Harry glanced out the window of the carriage, and more emotions than he could count tumbled over themselves in his mind.
The castle stood, beautiful and familiar and grand as always, but there was a shadow over it that not even a summer of the sincerest volunteer efforts could shake. It had been repaired almost to perfection. But something about those dark patches where the curse marks hadn’t quite come off, or the chips in the stone visible even at that distance, or the Forest sitting dark and wild next to it, with the flash of a chill Harry couldn’t shake when he looked-
They bumped over a rock, and Harry redirected his attention to the thestrals ahead of them. He couldn’t see the ones pulling their carriage, but the ones ahead were visible. How many people could see them this year? All the seventh and eighth years, some of the sixth. And the younger students. Dennis Creevy’s face popped up in Harry’s mind.
Recently he’d got accustomed to laughing bitterly when he thought of something that just shouldn’t be the way it was after the war, but his friends didn’t appreciate it. Hermione and Ron and Luna had already had to deal with his ‘unexpected’ calm on getting off the train; no need to prove they’d actually been right about him losing it.
Actually, Hermione was looking at him uneasily, then. “Alright, Hermione?”
“It’s strange to be back.” She redirected her eyes to the window before she said it.
Which was good. Because Harry didn’t want to get into a real discussion about anything just yet, either. “Yeah.”
“The castle will be full up. Any idea where they’re putting us?” Ron asked. Their letters that year hadn’t mentioned what was being done to accommodate the extra students, but Harry wasn’t worried. Professor McGonagall was a more than competent headmistress. And there weren’t that many extra students. Some of the people who’d come back for Harry’s sixth year probably wouldn’t be there for their eighth, even if a few students who’d left because of Voldemort had reconsidered doing NEWTs.
“Probably extension charms,” Hermione said softly, almost to herself.
“I’m sure Professor McGonagall won’t have anyone camped out on the floors of our common rooms,” Luna agreed. She’d been saying things scarily close to Harry’s thoughts the whole train ride. It wouldn’t be the first time they were on the same wavelength. Sometimes Luna was just like that.
Hermione turned to Luna. “Have you seen Ginny?”
“Not since the train. I think it was something about Quidditch.”
“Gin’s got loads of friends. I’m sure we’ll see her at the feast. Why’d you want to see her, ‘Mione?” Ron asked.
“Nothing, really. Just lent her a book over the holiday. She said she’d bring it when we came back.”
Mentioning their return to Hogwarts (even though they were in a carriage on their way up to the castle at that moment) seemed to snap all of them to their own thoughts again. Harry sighed and went back to looking out the window.
The Welcoming Feast had been exceptionally festive. Harry appreciated getting to feel that again, even if he felt miles away from the other students and nowhere near prepared to sleep afterwards.
Evidently, he wasn’t the only one. “Party in the Ravenclaw common room,” Ron said, coming into the portrait hole a few minutes late.
“Ravenclaw? Before the first day of classes?” Harry asked.
Ron shrugged. “Weird year.”
It was a weird year. McGonagall had used extension charms and put them in with the seventh years, but she had also said she would understand if the eighth years wanted different living arrangements and promised to contact them later. “What do you think McGonagall meant about the rooms?”
Ron shrugged. “Dunno. Wouldn’t feel right living alone at Hogwarts, though. Maybe we could room together?”
“Maybe. I guess we’ll see when she gets in touch.” For everything else he was trying to process, Harry hadn’t spared a thought to consider where he’d sleep. Which was probably bad, since it may or may not subject his classmates to his regular nightmares.
“Oh, about the rooms?” Hermione appeared in the doorway to the girls’ dormitories. “I don’t think I’d mind living alone, though I’d need to spend plenty of time here anyway to keep you all serious about your studies.”
Ron looked affronted. “Do you think I would have come back if I weren’t serious?”
Hermione sighed instead of answering. That being an answer in itself.
“I think I will go to the party. Don’t really feel like sleeping.”
“Brilliant. Leave in five?”
“Yeah.” Harry went upstairs, thinking he would rather stumble into his room in the early hours of the morning (possibly a little drunk) wearing muggle clothes than wizarding ones.
He stopped in the doorway.
There were six beds. His trunk sat at the foot of one, technically where it was supposed to be save for the expansion charm. No one else was in the room. Neville’s trunk was open, a stack of Herbology books already piled on his nightstand.
It was too much.
Harry pulled off his robes, threw them on his bed, and left.
He nearly collided with Ron on the stairs. Good. “I wanted to check something before… Go ahead of me, okay? I’ll see you there.”
Ron looked perplexed, but didn’t question him.
Harry didn’t know where he wanted to go. He just needed to be… away.
Not outside. Not the Room. The Owelry was an option. It wouldn’t be the same without Hedwig. Could he go there and talk to her, anyway? Maybe. It’d make him feel a little crazier, but, really, what did that matter if it helped him feel better the rest of the time?
Once he’d made it out of the main part of the castle, the sounds of students returning to their common rooms died away. Harry felt his breathing slow in response. He hadn’t exactly liked crowds lately. Some combination of living alone at Grimmauld Place and still recovering from being on edge all the time. Three months hadn’t quite been enough to dispel the jumpiness.
