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Road To Solace

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The night of September first in the eighth-year tower – the 'Dragon's Nest' as it would be called within a week of school's resumption – was always going to be uncomfortable.

War-weary warriors returned to the battlefield, yet this time with wands lowered and set to face a different kind of enemy. The walls were rebuilt, scorch marks were scrubbed away, floors were swept of rubble, and the bodies that looked so small, so helpless in death, were whisked away as though they'd never been there at all. There were no curses or hexes flung to the sound of a barked command, no flaring lights brightening dark skies, no pained cries as those spells connected. The smell of fear was gone, leaving only the ache of smothering grief in its stead. It was almost as though the Battle of Hogwarts had never happened at all.

Almost. Harry didn't think he was the only one to step through the double doors at the front of the castle and pause for a moment on the threshold to take a deep breath. Then another. A third, just for good measure, before he lifted his chin and strode within.

The Dragon's Nest was an old building refurbished for the short, express purpose of housing the returning eighteen-year-olds whose final year of education had been crushed by the weight of Voldemort's war. Surprisingly – or perhaps not surprisingly at all – there were only a handful of students in Harry's year who didn't return. When the feast in the Great Hall drew to a close, when the eighth years wandered in a slow but constant stream towards their new dormitories, he saw the familiar faces of many that he almost expected never to see again.

Seamus Finnegan walked alongside Dean. He was smiling in spite of the sobriety of the feast that evening, nothing if not the picture of confidence and enthusiasm despite that Harry knew his parents had all but demanded he forgo school that year.

Hannah Abbott, quiet and reserved as she'd always been yet somehow now even more so, walked alongside Neville, who seemed to be making an attempt at conversation. From what Harry had heard at the table that evening, her parents were of the same mind as Seamus'.

Michael Corner, who had loudly exclaimed from his old Hufflepuff table that 'nothing and no one could tell him what to do', and that he saw attendance was a show of disloyalty for anyone to have abandoned Hogwarts that year. The Patil twins, shoulder to shoulder, hard-faced in a way that Harry had never seen of them before. Terry Boot and Sue Li, Susan Bones and Justin Finch-Fletchley. So many were in company that Harry hadn't expected more for their number than for who they were.

Mostly, however, were the Slytherins. Or the ex-Slytherins, as had been an announced distinction of the eighth years over dinner. He hadn't expected to see any of them return either, but maybe he should have. With the exception of Goyle, an absence that Harry felt guilty at feeling relieved by, every single one of them had returned. Maybe it was to be expected. Maybe, with the oppressive hatred trained upon anyone with any connection to Death Eaters these days, Hogwarts was the only safe place for them.

Which it would be. Harry would make sure of it. The war was over, but there were still battles to be fought, and people like the Slytherins? Like Malfoy, his gaze lowered to the floor before him, Parkinson, her pug-nosed face for once tucked in an unending flinch, and Zabini, usually so swaggering and confident yet now walking with as much solemnity as his old housemates – they still fought. They were still fighting every day, even if the eighth years that walked around them didn't so much as clutch their wands in wariness.

Harry might not like them, wasn't sure if he'd ever like them, but he would attempt amicability. Malfoy was likely still an arse, even if he hadn't spoken a word throughout the entire feast, Parkinson probably still a cow despite the trembling downward turn of her lips, and Zabini almost certainly still a confident prat even though he didn't look it, but Harry would try. They didn't deserve to be hated so fiercely, or at least he didn't think so. There was too much hatred in the clean-up after Voldemort's destruction as it was. Harry was so goddamned sick of hating.

The Dragon's Nest was small. Distinctly smaller than Gryffindor's tower, though mostly the same in shape and furnishings. With the exception of a lack of gold and red, replaced instead by washed out whites, greys, and blacks, it was almost identical. A monochromatic twin. Stepping into the common room, Harry wasn't the only one who felt conversation die on his lips at the sight of it. Silence hung over the cluster of his classmates like a weighted blanket.

"Bloody hell," Ron muttered, though in the silence it sounded particularly loud. "This is kind of…"

"Boring?" Seamus offered.

"There's literally no colour in here," Dean said. "Whose idea was that?"

"Even the bookshelves are boring," Mandy Brocklehurst said, wandering towards them and raising a hand to a row of hardbacks. She paused before touching them as though fearing to get burned by the unerring line of black books. "This isn't like Ravenclaw Tower at all."

"Or Hufflepuff," Hannah said, so quietly it was almost a whisper.

"Do you think we could ask to be transferred back to the Basement?" Susan said, and though Harry saw a smile touch her lips, it was nowhere near as vibrant as those he'd seen her wear in the past.

