His heart was pounding beneath his chest. He looked down at the scrap of paper in his hand and looked back up. Room 142, said the nameplate on the door. They were the same words that were scrawled on the paper, along with “5.30 PM.”
Harry stuffed the piece of paper in the pocket of his hoodie and wiped his hands on his jeans. He then took hold of the doorknob and turned.
It was bright. That was his first impression. His second was that the room was quite small, especially for the amount of people that was crammed into it. Most of them were already sitting down, making small talk with those around them. Others were standing around a plain, rectangular table that was topped with a box of donuts, Styrofoam cups, and a rather outdated coffee maker.
“Welcome,” said a voice, and Harry jumped.
He turned to look at the person who was standing before him. She was a thin, white, conventionally attractive woman with a kind smile. Her blonde hair was being kept out of her face with several bobby pins though a few stray pieces had fallen out, gently framing her kind face.
“You must be new – I don’t think I’ve ever seen you here before.”
“Er, yeah, I am,” Harry nodded, a little unnerved by how chirpy her voice was. “I sent an email. I’m Harry.”
“Oh, yes! Of course. My name is Katherine,” she said, holding out a hand. “I’m a facilitator of this support group. It’s so nice to finally meet you.”
“You too,” he said, and shook her extended hand.
“It’s so good to have you with us, Harry,” Katherine said. “Oh, but please call me Kathy. I’d like us all to be comfortable with one another.”
Harry nodded, and her smile stretched even further. Kathy left, probably to make friendly conversation with the people standing by the food table.
He looked over at the circle of plastic chairs that dominated the room. There was a small section of them that wasn’t occupied by anyone; Harry walked over and sat in one.
Harry checked his watch; it was the one Molly had given him five years ago. 5.27. Group was set to begin in three minutes. He was surprised he had come early; perhaps it was the nerves. Perhaps it was because he didn’t want to give himself the chance to sit around making excuses as to why he couldn’t go.
He studied the room. He wasn’t sure what he had expected; there were about fifteen people present, not including Kathy or himself. Most of them were probably a bit older than him, maybe in their mid-to-late 20s. Some were middle-aged. There were a few that were younger than him as well, but he knew that one had to be at least eighteen to join. Good for them, thought Harry. He wished he could have gotten the courage to get help when he was their age. He wished he had had the means.
Conversation was slowly dying down. Kathy had made her way over to the circle and sat herself down a few seats away from Harry. She picked up a clipboard and pen from underneath her seat and set them down in her lap.
There was a sound of a door opening, and Harry glanced over a moment, bored. He quickly did a double-take, however, because he could hardly believe what he was seeing.
Walking into the room was a man Harry hadn’t seen since he was eighteen years old. He didn’t look much different; he had the same pointy features, pale skin, and white-blond hair. But his hair was a bit longer. Looser, too. And though it was hard to tell given the black puff coat that obscured his body, he might have been a bit thinner.
What Draco Malfoy was doing at a Muggle mental illness support group meeting, Harry did not know. Malfoy crossed the room and sat down directly across from Harry, apparently not spotting him, but as soon as he looked up and caught sight of him, Malfoy’s grey eyes widened fractionally.
Harry looked over at Kathy, attempting to be casual, as if this sort of thing happened every day. Of course, it didn’t, and Harry’s heart was pounding in his ears and his cheeks were burning but he still pretended that everything was Fine. He crossed his arms and waited for Kathy to speak. Mercifully, at this moment in time, she glanced at her phone before pocketing it and beamed at the group.
“Hello, everyone! Thanks for joining us again this week. I’m so glad to see returning members, and new ones as well. I just have a brief breathing exercise to start us off this evening, and then we can have our usual go-around. Does this sound alright with everyone?”
Various sounds of agreement emerged from the group. Harry was too busy staring at Kathy and pretending like everything was Fine to answer.
“Great,” Kathy said, and looked down at her clipboard. “So, this is called the four-seven-eight relaxation exercise. It’s meant to help you relax and manage your stress, and it supposedly gets more effective with practice. Right, so the first step is to close your eyes and sit up straight.”
Harry did so and uncrossed his arms. Breathing exercises weren’t always effective for him, as his mind tended to wander a fair bit.
“Next, I want you to place the tip of your tongue behind your front teeth.”
Kathy’s voice had adopted a calming tone; less enthusiastic and overly cheery, more gentle and soothing. Harry followed her instructions, wondering why he had to do such a thing.
“Now, I want you to exhale completely through your mouth. Once you’ve done that, close your mouth and inhale through your nose for a count of four.” She paused momentarily. “One…two…three…four.”
Harry inhaled at her count, his tongue still pressed against the back of his front teeth.
“Now hold your breath…one…two…three…four…five…six…seven. Exhale completely through your mouth. One…two…three…four…five…six…seven…eight.”
Harry did. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but he might have felt a little calmer.
“We’re going to do this three more times. Right. Inhale. One…two…three…four. Hold it…one…two…three…four…five…six…seven. And exhale. One…two…three…four…five…six…seven…eight.”
She continued to guide them until they had taken a total of four breaths. Harry opened his eyes prematurely. Malfoy sat there, eyes closed and back straight as he breathed. Harry didn’t think he had ever seen Malfoy look so peaceful.
“Open your eyes.”
Harry’s eyes darted away again, finding their way back to Kathy before Malfoy could catch him staring. She had put her clipboard down and was gazing around the room.
“How was that for everyone? I’d love to hear your thoughts.” Her voice was making its way back to its former chirpiness.
“I liked it,” said a man, probably a year or so younger than Harry. His black hair was swept back, and he had the sort of face you could trust. “I found myself relaxing, which I’d been unable to do all week.”
“Good! I’m glad, Samuel,” Kathy said, smiling at him.
“I liked it too,” a white woman agreed, nodding. Her mousy brown hair had streaks of grey in it, and there were tired bags underneath her eyes. “I’ll have to remember it so I can use it at home.”
“Oh, wonderful! It’s called the four-seven-eight breathing exercise,” Kathy reminded kindly. “Anyone else?”
