Sunday 1st September, 10.55 a.m. (One year, four months, five hours and twelve minutes and seven seconds since the Battle of Hogwarts)
Blaise Zabini enters the Hogwarts Express train compartment so quickly that Harry barely has a chance to register who it is before the wanker is practically sitting in his lap.
“Shove up, will you?” Zabini says, with the air of someone who’s aggrieved to find he’s practically sitting in someone’s lap.
This strikes Harry as unfair. At least – it would, if he wasn’t so busy trying to process the fact that Blaise Zabini is sitting on him. The fucker appears to be made entirely of sharp edges and lead.
“Greg stopped off to have a shit, and Merlin knows what Millicent’s pissing about doing – beating seven shades of crap out of Pansy, possibly – but they and all the others will be here soon to join us,” Zabini continues, sliding off Harry’s leg but still sitting far too close for comfort. “Why the hell are you sitting in the dark, Potter?” he adds, leaning over Harry and yanking at the cord of the closed blind.
“I really wouldn’t, Zabini,” Hermione says, in tones of ice.
The first inch of window reveals mostly noses, which rise in concert with the blind to reveal mouths – open, and already squealing with excitement. It’s ear-splitting, even through the glass, and is soon joined by waves of painfully loud applause. The people on the platform outside are so close to the carriage that it’s a wonder they haven’t fallen down the gap. Harry, uncharitably, rather wishes that they would, except then the train wouldn’t leave on time, and at least when the Hogwarts Express is moving it’ll just be him, Ron and Hermione until they get to Scotland.
Him, Ron, Hermione and Blaise fucking Zabini, he mentally amends.
Zabini, who has his elbow practically up Harry’s nose, makes a small noise of disgust and smoothly rolls the blind down again before leaning back.
Harry doesn’t have time to feel pleased there’s no longer an elbow in his face, though, because Zabini – who seems to have more cheek than an Erumpent’s arse – leans back in his seat and spreads his legs, as if he’s settling in for the long haul.
Well, Harry’s not putting up with that. He’s going to . . . He’s going to . . . cringe away from Blaise Zabini’s warm, muscled thigh, as if being Slytherin is contagious, and clonk his elbow against the window in the process, like a massive twat.
“Ow,” Harry says, making the whole situation infinitely more dignified, and looks over to Hermione in mute appeal. Ron seems to have been struck equally dumb, so it’s clearly down to her to tell Zabini to fuck off.
Hermione gives him a look that makes him feel about an inch tall, but squares her shoulders and sits up ramrod straight. “I’m sorry, but what exactly are you here for?” she says, in her arsiest – and loudest – of tones. The screaming outside the window has died down, but the applause is still going, and snatches of the Weird Sisters’ latest smash hit – ‘He saved us all’ – filter through the window, sung with more enthusiasm than musical talent.
Ron, who up till now has been gaping at Zabini with his mouth open, almost jumps out of his skin when Hermione speaks, nearly falling off his seat. He makes a heroic but useless attempt to style it out, doing some large stretching movements and rolling his neck, as if he’s just too restless to sit still. Harry supposes that Hermione did sound a bit like Mrs Weasley does when they’re late for dinner, and it must give a chap pause for thought to hear his mum’s ‘telling off’ voice coming out of his girlfriend’s mouth.
“I love you, Harry!” a girl screams outside, throat raw with passion.
Harry manages not to wince; he’s had a lot of practice. Hermione slides her wand out of her sleeve and slashes it at the window in an equally practiced move, wrapping their carriage in a thick, almost tangible silence, before turning to give Ron an incredulous look.
“What?” Ron says, rather high-pitched, and folds his arms.
Zabini clears his throat, and Hermione and Ron both turn to glare at him. Harry wants to join in, but it’s hard to glare at someone sitting right next to you, invading your personal space – he thinks if he turns and gives it a proper try, he’ll probably end up with his face pressed into Zabini’s perfectly groomed Afro.
“Did you say you’re sorry, Hermione? Please, don’t be,” Zabini says airily, and when Harry sneaks a sidelong glance at him he’s smiling at her. Except, it appears to be less of a smile and more of a wordless love spell – Hermione’s actually going red, a kind of mottled, splotchy colour that blotches up her neck and turns the tips of her ears into witchlights.
