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Unexpected Futures

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                 For a moment Harry returned the kiss, riding on the surprise and elation of being alive. Her familiar lips felt comforting and soft... and all wrong. He pulled away as gently as he could and she laughed flushing.

           "Well done, Harry!" She beamed up at him, but Harry's distracted gaze was searching for Malfoy's pale face in the crowd. Their eyes had met only moments before. Malfoy's eyes - stormy grey and piercing - were turned away now. He was still standing with his parents but he had his back to Harry.

             Harry’s heart sank. That slim back looked suddenly like an impassable wall between them. He wanted to run after Malfoy, to check that he hadn't been hurt - that he hadn't seen Ginny kiss Harry so possessively. But he also wanted to fulfill the expectations of this roomful of people who had fought so bravely, and most of all he wanted some peace and quiet, to return for a moment to the Time Turner Room with Draco Malfoy.

          Taking a deep breath Harry slowly made his way through the crowds of people between him and the tall blonde he needed to speak to. Shaking hands, saying a word here or there. His progress was slow. By the time he made it to the side of the Great Hall where Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy were seated... Draco was gone.

Chapter Text

The days that followed the Battle of Hogwarts were a blur of constant activity. The repairs on the castle began right away; anyone who could be spared from other duties was conscripted. The damaged or dangerous sections of the castle were closed off until repairs could be attempted at a later date.

The castle, which was usually shifting and moving its staircases, had gone still. This gave it an eerie feel. Professor McGonagall said she believed it would be in a state of hibernation until it was made whole again, but she admonished them all to be exceedingly cautious nevertheless.

They moved about in pairs completing tasks from a large, ever changing list of tasks that hovered in the Great Hall. Hermione and George carefully made a map that marked out all the restricted sections and labelled the newly assigned dorms and staff residences. It was modelled on the Marauder’s Map but contained none of the spellwork. The map was distributed to everyone. There was no longer any secrecy between houses.

The remaining students were housed in Hufflepuff because it had sustained no damage. Volunteers were staying in Gryffindor and the staff had all moved down into Slytherin House because their rooms had been in the section of Hogwarts that was completely destroyed.

The Ministry of Magic ran on a skeleton staff. The WWN and the Prophet shut down entirely pending an internal review, and Luna Lovegood took over the task of printing current events in a short paper entitled Nargle News.

Luna was the only member of Dumbledore's Army to return home the day after the Battle. Xenophilius had come out of Azkaban a broken man. He sat in a rocking chair in the circular kitchen painted with flowers, bugs, and birds in bright blue, yellow and red. His eyes gazed vacantly, and the only words he seemed able to say were Yes, No, and Luna.

When anyone suggested that maybe he should go to St Mungos Luna would stare at them with unearthly blue eyes.

"Healing is found in kitchens, not hospitals." She would say. Then shake out her long white blonde hair, causing the tiny golden bells strung through it to tinkle, and walk calmly away.

Luna had managed to repair the wrought-iron spiral staircase, the first floor of their home, and the old printing press. She sectioned off the top half of their house and matter of factly settled in to the task of caring for her father, and printing unbiased news stories.

To everyone's surprise, she invested heavily in fact-based articles. Other than  one small section demarcated by a plain black box, headed "Interesting but UnVerified", in which would inevitably be a picture of an other-worldy creature and some speculations on its habits and hiding places. For every other story, Luna expected anyone who wanted to send an article in, to back up their claims with either Pensieve memories or Veritaserum, that she had aquired from (former) Headmaster Snape.

When questioned about this policy she responded in an airy voice. "Oh, it's just that Nargles do love to confuse people, it's best to have events corroborated by unbiased witnesses if we're going to call them news..." Her voice would drift off slowly, but she would often include a pat on the hand and the assurance that if an article was succinct enough she would be more than happy to print it in the Interesting but UnVerified section, without testing the story's veracity.

For the first time, others were reading the insightful and carefully reasoned analysis Luna produced, that only her professors had ever been privy to in the past.

"Oh yes," Professor Flitwick answered proudly, when Ernie MacMillan questioned him about whether Luna had always written this way. "Her assignments were always unusual, but very precise and well thought out."

Luna seemed oblivious to the significance that her little newspaper had to the Wizarding community. Her first issue, including an interview Harry, Ron, and Hermione, had been sold out within an hour. Many had framed the article with the photo she'd included, of them looking exhausted but self assured and relaxed, as they walked out of the Great Hall one sunny afternoon.

---

“There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.” - Sartre

---

Draco wasn't sure how long he slept, after arriving at the London townhouse. It could have been five hours or twenty five, but when he woke he found Mathilde sitting by his bed, in her hospital scrubs, reading quietly. He sat slowly as she looked him over, at the bruises and bloody cuts he had forgotten to heal.

"Ngeerk came to get me. I take it your family found you?"

Draco nodded, this was as succinct a story as any, and legitimately true besides, even if it was misleading.

Mathilde's calm eyes blurred slightly as she blinked tears away. "Well. That's that then. I'm glad you made it back here. I'll look into an online course for you to start. Maybe a university entrance preparatory course... they are usually for mature age students, but Eilis and I are both alumni of prestigious colleges... we know who to speak to..." Her voice became choked. "I'll go and let Eilis and Marcie know that we're having a special Welcome Home dinner for you tonight..."

She hugged Draco close gently, and all the emotions pent up within him exploded into another shaking storm of tears.

---

His days quickly fell into a routine. The three women left for work and school early in the morning and he was free to do as he pleased until their return when he was wrapped in their music, friendship, and enthusiasm for life.

On the day he was due to meet with his family he woke up to notice that the two owls who had been hanging around the power lines in their street had been joined by six others. It was getting ridiculous. He Apparated into Magical London and set out for the Mail Redirection Service.

A plump witch, in fuscia robes that clashed awfully with the redness of her cheeks, purred a greeting when she saw him. "Why, young Mister Malfoy! What a pleasure! What can I do for you today?"

By this he surmised that the story of his Dark-Lord-Avoiding, Muggle-and-Elf-loving  Hufflepuffian sojourn had spread far and wide.

"I'd like to redirect my mail to a safe box here thanks. You can write a standard reply that can be sent back to any correspondents. Something along the lines of --- I'm receiving a lot of mail and will contact you if I wish to speak you."

The witch tittered. "Oooh I'm sure we can phrase it a touch more politely, dear." As she handed him the necessary forms. When he returned them promptly she looked at him in surprise. "But you haven’t filled out the list of exceptions young sir."

"I'm aware of that. There are no exceptions. I'm living with Muggles..." She looked delighted at this tidbit  "...and I will come here to collect any mail that could be important."

---

The hours he spent at the solicitors were exhausting but satisfying. He had made plans to have lunch with his parents at the Leaky Cauldron every Thursday. He assured them that he had no need of the Manor, or the summer home in Brighton where they were currently based. Their disappointment was plain but soon forgotten in the midst of their shock at his suggestions of the actions they should take.

After much negotiation, he had their agreement on most particulars and they had drafted letters to a number of people. Andromeda Tonks Nee Black was made an offer of one quarter of the Malfoy fortune in order to create a Foundation aiding victims and orphans of war.

Rita Skeeter was sent a proposal outlining the opportunity for someone ambitious to establish a Wizarding Library and Museum in the former Malfoy Manor.

The Office of Retail, Business and Production was sent an application for the establishment of a Clothing and Music brand that would highlight the way that Muggle and Wizarding style could coexist. Three Gryffindor students, the Patil twins and Lavender Brown, were sent letters expressing an interest in their contributions to a new line of Wizarding fashion once they finished their NEWTs.

The elves at the Manor would be offered three choices: to become Free Elves of the Manor, to serve the Malfoys in Brighton, or to be Free Elves of the Fashion Industry. This proposal was very carefully worded to appeal to the Elvish value system according to all that Draco had learned of House Elf culture in the Hogwarts kitchens.

He felt moderately confident that a good number would choose to continue their work at the Manor, an adventurous few would want to work in Fashion and those who were particularly attached to the Senior Malfoys would go to Brighton.

Draco’s final task before returning home was to go to Gringotts and finalise the banking arrangements for these various ventures. Seeing an ad for Nargle News with unusual stipulations, he drew out the memory of the solicitors office and the bank, and stopped at the Mail Redirection Service on his way home with a letter for Luna Lovegood.

---

Unbeknownst to him, Draco’s fame rocketed several weeks later, when the fifth issue of the Nargle News printed a story on the Malfoy's new direction following the war. By the time the first new edition of the Prophet went to the press a few days later, they had found enough information for him to feature alongside the Chosen One in an article on the front page.

When he found out, on his way to lunch with his parents, about his new status as the Slytherin Prince who Saw the Light, he snorted and dropped the paper into a bin without a second glance.

Thus action elicited plenty of gossip in itself. The following Witch Weekly cover was a surprisingly beautiful photo of Draco Malfoy, his Muggle clothes accentuating his long slim body, his jacket open, his short hair artfully mussed in a slight breeze. He was stepping under the sign for the Leaky Cauldron looking down at the Prophet with a haughty look of derision, and a curl of his elegant lips, before dropping it into the nearby rubbish barrel. As he stepped through the door his startling grey eyes caught on the photographer and he gave a sardonic smile.

When he was next at the Mail Redirection Office, he signed her WW copy with a bored flourish and rifled through a large box of mail. He tore open a few letters and dropped them back in the box, barely read.

"Could you add to the standard reply that business related mail can be directed to my Solicitors? Feel free to dispose of these." He waved a hand over the box and turned away but the witch jumped up in consternation.

"But Sir!" She called after him, snatching three letters out of a special compartment. "You didn't see these?"

Draco nodded a little impatiently, "Yes. You sent the standard response am I right?"

"Well, yes, but..."

"Excellent."
Her hands fluttered anxiously, "...but they're from Harry Potter sir!"

Draco slid out the glass doorway. "Don't forget to add the note about my Solicitors in future!" He called back, and disappeared down the street.

However, when he noticed a discarded copy of an earlier Witch Weekly at the Apparition point, he snatched it up and took it with him.

At home in his room he sat down and pulled the magazine out of his pocket. The front cover was a photo of Potter that someone enterprising had managed to take of him while he hovered in the air, his broom clasped between his legs. He had a look of intense concentration on his face as he cast a spell at a crumbling third story window. As it began to reknit itself he looked down at someone in the distance and a breathtaking smile broke over his face. Every time Draco watched the loop he felt that smile like a punch in the stomach; like being simultaneously frozen and warmed down to his toes. After a few moments he slid the magazine into his disillusioned top drawer with shaking hands.

---

On Draco’s visit to Diagon Alley the following week he was pleased to see Ollivander's shop had reopened and he rushed in to procure a new wand. The relief and joy he felt with a working wand in his hand reminded him why he could not fully leave the Wizarding world.

Olivander was seated as he watched his assistant prepare the bill for Draco. The wand that chose him was an unusual one, made from Eucalyptus Papuana wood, with a core of braided Manticore mane. Draco smiled softly as Olivander explained that the Eucalyptus Papuana was more commonly known as a Ghost Gum, an evergreen tree native to Central Australia

"I made that wand many years ago when an Australian wandmaker visited me here with a gift of that pale wood. I think of it as my Ghost Wand. I hope it does well for you young man."

Before he left, Draco bent down by the old man's chair and spoke in a low voice. "I know that an apology is of very little use. But I want you to know that it pains me deeply to think that you suffered incarceration in my childhood home."

---

"And certainly we should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead, it can only serve; and it is not fastidious in its choice of a leader." - Albert Einstein

---

Severus Snape shifted painfully so that his legs hung over the side of the bed, and pulled himself to standing. His body shook with the effort of the action and his hands clenched in frustration.

"Good, good! Perfect!" Cooed the little woman wearing green healer robes.

"It is far from. Perfect. Robson." He growled savagely, but she just tutted at him and threw him a blinding smile.

He swore under his breath; this woman smiled more in a one hour session than he could imagine smiling in a lifetime. She had faint lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth that remained even if her face was still.

Taking four monumentously difficult steps, he collapsed into the chair by the window with the exhaustion of a man in his hundreds, rather than his early forties.

Healer Robson commented,  with her perpetual grin. "It's a good thing using magic doesn't wear you out this much, or I'd have to be here 24/7!"

Severus grimaced at the thought, he was startled to feel his chair levitate gently into the air. "Now, how about you have some time in the sitting room? A change of scene is always welcome." She grasped the back of the armchair and pushed it easily out of the room. The Slytherin common room had undergone something of a transformation since becoming the Staff Lounge. 

It was still a long, low underground room but the rough stone walls were whitewashed in a cheerful ivory and warm yellow lights dotted the ceiling. A fire blazed under the original elaborately carved mantelpiece, but the green high backed chairs were gone and instead there were soft couches in earthy colours clustered around low polished tables where red and purple tea pots and cups were scattered. Potted plants lent vibrant splashes of colour to the room but the biggest change was in the central window. Instead of being a view deep murky green of the lake like the other two windows,  it had been charmed to look out over the grounds of Hogwarts, as though one was sitting on the front steps.

It was here that Healer Robson left him, seated by the window admonishing as she left, "don't try to levitate yourself back into your room, that's a sure way to get an injury. I'll ask someone to help you in about an hour."

Severus heaved a sigh, and summoned himself a hot cup of tea, splashing a some on his robes as he did so, which did little to improve his mood. He honestly had not expected to survive this war, and being on this side of it was unsettling. His whole self had been crafted to maintain an image that made espionage possible. He wasn't sure he knew himself without it.

He was watching out the window when Healer Robson emerged from the castle on her way to the Apparition point. Another lanky figure with startling red hair was ascending the stairs and she stopped him with a hand on his arm. Her pretty face was lit from the afternoon sun as she made a request of George Weasley and then scurried down the steps. Severus felt himself tense.

George looked equally grim for a moment before disappearing out of sight.

In the post-war climate Severus had found himself disconcerted so many people treating him with a respect that bordered on reverence, considering the many distasteful things that he had done in Voldemort’s service. One of the few who still treated him without a shred of respect or interest was George Weasley, and Severus found this fact to be pleasantly stabilising. George's room was next door to his in the staff lodgings, as Minerva had suggested they offer him a temporary position as the DADA professor once the school resumed classes.

Severus had been surprised at George's acceptance of the offer, but perhaps it was the prospect of returning to his work at the joke shop without his twin that underpinned his decision more than any desire to teach. The families of the dead had chosen to bury their loved ones on school grounds, creating a Graveyard of the Fallen, around Dumbledore's tomb. It was rumoured that George spent most of his free moments there, sitting by his brother's grave. Not that Severus paid attention to gossip in general, but this seemed accurate.

He was therefore surprised to see the tall auburn-haired man enter the Staff Lounge and flop onto a couch with his eye on Severus.

"So. You had enough sunshine yet Prof?" he asked wearily.

If Severus had been a dog, his hackles would have risen, "I have no need. Of your assistance Weasley. Please continue about. Your own business. Leave me to mine," he did his best to snap, though the effect was somewhat lessened by his still healing vocal chords.

George merely shrugged, tugging a Herbologist Monthly magazine off the coffee table, "I'm  under strict orders, we can't have the Stalwart Snape injuring himself by attempting to move from room to room."

Severus' glare bounced off him, "Do not. Refer to me. By such --- ridiculous epithets."

George flashed an intense look at him, turning so that the hole where his ear had been was facing Severus. "Would you prefer Severus the Venturesome? Or the Stout-hearted Slytherin?" He was grinning now at the display of displeasure that Severus didn't hold back. "Oh I've got more... how about Superhuman? No? Stupendous? Valiant Sev? Dauntless? ...though I can't think of an alliteration for that one."

"Surprised. The word 'think'. Is in. Your vocabulary."

"True, I am more about action than contemplation.." he stopped suddenly, looking to the side as though he had expected Fred to be there to complete his sentences. The grief that slid over his face in that moment, punched into that softening area in Severus' psyche where he was attempting to leave space for 'feelings'.

"Very well. Act then!" He said crossly to distract himself, "Robson levitates. The chair."

George shook off his melancholy and threw him a mischievous look. "Oh no! That doesn't seem at all the thing. An elegant damsel in distress such as yourself." Without warning he felt a lightening charm shiver over his body and George darted over, lifting him with one muscular arm under his knees and the other at his back. "There now Darling the Dauntless, rest your head against my chest so I may carry you over the threshold of your boudoir."

Severus was tense with mortification, his body motionless at the first human embrace he had received in... in... many, many years. Even the healers used their wands to assess him, there was no need for touch. His nerves were on end and tingling with the contact.

George grinned at him savagely as he placed him on the bed. "If it wasn't that you have got this already," he feathered a touch over the gruesome scar that had formed on his neck over the site of the snakebite, "I'd take off one of your ears too." He left without a backward glance.

Severus sat frozen, then began to tremble slightly. He could still feel the firm pressure of George's chest and arms, the puffs of another's breath on his cheeks, the searing sensation of fingers on his scar.

---

Draco had been very surprised to find that his flippant and spontaneous application to become a WWN radio host had been accepted. He was offered a number of timeslots but he settled on weekdays at 3pm so he wouldn't have to explain his absence to everyone at home.

He had realised that Muggle phonographic records would play on Wizarding record players, regardless of the magical wards over a building; so before his first shift, he took a stack of Muggle money to a store he found on the Maps App on his phone. The retail assistants stared at him in shock as he proceeded to purchase one copy of every vinyl they had in stock. He ended up with several large unweidly boxes full, and had to make a few trips to an out of the way back alley to shrink them enough to fit in his pockets, but it was one of the most satisfying purchases of his life. 

By then he was running out of time and had to Apparate directly to the Studio and play a selection of songs at random. The show passed quickly. He found a rythym, flicking a new record onto two waiting players while the first one finished. Chatting into the microphone like he was talking to Marcie over the phone... with a lot more references to wizards and witches. The studio was a pleasant room with warm globes of light hovering in the air and several sky lights interspersed between.

His producer had urged him to listen to the recording of his first few shows to get an idea of how he came across On Air.

As he spun himself in the chair listening... he realized with a dawning horror that his apparently random decisions about what to play... had turned into some kind of subconscious love song to Harry Fucking Potter.

