There's so much nervous energy it's a wonder the Great Hall doesn't simply shatter its great sky ceiling and sit among the stars. The first years line up, swapping taut smiles and whispering in thrilled anxiety.
"James, James!" somebody calls. "What house do you think you'll be in?"
"Yeah, I hope we're in the same house!"
"James'll be in Gryffindor, won't you James? That's the best house, I heard. Or Ravenclaw, all the smart people go there."
"Don't reckon I'll end up in any," James calls back airily. "I'll make my own house. It'll be called Weasley, after my uncles, and everyone'll get free dungbombs."
"Do you really get free stuff?"
"Yeah," James says, grinning wildly. "I've only got one pair of robes to last all term, I had to throw my other clothes out so I could fit in all the free joke stuff."
They laugh and jostle for his attention, already caught by his charm. A stout witch quickly puts a stop to their noisy excitement, however.
"First years, line up please! Come on, quickly. Quickly."
They stand to attention, hurriedly arranging themselves into a line, nudging and whispering. Then the doors to the Great Hall open and they follow the professor. James drinks it all in, looking around with great excitement.
"You can tell which house is which," he whispers to the girl behind him. "That table over there, with the green ties? Slytherin. And — "
"Quiet please," the professor says, but the girl looks at him with admiration.
He watches the students go before him. Some sit for ages on the stool with the hat falling over their eyes, others barely stay a second or two. Scorpius perhaps takes the longest; at last, the Sorting Hat declares him to be a Ravenclaw.
Soon enough, it's James's turn. He practically sprints to the stool, picking up the hat and plopping it onto his head.
"Ah," a voice says, very close, and James looks wildly around for a moment before realising it's the Sorting Hat.
"Hello," he says brightly, remembering his father saying once that he could talk to the hat if he wanted.
The hat is silent for a moment and James wonders if it's ignoring him or gone to sleep. The hat chuckles, answering his question.
"I don't sleep," he says. "You've got a bright mind, haven't you? Eagerness, oh yes, and enthusiasm."
"Oh, thanks," James says, wondering if the hat will declare him a Ravenclaw, but it falls silent again for a few moments.
"Stubborn, certainly," it murmurs at last, and James isn't sure if it's talking to itself or him. "Plenty of drive and ambition."
James shifts uneasily, some of his confidence fading. Slytherins are known for their ambition, Teddy has often told James. Will the hat deem him a Slytherin? He's not quite sure how he'd feel about that. Before he can voice his trepidation, however, the hat speaks.
"Hmm...I think you'll find kindred spirit in Gryffindor!" The hat shouts the last word and James gets to his feet, grinning with relief and making his way over to the cheering Gryffindor table.
"Thanks, yeah, thought it'd be this house," he says cheerily as students slap his back and grin at him.
It's going to be a fantastic year, he thinks.
Harry drives home alone.
His wedding band feels especially heavy tonight, as though Ginny's hand is resting over his own.
Routine. It kept them going, him and James. Week in, week out. Years went by and it was always the same. Come home from work, pick James up. Jokes about earwigs for dinner, boiled slugs for dessert. Dinner was always served at half-six exactly, James excitedly talking about his day. When James was younger, they would play a board game, or Harry would do silly charms like turning a teddy-bear blue, and when James was older, Harry helped with homework and signed permission slips for excursions. After James's bedtime, Harry would retreat to his study to complete any incident reports for his Auror work. At ten o'clock, he'd pour himself a neat scotch and then, at half-ten, he would retire to bed.
And then he'd start his day all over again at seven o'clock, when James woke up.
Most of the time, Harry was content. It's a very solid, steady routine that kept him company in the years since his wife's death. He used James's bright energy as fuel to keep himself going. No time for reflection when there's dinner to make or crayons to replace or grass-stains to be scoured.
Sometimes — very occasionally and always late at night — he'd get up from his desk and walk into the dining room or hallway or kitchen and just stand there. Just stand there, staring into the darkness. Sometimes for minutes, sometimes for hours. Then he'd shake his head suddenly, abruptly, and try to remember what he was doing. Sometimes he thought he was looking for Ginny. Just standing there waiting, waiting. As though if he was patient enough and looked long enough, she'd suddenly come around a corner or step through a door and smile.
And how he finds himself doing it again tonight. Standing in the middle of the hallway, waiting. He can hear the past as if it's a ghost. Ginny laughing in the kitchen, making silly jokes with James — he can hear the soft patter of toddler feet — and then he'll just walk around the corner and they'll both look up and smile at him, pancake batter everywhere, the morning sun catching on Ginny's soft red hair, flour smudged on her hands…
He steps into the kitchen. It's empty, quiet, dark. The counters are all wiped clean.
He has never spoken to Ginny. Some people told him, especially after the funeral, that sometimes speaking aloud helped. Just say whatever you want her to know, Ron had said, his eyes red-rimmed. It helps, mate. Just to feel like she's listening.
But Harry never felt like speaking aloud. It seemed strange and besides, James was struggling enough to understand the concept of death. When's Mum coming home? he kept asking until Harry wanted to shout at him. The last thing Harry wanted to do was 'speak' to Ginny only to have James overhear and think that Ginny was somehow still there, still listening.
But he speaks aloud now. Three words, just to see how it sounds in this silent house.
"I miss you."
His voice echoes around the kitchen, catches on the empty pots and pans, fills the spaces where people used to be. I miss you, I miss you, I miss you…
His wedding band leaves an imprint on his palm as he clenches his fist.
Damn you, Ginny.
Harry sits opposite his two best friends; he has an inkling about the reason of their meeting and looks surreptitiously at Hermione as she scolds nine-year-old Hugo about leaving crumbs on Harry's coffee table.
"Good news, eh?" Ron says with a grin.
