A loud scraping sound cut through his dream. Draco awoke with a start and turned around, seeing two Magical Law Enforcement Patrol Guards standing at the entrance to his cell.
“Malfoy. Time to go,” the larger guard said.
Draco sat on his mattress, feeling panicked, unsure what the guard meant.
“Come on, move it,” the same guard said, raising his voice a bit.
Draco quickly got up, not wanting to anger him.
The guards moved to the side so that he could go through the cell door. His mind was spinning—it couldn’t already be time. They were probably just moving him to another cell, and he couldn’t possibly have a visitor, so that was the only option.
One of the guards walked in front of him and one behind as they went down a set of stairs and a few dark winding hallways. The guard in front of him finally stopped and opened a door.
Draco walked in and found himself in an office. He stood in the middle of the room not knowing what to do and feeling incredibly overwhelmed by the new surroundings, until one of the guards gestured to a chair next to his desk and then walked out of the room through a door in the back. Draco sat down, trying to manage his hopes and expectations. If he’d learned one thing over the past few years, it was that it was best to not hold on to hope.
The other guard sat at his desk and pulled out a long rolled up parchment. He unrolled it. Draco could see that it appeared to be some sort of form. The guard started writing in some of the blank fields. After a few minutes, he duplicated the parchment and handed one to Draco.
“Hold on to this - you’ll want to give this to your Probation Officer when you meet up with him today,” the guard said.
Draco felt his heart skip a beat. This was it. He’d made it.
The first guard came back in the room with a pile of what appeared to be clothes and walked over to Draco.
“You can change in one of the empty offices in back,” he said and gestured to Draco to follow him.
The guard closed the office door behind him and Draco stood frozen in the middle of the empty office for a moment, clothes in hand, shaking slightly. He mentally shook himself and dressed quickly in the provided clothes. He put on the worn trousers, noting how odd it felt to be in slacks again after all this time. Then he carefully buttoned up the white shirt, hands shaking. The robe was dark grey and had seen better days, but it was far better than the rags he had been wearing those past few years. Once he got the socks on, he realized he had no shoes. He folded his prison rag of a robe and opened the door.
The guard was still waiting for him in the hallway, and had a pair of old black shoes in his hand. He traded Draco for the prison rags, and Draco immediately put on the shoes, still standing in the hallway.
As they walked through the Ministry atrium an hour later, Draco held his release parchment tightly in his hand. He’d been directed to another small room where he was given a hasty shave and haircut by one of the guards and hit with a strong cleaning charm. Then, he was promptly put on a boat and then into a shack with a floo connection that connected directly into the Ministry.
No one told him where they were going or what they were doing—when the guard had turned his wand on Draco with no warning for the haircut, he’d nearly panicked. It all felt so surreal and his world was spinning, so he just kept quiet and followed. His throat felt too constricted to speak anyway.
All the lights and sounds and people were overwhelming; he kept his eyes on the guard in front of him and followed as closely as he could, not making eye contact with anyone and fighting the panic rising in his chest as he was bombarded by noise and smells and so much light. He also quickly felt weak and winded after not walking or moving much for so long, but tried his best to keep up the pace so as to not be left behind. The circular walks around his cell he took every morning for the past four years had clearly not been enough.
“Sit here,” the guard said, gesturing to a chair once they had arrived outside a set of offices in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.
Draco sat, parchment still clutched tightly in his fist, and waited.
Some time later, one of the office doors finally opened.
“Malfoy,” the man said.
Draco stood up and walked into the office, sitting in one of the chairs that faced the desk. The nameplate on the desk read “Probation Auror Gates.”
“You have your release form?”
Draco handed him the slightly crumpled parchment.
Gates unrolled it and read through the details, looking bored.
“It seems everything is in order here. I’ll be your Probation Auror for the next two years. Today, we’re going to go over your restrictions and what will be expected from you while on probation.” Gates looked at Draco until he nodded.
“According to our records, you have no immediate family you can live with and your family vaults were cleared out in restitution fines, is that correct?”
Draco nodded his head, his stomach twisting cruelly.
Auror Gates nodded and wrote something down on a piece of parchment. “Given your situation, you will be placed in a Transitionary Home. These have been created as a part of the Minister’s reforms on the prison system, such as getting rid of the dementors. You will find that the support for transitioning back to society has increased substantially over the past few years, so consider yourself lucky. A few years ago, you would have found yourself completely on your own.
“You will be allowed to live there for up to two months while you look for employment and housing. After that, you will be on your own, so I suggest you don’t waste time. Your wand will be returned at the end of this meeting. It is set at a Level 2 restriction, which means highly restricted. You will be able to perform basic hygiene, cleaning, a few personal spells and a standard shield spell, but that’s about it. You will not be permitted to use any wand but your restricted one. After one year, if you have had no infractions, you can go down to a Level 1 restriction, which will only restrict offensive spells, hexes, curses and other spells that have been deemed potentially dangerous.”
Draco nodded again, trying to control his breathing. Even though he knew his wand would be restricted when he got out, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of panic at being back in the real world without it. At the same time, he felt a small shred of hope at the thought of having somewhere to stay, even temporarily.