Admittedly they had listened to a lot of music in their twenty four hours in the Time Turner Room, but all of these songs had played at significant moments; Draco sank back in despair as he realised the last song he played had been the one they were listening to during their first kiss.

"Fuck" he said to the empty room, "I need to plan tomorrow's show." It was unlikely that Potter was listening this time, and if he was careful, this subconscious letter-writing wouldn't happen again.

He suddenly felt very tired. The only way he had managed to bury all his thoughts about Potter, was under a mountain of study and activity. Trying to learn all he needed to be a viable Muggle University entrant was challenging enough, but added to his attempts to make a place for himself in the Wizarding world, it was enough frenzied busyness to occupy his mind day and night.

And yet, somehow Harry Potter's face, or body, or voice, seemed to creep into the corners of his mind, tinged with longing. To have thoughts and memories about Potter was disconcerting enough, let alone having... feelings. That was unconscionable.

He simply couldn't allow it.

---

Working at WWN every day meant a solid dose of Wizarding media as there was always a fresh copy of the Daily Prophet, the Nargle News and Witch Weekly. Of the monthly magazines that were available, Draco prefered the Potions and Quidditch ones. Not that he foresaw a future for himself in either field, but it was interesting and held his attention easily.

It was therefore impossible to miss the anouncement that all Seventh Year Hogwarts students were invited back to sit their NEWT examinations at the end of the school year regardless of whether they returned to Hogwarts for the Special Term. If they wished to complete their study by distance they would be sent owls regarding the content that was required  learning, but could be studied individually, or with private tutors.

Draco was musing on this when he arrived home from Diagon Alley. No-one else was home yet, so he went to the kitchen to begin preparing dinner. For some reason, cooking the Muggle way hadn't really clicked for him. Which was strange because he really enjoyed Potions which was much the same thing in his opinion. He was determined to master a few dishes at least so tonight he was cutting onions and crushing garlic for a spaghetti bolognese when Marcie arrived.

"My dance teacher is a sadist!" She moaned dropping her bag on the floor and tumbling onto one of the barstools at the island bench. Draco continued chopping methodically as she continued her familiar Wednesday evening rant about the Devil who Didn't Wear Prada...

Her voice became lost in a flurry of activity as the other two ladies arrived home and began helping to finish off dinner,  and settle at the table. Ngeerk squawked angrily when Draco insisted he leave the power points alone and he had to cast a discreet repelling charm on the cords to keep the cockatoo away. Thankfully minimal levels of magic didn't seem to affect appliances.

As the conversation washed over him Draco was struck again by how much the Statute of Secrecy kept him from truly being able to share life with these women, who he trusted more than anyone in the world. For a moment he was tempted by a pressing urge to brandish his wand, levitate everything in the room, and pour out the whole truth to then. Something had to be done.

"I've met with my parents," he blurted out, and three faces went pale with shock. He held up a hand, "it's okay. We met at the solicitors office. They've given me my inheritance... and they won't try to force me to go home."

"Oh, Dre!" Marcie squealed, "Does that mean you don't have to hide anymore??"

"Draco! Why didn't you ask one of us to go with you? Eilis or I could have taken a day off work." Mathilde said at the same time.

Eilis just darted over and squeezed him so tightly that his breath constricted, her short dark hair brushing his face. "I'm so pleased for you Draco, that's wonderful!"

Draco smiled at the three of them, "It's quite a big inheritance actually... do you think you could help me look for a flat to buy?"

Chapter Text

You’re dripping like a saturated sunrise
You’re spilling like an overflowing sink
You’re ripped at every edge but you’re a masterpiece
And now i’m tearing through the pages and the ink

~ HALSEY

---

Harry was working with George on the stairs to the former Gryffindor common room. There were several areas where spell damage was causing the marble to soften and ooze like rotting meat. It had taken the better part of the morning to figure out an effective counter curse, but after lunch it was a slow but straightforward job make their way up the stairs now fixing it as they went.

George had managed to hover a Radio behind them that had blared out WWN for the past hour. It was fairly standard Weird Sisters songs and the few other wizarding bands, but Lee Jordan had been given a job as one of the new presenters and it was nice to hear his voice on the air. As Lee signed off from his shift there was the briefest pause, and then a song in a competely different style began to play.

As he listened Harry felt his hand tightening on his wand. The song took him back to the sunset in the Time Turner Room. George had stopped and stared at the Wireless with a puzzled and curious look on his face.

You were a vision in the morning when the light came through
I know I’ve only felt religion when i’ve lied with you
You said you’ll never be forgiven till your boys are too
And I’m still waking every morning but it’s not with you

As the song ended, a familar posh voice began to speak, and had he not been gripping his wand so tightly it would have crashed to the floor.

"Well, that was a song by a Muggle artist called Halsey.... entitled...well... she would say the title is 'colors'." Malfoy's voice was disparaging for a moment, "However, she does not know the Wizarding world's love for titles of five words or more. So we shall forgive her for that, shan't we? As will be obvious to any of you who were listening, the title of that track is Dripping Like a Saturated Sunrise. And you're listening to WWN --- the 3 O'Clock show with Draco Malfoy. The next song I have for you may appeal to those who prefer the Wizarding band Strange Magic... though of course, like most things musical, the Muggle band Bring Me the Horizon is far superior. This is the song they call Don't Go, but obviously the true title is Took a Boy to the Forest... In fact, I'm not going to tell you the Muggle titles anymore, only the more accurate ones. If you truly feel the need to know feel free to write in to WWN... and for Merlin’s sake do not write to me. I don't read letters."

And abruptly the next song began. Harry stood completely still. Knowing that George was looking at him strangely but as he strained to hear every word in the new song he couldn't help but feel that this was all directed at him.

I was raised in the valley, there was shadows and death
Got out alive but with scars I can't forget
This kid back in school, subdued and shy
An orphan and a brother and unseen by most eyes

I don't know what it was that made a piece of him die
Took a boy to the forest, slaughtered him with a scythe
Stamped on his face, an impression in the dirt
Do you think the silence makes a good man convert?

We all have our horrors and our demons to fight
But how can I win when I'm paralyzed?
They crawl up on my bed, wrap their fingers round my throat
Is this what I get for the choices that I made?

If I let you in, you'd just want out
If I tell you the truth, you'd vie for a lie
If I spilt my guts, it would make a mess we can't clean up
If you follow me, you will only get lost
If you try to get closer, we'll only lose touch

Draco continued to chatter briefly between songs in a completely casual and unrehearsed way, and yet somehow managed to fit in double the music that other shows would include. George was still sending Harry sideways glances but he didn't speak until the hour ended and Celestina Warbuck began warbling. George cast a silencing charm at the Wireless.

"Seems like Malfoy is a bit of a natural on the radio? I wouldn't be surprised if they have an increase in listeners during his time slot."

Harry only grunted, he was still processing what he had heard. Certain phrases stood out in his mind as though Malfoy had whispered in them in his ear...

 "Yeah, it was pretty interesting how quickly they donated the Manor for that library/museum thing. I can't imagine what it would have taken to get Lucius Malfoy to agree to something like that..."

"...nearly losing his son I think... I mean, probably losing the war played a part. But at the end there all he cared about was Dra--..Malfoy."

George had stopped pretending to work and came to stand beside him, swinging a kind arm around his shoulders. "Harry. You can call him Draco when you talk to me."
Harry frowned at him and tried to mutter something nonsensical like "dunno what you mean".

"I'm not a moron Harry. If you don't want other people to know how you feel about Malfoy... well here's a piece of advice, go jerk off in your room between 3 and 4 every day. It would be less obvious."

Harry burst out laughing but nodded, "point taken... I ah, it's complicated..."

George emitted an amused noise, "I can imagine," he said kindly, "I love a good joke, Harry, so be sure to let me know when this is public knowledge because I'm going to have a field day..."

Harry sighed heavily,  "to be honest... I'm not sure if that will ever... but yeah... I will... tell you that is..."

George laughed heartily, "Merlin! You've got it bad, mate! I hope I'm never taken in by a pointy face and an acidic personality; sounds like hell on earth... Okay, I can see Ginny coming... try to string a sentence together, mate, alright? You've been clear with her about being broken up still, but if you keep going tongue tied around her all the time, I reckon she'll think she still has a chance, and it's just some kind of martyr thing keeping you apart, okay?" He murmured the last few sentences into Harry's ear, and then ran forward to tackle his sister, scrubbing at her hair while she punched him...

---

After the "touching" incident Severus was determined not to be at risk of someone carrying him, ever again. He stayed in his room for the next few days alternating between short walks across the room and intervals of rest. His body was screaming with the effort but it seemed to be working. Pressed into service, his muscles regained their strength. He refused to leave his rooms again until he could walk to the lounge on his own. It was uncomfortable using elimination spells rather than going to the bathroom, but it was certainly effective, and conserved time and energy needed for walking practice.

After two days of seclusion he had just finished a lap of the room and was sitting on his bed breathing heavily when the door to his room slammed open, despite the locking spell, and George Weasley stood outlined by the light of the hallway.

"Now, now, Brave Sev... it won't do for you to hide away in here. No-one has seen you in days apparently."

Severus just glared at him whilst mulling over the various privacy spells he could use to make his door impassable.

"See here," George said conversationally, entering the room in one long stride and seating himself on the desk, "I happened to run into Peeves this morning and when I asked him why he wasn't down here terrorizing Professor Snape, he said... Now prepare yourself,  this is quite shocking. He said you were a War Hero," George's face twisted in distaste, "and he couldn't annoy you! If you can believe it!! I'll pretty sure the only other person who was exempt from being annoyed by that airborne menace, was Dumbledore."

Severus sighed, "And what. Mr Weasley. Is the point?"

"Well," said George brightly, "if even Peeves refuses to create havoc and distress in your life, I guess it will be my job for now, until all this War Hero business settles down I mean."

"Mr. Weasley---"

"No need to thank me Sev, your disgruntled and sour face is quite enough of a reward." He jumped up and headed for the door, "I think Fred would be very pleased with this arrangement, don't you?"

---

From then on, George made sure to pop into Severus' routine at odd moments throughout the day to do random irritating things, like spelling his ink pink, or sticking his books to the ceiling, or simply bumping and knocking into things around him.

Severus was surprised to find that the more irritated he was, the more relaxed George's expression would become. As though there was a small transfer to Severus of the general angst hovering over George Weasley. Lying in bed one night, hearing some sonorous knocks and taps through the wall to George's room, Severus wondered if all this mischievous and ridiculous behaviour actually bothered him. He was surprised to find that the irritating tapping sound was somehow soothing. It meant that he was not alone. That someone knew him and disliked him and wasn't attempting to disguise their dislike out of deference for his true allegiances during the war.

So when George approached him as he drank coffee by a window in the Staff Lounge he found himself almost looking forward to whatever interaction was about to occur. Whatever his inner feelings on the subject, he maintained a scowl as George threw himself into the arm chair directly opposite him, jostling his knees with his long legs until Severus moved his own feet out of the way on a bit of an awkward angle.

George slumped down in the seat and summoned the coffee out of Severus' hands. Warming it in his own hands and ignoring Severus' annoyed huff, he took a sip and nodded contemplatively... "mmm, straight and black... two things that quite describe you wouldn't you say, Brave Sev... Do you mind if I just call you B.S. for short?"

He summoned himself milk and sugar to add to the cup and then continued to drink it nonchalantly while Severus stood to pour himself a new coffee. "I take it you figured out... some Muggle slang. Mr. Weasley."

George grinned briefly, "It's quite an elegant, non-threatening way of saying bullshit, isn't it? Though you are quite threatening and not very elegant, so I suppose it is a little inadequate."

"You find me threatening?" Severus' speech was coming much easier and more smoothly these days, but his voice still had a tendency to catch in the middle of longer sentences.

George smirked, "not me of course, but in general, you know," he waved a slim freckled hand, "with all the lurking, and scowling, and bat-like costumery."

"These are robes. Not a costume." snapped Severus.

"Coulda fooled me.  Next week the special term starts huh, you'll be able to sit back up at the staff table terrifying first years to your heart's content... Can't believe you've resigned as Headmaster though. Such an opportunity! Your reign of terror could have continued you know, the Board of Governers seem to feel quite indebted to you? Or did you decide that it wouldn't be as fun now that unforgivables aren't allowed again?"

Severus had pointedly kept his gaze towards the window during this monologue. Even if it was refreshing to be treated normally by someone, the allusions to things he'd had to do during the war still smarted. "You realize that when the students return. And you are an honorary professor," he made sure to say this with as much dripping disdain as he could manage in his husky new voice, "you may have to stop. Acting the recalcitrant teen."

"Oh I see no need for that. What we do in our private time is surely our own business..."

George's eyelashes were such a pale red that they were nearly blonde, his hair was nearly at his shoulders and long strands had been bleached by his time in the sun, repairing the outer walls of the castle. Severus wasn't  sure why these details seemed important. "Well. There is little time for privacy. Or your own time. In the teaching semester. I wish you luck." Rising from his chair Severus managed to  smile at the thought of George managing the hormonal rabble in the DADA classroom. He felt a surge of satisfaction at the brief look of uncertainty on young Weasley's face.

He rarely had the upperhand in these encounters, but it seemed that a pleasant smile might be an appropriate weapon.

---

"I know the pieces fit 'cause I watched them fall away. Mildewed and smoldering. Fundamental differing.
Pure intention juxtaposed
Will set two lovers souls in motion
Disintegrating as it goes testing our communication"
- TOOL 'Schism'

---

Teddy Lupin had only been a few days old when his parents were killed. Whenever Harry held his fragile little body he was reminded that at least he had his parents for that first year. Even if he didn't remember it, it seemed important, formative.

Harry had not seen him much in those first few months while Hogwarts was being rebuilt. Now that school had started back, he had moved back to Grimmauld Place and was able to see Teddy every day. Andromeda was increasingly busy with the Foundation For the Victims of War, or FFVW. She was having to leave Teddy with Kreacher more and more as she attended meetings and organised various functions. Admittedly Kreacher made sure that Teddy was safe, clean and fed. But watching him wave a bottle of milk into the crib,  Harry felt somewhere instinctively that this wasn't how his parents had cared for him. And he doubted that Lupin or Tonks would have been so distant and practical either.

It was clear that Andromeda loved Teddy deeply but she seemed unable to fully enjoy him. Whereas, for Harry, holding the chubby warm body was like a balm for all the fear and exhaustion that he had lived with his whole life. In his first week back at Grimmauld Place he was rocking Teddy gently in the sitting room that Lupin and Tonks had favoured, when Molly Weasley bustled through the floo. She tugged a large basket with her and sat down on a couch with a murmured sigh, "Hello, Harry, you've got Teddy today have you?"

"Hey Mrs. Weasley, Andromeda is at the opening of the children's Mental Health wing at St Mungos."

Molly looked at him seriously, "Harry... I want you to know... I think she is considering having Teddy adopted out. She doesn't feel up to raising another child, I don't think she particularly enjoyed being a stay at home mum when Dora was little... some personalities just aren't suited to the, well, dullness mixed with busyness I guess..."

Harry was staring from her with his heart pounding, "...but, who? Are they family? Will they really be the best..."

"The only family I know of who are likely to take him, being a werewolf's son and all, are the Pearsons. Jenny Pearson is quite happy at home and they've already got 5 kids so they say one more won't make much of a difference." She sighed again, heavily this time. "It's not ideal, I admit, but it's probabaly better than being raised by a house-elf and a distant Grandma.."
"I'll take him."

"Harry..."

"Seriously! I want to! He needs... he needs a Dad at least!"
Molly eyes were compassionate, "you are very young Harry. There is so much you could do..."

"My parents weren't that much older when they had me, you weren't very old when you had Bill right?"

She was watching him consideringly, "it's true. I was only nineteen. But I've been particularly suited to home-making. I've had many friends who found it so frustrating and tiring that the rewards were hard for them to see..."
"I can do it" Harry said fiercely, and then more softly, entreating, "you'd support me wouldn't you? You'd be like, his other grandparents?"

Molly's eyes filled with tears, "Of-course Harry, if that's what you really wanted. We will always support you as a son. I just want you not to be reckless. This isn't something that you can give up when it's too hard..."

"And when have I ever done that? I knew I was going to DIE and I still did what I needed to. I can do this Molly."

Wiping her eyes she nodded briskly, "well, to be honest, I thought you were going to say these things. You can talk to Andromeda about the legal guardianship issues, I will help with everything else. And she reached into her bag and drew out three thick books entitled, "Baby and Child Rearing", "The First Year" and "Witchlings and Wizardlets".

Then she pulled out a stack of colourful toys and picture books, followed by a small mountain of baby clothes, a pram, a hammock and a box of carefully labelled Potions. Finally she lifted up a long piece of fabric, "Now, when my babies were little, I found that they always wanted to be close. So I carried them in this," she twisted and turned the fabric to create a little baby size pouch against her chest.

At Harry's mystified look, she smiled, "I'll show you how my dear. But I'll say one last thing. If you decide to do this your life will be totally changed; totally ruled by this little man's needs and routines for the next five years at least, and even then when he starts school, that's only 8 hours a day that you have to yourself. So take tonight to really consider it... Now, he looks like he's ready to be burped, why don't you give him to me and you can practice tying the sling..."

---

So many people knew about the house at Grimmauld Place now, that it was hardly the secret that it used to be. But only those who had been previously welcomed could come and go, so at least it kept the knot of Prophet, Witch Weekly and WWN reporters clustered on the footpath from seeing the house. As well as the few rogue Death Eaters that had gone into hiding. 

The months that Grimmauld Place had been a safe house for Half-bloods and Muggleborns, had transformed it from top to bottom. In particular the garden had been expanded whilst staying under the Fidelious charm, and someone inventive had placed spells on it that maintained a tropical climate. So when the London drizzle was sprinkling on the protective bubble of magic around the garden, it transformed into a torrential rainstorm and watered the many flourishing plants.

Now that they were heading into a less rainy season many of the plants had begun to bloom with flowers of vibrant red or yellow. One particularly sweet smelling tree had grown so fast it must have received magical enhancement. He sat under it with Hermione one afternoon as the sun drifted through the leaves, and sweet white flowers fluttered down on them periodically.

"It's a Frangipani tree, Harry" said Hermione as she threaded the flowers onto a string that she had conjured, forming a fragrant wreath. "They're very common in other parts of the world."