Hums of agreement met her words, but they quickly died into more reserved staring. Harry let his gaze drift over the flat planes of the room, the stagnant black curtains, the white rug that already looked a little discoloured, and the wooden desks that somehow looked more grey than brown. On second thought, maybe it wasn't all that much like Gryffindor Tower.

Someone cleared their throat. Harry didn't realise it was Hermione until she took a handful of striding steps forwards and extracted her wand from the sleeve of her robes. "Well," she said, only the deep breath preceding her words bellying her confident tone, "we might as well fix it up a little, right? It's going to be home for a year, after all. Why not add a splash of colour or two?"

Harry felt a shadow of warmth trickle into his chest, almost immediately chewing away at the wash of coldness he hadn't properly realised suffused him from the moment he'd stepped back into Hogwarts' castle. Hermione was far from a vibrant, eccentric person, and of everyone in the room likely favoured the colour palette the most, but she was trying. She'd already turned to the fireplace and cast a spell, an unexpectedly vivid splash of red, purple, and green erupting and immediately setting to burning the logs within.

Harry extracted his own wand. "I reckon that sounds like a good idea," he said, sparing a glance for his idling classmates. More than a few smiles – ghostly and small but still smiles – had arisen at Hermione's prompting. "Anyone know any particularly good colouring charms?"

As it turned out, they did. The ex-Hufflepuffs in particular seemed to have an inventory up their sleeves. In short order, the tower was flooded with sparkling charms, chanted words, and splashes of colour that flew through the air like flung paint. The effect was immediate and brightening more than just visually; at a glance, Harry could see smiles widening on faces and even heard a laugh or two.

And that was only the beginning.

Someone cracked out butterbeer. Someone else conjured flagons of whiskey. Zabini, apparently drawn from his momentary solemnity, seemed to produce bottles of wine from the sleeves of his robes as fluidly as Hermione had drawn her wand. To the sound of more charms, interspersed increasingly with chatter, amber liquid poured, cups were passed around by hand and levitation charms alike, and the sweet smell of liquor chased away the hollow dustiness that had previously filled the room.

The curtains changed colours a dozen times, only settling when there were each such a mish-mash of different shades that it hurt the eyes if stared at for too long. The ceiling was splashed with a mural reminiscent of a remarkably realistic rainbow, and the floor directly beneath a glassy mirror of it. The rugs were fields of green and yellow, the tables seemingly polished to an array of rich teak, and the Ravenclaws seemed to have made it their express duty to colour every book cover in a different shade. It was almost as blinding to look at the bookshelves as it was the curtains.

The room was a mess of colour, but Harry didn't think it was a bad thing. Not in the least. Appallingly poor taste, yes, and the silent glances of the purebloods in the room, likely raised in far more decorous settings, only added to the impression, but it was good. Better. Kind of funny, too, and that humour made it worth all the glaring brightness.

Ron downed drink after drink at Harry's side. Hermione sipped from a bottle and didn't look likely to put it down any time soon. Harry drank, too, and even if he wasn't partial much to drinking – he'd seen too much of what it did to Uncle Vernon to take more than a glass or two on a good day – that evening felt like an exception. Despite the increasingly frequent and increasingly loud laughter, there remained an aura of grief. A twinge of regret. A hint of wistfulness as bodies flopped into the colourful armchairs around the fire, more sprawling upon the grass-green rug, and in the voices that spoke at louder and louder volume either from drunkenness or an attempt to stave off that wistfulness.

Harry drank. Just this once, the exception was entirely necessary.

In short order, lost in the headiness of compensatory colour and Forgetfulness Brew in the form of alcohol, the Dragon's Nest became a buzzing mess of noise. "Let's play some music," someone suggested as the clock-tower stuck nine, and the old gramophone in the corner of the room burst into life. "Anyone got any card games other than Exploding Snap?" someone else asked when ten o'clock passed.

A not-argument began over recolouring the curtains, and they quickly evolved into an even more abrasive mess of shades. Harry couldn't watch the argument ensue of too long; the curtains were already starting to give him a headache.

A cluster of bodies growing increasingly unsteady upon their feet danced to the jaunty music, and Harry was momentarily drawn into the midst. It didn't last long before he managed to extract himself.

A round of poker erupted, and galleons were produced from pockets. More beer, more whiskey, and more wine – unexpectedly the courtesy of Daphne Greengrass rather than Zabini this time – was offered, and bottles emptied so fast it was almost as though they were drained by magic. Someone – probably an ex-Hufflepuff if Harry clung to the stereotypes – conjured a table and bowls of chocolate, sweets, and fruity punch appeared out of nowhere.