“The Committee on Prison Reform recognised that these restrictions severely limit employment options, so we have worked with the Muggle government to provide Muggle documentation to all transitory citizens. This will allow you to find work in the Muggle world should you so choose. Given the nature of your crimes, the reform committee considers possible integration with Muggles one of the benefits of the new system,” Gates continued.
“During your probation, you will not have any contact with anyone with a criminal record and will be expected to meet back here for review hearing in one year. I hope it goes without saying that you need to stay out of trouble. If you break any conditions of your parole during probationary period, you will find your probation revoked and be sent back to Azkaban.
Draco shook his head. He felt like the room was spinning.
“Here’s the address for the Transitionary Home. You will be restricted to floo and Knight Bus travel due to your wand restrictions. There’s an envelope in this bag with your Muggle documents and a small amount of money for the Knight Bus to get to the Home. There’s also some Muggle clothing and a pamphlet on probation and your wand restriction.” Gates passed over a small tote. “Make sure you check in to the home by tonight.”
Gates reached into his drawer and Draco watched as he pulled out his mother’s wand.
“I understand this was the wand you were using at the time of your arrest?”
Draco nodded again.
“As I said, the restrictions have been placed on it, and at the end of the year, you will go under review to see if the restrictions can be lightened.”
Gates held out the wand and Draco slowly reached out for it. He felt the soft magic curl through him as he grasped the handle. It was never as strong as his own wand had been, but it had always worked well enough for him. And, maybe, he could save enough money after he found a job to buy his own wand, so that his mother could have hers back when she was finally out, he thought, his eyes burning slightly at the thought of his mother. He missed her terribly. Then the realization that he’d probably have to get a Muggle job finally hit him fully and he felt short of breath, his vision swimming slightly.
“Ok, that’s it. I’ll see you back here next June.”
“Thank you. Erm- is there a toilet I can use?” Draco asked, voice hoarse. It had been eight months since he last used it, by his estimate.
“Sure - down the hall and to the right, just past the lifts.” Gates pulled out some paperwork and set to work, not giving Draco another glance.
Draco walked out of the office, feeling strangely uncomfortable at the freedom to just walk down the hall unaccompanied. He couldn’t shake the gut feeling that he was doing something wrong. He looked resolutely at the ground as he walked, trying to limit the amount of sensory input he was being bombarded with, trying to drown out the conversations and sounds of parchment whizzing by as memos flew past him overhead.
With only one wrong turn, he found the toilets. He went in and took a deep breath, thankful that it was quiet in there. Draco turned on the tap. Clear water ran freely. He found himself frozen, staring at the water as it poured out and circled down the drain, his chest suddenly tight. It was such a simple thing. He glanced around to ensure he was still alone and cupped his slightly shaking hands under the stream, bringing the water up to his mouth and drinking deeply.
Remembering the last time he’d drank clean water after so long without, he forced himself to slow down.
Once he’d had his fill, he splashed water on his face trying to calm down. Getting his breathing under control, he turned off the taps and dried his hands and face on one of the Everdry Towels by the door.
With some water in his stomach, he started to feel the hunger pains more acutely. He wondered if there was food at the home or just a bed to sleep in. He figured he should be grateful regardless, but couldn’t help feeling a little panicked that he didn’t know where his next meal was coming from. Over the past four years, he had a new appreciation and fear of starvation.
Before exiting back into the whirlwind of the Ministry halls, Draco took a fortifying breath.
When he finally got up the courage to walk out into the hallway towards the lift, someone walked right into him. He startled and grasped his wand in his robe pocket, feeling suddenly alarmed.
The shorter man looked up at Draco, and then seemed to recognise him, and narrowed his eyes.
Draco ducked his head and quickly walked to the lifts. He was all nerves as he waited. Ministry workers walked by and around him, occasionally brushing against him as they hurried past. Memos flew over head, swooping as they changed directions. After nearly four years in solitude, it was all too much. He wanted to run or scream and hide or find a dark corner somewhere that he would be safe.
Eventually a lift arrived and he forced himself to move and get in, keeping tightly to the side of the car. As the lift stopped, letting workers on and off at every floor, he kept his hand tightly around his wand, if only to help ground himself. Just as he was feeling his panic reach epic heights, the voice in the lift announced, “Atrium.” He pushed his way past the people that were trying to get on, and took a deep breath. He needed to get out of there and find this blasted Transitionary Home.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone walking right towards him and looked up. Potter.
Draco felt like the air was sucked out of the room, so many emotions warring for space in his head that he couldn’t pinpoint any of them. Harry looked good - full of life and better than he had at any point in the prison.
“Draco,” Harry said, smiling, but looking surprised to see him there.
“Harry,” Draco said, just above a whisper, emotions whirling at the unexpected reunion.
Even though Draco fully expected that Harry probably never thought about him again once he’d gone back to his life, he still found himself just a little disappointed that Harry seemed so surprised. A tiny part of him, a part that hadn’t quite been fully destroyed by the war and the terrible years at Azkaban, had hoped Harry would be waiting for him when he got out, ready to pick their friendship back up where it had left off.