Teddy was lying on a colourful mat, pushing on his chubby arms as he looked from side to side with wide eyes that flickered from green to blue to pure white. He had just started gigging at a game of peekaboo and the sounds of his breathy little laughs made Harry's chest constrict with happiness.

The first few months of fatherhood were as exhausting as any he'd ever known. Having a child was so consuming that it left little space for anything else. Harry could still feel the dull weight of loss that had hung over him during the last few years, but every day there were so many perfect moments that made life worthwhile, it was impossible to sink into the total depression that tugged at him. The first time Teddy had smiled at him, and then every time after that. Harry had been so thrilled when Teddy learned to roll over that they'd flooed over to the Burrow to tell Molly; she'd smiled indulgently and baked cupcakes to celebrate, even though Teddy was too little for solid food.

Every Tuesday Hermione came to spend time with them during her lunch hour in her Ministry apprenticeship. Today she was full of excitement and apprehension about the upcoming NEWTs examinations.

"Do you really think that the study manuals they sent is were enough to prepare us for NEWTs?" It was a conversation that they had gone over many times before, "I reckon you'll do fine 'Mione."

"But we missed MONTHS of lessons. I'm really not sure if I should have taken this apprenticeship in the meantime..." she continued to fret until it was time for her to leave, and Harry felt a spike of gladness that in only a few days this topic of conversation could be put to rest.

Other than the cessation of Hermione’s constant worrying he wasn't looking forward to the NEWTs weekend. He knew he would miss Teddy even though it was only two nights away. Teddy would be happy with Molly, Andromeda and Kreacher taking turns to look after him. But they hadn't been separated since Harry's return from Hogwarts, despite Molly encouraging him to let her babysit while he went out. He felt like they had needed this intense period of closeness to settle into something of a parent-child bond, it felt instinctive and natural now for Harry to respond to Teddy's small needs and wants.

He'd been able to do most of his study during the many hours that Teddy spent sleeping, so it wasn't the content of the exams worrying him as much as the prospect of perhaps seeing Draco Malfoy again. He had consistently written to Malfoy every week since the Battle. Just a short note saying: Hi Draco, Can we talk? - Harry --- And he continued to receive the generic mail redirection service letter in return.

One week there had been a small handwritten note a the bottom, that had made his heart jump for a moment until he read "I apologize profoundly Mr Potter, I keep trying to get Mr Malfoy to read your letters. And I have not disposed of them, I hope he will do you the courtesy of responding soon, in the manner you deserve, Immelda Simpkin MRS"

So at least he knew that Malfoy was seeing his owls, and simply choosing not to open them. This sparked Harry’s anger and frustration. He was sure that Malfoy could not have missed the news in the Prophet that he and Ginny weren't an item anymore, or about Teddy's adoption. Or even where Harry went for coffee every morning! The Daily Potter Watch could have been a more accurate name for the Prophet in current times. Yet the only indication that Malfoy had given, that he even remembered Harry, were the oblique references he had made in his first Radio Show. The further away that became, the more Harry wondered if he had been reading way too much into Malfoy’s song choices and cryptic commentary.

So Harry looked forward to the Hogwarts weekend with equal measures of longing, anxiety, and anger; all centred on a slim blonde man who may or may not even show his face...

---

Chapter Text

"The light that fueled our fire then

Has burned a hole between us so

We cannot seem to reach an end

Crippling our communication."

-TOOL 'Schism'

---

           The day before he was due to return to Hogwarts for the exams Draco's parents requested that he come and have lunch with them in Brighton, so at the Apparition Point he donned a robe over his Muggle clothes and hurried up the stairs of their modest (in comparison to the Manor at least) three story, heritage listed 'Beach House'. He was ushered into the Drawing Room where he found a gathering of a number of Pureblood families who had also managed to avoid Azkaban in the trials that followed the war.

            He stifled a sigh at having this event sprung on him, and pasted on a practiced smile. "Mother, Father! How delightful to see you... and so many friends..." he greeted each person in turn but finally sank down beside Pansy who was sitting primly on a richly embroidered loveseat that had originally been at the Manor.

            "So how long has this event been in the works?" He asked in a low voice.

                "Oh, I'm pretty sure our invitation arrived two months ago... they didn't prepare you did they?"

              Pansy's hard face had settled into even more bitter lines since he last saw her. She raised a delicately shaped eyebrow at his perusal. "Looking me over Draco?"
               He shrugged nonchalantly. "I was thinking that some of the new fashions I'm about to launch would really do so much more for you than robes do.. "
               She laughed harshly. "Muggle fashion, Draco? My parents can hardly believe the things you are doing! But I'll admit that it's a clever strategy in ths current political climate."  
              She stretched out a hand and examined her carefully manicured nails. "You'll notice that very few of us are wearing Slytherin green at the moment, but then... I guess it's your JOB to notice now, I hear you've bought a SHOP of all things..." She clicked her tongue reprovingly. "Our family has been disdained for years for having such a plebeian occupation in our ancestry, are you sure you're ready for that?"

              Draco couldn't help but smile, he quite liked Pansy. She always spoke her mind. A bit like a more brittle, less affectionate, version of Marcie. "Yes, I know it's quite shocking, my parents are appalled with me of course, but it is better than the ignominy of prison I suppose."

              Pansy scowled at him but he continued unperturbed. "The shop is on Diagon Alley, not far from Ollivander's. I'm not planning to work there of course. Just manage it from a distance, but if you owl me when you're planning to shop there, I'll be sure to come and be your personal retail assistant."

               "That would be a fine promise, where it not for the fact that you do not answer owls...I've also heard that you receive the most fan mail at WWN and yet won't take on more hours, or share your music with other presenters."

               Draco shrugged, "I don't have a monopoly on Muggle music, for Salazar's sake! Everyone else would be perfectly able to go into Muggle London and aquire the records that I play... I think Lee Jordan will figure that out soon. He's probably the brightest of them."

As they chatted he watched the way that she projected such toughened callous views, yet when a House Elf clapped their hands and announced that luncheon was served in the dining room. She jumped at the unexpected sound, the skin around her eyes tightening in fear. Draco felt guilty all of a sudden. He hadn't spared any thought for how hard post-war society would be on Pansy Parkinson.

"Now, Pansy..." He drew her arm through his. "You must have heard more interesting gossip than that, come and tell me..."

 --- 

                Harry had been filled with a nervous energy all morning. He had coped with the overwhelming crush of greetings from his former teachers and classmates by constantly scanning the mass of human bodies for a distinctive blonde head. But it wasn't until they were all being seated in the Great Hall for the Care of Magical Creatures Exam that the doors flew open and Malfoy strode in arm in arm with a familiar dark haired girl. A surprisingly hostile whisper of noise went around the room and Harry was surprised at first because he couldn't tear his eyes away from Malfoy long enough to take in the fact that everyone else was glaring at Pansy Parkinson.

                She was tense and pale, Harry could see her hands shaking slightly as Malfoy drew out an empty chair for her before stalking over to another and seating himself in one fluid movement. Professor Grubbly Plank called for order and Harry had to swivel in his seat to face the front and accept the exam papers that were levitated onto his desk. Sealing it with his magical signature, he forced himself to breathe deeply and concentrate. The two hours came to a close and the papers were snatched into the air by a Summoning spell that sent them to settle on the desk on the dais.

            As murmured conversations began all around him Harry stood slowly and turned to seek out Malfoy's eyes. He was unsurprised to find that Malfoy was not looking at him, but it still crushed that little spark of hope that maybe, just maybe he would be looking for Harry.  Instead, he was leaning over Parkinson whispering in her ear. Harry felt a surge of jealousy flare over the top of his disappointment. Would it really have been that hard for Malfoy to write him a short note letting him know if he was in a relationship with Parkinson?

             The blood was surging in his ears when suddenly the two of them stood and approached him. He could vaguely hear the massive hall go quiet and knew that everyone was watching to see what was about to take place. Draco’s chilly grey eyes finally met Harry's and then flickered away. Harry looked back and forth between them as they stopped directly in front of him. This was so unexpected that all of the carefully rehearsed conversations he had been preparing for this moment flew out of his mind.

         He shoved his hands into his pockets and gave a short nod. "Uh Parkinson, Malfoy, congratulations."
           Pansy looked taken aback, but Malfoy beamed suddenly in amusement, looking down into Parkinson's baffled face with a grin. "He thinks we're dating Pans..."
            "What?"
            "You know, courting, snogging, shagging maybe...-- dating..." and he burst out into an easy laughter that echoed in the silence of the room.
                Pansy straightened and glowered at him, elbowing sharply. "Stop laughing as if it were such an impossible thing you prat! I'm quite the catch you know! You should be so lucky!"
               She turned to Harry, "I apologize for Draco's indelicacy. But there is no need to congratulate us. I actually..." She drew in a deep breath and Draco sobered up quickly, steadying her gently with a hand on her back. "...would like to make a formal apology for my behaviour the last time we were in this room."

           A swarm of whispers and gasps buzzed through the room but it hushed again as she continued. "I was foolish, and frightened, but that is no excuse for my actions and for suggesting that we hand you over to the... to... V-v-voldemort."
           She finished in a rush, "I h-h-humbly ask for your forgiveness and offer you the opportunity to show mercy or punishment as you see fit."
                Harry could feel the weight of hundreds of eyes glued to him, but when he looked towards Draco, his were steady and calm and slightly amused. "Of-course Parkinson... ah... Pansy... I'm sorry for jumping, you know, to conclusions before... it's none of my business of course, the ah, nature of your relationship..."

              Pansy was looking at him incredulously again and Draco coughed quietly. "The punishment? or mercy? Potter, did you hear anything that she said?" he prodded.

              "Oh, yeah, I mean, of course it was quite natural to want to hand me over to Voldemort. I mean, I handed myself over in the end, so I could hardly, uh, hold it, you know, against you for suggest--, suggesting it." He finished awkwardly.

           Malfoy sighed. "As articulate as ever Potter! And by that, we should presume that you mean to gracefully forgive every slight that Pansy has made against your person and grant her mercy rather than the punishment she may deserve?"

                   Harry flushed angrily, "That's basically what I said right? Yes! I forgive her! And of course she should have mercy instead of punishment!"

          The room exploded with sound, then, and Pansy seemed to sag with relief before straightening her posture again and turning away with a quick nod of thanks. Malfoy made to turn away too, but Harry's hand snatched at the sleeve of his dress shirt, as he said the first thing that came into his head: "Wanna play a Seeker game? It's been ages hey?"

             Malfoy gave him an unreadable look, and Harry was mentally kicking himself for not remembering any of the speeches he had planned for Malfoy, when he nodded abruptly. "Before lunch. After the charms exam. I'll see you on the Pitch." Then he smirked, "Let the best man win."

---

             Luna Lovegood drifted towards the front of the room for the practical aspect of the Charms NEWT. Even though she was a year younger than all the others undergoing examination, she had no interest in returning to Hogwarts so she'd convinced Professor McGonagall to allow her to sit the exams this year. She didn't much mind if she didn't pass, because her little publication provided enough income every week for her (and her father) to live on.

               In fact she had doubled the amount of copies from what her father used to print, and they still managed to sell out. The retailers had requested that she print more but she felt that it was quite enough and would not do so. She may have received a somewhat more unusual education than other girls her age but she knew herself to be a knowledgeable and competent witch. She was confident in most subject areas, and charms was the easiest of all.

               She smiled gently at Professor Flitwick who seemed a little out of sorts and flustered from the stress of the examination schedule. "I'll bring you some Binglebrangle stems before your next round of students Professor shall I? They are extremely calming at times like these!"

              She reached up and felt through the various items she'd braided through her hair in the morning before leaving home. Withdrawing a long green stem with a fragrant blood-red flower on top she focused her attention on the Professor's harried face. "Oh! Here's one! How fortuitous, I picked it this morning."

           Conjuring a long stemmed vase out of a pink ribbon she charmed it full of water and held it out to him. He thanked her absentmindedly and she was pleased to see that the Binglebrangle was having an immediate effect on him as his tense shoulders sagged a little and he attempted a smile.
             His eyes focused on the stripy and spotty green tree frogs that she had charmed to jump about on her bright blue robes. "That's a delicate piece of charm work, Miss Lovegood, could you demonstrate how you did that?"

        "I'd be happy to. A handsome red frog would look lovely on your robes..." She cast a number of spells his way and soon there was a little red frog with a sweet face sitting on his collar. It leapt from there to his shoulder and back in joyful little hops.

           Professor Flitwick looked down at a list in his hands. "Could you make it croak?"

              Luna tilted her head to the side and concentrated in charming just the right voice for the exuberant little creature. When she had done that the little Professor consulted his list again, making a number of marks before saying. "Well, Ms. Lovegood, you've demonstrated more than half of the possible charms I could have asked for already, would you like to make it a complete list by demonstrating the rest?"

             Luna did so happily, and as she had already finished the written component, she skipped out of the Hall and went to lie down in the centre of the Quidditch pitch on the lush grass so her frogs could hop off her robes and have a play.

          The air was cool and fresh. She closed her eyes and felt the stillness overtake her.  Busyness had crept up on her unawares, she wasn't used to having this weary ache in her muscles and in her mind.

            Perhaps she needed this time away regularly? Looking after her father wasn't a burden, but if the frogs on her robes needed this time to play, why had she forgotten that she might need the same?

            She opened her eyes at the sound of people approaching, there seemed to be a crowd of students arriving to watch some kind of game, but the only people carrying broomsticks were Harry and Draco. Luna felt the familiar tingle of Wrackspurts, but they didn't seem to be urging her to do anything malicious, so she conjured one of the frogs to hop towards them.

             “Look!” said Draco, darting forward and snatching it out of the grass. “It’s one of Luna’s frogs.”

              The green frog's golden stripes glittered in the sun as he held it up. Harry was watching him intently, a faraway look in his eye, “Give me the frog, Malfoy."

          Everyone settled into the stands to watch.
          Draco smirked, “I think it might need an adventure--” He leapt onto his broomstick, the frog clasped gently in his left hand, and took off. Hovering level with the uppermost stands he called, “Come and get it, Potter!”

             Harry grinned fiercely, kicked hard against the ground and soared upwards; his robes whipping out behind him — and there was a ferocious joy on his face as he climbed higher, turning sharply to face Draco in midair. “Give me the frog Malfoy,” Harry called, “or I’ll knock you off that broom!”

           “Oh, really?” Draco's smile was edged with something like malice, but a little softer...

            Then they were racing, diving, dipping, dodging one another with a practiced smoothness. Harry had his wand out and he flew level with Draco long enough to transfigure the frog into a snitch, that fluttered out of his hand and darted away.

                Draco's long pale neck was stretched out as he laughed. "Ah, it's a no holds barred competition is it?"
                He leaned forward and pointed his broom handle down — as Harry followed him he flicked a spell back towards him that bounced harmlessly off Harry's Protego shield.

                The next second he was gathering speed in a steep dive, they were dueling — wind whistling around them as they rose and fell. The screams and cheers of the people watching were increasing in volume as more and more students came to see the spectacle — Draco stretched out his hand — he caught the snitch, but didn't have time to shield himself from the stinging hex Harry had sent his way. His fingers sprang open and the snitch disappeared in a flash of gold.

              Draco pulled his broom up and transferred his wand to the other hand, whispering a spell that encased his hand in a golden glove that shimmered as brightly as the snitch.
                  "HEY! You haven't taught me that spell!" Harry shouted up at him.

          "No-one said we'd be evenly matched Potter!" Draco's response was breathless.

             Lying on her back watching them Luna was reminded of the time that her father had taken her on an international wilderness camping adventure. One evening they had witnessed two Eagles in a Death Spiral. The memory floated in her mind as the two of them soared up to a higher altitude than they had reached previously, she almost expected them to sprout talons, and begin tumbling and cartwheeling towards the ground locked together.

              She blinked in surprise as they remained completely human, because the spiraling dance they were tangled in was definitely some kind of amorous courtship ritual. The spells flew between them thick and fast and the snitch wove in and out. They spiralled closer and closer to the ground at breakneck speeds...

 “POTTER! MALFOY!" The strident voice cut across the cheering of the crowd and Professor McGonagall was running toward them, "GET DOWN HERE THIS INSTANT!"

 ---

Chapter Text

The poetry that comes from The squaring off between, And the circling is worth it. Finding beauty in the dissonance.

- TOOL 'Schism'

 ---

            Harry's body was still pumping with adrenaline from flying and dueling with Malfoy. There really was nothing in the world like it... at least nothing that he had ever experienced--- He made a concerted effort not to think about the Time Turner Room and a different sort of exhilaration. Even being shouted at all the way back to lunch, about reckless endangerment, had not dampened his enjoyment.

                 He was sandwhiched between Neville and Ron who were recounting particularly intense moments of the duel to the others, like Hermione, who didn't watch it. The meals were being served on picnic mats out in the sunshine so that the Hall could stay set up for examinations. Hermione had a textbook open in her lap and frowned at them for wasting time between the exams on playing around. As Hermione began a diatribe on the benefits of study and reflection, Luna was whispering in McGonagall's ear.

           After a moment Luna stood and used a Sonorous charm to project her voice across the picnic. "My Darlings, it is well known that anxiously cramming our minds full of more facts whilst waiting for exams is counterproductive. It is much more effective to be able to feel free, dreamlike, relaxed..."

            "Get to the point, Miss Lovegood."

              Luna blinked her protuberant eyes in McGonagall's direction and continued in the same manner. "For our minds to function at their sharpest we need to feel fluid and unwound... to this end, I have gained the Headmistresses permission to have an after dinner music and dance event..."

            "For one hour only!"

              "Yes, unfortunately for only one hour... but, even so, much good can be done in an hour..." said Luna serenely. "And who better to host this event than Draco Malfoy..."

              A group of girls on the mat nearest Harry squealed in delight, while Hermione muttered about "...all the useless, time wasting ideas..."

                The History of Magic exam was one that Harry had not been looking forward to. Sitting there staring at the possible essay questions his heart sank down to his toes. He was fairly certain that he only knew one or two things about each event, so barely enough to fill an inch of parchment.

