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Things Worth Knowing

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Just a young gun with a quick fuse.
I was uptight,
Wanna let loose.
I was dreaming of bigger things,
And wanna leave my own life behind.
--Thunder, Imagine Dragons

Harry's not so certain coming to Diagon was a good idea. He's stayed away from the wizarding world the past few months, other than the funerals and memorials he's had to attend and the Wizengamot hearings he's been called to speak at, and there've been far too many of both since May, if Harry's honest.

It feels strange to have people on the street looking at him, whispering as he passes. At least Ron and Hermione are here, flanking him, keeping the handful of people at bay who actually try to speak to Harry, to come up and shake his head, to press themselves into his space until Harry's breath catches, his chest tightening, that familiar buzzing rush filling his head so that he staggers against Hermione, and Ron starts shouting, telling them all to fuck off, to leave them be.

The panic attacks started in late June. Harry doesn't know why. The nightmares came first, those shuddering, horrifying dreams of the dead that had pulled him shouting from his sleep. He'd been able to hide them for a while; by that time he'd left the Burrow for Grimmauld Place. It'd been easier to be alone than to feel as if he were drowning in the Weasleys' grief. Ginny had been angry with him at first, but she'd understood in the end. Harry had his own things to work through, and they weren't things he felt he could lay on her shoulders.

Not after Fred.

"Steady," Hermione says quietly, her bushy brown curls brushing his cheek. Her hand settles on Harry's elbow. They walk past the still boarded up facade of Fortescue's. The scars of the war are still visible even here. "Just breathe."

Harry tries to, but the looks he's getting now, puzzled and uncertain as the faces around him slide away, giving him the space Ron's demanded, only make him feel more of a fool. The Healers have tried to tell Harry this is normal, that he's not gone half-mad, but it doesn't help. Not really. It doesn't take much now to get his heart racing, his body trembling, and Harry hates when it happens like this in public.

And then Ron's pulling him into the cool shadows of a shop, and Harry inhales the spicy-sweetness of herbs and roots, the acrid bite of dragon's blood. Slug and Jiggers, his mind supplies, and Harry breathes out, his eyes adjusting to the dim gloom of the apothecary. Two walls are filled floor to ceiling with drawers, faded yellow cards tucked into their handles with spidery handwriting labelling the contents of each one. Another wall holds jar upon murky jar of things Harry'd rather not look too closely at, the great majority of them sloshing about in a foul-smelling preservative solution that makes Harry think of Snape, dying right there in front of him, Harry watching the light in his eyes go out, and then the constriction in his chest is back.

"I still say this is rubbish." Ron pokes at a basket of dried newt eyes on the counter in front of the grimy paned window, frowning. He turns, glances over at Hermione. She's rubbing one hand over her bare arm, her bright red sleeveless shirt standing out in the dim shop. "Kingsley offered us places in Auror training without our NEWTs if McGonagall agreed. We brought down a sodding Dark Lord, for Merlin's sake--"

"Harry brought him down," Hermione says, looking a bit cross, "and McGonagall must have her reasons for saying no. Frankly I think it's a good idea for us all to be going back to Hogwarts. There's nothing wrong with more education, Ron. It's not like you want to be a complete Neanderthal, do you?"

"Reckon they were smarter than you think." Ron scowls at her, and Hermione rolls her eyes.

It's an argument they've been having since McGonagall's owls had arrived three weeks ago, informing them that she wasn't going to waive the NEWTs requirement, whatever Kingsley Shacklebolt might think, and that should they like to sit them again, she'd be more than happy to welcome them--Harry included--into a specialised eighth year course she was putting together. Harry had thought Ron might explode; he's still furious with the Headmistress as only a Weasley can be.

"Look," Harry says, trying to deflect the coming fight as best he can. "As long as we're here, let's just get what we need for class and go." The quiet of the shop's calming him. He can ignore people here, he thinks. He ought to have just let Hermione pick his things up for him. Or taken Ron's advice and worn a glamour, but Harry'd had to go to Gringotts first for money, and the goblins take a hard line against those sorts of spells, particularly after the three of them had managed to break into Bellatrix Lestrange's vault a few months back. There's even a Polyjuice detector spell on the main lobby now. To be honest, Harry can't really blame them. Gringotts had been the one place in Diagon today he hadn't been fêted and cheered--the goblins had watched him suspiciously the entire time. It'd almost been a relief to be frowned at, Harry thinks.

Hermione sighs and pulls out her supply list. She studies it for a moment "I've still my copper cauldron," she says.

"Me too." Ron looks over from a jar of boomslang skin he's sifting through. He closes the lid. "Harry?"

Harry just shrugs. "I don't know." It's not in his school trunk, which means he'd either left it at Hogwarts or in his bedroom at the Dursleys', and Harry doesn't want to go back into Number Four Privet Drive. Not anytime soon, at least.

"Oh." Hermione just watches Harry, seeing far too much for Harry's comfort; he looks away. "Then I suppose we might as well get one for you here."

"All right." Harry follows Hermione over to the cauldron display, the heavy Flourish and Blotts bag in his left hand banging up against his knee with each step. He wishes Gin were here with him, but she's gone off to Dublin for the weekend with Luna and Eloise Midgen. It's probably better though. Things haven't been great between the two of them lately, and Harry knows it's his fault. He's been distant and quiet, and Ginny doesn't really know what to do with Harry when he's like this. Harry doesn't know how to explain to her that he feels adrift now, without purpose, and isn't that bloody pathetic? But Voldemort's been part of Harry's life--fuck, part of Harry himself--for seven years, and that silence, that sudden emptiness of nothing to oppose, nothing to fight against, feels strange and unsettling to Harry.

He studies the copper cauldrons in front of him blankly. He can't remember which one he has. He doesn't want to take potions anyway. He'll be shit at it again, he's certain, especially without Snape's book. Slughorn'll be disappointed in him, and Harry's chest tightens again at that thought, which is ridiculous because he really doesn't give a damn what Horace Slughorn thinks of him. Still, he can feel the panic rising again as his gaze slides over the rows of cauldrons. He can't pick one. His fingers clench around the handle of the Flourish and Blotts bag.

"This one, I think," Hermione says, and she takes a cauldron from the shelf. It's small and shiny, and she doesn't look at Harry. "Don't you?"

"Yeah." Harry's voice is a rasp. "That looks good." He takes it from her, carries it over to the till where Slug or Jiggers, one of them, Harry doesn't know which, takes it from him with a sideways glance at Harry.

"Four Galleons, Mr Potter," the apothecarist says, and he takes the coins Harry hands over before pulling out a sheet of newsprint--a Daily Prophet from a few weeks past, Harry realises when he sees a photo of himself blinking out at him. It'd been an article about the last time Harry'd spoken in front of the Wizengamot. Harry watches as the apothecarist wraps it around the cauldron, folding it neatly with long, potion-stained fingers until Harry's photographic face is half-hidden from view.

"Thank you," Harry says when he's handed the bag. It has a charm on it to make it lighter, he realises.

Harry doesn't want to go back to Hogwarts in a few days, doesn't want to have to walk through its halls again. He hasn't been to the castle since the battle. Merlin only knows what it'll be like when he walks in again. The Ministry's had teams rebuilding it, repairing the spell damage that had nearly demolished the courtyard and Great Hall, not to mention half the classroom wing. He supposes he understands why McGonagall wants him and Ron and Hermione back. She'd tried to explain in her owl, telling each of them that she felt they'd be best served by returning to complete their studies, particularly if they were hell-bent on becoming Aurors. It's not that she doesn't have a point, Harry thinks. He doesn't feel adequately prepared to take on Auror training right now. But he's not certain being at Hogwarts is going to be any better. Harry's anxiety spikes just thinking about taking the train back up to Scotland.

Still, there's a part of him that's relieved to have Auror training pushed off another year, not that he'll admit it to Ron. So he grouses as well, nodding when Ron whinges about how unfair McGonagall's being, murmuring his own sour complaints that he doesn't quite feel. At least he'll have another year with Ginny, Harry thinks, and he's glad of that. Maybe being at Hogwarts together will help them overcome this odd gulf that's developed between them this summer. Maybe it'll all feel like it used to.

The sunlight's bright when they step out of the shop, and it nearly blinds Harry. He blinks for a moment, the world a swirl of blurred colours around him before it falls back into focus. He can feel Ron behind him, tense and careful, ready to snap at anyone who comes their way. Harry half-wishes he'd brought his Invisibility Cloak. It's hanging in the back of his wardrobe at Grimmauld Place, even though Hermione frets about a Hallow being shoved between Harry's winter cloak and his dress robes. It's not secure, she says, but Harry thinks no one in their right mind would expect something that valuable to be hidden away in such a common place. Still, he reminds himself to pack it in his school trunk later. Better to have it with him at Hogwarts then just sitting there in Grimmauld Place.

"Where to next?" Hermione says as the door clangs shut behind her. She still has their supply list in her hand. "We've our books and Harry's cauldron." She looks over at Harry and Ron, her mouth tugging down at the corners. "Harry, you'll have to replace your school robes, if you're not going back for your trunk."

Harry shifts from foot to foot. "I'll order them from Madam Malkin's by owl," he says. "Have them sent to Grimmauld Place."

"You know she'll want to measure you." Ron gives him a sideways look. "She doesn't like--"

"She'll do it for me," Harry says, his voice quiet, and Ron falls silent. Harry feels a right shit. He doesn't like invoking his Saviour of the Wizarding World status, but he can't bear walking all the way down the street to the clothing shop. It'd been bad enough in Flourish and Blotts, and Harry's bloody glad Hermione'd suggested coming to Diagon early in the week, before all the families flooded the street on Saturday, looking to outfit their children for another year at school. His fingers tighten around the handles of his bags. "I'm ready to go home."

He tries to ignore the worried looks Ron and Hermione exchange. Harry knows they haven't liked him shutting himself away like he has this summer. He can't really explain to them why he's needed to, how he feels so numb still after that night in the woods. He hasn't talked about it much; Ron's asked questions, but Hermione's warned him not to push. Harry still has nightmares about the flash of green light that had slammed into him, bleeding his life away. Hermione'd tried to tell him it'd just been a near-death experience, that she'd read about them and how traumatic they could be for the brain. Harry knows better though. He'd died that night. He can still remember how cold he'd felt, how empty, standing in the middle of a whited-out King's Cross. He could have left them all right then. Sometimes he really wishes he had, but he doesn't tell Ron and Hermione that. They'd think him mental, and maybe he is. The Healers would have him wrapped up and tossed into the Thickey Ward if they knew, too, so Harry hides those thoughts away, as deeply as he can. Now they only come out in dreams, mostly.

And standing on the kerb in Diagon, it seems.

Harry starts walking. He knows Ron and Hermione will follow, and they do, hurrying to flank him on either side again. They're all silent as they make their way back towards the Leaky.

Ron nudges Harry's shoulder after a moment. "All right there, mate?" he asks easily, and Harry gives him a half-smile.

"Yeah." They both know he isn't, and Harry feels awful that he hasn't been there for Ron this summer, not the way he ought to have been. He knows Ron's grieving Fred in his own quietly stoic way. Harry doesn't know what to say to him about that; he knows he's not the only one to have lost people in the war. There'd still been a few skirmishes this summer, a few pockets of Death Eaters who'd escaped capture and who'd lashed out in Hogsmeade and a few of the smaller mixed Muggle-and-wizard towns. The Aurors have been out in force recently; Harry's used to seeing Dawlish and Kingsley's grim faces on the front page of the Prophet. Harry'd thought it would all end once Voldemort was dead, but he'd been wrong. Sometimes he thinks it's worse now; the hearings had been vicious, filled with angry accusations and hatred on both sides.

Harry stops in front of the window of Eeylops Owl Emporium, his attention caught by the flutter of wings. He misses Hedwig terribly, but he's not certain he's ready to replace her yet. Still, he can't help but watch a lovely grey owl on its perch in the left corner. It looks at him with unblinking golden eyes, then ruffles its feathers with a small shake of its whole body. Harry puts a finger up to the glass and the owl tilts its head ever so slightly, watching him, then it takes a hop on its perch, then another, moving closer to Harry. Harry smiles at it.

"Pretty thing," he murmurs, and the owl leans forward, taps its beak against the glass right where Harry's finger is before pulling back. It blinks slowly, then hops back once on its perch, just watching Harry through the glass.

The door to the shop opens, and Harry glances over. He stills when he sees a flash of pale skin and bright blonde hair through the glass panes.

"He's a beauty, Draco," Blaise Zabini's saying as he holds the door open.

"Isn't he?" Malfoy's holding a cage with a small brown owl in it, one that's barely past being an owlet, Harry thinks. Zabini's right, though; the owl's markings are gorgeous already. Malfoy strokes a finger along one of the owl's wings. His face is soft and open; his hair falls loose over one cheek, the ends brushing against his chin.

And then he looks over to where Harry and his friends are standing, and Harry can see the moment Malfoy's expression chills, his shoulders tensing. "Potter." His voice is tight, almost angry, which is rich, isn't it, coming from that fucking prat. Something hot and uncomfortable twists deep inside of Harry, and it surprises him. He's so used to feeling hardly anything at all these days.

"Malfoy," Harry says in return. He can feel Ron start to step forward next to him, but Harry puts a hand on Ron's arm, holding him back. He doesn't want a scene. Not here. Not now.