And Harry drank. He continued to drink even when the edges of his vision started to go fuzzy.

It took him until twelve o'clock that night to realise that he and his classmates were having a party. A party that was still going, and only rising in volume, intensity, and mayhem the longer it ensued. Three separate clusters of people had disappeared to raid the kitchens – probably the ex-Hufflepuffs again – and there were two independent games of poker being played with increasingly high stakes. The dancers, of which only a few of the original members remained, barely danced at all but managed more of a lazy, staggering sway and bounce. Just as many bodies were sprawled across the floor as occupied the too-little seating.

Harry was one of them. A cluster of ex-Gryffindors was still loosely scattered around him, but the continuity of whatever conversation they'd been having had long since broken. Harry couldn't even remember what they'd been talking about. He sat between Ron and Hermione, as he so often found himself – or he'd thought he did. He hadn't noticed either of them move, but when he lifted his surprisingly heavy head from where he gazed into the dregs of his cup, only Hermione remained at his side. A bottle was still clasped in her hands, though upon squinting at it, Harry was fairly sure it was empty.

Music buzzed in his ears – or maybe that was the voices of those around him. It took three tries to get his voice working loud enough to be heard. "Where's Ron gone?" he asked, though his tongue felt a little too thick and dry to properly enunciate.

Hermione, reclined on her elbows with her eyes closed, didn't answer. She started when Harry nudged her with his elbow. "Huh?" she asked, cracking an eye open.

"Ron?"

Hermione blinked, frowned, then gave an awkward shrug. "Probably eating."

"What?"

"He always eats when he's drunk. A hungry drunk. Always hungry. Always eating crap. Always…" She trailed off into mumbling, and Harry couldn't help but snort. Ron might be typical of a 'hungry drunk', but she filled the role of a sleepy one just as perfectly.

He didn't really need to find Ron. He wasn't hungry, either. And yet, after a moment of slow-minded contemplation, Harry was hauling himself to his feet in search of his friend. Only to pause momentarily as the room seemed to flip upside down.

"Fuck," he muttered.

"Alrigh' there, Harry?" someone asked, the words followed by laughter that could have been at him, with him, or entirely unrelated.

Harry didn't know what direction the voice had come from, so he didn't bother replying. Closing his eyes briefly, squeezing them shut as his head pounded like a drum for reasons he couldn't quite pinpoint, he took a moment to stand and gather his bearings. Was he still holding his cup? He thought he was. Yes, that was definitely a cup still in his hand. That was good. For some reason, Harry decided that was a very, very good thing.

Except that it was empty. That wasn't so good.

Blinking in a useless attempt to clear his eyes, Harry raised his free hand to scrub the blurriness away before glancing around himself. A slow glance, because the tower was apparently a little bit tipsy itself and hadn't decided whether it wanted to stay still or not. With deliberate care, Harry took a shuffling step forwards and began to pick his way over the bodies surrounding him.

"Something smells like puke," he muttered more to himself than anyone else, and didn't expect a reply. It wasn't particularly unexpected itself given that four people had already thrown up that night. Shaking his head – a bad idea, he shouldn't have done that, wouldn't do it again – Harry started in the general direction of the snack bar.

The ex-Ravenclaws he passed were still playing poker, though half of them looked more intent on sipping their drinks or counting their coins than actually playing. Michael was stretched out across the only route across the room, and Harry nearly tripped over Mandy's foot as he stepped over them both. The ex-Slytherins had somehow managed to obtain and keep the majority of the seats around the fireplace, though a handful of dancers had made their way into the centre of the suite's ring and looked to be trying to pull their reluctant dorm mates to their feet.

Or were they reluctant? They're still assholes, arose as a random thought in Harry's mind, and for a moment all he could think of was Parkinson's sneer, and Bulstrode's glare, and Malfoy's slinking flight after the Death Eaters as they fled from Hogwarts at the end of his sixth year. Except that, even with those thoughts arising, when Harry managed to focus his attention upon Malfoy – was it Malfoy? Yes, surely it was. No one else was quite that blond – he didn't feel angry. He felt… he felt…

"I feel kind of like I'm going to puke, too," he said to himself, and scrubbed at his face again, as much to slap himself awake as to knead at the throbbing thud of what felt a little like a headache but a little not. Maybe eating something would help. Maybe Ron did have the right idea. Picking up his excessively heavy feet, Harry restarted his roundabout route towards the bar.

Except that the ex-Hufflepuffs apparently considered any passer-by victim to be abducted into their midst.