               As he laboured through his second paragraph, wracking his brain for relevant information he saw that Luna and Malfoy --- who had been writing rapidly since the moment they sat down --- were already returning their parchments to the dais where Professor Binns was floating. Harry nearly growled in frustration. He eked out one more painful paragraph and then threw down his quill. He had never been able to write eloquently, even when he had a solid grasp of a subject, perhaps it was better to give this up as a lost cause and make sure any job he went for in the future did not require a NEWT in History...

               He had just started to shift out of his seat when he saw Hermione glare over at him and he knew he would never live it down if he gave up now. With a sigh he mustered up some information about another topic with tenuous relevance to the question and continued to write.

---

               Dinner was just finishing when two corporeal Patronuses appeared, calling out: "If you want to dance --- follow the lights..." and dozens of colourful lights sprang into being in their trail.

                 Crowds of students surged to their feet in a clamour of conversation and swept through the corridors, to an unusual door that was held open by an enormous potted plant strung with fairy lights. Music was already pouring into the hallway and carrying them into the cavernous room. No-one had seen a room like this at Hogwarts at any point in the past. The sound projected in the space like a concert theatre from a raised stage where two luminescent figures were moving in time to the music playing from one of the many record players around the stage.
                      The female dancer was wearing a short, sleeveless top, and form hugging skirt of flourescent colours, that left her long midriff on display. She had colourful bands of fabric woven around her forearms and multiple anklets on her slim legs. Her hair was white in the lights, and threaded with baubles that bounced as she moved. The music changed and she raised a Muggle style microphone to her mouth:
"Stand up like a soldier baby
Yeah, I know you're built like that
Gun it like a holster babe
Shouldn't see you weaken like that

Whenever the war is raging
Chasing our crazy dreams
Hoping that the bridge won't cave in
Tonight we'll let it all go free
Gimme the thing and make me rock, another dance..."

                 As she began the chorus, the tide of youths that had surrounded the stage began to scream in excitement and start moving their limbs wildly in time to the beat. The young male dancer was laughing at the spectacle and spoke for a second, "You sound like girls at a Bieber concert!"

                 At the sound of his smooth, posh voice the screams took on a decidedly high pitched squeal, but he just shook his blonde head, raised his mike and affected a slightly ridiculous accent to join hers.. " They wanna tame your desire
But you light it up
Your aims getting higher I dey wait for messiah
But until that day i'ma rise up high
  I put my light in the air..."

             He reached up a hand and the darkness overhead burst into sparks of colour that hung in the darkened ceiling flashing over the room in hypnotic time. The louder the crowd got, the more the music pumped over their noise.

It was at this moment that Harry realised the true genius of the way Draco Malfoy was presenting himself to the world; by embracing the ridiculous, the ironic, the strange -- he was exposed to less ridicule than those who took themselves too seriously.

                He watched from further back, close to the walls of the room. There were low couches surrounded with tables overloaded with Muggle magazines full of gossip, fashion and speculations about Muggle celebrities. These circles were hosting the shy, uncertain, or exasperated; who had been drawn along by the crowd, but were watching the undulating mass of people skeptically. Hermione Granger had flung herself onto a couch and thrown up a silencing charm around it. She was immersed in a textbook on Arithmancy but would look up at the darkened parts of the room with disapproval now and again.

             Just outside her circle of silence Harry and Ron leaned up against the back of a couch.

                Seamus approached them from the dance floor, breathless. "Can you believe that is Luna Lovegood?? Merlin! Who knew she could be hot?"

Ron coughed, and threw a surreptitious glance at Hermione, who thankfully wasn't listening.

            "They look like they have danced together before don't they? But how, is that..."

                 Parvati Patil was standing nearby looking disgruntled, "I heard that she started showing up at the WWN to see him and he just let her in to the studio with him! No other fan was allowed near him... not that I'd know if many tried of course..."

Harry hid a smile. He was grateful that no-one seemed to be watching him at all because he couldn't tear his eyes away from Malfoy. They were moving quickly through different songs and styles, not letting anything play out til the very end. Malfoy had just put down the microphone and flicked his wand at another record player when Luna disappeared down the steps.

            Harry saw her moments later near the door speaking to McGonagall who seemed to be offering her some school robes. Luna's smile was dreamy as she shook her head and mouthed something before walking away. Harry was surprised to find her small cool hands tugging at him a moment later and he let her guide him onto the dancefloor.

             "I've heard it mentioned that you're a good dancer, Harry!" Luna spoke directly into his ear as she wove through the crowd.

              When he realized suddenly where she was leading him, he tried to back away, but he felt himself propelled abruptly onto the stage. Draco was looking just as surprised as he felt as Luna was lifting a mike and saying airily. "We can't have Harry standing by..."

             The crowd shouted their approval. "Let's find him something to dance to shall we?"
             She flicked her wand at a new record and Harry watched Draco’s cheeks flush with colour as he glared at her. The thought that Draco might have talked about him, that he must have mentioned teaching Harry to dance to this song, made Harry so happy that he felt a rueful grin spreading across his lips; with a slight laugh, and a roll of his eyes at Luna, he started to dance.

It was just as he remembered.

            Dancing with Draco was charged with a static electricity that sparked through the air and tingled the senses. Luna wove her way through them. Her skirt swishing as she swayed and bounced. But Harry was alive to all of Draco’s motions and glances. His heart thrummed to the beat; it was like flying again,like dueling, this instinctive pull and push.

          Time passed too quickly as the songs moved them ever forward. Harry had nearly forgotten where they were, and the hundreds of eyes on them when the darkness suddenly lifted, the flashing lights went out and the warm yellow glow of lanterns took over.

        The absence of sound felt startlingly loud.
         "The hour is up! Thank-you for that interesting ---display." McGonagall's nose was crinkled in distaste. "Everyone may return to their rooms and finish their studies now."

 The chorus of groans and pleas for more music rolled through the room but the Professor stood firm, and slowly people began to trickle from the room. Harry’s heart began to pound with a different kind of nervousness as he turned to Malfoy. "Ah... so... are you staying tonight?"

             "Yes Potter, I think you'll find that all the seventh years will stay until the end of exams." Malfoy drawled.

            "Um... do you want to..."

            Malfoy looked at him consideringly, then moved closer... "If you are trying to find a way to come crawl into my bed, Potter." His whisper tingled in Harry's ear. "You'll have to use your map..."

          He didn't wait to see Harry's reaction, just turned and stalked down the stairs into a waiting crowd of witches grasping magazines for him to sign...

 ---

Chapter Text

Before I make the offering
Remember all the faces that I've seen
Now all the marks have settled on my skin
From all the different places that I've been
That I've been...

And I feel the light for the very first time
Not anybody knows that I am lucky to be alive
War inside my mind
Behind my eyes, is coming down
And for the thousandth time
I feel too numb to even mind

~ AURORA

---

              A tall, good looking boy had corned Luna by the statue of the one eyed witch. His eyes were roving over her body as he spoke at length on a topic that she couldn't quite grasp the value of "...So whaddya reckon? I'd be happy to show you..." He finished.

             She regarded him curiously. "You'd be happy to show me this 'special edition'? Hmmm... to be honest I'm not sure that my readership would be all that interested in your broom... perhaps you could approach one of the Quidditch magazines if it is so very distinctive..."

           An amused cough came from behind the statue and the boy fled as Luna approached a figure seated in a deep window embrasure.

             "Hello Blaise, are you reading something funny?"

              "No actually, forgive my crudeness, but you do realize that young gentleman was offering to show you his genitals, don't you?"

                Her large eyes widened past their perpetual expression of surprise; into one of wonder, "Really? How fascinating... I guess all the other boys who stopped me on my way, were also trying to..." Her soft voice trailed off before coming back stronger. "Well! It has taken me an hour to reach this spot! Surely SOME of them had genuine business to discuss with me?"

            Blaise laughed wholeheartedly now, standing up. "So, you don't think it had to do with your little transformation?" He waved his hand at her outfit.

                 Luna looked at him blankly. "I don't look much different... I often wear these colours... Maybe they recognised the pattern? I modelled it after Shakira's outfit when she sang at the world cup a few years ago..."

                 "And I take it that is some kind of Muggle reference?"

                      "Oh, have you not heard of Shakira? Do you not listen to Draco's radio show?"

                  Blaise's dark eyes were steady and serious. "The recent fascination of the Wizarding community with Muggle artefacts is not shared by any in my household..."

               "So, did you not come to the dance?"

                He shrugged, "As to that, I don't think there was a student in the school who didn't attend. My mother would be impressed, a Lovegood pulling together the 'Event of the Season'..."

                 Luna was thinking. "You still think that Muggles and Muggleborns are not as good as other people then?" She didn't ask in an accusing way, rather it seemed a question of rationale.

             Blaise frowned but spread his hands placatingly, "I realise that the war was fought very much on those grounds, and I was careful to stay out of it, as far as I was able... I have no particular interest in Muggles either way."

             Swishing her skirt gently she smiled. "But you like pretty things don't you? I know that's why you never usually speak to me. I will never be beautiful like Ginny Weasley... or Shakira even, but it doesn't stop me from liking pretty things... and maybe, you will start to like Muggles when you see what pretty things they make..."

                  "Well, your logic is... confusing..."

                  "Confusion is the first step." Luna’s steps bounced as she waved goodbye...

                ---

                  Draco sat on his bed, fresh from his shower, sipping a cup of tea as he leafed through the Arithmancy text they would be tested on the next day. His mind was only half attentive, the other half was alternating between panic that he had totally misinterpreted Potter's overtures, and terrified nerves that he had guessed right.

He didn't have to wait long to find out. Through the one way Silencing Charm he could hear the door open and shut, and the pad of bare feet. Potter slipped through the curtain and settled cross legged on the bed.

Aurora played quietly into the heavy air between them...

Potter opened his mouth to speak but Draco held up a preemptive hand. "If this is about the owls... I don't answer them. Just like you don't sign autographs, or pose for pictures..."

"---but you must use owls sometimes!"

"No Potter. I do not. My solicitor handles all correspondence. I sign letters, I sign autographs. I do not write letters."

"But that's, just... it makes no sense!"

Draco crossed his arms, "When did I ever promise to be comprehendable? There was never any undertaking between us. You could easily have come to find me, if you required my assistance, or company..."

"Why are you making me feel like I'm to blame Malfoy! I reached out at least? You haven't tried to see me!"

Draco studied his nails as nonchalantly as possible, "Unlike you, I am perfectly aware of the fact that there can be no ---friendship --- between myself and the Chosen One."

Potter was gaping at him, "That's ridiculous! I dont even know... but... then why did you practically invite me to..."

He flailed to a stop as Draco reached out and grasped his knee, allowing a little of the intensity of feelings buzzing through him to show on his face.
"You came under your cloak didn't you? And I'll bet you haven't told anyone about our ---interactions--- during the war... so somewhere in that thick skull is an awareness that this cannot happen!"

Potter's moss green eyes blinked at him through the lenses of his ridiculous glasses. Draco looked away for a moment and ran his fingertips across the blanket in front of him. "That said... it doesn't mean that we... well..." He paused and their eyes met and held. "What was it you said before the Time Turner Room?... Just have one moment of peace?"

Green eyes were holding him, pinning him down. Totally silent but drawing the words out of him. "Sometimes I want that too, --- Harry... so just for tonight?"

The puff of air from Harry's lips brushed against his own. He looked conflicted, torn up by some internal quandry. Draco's fingers moved slowly to brush against the brown skin of the tantalising collarbone peeking out of Harry’s t-shirt.

"Always so dismally presented, Potter..." he said. Shakily running his hand through Harry's ridiculous hair.

The dark haired teen was breathing fast, his body quivering slightly, strung tight. The short breaths were cut even shorter as Draco leaned in and brushed his lips over the space where the air was escaping. Harry made an incoherent sound and smashed himself forward, all tongue and teeth and grasping hands.

There was a desperation in their movements, like there had been in those stolen hours of Time. But this was a desperation that wasn't borne of a desire for one last experience before death. This was the gasping of the drowning man for air, the hoarse cries of extreme thirst, the taste of food after months of starvation...

The night was a blur of open mouths, entangled bodies, pressure and release. They didn't speak until the early hours of the morning when Draco said gruffly. "Make sure you know, Potter, these teenage fumblings are not the start of some grand love affair..."

---

                  Having finally shepherded all of the students out of the Room of Requirement, George reflected that the hour of music had been one of the most pleasurable that he'd experienced in the past months of life without Fred.

               People said that time healed pain, but George was finding the opposite to be true. Every day he felt like he was sinking deeper into the sluggish emptiness of his inner self. He did his best outwardly to present his usual demeanor to the world. But there had never been untruths between him and Fred, so in the hours that he spent at the graveside he didn't speak. He just let down his guard. He stopped pretending that he was okay; sometimes he curled up in the foetal position under a disillusionment spell and sobbed.

              Other times he stared vacantly into the distance feeling numb. Still other times he would whisper to Fred all the things that were hovering in his mind. "I should have died instead of you. You were the better half of me. You were the one who made pranks playful instead of cruel, the one who paused to think about the wellbeing of the people we tested new potions on. The one who knew how to back off when something went too far..."

            The darkest moments were when he lay there envisaging the ways he could join Fred.

                   Avada Kedavra was painless, but you had to mean it completely, there could be no small part of you fighting for life.

              Heavy rocks --- the lake. Flying from the astronomy tower --- broomless.

                A potion... this was the one that teased him and coaxed him. The idea brewing of a fatal version of Dreamless Sleep...

              When his mind began to walk those circles he forced himself to get up. He would find Snape and do something to irritate him.

                    It wasn't like pranking really... It was finding the person who had the least to live for, who had no loved ones, no mentor, no cause, no prospects; and seeing his eyes flash with life, anger or frustration. When he saw that spark in Snape's eyes, somehow it lent him a tiny ember to hold back the darkness.

                 Returning to his room after supervising the dance, George felt the familiar lethargy swoop over him. As though he were being punished for the moment of pleasure by a double dose of his usual sadness. By the time he reached the door of his room he was struggling to breathe.

              His eyes were heavy; on fire with holding back tears, his fingers shook, and a great feeling of exhaustion overwhelmed him. He just wanted the pain to stop. He couldn't do this, this half life. He wasn't strong enough.

                 The gaping hole at his side, in every conversation, in every experience, in every hope for the future. He knew, in that moment, that if he walked through the door he would do it. He would find the vial he had hidden, he would drink it slowly, and lie down to sleep. His breath left him in a rush and he reached for the door handle.

                   He paused as he heard the familiar swish of robes behind him, with the absence of footsteps, that indicated Snape was heading for his room. His heart began to clang in his chest as if demanding one last effort, like an alarm ringing loudly when the whole body is aching and sinking into the bed.

              With a huge amount of effort he raised his head and met Snape's unreadable gaze. He couldn't speak. Nothing came to mind that he could do or say to bring anger to the impassive face.

              Yet somehow Snape seemed to know. He advanced on him, a black draped figure of menance. "Mr. Weasley" he sneered, "your efforts as a poltergeist are sadly underwhelming if you can't come up with a greeting or a hex. Peeves would be ashamed of you."

             "I know" George whispered hoarsely. "He'd be so ashamed..."

                They both knew that it wasn't Peeves they were speaking of. Snape stayed silent.

                George leaned his forehead against his closed bedroom door, letting his fingers drop from thehandle. "Sometimes I hate you, you know? --- What do you have to live for? You couldn't have planned to survive the war. You must have worse memories than me... more sorrows, less joys... and yet you keep going? Surrounded by false admirers, or people who fear you... How can I feel this... when you cope..."

              Snape’s face was whiter than ever, but he spoke matter of factly. "I can see why I would be easy to hate."
          He turned the handle to George's room and pushed past him inside. He began stalking around the room peering into cupboards and drawers. Uncorking vials he sniffed them and continued his purposeful pacing.

             "What are you doing?" George asked listlessly. His long lanky limbs were weighty as he descended onto the bed, as though through stagnant water.

              "I think you know. You would make it easier if you tell me." Snape looked at him directly and spoke. "George Weasley, are you talking about suicide?"

             The word smashed into the air between them. Confronting. Hideous. And true. No-one had ever spoken to him like this. Not directly, without shame. People had tiptoed around it, but it wasn't something you talked about out loud. Hearing the question, was like a freeing weight of acceptance. Snape wasn't surprised. He wasn't disgusted. He was there.

                George let out a rush of air and turned his head. The flash of midnight black eyes that met his ignited the small ember of hope again...

               One part of him, screamed, not to tell, but the glimmering ember sparked on the side of life. "There's a hidden compartment in the wardrobe. Tap twice..."

              Snape went directly to the wardrobe and soon removed the hidden vial. He sniffed it delicately. "Hmmm... This is well made... it would have taken some time."

                   "Yeah, three months... but the process helps too I think... the feeling that the end could be only months away... makes the days easier."

                 The black gaze didn't waver at this confession, he twirled the vial between his long pale fingers, examining it in the yellow light from the lamps. "You've always been quite talented at potions... It's probably why I found you both so insufferable."

                A humourless laugh escaped George's lips. "We didn't do half of the things we planned either, there was a whole list at Hogwarts. It changed when we left... but it was still there, just unwritten."

               Snape hovered, almost uncertainly, and then lowered himself on to the desk chair. "Tell me about them. One of the ones you planned but were unable to execute..."

          His voice had changed since the snake bite, it was still low and dark, but where it used to be smooth as silk, now it was husky and rough. It sent a shiver up George's spine, but he understood what Snape was trying to do so he closed his eyes, lay back on the bed and made himself speak.

                   "Well, B.S., you understand that telling a Professor of our dastardly plans was the height of treachery... but lets see... There was one that we attempted a number of times but could never succeed in..." He cracked an eye open and made a halfhearted attempt at leering. "Seducing a professor... we tried with McGonagall of course, took it in turns to woo her... but you can imagine how that went."

                There was an unusual expression on Snape's face, his lips were tilted upwards and his eyes crinkled ever so slightly. It took George a moment to realise it was a smile. He rolled onto his side so he could see it better.