“Yeah, it was useful.” The person closest to Harry said. Harry turned; he hadn’t realized anyone had sat down next to him. He was a black man, his hair cropped close to his skull. “I’m the same as Sam; I feel a lot more relaxed now.”
“Excellent,” Kathy said. She glanced around the room, seeing if anyone else was going to talk. When no one did, she repeated, “Excellent. Right, so it sounds like it’s been a bit of a long week for some of you. We can hop right into it and go around and talk about how you’ve been doing recently. Would anyone like to start?”
“I would,” volunteered a young woman who was sitting beside Kathy. She spoke quickly, her eyes darting across the room. Kathy nodded encouragingly, prompting her to speak. “Well, I’ve had a rather busy week; it’s like my professors are all plotting against me. I just feel like I can never take a break, like I’ve always got to be moving. My mind’s always working and if I’m not doing enough, I feel guilty. But I’ve been trying to keep positive.”
“That’s good, Abigail,” Kathy said, nodding. “How has your sleep schedule been? I know it can be irregular at times.”
Abigail made a face. “I’ve only slept eight hours in the past three nights. But it’s nearly the weekend, so I think I might be able to catch up a bit.”
“I’m glad; I hope you can.”
“Thanks,” Abigail said shyly.
“I can relate,” said Samuel, the man who had spoken earlier. “I’ve also been rather anxious about school and work. It’s only a few weeks into the term but I’m already nervous about several of my classes. It’s worse than usual, so I’m hoping it’ll die down once I get used to things again.”
“What are you experiencing now, if it’s worse than usual?”
“I just constantly feel sick to my stomach,” Samuel answered with a frown. “Normally, when I’m anxious, it goes away after a while, but it hasn’t been going away lately. I just can’t calm down. My stomach’s always twisting and my brain is always going, so it’s - it’s not fun.”
“Does anyone else experience this?” Kathy asked the group. “Perhaps someone has some coping methods they’d be willing to share.”
“Er,” Harry said, and he fidgeted uncomfortably as approximately fifteen people turned to look at him. He stared determinedly at Samuel and pretended that Malfoy wasn’t there. He pushed on, “Well, I don’t know if it’s exactly the same, but when I’m feeling, kind of, er, trapped in my head and anxious about things, I like taking walks outside. When I do that, it sort of reminds me how big the world is, and my problems feel tiny in comparison. It’s kind of humbling, I guess. It helps me relax.”
Samuel nodded as Harry spoke, encouraging him.
“Cheers,” he said. “I’ll definitely try that.”
“Thank you, Harry,” Kathy said, smiling at him. “Does anyone else have any advice for Samuel?”
They spent another forty-five minutes talking, people going around at random to talk about their week.
“We’ve got a break now,” Kathy said after taking out her phone to check the time, “So we’ll continue in ten minutes, like always.”
Harry wasn’t sure if he should stand; he wasn’t particularly hungry. Before he could decide, he saw that Samuel was walking towards him. Harry stood up.
“Hey, I just wanted to say thanks again,” Samuel said kindly. “Are you new here? I don’t recognize you, and I like to think I’m pretty good with faces.”
“Oh, yeah,” Harry said. He stuck out a hand. “I’m Harry.”
Samuel shook it. “Samuel. You can call me Sam, though.”
“Nice to meet you, Sam.”
“Likewise,” Samuel said. His eyes were very brown, and Harry found them to be warm and inviting. Samuel bit his lip and cocked his head. “I don’t mean to be rude, but are you Asian?” When Harry blinked, he continued. “That was rude, I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s fine,” Harry said. “But yeah, my dad was British Indian. Mum was white.”
“Oh, nice,” Samuel said, the grin coming back on his face. It fell slightly as (Harry guessed, anyway) Harry’s use of past tense sunk in. Thankfully, Samuel decided not to inquire about it. “My parents are both from Pakistan. It’s always nice to meet other Asians. Got to stick together, eh?”
“Yeah,” Harry agreed. He glanced over Samuel’s shoulder for a second, catching a glimpse of Malfoy. Harry hesitated, then nodded towards him. “Hey, er, d’you know him?”
Samuel looked behind him, trying to determine who Harry was talking about.
“The blond bloke?” he asked once he’d turned back around. Harry nodded. Samuel frowned. “Name’s Draco. Haven’t talked to him much, to be honest, but he’s been here almost as long as I have. Kind of quiet. Keeps to himself. Why?”
“Oh, I was just curious.” Harry didn’t think he needed to get into their complicated history.
He was slightly surprised that Malfoy had decided to go with his given name; it wasn’t exactly ordinary, especially among Muggles. Stop thinking about Malfoy, he thought sternly to himself.
Samuel raised his eyebrows but didn’t push. Harry decided that he liked Samuel.
They spent the rest of break chatting. It turned out Samuel was indeed a year younger than Harry at twenty-one years old. Harry also learned that he was an international relations student at London Metropolitan University. Harry kept the conversation directed towards Samuel; he wasn’t sure how to explain that he dropped out of school before the age of seventeen to kill a Dark Lord, and has since been rather lost.
Their ten minutes was up, and Kathy ushered them back to their seats. Samuel nodded before going back to his seat; Harry sat down, feeling rather pleased with himself. It wasn’t easy making friends; in the Wizarding world, people were too awestruck to actually talk to him, and yet he found it hard to connect with Muggles – magic had been a part of his life for too long.
He glanced at Malfoy, trying to be discreet. He was sitting there, eyes on Kathy, and Harry resisted the urge to go over there and start interrogating him. It wasn’t his business, Harry tried to reason with himself. Malfoy could do whatever the hell he liked, and it didn’t concern him at all.
But it did, another part of him argued. He wanted so desperately to know what he was doing here, amongst Muggles, after he had slinked into anonymity after the trials.
Kathy’s voice interrupted the debate raging on in his head.
“Right, I hope you’re feeling ready to jump back into it. Who’d like to go next?” Her eyes scanned the room, finally landing on Harry. Oh no. “Harry? Why don’t you introduce yourself to the group?”
He swallowed thickly.