The bells on the door jangle again, and Pansy Parkinson steps out. "Honestly, Draco," she says, tucking a small package into her bag, "you might have bloody waited--" She breaks off when she looks up. "Oh."

It feels strange, Harry thinks, to be standing here like this, facing off with Malfoy and his lot again. He wonders where Goyle is, and then Harry's stomach flips, remembering the heat of the Fiendfyre and Crabbe's screams as it consumed him, the smell memory of burnt flesh and hair still lingering in his nose. He looks away.

Silence stretches out for a long moment, and then Hermione says, a bit tightly, "Buying Hogwarts supplies, are you?"

Zabini shifts a Flourish and Blotts bag from one hand to the other. "What's it to you?"

"She's just trying to be polite, you wanker," Ron snaps, and Harry looks back to see Malfoy draw himself up, long and lean and lankier than Harry remembers him being. They've only seen each other once since the battle, when Harry spoke at Narcissa Malfoy's hearing, telling the Wizengamot what she'd done to keep him alive. Well. After she'd let him die once, that is.

"If I were the walking equivalent of a ginger nut," Malfoy says, his voice sharp enough to make the owl flutter uneasily in his cage, "which thank Circe I had the great fortune not to be, I'd watch my tone in front of Blaise."

"Oh, fuck off, Malfoy," Harry says, and a curious thrill goes through him at the vicious look Malfoy throws his way. Harry almost feels alive again. He can't stop himself from pushing a bit more. "And maybe you're--" He casts a scathing look towards Zabini and Parkinson. "--not the sort we want at Hogwarts any more."

Ron thumps Harry's back. "Right you are, Harry." They both ignore the disapproving frown Hermione gives them.

Malfoy's eyes narrow. "Oh, do believe we wouldn't step foot in that bloody hellhole again if we weren't being forced, Potter." His mouth twists. "Only that bint McGonagall won't let us sit our NEWTs without suffering through another year of Gryffindor bollocks, it seems."

Harry knows what he's not saying. Without NEWTs, there are fewer job prospects, proper ones at least, and in the current postwar climate people like Malfoy and his mates are going to have a hell of a time even getting a foot into the door. The Prophet's already suggested that Slytherin House be disbanded, that those students be sent down from Hogwarts. Let them work the menial jobs, Tiberius Ogden, a Member of the Wizengamot spearheading the movement, had told the Prophet, and there'd been plenty of letters to the editor agreeing.

Hermione touches Harry's elbow. "Let's go," she says quietly. "People are starting to watch."

"Run away with your little friends, Potter." Malfoy's smile is fiercely mocking. "Granger always has had you on a short leash--"

"Shut it," Harry says, and it comes out louder than he intends. He leans forward, not caring about the heads that are turning their way. Malfoy just watches him with cold eyes, his lips curved ever so faintly and in such a way that Harry wants to punch him, to bloody his stupid mouth. He can feel the roil of his magic deep inside, but Malfoy's not looking away, not flinching, not anything. "You're a right prick, Malfoy," Harry says, his voice rough and angry. "You ought to be rotting away in Azkaban next to your fucking father."

There's a flicker of something in Malfoy's eyes, but it disappears, forced down by that tight, scornful smile. Harry starts to turn away, and then Malfoy's fingers are firm and warm around Harry's wrist, holding him still. "If you expect me," Malfoy says, his voice low, his gaze fixed on Harry's face, "to kiss the sodding ground you walk on just because you spoke for my mother, you're barking, Potter. I want that perfectly clear, you self-righteous sod. I'll piss on it first." His eyes narrow; his grip tightens. "Do you understand?"

"Perfectly." Harry pulls away. He can still feel the heat of Malfoy's hand on his skin. They glare at each other; Malfoy's face is flushed, his eyes bright. Harry's whole body sparks and tingles, and he bounces on the balls of his feet, wanting nothing more than to slam the back of Malfoy's head against the brick of the Emporium's facade. His jaw tightens, his body tenses. It'd be so easy, he thinks. No one would stop him; Malfoy's a pariah now in wizarding society. The only thing that kept him out of Azkaban had been Narcissa Malfoy turning witness for the Ministry, and she'd only done that once Kingsley had promised immunity for her son. Not for herself. But for this giant prat of a tosser now glaring at Harry. Merlin, but Harry doesn't understand why.

"Harry," Hermione says from behind him. "They're not worth it."

Malfoy's gaze flicks towards Hermione. His mouth tightens as he looks her up and down. "Because a Mu--"

"Don't,” Harry says, and even he can hear the steely hardness in his voice. Malfoy stills, his eyes shifting towards Harry. "Don't even think about calling her that."

"I was going to say Muggleborn, you twat," Malfoy snaps, but Harry doesn't believe him. Malfoy's vicious gaze swings back to Hermione. "And I find it rather hysterical that a Muggleborn would know our worth--"

Parkinson puts a hand on Malfoy's arm. "Draco," she says quietly, and Malfoy turns back to her. "Don't start anything here. Not with Potter." She doesn't look at Harry, only at Malfoy, her red-tipped fingers rubbing small circles over Malfoy's white sleeve, like she's soothing a skittish Hippogriff. "Besides, I'm fancying a nice pot of Lady Grey and a slice of Victoria sponge. Share with me?"

Malfoy tucks a lock of hair behind his ear, and he steps back, letting Parkinson draw him away. Zabini glances back at Harry, and his eyes are cold. Calculating.

"Got something to say, Zabini?" Ron snaps, a bit too loudly, Harry thinks. He tries not to flinch, tries not to notice the looks they're starting to get. Christ, Harry hopes this doesn't end up in the Prophet, but it probably will. Anything that involves him tends to land somewhere in the paper's pages these days.

Zabini's smile is thin and sharp, his teeth a bright flash in his brown face. "Oh, so many things, Weasel, but for now I think silence is the better part of valour." His gaze drifts towards the handful of witches and wizards watching across the street, and then Zabini dips with a flourish into a quick, elegant bow. "Until later, arseholes," he says, and then he bounces back up, and turns on his heel, following Malfoy and Parkinson down the street.

"What a sodding wanker," Ron says beneath his breath. "The whole bloody lot of them, really, and what's McGonagall thinking, letting those bastards back in Hogwarts?"

Hermione turns towards the Leaky, picking her way across the cobblestoned street in her black flats. "It's not as if McGonagall had much choice if she's making them retake NEWTs as well," she says. "Besides, the Board of Governors won't let her reschedule the exams until next June, so I expect her hands are tied."

"That's bollocks," Ron says, and Harry doesn't really disagree. "They're just trying to fuck us all over."

"I hardly think that's the case," Hermione says with a frown. "Honestly, Ron--"

Harry tunes them out. He's heard this all summer. Instead he finds himself looking back down the street, his gaze almost immediately catching the gleam of silver-gilt hair before it disappears around a corner.

Oddly, Harry's glad Malfoy will be back at school. It'd feel too strange not to have the bastard there, skulking about in corridors and scheming to make Harry's life miserable. Though he'll never admit it to Ron or Hermione, Harry feels a bit better about that, a bit less as if the world's off the rails, even if it still is. He turns back to his friends.

Maybe the year won't be a complete waste, he thinks, and he doesn't wonder why that thought makes him strangely, slightly content.

***

Draco chooses the train compartment nearest to the engine, as far down Platform Nine and Three-Quarters as he can get from Potter and his sodding crew of Gryffindors and Gryffindor hangers-on.

"Get out," he says to a group of third-year Hufflepuffs, and for a moment, he thinks they're going to defy him and stay in their faded brown seats.

"Don't listen to him," one girl says. Lilah, Draco thinks her name is, and he frowns at her. She settles back in her seat. "He's only a Malfoy." She spits the name out as if it's foul against her tongue, and Draco's already reaching for his wand to hex the stupid cow when Millicent pushes past him, cracking her knuckles.

"Well, I'm a Bulstrode," Mills says, "and I'm fairly certain my little brother Matty's already terrorised the lot of you, so if you don't want me to put him on you again, you'll move your scrawny little arses to another bloody compartment, yeah?"

Lilah's face blanches, and Draco wonders exactly what Matty Bulstrode's been doing to his fellow third-years. He's a spoilt little shit, and even Millicent loathes the bastard. Still, Draco's not going to complain, not when it sends the whole lot of Hufflepuffs scampering out of the compartment, their tiny faces quivering like rabbits racing away from predators.

Pansy throws herself into one of the vacant seats. "I don't like this part of the train, Draco," she says, as Blaise sits beside her. Pansy cards her fingers through her dark brown hair, holding the limp, straight ends up and frowning at them. They've grown longer, nearly brushing her shoulders now. "Look at what the engine does to my curls."

"What curls?" Mills asks from across the table, her own black ringlets twisted up into a messy topknot.

"Precisely my point." Pansy lets her hair fall back against her purple dress, the deeply cut neckline gaping just enough to give a slight glimpse of a black lace bra. "The curling charm always fails in this humidity. I'll look a fright when we get to school."

Draco pulls the compartment door closed behind him. "I wasn't about to spend half the bloody day anywhere near Potter and those ginger idiots." He drops into the seat beside Millicent. It feels odd to be here without Greg and Theo, he thinks, but Greg's never cared about NEWTs, and Theo's parents had insisted he finish his exams at Durmstrang this year. Draco doesn't want to think of Vince, or the way Mrs Crabbe had walked up to him after the funeral and slapped him in the face. Draco hadn't flinched. He'd deserved it, and he knows that. He could have done something to save his friend, and he hadn't. He'd let Potter fly away, Draco clinging to the back of his broom, like a bloody coward.

But isn't that what Draco's always been? Weak. Impotent. Cowardly.

He looks out the window, watches as the train starts to pull away from the station, the parents waving, looking a bit anxious. It's the first year neither his mother nor his father have seen him off. Not possible, really, what with Lucius in Azkaban and his mother refusing to go out in public unless absolutely necessary. Draco hadn't wanted to put her through it this year. It's bollocks that they have to go back, of course, but there'd been no arguing with McGonagall. Draco's heard rumours that the Board of Governors hadn't wanted the Slytherins to return anyway, but she'd fought them on that. Honestly, Draco thinks that's a load of rubbish, but his mother had heard it from Vanessa Greengrass, who swore it was what she'd been told by someone in the Ministry. Then again, everyone knows Vanessa likes to tipple a bit too much, so fuck only knows if she's telling the truth.

"Did you see the Weaselette hanging over him?" Draco asks after a moment. He wrinkles his nose, looks back at his friends. "How nauseating."

Blaise slouches in his seat. "Circe, not this again," he says, half under his breath. Draco narrows his eyes at him, and Blaise just flips two fingers Draco's way. He looks tired already. "I can't bear another year of Potter this and Potter that, old man. Let's just nip it in the bud now."

"He has a point," Millicent says. She shifts, settles back in the corner of her seat, one shoulder pressed against the window. Her eyeliner is thick and black against her pale skin, making her blue eyes look brilliantly bright. "I realise there were extenuating circumstances and all previously, but now this rivalry or whatever it is between the two of you is just pathetic."

Draco glares at Pansy. "You could defend me."

"I could." Pansy scratches at the sharp angle of her jaw with dark plum fingernails. "But I don't entirely disagree with them. Can we just have some sort of moratorium on the Potter hate? It's not going to go over well in the current political climate." She sighs and crosses her arms over her chest, pulling the neckline of her dress lower. Draco catches the glance Blaise flicks her way, his gaze sliding down to the swell of her tits. Merlin, Draco hopes that's not going to go anywhere. The last thing he wants is his friends at each other's throats once their hearts are broken. "I mean, really, darling, even Mummy told me to be polite to the twat--"

"Given you tried to hand him over to the Dark Lord last term," Millie murmurs, "it's probably not a horrible idea."

Pansy shoots her an irritated frown. "At least I'm not Draco. Potter hates him more."

Blaise and Millie both look over at Draco. "Valid point," Millie says thoughtfully.

Draco leans his elbows on his knees. "You're all terrible friends, you realise." All three of them just look at him, and Draco slumps back into his seat with a furious huff. "Wankers."

He doesn't want to be angry with them, but he is. None of them understand, he thinks. It's different for them, for their families, and how they're trying to reposition themselves after the war. It'd just been Vince and Greg and Theo who'd had families who'd been Death Eaters, even if they weren't in the inner circle, and none of them were here now with him, were they? Draco's fingertips brush against his left forearm, where the Mark still stains his skin. What's it going to be like, he wonders, walking back into the castle with the remnants of the Dark Lord still burnt into his flesh? He can't hide it, not entirely. There'll be showers to consider, other moments when his sleeve might not cover the twist of the serpent, the curve of the skull, those thick black strokes across his pale arm, reminders of how foolish he'd been, how desperate to please his shit of a father.

Azkaban is a cold and terrifying place. Draco'd barely managed twenty minutes in late July, waiting in the visitor's room for a moment with Lucius. And then his father had refused to see him. Told the guards he wasn't interested in speaking to his son. Draco hasn't bothered to go back. His friends think him terrible, he knows. Pansy's already scolded him, told him he can't turn his back on his father. She doesn't seem to understand that Lucius Malfoy turned his back on Draco long before, that he'd fallen into a bottle of whisky whilst a madman took over his house, terrified his wife, tormented his son. Draco's not certain he can forgive his father. Not entirely.