"I know," Harry replies. "Congratulations, mate."
Ron's grin fades a little; he looks bewildered. "What?"
"Do you know if it's a boy or a girl yet?"
Hermione looks horrified. "What? No! No. We're not expecting any more children."
"I want a brother," Hugo pipes up. "Rose is mean. She makes me wear a ballerina dress, and she tries to put my hair into pigtails."
"Brothers aren't any better," Ron says quickly. "Uncle George used my pet puffskein as a quaffle when I was your age."
Hugo laughs and runs to the direction of the kitchen, presumably to fetch another biscuit. Ron frowns.
"I worry about that kid sometimes."
"Well, in any case, nobody's getting any more brothers. Or sisters," Hermione says firmly.
"Of course," Ron says, giving Hermione a sideways look. "Although..."
"Right, right." Ron clears his throat. "Anyway, listen. You know, with James gone, I was thinking...you're probably enjoying the peace and quiet."
"When was the last time you had a holiday?" Hermione adds, and Harry begins to feel distinctly nervous.
"I don't know. Work's been really busy lately." There's been little else to occupy his time — no need to clean up after James, or organise swim practice for him, or ring the school and promise to reimburse them for the third broken window pane this month…
"Yeah, I've been telling Hermione how busy you've been. Reckon you've got a break coming up."
Harry's heart sinks. He can't take a holiday. Not now. Not when the house is so empty, the dead autumn leaves collecting in the corners of the garden, the dust gathering in James's room.
"I…I don't think I have enough service leave," he says at last.
"Why on earth not?" Hermione asks, frowning. "You've practically lived in your office for the past…however many years."
"Yeah, don't be daft, you must have a few months of leave at least," Ron adds.
Harry searches for a change of subject. "How's Rose settling into Hogwarts?"
It works, although Hermione gives him a look of faint disapproval. "Good," she says, and the conversation soon drifts along and, to Harry's relief, doesn't return to the topic of work.
"Anyway, I'll see you later," Ron says at last. "We should get going, we're supposed to visit Mum today."
They exchange goodbyes and leave, dragging an unhappy Hugo with them — "I ate all the shortbread!" he shouts to Harry as he leaves — and Harry listens as they walk down the driveway and Disapparate together, Hugo firmly clamped to his mother's side.
Alone again, Harry thinks as he listens to the silence of the house.
Draco sits on the edge of his son's bed, looking around the empty bedroom. So neat and tidy, he thinks, but perhaps the house-elves have already cleaned it. Neat rows of clothes hang in the wardrobe. There's a stack of books on the bedside table — all leather-bound ones that Scorpius must have taken from the study. Collections of ancient maps, histories of the world, a herbology book filled with pressed specimens.
Why hadn't Draco thought of books? He hadn't thought to put a bookcase in Scorpius's room. What do eleven-year-olds read these days? Beedle the Bard is far too childish now. Draco doesn't know what his son likes to read.
He doesn't know anything about him.
A sharp noise reverberates, like someone plucking a taut wire. Someone has passed through the manor wards.
Is it that time already? Draco makes his way down the hallway and slowly descends the stairs into the entrance hall. Let them wait.
He opens the imposing front doors. On the doorstep, a portly witch turns to smile at him.
"Ah, Mr Malfoy! Has it been a week already?"
She walks in, making her way to the front parlour room. Draco has always disliked how familiar she makes herself.
"Now," she says, once they're both in the front parlour room, Draco standing by the window and the witch perched awkwardly on an antique chaise. "Hand over your wand, please."
He gives it to her. She murmurs a few words and, as golden letters float like leaves above the wand, she scribbles a few notes onto her scroll.
"Good, good. Not many spells, Mr Malfoy. You can use your wand, you know — just none of the restricted spells." She laughs as if she's made a joke. Draco doesn't smile.
She runs through the usual questions. If he's been meeting with any other people associated with Death Eaters or Voldemort supporters. If he's attempted to harm Muggles or Muggleborns in any way. If he knows where his father is. Draco is certain that last question is certainly not a standard part of the interviews between Ministry officials and those placed on the 'Wizards Under Watch' program. Nevertheless, he answers it.
"Very good. Well, that wraps it up for another week. Another good report." She waves the scroll at him. "Cheer up. In two more years, you'll be removed from the program and considered non-dangerous to the magical community!"
"How wonderful," Draco says, but the witch either doesn't notice his tone of voice or chooses to ignore it.
"Isn't it?" She gathers her hat and cloak. "Well, take care, Mr Malfoy."
He listens as she departs. Footsteps, a door closing. That's all this house seems to be. Footsteps and closed doors.
A scratching noise. He jumps. Nothing, he reminds himself. Just the family of squirrels that seems to have moved into the roof. Or rats in the walls. The manor is starting to become a little frayed around the edges, a little faded. After money was seized from the Malfoy vaults for war 'recompense', Astoria and Draco spent quite a formidable amount on legal fees for their divorce . Then came another financial problem, when Draco spent most of the remaining money trying to find Astoria and Scorpius. Now the servants have all left — save two elderly house-elves, Haggly and Hooky.
The scratching noise again.
He'd leave this house, burn it to ashes, salt the earth, but for his father.
He's still waiting, after all this time, for his father to come home.
"Thanks," James says with a grin. They crowd around the common room table as he smooths the Marauder's Map out, pushing chess pieces and gobstones out of the way.
"What shall we use it for?"
"Anything," James says, a glint in his eye. "My dad used it all the time for sneaking round Hogwarts. We'll have a little trip to the kitchens, I think — midnight snack, anyone?"
"Count me in!"
"I'll fetch my wand!"