“Er, sure,” Harry said nervously. He avoided Malfoy’s gaze at all costs as he looked around vaguely, not really making eye contact with anyone. “Well, my name’s Harry. I found out about this group pretty recently, although I’ve lived in this area for a few years now. I’m, er, looking forward to it and to getting help and all that…”
He trailed off, unsure of what to say. Kathy smiled at him encouragingly.
“What brought you here?” she prompted.
“Oh. Well, I’ve been sort of struggling to deal with things,” Harry said, panicking a little. Once again, it occurred to him just how hard it would be to explain his problems to Muggles. He continued, deciding to leave things ambiguous. “Things that happened in the past. I still get nightmares and I’ve got some – er, anger issues. Control issues. For a while I just tried to ignore it, self-medicating, I guess, but I’m not doing that anymore. So now I’m here to, er, help myself. The right way.”
Kathy smiled at him. “Thank you for sharing that with us, Harry. I know how difficult it is to take that first step, and we’re glad you’re here with us.”
“Oh. Thanks,” Harry said awkwardly, and tried to manage a smile.
Kathy moved onto someone else. Harry looked down in his lap and took a deep breath. Hardest part is over, apparently. His hands were curled into tight fists, he noticed, and he made an effort to relax them.
When Harry looked up, his eyes met Malfoy’s grey ones for only the second time that night. Harry tried to make his face remain impassive, though he felt strange knowing that Malfoy had heard his choppy introduction. What was Malfoy thinking?
Malfoy’s gaze lingered on Harry for another moment, his expression still impossible to read, before it moved to rest on the current speaker.
Harry tried to focus on them too, but his mind was too busy trying to work Malfoy out.
“So, how was it?”
Hermione was looking at him from across the coffee table. Harry didn’t have to ask her to clarify what “it” was. He knew what she was talking about, and that she was using her casual voice, the one she used when she tried to keep her curiosity under wraps. Ron’s attention turned to Harry as well, though his curiosity was much more obvious, all wide eyes and slowed chewing.
It was Saturday morning, also known as the time they all had breakfast together at Ron and Hermione’s flat. They hadn’t had a chance to see each other since Harry attended group for the first time on Wednesday.
Harry swallowed his bite of eggs before answering.
“It was good,” he said cautiously. He didn’t think he’d tell them about Malfoy, though he burned to talk about it with someone. But there was group confidentiality and all that. “The facilitator seems nice.”
“Mhm,” Harry said.
“But do you think it will help?” Hermione asked gently.
“Can’t know for sure yet,” Harry said truthfully. “It’s only been one meeting. But I’m going to keep going.”
Hermione smiled at him. “I’m glad.”
The next week trudged by slowly.
Harry didn’t do much. He’d dropped out of Auror training about a half year into it. Ron finished training and was a fully-fledged Auror for about a year before dropping out as well and going to work with George instead. Hermione had gone back to school to make up for her absent year, and was now working for the Ministry, working to advance creature rights. Ron and Hermione loved what they did, and Harry was both proud and bitter.
Auror training was just wrong for him. It’d bring back feelings of hopelessness and having to fight for his life. It made his paranoia worse, and the nightmares became more frequent and severe – sometimes he’d have trouble telling them apart from reality. After a while, the fear became too much to handle. He had been under the threat of danger for too long and couldn’t bear it any longer.
But without Auror training, what did that leave him? His friends, of course. And Ginny.
Ginny. They resumed things after the war, but it felt wrong. Forced. He was alive, sure, but not in the way he was before. He often wondered if he’d come back wrong after dying.
He felt like he’d been reduced to just the worst parts of himself afterward coming back; his irritability, his lack of control, his guilt, suspicion, and hopelessness. He couldn’t do that to her. He couldn’t force her to stay with him and care for him when he didn’t even care for himself.
She was wonderful, though. She’d try to cheer him up, she’d try to distract him, and she’d soothe him when he woke up screaming – and this happened more often than not. She’d try to get him outside, to get him talking to people, talking to Teddy. She’d calm him down when he had panic attacks, when he’d get headaches and fear Voldemort was coming back again.
Ginny was also the one who had gotten him to wean off the dreamless sleep. She’d noticed just how much he was taking, and just how frequently, and confronted him about it. Harry tried to deny it at first, but she could see right through him. She had known him too well and too long for that. She helped him stop even though he was scared and angry and he begged her to let him keep using them.
He hadn’t touched a bottle since he was twenty.
Their relationship officially ended half a year after that, but he often wondered how long it had been dead before then. He wasn’t a proper boyfriend; he hadn’t been since the first six months of the revival of their relationship. Ginny was too kind, too loving, and most of all, much too good for Harry, and he had to let her go.
Ginny was now flying for the Holyhead Harpies, and she was happy. He saw it in her eyes when they’d all gather at the Burrow or the two of them would meet up for drinks when she had the time. He still cared very much for her, and he knew she cared for him as well, but their current friendship was much healthier than whatever they had before.
And so without a job, without Ginny, and without dreamless sleep, Harry found other ways to live. It wasn’t always ideal, he knew, but still. He was breathing.
For a while he’d taken to visiting Muggle bars and clubs. He’d get drunk enough to forget how much he didn’t want to be alive, and he might have pick someone up along the way. He was irresponsible, he knew, and he was an inconsiderate git. He’d hardly remember having sex with whoever it was, but he’d always leave before they woke up.
Maybe he just wanted to be reckless. Maybe he wanted to feel something other than panic and anger or nothing. He’d since stopped this habit, too, but only after Ron had a serious talk with him. He was careful to only drink socially instead of drinking to forget how much he wanted to die.
So now he sat around Grimmauld Place, where he’d been living in since the Battle. On the days he was especially restless, he’d go through and clean the house, looking through it and half-hoping he’d find something interesting of Sirius’. Kreacher would chase him around, telling him to lie down and rest.
But usually, he’d sleep at infrequent intervals, read old paperbacks, and talk to Ron and Hermione when they had time.
And that’s what he did until next Wednesday.
The meetings were held in a public library not far from Grimmauld Place. Going there by foot made for a nice walk, though it was a rather cool evening for September.