              "We made one last effort though. We managed to sneak into her rooms, and fill her bed with rose petals. Then Fred stripped down to his pants and I painted him in McGonagall's favourite chocolate..." The memory made him choke with longing, and relief at the same time. "She wasn't impressed, I can't remember how many detentions we got that time. We tried again with Sprout, Vector, Burbage, with just as little success. Fred was always the most effective, I think he could make people believe him. B-because he wasn't always laughing at them, he was just mucking about, but in a, a --sincere sort of way. I was always mocking, even when I tried to make it come out kind. The Professor we got the furthest with was Trelawny actually. Fred even kissed her! But he fell for Angelina the next day and couldn't go back..."

            Snape was regarding him with a hint of amusement, his stance relaxed, unassuming. Watching him George felt the lethargy lift slightly and a whiff of mischievousness waft over him. He sat up slowly, watching Snape’s eyes narrow to slits the longer his gaze held.

             "Hmmm... maybe we were barking up the wrong tree though..." His heavy body seemed to lighten with the prospect of playfulness. Cruelty perhaps... "You have a thing for redheads don't you?"

               The eyes that were squinting at him widened in horror, and a real laugh bubbled up in George's chest. He moved towards Snape in a fluid, hip rolling step. "Come now Sev, we're all adults here, there's no need to deny our natural urges."

              "Mr Weasley..." his voice was a warning. But it only sparked George's curiosity and daring. Seeing the best way to keep him there George leapt onto his lap and swung his arms around Snape’s neck. "Huh, your hair isn't greasy after all... How is that? Is it charmed to look like it's dripping in oil? ... I mean... you're so charming Sev. I'd love you to rub me in oil..."

---

                  With a lapful of a gingerhaired man half his age, Severus found himself in a position he had never been in before. If having George carry him, and touch his scar had played on his mind for months, what would this do to him? Feeling him pressed into his lap, strong arms locked around his neck, fingers entwined in his hair. Severus was finding it hard to breathe, hard to think, just --- quite hard in general... Which he hoped would not make itself too obvious.

          "Is that the sort of thing you like Sev? Oil? Massage? Or do you prefer a quickie on a stone wall? Or a steamy room full of cauldrons?" George's face was very close; he was looking delighted and truly animated for the first time that Severus had seen since the first of May.

                  That was frankly, terrifying.

                  Severus stood up abruptly, dumping George onto the floor made his way directly to the door. The sound of George laughing followed him out.

                  His room was cold and empty, but he resisted the urge to cast a warming charm. There was no use in going soft. It was softness that had prompted him to follow George Weasley into his room. And look where that had taken him.

                He looked down at the forgotten vial clutched in his hand. It was a dangerous but beautiful substance. It felt wrong to destroy something that took such precision to create, but to keep it was to dance the line of death. So he smashed the vial into the fireplace and vanished its remains.

              Something happened to George after that night. Whether it was having a new goal in his plan to wreak havoc in Severus' life, or whether it was having hit rock bottom and lived through it... It was enough to pull him out of bed earlier than he had been managing these last months, and the object of his intentions could not have been more ungrateful for the attention.

           The wards on Severus' bedroom door were stronger now, but not excessive or noticeable...

         So it took two days before George was able to shove it open and breeze into the room whistling. "Wow! Sev! If I had realised you did your rigorous routine in only your pants --- I woulda woken up early months ago."

              Severus grimaced but managed not to pause. Thankfully, these push-ups were the last of his workout, so he was able to finish quickly, cast an uncomfortable cleaning charm and throw on his robes. Seated on his bed, looking him up and down, George smiled, "You've been holding out on us Brave Sev, if your fans knew the physique you're hiding under those robes, you might get better titles than Valiant!"

                 "You're up early." It wasn't his best response, but he hoped it might sidetrack the other man for a moment or two. Severus' skin was prickling all over from George's perusal and he stalked to the door, "You may make it to breakfast for once."

                    "So sweet to have noticed my eating habits, BS. I normally have to make do with an apple during First Period, but today I'll have even more energy than usual."

             As they kept pace in the hallway, Severus was intensely aware of the way their shoulders brushed, but he managed a sneer. "I hate to think what you might manage to do with that..."

                  George moved closer for a moment and cooed into his ear. "I can think of a few things, how 'bout you?"

Chapter Text

I found no cure for the loneliness
I found no cure for the sickness
Nothing here feels like home
Crowded streets, but I'm all alone
Now I'm so far that it feels like it's all gone to pieces
Tell me why the world never fights fair
I'm trying to find
 Home
A place where I can go
 To take this off my shoulders
 Someone take me home
Someone take me
~ Machine Gun Kelly, X Ambassadors & Bebe Rexha ~

---

               The quiet breathing of the fat ginger cat curled up in her lap, was just the calming soundtrack that Hermione needed for her morning, at her office desk in the Ministry of Magic. Her night had been marred by dreams, nightmares and memories. Not all of them were unpleasant, but certainly unbidden.

            A stack of books and parchments were towering on the table beside her, a cold tea in a china teacup sat neglected at her elbow. Ministry Apprenticeships were quite bizarre things, and Hermione found herself in the secretorial staff of Ms Paula Zabini in her new role as Secretary to the Minister for Arts and Entertainment. Ms Zabini's role was an extremely ambiguous thing, and she could probably do what she liked. Hermione, herself, couldn’t wait to sink her teeth into a more challenging apprenticeship than this secretarial one, it was thoroughly boring her... when it wasn’t driving her mad.

                   Ever since the war had ended, and Hermione had collected Crookshanks from the Burrow, the cat had refused to leave her side. If she sat down, he would leap immediately onto her lap, if she lay down, he would curl up at her feet, purring like a motor boat. He followed her to the Ministry every day, sat at her office desk, and joined in on her sessions with her Mentor (who was thankfully more competent than the Secretary or the Minister in their office!).

            Even when she had taken an International Portkey to see her family in Australia, Crookshanks had somehow attached himself to her and come too. She had found herself grateful for his company when she had finally been reunited with her parents, and the reunion hadn’t been quite how she expected. The Grangers seemed happier than they had ever been. They had been warmly embraced by the large Sudanese refugee community in their town, and her mother was reconnecting with the culture of her childhood in a way that she never had before.

                When her maternal grandparents had fled to England, Hermione’s mother - Nadia Abrar Dengdit - had done her best to immerse herself in her new British identity, assimilating in every way possible, so that by the time Nadia Granger gave birth to her daughter, very little of her African heritage was reflected in their lifestyle. As the Grangers introduced Hermione to the life they had built for themselves in Australia, she was overwhelmed by a bittersweet awe that Theo had some how managed to find them a place to hide that so completely suited them.

             As much as they had fitted into their new community, Hermione and Crookshanks were like fish out of water, and the conversations she had with her parents turned in awkward circles of misunderstanding. In trying to explain her own role in their abduction and relocation, she could see that they would never fully understand how she could have taken away their choice, in that way.

                There was a new wall between them, that she had never expected or envisaged. Despite her parents’ pleas for her to stay, she had returned to the house in Hampstead Heath, and her Apprenticeship at the Ministry. She had begun her apprenticeship, as newly graduated students always did, on the lowest rungs of the secretarial system; her time, her work and her office - none of them felt like her own.

                 The home of her childhood no longer felt like her own, either. It felt cavernous and empty without her parents. Although she knew that Harry would give her a room at Grimmauld Place, and Ron would be keen to find a flat together (even though he hadn’t come right out an asked her out yet), Hermione had felt such a strong need to be alone for a while. Books had been her only friends for many years, and they were a comfort to her now in the tumult of her emotions after the war.

               So she floated around the empty house, bustled through meaningless paperwork, drank endless cups of tea, and used every spare second to study for her apprenticeship interviews in Arithmancy and Politics. She wasn’t sure yet if she would have to continue the generic secretarial duties she was doing at the Ministry, or whether they would allow her to go straight into the more challenging areas after her interviews.

              When her NEWT results had been delivered, she was pleasantly surprised to see how well she had done in all of her classes. Hearing her relief Ron had burst out laughing, “It’s always the same with you ‘Mione! You’re the only one who is ever surprised to find out you’ve got top grades in everything!"

          The main subject she hadn’t been certain of was Arithmancy, and thinking about it would always bring back to her mind the night before the Arithmancy NEWT examination. She had dreamed about it so vividly, that as she drifted back into her memory, it was almost like stepping into a Pensieve...

---

                 The bubble of silence surrounding Hermione had taken on a physical presence. She could feel that she was being petty, perhaps even childish, but she could not believe that there was a Dance Party! Of all things! The night before her Arithmancy exam! Not to mention all the other remaining NEWT examinations that they hadn't yet completed that weekend. But Arithmancy was worrying her the most. It was a subject that didn't have easy applicability to her apprenticeship at the Ministry and she hadn't been able to devote much time to it over the past months.

                   She did her best to concentrate on the text in her lap, but after half an hour she gave up and shoved everything back into her bag. She contemplated keeping the Silencing Charm up but decided she had been churlish long enough and quickly ended it. The barrage of sound that hit her ears made her physically cringe and she struggled to relax her shoulders and walk over to where Ron was standing with Neville and Parvati. They were watching and laughing hysterically as Harry was dragged onto the stage by a determined Luna.

         Hermione stood nearby awkwardly, watching the three teens on stage begin dancing to a new song. She felt so antsy and uncertain in her own skin that she spun on her heel and left, without informing anyone. She would be surprised if anyone noticed.

              If the past months since the Battle of Hogwarts had taught her anything, it was that life had been easier to interpret when she was living under the Disguise Charm and only recognisable to a handful of people. Then, at least, it made total sense when people ignored her, rebuffed her, or lost interest in the things she had to say, but now, there was no apparent reason for the way she continued to find herself on the sidelines in every social situation.

                  She just didn't understand the social norms that everyone else seemed to find so easy. She marched through the empty hallways with an appearance of purposefulness that was entirely fabricated. She had just passed an empty window when she heard a voice calling her name. Wand drawn she spun on her heel, but lowered it at the sight of Theodore Nott standing directly behind her, leaning on the window frame.

         "Theo? How did you get here so quick? I didn't even hear footsteps?"

            His impassive face seemed to flicker slightly, only the tiniest show of expression that could mean anything; concern, deliberation, anxiety, ---or the moment of trying to formulate an untruth. When he spoke, his voice was so quiet that she had to take a step closer to hear him.

                 "You seem unsettled... Upset... I wasn't going to show you I was here but... Are you okay?"

              To Hermione's surprise the slight concern in his carefully blank voice was her undoing and she burst into tears. Unladylike, shoulder-shaking, chest-heaving tears that made her sob and gasp.

             Theo didn't speak, or even react, but his warm hands closed over hers and he drew her sideways towards the empty window seat, pressing his hand to the wall. ---And suddenly she found herself entering a private sanctuary of warmth, colour, and the scent of ink and parchment.

           Through the tears blurring her eyes she saw towering bookshelves carved into the stone, packed with books of all shapes and sizes; worn wooden handled drawers were scattered between shelves, and several were crammed so full that small corners of parchment or feather poked through.

           A transparent Arithmancy diagram hovered in the air nearby, slowly rotating and drawing Hermione's attention immediately. Theo had released her hands and calmly seated himself a few feet away from her on the long blue cushion that ran along the window and under a narrow desk of polished wood that gleamed darkly from beneath several stacks from beneath several stacks of parchment and other stationary.

           Theo didn't attempt to question her about her outburst, or repeat what he had said in the hallway about being concerned about her. He simply returned his gaze to the hovering diagram and withdrew his wand to tweak one small section while her tears slowed and eventually abated. Then he turned his steady dark gaze on her, pupils barely visible in the blackness of his eyes. "That was the first time you've cried since the Battle."

         It wasn't a question but she nodded anyway, her voice breathy and hoarse. "Yes. I have no idea why I erupted just then! I didn't even feel like I needed to cry like that, I mean, I've been making room in my life for grief, being careful to talk about my feelings, noting and writing down the times that I feel overburdened..."

            "Very efficient and logical of you."

            "Well exactly! So why on earth would I throw a ---a fit in the Hogwarts hallway like an overgrown toddler!"

             Theo was silent for a moment, then he looked down. Only the gentle tapping of his wand on his knee gave away a hint of possible discomfort. "Would you like to talk about what triggered it tonight?"
                   "Arithmancy." Hermione answered without missing a beat. "Everyone wanted to go to that --that---ridiculous Dance, and I, I felt out of place again, that I just wanted to do this." She waved a hand towards his diagram.

                 The slightest hint of a smile hovered around his eyes, but his voice was unchanged, quiet and serious. "Being 'in place', or a part of things, ---that is important to you?"

              "Well yes, I think everyone wants to belong somewhere, to have other people understand them, notice them, and... -well, make sense!"

           Theo nodded but his eyes were far away. "That, I can't help you with. But we could do some revision if you'd like?"

             Hermione took in a shuddery breath and turned her attention back to the diagram, letting the soothing flow of curiosity flood through her mind and gently supress the emotions and questions that churned through her.

          After an hour, when the diagrams were blurring before her eyes she put down the books and had to acknowledge that she was as prepared as she would ever be for the exam. 

           Her eyes turned to Theo then, noticing the weariness around his eyes. Of the fifteen nights she had promised to spend in his bed, she had only managed eight. Just over half way. The last few nights together had been during their trip to Australia. They hadn't spoken about it again since Theo had left to begin his Auror training.

         "How am I going to fulfill the rest of the Unbreakable Vow, Theo."

---

              Hermione's attention was suddenly returned to the present, by a flurry of activity in the hallway... She flung open the nearest book, and did her best to drive the thought of Theo's unreadable eyes and implacable face from her mind. Paula Zabini never arrived at the Ministry until after nine,  when everyone else had been at work for at least an hour. Her appearance on the scene was advertised, even to those in remote offices, by the unusual amount of commotion heard throughout the building.

               Paula's entrances always commanded attention. It was not that she deliberately staged them: merely, her personality was rather overpowering, her movements as impetuous as her vivid, elegant, face. She was stunningly pretty, in the style made popular by Beyoncé, with thick, springy hair, full lips, a curvaceous body, and dark eyes set widely under discontented brows.

           There was an air of urgency about her; you could see it in her restless movements, in the sudden glow in her changeable eyes, and in the hungry line of her mouth. She had a beautiful voice, like a stringed instrument. It was mellow, and flexible, and made all the voices around her sound clipped, metallic and common.

           Hermione tidied up the paperwork on her desk as she awaited Paula's entrance.  Crookshanks shifted in her lap and gave out a tiny growl of disapproval as the door opened.

            “Miss Granger! Darling!”
             “Ms Zabini!” Hermione exclaimed, pasting on a smile.

             Paula chuckled, deep in her throat. “Don’t pretend to be glad to see me! I promise I won’t be here long! I’m after the paperwork for entrepreneurship, and private funding.”

            She blinked her thick lashes, and laughed, and said conspiratorially: “ I've brought Will.”

              “Who is Will?” asked Hermione succinctly. There was a disconcerting flash of emotion, and the beautiful dark eyes blazed. “One day no one will ask that question!”

             “Pending that day,” said Hermione, calmly looking through a stack of parchments, “who is Will?”

       “Will Roydon. He has written a play…” It was strange how much that throbbing voice and those fluttering hands could express.

  Crookshanks yawned, stretched and jumped off Hermione’s lap as she said: “Oh? An unknown genius?”

“So far! But this play – ! Producers are such fools! We must have backing. Once he has the right paperwork, I plan to present him to the Minister, surely when he reads it, it will win his heart.” Paula said, impatiently pushing back the hair from her brow. “It's art, Miss Granger! Oh! When you have read it – !”

             “Art plus a part for you?” murmured Hermione.

            Paula’s expression didn’t change. “Yes. A part. Such a part! It was written for me. He says I inspired it. Of course I hardly would have time to perform it, with my new role, but it quite fits in with the Arts and Entertainment Department, doesn’t it?”

            Hermione reflected that this was true. She handed over a stack of papers, “Here you go Secretary Zabini.”

            Paula looked down at the stack with a slight pout in her face... “Hmmm... I don’t suppose you could fill these out for me? And come with me to present the idea to Nathaniel Herriard on Friday?”

             Hermione forced herself to nod agreeably, and spent the rest of her day rushing through the pointless paperwork so that she could delve back into her actual study.

---

               Harry arrived home from Hogwarts to the sound of Teddy wailing in the kitchen, Andromeda was holding him awkardly, trying unsuccessfully to calm him. When Teddy saw Harry he cried harder than ever, until he was in Harry's arms, when his sobs faded and were replaced by hiccups.

               "Molly just left," said Andromeda stiffly. "He's been fine most of the weekend. I'm off in five minutes, but I'll be back in time for dinner." She leaned in to kiss Teddy's soft dark hair, and the baby latched on to Harry's neck more tightly with his chubby arms.

               Harry felt his heart constrict almost painfully with affection as he carried Teddy into the garden and settled down to coax him into a good mood. Whispering love and nonsense to him, blowing raspberries on his round belly, watching his hair change from soft red curls to black ones and back.

               The last two nights with Draco felt like a dream, or a memory from long ago. He couldn’t picture Draco here in the garden with him, shirt damp from baby spittle, knees grass stained. He thought of the photo the Prophet had printed of Draco following the dance; his face glowing with smears of glitter along his cheekbones, pale hair streaked with light, his movements seductive and yet mocking. His clothes outrageously tight and almost translucent. He was choosing to be scandalous rather than infamous. Preferring to craft his own image rather than accepting the opinions of others.

               In comparison Harry was staid and prematurely aged; his life was described in the media as "dedicated to his continued studies, in the long evening hours when his adopted child rests in peace and safety; never knowing the greatness of the man he will call Father. Content to use his prodigious magical skills as a single father for the time being, Harry Potter has confided his friends that the possibility of this simple life of domestic happiness is the reason he fought so heroically in the war..."

               Even the photo of Harry that they had procured from the dance showed him in his shapeless school robes being unwillingly propelled onto the stage, but graciously beginning a dance with Luna with a self deprecating smile.

               It wouldn't matter what was said of him, if it weren't for the fact that seeing his awkwardness showcased alongside Draco's charming vivacity, halted all the tentative plans he had made --- of finding a way to insinuate himself into Draco’s life the way Luna had done.