James has already made fast friends at Hogwarts. The other Gryffindor boys have all been quite friendly, of course, and the classes have all been wonderfully exciting (except, perhaps, History of Magic). The only disappointment thus far has been the discovery that first years aren't allowed to join the swim team, but James figures he'll just have to wait until next year. Maybe all his newfound friends will join the team too.
"Right," James says decisively. "We can't all go."
"That's not fair, I want to go!"
"Paul can come with me," James says, choosing a fellow first year. Paul, a Muggleborn, is easily awed by everything and no doubt he'll be very impressed with the Marauder's Map. "And Martin," he adds, selecting another first year at random.
Off they go, sneaking through the portrait and down the corridor. "I hope you're not causing any mischief," the Fat Lady calls disapprovingly, but they just laugh and disappear round the corner. They look at each other, nervous at the thrill of an adventure.
"Where to?" whispers Paul. James traces the footprints of Grimble, the cantankerous caretaker, with his index finger.
"Not that way," he says as Martin turns to look down a hallway. "This way. And then we'll go down these stairs. Quiet, now."
They follow the twist and turns of the corridors, talking in hushed voices, Paul jumping at every little noise and Martin demanding to see the map, wanting to see the footsteps wander round.
"There's us!" Martin says a little too loudly, taking the map from James.
"Quiet!" James hisses. They pause. "I thought I heard something," he says after a moment.
"We've got the map," Martin points out. "We'll know."
"I've got an idea." Paul is grinning. "We should sneak into Slughorn's office and steal his silver scales."
"Wait up," James says, "we should think of a plan first — "
"Go on, James, where's your sense of adventure?" Martin chimes in. Typical that he would agree with Paul — they're both from Bedford and they've forged a fast friendship.
"I don't know," James says cautiously, but the prank is appealing to his mischievous side.
"We'll know if anybody's coming."
At last, he grins in consensus. They laugh softly, nudging each other, certain there's adventures just around the corner. The sandstone rasps under their soft footsteps; they whisper and giggle past sleepy paintings.
"Wait. What was that?"
"Did you hear that?"
They pause again, heads cocked, listening intently.
"It's nothing," James says at last. "Come on — "
"There! Somebody's ahead! Can't you see them?" Martin surges forward, and Paul hurriedly tries to grab him.
"Don't be a fool, what if it's a teacher?"
"Give me the map, we'll check!" James says with exasperation.
Somebody has separated from the shadows ahead, trying to slink into a classroom. But Martin grabs them by the scruff of their robes.
"Look," he says, "it's that odd Malfoy boy." He gives him a little shake. "What do you think you're doing?"
Scorpius says nothing, eyes fixed on the ground. James shifts his weight from one foot to the other, feeling slightly uncomfortable. Since the train trip, he hasn't spoken to Scorpius once. They were both Sorted into different houses, after all, and James has been busy making new friends.
"Cat got your tongue?" Martin demands, still gripping Scorpius by the collar.
"Thinks he's too good for us," Paul adds. He pushes his nose up with his thumb. "Ooh, look at me, I'm a Malfoy!"
"Better be careful, his Death Eater dad might get you!" Martin laughs and releases his hold on Scorpius, pushing him away as if he were contagious.
"Come on," James says, speaking up at last, "let's just go. Never mind about him."
"What if he tattles on us?"
"Don't be daft, he'll have to admit he was out of bed too," James points out. "Come on."
"I don't trust him. Maybe we should follow him," Martin says with a grin. "Maybe he's off to open the Chamber of Secrets…"
Scorpius turns and slinks away into the shadows, but Martin and Paul follow him.
"Hey, Malfoy, come back here!"
"Yeah, get back here!"
Scorpius breaks into a run. They follow him, their footsteps echoing around the halls. Portraits open their eyes sleepily, muttering about the noise; an indignant goblin snaps at them. Out of all of the Gryffindors, James is the fastest. He rounds a corner, catching up to Scorpius.
And comes face-to-face with Peeves.
"Students out of bed! Students out of bed near Transfiguration classroom!" Peeves bellows jubilantly.
"No! Shut up!" James says desperately.
But Peeves is in his element now. Somewhere, a door bangs open. Footsteps sound; wandlight dances along the hallways.
James pelts around another corner. Behind him, he can hear his friends bickering as they struggle to keep up. James knew he shouldn't have trusted Martin with the map! And of all the nights to forget his invisibility cloak...
Footsteps. A teacher's voice.
"Peeves! All that unbearable noise at this hour — "
Oh, no. He'd recognise that terse, no-nonsense voice anywhere.
He turns another corner, breathing heavily, and then pauses. Just ahead of him, Scorpius has stopped at the end of the corridor. He taps his wand against the wall quickly and the stone melts like ice, creating a small portal. James gazes with amazement, his mouth hanging open. Scorpius steps through the portal, slipping into whatever lays behind it; the portal begins to close and suddenly, James is very aware of McGonagall's footsteps drawing near.
"Wait!" — and James, leaping forward, manages to catapult himself through the narrow gap in the wall. A few seconds later, he can hear McGonagall walking along the corridor, her shoes clacking sharply against the stone. A long pause, then —
"How very droll, Peeves," she says, her voice barely audible through the thick stone wall, but James thinks he can still hear the sharp annoyance. "I suppose this is your idea of amusement."
Peeves's cackling is loud and clear, but it soon fades, followed by McGonagall's footsteps. James exhales slowly.
"Wow," he says, "that was close." He presses a hand to the stone, trying to find the faint outline of a portal again, but there's nothing. It's already faded.
"You weren't supposed to come in."
He turns around. Scorpius is standing across a vast room. The high, vaulted ceiling emphasises the cold, dark emptiness of the room; there is not a single piece of furniture, not a single chair nor desk. Large windows line one side of the room, the pointed arches and ornate stonework creating deep shadows. Nevertheless, thin moonlight slants across the floor.