Of course, it could be that she’s just been rendered speechless by Zabini’s sheer cheek, Harry thinks doubtfully, and wonders if Zabini has noticed that Ron is starting to twitch. He can’t decide if it would be a good thing if Ron decked him or not – while Zabini undoubtedly deserves it, getting involved in a fistfight with a Slytherin before the Hogwarts Express has even left the station would be a new low for them all.
To Harry’s semi-disappointment, Zabini drops the smile faster than an oncoming Bludger. “Oi! In here, Pans!” he calls through the open compartment door, his attention suddenly entirely on the corridor outside and revealing, under his relaxed façade, an underlying tension.
Hermione stiffens, and Harry feels a matching rigidity come over his own limbs. When he thinks about Pansy Parkinson – which isn’t often, if he can help it – he feels nothing but contempt, which in turn makes him feel uncomfortable right down to his toes. He doesn’t want to be the sort of bloke who holds others in contempt. She should stop being so contemptible, then, a tiny spiteful voice in his brain adds, and he can’t think how to logically counter that.
Pansy shoots through the door as if the Dementors of Azkaban are after her, yanking it shut with a bang that makes Harry jump and clonk his elbow on the wall again. He’s going to have a whopper of a bruise. She’s got her wand clenched in her fist, and Harry has to knot his fingers into the fabric of his trouser leg to stop himself from casting Expelliarmus on her, just to be on the safe side.
Zabini notices, shooting a swift, sidelong glance at Harry’s hand, and then for some baffling reason pretends he hasn’t, quickly suppressing the anger that flashes across his face as he looks away rather than saying something snide about Gryffindors and trust issues. Harry doesn’t know Zabini very well, but he doesn’t not know him, after six years at school together. He’s classic Slytherin – all snotty pride and pathetic sarcasm, like the rest of them.
“Colloportus!” Pansy manages to get out, rather breathlessly, and swishes her wand at the door – clearly just in time, as Millicent Bulstrode, her hair cut short and spiky and spelled a dirty blonde, her nostrils flaring, peers through the door’s glass panel and rattles the handle with some force.
Pansy, still facing the door, takes a few careful steps back, her chin raised and her expression catty – Merlin, Harry dislikes her – but she clearly hasn’t counted on Hermione’s handbag being on the floor. She trips and all but falls backwards, coming down hard on Harry’s foot and crashing into the window with a squeal.
By some miracle, she doesn’t bring down the blind – until Millicent, with an impatient shake of her wand, casts her voice with Howler-like volume into the carriage: “Let me in, you cowbag, before I pull your head off and feed it to Lady Voldemort!”
Pansy starts, and for a moment she and the blind become one.
“What the ever-loving fuck . . .?” she says when she sees what’s now out there, disentangling herself enough to sit down heavily – on Ron.
The massed, swaying crowd outside the carriage window peers in, standing on tiptoe and craning their necks to get the best view. Their mouths are moving, and their hands are flailing, but Hermione’s Silencing Charm holds. It’s clear they don’t mean any harm, but still – it’s strangely threatening. Harry plasters a fixed grin on his face and gives a quick, awkward wave, before looking away; it’s him they’re all gesturing to, of course it is. On the plus side, they’re so tightly packed together that it’s unlikely anyone will have room to take a photo, but he gloomily expects there’ll be half a dozen stories in the press tomorrow speculating over the exact distance between him and Pansy, and whether the fact she’s sitting on Ron’s lap means a love triangle, or that Harry’s secretly engaged to her and this is classic misdirection.
The fact that she’s wearing a very short skirt, and so appears to be mostly leg, is going to make things so much fucking worse.
“Is that your mum out there at the back, Pansy?” Zabini murmurs spitefully.
“Fuck you,” Pansy says.
Harry stares fixedly at the floor of the train carriage – the threadbare carpet really could do with replacing. It’s not that he thinks her mum really is out there, but lots of his classmates’ mums will be, and for his own sanity he’s already adopted the policy of not fucking looking. A crowd made of up strangers is fine – a crowd made up of people he knows, and who he might actually like and respect if they weren’t sodding wailing and trying to touch his arm, as if he’s Felix Felicis in human form, is a different proposition.
By the time he looks up, Pansy – still sitting on Ron, who’s holding himself as rigid as if he’s been Petrified, but whose blood appears to have all rushed to his ears – is slipping her wand back up her sleeve, and the blind is firmly back in place, the compartment shrouded in gloom once more.
“I hope you haven’t fucking forgotten I’m out here, ready to destroy you, Pansy?” booms out Millicent Bulstrode, happily from the other side of the door, making them all jump.