               Malfoy's comments about teenage fumbling suddenly took on new meaning in his mind and he felt his cheeks burn at the thought that perhaps Draco saw him more truely than anyone else. When it came to Draco, he was uncertain and bumbling. He wondered if their encounters had been amusing for Draco, how he had shyly tensed whenever their hands had wandered under clothing, or how he had come so quickly from the sheer delight of Draco’s body rubbing into him. The more he reflected on it the more true it seemed, and he forgot the small details like Malfoy's own reactions to him.

He stopped writing letters, but he couldn't stop the longing. The longing only seemed to deepen.

Chapter Text

Look, I been through so much pain
And it's hard to maintain, any smile on my face
'Cause there's madness on my brain
So I gotta make it back,
But my home ain't on the map
Gotta follow what I'm feeling to discover where it's at
I need the (memory)
In case this fate is forever, just to be sure these last days are better
And if I have any (enemies)
To give me the strength to look the devil in the face and make it home safe

~ Machine Gun Kelly, X Ambassadors & Bebe Rexha ~

 ---

                 The patchwork quilt in an upstairs bedroom at the Burrow was faded diagonally across from the sun slanting through the high windows to the right. Seated in the warm patch of light from the waning evening sun was a newly seventeen year old girl, her silky red hair running through pale fingers as she dropped her head into her hands.

             The image from the Daily Prophet of Draco Malfoy and Luna Lovegood dancing on stage with Harry had been looping through her mind over and over, like a memory circling through a faulty Pensieve. She knew she had no right to feel the irrational envy, jealousy and dislike that had been coursing through her. Harry had made it very clear that they would not be getting back together, and he'd been trying to reestablish a kind of brotherly camraderie that made her feel both nausea and longing.

               She would be returning to Hogwarts without him for seventh year, ---it felt surreal; even before first year it was as though he was the sun that they orbitted around. No matter who she tried to date or befriend, he was always more heroic, made her heart beat speed faster, more attractive and more interesting than any other boy she had ever met. She had settled for other boyfriends because she wanted to be desired, and loved. But she had matured enough to see that this wasn't fair to the boys who had true feelings for her. So she was determined not to fling herself into someone else's arms at Hogwarts, in order to try and forget Harry.

              She'd have to wait, and hope that the passion she still felt for him faded. In the meantime... she had one more night to do what she wanted, before returning to the confines of school. Harry’s birthday gift to her this year had the Patil twins' input stamped all over it; she drew the box out from under her bed and ran her fingertips over the fanciest clothes she had ever owned.

              They were specially designed Muggle clothes with several hidden-extension charmed pockets. One for a wand and another for Wizarding money or other items. The other gift that she would put to good use tonight was her present from George.

            He had astonished the entire family by disappearing on some sort of new fashioned Grand Tour of Muggle London instead of coming home during the nine week summer holidays. Ginny had a bit of an idea of the kind of things he'd been "Tour-ing", because the birthday present he gave her was a small rectangular Muggle cellphone, a plastic ID card that declared her Madeliene Clavel ---an eighteen year old Muggle girl, a children's book called Madeliene in London, a piece of cardboard with the address of a club where Muggles go to dance, and a small stack of Muggle money.

             She had cried for nearly an hour after opening his gift in the privacy of her room. She would never understand why George saw himself as the lesser twin. He didn't speak about it often, but when he did rarely open up, he would tell her that Fred was the one that kept them as close to "good" as they were able to be. When Fred died it was like all the goodness George had seen in himself was taken away. No-one else seemed to understand George's new fascination with Snape, but Ginny thought she did in a way. It seemed like he had chosen a new twin, a companion who seemed as dark as he felt.

               Ginny shook off her thoughts and stood up with a decisive flourish.

              This was her last night before she would have to do the impossible and settle into Hogwarts life without Harry. She was determined to live it to the full. She had a mission to accomplish.

            Long after dark, when all the household were sleeping, she slipped out of the house under a silencing charm and made her way to the address George had left for her. A pounding beat was vibrating in the air as she approached the venue and the two hulking men dressed in black at the roped off entry way. Throwing off the Silencing and Disillusionment Charms she shook back her hair, straightened her back and stepped forward with a confidence that was entirely fabricated.

             "Evening, Miss." One of the men motioned to her with a thick, beefy hand and she held out the plastic ID card, copying the manner of the stream of people she'd watched entering ahead of her. The fabric of her slinky clothes clung to her body exposing a surprising amount of white skin to the cool night air.

              She tapped her hidden wand pocket subconsciously as she extended her left hand for the stamp that would allow her to ascend the stairs. The atmosphere as she entered was electric and she was drawn into another world of light, sound, and movement.

              Circling the room she observed the way that people danced and interacted with one another; the ones who were obviously together, the ones who were hopeful of taking someone home for the night...friends, lovers, even a handful of people who looked to be her parents' age.

                  After a little while she followed someone to the bar and copied their order, ending up with a tall plastic glass filled with a chocolatey liquid that bit her throat when she swallowed. She could feel the smooth effects of the alcohol almost immediately and decided to enter the fray, dancing between sips. She moved through the evening on a cloud of adrenaline that even her slight self-consciousness about being there alone could not lower.

                 She mimicked the dancing around her, flirted with her eyes and her body, but only enough to draw someone's eyes and not their grasping hands. An older woman danced up against her provocatively and she joined in until the lady slid an arm around her and kissed her soundly. Ginny blinked as one of the woman's friends dragged her away, and shrugged to herself, kissing a woman had been pleasant, but there was no spark for her.

            It was then that she spotted her... Pansy Parkinson. Her gaze intense and derisive as she laughed at Ginny. She had the same confident swagger that Charlie had when he had just calmed a dragon. The haunted intensity in her eyes that Bill got when werewolves were mentioned. But there any resemblance to her brothers ended. Her hair was cropped short and sleek, pitch black. Tall, firmly muscled, with a hint of curves under a tiny red dress. She was drawing the attention of many of the men that she passed and she would dance with each one in a laughing way before weaving her way on through the crowd. Seeing a witch in this context just made her think of Harry. Suddenly all the other people in the club looked either plain or grotesque in comparison.

           Ginny's heart sank a little. She had already decided that she wanted to go home with someone; to have a passionate, completely physical experience with a Muggle man. But all the guys that she had been eyeing off as possibilities were suddenly not attractive enough to consider sleeping with. The French guy with the glasses was too short. The guy with the dreadlocks too pretentious and full of himself. The man dancing at her back was unappealing in every way.

       Why was it that she always did this?? Was it that she couldn't be satisfied with anything but the best, in any context? A song that she recognized from Draco's radio show began to play and a group of girls nearby squealed. She watched the way they swayed and squatted and rotated their hips to the beat. After a bit she began to copy them with a little laugh at herself.

             If her plan to have sex for the first time was likely to be thwarted, she was determined to at least learn as many dance moves as she could. All self-consciousness had fallen away by the time she danced her way close to the Pansy Parkinson. The moment their eyes met she felt a tingling and buzzing in her body that rivaled the way she had felt when Harry had won the Triwizard Tournament.

         In this case the emotion was a combination of fury and fascination. Everyone had heard about Parkinson's formal apology to Harry at the Seventh Year NEWT Exams. Despite this Parkinson continued to act the arrogant bitch in all other contexts. The way her eyes were skimming over Ginny now made her pause for a second.

           Taking the opportunity, she dropped seductively downwards and flicked her hair back as she rose. The move was almost successful but she was a little unstable on her spiky heels, and she laughed at herself when she tottered to the left, releasing Pansy's gaze and flushing a little at how ridiculous she must look. But the next time she glanced her way, Pansy's eyes were on her as she sipped her drink, a friend shouting some kind of anecdote in her ear.

               The darting glances continued and when Ginny made her way off the congested dance floor to the bar, she wasn't surprised to feel a warm body slide into place beside her a few moments later.

            "Ginny Weasley? What the fuck are you doing in this den of evil?" Pansy's voice was low and surprisingly mellow, slightly accented and drawling, brushing over her like a warm breeze, as she tipped her head to the side.

           Ginny felt a sudden panic and grabbed for a plastic covered menu,  she was certainly out of her depths in this context. She had definitely been dancing in a flirtatious way, but she wasn't sure why. "Hmmmm, den of evil, hey... I guess I shouldn't be surprised at finding a Slytherin here, then." She returned quickly.

            She  glanced up to find the eyes were warm, much more friendly than Ginny could ever remember them being in school.

             "I've graduated, hadn't you heard? So technically not bound by house loyalties... as you as a student still are?" One smooth eyebrow, a shade lighter than her hair, quirked up with the question. Ginny ducked her head to avoid the gaze again and quickly shouted out her drink order to the barmaid.

                "Well, Ginevra, I have to say... I'm not sure you're quite old enough to be buying drinks, if I'm honest, but I hope I'm wrong... because I would really like to have drink with you."

                 Ginny's eyes flashed with irritation and indignation. "I'm of age! Who are you to question?"

              She could feel her temper flaring even as her arm tingled where their limbs brushed together. "That's hardly the way to start a conversation with someone you and to drink with!"

                  Parkinson laughed lightly, "If you are 'of age' I'd say it would be a very recent thing..."

               Ginny reached into her pocket and withdrew the ID, throwing it on the bar, still fuming. Parkinson snatched it up and perused it with interest. "Madeliene... Clavel?"

             "Oh!" Ginny had forgotten about the name. "The birthdate is real though." Pansy's smile then was so close and blinding that Ginny's breath caught in her chest. Her expression was still sparkling even when the smile faded it. "I wasn't far off was I? It's birthday week I see, but I still think the year is one off at least... Happy birthday."

            Then she leaned in and kissed Ginny on the mouth. This kiss was nothing like the random lady she'd danced with. It was sweet and urgent; close-lipped but insistent. All thought of pushing away flew out of Ginny's head, because oh, there were sparks. She was almost surprised that her hair wasn't on end from some kind of static electrical shockwave.

Ginny slid off her chair and pressed their bodies together as they kissed. This was not at all how she'd planned it... but perhaps she would lose her virginity tonight after all.

---

               The next time Harry saw Draco was at the Christmas Gala at the Ministry. He was dressed in a Muggle suit and tie that flattered his lithe frame. Pansy Parkinson clung to his arm in a ball gown so risqué that older witches gave huffs of disapproval and made sure their husband averted their eyes. Quite a few others were dressed in clothing that bore a subtle logo embroidered into the hem, showing it had been bought at Draco's trendy Diagon Alley store. They were dresses and suits that could pass for Muggle but had magical features such as invisible extension spells on the pockets, or inbuilt cooling and warming charms.

Harry tugged on the collar of his dress robes and did his best to concentrate on the conversation of yet another older ministry official. He had brought Hannah Abbott as his plus one, but she had given  up on trying to stay interested in the officious conversations Harry kept being drawn into. She was seated not far away,  with Ginny and Neville giggling a little into her champagne.

The Prophet would of course be speculating about wedding bells even if they didn't speak to one another for the rest of the evening. He stifled a sigh and nodded solomnly, "I agree, the negotiations with the Centaurs about that piece of territory should be handled with... care..."

To his relief,  Hermione was approaching them and he was able to excuse himself to dance with her. His ballroom dancing style had not improved at all over the years and he gritted his teeth when Draco and Parvati drifted past them in an elegant blur.

At the refreshments table near the end of the evening he heard an amused drawl in his ear, "I think you're losing your date Potter..."

               Harry looked up just in time to see Hannah wave him a cheerful goodbye as she left the Ball. "Ah, yeah, I think she's going home to Scotland for Christmas..."

Draco scooped himself some punch and raised his cut crystal glass. "And you?"

"Um, well... I usually go to the Burrow, but Teddy's just started crawling and there's not that much space there... plus he doesn't really like crowds that much so we might.. uh" he cringed inwardly and cursed himself that he couldn't find a way of talking without nattering about Teddy.

               Thankfully Malfoy rescued him, even it the topic wasn't his favourite. "So I take it your otherworldly romance with the part-Veela Ballerina hasn't continued?"

               Harry glowered, "It was one date. I thought I was going to the Quidditch... why my friends keep setting me up with these... these..."

               "Atractive women?"

               "Strangers! I don't understand."

               "I have to say, my favourite had to be the Egyptian girl with the high cheekbones... the picture of her attempts to get a kiss.."

"Uh, how's Ngeerk?" Harry interrupted hastily. If his friends weren't careful he would start refusing to show up on planned outings.

Draco was watching him with a tiny smile, his eyes glinting silver. "He's well. He keeps tearing open any presents that I try to wrap and pulling baubles off the tree, so he's getting into the spirit of things..."

               Harry relaxed a little, "Sounds like Teddy, our tree is now bare to about here---" he indicated somewhere on his hip. He sipped his drink and cast about for another topic of conversation. "I haven't been to your shop yet, but I hear it's very popular already..."

               Draco seemed about to reply when long ruby red nails gripped his arm and Pansy broke in, her voice a bored drawl. "Draco, I think everyone we needed to schmooze to have left already, shall we get going?"

There was an infinitesimal pause before Malfoy nodded. "Yes, you're right. Good evening Potter..."

               And then they were gone.

Harry sank into bed that night feeling lonely and dejected. There were no shortage of witches who would have come home with him tonight, and a few wizards had propositioned him too. He had no reason to hold back from having a girlfriend or a boyfriend, except that he didn't actually WANT any of them. He hated to think of having a partner who idolized him as the Chosen One, and when he thought about what he DID want,  all he could see was a pair of cold grey eyes and a mocking smile...

---

Light from the cold morning shone through the floor to ceiling windows of the shop as Draco wandered amongst the mannequins with a critical eye. "Do you think this purple is bright enough Mitsy?"

               The House Elf hurrying along beside him bobbed her head energetically, "It's beetroot with aubergine Master Draco. No brighter blend worked with the waterproofing spell." She started to twist her ears anxiously. "Is Master Draco displeased?"

               Draco shook his head quickly, before her fingers could twitch towards the sharp wheel of pins in her pocket. "It's perfectly acceptable. Now, Mitsy. Can you package up this green one, the dark trousers, two of these shirts, turqoiuse and chocolate I think, and a pair of those trainers please. Then post them to Harry Potter with this note."

               He grabbed the shop memo paper emblazoned with the clothing label and scribbled on it with a ballpoint pen,

"Potter,
Consider this not a gift for you, but for the Wizarding world in general, who are daily subjected to a pictorial journey of your poor taste in clothing. Largely thanks to the incompetence of all the publications that consider your every action newsworthy. If your New Year's resolution were to lead to a better dressed version of yourself: we would all be exceedingly grateful, I'm sure. Here is a head start in that direction. Wear them.
- Malfoy"

Lavender Brown was crooning at him from the office cubicle at the back of the shop, and he rolled his eyes at her continued attempts to catch and hold his attention. "Go home for Christmas, Miss Brown. Aren't there employees who can manage the Christmas Eve rush without you?  You're a designer, not a shop girl. I'm off."

               He stepped out into the brisk air, pausing to send a practiced smile at one of the lurking Prophet reporters.

Soon he was entering a warm room filled with Christmas music, and hugging three women with equal enthusiasm. Ngeerk squawked noisily and dug his claws into Draco’s shoulder.

"I see you're as social as ever, Ngeerrk." Murmured Mathilde, but after a moment the large white bird allowed her to coax him into her arm. She carried him to the kitchen in search of green apples.

Marcie was waving her expressive hands as she recounted the story of Micah's recent betrayal. "So, I said, I don't want a boyfriend who laughs at me with other girls and HE said that Josie didn't count as 'other girls' and that I was being too dramatic 'as usual'. Can you believe that?"

               Draco let her lyrical voice wash over him and expressed his sympathy as best he could, even though Marcie and Micah were forever breaking up with the same enthusiasm they showed when getting back together.

He liked the warm familiarity of the scene, the quiet conversation of Eilis and Mathilde as they pottered in the other room. He sank onto the leather couch with Marcie and made himself comfy as she stretched out and threw her feet in her lap. "...so that was that. I'm single and glad of it! But what about you Draco? Don't give me the usual lines, there must be someone you fancy? Now that you're not hidden away every moment of the day?"

Draco fiddled with the cuffs on his jumper. He normally avoided this question, but having just sent a Christmas present to Potter he was feeling a bit on edge, "there kinda is someone..."

               "Oh my fucking god!" Marcie pounced on him. "Tell me EVERYTHING!"

"Calm down Marcie! It's just a crush, it's not going anywhere!" He laughed.

"Moooooree detaiiiiils! Draaaaco!"

"Okay, okay! So... I met him when I went to that school in Scotland... he's shorter than me... he looks a bit like a badly dressed Oliver Sykes... you know? With the short hair in that  'Drown' film clip?"

               "Fuck, Dre that's hot!"

"If you want details you'd better shut up Marcie," she stuck her tongue out at him but quieted instantly. "He's clever, and really brave. Like, there was this horrible guy, who was... kind of picking on heaps of people.. and he was really tough but Harry, well, he beat him up and stopped him from ever doing it again! He risked a lot to do it to. He's super popular, but its like he doesn't realise it, or it annoys him because he feels like people want to be friends with him for the wrong reasons..."

               He paused in the story when Eilis came to give them each a hot chocolate. But Marcie beamed up at her mums, "Dre's telling me about this dreamy boy ---Harry" she ignored Draco’s annoyed flick at her feet. "Come on Dre more!"

Draco rolled his eyes at Eilis eager grin, and Mathilde's understanding sigh. "They're unstoppable Draco, you may as well give them what they want."

"Yes! And what do we know so far? We needed something to distract is from Marcie's tragic love life for a while!" Eilis gave her daughter's hair a fond ruffle.

Before Draco could answer,  Marcie jumped in "Dre's surprisingly inarticulate, Mum! That's how I know it's loooove. Anyway so far we know --he's short --gorgeous --fights off bullies --very popular but not arrogant about it. So far I've heard no obstacles to stand in the way of their love!"

They all looked at him expectantly.

               "There's some pretty massive obstacles actually... Let's see what else I can tell you to satisfy your thirst for gossip.

               "He's a great dancer, prefers hiphop to rock music. He's not a good public speaker even though he's often asked to give motivational sort of talks.. he's kinda hopeless at it..."

               Seeing them exchange glances he realised he was smiling affectionately so he tried to frown. "He's terrible at ballroom dancing though, no idea why. Two left feet. Good sportsman, but very competitive. We fight quite a bit actually. We're a terrible match and it isn't going to happen... but I like him."