Potter's words from a few days past still linger in his mind. You ought to be rotting away in Azkaban next to your fucking father. Pansy's told him Potter's an utter shit for saying that, and Draco wants to agree, but there's part of him that thinks Potter's right, part of him that's certain every bloody student in that damned castle will think the same. His father's destroyed any credibility Draco might have had, made him lesser, despised. Draco's gaze slips to his friends, to Blaise, who's pulled out a well-worn copy of de Troyes' Lancelot, ou Le Chevalier à la charrette to practise his French, to Pansy and Millicent who're bent across the window, the grim landscape of outer London's streets and terrace houses sliding by as they gossip about Daphne Greengrass's little sister Astoria, who seems to fancy an utterly inappropriate Ravenclaw boy. Draco wonders how long they'll stay by his side, wonders if his loss of power and status will cause them to drift away. He's felt it already from others in Slytherin House. Graham Pritchard and Malcolm Baddock had turned away from him on the train platform, refusing to meet his eyes. Draco's not a fool. He knows he's a pariah now, knows that there are families desperate to distance themselves from him. Pansy's already let it slip that her father's told her to give him a wide berth. Draco's just grateful that Pansy's rebellious enough to do as she pleases, whatever Richard Parkinson might say.

He leans back in his seat, silent, his stomach tightening, twisting with each clack of the train wheels along the track, with each mile of landscape that slips past the window, bringing them that much closer to the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps, Draco thinks, he ought to have done what Theo did and hie himself away to the wilds of Scandinavia, but Draco's never liked the idea of Durmstrang, if he's honest. It's far too militaristic for him, and he's never looked good in dark brown wool. Besides, Hogwarts is in his blood; a Malfoy's been attending since the Normans first stepped onto English soil, and Draco'll be damned if he'll let these bastards scare him away.

That doesn't mean he's looking forward to spending the next ten months in a school that's demonising him whilst raising Potter of all bloody people to demigod status. Draco only hopes he can keep his tongue civil enough; he doesn't trust Potter's ginger horde not to hex him into oblivion if he doesn't.

Merlin only knows how he'll manage, though. The very sight of Potter makes Draco's blood boil, makes him want to slam his fist into that smug bastard's face, over and over and over again until the red-tinged rage twisting up inside of him fades. Draco closes his eyes, breathes out.

Slowly, the hours slip away, timed only by the steady clack of train wheels against the track and they ever-changing landscape through the window as they skirt around cities and villages and hamlets and long stretches of nothing at all. Draco sleeps a little, curled up against Millicent's warm side, her hand settled on his shoulder. The sun sets in a glorious burst of rosy orange. The countryside changes as they move further north, rolling hills replaced by empty, wild moorland, then mountains, stark and black against the evening twilight. Finally the train slows; the wooden and stone buildings of Hogsmeade roll past, lit by flickering lamps along the High Street.

The train stops with a rumble and creak of wheels and brakes, a burst of steam that swirls past the window, coating it for a moment. Draco can hear the shouts down the corridor, the slam of compartment doors being opened, the thump of trunks being pulled from luggage racks. He sits up, looks at his friends. They're all as nervous as he feels, he realises. Coming back seems strange; they were meant to be starting their lives now, taking the next steps past their schooling, finding apprenticeships and further training, ways in which they could begin to make their marks on society.

"We should go," Blaise says after a moment. The voices outside their compartment are fading.

Pansy nods, seemingly calm, but Draco can see the flutter of her pulse in her throat. She doesn't make a move to stand. "They'll be waiting."

Still, none of them stir. They look at each other, their uncertainty written across their faces, all of them turned towards Draco, as if waiting for him to break their silence. He doesn't want to, doesn't need the responsibility that comes with being their leader. Perhaps a year or two ago he might have been thrilled, but now Draco just feels a coldness in the pit of his stomach, a flutter of fear. It's safe here in this compartment, just the four of them tucked away together. In a moment, all that'll change. They'll step into the unknown, into a school that despises them. Perhaps they've earned that loathing in a way, Draco thinks, but in other ways they haven't. It's the name that frightens people the most, he thinks. Slytherin House. The vipers who'll poison you, who'll destroy everything you hold dear. He's read the columns in the Prophet, thought them nothing but inflammatory rubbish, but he's also heard the whispers on the platform as they passed, felt the angry glances, seen the way parents drew their children out of Draco's path.

It'll only be worse when they step off the train.

Draco stands, reaches for his trunk. "We have to," he says, and it's as if he's broken whatever's holding his friends fast. They collect their luggage and bags, carry them down the silent corridor, take the steps out of the warmth of the train into the crisp chill of the night air. Heads turn as they move down the platform towards the throng of older students. Draco can see Potter in the midst of them, taller than he'd once been, his dark hair messy and unkempt. And then Potter's head turns, his gaze falls on Draco. His mouth tightens, but he doesn't look away, and Draco raises his chin, refusing to let Potter make him cower.

"Careful," Blaise murmurs at Draco's left shoulder, and then Granger leans in, says something to Potter. He turns away from Draco, and Draco only just stops himself from sighing in relief. He won't give Potter the satisfaction, whether or not the bastard would realise it.

Hagrid leads the first years away, towards the lake and the row of boats waiting for them. The older students move past the train station, lining up for the Thestral-drawn carriages. The near-skeletal creatures are visible to almost all of them now, Draco realises as the murmurs of surprise ripple through the press of students, save for the few who'd disappeared well before the battle started. He can feel Pansy tense beside him, and Millie as well. He's forgotten they hadn't been able to see the Thestrals last year, and he knows how disconcerting that first glimpse can be. It'd terrified him, even though he'd been expecting it. Draco had seen so much death the summer before. He'd no idea the last time he stood here how much more he'd be faced with in the coming months. Draco still has nightmares about it all, about the casual way the Dark Lord had cast the Killing Curse for the slightest offence, the soft thud of the bodies hitting the Manor floor, the glassy-eyed stare of the dead. Draco wonders sometimes what death feels like, what crossing that boundary brings, whether it's the heaven or hell the vicar sometimes speaks of or a simple, quiet nothingness.

If Draco's honest, he hopes for the latter.

The carriages creak as they roll down the path, the steady clip-clop of the Thestrals' hooves soft against the damp earth. It's rained recently, Draco realises. Perhaps an hour or two before, and cool droplets fall from the leaves of the trees above, splashing lightly against his heated skin. They feel good, and he turns his head up to the purple evening sky and the stars just beginning to show, breathes in the clean scent of dirt and wet grass.

The lights of the castle shine through the edges of the forest. Draco can hear the splash of the boats across the lake, the laughter of the first years as they pass them by, the murmur of his fellow students from the other carriages. Pansy's fingers curl around his, warm and soft, and he looks over at her. She gives him a faint smile.

"It's odd to be back," she says, and he looks up at the stone turrets as they pass beneath them. He remembers them that day, burning with curse flames, remembers the way bodies fell from their ramparts in bursts of green light. His heart thuds unevenly; it's hard to breathe, and Draco clenches Pansy's hand tighter, a shudder going through him. She lets him hold on to her, and he thinks she's remembering the fear herself, the terror that had pulled her away from the castle with so many other Slytherins, refusing to fight against their families or their friends, unwilling to throw themselves into a battle that wasn't theirs.

They'd been children, for Circe's sake, Draco thinks. Stupid fools caught in an adult's war, too blind to see their own paths through it. He wonders if he might have made different decisions, had he been older. Wiser.

Probably not. Draco'd been so caught up with his father, with making Lucius proud of him. He'd failed spectacularly, but Draco doesn't think he cares any longer. Or at least he tells himself that for now. He's not certain he believes it.

The carriages rumble through the gates, pulling to a stop in the courtyard. The last time Draco had seen it, it was filled with rubble, with broken stones and bits of castle towers brought down by battle curses. Bodies had been sprawled across its cobblestones; if Draco closes his eyes, he can almost see where the dead had fallen, can almost remember the bent legs, the bloodied faces, the blank eyes, the acrid stench of Unforgivables filling the air.

"Merlin," Millicent breathes out, and Draco knows she remembers it too.

Now the courtyard's pristine, the towers around it restored, only the faintest lines in the stonework showing where they've been repaired. Draco steps out of the carriage, looking around him, and he can see the others doing so as well, all of them remembering the way the castle had been in the aftermath of that long night. His gaze finds Potter again, and he takes in the pallor beneath Potter's golden skin, the unsteadiness of Potter's gait as Potter walks towards the Weaselette, puts his arm around her waist. The Gryffindors close rank around Potter, nearly hiding him from view, but Draco catches the glint of the torchlight on Potter's glasses before Potter turns away.

"Welcome, students." McGonagall's standing on the steps in a brown robe, a green and brown tartan wrapped around her shoulders. They all look towards her, the lot of them, as her voice rings out across the courtyard. "It's good to see your faces back here once more." A small smile quirks her thin lips to one side. "All of you." She looks towards the huddle of Slytherins on the edges of the throng.

Draco's not so certain she means that. He exchanges a glance with Blaise, who shrugs his shoulders. "Gryffindor hyperbole," Blaise murmurs.

"I'll ask you all to take your appropriate house tables in the Great Hall," McGonagall's saying. "With the exception of those of you who've returned for an eighth year of schooling." She hesitates. "I'd like to speak to that group separately, if the remainder of you don't mind, so…" She claps her hands sharply. "Quickly into the castle, if you please."

There's a swirl of movement as the other students do as she says, with only cursory curious glances at the ones staying put in the courtyard. Slowly they slip away through the wide, arched doorway, warm light spilling from it across the shadows of the courtyard, pushing them back towards the ones standing still, the sound of the younger students' voices disappearing into the depths of the castle.

Only a small group remains, twenty or so in total. Draco and his friends, Potter and Granger and Weasley and Longbottom. Justin Finch-Fletchley and Wayne Hopkins and Hannah Abbott and Susan Bones. A larger knot of Ravenclaws standing together: Tony Goldstein and Michael Corner, Sue Li and Mandy Brocklehurst, Isobel Macdougal and Padma Patil, then off on the side, Lisa Turpin and Terry Boot, the two of them standing shoulder to shoulder, their hands clasped together, heads bent towards one another.

The absences are more noticeable. Vince and Greg and Theo and Daphne and Tracey. Finnigan and Thomas and Pavarti Patil and Faye Dunbar. Lavender Brown, still lying in St Mungo's, recovering from Greyback's attack. Ernie Mcmillan and Megan Jones and Oliver Rivers. All gone, for one reason or another. It feels odd to be standing here without them, Draco thinks, and his gaze slides back to Potter and the way his lanky, lean body slouches beside Granger.

McGonagall's silent for a moment, and the face she turns towards them is troubled. "I realise," she says finally, "that some of you are unhappy to be back here."

Understatement of the bloody century, Draco thinks. He takes in the stubborn, fixed expressions around him, the way bodies are held, tense and taut, arms folded across chests.

"The Department of Educational Regulation," McGonagall says, "as you are aware, will not allow NEWTs to be given again before the second week of June. It is my opinion as an educator that, given the events of the past year, you will be best served by attending classes until then." A quiet ripple of protest goes through the small group. Draco thinks it stupid of them all; they're already standing at the sodding castle. The time to object was a month ago when the Ministry accepted McGonagall's idiotic plan. She gives them a stern look over the rims of her spectacles. "Some of your fellow students have chosen other paths, either choosing to take similar exams outside of the Ministry's purview or making arrangements with other schools to finish their coursework. For those of you who have chosen to return, you are always welcome at Hogwarts." Her gaze sweeps across them, stopping for the briefest moment on Draco. "As I said earlier, that includes all of you."

Draco feels his cheeks warm as the others glance towards him. He lifts his chin defiantly, daring them to question his presence here with them. They look away, all except Potter, whose face is still, silent, expressionless. Draco tucks a lock of hair behind one ear, refusing to turn away first, and then Granger touches Potter's arm and he bends his head towards hers. Draco wants to sigh in relief. He won't let himself.

McGonagall glances back at the half-open door, gestures towards someone inside. "Professor Kohli, if you will?"

A man steps out, not much older than the students themselves, tall and brown, his thick, black hair swept back from a high forehead, his neatly trimmed beard and moustache split by a quick smile. His black robe is open over a grey jumper and a pair of faded jeans tucked into worn black combat boots.

Draco can't help but notice how ridiculously attractive he is. That's not something he wants to dwell on. Thoughts like these have been hitting Draco more and more frequently, lingering in his mind, making him look at men and boys in a new, dangerously different way. Draco knows his duty, knows what's required of him to carry on the family line. His mother's even been hinting that perhaps he might consider courting Daphne's younger sister, Astoria, this year whilst he's back at Hogwarts. She's a proper girl from a proper family. Perfect marriage material. Draco knows this. He understands it. And when the time comes, he'll do what's expected of him. But in the dark of the night, when he's alone, hidden away in the shadows of his bedroom, the coverlet pulled up over his thin body, his hand moving slowly, tightly along the hot swell of his prick, Draco thinks of men with broad shoulders and wide hands, pulling him closer, kissing him until he's breathless and aching.

It's a bloody perilous fantasy. Draco's fully aware of that.

"Ravi, please, Headmistress," the man says, in a distinctly London accent, and he looks across the group of students. "I'd like to be on a first-name basis with my House."

Draco stills, but it's Granger who says what Draco's certain they're all thinking. "But we're not all the same House, Professor."