"Not supposed to come in? Thanks a lot," James says. His voice echoes around the room. "What is this place, anyway?"
"I found it."
"This is like the Room of Requirement. It must be," James says excitedly, suddenly recalling his father's stories. "Wow! They all think this place burned down!"
"It's not the Room of Requirement."
"How would you know?" James says. "I bet you five galleons it is. The Room of Requirement is a magical room with a door that appears from stone — "
"I know what it is." Scorpius hesitates, then produces a scroll from the pockets of his robes.
James frowns. "What's that?"
"Give me a look, then. Are you an artist or something?" James jokes, but Scorpius just gives him a look and walks to the closest window, unfurling the parchment in the light of the moon. James hurries across the room to join him. It's a drawing of Hogwarts, he sees.
"Did you draw that? It's pretty good."
"It doesn't match." Scorpius points to one of the lowest lines of windows on his drawing. "When I walked inside and looked for this row of windows, I couldn't find it. It's because this room is walled off."
"How'd you find it then?"
"The Limen Charm. It creates an entrance, a portal."
"What's that charm? I don't remember studying it."
"I read a lot."
"You can't perform magic in corridors!"
"I read a lot," Scorpius repeats.
"What? That doesn't even..." James trails off, suddenly picturing himself bursting into the Gryffindor common room and announcing that he's found a secret lair. Paul and Martin might not be keen to come along for another adventure, especially if they've been caught tonight, but James has plenty of other friends. The other two boys with whom he shares the dormitory — Iwan, the Welsh boy, and Nathaniel who hates his name and prefers to be called Nate. And there's Allison from Herbology, and the friendly Hufflepuffs from History of Magic…
"Hey, listen," James says. "You should teach me this portal charm, we could use this room as...as anything! A second common room, or we could hold secret midnight feasts in here, or…"
"No. It's my room. I found it." Scorpius rolls up his drawing and steps away.
"Well, that's being a little selfish, isn't it? Come on, I'd let you stay. You could have that part of the room over there, and over here we could hold parties — "
"Go away! And you're not allowed to tell anyone about the room!"
"Oh, that's nice! I was only making suggestions! You don't have to be such a prat about it — "
"You were the one chasing me," Scorpius retorts, looking upset, and James scowls.
"So what? It's not a crime to chase people. And I think it's very selfish for one person to have a whole room to themselves — "
Scorpius cuts him off, raising his wand and murmuring words too quickly for James to register. The next thing he knows, he's being pushed backwards through a newly-appeared portal in the wall. He stumbles slightly, catching his balance before he falls, and watches with bewilderment as the portal melts away again.
James bangs on the wall with his fist.
"I know you're in there! Just you wait! I'm going to go tell everyone about your stupid little room! I'll tell McGonagall you've been wandering around after dark, and using magic in the corridors!"
After a long moment, James strides away, fuming.
The next day, a tousled and sleepy James wanders to the Great Hall for breakfast. He yawns widely as Paul and Martin question him.
"Where were you last night? We had to hide in a classroom for an hour before Peeves went away."
"I got lost," James says easily. "Found my way back, though. You'd better keep up next time."
"You're fast." Martin takes a bite of his toast. "You'd make a good Seeker. I wish they let first years try out for the team," he adds wistfully.
"Well, you never know. My dad joined the team in first year." James takes a bite of toast.
"Yes, but your dad's also Harry Potter."
James doesn't reply. Unusually, he's not paying much attention to the conversation. He twists around in his seat, scanning the Ravenclaw table.
"Malfoy isn't there," Paul says suddenly.
"Malfoy isn't there," Paul repeats. "I bet he tattled on us."
"We'd probably know by now." James casts his mind around and seizes the next topic with cheery enthusiasm. "Hey, have you lot been to the library yet? It's brilliant. I'm trying to figure out a way to get into the restricted section."
They laugh and chatter. James smiles along with them.
But in the back of his mind, something is nagging at him.
James races through the dungeon corridors. He's late for Potions — not that Slughorn cares, he adores James and insists on inviting him to numerous 'Slug Club' meetings — but too many more sleep-ins and there will be a notification owled to his father, and James isn't particularly keen to open a Howler at breakfast time.
He breathlessly comes to a halt outside the Potions classroom and takes a moment to quickly smooth down his robes and fix his askew school tie before walking through the doorway. Slughorn, holding a handful of fresh bat entrails and loudly explaining how to dice them, pauses to look across the room.
"Oh, hello, Potter," he says amiably. "Tardy again, are we? I'll have to make a note of that. Take a seat, take a seat. We'll be looking at a basic Calming Draught today. Now, as I was saying, the entrails must be diced with a silver knife…"
Around the room, numerous students turn to mouth 'hello!' at James and gesture for him to sit near them; he's proven to be a popular student in all his classes. James wavers for a moment, but apparently even Slughorn's fondness for him has its limits, for he frowns and points to a seat.
"For Merlin's sake, Potter, sit down so we can continue. This next bit is very important."
James hurries over to the seat, setting his bag down and quickly removing his already-desecrated textbook. One of his friends has drawn an unkind picture of Slughorn as an actual slug, wearing a waistcoat and a disapproving expression; James quickly flips the page over.
"Now, the intestines must be added at the very last second. This is paramount to achieving a usable potion." Slughorn waves the intestines around, narrowly missing a revolted-looking Ravenclaw. "Right! Partner up and we'll get started."
"Partner?" James asks the person beside him without looking, still trying to find the page with the Calming Draught.
That's a familiar voice by now. He looks up and frowns. Of all the people in the room, why did he have to end up next to Scorpius Malfoy?