               He shrugged. "...Also he's got a 7month old son..."
They all spoke at once:

               "What??"

               "Oh Draco, he's not straight is he?"

               "How old is this boy?"

"Like I said. Obstacles. He's my age, he's only ever had two girlfriends... but... he... he knows he's bisexual I think, but he's not 'out'."

               They all winced.

"That does make things more complicated." Mathilde intoned calmly. "But there's no rush, if you're good for each other then there's plenty of time."

Marcie rolled her eyes, "Ugh. Muuum, do you have to be so parental? The real question is ---have you you kissed him yet?"

               Draco flushed and she sighed dreamily. "Was it good?"

               He just covered his face in his hands...

Chapter Text

I'm tired of feeling terrible
Tired of tiptoeing over sugar coated eggshells
I'm tired of holding this grudge like a family heirloom
I'm tired of feeling unloved and I just want to rest now

Why can't it be more simple?
We never learned the way

I've never talked about you much before
Cause I avoid it, it always feels uncomfortable
That's why I try to keep you as a passing thought
Cause if I hold on I get dragged into the past with all
The memories
~ SETH SENTRY

---

             The Burrow had felt claustrophobic and yet empty without Fred; and as much as people did their best to treat George the way they always had, there was a new gentleness and awkward pity in every conversation that screamed at him. Everything had changed.

             The biggest change however was in George himself. Far away from Fred’s grave, and from Snape; the only person who still treated him without gentleness or empathy... he found himself unable to hold in his darkness. Without the outlet of speaking to Fred or provoking Snape, all his bottled up emotion seemed to show on his face. He couldn't maintain even the facade of his former self. The more gently he was treated, the more surly he would become, prompting even more compassionate treatment ---it was a vicious cycle.

             His favourite part of the day was listening to Malfoy's hour of music. It was the one thing that was totally and completely disconnected from his former life, yet the emotion expressed in so many of the songs resonated with him. He had never felt this level of connection with Wizarding music, perhaps because most of the bands he knew of didn't seem to sing about despair.

             After only a few days into the Summer holidays, he couldn't stand it anymore. He brusquely told his mother he had made plans to do a Muggle tour of London, and wouldn't be back for a while. She had watched him go with understanding eyes; shiny with tears.

            George managed several weeks of losing himself in alcohol, clubbing, and exploring non-magical parts of London. But nothing made the gaping ache inside him stop screaming.

            Giving in. He returned to Hogwarts and made his way straight to Fred’s grave where he stayed until the sun began to go down.

             Wearily returning to the staff lounge he was unsurprised to see Snape sitting alone, with a steaming cup of tea balanced in his long fingers. George dropped his bag with a thud, but Snape didn't even look up from the magazines he was perusing.

             "Accio, magazine!" George attempted to Summon the shiny leaflet from Snape's hands unsuccessfully.

             "I think you'll find, Weasley, that these are brochures... accuracy is the key to spellwork, ---but I wouldn't expect you to remember that, I dare say you're usually much too busy making explosions and such, to pay attention to more subtle nuances."

             His husky voice was just the right level of derisive and disinterested, and George felt his shoulders relax with relief. He stretched himself out on the  couch facing him and reached out one long arm to snatch the brochure from Snape's grasp.

             "I'll have to do this the old fashioned way then!"

             Snape only sighed and picked up a different brochure from the stack on the coffee table. But George was looking at the content of his leaflet, "A year long magical adventure through Asia?! What are you thinking B.S.! Surely you're not going to desert your adoring fans!!"

             Black eyes met his. "I imagine that you understand, better than most, how much has changed since the war."

             "Yes," George spluttered. "But it doesn't mean we're all going to --to abandon our posts and gad about the continent!"

             Snape's eyes crinkled slightly. "Mmmm, gadding about isn't something I've been known for, that's true. You may as well know though,  Weasley, since you are obviously so very interested in my activities..."

             His silky voice rasped slightly in places as he continued, "I applied for, and was granted, long service leave beginning after the first school term. This, combined with the fact that I have rarely had need to spend the bulk of my earnings from my Professorship, has left me comfortably situated to treat myself to a year of whatever pleasures or luxuries I desire... and what I desire, is to see the world."

             Gobsmacked by this honest and heartfelt admission, George stared at him and spoke without thinking. "Yes. That's it, then! That's exactly what we should do."

             If Snape was capable of stuttering or spluttering, this would have been the moment. Instead he just opened and closed his mouth soundlessly twice, before saying threateningly. "We? Weasley?"

             Certainty was creeping over George. He realised that this was exactly what he wanted to do, as bizarre as it would seem to all his friends and relations. His position at Hogwarts was only tenporary after all. There was no obligation for him to commit to more than a term at a time. The tension and grief he'd been battered by receded slightly as he made up his mine.

             "Yes. We. I'm sure travelling together would be much more entertaining than doing it on your own. I was pretty much hating being a teacher anyway ---McGonagall won't be surprised if I tell her I'm only going to do one more term. And a year of pleasure is just what I need." He allowed a grin to spread across his face at Snape's expression of mingled disgust and confusion.

             Settling himself back on the cushions George looked at the brochure more intently. "Oooh did you see this? Elephant rides? That would be fun. We should definitely go to Thailand."

"Mr Weasley. You can't be serious."

"Utterly and completely serious," George said cheerfully, the angst of his 'holidays' so far, slipping away like rain drops sliding down glass. "Oh, and if you're worried that I don't have the funds, I'm happy to inform you that the Wheezes business is running perfectly well without me, and continues to bring in an income. Plus I have managed to amass some savings too..."

            He could feel his expression darkening again as he said a little grimly. "Two people's worth if we want to be accurate." He lightened his tone with an effort. "It's probably easiest if you buy two tickets for everything and I just pay you back hey? I'm sure you have already been developing some kind of anally retentive schedule for the journey, whereas I am happy to pretty much anywhere!"

             The other man continued to study him with his normal disconcerting intensity, "...Are you trying to find a way to punish yourself Weasley? Attaching yourself to the most unpleasant person you can find?"

             "Merlin, no! If I wanted to torture myself I would spend the year at the Burrow, or back at our flat, or the shop! There's nothing more unpleasant than constantly hearing condolences. I'm determined to come with you, you'd be better off to just resign yourself to it, rather than trying to wriggle your way out of our arrangement."

             "Where do you come up with these ludicrous ideas? It will hardly be an arrangement." Snape drew out the last word as though inhaling noxious fumes, but there was enough resignation in his voice that George was sure he would capitulate...

---

               As soon as Blaise had Apparated into the country lane outside her house, Luna Lovegood appeared in his field of vision coming in from the garden. It would have been hard for anyone, casually encountering Luna, to have made an accurate guess at her age. Her skin was as clear as a child's but her face could often give the impression of an age similar to that of her father. Her untidy locks were streaked with a white blonde so light it sometimes made her halo of hair appear completely white.

             She was a skinny, angular creature, her limbs had the elasticity of a young child, and, rather unexpectedly, looked her best when dancing. She had slightly protuberant eyes that looked a little too large for her face, generally characterised by a dreamy, far away stare. Since she was an enthusiastic gardener, and rarely took the trouble to protect her hands with gloves or spells, her nails were jagged and chipped. Her palms and fingers calloused.

             Yet Blaise couldn't figure out why he had ever been able to find her plain, or even ugly. Perhaps because she didn't have the natural beauty his mother possessed. Her beauty wasn't obvious to him until now. It had been watching her dancing that he suddenly realised how striking she was.

          And now, her appearance continued to be arresting to him. It was bizarre. She was always wearing clothing in colours and combinations that made others wonder in whispers if she was color blind. She had been known to watch, over a period of months, a particular window pane or spreading bush, triumphantly declaring at last that she had glimpsed an unusual or fantastical creature in that space. She kept a sketchbook of all the memories of these glimpses, beautifully drawn in strong colors.

            Luna was dressed this morning in a voluminous and shiny blue skirt imperfectly confining at the waist a striped flannel shirt-blouse; a woollen cardigan, shapeless and tufty, made from an intdeterminate substance, and faded to an uncertain hue; bare feet visible when she lifted her skirts; and a collection of gold chains, cairngorm brooches, and old-fashioned rings. Two strands of hair had already escaped from the complicated erection on the top of her head; and a hairpin was dropping out of a loop of hair over one ear.

        As she approached he opened his mouth to anounce the reason for his visit. His mother's request that he provide a pensieve memory for a story she wanted Luna to publish. But Luna spoke first.

            "Hallo, Blaise. We're about to have tea in the garden." Luna blinked up a him vaguely, and began walking away towards the back of the house. As if drawn by a magnet, he followed.

              There on a long carpet of moss green grass was something like a lounge room. There was a covering of flowering vines forming the ceiling but the walls were open. There were a few valuable pieces of furniture scattered about, amongst a much larger number of commonplace chairs and tables; a small outdoor fireplace burned at one end, so hedged about with sofas and chairs as to give the other end of the room the appearance of a desert.

            Tea, which was set out on a massive silver tray, in front of Xenophilious Lovegood's accustomed chair; was spread over two other tables, on porcelain Worcester plates, and several silver cake-baskets, which were embellished with crochet mats.

                 “Come in,” Xenophilious called out suddenly, as though answering a knock on the door. Blaise hesitated, Luna looked up from the tea she was pouring, her eyes bright.

               “He means take a seat. He knows you're here."                "I see. Does he understand what we're saying?”                “Yes. And no.”                 “Go on.” Although she appeared relaxed, there was a faint note of unease in her voice. For a moment, the enormity of what she was doing in caring for her father hit Blaise. He couldn't imagine doing the same for his own mother were she to lose her mind.

               Luna passed her father a cup of tea. He promptly spilled half of it down his front. Patiently she held his hand and helped him sip it. “The story has two parts.” She set the cup down on a side table and helped her father to grasp a cookie and bring it to his mouth.

              She then levitated tea and cookies across to Blaide and gave him her full attention. “Ever since his incarceration my father's mind has been trapped in place I can't reach. I've tried many things.” Blaise waited  patiently, as she stretched out a delicate hand and poured herself some tea.  “My friend Harry paid a visit one day. He came upon me, and my father, in the garden. I decided to have a tea party.”

              "I'm confused."  

            Luna cocked her head to the side and eyed him with a direct blue gaze. "I think I heard you say once that my mind ran on paths no other could comprehend?"

                Blaise was surprised into laughter. "Well, I probably did say that. And it may not have been a compliment at the time..."

              Luna didn't react to that, only observed him with a tranquil calm that made a rare feeling of self consciousness bubble up in Blaise, like tar in the hot sun. He rushed to speak again. "You were saying the story has two parts? Is the tea party the first part?"

                 "Yes. The other part is self-concept, which is one’s belief about who one is. People also have a self-ideal, which is a belief about how one should be. If an individual experiences dissonance between these two, then it can cause great stress in the mind. My father's ideal self is one who always welcomes guests with hospitality. But when he betrayed Harry to try and save me he came to believe himself evil and a failure."

              The words she was using were logical and sensical but their meaning was still lost on Blaise.

             She spread out her hands at the afternoon tea that could easily have served fifty. "The only time my father is responsive is if he thinks I'm throwing a party. Some of this is just charm work, you can't really eat all of this food. It's pretty and it makes him feel better... so it's what I do."

               Blaise found himself smiling. "When I asked you if he understands what we're saying... you said Yes and No..."

               Luna was looking at him strangely. That is to say - there was an expression on her face that he couldn't interpret - in a different way from usual.

                  She seemed lost for words for a moment and flustered. Her hands fluttered and she started refilling the tea cup that she hadn't yet drunk from. The tea spilled over the saucer and on to the grass but Luna didn't seem to notice. "Well, he seems to understand some things... but I couldn't tell you what. Or when it might happen."

           Her bright blue eyes flickered up, looking at him from under thick translucent lashes. She was unsettled, but he couldn't tell why. He cleared his throat and launched into the explanation for his visit.

              Although she recovered to her usual unflappable state for the rest of their conversation Blaise found himself intrigued by that moment of confusion. Even days after his visit he found himself wondering what it was that had triggered her loss of the calm disconnected manner she always carried. It was then that he knew he would be going back.                  

Chapter Text

                             A few days into the new year Draco was sincerely regretting revealing his secret to Marcie. When she wanted something, she was impossible to resist, and she wanted to meet Harry very, very much. Although he was sure this couldn't end well, Draco found himself walking in Hyde Park waiting for a glimpse of Harry Potter. Harry’s schedule was fairly well known to the public, but when he went out with Teddy he used a number of protective spells that kept people from coming within ten feet of him, or even speaking to him. Draco wasn't sure what he would do if Harry saw him, because he had been careful to never be in the same place at the same time until now. Just as he was about to change his mind, he heard a familar voice calling his name.

                             "Hi! Where are you off to?" Bright green eyes shone up at him with delight

                             Draco swallowed, "Hello Potter, I see you have taken my advice?" He waved his hand at the warm green jacket and casual trousers.

                              Harry smiled, "well, when something is for the Greater Good I can hardly resist can I?"

               "Mmmm..." Draco looked down curiously at the little boy in the pram. He was very round, with such chubby arms and hands that it almost looked as if he had rubber bands where his wrists should be. Draco frowned. "Are you sure infants are supposed to be that fat, Potter? You're not over---feeding him are you? It won't help if you do the extreme opposite of everything your relatives did to you, you know. Overfeeding is surely as bad as underfeeding I should think."

               Harry was laughing, "Molly assures me that most babies are like this, and he'll start slimming down when he learns to walk." He leaned over and spoke to the small boy, "Teddy, this is Draco"...

               "DA DA!" The infant burbled excitedly.

               Draco looked at him in astonishment, "Surely he is too young to start talking?"

               Harry nodded, "He just makes a few sounds at the moment, and says Dada, but it won't be long till he knows more words."

               "Is there a reason, why he has red hair and freckles? Neither Lupin nor Nymphadora had that colouring did they?"

               "No, they didn't ---he can change his appearance a bit already. He can't control it, but I've got a spell that kind of, pauses it, for when we're out in public. We dropped in at the Weasleys on our way here so ---" he waved a hand at the red curls and the bright smile revealing a few tiny teeth.

               "I guess that makes it hard to be friends with Muggles then?"

               Harry looked surprised at the question, then thoughtful "I don't really have any Muggle friends... I didn't have them even when I lived with Muggles... but if I did, I'd just make sure to pause Teddy's changes at the same place each time."

               Draco glanced at his watch, "I'm actually meeting a Muggle friend in about half an hour." Harry's shining eyes dimmed a little and his body language shifted to prepare to leave.

               Draco took a deep breath, but said as casually as he could; "it's not far from here, just that coffee shop on the corner" he pointed squinting a little. "You could come if you want?" He looked at the baby, "Babies can't drink coffee. Can they? I really don't know much about them."

               Harry was smiling again. "Yeah no coffee for Teddy, but he'd probably love a muffin, if you don't mind us tagging along."

              Draco waited while he rotated the pram and they set off slowly across the park.

              "I thought you use repelling charms when you two go out?"

                              "Not for friends! I just use them to keep away, you know, well-wishers, and reporters... the occasional psycho..."

              Draco looked at him sharply, "you haven't been attacked have you?"

---

               Harry was surprised to see something like concern on Malfoy's face. He felt warm all of a sudden. "Nothing major, I have a bunch of detection spells woven into the shield, and a few times someone has tried to use an unforgiveable on me... it didn't make it through the shield.

               Harry was feeling very light hearted despite the topic; he had expected another four months or so to pass before he saw Draco again after the Christmas Gala. Draco had managed to be very elusive,  spending only a very small amount of time in Wizarding areas, amd presumably usinf notice-me-not spells when in Muggle areas. He seemed to know more and more about Muggle culture as time passed, dropping so many references to pop culture in his Radio Show that the Prophet had begun including a Muggle Media Explained section that often focused on movies, music or world events that Draco had mentioned the day before.

               As they walked towards the café, conversation came easily and Harry's heart was pounding in hopeful beats, the way it did when they were making out. Seeing Draco in real life, falling alongside Harry's daily routine, made him hope in a way he hadn't dared to hope before.

               The tall windows of the cafe let the winter light pour into the bright building with a welcoming glow. "She's early," Draco said, sounding vaguely disgruntled, but he leant closer to Harry and pointed out a stunningly beautiful girl seated in one of the cozy corners with the best view. Harry felt a flash of recognition; when they'd been sharing a dorm room he had chanced to see this girl dancing with Draco in a home video. Even though he was pretty sure that, unlike him, Draco was not bisexual... it still sent a twist of jealousy through him that Draco obviously spent so much time with such a poised and attractive person.

               He did his best to paste on a friendly smile because she had looked up and was waving them over. His heart softened a little towards her when the first thing she did was to bend her head to Teddy's level and give him a friendly grin, "Hi little man, what's your name?" She glanced up at Harry, obviously aware that he was too small to answer her himself.

                              "That's Teddy," Draco said, submitting to tight hug. "Apparently he is supposed to be that round. And isn't overconsuming baby protein shakes or anything."

               She laughed airly. "Oh he looks like a lovely healthy baby. I love it when they still have these precious rolls." She held a hand out, "Hi! I'm Marcie!"

              Harry tried to equal her enthusiasm but knew he was falling short. "Uh, Hi! Harry. Um, I'm Harry."

                              "Can I give this cutie a cuddle?"

                              "Oh, he's not very good with strangers usually..." but he trailed off as he watched her chatting cheerfully to Ted, unstrapping his tricky belt, waiting until Teddy was reaching for her.

                              He was playing happily with her beaded necklace before she looked up again, "Don't worry, these beads are much too small to choke him if the string breaks."
Draco had been ordering, but he smiled at her affectionately, "Marcie's an only child like me, but her Mums have always done temporary foster care and they often look after babies, so she's good with kids. They're the ones I stayed with after... you know..."

                              Marcie's face had turned stormy and Draco hurried to change the subject. Harry wondered what the Muggle cover story could have been for Dumbledore's death and the war with Voldemort.

                              "I got you another Latte Cee-cee, and an iced donut..." She was easily distracted.

               "Oooh I was trying to resist those. What did you buy Harry?"