Zabini snorts. “Your misdeeds finally catch up with you, eh, Pans?” He sounds like he’s enjoying himself.
Pansy’s face mottles red, and she shoots a hunted glance at Harry.
Well. Harry hadn’t been thinking about her trying to sell him out to Voldemort – he really wants to be past that, and he knows, objectively, how scared she must have been, and heard, during the seemingly endless trials, all the sodding, entirely reasonable, excuses for why she had no courage, no morals and no humanity – but he fucking is now. And so, by the expression on her face – shame, mingled with terror and a strong vein of spiteful defiance – is she. He wishes, just a tiny bit, that he was dead. It would be less awkward all round.
Although, as they stare at each other and he can feel his lips start to pull into an expression of disdain he doesn’t want to own (she’s got a look about her that experience has taught him means she’s about to start to cry, and he still can’t summon any sympathy for her, what sort of arsehole does that make him?), he thinks, with rising hysteria, that the afterlife had featured more train stations than expected, so maybe not even death would be a fucking release from this shit.
He has to say something, though, to break what’s become a horrible silence. What should he say? Something dignified. Maybe he should lie and tell her he forgives her; it would be a good lie, and he really wants it to be true. Looking at her now – damp eyed and trembling with emotion – he thinks he’s got the closest to actually meaning it he’s managed yet.
Vulnerability suits her, Harry thinks, suddenly feeling very tired and very unkind – if he squints he can almost pretend she’s human, rather than someone who tried to barter the safety of the wizarding world for her own life.
Maybe he should say—
“Lady Voldemort?” Ron bursts out from beneath Pansy, clearly unable to hold it in any longer, just as Hermione’s self-control cracks enough to allow her to clear her throat in an extremely meaningful way. At the same time, another thing cracks: the door. It splinters into two pieces, which fall down with an accompanying crash of breaking glass, the noise only partially covered by a shrill blast of the train’s whistle as the Express pulls away from the station.
“Bollocks,” Millicent says, appearing in a cloud of sawdust. “And what about Lady V?” she adds suspiciously.
Ron opens his mouth to reply, but is overtaken by a coughing fit.
Millicent narrows her eyes, as if Ron’s coughing is some kind of obscure insult, and then turns a mean smile on Pansy, taking in the legs, the vulnerability and the damp eyes in one sweeping, disdainful glance. “I know you said you wanted to net a pure-blood this year to keep your mama happy, Pansy, but I didn’t think you’d stoop as low as Ronald Weasley.”
Curiously, Millicent’s spite seems to give Pansy courage, and she seems to remember she has a spine. “Net?” Pansy says scornfully. “You’ve been reading too many of those awful Regency romance novels, Bullers. They’ve turned your brain to mush. I am merely using Weasley as a chair – it’s about all he’s good for.” She stands up, and yanks at her skirt. “Oh, and fuck you!” she adds loudly, over Ron’s splutter of rage, picking her way between knees to squeeze in next to Zabini.
Zabini shifts closer to Harry to give her room. Harry begins to fear for his internal organs.
Zabini leans in towards Harry’s ear confidentially, and Harry has to steel himself not to flinch away. If he does, he’ll knock himself out on the train window. “Lady Voldemort is Bullers’ new cat,” Zabini says, with every appearance of enjoyment.
“Voldie for short.” Millicent crunches over the broken glass and makes space for herself next to Hermione by the simple expedient of sitting down, slowly but inexorably. Harry can see the prospect of Millicent Bulstrode sitting on her knee flash through Hermione’s face, and she squashes up to Ron as fast as if she’d Apparated there. “And I’ve changed my mind,” Millicent adds, settling in with a smug expression. “I wouldn’t feed you to her, Pans. She’d probably be sick, poor thing.”
“All I said was that – that . . .” Pansy starts strong – her voice rich with indignation – but she fades fast.
“That Bullers’ new hairstyle makes her look like Voldemort’s uglier sister?” Zabini says sweetly, and sticks his tongue out at Millicent when she glowers at him.
“Voldemort the cat, or Voldemort the Dark Lord?” Hermione asks in tones of sick horror, as if she can’t stop herself.