"I nearly got caught because of you," James whispers angrily. "I had to sneak all the way back to the Gryffindor tower, and Peeves nearly got me!"
"Serves you right for invading people's rooms," Scorpius retorts.
"You're one to talk! You're lucky I didn't tell anyone!"
There's a short pause. Scorpius stares down at his Potions textbook for a long moment before speaking.
"No." James considers this. "I mean, I could have," he adds threateningly. "But I didn't."
"What? What sort of question is that?"
"I want to know."
"If you tell me how to do that portal charm, I'll tell you."
Scorpius doesn't reply to that, just looks down at his textbook and starts writing down notes. James waits impatiently, but it becomes apparent that no answer is forthcoming.
"Fine," James says with a heavy sigh that implies great sacrifice. "I suppose I'll go fetch the intestines. I hope you were listening, at least, because I've got no idea what we're supposed to be doing."
Scorpius just gives him an annoyed look.
For a kid with no friends, James thinks, Scorpius sure has a lot of attitude.
Later that night, around the Gryffindor common room fire, James lounges with his friends.
"You're so lucky you're the teacher's pet. Slughorn loves you."
"I am not the teacher's pet!" James retorts, flicking an earwax-flavoured bean at Martin. He retaliates with an expired chocolate frog and the next moment, a hail of sweets rains down upon the students.
"Truce!" Paul calls out, ducking a Canary Cream. In the corner of the common room, two prefects are looking at them with distinct disapproval.
"Wish there was somewhere else we could go," Martin complains. "You can't have a laugh here, someone's always studying."
It's on the tip of James's tongue to say I know a place! but he manages to remain quiet. Martin speaks up again instead.
"You know who is a teacher's pet? That odd Malfoy. Always writing away." He mimics frantic writing and laughs.
"Maybe he's practising," Paul suggests.
"What do you mean? Like he's never written before?" Nate demands, and Paul flushes.
"No! I meant practising note-taking — "
"Paul thinks Malfoy doesn't know how to write!" James laughs, and Martin quickly chimes in.
"Of course not — he's got all his servants, remember?" He jumps to his feet, pointing at an invisible servant. "You, go write my letters for me. And you, go wash my robes," he orders. James can't help but laugh at his theatrics. "And you, go beat up some Muggles. I don't like the way they look at me."
They're all laughing now, and suddenly James feels a hand on his shoulder. He quietens, his smile fading, and looks up.
"Oh, Rose," he says amicably. He's quite fond of his cousin — after all, his favourite place to visit has always been Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione's place — but he's found that although Rose shares the same year level with him, they don't seem to see each other much.
"Can I speak to you for a moment?" she asks quietly.
"Sure," he says, standing up to follow Rose to a quiet corner of the common room as his friends return to their chatter.
"It's about your friends," Rose begins, and James frowns.
"What about them?" he asks, hoping Rose won't embarrass him by lecturing him on how rowdy they are. She spends most of her time in the library or with a group of quiet girls.
"I've been hearing stories about your little midnight adventures. Word gets around."
"I suppose you're going to tell on me, then?" James says, crossing his arms. Rose frowns at him.
"Not yet. But I'm warning you. Look, everyone knows you're Harry Potter's son, and some of the things your friends have been saying...I wouldn't be too keen to be associated with them."
"Like what? What are they saying?"
"Those remarks from that Martin," Rose snaps. "Making jokes about hurting Muggles... how do you think my mum would feel if she heard you laughing about that?"
"Martin didn't mean it like that!" James retorts, flushing.
"It's still insensitive," Rose snaps. "A lot of people here are orphans from the war. From both sides," she adds. "Tell your friends not to make jokes about that sort of thing."
"Or you'll write home about me?"
Rose doesn't say anything to that, just sighs heavily and gives him a long look. "You can be a real pain sometimes, James," she says, and then she goes up the stairs to her dormitory.
James turns away and retreats to his own dorm, his mood spoiled for the rest of the night.
Monday morning, and suddenly Ron and Hermione's talk of 'holidays' and 'taking breaks' all makes sense to Harry. They probably found out somehow, he thinks gloomily. News travels far too fast through the Ministry grapevine.
Harry sits at the great oak desk of the Head Auror. The Head Auror — a broad-shouldered, craggy-faced man named Williamson — is away. He's always locked in meetings. Instead, his newest secretary — a young man named Cuthbert — looks nervously at Harry.
"Hello," Harry says at last, taking pity on Cuthbert. Most of the Auror secretaries — recent graduates with qualifications in the business field — don't last too long. Maybe it's the demanding nature of the job, or maybe it's the frequent sight of the Aurors dragging themselves into the office after fieldwork, covered in blood and wearing grim expressions.
"Hello, sir," Cuthbert says, looking dwarfed by the intimidating oak desk and towering stacks of paperwork. "Williamson sends his deepest apologies, sir, but — "
"Yes, he's very busy."
"Right." Cuthbert tentatively opens a folder. "Well…you've made remarkable progress in your time here. Not that you need me to tell you that, sir." He looks down at the file. "Orchestrated international operations to catch most of the remaining Death Eaters...personally mentored several of the graduate Aurors...you've been with the office for fifteen years, it says, and yet you haven't taken a single day of service leave. Even after your wife's death...I see here that you took only three weeks off, filed under bereavement leave."
"This is about Ginny?" Her name hangs in the air like a bruised cloud. Cuthbert looks slightly panicked.
"No, of course not, sir," he says hurriedly. "This is about reward. You've worked hard for over a decade now! Your accumulated leave — "
"I don't care, I don't need time off — "
"You…you do." Cuthbert winces slightly, as if expecting retribution. "Williamson said there's a big project coming up and he thinks it's your turn. Sir," he adds quickly.