               Draco glared at her and a slight spot of pink appeared on each cheekbone. "Uh, English Breakfast tea and a pumpkin pie... you can order something else if you'd like though Potter..."
               Harry felt a warm buzz that Draco had noticed some of his favourite things. Suddenly he felt quite magnanimous towards Marcie. "So what do you do Marcie? You're our age, hey? Are you going to College?"

               "Oh no! I'm in the bad books at home about this... my Mums are both very smart see, so they were horrified when I decided to go to LAMDA..."

               "Actually they're quite proud of her, LAMDA is London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Very prestigious." Draco interjected.

               "Well, like I've told my Mums, I at least have to GO to my college every day! Draco might be doing a more academically challenging degree but doing it online means he can figure out all the loopholes and breeze his way through! I actually have to deal with the arrogance of lecturers and the humiliation  of peer reviews with real people and not a computer screen."

               "It's a fair point. I'm not denying it. I think what you're doing would be fucking hard Cee-cee."

               The waitress bustled over with a tray of food that she set out in front of them, according to Draco's directions. He suddenly was staring at one of the items uncertainly "---can babies eat blueberries? I think I should have ordered him the banana one."

               Harry gently placed a hand on Draco’s forearm before he could snatch the muffin away, "he loves blueberries, Malfoy, you're not about to break him, relax..."

               Draco's arm felt anything but relaxed under his hand, his muscles were coiled and firm. Harry could feel the warmth of his skin through his clothes. He found himself pressing the length of his thigh along Malfoy's under the table and was pleased to see his quick intake of breath. He didn't move away but pressed back very slightly.

               It wasn't long before Marcie was kissing them all on the cheeks, with effervescent happiness at having met Teddy and Harry. She was so fervent and earnest that it was easy to see why Draco liked her so much. When she sashayed away to her next class Harry felt Draco stiffen again beside him. Teddy was clambering over Harry's lap reaching sticky fingers into his hair and smushing small particles of muffin into his jacket.

              "I'm not really sure how Muggles would do this? I normally vanish the crumbs..." Harry muttered. "Do you want to come to my place for another coffee? It's not far."

               Draco looked at him consideringly and Harry's heart sank. The clothes that he'd been given were probably very expensive,  and here he was, wearing them with all the style of a flobberworm, while a squirming baby deposited food in every seam. The answer to his question was so obvious it could have been written in the air between them in bold dark letters...

               In order to cover up the disappointment that was reverberating through him at Malfoy's tacit rejection, Harry jumped up quickly and began busying himself tucking Teddy into the pram and strapping him securely. He tried to redirect his thoughts to other things, like how big Teddy was getting, too big to be carried in the sling around the park, ---but his traitorous body was still vibrating with the awareness of Malfoy's proximity and his silence.

               Opening his mouth to say his goodbyes, Harry was startled by the soft sound of Malfoy's voice, "Potter. You are the fucking Saviour. You should NOT be disappointed when someone like me doesn't jump at an invitation to your place."

               Defensive and a little angry, Harry knew his face gave everything away as he bit out the words, "does NO-ONE understand that I never wanted to be a Saviour?"

               Malfoy was unperturbed. "Yes, so you have always said. Perhaps you prefer the other ways that people describe you? Hmmm... lets see, Fearless Leader?  Symbol of Hope? Guide in the Darkness?"

               Glaring at him Harry refused to respond and released the brakes of the pram, turning it quickly towards the entrance. He couldn't resist a quick look backwards at Draco, who was in profile, staring out the window while he calmly sipped his drink. Harry pushed through the door and let his anger carry him in exactly the opposite direction.

Chapter Text

          It wasn't until Harry had made it all the way across the park that he really started to process the words that Draco had been saying. Perhaps 'process' was the wrong word... 'Overanalyze' might be more accurate.
       
               Thankfully he didn't make it out of the park before Malfoy fell into step beside him, interrupting his ruminations. Speaking carelessly as though they were discussing the weather, he said, "Potter,my fame is always on the border of infamy. Whatever I do people will question my motives. If it's something good, they wonder if I'm doing it for selfish reasons. If it is something selfish, they wonder if it is the evidence that I have always, and always will be a Dark Wizard. A wolf in sheep's clothing, so to speak. You on the other hand, you could start a job dancing on tabletops in the Leaky Cauldron, and the Wizarding world would applaud you for being down-to-earth, and understanding the common man."

             Harry continued to walk briskly in the direction of home, staring ahead in a stony silence.

           "You must surely understand why it would be insane for you to become... ---involved --- with someone like me. Potter, you must see that?"

                  "You say what you want, Malfoy, whatever makes you feel better about... about... acting all superior and, ---and uh, 'uninvolved'. You're right! I'm not anything impressive, and the sooner other people realise that, then... well... the better! I'm not e-e-even asking you to get i-i-involved! I'd just be happy if you wouldn't ignore me! If you'd get down off your high horse and come over for a cup of---"

                 But his rant was cut short suddenly when Malfoy grabbed his chin roughly, rolling his eyes, and kissed him.

              They stood there, lost in the pleasure of meeting mouths, letting the world around them fall away for a moment. Harry clung to the pram with one hand and used the other to draw Malfoy closer and deepen the kiss. His body was singing in shock, he felt untethered and loose, as though he had been tied down by some kind of great weight that had melted away. He could feel the joy of flying, the intensity of dueling, the intimacy of dancing. It was everything that he wanted.

                 They were brought back to their surroundings by the flash of cameras from under the nearby trees of the park. Teddy began to squeal for his bottle and Harry couldn't help but laugh in relief and confusion. "Draco. I've got to get Teddy home for his sleep... he usually goes down for a few hours... do you want to come have a cuppa with me?"

             With mingled delight and uncertainty on his face, Malfoy reached out a finger and ran it down Harry's cheek, making the skin warm and tingle. "If you're sure you want me to, Harry. I don't think I can stay away."

---

                 One tall red heel clicked rythmically against the desk as Pansy Parkinson swung her crossed leg and listened to Paula Zabini's long winded soliloquy complaining of the enormous duties she had to bear, and of the weight of responsibility that had been left on anyone with a Slytherin background in this post-war era.

          Though Pansy could sympathise with this she felt herself to be quite unqualified to advise. Why Paula was choosing to unburden himself to Pansy, she wasn't sure, but she assumed it had something to do with the amount of leg and breast that her dress managed to put on display. It was well known that Paula swung both ways, and that neither age nor gender seemed to play a part in whom she chose as a potential conquest.

            Pansy preferred to make the most of every opportunity, so rather than telling Paula that she wasn't interested, she encouraged her to open up with sympathetic comments. Pansy was not naturally a sympathetic person, nor was she very pretty, but a combination of cleverness and taking advantage of her excellent figure, had always worked well for her. She might be too tall - but she preferred ‘statuesque’. Rather than be noticed for her snub-nose, she drew attention to her shiny hair and perky bust.

            She owed her apprenticeship at the Ministry to Draco's skilful handling of his social contacts, because all other Slytherins had become somewhat unemployable after the war, when they were generally branded as Voldemort supporters. Pansy in particular, was well  known as the person who had wanted to hand the Chosen-One, Harry-Potter-Himself, over to the Dark Lord. Even with her very public apology and Potter's adamant absolution, she still experienced plenty of nasty glares.

           Her situation wasn't helped by the fact that she had an acid tongue, and a blunt manner that often leaned towards offensive. She had had very few friends, occasional lovers, and a multitude of acquaintances. Working on the next level down, she made sure to stop by and visit Paula regularly. Paula continued chatting happily, and Pansy could feel her eyes glazing over as the inanities increased.

              "I think Will's new play is simply marvellous!" Paula said.
               Pansy gazed glassily at her for a moment. "In what way?" she asked.
               But before Paula could respond an owl flew into the office bearing a letter for her, and she became distracted. Pansy took a sip from her quickly cooling coffee and prepared to make her excuses and escape to her own office.

              Paula was unrolling the parchment she'd received. "Hopefully this is the approval to fund Will's---" she broke off abruptly. "Merlin's beard!" she shrieked, jumping out of her seat with a start, overturning her own coffee cup in the process. "Oh! I feel as though I were going to be sick, or faint, or something.” Paula began rocking herself slightly, giving little dry sobs and said chokingly: "Who could be so awful? What do they want with me?"

             “What is it, Paula? Do you need me to get someone?" Pansy asked.

             As though drawn by her words, the door opened abruptly, and two very different young women entered the office. One was dressed severely in black robes with her hair pulled back in a no nonsense bun, and the other was drifting dreamily along wearing multiple gauzy layers of some kind of glitter-rainbow-sparkle fabric that looked straight out of a two year old girl's dream.

            This small bird-like woman, with bright eyes and a flow of unusual small talk, was recognisable at once as the journalist Luna Lovegood. She had enjoyed a certain measure of success recently through the establishment of a Wizarding newspaper that was unbiased and factual. She had a natural ingenuousness which was entertaining, but slightly tedious; a vivacious way of talking, pleasant manners, and a good heart, but her habit of telling interminable and incoherent stories about creatures that may or may not exist, made her a wearisome person for anyone to spend more more than a minute or two with. Fortunately no-one could truly become bored by Luna's conversation, so any strangeness was more than compensated for by her entertainment value.

              The other young woman, Hermione Granger, took only moments to assess the situation and she quickly took it in hand. Perusing the distressing message she sent off a flurry of memos to other departments. Paula still rocked herself dramatically, while Pansy stood by, on edge but uncertain what she could do. It seemed like an extreme reaction to a single death threat. There must be more to the letter than met the eye. There was no trace of discomfort in Luna. She seemed ever oblivious to any kind of social tension. She moved gracefully towards Paula and took her hand. Paula stopped rocking herself to and fro, and achieved a wan smile.

                 Pansy backed away now, this had nothing to do with her after all and the last thing she needed was to be entangled in it. As she moved towards the door she was checked by the sight two aurors emerging from the Floo with a rustle of their crimson robes. The Senior Auror, Andrew Williamson, with his long ponytail, severe features and receding hairline was a dramatic contrast to Junior Auror Theodore Nott: reputedly the brightest recruit in the past hundred years.

                Paula gave an uncontrollable start; her long, pointed fingernails dug into Luna's hand; they heard the quick intake of her breath, and Luna gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.

          Releasing Luna, Paula Zabini's hands fluttered helplessly, but her eyes were on the attractive young man, as he automatically vanished the mess of coffee at her feet. She tottered  towards Pansy without taking her eyes off Nott Junior, and leaned heavily on her.

             Pansy turned to look him over. She had never noticed him in school, though he certainly had a formidable physique, along with a clinical, confident and emotionless expression that was immediately intimidating.  

       If gossip was to be believed, none of his classmates, or even Professors, had more than vague memories of him at Hogwarts. If pressed they would have said he was a plain quiet person who never seemed much out of the ordinary -- until he suddenly took on the highest number of NEWTs and achieved Exceeds Expectations in every one, surpassing even the up and coming academic Hermione Granger.

           The seventeen year old had so excelled in the three months of Basic Training, that he had been allowed to undergo F.A.E. (Final Auror Examinations) without the three years auroral education that was the usual prerequisite. The Auror Department had been shocked when he had passed all the rigorous forms of testing with flying colours.

          Auror Williamson didn't seem to resent his young charge's rapid ascension in the ranks. He had quickly seen that he would be able to give the majority of their assignments into Theo's hands. It was only in the one week per month that Theo devoted to an equally challenging Potions Apprenticeship with a Master from Scotland, that he really had to do any kind of stake-outs or hands on investigation. So the partnership was working well for both of them.   

                 Drawing Paula to a small couch in the waiting area, Pansy whispered in her flattest tone: “It seems I chose a bad time to visit, Paula.”

               She looked blankly at Pansy. “Why? You are the only one who can comfort me! How could anyone want to send me a death threat?”

              “I get them all the time,” said Pansy testily. Paula's eyes were large and frightened, fixed painfully on the parchment that the aurors were unrolling.

            She faltered: “When?”

           “Once a week – at first, not so often since my exams at Hogwarts,” replied Pansy. She looked up over her shoulder and caught a look pass between Nott and Granger that hinted they were not strangers to one another. “There were certainly no aurors to investigate the letters sent to me...”

           “Yes. Well. You don't work for the Minister of the Arts and Entertainment! How could something like this come through the Ministry mailing system! I don’t seem able to grasp it, quite. My mind feels numb. It’s the oddest sensation. As though –“

                 Pansy interrupted with her usual ruthlessness: “There’s no need to tell me what you feel like. I’ve never been interested in your sensations yet, and I never will be.”

            “It’s too terrible, too ghastly!” Paula said.
            "I'm sure these guys have it covered.” Pansy motioned towards the aurors who were moving purposefully around the room, setting up various spells and magical barriers.

            Theodore Nott turned. “Just a moment, if you please Ms. Zabini. We just want to ask you one or two questions.” Paula looked as though she were going to faint. Pansy gave a short laugh under her breath, and rolled her eyes.          

           “I don’t know anything!” Paula said rather too loudly. “I feel utterly dazed. I can’t think! For Merlin’s sake, don’t leave me, Pansy!”

           “It’s all right; I won’t go,” Pansy said, the unconcern in her voice that made the offer instantly void of its soothing possibilities.

           Paula sank deeper into the chair, shivering. “Oh, I feel most frightfully sick!” she said, pressing her hands to her temples. “What do you want to see me for? I don’t know anything.” Her voice rose on a note of panic.
            
             As her responses to Nott's innocuous questions became more and more elaborate and involved, Pansy set her teeth and fixed her gaze on a painting hanging on the far wall, wishing she had managed to leave the room before the aurors arrived. By the time the interview was over she had thought of dozens of painful ways there might be of killing Paula Zabini and ending her tendency to dramatics.

               At last the aurors went away, and Pansy was able to favour Paula with a pithy résumé of her own character as seen through the eyes of the rest of the world. Her remarks, however, glanced off the armour of Paula's superb egotism. She launched into an explanation of herself as one of those excessively highly strung people whose nerves were simply unequal to the task of bearing her up in the face of disaster.

           Pansy gave up listening midstream into the monologue, and threw up her hands in disgust, stomping away on her stilletos and leaving Luna to comfort the ridiculous witch. “I’ll take you home, Ms. Zabini," she said, with long suffering compassion. “It’s a dreadful shock for you.”

---

 

               The past few weeks had been rough.  After so many years of living in Harry Potter's shadow, Ron had finally been given the opportunity to shine on his own merit when Harry had chosen fatherhood over Auror training; only to find that in their year at Hogwarts there was a young man who had apparently spent his school years in some kind of self-led Auror training program. Once again, any achievement of Ron's was overshadowed by the Junior Auror who was first in a hundred years to pass auror examinations without undergoing the training. While Ron was still three years away from completing his training, his former classmate was already out tracking dark wizards.

               Hermione had seen very little of Ron  during basic training, and it had been quite jarring to be thrown back into an intense situation with him on the weekend before the official auroral training began. She had been hanging out at the Burrow for the weekend as though she were one of them... and yet she was acutely aware of the fact that she was not a Weasley. To be completely accurate, she wasn’t even totally sure that she was Ron’s girlfriend. He had never officially asked her to be. They had kissed a bit, and she often felt his interest and admiration, but nothing had been explicitly discussed. She could feel that he must love her, but she needed him to say it.

          Then on their first weekend together in months, Hermione was surprised to find Ron preoccupied with the news of Theodore Nott's offer of employment.

                            At first she hadn't noticed he was seething, and had unfortunately made a positive comment along the lines that it was good to see the Ministry of Magic being flexible based on skill and experience rather than ticking boxes. This made him furious. "How can you say that! How can anyone be allowed to just skip three years of training!"

          She reached a hand out to him. "I didn't mean that! It's just that they are usually so overly officious... like these totally pointless secretarial apprenticeships they get witches to do - I was pleasantly surprised that they would consider judging people on merit rather than years in the system."

“You mean that the Brilliant Theodore Nott Who Can Never Fail deserves to be promoted ahead of the rest of us!"

              Hermione withdrew her hand, annoyed. “Why you are letting this bother you so much, I have no comprehension!"

           “So it doesn't matter to you that people can do that? Skip their way to the top of a profession without all the years of training the rest of us have to go through? How would you feel if Pansy Parkinson was suddenly the Minister for Magical Creatures?

          “Well!” She clasped her hands together and twisted them nervously. “It's not about personality! If she was talented, hardworking and capable of doing a good job --it can’t matter to me!  Don't you think I could do it? At least more than just 'secretarial' work?”

             He looked down at her, smiling in a bitter sort of way. “I thought you would want to be qualified before you made your move for the Minister of Magic's job?”
            “Don’t be silly. I’m serious, Ron.” Hermione snapped.
              “Oh I'm silly now am I? I don't know why you bother to ask me anything! I should just let you have it as you want! You’d do anything to be a successful woman, even if it killed you"

            Hermione was gobsmacked. “Is it the thought of my d-death or my success that upsets you the most?" she responded hotly.

            “You can’t possibly think that's a question?!" Ron's face was reddening as the volume of his voice rose.
                Noticing the curious eyes turning their way Hermione tugged Ron close and whispered rapidly. “Oh I have plenty of questions! When was the last time you were proud of me Ron? When you appreciated something I'd achieved?"
               "What about you 'Mione? When was the last time you even NOTICED something that I've done??"

               As the argument continued to escalate and their commentary became more and more pointed and hurtful, Hermione had the sinking sensation that they couldn't come back from this one. They had always bickered, but now she couldn't seem to hold back the words and opinions that usually stayed buried.

                After a particularly vicious diatribe Ron fell silent and just looked at her, his eyes rimmed with red and his face drained of colour. "We can't go on can we 'Mione?" He said in a whisper, with that startling depth of insight that always came as a shock. "We'll destroy each other. I love you too much to let that happen."

               He stood up and walked past her without looking back. Hermione didn't protest, her eyes blurred with tears as she watched him walk away, but she blinked them away and resisted the urge to put her head on her arms and sob.

           The news of Ron and Hermione’s very vocal break up had travelled quickly around those gathered at the Burrow and the general tension this caused was palpable. The most notable critic was their Great-Aunt Muriel who was nearly one hundred and ten. She couldn't understand why the Granger child was still there when clearly there was no reason for her to be.

Hermione had been so grateful to get back to work on the Monday, and who should come into her office - but the Junior Auror himself.