“The cat, obviously!” Pansy says. And then, when Millicent turns a vengeful eye on her and fingers her wand speculatively, squeaks: “She’s a very pretty cat! Goodness, Bullers, I didn’t know you’d take it so personally. If Draco had said it, you’d have—”
“Hexed him into next Tuesday,” Millicent says gravely, but tucks her wand away again. “You can judge how pretty Voldie is yourself, Granger,” she adds, extremely awkwardly, “when she makes an appearance – she’s having a constitutional through the train at the moment. Too much time in the cat basket makes for a restless puss, you know.”
Zabini snorts, then leans forward and cranes his neck through the remnants of the door. “Where’s Greg? Don’t tell me he’s still on the loo. The man can shit for England, that’s for sure.”
“So vile,” Pansy murmurs, shuddering.
“Now, now, Pans. Having a good digestive system is nothing to be sniffed at,” Zabini says, and then pauses expectantly.
A tortured expression flits across Ron’s face: pleasure at a poo joke, combined with annoyance that it’s been made by Blaise Zabini, of all people, and so can’t be laughed at under any circumstances.
Harry finds himself unable to find the joy in either the joke – which is worth a mediocre snigger at best, in his opinion – or Ron’s obvious torment. He’s feeling deeply unsettled, and the worst of it all is that he knows exactly why.
It isn’t that Blaise Zabini is sitting so close that Harry can feel his breath on his cheek.
It isn’t that Millicent Bulstrode’s named her latest cat after Voldemort, and he’s practically having to sit on his hands to stop himself from telling her about the time Hermione accidentally Polyjuiced herself into one of her pets, what feels like a lifetime ago.
It isn’t that he’s learned more than he cares to – more than anyone cares to, surely – about Gregory Goyle’s toilet habits, and that soon Goyle will emerge to try to either stand on his foot or sit on his lap, he expects, judging by the pattern so far.
It isn’t even that he’s becoming increasingly suspicious about why no one’s come to find out what that crashing noise was.
It’s Pansy’s casual mention of Draco sodding Malfoy.
Harry knows Malfoy’s coming back to Hogwarts too this year – McGonagall made an appointment with him in his temporary office in the Ministry to tell him specifically, with a funny look in her eye, as if she thought he couldn’t cope, or something, who the fuck knows – but there’s knowing it and there’s . . . knowing it. Harry wipes his palms on his trouser legs, suddenly sweating slightly, and tries not to think about the last time he saw Malfoy, and the look of dreadful, helpless rage on his face.
He’s aware he’s not making a very good fist of it when Hermione suddenly says, in a determined tone, “Not that I’m not enjoying this little chat . . .” and leaves a pause full of unmistakeable meaning. She’s always been able to read him like a book – and given how thoroughly Hermione reads books, he sometimes can’t decide if it’s a blessing or a curse.
“I’m so glad,” Zabini says, with every appearance of honesty, and does the whole ‘you’re the only girl in the whole world, Hermione Granger’ smile thing again.
Harry is almost impressed, despite himself. It must take real dedication and practice to be such a slippery, manipulative scumbag.
“Listen, you wanker—” Ron starts, and then stops, uncertainly. The Slytherins all seem to have developed selective hearing loss, and are peering out into the corridor expectantly.
Harry catches himself digging his fingernails into the palm of his hand, and makes himself stop. There are half-moon indents in his skin.
“What’s that stench?” Zabini says airily, fanning the air in front of him and wrinkling his nose.
“It’s you, ass-wipe,” Gregory Goyle says with razor-sharp wit, lumbering into the doorway and staring around balefully at the absence of seats. “Who fucked with the door?”
“Bullers,” Pansy says, a bit too quickly.
Millicent snorts. “Grass.”
Harry begins to wonder if Zabini has set a timer, and the whole of Slytherin house is going to attempt to squeeze into the carriage, in five-minute intervals.
“Huh,” Goyle says, and does some more of the baleful staring.
“For Merlin’s sake,” Hermione suddenly snaps. “Capacious Extremis,” she incants, flicking her wand at first one seat and then the other in a workmanlike manner. The train compartment seats expand with an ominous creak, extending into a space that isn’t there but not seeming to find that an issue.
Goyle grunts something that could have been thank you – or, then again, could not have – and stomps inside the compartment, narrowly missing becoming one with the wood of the door as Hermione casts a Reparo with more force than strictly necessary.
“How many of you lot are sodding left?” Harry asks, overcome with exasperation that Hermione seems to have given up, and any minute now Malfoy is going to show up and send everything in Harry’s life to shit. How had he ever thought he could do this? Why on earth had he allowed Kingsley to persuade him that, after a year as an unofficial Auror, going back to Hogwarts to finish up his NEWTs was a good idea?