McGonagall answers in her Scottish lilt. "You are now, Miss Granger. As of this term, you are no longer Gryffindors, Slytherins, Ravenclaws, and Hufflepuffs. You are Eighth Years, and Professor Kohli--Ravi--" Her mouth twitches down on the professor's given name. "--will be your Head, as well as serving as our new Potions professor."

"But Professor Slughorn," Lisa Turpin starts to say and McGonagall holds up her hand, silencing them all.

"Professor Slughorn chose to return to retirement," McGonagall says, her voice echoing in the quiet of the courtyard. "Ravi has taken his place. I'm sure you'll find him quite proficient in both sets of duties; he comes to us highly recommended from a recent stint in Ilvermorny. Your dormitories will be located on the third floor of the classroom wing, each room fully renovated. I'm quite certain you'll find them comfortable."

"Has she lost her bloody mind?" Pansy says from Draco's side. Her voice rises. "I'm not sharing a dormitory with Granger."

The Gryffindors turn, looking at Pansy. "As if I'd want you sleeping near me either, Parkinson," Granger snaps, her cheeks flushed. She looks back at McGonagall. "Headmistress, you can't imagine this will go well--"

McGonagall holds up a hand, stopping the angry murmurs. "At first, no. But given you're all the eldest students of this school, I do expect you to model appropriate behaviour for the younger years. Part of doing so is learning to live with each other in a civilised manner." Her eyes narrow; Draco's certain she glances between him and Potter. "Doing otherwise will result in disciplinary action. Do I make myself clear?"

There's an angry silence that falls over the courtyard. Draco's all too aware of how the other students have drawn away from him and Blaise and Pansy and Millie, their faces twisted in disgust. McGonagall watches them all for a long moment, then she says, "Good. Leave your trunks and bags here. They'll be delivered to your rooms by the end of the Great Feast. You'll sit together at the furthest row of tables, right behind Gryffindor House."

"Wankers," Blaise says beneath his breath, but McGonagall turns towards him, one eyebrow raised.

"An objection, Mr Zabini?" she asks.

"More of a comment, really." Blaise folds his arms across his chest, and meets her gaze evenly.

Draco thinks McGonagall's going to lose her temper, but Kohli steps forward instead and says, "Best be finding your seats before the first-years come in." He claps his hands, and the lot of them start to move forward, winding their way up the steps past McGonagall and their new Head of House. Draco catches a glimpse of Potter's messy hair, lit by the torchlight before he disappears into the castle, and when he turns his head to say something to Blaise, he sees Kohli watching him, a thoughtful expression on his face, before McGonagall touches his arm, draws him away.

This is going to be an odd year, Draco thinks, as he passes through the half-open doors, their heavy wood still scorched by hex marks. Hell if he knows how--or if--he'll make it through.

***

It's the first day of classes, and Harry's still shocked by the newness of everything, the sense that everything, yet nothing, has changed. At breakfast, he sits at the Eighth-Year table, pressed against Ginny who's said to hell with it and left the Gryffindor benches behind her to eat with Harry. He's grateful for the solidity of her; everything else feels misplaced. This table shouldn't be here, and neither should they--it's all wrong. This isn't the Hogwarts he remembers. Harry's body suddenly feels too large for these familiar benches in unfamiliar places; he tugs at his tie, knotted too tightly at his collar.

They'd all found new uniforms hanging in their wardrobes this morning, the whole of the Eighth-Year dormitories. Or, rather, their old uniforms given a new shine. Instead of the familiar red and gold of Gryffindor, Harry's tie is now a deep purple, with a dark grey striping on the bias. The colours have changed for all of the Eighth Years, whether Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, Gryffindor, or Slytherin. They've lost their old House affiliations, and there's not one of them pleased by that, Harry thinks. He supposes they oughtn't be surprised. Professor Kohli--Ravi, Harry reminds himself--had mentioned last night after the Feast something like that would happen. Still, it's one thing to hear it, another thing completely to wake up to a new bloody identity. Harry's not certain what to think of it, but he'd knotted his tie, then pulled his jumper over it--the gold and red edging gone there as well in favour of purple and grey--and come down for breakfast before half his roommates had woken up.

And there's another thing Harry doesn't want to think of: the lanky thinness of Malfoy across the room from him last night, silently climbing into bed still dressed and pulling the hangings closed around him, ignoring the rest of them as they swapped travelling clothes for pyjamas. Harry doesn't understand why McGonagall would have put them together, him and Malfoy, with Terry and Justin and Tony filling out the room. The rest of them had sat on Justin's mattress for the hour before the sconces fell dark, whispering and glancing over at Malfoy's quiet bed.

"Poor bloke," Terry had murmured. "I almost feel badly for him."

Fuck that, Harry thinks. Malfoy deserved to be ostracised. Once a prat, always a bloody prat, and when the others had fallen asleep, Harry'd padded out to the common room to curl up on the sofa in front of the fireplace, not certain he wanted to share a sleeping space with Malfoy. The bastard'd probably try to smother Harry in his sleep. It'd taken hours before Harry'd finally nodded off, his cheek pressed into a brocade cushion. When he'd dreamt, it'd been of fire and heat, of screams and curses exploding around him, of Malfoy's sharp, pale face looking up at him as Harry swooped past on a broom, reaching for him, Harry's fingers slipping through Malfoy's as the flames crackled around them.

When Harry'd woken up, his heart pounding, a quiet, strangled cry pulled from his throat, the soft grey light of dawn had been seeping through the windows. He'd sat there for a long while, a thin wool throw wrapped around his shoulders, staring into the flickering embers of the fireplace, trying to gather himself before slipping back into the silence of his dormitory, broken only by Terry's soft snores. Harry'd only just laid down when he'd heard Malfoy stir, the hangings of his bed scratching softly along the rail as Malfoy drew them back, slid out of bed. He'd gathered his clothes, and then he was gone, the door closing behind him with a barely perceptible thud.

Harry'd almost followed him, that sick certainty that Malfoy was up to no good still so very hard to shake, but he'd forced himself to lie back down, to close his eyes. He'd lain there for another hour, half-asleep but not. Malfoy still hadn't come back. Harry'd given up finally and rolled out of bed, going to his wardrobe for his clothes, only to find this new, oddly uncomfortable tie.

Now Harry can barely choke down some spoonfuls of porridge and a fried sausage. Next to him, Ron's eagerly inhaling piles of eggs and toast that would make a trencherman blush. Ron's also talking to Neville with his mouth full, a fact that keeps Hermione frowning at him across the table for the entire meal.

Ginny's warmth at Harry's side is comforting at least. She runs a hand along his forearm lightly as he stabs at his porridge with his spoon. "Careful there," she says. "The porridge can't fight back, you know." She stops and considers. "At least, I don't think it can."

The note of doubt in her voice is prudent, as this is a sentient castle, and in Harry's experience, everything can fight back at some point or another. It just has to be pushed far enough. He stabs again, wondering if the porridge wants to be eaten or if it has no choice, just like he has no choice but to be here, in these familiar walls, hearing the voices of friends, remembering the people who died here. Including himself.

"Ron, Harry, we're going to be late!" Hermione's voice stirs Harry out of his bitter reverie. He lets the spoon drop into the bowl, glad to be able to give up finally. "Ginny, haven't you got Potions with us as well? I wonder what we're going to do for the first lesson."

Harry's already tired as he gets up with Ginny and Ron and follows Hermione's eager form out of the hall. As they're finding their bags in the corridor, Harry gives Ginny a quick kiss, and then she's turning away, shifting her satchel on her hip expertly and catching up with Luna. They'd agreed already that they wouldn't walk to joint classes, that it would be too awkward and obvious to appear in the classroom side by side. So even though some of the seventh and Eighth Years NEWTs students have Potions together this morning, Harry's following Ron and Hermione down the sunlit corridor to the serpentine dungeon stairs and then down to the potions classroom, his heart sinking with every step that echoes against the stone walls.

"Remind me why we fought a war again," Ron mutters under his breath as they near the classroom. "I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have fought quite so hard if I'd known double Potions was at the end."

Privately, Harry agrees. It doesn't seem right, Harry thinks, that they should have won the war with Voldemort and that they should still have to go back to the same classroom and submit themselves to further education, even if Professor Kohli--Ravi, Harry reminds himself, with an odd, guilty twinge at calling a professor by his first name--seems a decent sort. Harry's already been promised a spot in the Aurors, after all, and Kingsley's suggested that his marks on the NEWTs don't matter, just the fact that he has them. But he can't have them without being here.

As Harry steps inside the familiar, low-ceilinged classroom, he's surprised with how different it looks. The space is warmer, almost cosy in a way, a fire burning brightly on the hearth. There's still the faint stench of potions ingredients preserved in alcohol lingering in the air, but it's lessened by a cleaner scent, something bright and citrusy that cuts through the usual sour smell of the potions classroom. Ravi's standing off to the side as the students file in, his brow furrowed as he chats with the new Defence Against Dark Arts teacher, Grace Omolade. She's tall in a fitted black robe edged with emerald green--not surprising, given she's also the new Head of Slytherin House--her dark hair tightly plaited and her deep brown skin warmed by the soft light from the iron chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The classroom is almost the same as Harry remembers, although Ravi's evidently cast a charm on the lights to make them stronger. The effect is cheering, but not overly so. Ravi's not that try-hard, it seems. Harry's beginning to trust Ravi a bit, carefully, admiring his easy banter and general aura of annoyed competence. He'd been decent enough last night, Harry thinks, after the Sorting Ceremony, leading them to their new common room and making certain they'd all settled in. Even if he had flatly refused Malfoy's request to switch rooms, which is the one sensible thing the pointy-faced git's done since they boarded the bloody train yesterday. Ravi'll learn soon enough what Malfoy's like, Harry's certain, and once their new Head of House realises how everyone except the Slytherin pack loathes Malfoy, he'll reconsider that request. Maybe even switch Malfoy with Ron, which would be bloody brill in Harry's opinion. Even on the sofa, he'd missed Ron's snores last night; he's grown used to them. It's going to be bloody weird not sharing a room together, the two of them.

"See you after class, love," Ron says to Hermione, and he lingers at the closest workbench to the front, kissing Hermione on the cheek to gagging noises from his sister who's at the next bench. Harry tightens his fingers around his satchel and tries not to smile too widely at Ginny when she winks at him.

Ron just snorts and flips two fingers towards Gin. "Cow," he says easily, and Ginny's laugh echoes through the classroom as Harry trails Ron down the long row of benches scarred by years of Potions use to an unobtrusive spot in the back--their usual place to take cover from the watchful gaze of Snape and Slughorn both. Malfoy's over two benches and up one, his blond head bent, his hair falling forward, hiding his face. Zabini's perched languidly on the stool next to him. Harry remembers when Malfoy used to sit in the front during every Potions class. He supposes Malfoy's trying to be discreet, or perhaps he's not certain of his talent now that his sodding father's influence over the Board of Governors has been broken. No more pulling favours, Harry thinks nastily. Malfoy'll have to get by on his own merit, whatever that might be. There's no Lucius Malfoy to sweep in and rescue his son. It serves Malfoy right, in Harry's opinion.

"Reckon we can still hide back here." Ron grins at Harry as he dumps his satchel on the workbench, digging through it for his Potions text. "We should be all right unless we're brewing something explosive." Ron gives Harry an ominous look; Harry winces. Despite Harry's performance in sixth year Potions, neither he nor Ron have ever been true Potions talents, not like Hermione or Malfoy even. Harry hasn't touched so much as a stirring rod since sixth year. Or wanted to, for that matter. Honestly, he doesn't know why he needs a Potions NEWT for the Auror force. It's not like he's going to be bloody brewing potions in the field, or even identifying ones. He doesn't want to be one of the lab Aurors, after all. Merlin, how bloody boring would that be? With a sigh, Harry lays his equipment out on the bench, following the example of Mandy Brocklehurst, who's at the workbench beside him.

At the front of the room, Ravi says something that makes Professor Omolade laugh, and she presses her full lips together to contain her amusement. With a quick comment to Ravi that makes him smile, she heads out of the classroom, her dark eyes pausing on Harry for a moment before she goes. After she leaves, Ravi's still got a wry twist to his mouth as he turns to the class, who're bustling and chatting at their benches. Harry's trying not to wonder at the new, young teachers and their easy, casual way of interacting. He couldn't imagine Snape and McGonagall, say, laughing with each other before class. It's one of the clearest reminders that Hogwarts has changed, but, unlike the other changes, it's one he actually welcomes.

"Right, you lot, settle down." Ravi says, clapping his hands. "We've work to do."

"How do you know Professor Omolade?" someone asks from the back -- Harry doesn't recognize the voice.

"Are you dating each other?" Another voice chimes in.

Ravi rolls his eyes, a look of annoyance flashing across his handsome features. "Not bloody likely," he says, a bit tartly. "For one, Grace and I were here at Hogwarts together. She was two years ahead of me, and she's absolutely brilliant and absolutely terrifying. Be forewarned."

"And the other reason?" Malfoy's drawl sets Harry's nerves on edge, even from across the room. It's bad enough to share a dormitory room with him--now he has to endure Malfoy up close in classes as well. Harry wonders how many classrooms they'll be in together--he prays that Malfoy isn't taking more than one or two of his subjects.

