul nods.
"Yeah, that's brilliant news. Ugh, I'm losing again, aren't I?"
"Don't feel too bad," Martin grins. "I've had loads of practice."
A quiet voice behind James pipes up. "I made the team too, James. I saw your name right at the top. Congratulations."
He turns. Iwan's sitting there, next to his best friend Claire, looking happy.
"You made the top eight?" James asks blankly. "But…you haven't even got any formal training, you said!"
"Guess the coach saw a lot of potential," Claire says, smiling at Iwan. "The fastest doesn't necessarily mean the best."
"Right. Well…congratulations," James says, suddenly realising he might have appeared somewhat aggressive. "See you at practice next week?"
"I'm looking forward to it."
Martin laughs. "Listen to these two, getting excited about going into the lake. I'd pay a hundred galleons to avoid it."
"So? You don't see me making fun of you for all that boring Quidditch," James says defensively, and Martin blinks.
"Just a joke, James. Sorry."
James pauses. "No, it's fine. Sorry, bit stressed with homework."
"Oh, that essay on Cushioning Charms? I can help," Paul says, and Martin returns James's smile.
Still got friends, James reminds himself.
The first swim practice is brutal. Saltworth puts them through their paces; the trials were merely the preliminaries, James soon realises. And he might have had the quickest time during trials, but Saltworth has a lot of critique to give him regardless. She has a very carrying voice; her merciless comments echo across the lake for everyone to hear.
"Focus on your arm pulls, Stevenson! Calthorpe, stop reaching so far! Count your kicks, count your strokes! Arms, Stevenson!"
At the end of the practice, she pulls each and every one of them aside. When she call James up, he gloomily expects the worst.
"You're Potter, aren't you?" Saltworth flips through the notes on her clipboard. "You've had training, if I'm any judge. Mastered the basic forms, at least, but plenty of room for improvement. Now, I want you to work on strengthening your catch…"
Saltworth is all right, James thinks warily, despite her piercing whistle and the way she furiously strides up and down the pier as she shouts at them. She seems to genuinely want to help him, and wraps up her commentary with a bit of praise.
"Good job today," she says. "Maybe you can give Calthorpe a few pointers about freestyle breathing techniques."
"Thanks, coach." James nods and turns away. The warmth potion is already starting to fade. They've been supplied with thin robes designed to wick away water — just enough to hold the cold at bay while they hurry back to their dormitories for a shower — but James doesn't feel particularly appreciative right now, standing and shivering on the edge of the pier. He picks up his towel and makes his way to the castle.
"Hey, wait up!"
James turns, then scowls. Thomas Pearson, that stupid Slytherin again. "What?" he asks.
"Just wanted to say congratulations on making the team." Thomas holds out his hand.
"Yeah, thanks. You too," James says suspiciously, shaking his hand.
"It's good to have some competition, right?"
"I guess." James quickens his pace. "Anyway, I've got to get back to the dormitories, so I'll see you next practice."
"Right. See you later, then."
Can't ever trust them, James thinks. Those Slytherins. Thomas will probably stab him in the back given the first chance.
He'll have to keep an eye out.
The early days of autumn soon burn away under the weight of red and gold leaves, leaving the chill promise of winter in the morning air. The pumpkins are soon carved, and the banners of black and orange decorate the Great Hall as preparations are made for the Halloween feast. Nearly Headless Nick practises the reenactment of his beheading endlessly and Peeves takes to hiding in suits of armour and scaring the living daylights out of nervous first years.
James isn't particularly amused by it.
But then again, little seems to amuse him these days. His friends are always wanting to go on midnight adventures, or go watch the Quidditch teams practice, or pester James for stories about his father. It's hard to find time just to do some homework or enjoy his latest comic in peace, and his grades have started slipping.
Tonight, James has managed to find a study nook in the farthest reaches of the library, in the shadowy depths where the candles burn low and the kickstools roam around, scuttling beneath shelves whenever a student appears with a lantern in hand. Every now and again, a book mutters something.
James finally finishes the chapter on common potion ingredients. It's fifteen minutes before dinner and he hasn't eaten since breakfast. Lunchtime was spent dutifully watching his friends practice Quidditch moves. James steadfastly refused their insistences that he 'show off some moves'. No doubt they'd expect fancy feints and daring feats of balance, and James hasn't the skill for either. He can only imagine how they'd pull faces at him, telling him to stop fooling about and show off his 'real' Quidditch skills.
He sighs and presses a hand to his rumbling stomach. He needs to write a quick letter to his father, at least. It's been a while since his last reply.
He picks up his quill again. If he were braver, he might write the truth. Sometimes, he might write, I feel like I'm letting you down. I'm disappointing everyone.
But instead, he writes quickly of light-hearted matters. His classes are going well, he's looking forward to the Halloween feast. He's been having plenty of adventures with his friends.
James sits alone in the silent library, rubbing tiredly at his eyes as the words blur together.