The short silence that follows his question seems to last a very long time. Really, almost as long as the train journey up to Scotland itself – and it occurs to Harry to wonder, for the first time, why it has to take so long, given that it runs on magic. He wouldn’t mind if it got them all there, say, right now, so he could flee to Gryffindor Tower. If he takes his meals in the common room, he decides, then with any luck he can swing it so that he doesn’t have to see a single Slytherin for the rest of the year.
“You lot?” Millicent repeats, after about a million years, give or take. Her voice is flat. “Well, Vince is still dead, you know, so he probably won’t turn up. Otherwise, I’m afraid it’s mostly our parents who are in Azkaban, Potter. You should know – it was you who put them there.”
“Millie,” Zabini snaps. It’s a strange contrast – his fucked-off tone, mixed with the unexpected pet name.
“Yes, all right, Blaise, I know,” Millicent says calmly.
Well, this is fun, Harry thinks, his eyes feeling hot and stingy. Fuck this. No, really – fuck this and the Thestral it rode in on. Why is he being made to feel bad here? All the Death Eaters had needed to do to not get sent to jail was not be fucking Death Eaters. It’s hardly like they tripped and fell on the Dark Mark, now, is it?
A memory of Malfoy’s expression during his and his parents’ trial comes back to him again, as it does most whenever he doesn’t want it to.
“It wasn’t just Harry,” Hermione says indignantly. “He was one of the fifty Wizengamot members! It wasn’t all down to him. And besides,” she adds in a very prefect-like voice, “he just saw that justice was done. You can’t blame him for that!”
While it’s all true, Harry thinks gloomily as the atmosphere thickens into something poisonous to life, it’s less than helpful of Hermione to point it out. She hasn’t really considered her audience.
Harry almost feels happy when the door shoots open again and stops her speaking any more home truths, or waxing lyrical on what a great honour it was for him to be called to serve on the Wizengamot at his age. The almost-happiness is, of course, combined with the cold Malfoy-dread, but a bit of cold dread helps liven life up, really, he’s sure of it.
Never has Harry been so glad to see Theodore Nott before. OK, so the man resembles a mutant cross between a rabbit and a runner bean, and as he’s never actually been glad to see Nott before it’s a fairly low bar, but that’s beside the point. A distraction is a distraction, even if it has teeth like that.
Nott looks around the carriage, and he appears to see no one except Harry.
And Harry remembers – trying to not to wilt under Nott’s flat, dead gaze – that OK, yes, Nott’s father is one of the few Death Eaters not currently residing in Azkaban at the Ministry’s pleasure, but that’s mainly because he’s in a spell-induced coma in St Mungo’s and it was considered unlikely that he would survive the transfer.
“Are we really doing this?” Nott says, gaze not wavering although the words clearly aren’t aimed at Harry.
Ron gives a low hiss of breath, as if he’s just uncovered a plot.
“A bit,” Zabini says, and then adds cheerfully, “though it’s not going quite as well as I’d hoped, eh Harry?” He digs his elbow into Harry’s side, as if he’s in on the joke. “Come and sit down, Theo.”
Nott doesn’t sit. “I’ll go and get Draco,” he says, and Harry can feel his face do something – he’s not sure what, but he can feel his muscles twitching, and Nott’s expression shifts into something knowing and supercilious, so whatever face Harry’s pulling it clearly isn’t doing him any favours.
“Sit down,” Zabini says, suddenly sounding rather less friendly. “Draco knows where we are. He needs to pull the broomstick out of his arse and get with the programme.”
The programme? Harry thinks – uncomfortably conscious that there is some kind of plot, of course there is, even if so far it just appears to be ‘talk to Potter and not hex him’.
Nott sits, though, and Harry finds it hard to concentrate. Nott’s still looking at him, although he’s dropped the supercilious look in favour of his initial expression – it isn’t a glare, and that makes it worse, somehow. There’s a blankness behind it that Harry’s seen on too many faces over the past year – and not just on those of the enemy.
He supposes he shouldn’t think of his Slytherin classmates as the enemy. He’s tried very hard not to, and mostly he manages it, except in the middle of the night – and no man can be blamed for the thoughts that run through his head at three a.m., he feels sure.