When Harry entered the room, his eyes fell on Malfoy immediately, and he couldn’t help but think about how nice he looked.
Malfoy’s cheeks were pink from the cold (he must have come in just before Harry), and he was wrapped up in a dark green scarf, because apparently, some things never changed. His thin, white fingers were gripping a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his lap. He looked tense, sitting rigidly in his chair as he stared a bit too intensely at nothing in particular.
“All right, Harry?”
He looked away from Malfoy and turned towards Samuel, who was approaching Harry with a donut in hand.
“Hey,” Harry said in greeting. He nodded at the donut. “Are those any good?”
“No,” sighed Samuel, “But as a student, I have to take all the free food I can get.”
Harry laughed. “Right.”
They walked over to the chairs to sit down next to one another.
“I’m glad you decided to come back,” said Samuel. “Loads of people come in once and never return. Too daunting, I guess.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t too sure of what to expect. I’ve never done anything like this before,” admitted Harry.
“Really?” Samuel looked surprised. “Huh. I’ve been going to these things since secondary school.”
It was Harry’s turn to be surprised. “Secondary school?”
Samuel nodded. “But they weren’t always support groups. I’ve jumped around from hospital to one-to-one counseling to groups like these.”
Harry wasn’t exactly sure of proper etiquette of two mentally ill people talking about being mentally ill, so he just said, “Oh.”
“I like support groups best, though,” Samuel said. “And this group especially. Good people.”
Harry nodded, his eyes moving across the room. He honestly couldn’t agree nor disagree with Samuel’s statement; he didn’t know them well enough to have formed a fair opinion. Even Malfoy, Harry thought as his eyes rested on him, was a complete mystery to him all over again.
“All right, you lot, settle down,” Kathy said, her voice carrying over the conversations that were being held. Harry directed his attention to her. “Thanks for coming today; it’s good to see your faces.
“I don’t have a special activity planned for us today, so I thought we could take the entire session to just talk about our weeks. If anyone has any suggestions or requests, however, I’d be very happy to hear them.”
“Could we do that breathing exercise we did last time?” asked a young woman who was seated closest to the door.
“Yes, of course,” Kathy smiled. “For those of you who weren’t here, or who don’t remember, it’s called the four-seven-eight breathing exercise. Follow along if you want.”
Kathy led them through the exercise. Harry breathed along with the rest of the group. This time, he didn’t open his eyes until Kathy told them to, wanting to get the full Experience of the relaxation exercise. He still wasn’t sure if it helped, but it couldn’t hurt.
“Great. Thank you, Cait,” Kathy said as they all blinked to familiarize themselves once more with the harsh lighting.
“So, who would like to go first today?” Kathy asked, looking around at the group. Unlike last time, no one volunteered. With a smile on her lips, she continued scanning the room, evidently trying to pick a “volunteer.” Her brown eyes landed on Malfoy. “Draco, would you be willing?”
Malfoy looked up at Kathy evenly, his fingers still tight on his cup.
“Yes,” Malfoy said.
He cleared his throat and his eyes looked impassively around the room, pausing only momentarily on Harry. He suddenly realized he hadn’t heard Malfoy speak in over four years.
“I visited my mother over the weekend,” Malfoy said. His voice was softer, less sharp - different from what Harry was used to. Even during the trials his words had had some bite. “At my old home. I still don’t feel comfortable there. Mother thinks I just need more time, but I don’t know if it’ll ever feel right again. It’s difficult because I love my mother, and I want to see her, but I still want to separate myself from that house, my family…and my past. Not entirely, of course, but it’s even harder to move on when I’ve got to go to that house so often.
“And I desperately want to move on,” Malfoy continued, his gaze dropping to his cup of coffee. “Holding onto the past and ruminating over it does me no favors, so I know I’ve got to move on. But whenever I have to go back to that house, when I have to have tea in a place where those things happened – it just brings me right back. It just sort of feels like…I’m taking one step forward and two steps back.”
Kathy nodded. She had heard similar things from Malfoy before, evidently. Harry wondered how long Malfoy had been coming to the meetings. He’d have to ask Samuel later.
“Have you tried talking to your mother about meeting each other outside of the house?” Kathy asked.
“She doesn’t get out much,” Malfoy answered. His grey eyes were on Kathy. “I think it’s the opposite with her. If she stays in the house, it’s like nothing’s changed outside.”
“Is there perhaps a place where the two of you could meet in the middle? Someplace that reminds her of your old life together, and someplace that doesn’t hold such negative memories for you?”
“I don’t know, to be honest. I don’t know if someplace like that exists. I’ll have to think on it. Thank you.”
“Of course, Draco. I hope you can find a way for you to be able to spend time together without it being painful.”
Harry studied Malfoy. To be honest, he hadn’t given much thought to the Malfoy family after the trials. He’d spoken in support of Draco and Narcissa, explaining what they’d done for him, how he wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for them. But after that, their family didn’t often cross his mind.
It made sense, though. He’d seen snippets of Voldemort’s horrific stay at the Malfoy Manor, and he certainly didn’t envy them. He wondered how it felt to occupy the same spaces that Voldemort had – to live in the same house as Voldemort had.
Though, it was the Malfoy’s space in the first place…maybe that was why Narcissa Malfoy felt more comfortable in her own home. She could pretend that the war hadn’t happened in the first place.
Harry snapped out of it. Why was he thinking so much on it? It didn’t concern him. Course, he always did have a habit of sticking his nose where it didn’t belong.
He listened to the others who spoke. It was remarkable how often he really resonated with what others were saying. It was strange to think that, perhaps, he wasn’t as alone in his thoughts as he had always believed.
Halfway through, Kathy released them for break. Harry turned to face Samuel in his chair.
“So, er, how long have you been coming to this group?”
Samuel thought a moment.
“Well, I reckon I started coming here halfway through my third year at uni, so…almost a year.”
Harry nodded. So Malfoy’s been coming to these meetings for almost a year as well. He wondered why he cared.
“But tell me about yourself, Harry,” Samuel said, surprising him. When he grimaced, Samuel frowned apologetically. “Just a little? I feel like I hardly know you.”