Well. Occasionally Harry wondered whether three years would be enough, but he thought he’d figure that out when he got there, if it hadn’t gotten better by then.
He was doing better. People were worried about him. But people were always worried about him. He doubted that would go away anytime soon, and, at least in the case of his friends and family, he didn’t really mind it. Much.
Okay, so he minded it. But he had a feeling time was the only thing that would make that better. He’d stopped seeing the mind healer, so they probably assumed that was a good sign. Really Harry was just tired. He hadn’t wanted to relive things anymore. And he’d had seven years to work though all the Voldemort stuff while it was happening, so he wasn’t as poorly off as he might have been. He could’ve done with a few more nights’ decent sleep a week. If that meant risking addiction to Dreamless Sleep, though, he wasn’t willing to risk it.
So here Harry was. Talking to owls.
“I guess I shouldn’t have expected to find you here so late,” he said aloud, realizing that Hedwig would have left by then anyway. Most of the other owls had. Harry peered at a nearby tawny who opened her eyes for the shortest of seconds to see who was disturbing her.
Harry leaned back on his heels. “Right. Well, I’ve come to talk to Hedwig, so I guess you lot will have to put up with me for a few minutes.
“I don’t know why exactly I’m here except I couldn’t stand to be around that many people for another second. You’d think I would have jumped at the chance to spend five minutes alone in the dormitory, but that didn’t feel right, either. I don’t really think I can sleep there. I mean, it’s stupid, I’ve slept with four people every other year I’ve been here. But after this summer… I guess I just got used to the quiet.” The owls didn’t seem to mind, and Harry felt the anxiety of earlier starting to lessen, so he kept talking.
“I don’t think I’d mind having you around, actually. Grimmauld Place gets a bit lonely. You’d be out all the time, anyway, though, I guess, so not much different from Ron and Hermione coming over for dinner every other day and refusing to accept that I’m fine on my own and don’t need either or both of them to move in.
“I guess sometimes I think it might be nice to live with someone, except I’ve gotten used to the quiet. I don’t think I could give that up. I guess that’s why the room thing is so frustrating. Because nothing’s ever quiet sharing a room with four or five other people. I think that’s what McGonagall meant; I think she knew. Not that I wake up screaming or that possibly I’m not the only one, but that after spending a year away from Hogwarts and having to do all that shit with the horcruxes it might be weirder to pretend we really were just a few spare seventh years.
“You know I don’t actually know why I’m here. Not here here, I’m talking to you, obviously, but here at Hogwarts. It feels wrong to be back, but I think it’d feel worse not to finish. I can’t have gone through all that just to duck out because the Ministry’s offered me a job.
“Don’t even know if I want to work there anymore.”
Before it had been set. He was good at defense and he had to do it anyway. But Harry didn’t have to do anything anymore. Except maybe finish Hogwarts, because he didn’t think it’d be right if he didn’t.
Maybe that was enough of an answer.
“Right. I reckon it's been about five minutes.” He was closer to Ravenclaw Tower than he was initially, but Ron would be wondering.
Harry ambled through the corridors at the same speed he had on the way there. Despite the fact that it usually made people worry more, Harry was having a harder and harder time doing things because they were expected of him. Arrive when you say you will at the start of the year party. Show up at Hermione’s that fourth Wednesday for tea because you happened to have tea the three Wednesdays in a row before. Become an Auror. Live somewhere other than Grimmauld Place. Want to room with Ron just because you’d done it all the other times you’ve lived at Hogwarts and that should be reason enough not to want a change.
Harry was also feeling more of that ‘now-or-never’ Gryffindor thing he’d sometimes forgotten about in between classes and surviving and winning the war. So, once he’d slipped into the ever-opening-and-closing portrait hole and spotted Ron chatting with Neville and a sixth year Ravenclaw he vaguely remembered, Harry headed straight for them. “Hey, Ron?”
“Harry! I was wondering when you’d show. Did you, er, do that thing?”
“Yep. Checked it. Listen, about that room thing…”
“Yeah! Neville actually said he thought it was weird rooming with people in a different year- I mean, normally the dormitories do get a bit lonely during NEWTs anyway, would have if Dean and Seamus had left earlier- and I was thinking maybe we could go see McGonagall and ask for an eighth year room.”
“Not that I mind rooming with the seventh years, it’s just...” Neville shrugged.
That pulled Harry up short for a second. Wanting quiet was one thing, but he wasn’t convinced McGonagall would be any less worried about his being alone than his friends usually were. Maybe it would be alright if it was just Neville and Ron.
Then again, they weren’t accustomed to being woken up by a screaming or sleeplessly-pacing roommate. “I think I’m going to see if she’ll put me alone.” He didn’t want to get into it more than that. And they knew. Why he didn’t want to sleep in the same room as anyone else anymore.
Ron looked a little disappointed anyway. “Alright. Well, there’s always us, if she says no.”
Harry wondered if the suggestion was meant to be comforting only or if Ron thought McGonagall would possess enough of his and Hermione’s same concerns to refuse to allow Harry his own room. He supposed it was nice to know he cared that much either way. “Thanks.”