"Grace and I don't play Quidditch for the same team. Or do you need me to spell it out?" Ravi gives Malfoy a quirky little smile, and Malfoy blushes and looks away, letting his hair fall over his cheek again. Weird, Harry thinks. Parkinson glares at Harry when he glances over, a protective scowl on her face, and he looks away quickly so she doesn't hex him later. Harry doesn't trust Parkinson, not when it comes to Malfoy. Besides, he hasn't really forgiven her for trying to sell him out to the Dark Lord last May, the bloody cow.

"What does Quidditch have to do with anything?" Ron asks under his breath.

Harry just shrugs. Hell if he knows "Professors, mate. They're all a bit mental."

Ravi waves away the shouts and attempts to distract the lesson further. "Enough with all that. You'll meet Grace later this week. We're going to brew Volubilis potion today. Does anyone know what that does?"

Hermione's hand is up in an instant. To her evident annoyance, Ravi calls on the other person in the room who has her hand raised, a seventh-year Ravenclaw.

"Who's that?" Harry whispers, loudly enough for Mandy to turn and look at him in disgust.

"Mila Orlov," Mandy says, her voice low. "Your girlfriend's been mates with her for years, you idiot."

Harry looks over at Ron and he nods, almost apologetically. "She came to the Burrow for Easter hols two years ago, remember?"

To be honest, Harry doesn't. At all.

"Volubilis changes your voice," Mila's saying to Ravi, and he nods.

"And what else?" Ravi looks around.

Hermione's hand is still up, not waving but present. When Ravi calls on her, Harry breathes a sigh of relief. He won't have to spend the rest of the day listening to her whinge. Hermione's shoulders straighten. "It can restore your voice from a Silencing Charm."

"Correct." Ravi flicks his wand and bright pink slips of parchment fly to each bench. It's a pretty flash move, Harry thinks, but he enjoys it. Ron catches theirs, holding it over for Harry to read the brewing instructions

"You'll have to heat the potion," Ravi says, "and watch carefully for the indicated colour changes. They need to come in the right order--if you get them off even by one, your potion might become volatile, and none of us want that, yeah?"

The whole room, Hermione and Ginny included, turns to look at Ron and Harry.

"Oi," Ron says, indignant. "The whole lot of you can sod right off, can't you?"

"You might want to let the infirmary know Potter's brewing, sir," Michael Corner calls out from across the room, and a ripple of laughter goes through the benches. To Harry's surprise, Malfoy doesn't join in. He just sits silently at his workbench, studying the pink parchment with a frown.

Ravi gives Harry a sympathetic look. "I'm certain Mr Potter can handle this brew. If any of you have questions, raise your hand, and I'll come by to help. You should have honeywater, mint, and stewed mandrake ready. The finishing phase is syrup of hellebore, and you've won if you get sparks at the end. Two hours, my friends. You'd best get to work. " He turns, his open black robe swirling around his boots.

Harry bends his head towards Ron. "Reckon we can do this?"

"Christ, I hope so." Ron's chewing his lip. "So we start with an alkaline base, yeah?"

"In a pewter cauldron." Harry slides off his stool and starts towards the supply cupboard. "Half-inch thickness?"

Ron nods. "You get that, and I'll start the heating charm."

The classroom's a flurry of movement as they all collect their remaining supplies. Harry manages not to get one of the dented cauldrons, and when he brings it back to the workbench, Ron already has a bright blue flame going. Harry has a good feeling about this potion; he picks up the pink parchment and glances through the instructions again. It doesn't seem so bad, he thinks.

Slowly the class settles into quiet, the only noises the murmur of voices as workbench partners work together, the soft scritch of quills against parchment as they all take notes for their potions reports, the bubble and pop of the bases heating.

Ron chops up the stewed mandrake haphazardly. "Pour the honeywater in," he says.

"That's supposed to be diced," Harry says, looking at the dubious pile of mushed root. He dumps the phial of honeywater into the cauldron. It's supposed to turn pink, and Harry supposes that's what it does. It's bright, though, and when he glances around at other cauldrons, most everyone else has a paler potion.

"It'll be fine." Ron leans against the workbench, his knife still in his hand. He taps the tip of it against the tabletop, leaving behind faint divots in the wood. "How was last night?"

Harry shrugs, glances over at Malfoy. He's pulled his hair back with a hair tie, catching it at the nape of his long neck. His skin is flushed as he leans over the steaming cauldron; he turns to say something to Zabini, who nods and dumps in a handful of mint. "It was fine," Harry says after a moment. "Bit weird, though, not to have you in the dormitory."

"Yeah." Ron sighs and drops the knife. "I mean, it's great having Neville in with me, yeah? But I don't know who's more irritating, Zabini or Corner."

"That's a tough call," Harry says, and Ron gives him a rueful smile.

"Tell me about it." Ron hesitates, his gaze flicking towards Malfoy and Zabini. He lowers his voice; Parkinson and Bulstrode are within hearing distance. "Malfoy being a tit?"

Harry hesitates. He wants to say yes, wants to give Ron the answer he knows Ron expects. He sighs. "Not really."

Ron's eyebrow goes up. "Yeah?"

"He went to bed," Harry says. "Didn't really say much."

"Oh." Ron picks up a stem of mint, starts shredding the leaves from it. "How many do we need?"

Harry glances at the instructions. "Three stems." He takes one of his own and strips the leaves off, ripping them into smaller pieces. "It's going to be rubbish, though, us being in separate rooms."

Ron scowls and hands Harry his mint. "You'd think after everything we went through last year, they'd give us something, at least. It's like McGonagall's bound and determined to make us suffer."

"We're supposed to be examples." Harry tosses the mint into the cauldron and gives it a stir. He stills. "Was that orange yet?"

"Peach-ish." Ron peers into the cauldron. "That's close enough, yeah?"

Harry turns the heat up a notch. "I guess. It needs to go green now."

Ravi's walking through the aisles, eyeing each workbench, his hands behind his back. He stops every so often to peer into a cauldron, or to ask a question. When he pauses beside Harry, he frowns.

"You went orange before you added the mint?" Ravi asks, and Harry nods. Ravi frowns into the cauldron. "You're certain?"

"It was orange," Ron says, a bit defiantly.

Ravi quirks an eyebrow at him and hmmms. Harry flinches; he knows that's the one thing guaranteed to irk the hell out of Ron. Ravi turns to Harry. "Your potion should be shifting to blue soon. If it doesn't, turn the heat up two more degrees. We'll see if Mr Weasley's right about the colour, I suppose."

He starts to turn away, and Ron mutters, "It's like he wants to be Snape, yeah?"

And then Ravi's looking back at them, and his mouth tightens, just a bit. "Severus Snape was bloody brilliant," he says, and his voice rings out through the classroom, turning heads. "Just so we're clear. You may not have cared for him as a professor, but he was a damned fine potioneer. One of the best in the whole bloody country. You'd be lucky to be half as good as he was." Ravi's face softens. "And he was my Head of House when I was in your shoes."

The class falls silent, save for the hiss and pop of bubbling potions.

"You were in Slytherin?" Sue Li asks, her soft voice oddly loud. "With Professor Omolade?"

"I was." Ravi looks around the room, his lips pressed tightly together. He folds his arms across his chest. "And I sincerely hope none of you object to that, whatever idiotic propaganda you might have been exposed to over the hols. There were four Founders for a bloody reason."

And then Parkinson's clapping, her chin lifted. "Well said, sir."

"Thank you, Miss Parkinson," Ravi says dryly. "Now get the hell back to work." He glances at the clock on the wall. "You've an hour left to bottle your potion and leave it on my desk."

Harry glances over at Malfoy. His thin mouth is quirked, his lips slightly parted, his eyes bright. A shiver runs down Harry's spine, hot and unpleasant, and Harry thinks he must be angry, that he definitely wants to punch Malfoy, that's got to be why it makes him so uncomfortable to see Malfoy look at their new Head of House that way. Malfoy catches Harry watching, and his eyes narrow, his face twisting into a grimace before he turns back to his cauldron. Harry looks away, a sudden tightness constricting his chest.

Ron shifts on his stool. "Merlin, it'd be nice not to be taught by fucking Slytherins, wouldn't it?" He pitches his voice low, to keep anyone else from hearing.

"I guess." Harry's gaze flicks back to Malfoy. Ravi's stopped by his and Zabini's workbench and is asking a few technical questions to make sure they've the theory of the brew. Malfoy's answering easily, and the smile Malfoy turns on Ravi when he praises the work Malfoy and Zabini have done is almost blindingly brilliant.

The rest of the hour is a bloody disaster. The potion never shifts to blue, and when they add the stewed mandrake, a horrible stench starts to seep from their cauldron, badly enough to make Mandy purse her mouth and eye them both suspiciously.

"It's the potion, not me," Ron says to her, and she just wrinkles her nose and turns away. "I swear!" He looks over at Harry. "I didn't--"

Harry waves his composition book over the cauldron, trying to disperse the smell. "I know." To be honest, Harry's just struggling to avoid the gluey bubbles that are popping in their cauldron. The grey glop stings something wicked when it lands on his arm.

Ron gives him a baleful look. "We're fucked, Harry. Not even you can get us out of this one."

With a sigh, Harry gives the mess another quick stir. "It's not going to get any better," he says glumly, looking around as everyone else bottles their perfect Volubilis, pale yellow and lightly sparking. "Fuck it." He pulls out two phials and hands one to Ron. "Might as well give up."

They turn their phials in last, shuffling up to the front of the room, and Ravi has a grim, humorless look on his face as he holds the phials up to the light. There's no sparkling yellow fluid in them, just a grey sludge that slops up the sides of the phials when Ravi turns them back and forth. He sighs and looks at Harry and Ron. "I think I need you to try again. This isn't even really worth a fourth year effort. When did you stop going to classes?"

"We missed last year," Harry says, as Ron flushes next to him. "You know, what with being chased around the country by Death Eaters and a Dark Lord who wanted to kill me."

Ravi just looks at him, then he reaches for another phial and holds it up. The potion's sparkling and shining through the glass. "Miss Granger was with you, I've been told, but her potion's perfect."

"That's Hermione, though, isn't it?" Ron rubs the back of his neck. "She's just better at it all."

"Hmm." Ravi eyes them for a moment, then says, "You should come tonight and try to rebrew. I'll be here after dinner. We're really going to have to work on your fundamentals if you're going to make any headway." He waves them away. "Go on. I'm sure your next class is waiting."

Ginny and Hermione are waiting in the hallway when they come out.

"All right?" Hermione asks, a bit too kindly, and Ron wraps an arm around her waist, leaning his head on her shoulder.

"Fucking Slytherins," Ron says morosely, and Hermione rolls her eyes at him.

"I told you both we should practice potions this summer," she says as they start down the hall. "But neither of you wanted to."

Ginny curls her fingers around Harry's as her brother protests to his girlfriend. "It's just one potion," she says to Harry, and Harry knows she's right. But he also knows he did a terrible job in there, and his stomach sinks. This is worse than he remembers. He can save the fucking Wizarding World, but he can't brew a bloody potion to save his life.

It's not the best start to the school year, he thinks. Merlin only fucking knows how much worse it's going to get from here.

***

Draco stays away from his dormitory as long as he can. It's not entirely a conscious choice, not at first. His first day of classes is brutal -- Ancient Runes after that bloody Potions class, followed by double Alchemy in the afternoon. He barely has time to grab lunch in the Great Hall before he has to run back up Ravenclaw Tower to the classroom.

At least he's space from Gryffindors there; he and Mills have been put in an advanced-track NEWTs Alchemy based on their spellwork from last year. They settle into the back row of seats, and Professor Skeat only barely glances their way before he starts in on the theory of Quintessence and life force, a lesson Draco half remembers from the start of last year. This time, at least, he takes notes, his quill scratching lightly across his composition book, leaving behind a neat black ink trail.

Dinner is nearly as quick as lunch; Draco doesn't want to linger over his roast and potatoes with Potter and his lot just down the table from him, Potter straddling the bench with the Weaselette sitting on his thigh, his hand cupping her hip, his fingertips just barely sliding into the waistband of her skirt. Draco looks away from them, something angry and tight roiling through him. He tells himself it's the tackiness of it all, the way Potter leans in and kisses Ginny quickly, the way she laughs when he does, as if he's some sort of bloody Adonis. Draco's stomach flips, and he pushes his plate away, mumbling something about needing to read an assignment for tomorrow's Herbology class, which he knows is ridiculous, given it's the first of the year. Millie just shrugs, but Pansy gives him a sharp look, and Blaise swings his legs over the bench.

"I'll come with you, yeah?" Blaise says, far too easily for Draco's comfort, but Draco doesn't protest. He rather likes Blaise's company as they settle in the library with their books, taking their favourite corner around the edge of the stacks and away from Pince's curious gaze. The armchairs there are overstuffed and cosy, the sconce beneath the arched, leaded windows glowing a warm gold. They sit for hours, and Draco loses himself in the familiar, comfortable rhythm of school work. He's missed this, if he's honest, and there's part of him that's glad to be here again, to have this chance to work quietly beside Blaise, even if he has to put up with Blaise eyeing him every so often, his brows drawn together in a frown.

Draco finally closes his Ancient Runes textbook with a sigh. "What?"

"Nothing." Blaise turns a page, frowns down at an Arithmancy problem, his quill scratching across a scrap of parchment.