It’s true; Harry had been purposefully evasive. Relationships were about giving and getting, right? One person couldn’t just work for it. He’d learned that from Ginny.
“Er, well,” Harry frowned. “I don’t know what to say. What do you want to know?”
Samuel hummed thoughtfully.
“What do you do?”
Harry tried not to sigh.
“Not much, really,” Harry said. “I meet with friends sometimes, I read, I listen to old records…”
Harry shook his head. “I tried to – er, I was in police training for a bit, but that didn’t work out.”
Yeah, three bloody years ago, supplied an unhelpful voice in Harry’s head.
“Really?” Samuel grinned. “Wouldn’t’ve figured you for a copper.”
“Yeah,” Harry let out a laugh. “Dunno why I thought it was a good idea.”
What else were you supposed to do?
“What about your mates? What’re they like?”
This, he could talk about this.
“They’re brilliant. There’s Ron, who I’ve known him since I was eleven. He’s the funniest bloke I know and dead loyal. We used to mess around in school all the time…and there’s Hermione, who’s his wife, and I’ve known her just as long. She’s so clever and brave and I dunno what I’d do without her.”
Samuel was nodding, a soft smile on his face.
“They sound really special.”
“They are. I couldn’t - I honestly wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them.”
Harry felt a sudden rush of affection for them and had the impulse to leave to just see them, to just tell them how important they were to him. He didn’t think he expressed it to them often enough.
“That’s wonderful, mate,” Samuel said. “I can tell they mean a lot to you – this is the happiest I’ve ever seen you. I know I barely know you so it can’t really mean much, but still.”
Harry grinned. Yes, he really did like Samuel.
He’d got himself a laptop and Internet connection a few years after moving in. He often wondered how the Blacks (most of them, anyway) would have felt about the person who’d killed their beloved Dark Lord bringing Muggle technology into their Most Ancient and Decrepit Home.
One day, Ron and Hermione were visiting when Hermione spotted it. She was overjoyed and proceeded to pull her own out of that beaded bag of hers. Ron examined the laptops, clearly confused. Harry and Hermione tried to explain them to Ron, but he simply shook his head and muttered about how his dad should have come instead.
Hermione pulled up a list of links, showing them to Harry as she nervously explained what she’d been doing. She had found different resources for those suffering from mental illness.
For years, Hermione had suggested he go see someone for his PTSD (which Hermione had diagnosed him with after much careful consideration). Of course, she couldn’t let the matter rest when he said no thank you, so she’d continued to research ways to aid him by herself.
The pages she had pulled up for him varied. Some were to online bookstores that were selling self-help books. Others were online forums and communities, and there were a few to some psychologists in London. The last one she showed him was a very basic website detailing a mental illness support group that had weekly meetings a few blocks away.
Harry had firmly told her thank you, but no once again, but she still didn’t give up.
“Fine,” she had said, her face defiant. It reminded him of their days at Hogwarts (he felt a sad twang of nostalgia at that). “But I’m sending you all of these links just in case you change your mind. What’s your email address?”
A few weeks ago, he stumbled across the email she had sent him that day. He visited all the websites she had supplied him with, figuring he had nothing better to do with his time.
They actually turned out to be rather interesting; he spent an entire day going through them and finding even more on his own. Still, even as he scrolled through countless lists and taken several questionnaires, he wasn’t convinced he was mentally ill. He might’ve just been overreacting or reflecting what he read or something.
After much deliberation, he read and reread the summary that was on that support group’s website. It was another week before he emailed them, saying he was interested in joining. When they emailed back, saying they’d love to have him and providing all of the information, he read and reread that too.
A week after that, he told Hermione about it over breakfast. Thrilled, she got up to embrace him and told him how glad she was. Ron nodded and congratulated him too, though Harry knew he was still rather confused about the whole concept of support groups.
The fact that there weren’t any for Wizards was a major shortcoming of Wizarding society, Harry thought. Along with the lack of the Internet, and ballpoint pens, and probably hundreds of other Muggle inventions. Someday he’d have to make a list of all the things the Wizarding world was missing out on.
That day after Hermione had set off for work, leaving Ron and Harry to clear up, Harry tried again to explain what support groups were.
“There’s all sorts of groups,” said Harry. “For people with addictions to alcohol or Muggle drugs, for people who are grieving…for people with mental illnesses.”
Ron nodded, looking thoughtful as he levitated a clean dish back into the cabinet.
“And they’re all over the place,” Harry continued. “They could be part of a bigger organization that supports some general cause, or they could be part of hospitals. Oh, and there’s Muggle hospitals that just help Muggles with mental illnesses.”
Ron took in what Harry was saying, nodding at the right times.
“It’s just,” Harry had said, lowering his wand, “I still can’t believe wizards don’t have hospitals like that too. What do mentally ill wizards and witches do?”
Ron shrugged. “I mean, if it’s cause of a spell, there’s that ward in St. Mungo’s.”
“Right,” said Harry, remembering their accidental visit during fifth year, “But for natural problems…there’s nothing?”
“Not that I know of,” Ron said, pausing now too to match Harry’s gaze. He was frowning. “I never even thought about it before, honestly. Maybe it just never occurred to the people who made St. Mungo’s however long ago.”
“It should change,” said Harry firmly. “There should be help for people who need it.”
“I agree with you, mate,” Ron had said as he went back to work. “I guess we really do need to catch up with the Muggles.”
It was Wednesday again.
Harry stared at a corner of the room because eye contact was difficult. He sat there wringing his hands, wondering how to proceed. He forced himself to stop moving his hands.
Somehow, the group had gotten onto the topic of family. Harry would have liked to skip his turn but he imagined what Hermione would think if she knew he was being counterproductive.
His eyes flashed toward Kathy for a second, who nodded, and he went back to staring at the corner of the room.
“I, well, when I was a kid…my friends say I was abused,” Harry said quickly, because quickly was the only way he could possibly get it out. “Which, really, is too strong of a word, I think. I mean, yeah, the Du- er, my caretakers weren’t the nicest people but they kept me alive. I had a roof over my head, and I got food at least once a day, so I can’t be ungrateful, y’know?”