Harry pauses. Every now and again, the Head Auror chooses someone to direct an operation. The major ones are usually handled by the Head Auror themselves, of course, but the senior Aurors are sometimes given rein. And it's been a while since Harry last took on an operation…it will be a very busy, very demanding role…
"Williamson highly suggests you have a rest, so to speak, before beginning the operation. It will be very intensive."
"Being an Auror has always been intensive," Harry says, a bit more aggressively than he meant. He can't just take a holiday. Not now.
"Er…yes, sir." Cuthbert pauses, looking as if he wished he were somewhere else. Anywhere. "But…Williamson said to tell you…that he's already moved your duties to other Aurors. He's cleared your schedule for the next two months. Auror Spelton volunteered to take on a lot of your duties, actually."
Harry pauses. Spelton. A young recruit, but he's worked his way up through sheer talent and intelligence. Harry knows Spelton's wife is already expecting their first child... the extra duties would give him some much-needed money.
Harry's shoulders slump. "The next two months?"
"I'm afraid so, sir."
"Well, something else, then," he says, changing tack. "Some other position."
"I…there's really nothing, sir, at least not that I can think of…I can schedule a meeting with Williamson, he knows much more than I do —"
Two months alone in that empty house. No James, no work. Harry can feel desperation gripping his heart like a vice.
"There must be something, anything! Even just...just some paperwork, some filing...it doesn't even have to be field work, for Merlin's sake."
Cuthbert hesitates. Harry pounces.
"There's a job."
"Well...there's one vacant role, in our Wizards Under Watch program. But you're rather over-qualified for it, sir. Something for the graduate recruits, really. Williamson's been looking for someone to take the job, but they've all been reluctant to accept it, and I can't say I blame them — "
"Over-qualified doesn't matter, I'll take a pay cut," Harry says gratefully. "What is it, monitoring a Dark magic user? That's fine."
"Yes, sir. The previous case officer has unexpectedly quit after...er, there was a bit of silliness about missing money from the office funds, and...anyway," Cuthbert continues with determined cheerfulness. "One day a week, visiting a program participant. That's all."
Harry's expression falls. He'd been hoping for something a little more demanding of his time, but perhaps he could dedicate some time to preparation, depending on the complexity of the case.
"It's fine," he says. "I'll take it."
"I can't authorise it," Cuthbert replies anxiously. "You'll have to talk about it with Williamson."
"I'm sure he won't have a problem with it. I'll send him a memo. Thanks," Harry adds, giving a nod and turning to stride away before Cuthbert can change his mind.
He doesn't, and evidently Williamson isn't too irritated by the request; a few hours after Harry's sent the memo, Williamson sends a short reply. Request granted, he's scrawled. Will send client file shortly. Effective next Monday.
One more week of work, then, Harry thinks. Well, he'll have to arrange for that Salisbury estate raid on Thursday — they'd received a tip about a cache of Dark objects — then there's the intelligence reports due Wednesday, and planning needs to be finalised for the new surveillance set-up…
The client file arrives shortly afterwards, but it stays forgotten on the corner of Harry's desk.
Friday comes and goes. Harry manages to survive it and come six o'clock, the last of his colleagues have left the office. Ron visits on his way to the Patents Office to drop off some paperwork for a new Weasley wheeze.
"Thought you'd still be here."
Harry looks up from his paperwork. Ron stands by the door, his cloak folded over one arm.
"Yeah, mate. Just finishing up some reports."
"Well, at least that's the last overtime you'll do for the next two months." He grins. "Book yourself a trip somewhere, Harry. Join a Quidditch team. Start knitting. Just do something, promise me."
"Good. Well — I'd better get to the office before it closes."
"Right, I'll see you later."
Harry listens to Ron's footsteps fade. In the distance, a door closes.
Silence. Once again.
He slowly rearranges his paperwork. Everything's in order and he knows it. He's just delaying his inevitable return home. The fireplace will be cold and the ashes will be grey. He'll need to sweep the front steps; the dead leaves are gathering. The gardens will be dying, disappearing beneath the chill of autumn.
Well, at least there's one last thing to do. He reaches for the client file and flips it open. He hasn't had the chance to look at it all week.
Harry stares blankly at the name typed neatly at the top of the file.
At first, he thinks it's a joke. Ron left it on his desk, or a file was delivered to the wrong desk, or something. He slowly turns the page. It's blank except for one sentence in the middle.
Warning: Following details are highly confidential. Please sign below to continue.
He tries to turn the page. It doesn't move. He slowly reaches for a quill and signs his name. The ink dissolves to nothing and a few seconds later, the page turns. The headings of various sections catch his eye: contact details, next of kin, medical details, personal history, family association with Voldemort...it's all here. Every detail of Draco Malfoy's life, laid out neatly for any Ministry employee to read.
It's certainly not a joke.
Harry leans back in his chair and frowns, considering his options. He should have guessed as soon as Cuthbert said everyone else had been reluctant to accept the case. It can't be that bad, he thinks. Visit Draco once a week to tick a few boxes. It would definitely be awkward, though. Harry certainly wouldn't be offered tea and biscuits. And one sneer from Draco and Harry would be forced, by the rules of karma, to punch him.
Perhaps it would be that bad, he thinks. Perhaps tomorrow he'll just tell Williamson he's changed his mind, and go…
With nothing to do, nothing to distract him, in his house of bittersweet memories. James's visit, at Christmas, is still two and a half months away.
Harry exhales slowly, leans forward and begins to read. Contact details first. Nothing of interest there. Then comes next-of-kin; a large government stamp fills the space where a family member's details should be. Harry's eyebrows rise. It means Draco hasn't nominated anyone, and has therefore agreed (by default) to have the Ministry manage his estate and arrangements should he die.