Ron clears his throat, and then goes a bit red when everyone turns to look at him. “Er, right,” he says, lifting his chin in an imitation of bravery. “Are you planning to fuck off then now, or what?”
It is bravery, more or less, and Harry feels impressed, but Ron’s phrased it all wrong. Any second now, Zabini will say . . .
“No,” he says, in that sweet, honest tone that’s already inspiring Harry to rise up and cast a Full Body Bind on the fucker. How has he never noticed before how irritating Zabini is? “I’d say we could play Exploding Snap,” he continues, dripping sunshine and unicorns, “but perhaps we’d better wait for Draco. You know how testy he can get if he feels we’re not letting him be leader.”
Hermione snorts, and Harry makes himself a promise that he will look death full in the eye before he ever plays Exploding Snap willingly with Draco Malfoy.
“We could play Exploding Weasley,” Pansy says, sotto voce, and rolls her eyes when Zabini shoots her a warning look.
Harry sneaks a glance at Ron – he does have a certain crimson-tinge to his skin which suggests that if someone were to open a book on the likelihood of him spontaneously combusting, bunging in a couple of galleons would be a couple of galleons well spent.
“No, but,” Ron says, making another heroic but undoubtedly pointless attempt to make the Slytherins do the right thing and sodding leave them alone, “are you seriously saying that you lot are planning to sit with us all the way to Hogwarts?”
“With a mind that sharp, it’s a wonder you haven’t cut yourself,” Pansy murmurs.
“What was that?” Ron says, loudly and arsily, and Pansy squares her shoulders and opens her mouth and—
The door slides open.
Harry tries to breathe, but finds it irritatingly difficult; his heart seems to be trying to break a record for speed, and his stomach is attempting to Apparate to Australia without the rest of him. He doesn’t need to look to know that it’s Malfoy, but he can’t stop his gaze from skittering over to the doorway, taking Malfoy in in pieces – a flash of hair so blonde it’s basically white, shoes polished to a shine, the sharp edges of sharp tailoring, skin as pale as death.
“Chin up, Draco,” Millicent says, inexplicably. “Come and sit next to me.”
Harry doesn’t want to look, but he still can’t stop himself. He’s going to catch Malfoy’s eye if he’s not careful. Not that Malfoy is looking at him – he’s carefully avoiding looking in Harry’s direction.
This is, irritatingly, not a comfort.
“Stop dithering, you dickhead, and sit down,” Zabini says, after Malfoy’s stood there for several uncomfortable, interminable seconds, doing a bang-up imitation of a statue.
Malfoy’s rigid composure slips, and he half-turns to glare at Zabini – but misses, and ends up looking Harry full in the face.
Harry almost gives himself whiplash he looks away so quickly – but not before the way Malfoy’s expression instantly slips into raw, unhappy hatred is seared into his brain.
Harry gloomily decides he must hate himself and enjoy pain, because he can’t stop himself from looking back at Malfoy again, his eyes moving as if they’ve been spelled to. Is . . . is Malfoy shaking? Just as Harry decides that yes, he is, and if Malfoy is visibly trembling with rage then it would probably be wise to reach for his wand, Malfoy takes a clumsy step backwards.
“I can’t do this,” he says, his tone unspeakably chill, despite the words, and takes another hasty step out of the carriage and into the corridor. His wand is suddenly in his hand, and he jabs it at the door, which crashes shut as he strides off.
It’s a new wand, Harry notices, trying to suppress the sudden anger that flashes through him. He gave Draco’s wand back! Why did he need a new one? Did the wanker think it was tainted by Harry using it, or something?
He’s up and out of his seat before he’s thought it through.
“Don’t bother,” Pansy says with an edge to her voice. “If he wants to be pathetic, Potter, just let him.”
“You’re hardly one to talk!” Harry snaps.
Pansy sits up very straight. “I’m here, aren’t I? And I’m trying extremely hard.”
“Yes, but the question is why,” Hermione cuts in. “Come on, all of you – what’s your game?”
“Game?” Zabini answers quickly, and smiles a quicksilver, insincere grin. “We just want to be friends. Isn’t it obvious?”
Harry feels a bit like he’s caught between Scylla and Charybdis – inside the compartment, a bunch of nasty fuckers pretending they want to be his friend; outside, a single nasty fucker who wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire.