For a moment, Draco thinks about throwing Magical Hieroglyphs and Logograms at him, but he's afraid the heft of it might actually dent Blaise's skull. "Don't start with me. I can practically hear you thinking from here."

Blaise's quill hesitates, hovers above the parchment, then Blaise looks up at Draco again. "I can't help it if I worry."

"Well, it makes you an imbecile," Draco says, and he sets his book on the arm of his chair. He'd taken his jumper off twenty minutes ago, balling it up and shoving it next to his hip. "I'm fine."

Silence stretches out between them, then Blaise shrugs. "If you say so." Before Draco can protest, Blaise adds, "It's not easy for any of us, Draco. We all knew that coming back, but Pans and Mills and I…" He trails off, and his gaze flicks towards Draco's forearm.

"Don't have a particularly nasty tattoo?" Draco tries to keep his voice light. He doesn't quite, and he hates the faint tremble in his words. He looks away. .

Blaise doesn't. "We're not all hidden away in Slytherin House," he says after a moment. "And don't think I didn't notice you shying away from the loo last night. That's not like you. I've shared a dormitory with you long enough to be rather aware of those long, steamy showers you enjoy."

He has a point, even if Draco'd rather not admit it. "I was just tired from travelling." It sounds like bollocks to Draco as well, and he can't quite meet Blaise's gaze. He worries his bottom lip between his teeth, looking out the window onto the grounds. The sun has long set, and the forest is now just a dark blur against a spangled night sky. Draco catches a glimpse of moonlight on the lake, a ripple of waves as a tentacle appears, droplets shining as they fall from the squid's slick skin. Water splashes up as the tentacle disappears into the lake again.

Draco's fingertips rub over the sleeve of his shirt, across the faint burn of the Mark. He wonders if that slight pain will ever go away or if it'll stay beneath his skin, reminding him always of how bloody stupid he'd been at sixteen. He doesn't tell Blaise that he'd woken up early for the shower, knowing that he had to take one before the others stumbled in, still bleary from sleep. It feels strange not to be sharing a room with Blaise this term, to be on his own the way he is, with Potter sleeping only feet from him. He wonders if Potter thinks about hexing him or smothering Draco in his sleep. Draco'd gone to McGonagall before class, asked politely to be moved to Blaise's room. He'd made the case that Weasley would surely be happier tucked away with Potter, or Longbottom would, at least, but McGonagall had just looked at him, a little wearily, and told him he was with Potter to make a point to the others about inter-house cooperation, and she expected them both to come to terms with that fact.

Frankly, Draco thinks McGonagall's gone a bit dotty, her old age catching up with her, particularly if she thinks he and Potter can exist in the same space without hexing each other into oblivion. Still, he's certain it'll only take one or two trips to the infirmary for them before she gives in and lets him switch into Blaise's room. He only hopes there won't be any more nasty, permanent scars. His hand flattens against his chest for the briefest of moments.

"I am fine," Draco says to Blaise for now, and he gives him a faint smile. "Boot's not a horrible roommate, if I'm honest. He snores less than Greg does."

"Small mercies." Blaise closes up his Arithmancy homework. They can hear Pince moving about at the circulation desk. She'll be shooing them out soon enough. "At least you haven't Weasley to deal with." He makes a face, his mouth twisting to one side. "He does half like to hear himself bluster."

And maybe, Draco thinks, it's a blessing he's with Potter and not the Weasel. "Maybe Longbottom will distract him."

"Or Corner," Blaise says. "Although there seems to be a bit of bad blood between the two of them over Weasley's sister." He drums his long, brown fingers against the bright blue cover of Karuzos' A New Theory of Numerology. "To be honest, I'm not certain which of them is worse. They're both sodding pricks in my book."

"Library's closing," Pince calls from the desk. Draco's heart sinks a bit. He doesn't want to go back to his room. He wants to sit here with Blaise in the warm glow of the lamplight.

"Come on then," Blaise says, his voice gentle. Draco thinks perhaps Blaise understands his reluctance. Still, Blaise has never been one to coddle Draco. He hasn't the patience for it the way Pansy does.

They gather their satchels, tucking away books and quills. Draco pushes his hair back from his cheek, drapes his rumpled jumper over one arm; he glances over at Blaise as they walk through the warren of tables and study carrels. Draco thinks he gets a glimpse of Granger in the corner, her bushy hair peeking out behind the thick cover of her Arithmancy text. "Tell me," Draco says quietly, "that this is all worth it. That I shouldn't have joined Theo in Durmstrang--"

"You wouldn't last a week there," Blaise says, a bit too bluntly for Draco's liking, but Draco knows he's right. The library door closes behind them with a quiet thunk. "Theo probably won't either, to be honest."

And that's probably right as well. Their footsteps echo in the empty corridor. Most of the other students should be tucked away in their houses right now; only seventh years--and now them, Draco supposes--are allowed out at this hour. Neither Draco or Blaise says anything as they take one of the staircases up to the next floor; a comfortable tiredness seeps into Draco's bones. This is why he came back, to immerse himself back into his studies so that he can get an apprenticeship on the Continent. To do that he needs advanced exams, and whilst Draco thinks he could have taken the Beauxbatons leaving exams, or the Ilvermorny ones in the States, he'd wanted to come back here to Hogwarts. Even after all that's happened here, even after all the ways in which he's betrayed this school of his, it still feels like home. Perhaps that's foolish of him, Draco thinks, and there are so many painful memories twisted up in these walls for him, but Hogwarts will always be part of him, will always be the place that comforted him, terrified him, made him feel like a king, made him feel like an outcast. He envies Theo and Daphne and Greg their ability to walk away from these corridors, to leave Hogwarts behind.

Draco's not certain he ever could.

They stop at the doorway to the Eighth Year dormitory. Sir Cadogan's half asleep in his portrait on the wall; Blaise rouses him with a sharp rap of his knuckles on Cadogan's frame.

"Wake up, you old idiot," Blaise says, but there's a tinge of fondness in his voice. It's hard to dislike the knight, even at his most inept.

Cadogan yawns, then blinks at them. "Password?" he asks through another yawn.

"Stargazy pie." Draco thinks perhaps choosing a password after dinner had been a bit ridiculous, but the others had rather liked Weasley's suggestion. Draco feels a damned fool saying it, but the door swings open and Cadogan waves them into the common room.

Pansy's sat on the sofa with Millie beside her, chewing on the tip of her quill. She looks up as they come in. "All right then?" Pansy asks, her gaze fixed on Draco, and he shrugs.

"Tired a bit." He wants to go over, wants to curl up beside her, his head on her shoulder, but Li and Brocklehurst are watching him, and Draco's no wish to make them think him weak. Instead, he gives her a small wave that makes her narrow her eyes at him, and he hurries towards his room, alone, Blaise taking the space on the sofa that Draco longed to claim as his own.

It's a stupid decision, Draco realises, when he walks in the room and Potter's there, sprawled on his bed with Weasley at his side, their books spread across the coverlet. Finch-Fletchley's sat across the room on the floor beneath the window, his back propped against one of the thick, heavy carved posts of his bed. His small fluffy Kneazle is curled up against his thigh, sleeping and kneading at his trousers.

"Hullo, Malfoy," Finch-Fletchley says, a bit too faux pleasantly for Draco's liking, but Draco nods at him before going over to his own bed, dropping his satchel beside it, along with his scrunched-up jumper. Weasley's watching him, sat up now, his eyes narrowed.

Draco doesn't care for the way he's looking at him. "See something you like, Weasel?" He pulls his hair back, fastens it at the nape of his neck with a hair tie. His gaze flicks towards Weasley. "I wasn't aware Granger let you off your leash."

"Ignore him," Potter says. He flips a page in his book. "You know he's just trying to get a rise out of you, Ron."

"He's a prat is what he is." Weasley's eyes follow Draco as he reaches for his pyjamas. "You know that, right, Malfoy?"

Draco doesn't answer at first. He's all too aware of Finch-Fletchley--Hogwarts' worst gossip--listening from the corner. Instead he toes off his boots and sets them aside at the foot of his bed, next to his flat leather trunk, the one that's accompanied him back and forth to Hogwarts since he was eleven. He pulls his shirttails out of his trousers, his stockinged foot slipping just a bit against the worn, polished wood floor. It's different, being up here in a tower instead of the dungeon. He's used to the chill of stone, taken away by warming charms, and squat, obsidian black hearths in each of the rooms. Draco'd only shared with Greg and Vince for the past few years; he's not certain he likes this large, bright room with its panelled wood walls and long, diamond-paned windows looking out over the Quidditch pitch, with its plush, circular rug in the middle of six wide beds, each one alternating deep purple hangings with dusky grey. There's a part of him that wonders if the others feel as out of place as he does, surrounded by these new colours, their Houses stripped away from them. Draco misses the Slytherin common room, the dark leather sofas and chairs where he'd held court among his peers, even the older students fawning over him for no other reason than he was a Malfoy.

And now they flinch and look away when his name's said, the way Finch-Fletchley's just done, the way most of his fellow students had done when he'd spoken in class today. They all hate him, Draco knows. Even the Slytherins are careful around him, looking about to see who's watching before they'll even say hello. Draco doesn't blame them. Not entirely.

"Malfoy," Weasley says sharply. "Stop ignoring me."

Draco tucks his pyjamas beneath his arm. "With hair that colour, it's nearly impossible." He knows it's stupid of him to antagonise Weasley. It'll only push Potter further, and the rest of the castle will follow Potter's lead. After all, if Potter hates Draco publicly, then why can't everyone else? Still the two of them together, sprawled so easily across Potter's bed, knowing they rule the whole bloody school now, well, it makes Draco's skin prickle hot and angry, and he wants to hex them, to slash his wand through the air, watching blood bloom across the front of their shirts the way Potter had in sixth year when his Sectumsempra had struck Draco in the chest. Draco wonders what Potter would say now, if Draco unbuttoned his shirt, showed him the thick, ropy scars that twist across his pale skin, still pink and puckered nearly two years later.

And Weasley's standing now, his eyes sparking. He wants a fight, Draco realises, watching the way Weasley clenches his fists, bounces on the balls of his bare feet. He thinks about it, thinks about how satisfying it would feel to have his fist strike Weasley's jaw, to send him staggering backwards against Potter's bed, thinks about the return strike from Weasley, the thrill of Weasley's knuckles slamming into Draco's flesh, the sheer physical pain taking away the deep ache inside of him. Draco wants it, in a way, and he knows how bloody fucked up that is.

So Draco pulls himself back, folds that angry, vicious side of him as small as he can, then tucks it away with an exhale. He looks at Weasley. "What do you want me to say?"

"That you're a fucking prat," Weasley snaps. "And you shouldn't be here. Not after what you've done." His voice cracks on the last word. His shoulders are tight; he swallows, and his eyes are bright. Draco wonders if Weasley's thinking of his brother, whichever one of the twins had died. He doesn't remember; he'd never been able to tell them apart, if he's honest.

Draco just watches Weasley, silently.

"Say it," Weasley says, his voice rising. "You don't fucking deserve to be back here, you bastard. We all know it--"

"Ron," Potter says, and he's on his feet now, reaching for his friend.

"He's a sodding murderer, Harry," Weasley shouts, just as the door to their room opens. Boot and Goldstein are standing there, their arms filled with books, their eyes a bit wide. Weasley's still watching Draco. "If it wasn't for this fucker, Dumbledore wouldn't have died, the school wouldn't have gone down, we wouldn't have been on the bloody run all last year--" He draws in a ragged breath, and his eyes narrow at Draco. "My brother's dead because of you."

Draco looks away, his throat tight. He doesn't know how to answer that. He hadn't cast the curse that had killed the ginger twin, but Weasley's not wrong. He'd set the course of play into motion, hadn't he, the whole of his sixth year, then that night when the cabinet had finally worked and his aunt had come through with Greyback and the other Death Eaters on her heels. Draco still has nightmares about Dumbledore falling, about Severus standing at the edge of the tower, the wand in his hand still trembling. But that's a mild one, really. There are others that wake him up screaming, the memories of what the Dark Lord had done to Muggles and those Death Eaters that displeased him still twisting through Draco's sleep.

It's only then Draco realises he's twisting his pyjamas in his hands, coiling them tightly around his fingers. Potter's watching him, a furrow between his thick, dark eyebrows so very different from Draco's pale arches.

"Go," Potter says, his voice low. His hand's on Weasley's shoulder, and Draco knows he's holding Weasley back.

Draco swallows, then nods, and without a backwards glance he brushes past Boot and Goldstein in the doorway. He hears Boot ask quietly, "What the hell was that?" Draco can't catch Potter's murmured reply.

The bath is empty when he goes in. Draco stands at the sinks, fists pressed against the cool porcelain counter, looking at himself in the framed mirror. His face is pale, but a bit splotchy across his cheeks. He breathes out, and the mirror clucks softly at him.

"Looking a bit peaked, aren't we, love?" it asks in a light voice, falling silent when Draco glares into it. The fierceness of his gaze makes him feel a bit better, a little more like himself. He hates this weakness, the way he has to roll over for Potter of all people. He doesn't know if he can keep doing it, keep lowering his eyes, turning away. He'd promised his mother he wouldn't get in trouble, that he wouldn't cock up this second chance he's been given. Draco knows how much she's done to keep him safe and out of Azkaban, to let him go back to Hogwarts this term.