He breathed out shakily, and continued looking at that spot.
“But it wasn’t ideal. I know that. I can say that and believe it, because I know they really disliked me…I know they weren’t the best caregivers, and I know that locking me in a cupboard for ten years wasn’t right. But they took me out eventually. They gave me a room and food when it wasn’t too much trouble, when I wasn’t too much trouble. I mean, I always made mistakes and did the wrong things. I was a burden and a waste of space and they didn’t ask for me so I have to be grateful for what they did for me. And I am.”
He was wringing his hands again but this time he didn’t force himself to stop. He looked around the room, his face hot. He’d said too much; he could tell by how the others were looking at him. His eyes stopped on Malfoy, who was looking at him like he’d never seen Harry before.
“Harry,” Kathy said, and his eyes snapped to her. “These caretakers, were they your parents?”
Harry shook his head. “My parents died when I was young. My aunt and uncle took care of me.”
She nodded, her intense gaze on Harry. It made him uncomfortable.
“You don’t need to be grateful for what they did for you. Because what they did to you outweighs anything they ever did for you, which doesn’t sound like much. A caretaker should never lock their child up or deny them food, and it sounds like that’s what your aunt and uncle did. You’re allowed to be mad at them, and you’re allowed to think that they were in the wrong. You didn’t deserve their abuse.”
Her words were nonsense, bouncing off him. He’d heard variations of these words so many times before, but he never believed them. He nodded anyway.
“Thank you for sharing, Harry.”
It was break time and Harry stood awkwardly by the food and drinks table, slowly sipping his lukewarm coffee. Samuel had gone to the loo, leaving him alone.
A light cough snapped him out of his daze. Harry looked up and his eyes widened in surprise; Malfoy was standing next to him. He wondered when they had last stood so close.
“I never knew,” Malfoy said. His face was nearly expressionless, but there was a hint of remorse in his grey eyes. There were bags under them.
It took Harry a moment to realize what he was talking about.
“Oh,” Harry said. “Well, I mean, hardly anyone does, so…”
“I’m sorry.” His voice was quiet, but his words were firm. “I couldn’t have been more wrong about your childhood. I feel terrible.”
“Don’t,” Harry said quickly. He hadn’t expected this, and he didn’t know why he was trying to tell Malfoy that he wasn’t a complete prat when that’s exactly what he was. “Like I said, hardly anyone knew, and you couldn’t have known.”
“It was still wrong of me to make wild assumptions of your life and spread them to anyone who would listen,” Malfoy said and crossed his arms.
“Well, yeah, but…just forget about it, Malfoy. The rumors you spread in school don’t keep me up at night.”
Other things do.
There was an undiscernible expression on Malfoy’s thin face, but he uncrossed his arms.
Harry was trying to think of something to say when Samuel came back.
“All right?” he said to Harry as he approached. He noticed Malfoy, and nodded apprehensively. “Draco, yeah?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure. Formally, at least,” Samuel said, and extended his hand.
Malfoy took it. “You’re Samuel.”
“Yeah,” he said. His eyes went from Malfoy to Harry. “You two know each other?”
Harry’s heartbeat quickened.
“Er,” Harry said.
“We went to school together,” Malfoy supplied.
“Hm,” Samuel said, raising his eyebrows at Harry.
He was tense; he didn’t know what to do. Malfoy saved him from having to do anything when he said, “Well. Nice catching up, Potter. And nice to finally meet you, Samuel.”
Harry and Samuel watched him walk away, and Samuel turned to Harry, his eyebrows even higher up on his forehead.
“Potter?” he repeated.
“We weren’t on the best of terms at school,” Harry tried explaining.
Samuel simply shook his head. “You’re a complicated man, Harry. I feel like the more I learn about you, the less I know.”
Harry didn’t know what to say to that.
They were going out for drinks. Social drinking. Not drinking-to-forget-how-much-you-wanted-to-die drinking.
Harry looked at his reflection in the mirror. It insulted his hair, and his clothes. He glared at the mirror. He’d changed into something that he hadn’t been wearing for the past three days, and he thought that should be enough.
He checked his watch. With a start, he realized he was fifteen minutes late. It’d taken him longer than he expected to summon the energy to get up from the couch and find clean clothes.
Harry Apparated to the outside of the Muggle pub they frequented – “they” being some variation of the old members of Dumbledore’s Army (something that felt like ancient history to Harry). They tried to meet up once a month; attendance had been higher immediately after the war. Over the years, only a few of them continued to come regularly.
Harry saw a head of red hair and another of brown almost immediately, and he made his way over to the table they were occupying. Four faces smiled at him: Ron, Hermione, George, and Luna.
“Harry!” Ron greeted enthusiastically. He patted the empty seat that was next to him. “Siddown, mate.”
It seemed Ron had wasted no time in starting to drink.
“Sorry I’m late,” Harry said as he sat down in the empty chair.
“Oh, it’s nothing, Harry,” Hermione smiled. She pushed a pint towards him. “I got a drink for you.”
“Cheers,” Harry said, and took a sip.
“Harry,” George greeted. “It’s good to see you. How’ve you been?”
“Alright. Shop’s going well, I hear?”
George nodded. “Business has picked up again since Hogwarts has started.”
“Oh, good, I’m glad to hear it,” said Harry.
“But really, our success is all due to you,” grinned George. He lifted his own pint and took a swig.
Harry shook his head.
“Rubbish. You’re brilliant, George, and that’s what makes you successful,” he said firmly.
George rolled his eyes. “Nothing would have come out of it without you, Harry.”
Harry didn’t know what to say to that so he took another sip.
George seemed to understand and said sincerely, “Really, Harry. I’m not lying to you. I’ll always be grateful for what you did for us.”
Warmth spread through Harry’s chest. He put his glass down and met George’s gaze.
“If you say so.”
“I do,” George grinned.
“Cheers,” Harry said and lifted his glass, a feeling of hope flowing through him.
George tapped Harry’s glass with his own.