A list of family follows. Harry casts his eye down the list: Mother, deceased. Father, missing declared deceased. Uncle, deceased. Aunt, deceased. First cousins, all deceased. Grandparents, deceased. Ex-wife, deceased.
It looks as if only one relative survived the apparent Malfoy massacre: one dependant, listed as Scorpius Malfoy.
A door slams open. Harry jumps, then looks up as a cleaner walks in.
"Oh, Mr Potter," he says with surprise. "You're still here? It's nearly half-six."
"Another late night," Harry says lightly, picking up the file. "Good evening, Wilbur."
"Good evening, Mr Potter."
Harry takes his cloak from the hook and makes his way through the silent building, quickly walking out into the dark autumn night.
There's something strangely fascinating about seeing someone's life pinned to paper. Particularly someone like Draco, who had so carefully guarded his personal life at Hogwarts. Although Harry had long-forgotten their schoolyard rivalry, it still gives him satisfaction to know that he has access to certain details that would no doubt horrify Draco. For instance, the medical records note that he has low blood pressure. There's nothing listed under allergies, but a small range of notes on injuries detail two healed rib fractures and a broken wrist. Fascinatingly, there's a small sentence added to the 'broken wrist' injury: No charges laid.
Harry makes an easy guess: Draco called someone a Mudblood and got into a fight. He flips through the pages but there's no further explanation, although there's extensive details about Draco's links to pro-Voldemort organisations and supporters. Harry's Auror training kicks in and he immediately begins analysing the notes.
At ten o'clock, he pours himself a scotch.
But, for the first time for years, he does not retire to bed at half-ten. Instead, he reads the file until he's reached the very end.
Draco stares at the family portrait, holding it a foot above the fireplace. As if sensing the proximity of paper and oil, the flames below seem to reach higher.
His mother stands on one side. The last portrait ever taken of her. She's wearing a set of black dress robes, a string of pearls around her neck. Astoria looks resplendent in a crisp white dress. Draco had worn the traditional tuxedo, although privately he thinks the cut of the suit makes him look too thin.
But he had still been happy then. Distracted by all the problems in his life — his sickly mother, withering away to nothing; his father's uncomfortably obvious absence; his friends abandoning him. But Astoria made up for it. Beautiful Astoria, with her dark eyes and her always-smiling mouth, the way she'd always been so happy, bright as a star. Back then, when they still held onto hope for their future together.
His hand shakes just a little, then drops the portrait into the fire. His mother is the first to burn. Her hollowed cheeks and sunken eyes disappear first, followed by her bony hands clutching a single wilted daffodil. Then Draco burns away, his smirk and confident gaze disappearing into smoke. Then Astoria's mother and sister, standing neatly to one side.
Then Astoria herself. Her happy expression, her bright eyes, all vanishing beneath the flames.
Draco walks through the manor that night, walking from room to room, trying to find a space that doesn't haunt him. Faces rise from the cellar, screaming for mercy. Bodies writhe in agony in the drawing room (no; no, those doors shall never open again). Astoria flits from room to room. We loved each other, once, he can almost hear her whisper sadly. What happened to us?
At last he goes to Scorpius's room. That small child's bedroom, the same room that once belonged to a young Draco. In the darkness, he can almost pretend there's stuffed toys lining the shelves again, and a copy of Beedle the Bard on the beside table, and Scorpius will run through the door and pick it up and say give me a happy story tonight.
Children are the same everywhere.
They all want fairytale endings.
A noise like a taut metal wire being plucked. The noise vibrates through Draco's skull and he winces, slowly sitting up and feeling disoriented. He's in his son's room. Did he fall asleep in here?
"Master." Before him, one of the elderly house-elves has appeared. "Someone has passed through the wards."
"I know." Once a week, like clockwork. He's set the wards to allow the Ministry officials through.
"Shall Haggly let them in?"
"No, I'll get the door."
The house-elf dutifully disappears again. Draco makes his way down the hallway; as he nears the staircase, he hears a knock at the door and is immediately irritated. He'd received an owl notifying him that he had a new case officer, and he hadn't cared at all. But at least his previous officer knew to always visit at a reasonable hour (noon) and never knocked, always waiting patiently for Draco to answer the door. He taps the door with his wand, disabling the locking spells, and pulls it open, an irritated greeting poised on his lips. Instead —
"Who are you?" he asks stupidly.
Harry blinks at him. "Harry Potter."
"I can see that. I meant — what are you doing here?" Draco opens the door wider and looks around, half-expecting to see a Weasley as well.
"I'm your new case officer."
"What are you talking about?"
Harry stares at him. "Your Wizards Under Watch program," he says slowly. "The same program you've been participating in, once a week for the past fifteen years."
"The past — what are you — you are not allowed on this property," Draco says at last, trying to find his way back to solid ground.
"Yes, I am. As your Wizards Under Watch officer — "
"Stop saying that! I'm reactivating the wards."
"Do that and I'll have to make a probationary note on your record."
That sinks in, at least. Draco's alarmed. A probationary note might result in an extra month being adding to his program and he does not want to stay in the program any longer than necessary.
"Fine," he says between gritted teeth. "Come in." The invitation could not sound more hostile but what choice does he have? He's half-expecting Harry to gloat about it but instead he lingers on the doorstep, looking uncomfortable.
"Can't we just conduct the interview out here?"
"If you think I'm going to stand out here for twenty minutes, you're obviously more soft-headed than I previously thought," Draco snaps.
"Oh, so you're really resorting to petty insults? Look, this arrangement isn't ideal for either of us, so let's just get it over with."
"Then stop wasting both our time and come inside," Draco says angrily. He turns and walks through the entrance hall without any further discussion; he can hear Harry following him slowly. Front parlour room, he decides. One of the most unwelcoming rooms in the manor, with its dreadfully uncomfortable chairs and icy draughts.