In the centre of the ring of couches, Harry felt someone grab his hand and spin him into a twirl. Someone, their face strangely blurry until Harry realised his glasses had slipped and fixed them, made a staggering attempt at dancing. Susan, Harry thought. Susan, who had apparently regained some of her enthusiasm with a bellyful of drink. The music wasn't even particularly suited to dancing, and Susan was so out of time with it that it didn't even seem relevant.

"No thank you," Harry tried to say as Susan jiggled his arms, all but tossing his to and fro with each motion. It was the most he could manage, and even that was garbled.

"Hey, let loose a little, Harry," someone said behind him. When Harry turned to glance over his shoulder, blinking away a return of the blurriness, he staggered and all but fell over.

"Whoa, careful there. Careful."

"Sorry," Harry said, giving an apologetic pat to the shoulder of whoever he'd grabbed. It was definitely becoming harder to make out faces.

"Take a seat, mate, yeah?"

"Trying to –"

"You're trying to?"

"Trying to find Ron," Harry said, but he couldn't even hear his own words. The tower was dancing itself, the rainbow ceiling sparkling overly bright, and the music had taken on a skewed, hollow tone as though Harry was hearing it through water. Had someone broken the gramophone?

Someone steadied him with a hand on his shoulder in return. Someone else nudged him away from the mix of dancers who weren't even dancing properly anymore. A step, another guiding hand that seemed more like a hand to hold him up, and then Harry was staggering free from what felt like too many people. Only to trip over something – someone? A foot? His own foot – and tumble forwards belly first.

"Ow," Harry said, only half aware that he'd landed on a chair. "Oops."

"'Scuse me?"

Struggling – and failing – to right himself, Harry turned his head to the voice above him. Someone was already in the seat. Double oops. In spite of himself and his headache, his twinging belly that promised him that he was more than likely to puke shortly, and the lingering heaviness of sadness that lined every thought, it seemed abruptly funny.

"Sorry," Harry said, even if he was only half apologetic.

"You're sitting on me, Potter."

Harry blinked. His eyes really were very blurry. Had he lost his glasses? "Malfoy?"

"Mm."

"Oops."

"You already said that."

"Can I -?" Struggling to find his arms, his hands – and dammit, he just realised he'd lost his cup somewhere – Harry fumbled to sit up. He failed dismally once more. "Um, do you mind if I borrow your chair for a sec?"

"My chair?"

"Your, um, your lap." Harry snorted at his own thoughts, then again as he realised he'd actually spoken it aloud. "I think I've lost my feet."

Hands fumbling, pushing himself up on his knees and elbows, he grasped onto the warm firmness of Malfoy's legs, his shoulders, something hard and bony that was probably an arm, as much as the arm of the chair. "Sorry, sorry, sorry," he muttered absently with each fumbled attempt.

"You still have your feet," Malfoy said from above him.

"Huh?"

"They're still attached."

"Oh." Harry blinked, but it didn't help much. "That's good. I think I'm drunk."

"You think?"

"Yeah." Another attempt at pushing himself upright failed as Harry accidentally grasped Malfoy's knee. "Sorry. Again. Sorry."

"I don't care. I found your feet, but you can just use my lap-chair until you do, too."

The sentence was a jumbled mess, funny to Harry's ears until it made sense, and then it was just unexpectedly relieving. "Oh. Um. Thanks." He wasn't sure about finding his feet, especially seeing as he wasn't even sure where his hands were anymore. "Are you drunk too? I think it would be good if you were. I think – yeah, I think that would be good."

Very good, Harry thought, or someone else thought and Harry just heard it. It was hard to tell in the Wizarding world, he supposed. I used to hate Malfoy, after all. He was a git. Is a git. Was. Probably better if he's drunk, too.

Was Malfoy drunk? Harry thought he'd replied, but he couldn't remember.

Huffing with laughter more at himself than anything in particular, Harry gave up trying to push himself upright. Malfoy's lap-chair was surprisingly comfortable, though maybe that was just compared to the floor?

"Thanks," he managed, before all but flopping onto his belly. His eyes slipped closed, or maybe his vision just faded; Harry wasn't sure and didn't really care. "You're a real champ."

Malfoy snorted, but somehow it sounded more like a laugh in Harry's ears. Yes, he was definitely drunk, he realised, and this was definitely a party, and it was definitely out of hand. But he didn't mind. Didn't care. Didn't care either that he'd meant to find Ron, though he couldn't remember why he was looking for him anymore, and didn't care that he was likely going to puke in short order.

Right then, abusing the likely disgruntled Malfoy to the best of his incapacitated ability, Harry was more than happy to stay put. He was… surprisingly comfortable. Almost comfortable enough to sleep. Curling in upon himself, legs unconsciously tucking, Harry decided that was a very good idea.