Harry tried to think of something to say. He rubbed at his jaw.
“I fell yesterday,” Harry said. “I wasn’t watching where I was going and I tripped up the stairs to my house. It felt like – like the pathetic end to a pathetic day. I dunno. But, er, anyway, I got inside and I checked to see the damage to my knee, to see if I got cut or anything. I didn’t, and…I was actually disappointed.” He tried to laugh, but what came out of his mouth sounded forced and wrong. “I was disappointed to see that I wasn’t bleeding.”
He looked at Kathy, feeling rather silly.
“Why do you think that was?” she asked seriously.
“I dunno,” Harry said, and he didn’t.
Well, sort of. He had a few guesses. 1) He wanted to see himself suffer. 2) He wanted a reminder that this was real, he was real. 3) No, that was it.
Kathy seemed to sense that he wasn’t saying everything, so he reluctantly continued.
“I thought, it might remind me that this is real. That I’m real. Sometimes I feel disconnected. Or maybe, I think, I deserved it. I wanted to see myself bleed.”
It sounded worse out loud. He determinedly avoided Malfoy’s stare.
Kathy frowned at that.
“Why do you think you deserve to bleed?”
“I dunno,” he said again. He was saying that too much. He sighed. “I just do.”
It was more complicated than that, but he didn’t feel like elaborating, even if he could sort through the muddled layers of self-loathing and guilt and all those other things that ripped at him.
Harry rubbed at his eyes, taking off his glasses to do so.
“Sorry – I’m not in the best of moods today,” he said quietly when he had put them back on.
“You don’t need to apologize for that,” Kathy said kindly. “How are you feeling?”
“Angry,” he said. “I’m no stranger to feeling angry,” he gave a short laugh at that, “But I’d still rather not…it just makes me feel like I’m fifteen again and that was, er, not the best year. But – er, what I meant to say is, sorry if I’m being short with you or anyone else – I don’t mean to be a git. I just am, sometimes.”
A small scoff sounded at the opposite end of the room; Harry glanced up at that, intrigued. Malfoy was sitting there, rolling his eyes.
“Draco,” Kathy said in her Warning Tone. “Have you forgotten the rules?”
“Ah, no. I apologize,” Malfoy said insincerely, nodding infinitesimally at Harry.
Something sparked in Harry – something that wasn’t contempt for himself. Something that wasn’t a deep feeling of TIRED in his bones.
“No, tell me, Malfoy,” Harry said, leaning forwards in his seat a bit. “Why’d you scoff?”
Malfoy rose an eyebrow, his eyes gleaming with interest.
“Because you are a git, Potter.”
Harry’s heart was beginning to race. “Oh yeah?”
Malfoy kept going as if Harry hadn’t spoken.
“A massive one – and to hear you say that you can be, sometimes, is laughable.”
“That’s rich, coming from the biggest fucking git I know.” Harry stood up, the chair making a harsh squeaking noise against the floor.
Malfoy rose to the challenge.
“Takes one to know one, apparently. Oh – but don’t worry, Potter, I can confirm that you’re essentially the same person you were at fifteen – angry, incoherent, pigheaded,” Malfoy listed, counting them off on his thin fingers. There was a mean sneer on his face. “Congratulations on not having grown at all these past few years.”
An angry laugh come out of Harry’s mouth. “Yeah, like you still aren’t an arrogant, cold prat. I’m surprised to see you here with all these –“
“Harry! Draco!” cut in Kathy, aghast. “I am all for getting your feelings and emotions out but this is completely counterproductive and unsuitable for this environment! I suggest you rein it in if you’d like to continue participating in group. If not, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
Harry flushed, suddenly remembering where he was and grateful that Kathy had stepped in before he finished his sentence. Although, what did the others think he would end his sentence with? The possibilities were endless – and all of them had the chance of being incredibly disrespectful.
Malfoy was also apparently remembering where he was – his face was slowly going back to its usual expressionlessness mask. Harry looked around, thoroughly embarrassed, seeing the shocked (and a few excited) faces of the other group members. Samuel, next to him, was staring at him with wide eyes.
“I’m – I’m sorry,” Harry stammered, running a nervous hand through his hair. “Christ, I’m so sorry.”
“I apologize as well,” Malfoy said quietly. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“That’s alright,” Kathy said, relaxing slightly in her chair though she was still gripping her clipboard a bit too tightly. “If you’d like to step outside to work out your differences, you’re free to do so.” At the unwilling looks of both Harry and Malfoy, she added, “I’m afraid I’ll have to insist.”
Harry nodded, mortified, and walked out the room with Malfoy at his heels.
When the door clicked shut, Harry turned and stared at Malfoy, his face still feeling hot. Malfoy stared back, his arms crossed and face flushed a pale pink.
“I’m – fuck,” Harry muttered, removing his glasses to rub at his eyes again.
“Language, Potter,” Malfoy said, though the vehemence was out of his tone. He just sounded tired.
Harry shoved the glasses back on his face, opting to ignore Malfoy.
“I can’t believe I almost called them Muggles. I wonder what they think I was going to say,” Harry said, turning again to stare at the door. “Fuck.”
“You’ve said that already.”
Harry glared at him half-heartedly. Malfoy looked back impassively.
“I’m so embarrassed,” Harry finally mumbled, ending their staring match.
Malfoy sighed, and he became less rigid. “Me too.”
Harry studied Malfoy, thinking about how he was still a complete mystery to him. There was the Malfoy he knew during his early years in Hogwarts, the one he knew at sixteen and seventeen (he’d been more of a real person then), the one he knew immediately after the war, and now – most puzzling yet – the one that attended a Muggle mental illness support group.
“What?” Harry said immediately, snapping back to it.
“You’re staring,” Malfoy said, perfect eyebrow raised.
“Er, right,” Harry said, glancing away. “Sorry.”
“That’s quite all right, Potter.” Malfoy sounded amused. Add that to the list of things that made Draco Malfoy a mystery.
Harry sighed and looked back at Malfoy. His arms were crossed again.
“No, I mean, I’m sorry. About – in there. I shouldn’t have said all that I did. It wasn’t true. I don’t know what happened. It really felt like I was fifteen again.”