His feet make the decision for him, and he’s in the corridor – calls of ‘Just shout if you need us, Harry’ (Hermione, concerned) and ‘Not the closest loo, if you value your life!’ (Zabini, sarcastic) following after him – before he’s decided exactly why he’s chasing after Malfoy, and what the bloody hell he’s going to say to him if he’s still out there.
Malfoy is, of course, not there.
What’s there is the answer to a small mystery: Luna, sitting cross-legged on the floor with her back against the wall. She’s holding a thick scroll covered in dense handwriting in her left hand, and her wand is raised in her right. Light, so thick it’s almost tangible, streams from the wand, rising up to the ceiling and then waterfalling down on both her left and right. She is, Harry realises, creating some sort of barrier on both sides of the corridor, preventing anyone from entering this section of it.
Anyone, that is, apart from the people she sodding let in.
Luna looks up and smiles seraphically. “Hello, Harry,” she says. “Did you have a good summer?”
“Um,” Harry says dubiously. He would admit, without too much pressing, that he loves Luna – but sometimes he can’t tell if she’s stupid, or if (more likely) she thinks he’s stupid and there’s something she wants to point out without actually coming straight out and saying it. Summer had passed in a blur of sentencing, of the wicked being sent away to suffer for their crimes – the climax of months of preparation, to ensure justice was done, and done in public. Was that good? Harry thinks so, most of the time. “I suppose so. Er, what are you doing, Luna?”
Luna looks surprised that he has to ask. “Oh, just reading a letter that Rolf wrote to me, you know.”
Harry nearly falls into the trap of asking who the hell Rolf is, and what he has to do with anything, but dodges it with consummate skill. “No – the spell thing.”
“Oh! This?” Luna says. “I’m just doing a favour for a friend.”
“Did you need something?” Luna asks, and then cocks her head as if she’s listening to something Harry’s not saying. “He’ll forgive you, you know, Harry. You just need to give him time.”
Harry wonders who she’s talking about – it would be most irritating if it was Malfoy, he thinks, so sod’s law that’s exactly who she means. “I was looking for Malfoy,” he says, trying not to be irritated, either way.
“Yes, I know,” Luna says and looks around as if Malfoy might be lurking in a corner somewhere. “He’s not here though,” she says – redundantly.
“He’ll forgive me?” Harry repeats, face suddenly blazing hot and nerves on fire with the outrage of it.
“Don’t you want him to?” Luna asks gravely.
Harry swallows hard, trying to choke down the knot of emotion that seems permanently stuck in his throat. “Malfoy can fuck right off.”
“Yes, I’m sure he can,” Luna says with utmost seriousness. “But Harry – do you want him to?”
And then – and again, because it’s Luna, Harry can’t tell if she’s genuinely forgotten why she’s casting the spell in the first place, or if she’s trying to teach him some kind of obscure lesson – she stops casting the barrier spell.
Harry takes in the fact that what seems like the whole wizarding world is also on the train – all sitting in the corridor, waiting for their chance to paw at him – and leaps for the door to the compartment, dragging Luna in behind him and sliding the door shut with a bang.
Zabini reacts with surprising speed and insight, and is on his feet and strengthening Harry’s locking spell – misting the glass opaque at the same time – practically before Harry’s cast it. He gives Luna a chiding look.
“Don’t look at me that way, Blaise,” Luna says serenely, then turns to Harry. “They just want to say hello, you know,” she says, and sits down next to Pansy. “They’re only people.”
“I don’t know most of them though,” Harry says – and it’s true. He barely recognised anyone out there. It gives him pause for thought that the people he knows best at school are those there in the carriage with him.
“You don’t know them yet,” Luna says cheerfully. “Isn’t it nice that so many people have transferred to Hogwarts because they want to meet you, Harry?” And before Harry can protest that no, it isn’t nice in the slightest, she’s raised her wand. “It’s not good to sit in the dark, Harry – it encourages sentient shadows,” she says, and Vanishes the blind.
Outside, hills dotted with sheep roll by. Dark-grey clouds scud across an even darker-grey sky. And a witch on a broomstick in a flapping waterproof robe, red with the exertion of trying to keep up with a speeding train, attempts to take photos of them with one hand and clutches desperately at her bucking broom with the other.
And because this day can’t get any worse – despite the fact it’s barely even begun; it’s not even midday yet – Blaise Zabini, who is rapidly rising to the position of ‘the man who Harry dislikes most ever’, says airily, “Well, we might as well give her something to write about, eh, Harry?” and twists in his seat to kiss Harry, right on the mouth.