Draco splashes cool water onto his face, dries it off with his sleeve. The roil in his stomach settles, but only a bit. Still it's enough to calm him down, to help his breathing settle. He hesitates, then watches himself in the mirror as he pulls off his tie, unbuttons his shirt. The scars across his chest stand out in the bright light of the bath. He thinks about taking a moment to stand beneath the showers, letting the hot water pound down against his pale skin until it's pink from the warmth. It's too early though. He doesn't want to risk one of the others walking in, catching sight of his Mark. At least in Slytherin he hadn't needed to hide it; it'd been a sign of power, of favour among the others. Draco had never flaunted it--he'd never been that unself-conscious about it--but he'd never thought about keeping it hidden. He slides his shirt off, takes a moment to look at his body, long and lanky and far too thin, to hear his mother tell it. His hipbones jut out above the waist of his trousers; his rib cage is pronounced. Draco hasn't eaten much over the summer. He hasn't been able to, not really, not with his worry about his parents' hearings and the possibility of his own. It hasn't done much for the dislike Draco has for his body, if he's honest. He envies Blaise and Potter and Weasley their solid chests and muscular arms. Draco feels odd and uncertain in his own skin, the proverbial ugly duckling, but Draco doesn't think he'll ever end up a swan.

His gaze drifts down to the Mark, a black stain across his forearm. He hates it now, hates the way it defines him, not only in the eyes of others, but his own as well. He wishes he could slice it from his skin, Diffindo it away or something like that. It wouldn't work. Draco knows enough about magical theory to realise that.

Quickly, he draws on his dark grey Falmouth Falcons t-shirt, then the long-sleeved, thin hoodie he only wears to cover his forearm. He swaps his trousers for pyjama bottoms, the flannel soft and warm against his skin, and he stands silently for a moment, the faint drip of the faucet into the sink and the quiet rasp of his breath echoing against the white and black tiled walls. For a moment, Draco wonders if he might sleep in here, curled in the corner of the showers, but that's ridiculous and he knows it. He glances back at himself in the mirror, takes in his shadowed eyes and angular cheeks. He's tired. It's been a long day. Draco pushes his pale blond hair back off his face, then lets it fall again, strands drifting down to brush his cheeks, his jaw. He closes his eyes, breathes out.

"Pull yourself together, you twat," Draco murmurs. He thinks about going out to the common room, throwing himself down beside Blaise and Pansy. They'd comfort him, he knows, but Draco doesn't want them to see how rattled he is. Not yet at least.

So Draco squares his shoulders and gathers up his clothes, wrapping his tie around his fist. When he walks back into the dormitory, it's silent. Potter and Weasley are gone--probably across the hall to Weasley's room, and the others are carefully ignoring Draco as he pads over to his bed, crawls in beneath the covers. He pulls the hangings closed around him, dimming out the lights flickering in the wall sconces; the comfort of darkness settles over him as he curls himself around a pillow. He can hear the others moving about, hears their quiet murmurs when Potter comes back in, the door shutting behind him with a soft thud. He wonders what they've said about him. What they're saying now. He presses his face against the pillow, tells himself he doesn't care.

He knows full well that's a fucking lie.

***

It's after dinner on a Thursday evening, and Ginny's curled warmly against Harry's side in the Gryffindor common room, the Standard Book of Spells, Grade 7 spread across her lap. Harry wraps a lock of her hair around his finger, marvelling at the silkiness of it, before letting it slide loose. The fire's crackling in the hearth; it's starting to get colder at night, enough so that it's comfortable now to sit in front of the fire, on this familiar, overstuffed sofa with its worn red brocade upholstery.

Harry's been spending more time here the past fortnight than he has in his own common room, much less his dormitory. It seems more sensible, all things considered, and if he times it right, by the time he makes his way to his dormitory, Malfoy's already in bed, his hangings drawn shut around him. Harry doesn't like the awkwardness of sharing space with the git, but when he'd brought the idea of a room swap up to Ravi again, he'd just snorted in Harry's face and told him to get over himself. McGonagall hadn't been any better, if Harry's honest. She'd peered at him over the rims of her glasses and told him tartly that she had been the one to make the dormitory arrangements for the Eighth Years, and she expected him to be an example to the younger students of inter-house unity. Harry's no problem with inter-house unity, just with Malfoy as a sodding wanker, but when he'd pointed that out, McGonagall had just pursed her mouth at him, like she'd just sucked on one of Dumbledore's sherbet lemons, so Harry'd given up. And now he's here in the cosiness of Gryffindor Tower, feeling rather put out about the whole bloody thing.

Ginny flips a page in her book, frowning down at it. "I don't know how Flitwick expects us to read this much in one night," she says with a sigh. "I already know how to cast Aguamenti; we learnt it last term. Who cares about breaking down the theory behind it?"

"It's all rubbish." Harry pulls the book from her lap and closes it, tossing it down to the other end of the sofa. He leans in and kisses her, his hand settling on the warmth of her thigh, his fingers rubbing small circles across the soft cotton of her joggers. When he pulls back, Ginny's smiling up at him a bit.

"Nice one, Potter," she murmurs, and she fiddles with the folds of his worn t-shirt. "Good thing my brother's not in here."

Harry snorts. "He's probably off with Hermione, trying to convince her to shag in the choir classroom." Ginny quirks an eyebrow at him, and Harry adds, "He likes the rug in there. Says it's better for his knees."

Ginny wrinkles her nose. "Merlin, Harry. There are mental images I really don't need about Ron."

"And ones he'd probably rather not have about you," Harry says. He drags his fingertips up her thigh, over the curve of her hip, dipping one into the waistband of her joggers. "I wouldn't mind testing out the Charms classroom tonight, if you're up for it." He leans in again, nuzzles the side of her throat.

"I've work to do." Ginny pulls away, and Harry frowns as she sits up, tugs the hem of her Holyhead Harpies t-shirt back down. She's not looking at him, not really. "Besides, I'm not feeling it, soz. I'm due for my period."

She's not; Harry knows that. Ginny'd had it just before they'd left for Hogwarts a fortnight ago; Harry'd spent the whole train ride up rubbing her lower back as she'd curled up against him, the potion she'd taken for her period pain making her a bit drowsy. "Oh," he says. He knows better than to argue, but he can't help saying, "It's just you haven't really wanted to…" He hesitates. "You know."

"Shag," Ginny says bluntly, and Harry thinks this isn't going to go well, but he shrugs.

"It's been--"

"Four days." Ginny's voice is soft but sharp. "Sunday night, Harry, or have you forgotten?" She's not looking at him; she reaches for her Charms text. "And you've pushed for sex every bloody night this week."

Harry doesn't think that's true. "Gin, I haven't--"

The look she turns on him is heated, angry, but there's a bit of dampness at the corners of her eyes, a rising flush on her cheeks. "You have, Harry." She draws in a deep breath. "All you want to do right now is shag because it means you don't have to think about being back here. I'm not an idiot, but you know, maybe I have my own problems with being here this term--" Her voice cracks a bit, and she looks away. She swallows, and when she bends her head, her hair falls over her cheek, hiding her face from Harry. He doesn't like not being able to see her; it makes him anxious about the two of them, and Harry can't deal with the way his chest tightens, his breath catches in the back of his throat, raw and hot.

"It's not like that," Harry says quietly, but he thinks maybe it is. He doesn't want to admit it though. Doesn't want to say that he has moments, walking down the corridors that still show curse burns and spell damage in their stone walls and wooden floors, when he wants to run away, the panic welling up inside of him again. Hermione's had to catch his hand, help him count off his breaths until the fear dissipates. He tries to keep those moments from Ginny; he's told Ron he can't say anything to her about them. She's dealing with so much herself. She'd loved Fred madly; he'd been her favourite brother, the one who could always cheer her when she was feeling glum, who listened to her when no one else in her family would. Losing Fred's been hard for Ginny. Harry knows that. He reaches for her hand, relieved when she doesn't pull away.

"We don't really talk." Ginny lets Harry turn her palm over, trace a fingertip along the creases there. "I mean, we never have, have we? Not about the important stuff, but I reckon you have Ron and Hermione for that. Not me." She looks up at him. "I like shagging you, Harry, but…"

There's so much contained in the silence that stretches out between them. Harry's chest clenches, tightens again. "Don't," Harry says after a moment, and he can barely get the word out. He tries to breathe. It's hard. "Don't break up with me." His voice rasps against his throat. His fingers close around Ginny's, wide and tanned against the freckled paleness of hers.

Ginny's quiet for a long moment. She exhales, then rubs her thumb over his. "I'm not, Harry," she says, but he can hear the waver of self-doubt behind the words. "But I don't want to be the person you go to when you don't want to think." She glances over at him, and something in her face shifts, hardens a bit. "I'm better than that."

"I know," Harry says. He looks down at their entwined fingers. He doesn't know what he'd do if he lost Ginny. Not after everyone else who's left him. His parents. Sirius. Remus. The thought of her walking away, leaving him alone with those memories threatening to swallow him, sends tendrils of dread curling through his belly. He can't go through that. "I'm sorry," he says, and when he glances back up at Ginny, her face softens.

"Oh, Harry, you idiot." Ginny reaches out, brushes his hair back from his forehead. "You drive me mental sometimes, but I do care about you."

She doesn't say she loves him. She never has, even when Harry's said it to her. Harry pretends it doesn't matter, but it does, a bit, especially when he sees how easily Hermione and Ron say it. Harry wants that, wants someone to look at him the way they look at each other, and he'd thought that person would be Ginny. It'd seemed so easy in May when they'd fallen back together, both of them shagging furtively in Ginny's bedroom, late at night, their bodies shuddering together as they'd tried to keep from waking anyone. Afterwards, they'd lain together on her narrow bed, curled around each other, not speaking, just breathing, just feeling each other's presence, solid and safe and warm, until Harry'd had to creep back down the hall to Ron's bedroom before dawn. He thinks Ron had known where he was, but they'd never talked about it. And then Harry had moved back to Grimmauld Place, and Ginny had come by from time to time, telling her mum she was going to Luna's for the night.

Harry knows Ginny's right. They don't talk; they just fuck, and Harry'd thought that was what she wanted as well, to let their bodies say what they need to. Harry doesn't want to talk about what they've been through; he just wants to not feel anything any longer. It'd been bad enough with the Mind Healers in St Mungo's this past July, all of them so concerned, wanting to know what he was thinking, what he was feeling when the panic overtook him. Harry thinks they're all bloody stupid, but he'd told them just enough to get the calming potions he needs.

Not that he takes them the way he should.

They sit there for a long moment, looking at each other, and then Ginny sighs. "Look," she says gently. "I have to finish my essay for History of Magic tonight." She pulls her hand away. "And I don't want to have a row right now, so I'm going to go upstairs, yeah?"

Harry wants to protest, but it won't do any good. He's dated Ginny long enough to recognise that stubborn set of her jaw. So he just shrugs, letting her lean in to press a quick, soft kiss against his lips. She stands, and Harry watches the way her joggers slide down her narrow hips. Ginny's muscular and athletic, and she's a better Quidditch player than he'll ever be. Harry has no doubt the scouts will be sniffing around her matches this term, the way they had during Oliver Wood' seventh year. He's proud of Gin, wants her to do well, to be happy. He's just not sure that wish for her future includes him any longer.

"Write your essay," Harry says, a bit gruffly, and Ginny touches his cheek, gives him a faint smile.

"You'll survive on your own for a night," she says. Harry's not so sure.

He sinks into the sofa as she leaves, his eyes following the slight swing of her arse as she walks towards the staircase going up to the girls' dormitories. Harry knows he can stay here as long as he wants. The other Gryffindors won't mind; he's still one of theirs, whatever McGonagall might say.

Aamir Loonat takes the armchair nearest to the hearth, setting a stack of books on the floor. He picks the first one up, then glances over at Harry. "Rough day, Harr?" he asks easily, and Harry exhales, stretching his legs out along the sofa.

"Something like that," Harry says. He ought to be working himself. He has ten inches due to Ravi tomorrow on the uses of fire seed in potionbrewing. Harry doesn't care. He'd rather be here, curled up in the comfort of Gryffindor Tower. He feels safe in the circle of this common room, with its faded red curtains, pulled back on one side, and its tapestries and battered bookcases, and its soft, squashy armchairs scattered around thick red rugs. This was his home for six years, and he misses it. Gryffindor was what he wanted to come back for, not the uneasy silence of the Eighth Year common room, none of them quite certain how to interact with each other, all of them still clinging to the tatters of their House identities. Harry thinks McGonagall's mad, really, trying to push them all together. He doesn't have anything in common with Terry and Tony, or Justin for that matter. And then there's Malfoy.

And that's not something Harry wants to think about, Malfoy and the way he hides himself away, as if he's wary of them all. Even Parkinson and Zabini and Bulstrode are more social; they sit together in the common room in the evenings, but Malfoy's seldom with them. Harry'd be suspicious, but he knows where Malfoy squirrels himself away, deep in the stacks of the library or behind the hangings on his bed. He doesn't know what Malfoy was thinking, coming back to Hogwarts like this. He ought to have known he'd be despised, so it's his own damned fault, really.

Except Harry feels a little sorry for the git, and he doesn't like that. Not one bloody bit.