“I – yes.” Malfoy hesitated. “I understand. I’m sorry as well.”
“Right,” Harry exhaled, feeling uncomfortable. “Well. Should we go back in, then?”
He gestured towards the door.
“I suppose,” Malfoy said, nodding slightly.
Harry turned and took hold of the door handle.
Harry looked back at Malfoy, who actually seemed nervous for once.
“I don’t want something like that to happen again. I like this place, and I’d like to keep attending the meetings, so…” Malfoy met Harry’s eyes. “I’d like to be able to be on civil terms with one another.”
“Oh, er, yeah. Me too,” Harry said, nodding, unsure of what to do next.
And without thinking, Harry offered his hand out to Malfoy. The other man looked down at it with caution before taking it in his own and shaking. It was cold.
Harry remembered himself. He took his hand back and opened the door, his face hot once more.
“After you, Draco,” Harry said nervously, wondering if Malfoy would mock him.
Instead, Malfoy simply walked past.
“Thank you, Harry,” he said curtly.
The two walked back in together, all eyes on them. Kathy smiled from the center of the room.
“I know, I know,” Harry sighed.
“I don’t know if you do, though,” Samuel said lowly.
Samuel’s dark eyes were glittering with something mixed between fascination and awe. They were standing in an isolated corner of the room during break, speaking where no one could hear them. Malfoy sat with Kathy, who was listening interestedly. Everyone else was trying to be polite and not stare too much but Harry had gone enough years to know when people were gaping at him.
“There’s never been a shouting match here. Sure, some disagreements, some uncomfortable debates, but nothing like that.”
“I’m really embarrassed,” Harry said. He shifted uncomfortably where he stood. “I didn’t mean for that to happen. It just…did.”
“Not on the best of terms, my arse,” Samuel laughed.
Harry shot him a glare.
“All I’m saying is, I haven’t seen aggression like that in ages, and I’m in university,” Samuel said, lifting his hands, a smile playing on his lips. “So now will you tell me how you two know each other?”
“It really is complicated, Sam,” Harry said. He ran a hand through his hair. It’d be so much easier if he could talk freely about magic with Muggles but he knew that could be disastrous in so many ways. “We went to school together, this private school in Scotland, and we were er, rivals, I guess.”
“Rivals?” Samuel laughed. “You make it sound so serious.”
“It was,” Harry insisted, though he knew it must have sounded silly. “We – God, we were always fighting and competing…just being general shits to each other. We were in these houses, each with our own sports teams, and we’d get points for doing well in classes or lose them for breaking rules. I’m sure you can imagine what that led to. It, er, got out of hand at times.”
“If that shouting match just now was anything to go by, I believe you.”
“That was pretty tame, honestly. It actually got physical a few times,” Harry said, wincing as he remembered their disastrous fight in sixth year. “More than a few times, actually.”
“Christ, Harry,” Samuel’s eyes sparkled. “I can hardly believe it.”
“Trust me, it was bad.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
Samuel smiled at him curiously, and Harry felt warmth gather in his cheeks. Harry looked away, uncertain of what to say.
“Alright, let’s group up again!”
When Harry got home that evening, he sat on the couch in the living room for a bit just to think. Kreacher asked if he could get Harry anything, anything at all, but Harry declined. He had to review what had happened. He needed to remember every detail. He just had to think.
The next day while out grocery shopping (he was slowly getting better at buying proper food), he ran into Luna.
She turned and smiled, a shopping basket dangling from her bent arm. “Hello, Harry.”
“What’re you doing here? I didn’t know you shopped at Muggle stores.”
“Oh yes, well,” Luna said, looking at him with her wide eyes. She was dressed in Muggle clothing, though there was still something quite odd and Luna-esque about them, “I find that Muggles have a wider collection of what they call ‘vegan’ food. Do you know what that is, Harry?”
“Muggles are wonderful, aren’t they?” she said admiringly. Luna picked up a package of vegan sausage from the meat counter, showing it to Harry. He nodded, and she put it back. “They can make anything vegan. I wish more magic folk cared about the welfare of creatures.”
“They will, Luna, after you’re through with them,” Harry said.
“I hope so. That would be lovely, wouldn’t it?” Luna smiled. “How are you feeling, Harry? You look different. Better, even.”
“Oh.” Harry wondered if it was true. “Erm, thanks. I guess group is helping.”
“I’m very happy to hear that. Something happened, didn’t it? Something additional to group, I mean, to make you feel different.”
There was no use lying to Luna, or wondering how she knew all these things.
“Er, well. Someone from Hogwarts is also there too.”
“Oh, yes, that’s rather common. The war was terrible,” Luna said in a rather mellow tone.
Harry went on.
“But it’s not someone I, err, got along with.”
“Is it Draco Malfoy?”
Once again, there was no use in wondering how she knew all of these things.
Harry nodded, worrying his bottom lip.
“He’s sort of…well, something happened last time. We got into a row, and it just, made me feel alive again?” His statement inadvertently turned into a question towards the end. Harry’s cheeks warmed – he felt ridiculous saying all these things. To Luna in a Muggle supermarket, nevertheless. “It was like…before all this happened. The war, I mean. Y’know?”
Luna nodded sympathetically.
“It makes sense, Harry. You shouldn’t be ashamed of feeling this way,” Luna said kindly. “Would you like to fight with Draco again?”
Harry was a bit surprised. “No. I mean, no. Yeah. I don’t want to. But…”
“You’d like to engage with him again?”
Harry’s cheeks got even hotter. There was something about the way Luna said it that made Harry uncomfortable.
“Er, I guess.”
“Oh, look at the time! I promised Daddy that I’d help him plant new Snargaluff. I’m so sorry, Harry, but I’ve got to go.”
“Oh, it’s no problem, Luna.”
She smiled dreamily. “I hope you have the opportunity to engage with Draco soon, Harry. It was lovely seeing you.”
“Yeah, you too.”
And with that, Luna skipped away, her basket swinging wildly from her arm. Harry watched her, a small smile on his face.