Based on his expression, Ron got that he meant it. Good. Harry was feeling considerably more relaxed after talking to Hedwig, whatever that meant for his sanity. He settled into the party and chatted idly with Neville for a while before he got sucked into a Potions-related plant debate and Hermione appeared with two butterbeers. She handed one to Harry.
“There’s butterbeer?” asked Ron.
“Wouldn’t be a proper common room party if there wasn’t. I thought you’d already have one, sorry. And don’t ask if there’s alcohol, I’ve already checked-” at which point Harry and Ron stared at her in confused amazement “-not that I’m a Prefect anymore, or because I wanted to get pissed the night before classes start, but because I knew you’d ask.” Another quirk of being an eighth year; Hermione and Ron had gladly relinquished their Prefect duties to avoid throwing off the equilibrium of the office.
Ron cocked his head with a little appreciative smile and said, “Well, it is Ravenclaw,” as if that explained things to his satisfaction. His eyes caught something else and he straightened up for a second, seemed to remember something, and went back to slouching. “Surprised to see Malfoy here.”
Harry resisted the urge to whip his head around and instead turned at an acceptable speed in the direction Ron had been looking.
There he was, looking sharp and nonchalant as ever, lounging against a window as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Granted, McGonagall had done a bang-up job with her House Unity Initiative, but that didn’t make it any less jarring to see Malfoy in the Ravenclaw common room. And relaxing. Usually he was materializing around corners, walking too fast with his shoulders looking so tight it must have hurt. And Harry couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Malfoy loosen his tie, let alone socialize in what had once been hostile territory.
Well. Probably still was, a little, since he and the group of younger students next to him looked like they were studiously ignoring each other.
Harry was seized with a sudden need to apologize. “I’ll be right back.”
Ron tittered, and Hermione offered a supportive smile.
Harry marched off to the corner of the common room where Draco was sitting. Startled, the few people nearby him stood, one muttering something about summer Astronomy reading. They left, and Harry took a seat in the chair opposite Draco’s window ledge.
“Potter,” Draco said. He tipped his bottle of butterbeer, eyebrows raised, in Harry’s direction, and took a sip.
“Not you, too,” Harry muttered. He took a swig of his own butterbeer and glanced off into the crowd.
“Drinking to my name, all that rubbish. I’d’ve expected you at least would have kept up a healthy disgust for me after the war, or… something along those lines.” He finished with a smile and a beat of silent eye contact. Yeah. This was fine.
He and Draco burst into simultaneous laughter, both trying not to choke on their drinks. They quieted at roughly the same moment, having noticed the considerable attention the outburst had drawn.
People went back to their drinks, and Harry relaxed again. “I actually did want to talk to you.”
“Yeah.” Harry took a deep breath and met Draco’s questioning gaze. “Look, I’ve been thinking, and I didn’t exactly apologize for everything I did before- before the war, and I wanted to let you know,” another breath, “I’m sorry.”
For one agonizing moment, Malfoy was silent. Then he shook his head. “You apologized for all that.” He took another sip of his drink, like he was expecting that to be that.
Was he thinking of the same thing Harry was? Because he definitely hadn’t apologized well enough for that. “Not properly.” Harry hardly thought a few minutes of awkward mumbling during the post-trial return of Draco’s wand counted as an apology.
“Well, now you have.” Malfoy’s tone implied an end to the conversation.
“Great. Thanks, then,” Harry said, suddenly uncertain. He spent a second wanting to kick himself for saying something stupid, then another wondering exactly what he was supposed to do after that.
“You can go back to your friends. I’m having a perfectly serviceable time sipping butterbeer in a corner alone, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Harry opened his mouth to say something. Maybe that Malfoy shouldn’t be camped out in a corner alone. That that wasn’t the point of house unity. But the way he was sitting, staring off into the middle distance and ignoring Harry, stated that he clearly didn’t want a conversation.
Harry realized he’d never exchanged two words with Malfoy that didn’t fall into the categories of ‘awkward apology’ or ‘insult.’
After a second more of silence, he gave it up. Harry tried to keep his expression blank as he walked back over to Ron, who was now talking to two third years. Hermione was nowhere to be found.
“What was that about?” Ron asked under his breath as the third years continued their discussion. Both looked curious, but seemed to be feigning inability to hear.
“Nothing. I’ll tell you later,” muttered Harry. He took a dejected swig of butterbeer. He hadn’t exactly been expecting anything when he’d gone over to talk to Malfoy. Still, he hadn’t thought Malfoy would dismiss him so easily. Get angry, maybe, or scoff at the idea that Harry would want or expect forgiveness. Definitely not shrug it off as if nothing had happened. And then ignore him.
But then, maybe Harry shouldn’t have been surprised by that. It was, after all, startlingly similar to his own attitude towards some of the things associated with the war. And, he thought, half-bitterly, half-amusedly, what was more associated with the war than the Chosen One himself?
The third years seemed to be talking about something interesting. Harry tried to remember their names as the conversation went on. He was usually better at remembering names.