Harry pulls the thick, gold crocheted blanket from the back of the sofa and wraps himself in it. Sod Malfoy. If he wants to skulk around, feeling sorry for himself, Harry doesn't give a fuck. He really doesn't.

The fire crackles and pops in the hearth, and Aamir's quill scratches softly against his parchment as he takes notes on his reading. Harry tells himself this is good, that everything's going to be fine, that he and Gin are going to make it through whatever this is between them, that this year will go well.

It's just he's not certain any of that's true, is he?

The panic starts to well up again, seeping through Harry's body, tensing his muscles. He closes his eyes, breathes, tries to fight it off, to push it away. Pull it together, Potter, he thinks.

"Harry?" Aamir says, and when Harry opens his eyes again, Aamir's there, a worried frown between his brows. "Are you all right?"

It takes Harry a moment, but he nods. The panic's starting to fade, at least a little. He gives Aamir a small smile as he pushes himself up, off the sofa. "I'm fine," he says, but his legs are a little wobbly, and Aamir's frown deepens. "Really," Harry adds. "Just tired." It's the excuse he's been giving all summer, the one Molly and Arthur never really believed but let him use. "I think I need a nap, yeah?"

"Yeah," Aamir says, but the look he gives Harry is unconvinced.

Harry walks towards the door, somehow managing to keep his limbs working properly, and when he steps through, the Fat Lady eyes him. "Looking a bit rough there, love," she says. The roses in her hair tremble a bit. "Anything I should be worried about?"

"Not a thing," Harry says, and he meets her gaze evenly. "I'm brill."

As the door swings shut behind him, Harry catches a glimpse of Aamir, still watching him from the hearth.

"I'm brill," Harry says again, letting his voice rise a bit, and the Fat Lady clucks softly at him.

"Of course you are, ducky," she says, but the look on her face is the same as Aamir's, as if Harry's an Erumpent about to blow. It infuriates him. Frightens him. Makes him want to punch his fist right through the canvas of her portrait.

Instead Harry turns on his heel and strides away.

He's fine, he tells himself. He bloody well has to be.

***

Draco's tired. He hasn't really slept well for the past few days. He's not certain why, but he feels as if the bloody sword of Damocles is dangling over his head, certain to fall at any moment. There's no rationale for that, of course. He's being neurotic, as Pansy points out on a regular basis. She's walking beside him now, nattering on about something Draco's not bothering to pay attention to, when Iain Claverdon, one of the sixth--no--seventh-year Gryffindors, tall and brawny and bloody well thicker than Vince on his worst days, slams into Draco, knocking him into the wall just outside the Defence of Dark Arts classroom.

"Wanker," Claverdon says, with a sneer on his stupid face. Draco pushes himself up only to have Claverdon shove him again, sending Draco's satchel flying to the floor in a flurry of spilt books and papers. Draco's inkwell shatters against the wall in an arc of broken glass and black ink that spatters against the white sleeve of Draco's shirt and makes Pansy shriek, more in irritation than anything, Draco thinks.

Draco straightens himself. His shoulder's aching, just at the joint where it struck the wall. "Fuck off, you halfwit twat." He's tired of this, tired of being pushed around by imbecilic bastards like Claverdon and his pack of feral Gryffindors. Not even Potter and his lot are as vicious as this bunch.

"What'd you call me?" Claverdon turns back; his sandy blond hair's falling over his forehead, his mouth's twisted down into a frown.

Draco's about to answer, despite the violent look on Claverdon's face and his obvious willingness to knock Draco about. He's not good at holding his tongue, all things considered. He'd rather have the bruises than fawn and scrape like his father had the past year. Pansy's at his side, murmuring a low Draco. Pans is nothing if not a survivor, Draco knows, but he also knows she'll save herself first. It's one of the things he loves best about her.

"You've done enough, Claverdon." Potter's voice behind Draco is quiet but commanding, sending a shiver of discomfort through Draco. Claverdon looks up, resembling nothing so much as a puppy that's been called to heel. The bloody Golden Trio, as the Prophet's taken to calling them over the summer, much to Draco's disgust, are standing in the corridor with their satchels over their chests, Potter slouching, his hands in his pockets, Weasley sneering at his side with what Draco's fairly certain is a love bite on his neck, Granger prim as ever, although clearly she's the biter. Draco's a bit bitterly amused at that last thought, the realisation that the wizarding world's saviours are human as well, no matter how they've been lionised in the press.

Claverdon steps close to Draco, suddenly violating his space, and Draco doesn't flinch. Much. Claverdon snaps his teeth Draco's way, but he leaves, walking into the Defence classroom without striking or shoving Draco, and, frankly, Draco counts that as a win. Potter and his minions go into the room next, Potter's eyes passing over him for a moment. He looks perhaps less disgusted than usual, but Draco can't be sure. Unlike the rest of the school, Draco's not exactly trying to get the attention of the Saviour. He's never had trouble with that before, and it's not all it's cracked up to be, thanks ever so.

"Draco, you've got to be more careful." Pansy's voice is terse, annoyed. "They could make a lot of trouble for you, and it's not like you're invulnerable."

Draco favours her with a slow, sharp smile. "Who's to say I don't like getting beaten up by brawny idiots?"

Pansy swings her satchel, smacking him in the arse. "Pervert."

He shrugs, acknowledging her point, and she suppresses a laugh, trying to frown at him but failing. Draco's done with tyranny and living under fear. He's promised himself that this year he'll bend his knee to no one, that he'll live true to his own principles. It's a bit exciting, and the freedom makes his stomach drop if he's honest.

When they go inside the classroom, Pansy and Draco are the last to arrive. They drop their satchels and join the fringes of the group bunched loosely around a central warded duelling area in the middle of the room. There are several such areas marked out with floor charms and some sort of protective spell tracery, as well as targets set up against the far wall. There are no desks to be seen today, which surprises Draco. Omolade's been lecturing during class for the past few weeks. The room has been recently scoured and is almost spotless--the warding spells also appear freshly cast and intricate. A window is open at the back of the tall room, and the cool autumn air is bracing.

"Mr Malfoy and Miss Parkinson." Professor Omolade's voice is mocking, but not unkind. "Please do try to be punctual--I'm sure you hate detention as much as I hate supervising it."

Pansy ducks her head, and Draco says, "Sorry, Professor." He's surprised to find he genuinely means it.

"We're going to continue working on basics today, albeit in a far less theoretical manner than we have been, as I know the Defence training at Hogwarts has not been consistent in recent years." Professor Omolade pauses, purses her lips. "We'll be more disciplined in the future about technique, but today I'd like to take it out of the realm of theory and see what you're already able to put into practise."

She pairs them up, watching a few pairs at a time and then switching out partners. Draco's been given a seventh year Hufflepuff--Garitt Threston, as he introduces himself--as his duelling partner. Draco tries to be decent about it, but he easily blocks Threston's first attack and drops him with a body bind. Luckily the floor is well-cushioned, but it can't be pleasant.

Omolade nods. "All right, Malfoy. You leave an enormous hole on your left and your casting could be swifter. You're lucky Mr Threston is just warming up."

She undoes the bind on Threston and helps him up, and then encourages them to rejoin. They duel twice, Draco keeping the upper hand both times. After Threston nearly burns off a lock of his hair, Draco sends him down to the floor with a Leg-Locker curse.

Omolade nods. "Mr Threston, good momentum. I think you should work on your offensive spells for a bit." She points him over to the far side of the room where students are attempting to strike a duelling target with a precise cast of the Fyre jinx, taking turns sending small, flaming spell charges across a ten-metre distance.

"Mr Malfoy, over here." Professor Omolade moves surprisingly swiftly, and already seems to be at least halfway across the room. "You're not half-bad at defensive work, but you really need to work on your follow-through."

Draco's stomach sinks when he realises she's pairing him up with Potter. Potter runs his hands through his hair, setting his loose curls awry. Draco really doesn't want to go through this, but he has no choice, he supposes. He sizes up his opponent, the jeans slung low on Potter's hips, the rumpled green jumper that make his eyes look like bottle glass, the shoulders broader than Draco remembers. He swallows, his mouth suddenly dry.

"Time to engage, Mr Malfoy." Professor Omolade's voice is cool.

Draco steps into the ring, then nods. "Potter."

"Malfoy." Potter's facial expression is blank, his weight balanced on the balls of his feet. His overall appearance is unconcerned, but there's something jittery about his body language to Draco's eye. He's weaving little circles with his wand, waiting for the beginning of the duel with impatience.

Sending a plea to the ghost of Snape--wherever he may be--that this not be hideously embarrassing, Draco takes a duelling stance as Omolade calls start.

Potter's quick, jets of color flying from his wand in thick bursts. He sends a Jelly Legs and a Langlock in short succession and puts Draco on the defensive immediately. Draco gets his Protegos in place in time, but he's moving oddly out of synch, like he's underwater observing himself and reacting a second too late. Somehow it's surreal to be here, back at school, as if nothing had happened, to be duelling Potter for play. Draco also thinks it's odd to be under a teacher's eyes again and trying not to bring deadly force after what they've weathered, although if he's honest he's mostly trying not to get hurt as usual. As the force of Potter's magic buffets him in waves, spells landing perilously close, the scars on Draco's chest hurt sympathetically as if recalling the last time they'd faced each other with wands drawn. Draco's body remembers the bleeding and Severus' desperation, as much as his mind would rather forget.

On the next exchange, Draco barely wards off an Arresto Momentum and manages to fire off a piss-poor Stupefy that goes wide and fizzles somewhere to Potter's left.

"Focus, Mr Malfoy," Omolade's voice is distant, sharp. She's a tall, brooding presence at the corner of his eye, and he can feel the power in her stance from here. Severus must have liked her, he thinks, and his eyes are strangely wet at the idea.

To recover, Draco fires a jet of sparks from a Relashio, both to surprise Potter and also to give himself time to think. Then he manages to catch Potter with the edge of a Knock-Back Jinx. Neither of them are expecting the spell to make contact, and whilst Draco's enjoying watching Potter stagger and imagining how great it would be to hit him with something harder, Potter miraculously recovers his footing. He effects a counterspell, and then fires off a Petrificus at Draco that hits him dead center in the chest. Draco barely has time to curse as his body freezes up and then tips backwards to the floor.

"Mobilicorpus." Potter's quick reaction keeps Draco from hitting the ground. Draco slides sideways, stomach lurching, and then Omolade settles him down lightly, freeing him from the effect of the spell. Draco lies on the ground for a moment, gathering his bearings and quelling his nausea.

Once she's established Draco's fine, Omolade turns to Potter, who's biting his lip and looking at Draco on the floor. "Well done, Mr Potter. You're going to need to work on the precision and the modulation of your magic, but there's nothing wrong with your speed or the intensity of your cast."

Draco stands up, rubbing his twitching thigh muscle. He hates Petrificus spells. They always leave him sore and furious, and the Mobilicorpus made him motion sick. Potter can't know how much Draco hates the powerlessness of the spell, but it's just like the speccy git to cast the worst thing possible. He's a knack for that, after all, Draco thinks bitterly, even if it's out of pure idiocy.

"Are you okay for another round?" Omolade asks, sizing Draco up. "We haven't too much time left if you'd prefer to work on a technical."

"No, I can do it." Draco's refusing to work with the others out of pride, more than anything else. Omolade waves a hand, and he steps back into the ring with Potter. She goes off to check on Weasley who's setting something on fire with Threston that doesn't look like part of the lesson plan.

"You don't have to," Potter says, a frown across his face, recalling Draco's attention to the ring. "I hit you pretty hard."

Draco's temper flares and he snaps. "For Merlin's sake, Potter. You've done far worse to me in the past." When Potter's face is blank, Draco is even more furious. "Or don't you recall what a Sectumsempra looks like up close? Because I've never been able to forget."

The grimace of pain and ashen, haunted look on Potter's face is more satisfying to Draco at the moment than breaking Potter's nose, although he really wants to do that again too.

"I don't need you to fight off Claverdon, either." Draco pauses, weighing his words carefully. "I know where your sympathies lie. It's fine."

"You know nothing about me," Potter spits out in return, and the vehemence of his tone surprises Draco.

In the corner, Omolade is chastising Ron and Threston is trying to patch together the sparring dummy they'd managed to singe pretty well. Over near the door, Claverdon and his thuggish friends are taking advantage of the distraction, using Mobilicorpus behind Omolade's back to hit people with random satchels. Draco sees his own go flying across the room, coming close to striking Pansy but dropping at the last moment.

"Detention, Mr Claverdon," Omolade says, turning around. "I hear Mr Filch is having trouble with the dungeon's plumbing. I know he'll appreciate the help." Claverdon has a mutinous look on his face, and Omolade actually smiles at him, winning Draco's undying admiration. The Gryffindor mutters something about Slytherins under his breath as he skulks off meatily with his cronies, and Professor Omolade pretends not to hear.

Draco looks back at Potter, a satisfy quiver of hope in his heart. "And that's where you're wrong, Potter." As Omolade calls time for everyone, he says, "I know everything about you."

Stalking off, Draco has a glorious sense of self-righteousness, followed by a crippling sense of self-doubt. Had he really won that exchange with Potter? He's not entirely sure.

Sunk in thought, he rejoins Pansy, retrieving his satchel. Maybe there'll be a good pudding for lunch that'll help him stop worrying about Potter. One thing's for certain--he needs to get better at duelling. And watch his back for Claverdon and his ilk.