Harry makes a beeline for the antique chaise, sits uncomfortably at the end of it, immediately opens the file and launches into a barrage of questions.
"It says here that on the twenty-second of May last year, you contacted Gregory Goyle. Doesn't that breach the rules? You are not allowed to contact any known or suspected Voldemort supporters."
"He invited me to his wedding. I regretfully declined."
"Reason for declining?"
"Are you stupid? You just said it. I'm not allowed to contact any known or suspected Voldemort supporters. I applied for special consideration for Goyle's wedding and was rejected."
"Well, that should all be on file. This is very incomplete." Harry looks at Draco as though he thinks Draco's been sneaking into the Ministry offices and stealing pages. "You've had a very poor history with your previous officers. Too many changes. Now, your ex-wife. The Greengrass family. Did you know that one of the cousins, Amina Addlesworth, was a suspected Voldemort supporter?"
"I do not have the habit of routinely running background checks on relatives."
"Did you ever meet this cousin, this Amina?"
"I don't recall meeting her, no."
"Really? Because she attended your wedding."
"Five hundred people attended my wedding, Potter. I did not meet all of them personally."
"Yet you invited them?"
"Astoria's mother made all the arrangements and invitations." Draco stares at Harry. "Have you seriously been investigating every single person who attended my wedding?"
"I'm an Auror. I'm thorough."
"Thorough? Pedantic, I'd say."
"And I see you haven't been meeting the requirements of the program." Harry immediately switches topics, turning a page of the file. "You're supposed to be engaging with the community, Malfoy. It's part of your Muggle rehabilitation."
"I've had these discussions with my previous officers. We agreed that it wasn't necessary."
"Not necessary?" Harry stands up, snapping the file shut. "Not necessary? Hermione created this program, she structured it specifically — "
"Granger designed this program?" Draco, absurdly, feels like laughing. "Granger made this program?"
"I fail to find the amusement in that, Malfoy. I suggest you start taking this more seriously. No doubt you intimidated your previous officers into 'discussing' requirements, but I assure you, things will be very different now. Part of the program is the requirement for you to contribute towards the Muggle community."
Draco waves a hand dismissively. "If you insist."
"You can come up with a list of possible contributions," Harry says, "and I'll choose the most suitable one. Now, give me your wand."
Draco stares at him, gritting his teeth. After a long pause, he throws his wand at him. Harry catches it easily and murmurs a spell, staring intently at the golden letters floating above Draco's wand.
"Seven spells?" he says incredulously. "You're telling me that in an entire week, you've only used seven spells?"
Harry gives him a look, then frowns. "Three heating spells, two locking spells, an Accio charm and...Brackium Emendo." He pauses. "Brackium...why does that sound familiar? Broken bones. Healing broken bones. Why would you need to use that spell?"
"My house-elf fell when carrying the tea-tray and broke their hip."
"What, it just snapped like a twig, did it?"
"He looks like he's five hundred years old! He breaks a bone just looking sideways at me."
"This house-elf. Where is he?"
Draco exhales slowly. This meeting has taken far too long already. Nevertheless, he calls for Haggly; the house-elf dutifully appears two minutes later.
"This is Haggly. Ask him whatever you want," Draco tells Harry.
Harry asks Haggly a range of questions as if he thinks Draco's just waiting for him to leave so the elf can be used as a personal punching bag. However, the elderly house-elf provides only dull answers: Yes, he broke a bone falling over. Yes, Master Malfoy was kind enough to heal it for him. Yes, he otherwise feels in good health. At last, Potter thanks the elf and dismisses him.
"Finished yet?" Draco snaps. "Or would you like to interrogate the squirrels in the eaves?"
"That will do for now. I'll be back next week."
"Not in the morning."
"If it's more convenient, I will arrange an afternoon appointment."
It's an unexpected courtesy in a meeting otherwise full of snide remarks and accusatory statements, and Draco frowns distrustfully.
"All right," he says at last, moving to the door; Harry hastens to catch up.
"I can show myself out."
I'm sure you can, Draco thinks suspiciously. No doubt Harry would like to amble to the front doors in his own time, taking the opportunity to have a good gawk at everything and intrude even more on Draco's personal life. He follows Harry to the door, says a very formal goodbye and closes the door sharply.
With any luck, Harry will be so keen to avoid another meeting he'll hand the job over to someone else again.
Harry can feel a headache creeping up, but then, what did he expect? He has to actively focus on unclenching his jaw. Draco was just as he remembered: a complete prat, sullen, irritable, and unhelpful.
The real source of Harry's headache, however, is the manor. That dreadful house...when he had last visited, it had been Voldemort's base of operations. Rising from the dark grounds like a gargoyle, it had loomed over the landscape with immense intimidation. Inside, it hadn't been any better. Roaring flames in vast marble fireplaces; grand chandeliers swaying imperceptibly from above. People whispering, faint footsteps.
But now, in some ways, it seems almost more unsettling. The manor, illuminated by daylight, has turned into a shambling beast crouched upon the land. Overgrown gardens, ivy creeping along the window panes, and the ornate stonework of the porch steps crumbling away beneath Harry's feet as he walked over them. Sitting in the front parlour room, all he could hear were creaking noises and the occasional scratching noise, like a rat in the walls.
He's not going back there, he decides. He took this job to get away from unsettling silences and empty houses.
But then he remembers Draco's casual dismissal of the program Hermione had spent so many months developing — oh, those requirements aren't necessary — and his jaw clenches again. No; any other officer is just going to end up intimidated again and agree to Draco's little negotiations. Nobody else will enforce the rules, Harry is sure of it.
If there's one thing Harry can't stand, it's someone escaping justice.