Draco was realizing now what a dangerous fantasy he’d created over the past year, distorting a simple friendship born out of boredom and necessity. He tried to remind himself that this Harry, the real Harry, had not spent the past year replaying every conversation they’d ever had and holding out hope for seeing him again - conversations that after so much replay in his mind may have been distorted way beyond what actually happened.
At the point that he’d run out of conversations to replay, Draco had even taken to making up his own in his head. Pretending that Harry was there with him had gotten him through some really dark nights, but now confronted with the real Harry, he found himself slightly panicked and confused.
Draco needed to remind himself that while that fantasy might have been necessary over the past eight months to keep him going, keep him alive, it would only hurt him now, and he needed to let it go. It wasn’t real.
“You’re out,” Harry said, smiling brightly.
“Er, yes, as of this morning.”
“Oh, that’s great! I was just heading out to lunch. I, erm- skipped breakfast, so I thought I’d grab a bite a little early. What are you doing right now?” Harry asked.
“I, well I was going to head back to my… housing,” Draco replied, feeling suddenly ashamed of his situation, even while realizing that Harry had seen him in much worse shape. He clutched his tote bag to his side.
“Oh, you have somewhere to stay already?” Harry asked. For a split second, Draco thought Harry sounded almost disappointed, but then Harry continued, “Would you like to join me? For lunch, I mean?”
“Oh.” Draco felt his heart skip a beat, but then also felt a sudden instinctual need to protect himself.
“It’ll be my treat,” Harry said.
Draco’s brain was fighting itself, but ultimately he was in no position to turn down free food at the moment, especially having no idea where his next meal was coming from. “Sure, I suppose lunch would be fine.”
“Okay, great.” Harry smiled.
“Is a Muggle restaurant okay?” Harry asked.
“Sure,” Draco found himself answering. He had no idea what to expect from a Muggle restaurant. Frankly, he was still in such shock from the day’s events, he wasn’t sure he could handle much else. He considered for a minute changing his mind, telling Harry he had to get going, but then he remembered that he desperately needed to eat.
“You might want to...” Harry gestured at Draco’s robe, as he removed his own robes, shrinking them and putting them in his pocket.
“Oh, right.” Draco took it off and shoved it in the tote bag.
Once out of the Ministry, they made their way down a bustling street in London. Draco kept getting jostled and was becoming increasingly panicked by the crowd. His chest felt tight, like the air was too thin. He could feel his hands shaking, and there was a rushing sound in his ears.
They walked by an alley, and Draco ducked in abruptly without a word to Harry, who stopped at the sudden movement and followed.
He leaned up against the wall, breathing heavy from both the exertion and the overwhelming situation.
“Are you okay?” Harry asked, looking concerned. Draco felt like a right idiot. He couldn’t even walk down a street in London. He realized how absurd he must seem, how broken.
“Is it the crowds?” Harry asked. “Oh- or is it the walking? I didn’t even think-”
“I’m not sure I can do this,” Draco finally admitted.
“Sorry, I just- if you think you can manage just another minute out there, it’s really right around the corner. And it’s a quiet restaurant, they are normally more of a dinner place, so it’s pretty empty at lunch, which is why I thought it might be a good place, but I didn’t even think about the walk there.”
“Okay,” Draco said after a moment. He realized he needed to pull it together and get some food; he was so hungry. And, even though he knew it was a terrible idea that would only lead to his heartbreak and probably the loss of his last ounce of hope in this terrible world, he wanted to spend time with Harry.
“Okay, here- why don’t you walk behind me so that people aren’t bumping into you? Hold on to my shirt if you need to,” Harry suggested, stepping in front of Draco to part the Muggle pedestrians.
Draco held Harry’s shirt tightly, fighting back the humiliation he felt in the act. He managed to keep up with him for the last half block until they found themselves in front of a small Italian restaurant, that as promised, seemed to be nearly empty.
As soon as the door opened, Draco was hit with the smell of garlic and bread, and his stomach cramped a bit in anticipation. They found themselves quickly ushered to a small table in the corner. Draco looked around. It didn’t look that different than Wizarding restaurants he’d been in, maybe a little more run down, but it looked just like... a restaurant.
The waiter brought out a bread basket and a pitcher of water. Draco felt his heart race a little at the sudden proximity of the Muggle, but forced himself to remain outwardly calm as the waiter poured them some water before heading back towards the kitchen.
Draco looked down at the bread and realized a piece of bread might be as much as his stomach could handle at the moment. But, his self-preservation instinct told him he had better eat something at least somewhat healthy, if his stomach could handle it. He thought pasta would likely be too heavy, so he finally settled on a salad that looked like it had a little bit of everything in it. Even still, he couldn’t resist taking a piece of the freshly baked bread and taking a small bite, reminding himself to go slow.
“So, where will you be staying? You said something about housing before,” Harry said.
“Oh. They call it a Transitional Home- just a place to stay for a little while until I can get my own place,” Draco replied, flushing slightly. He didn’t know why he should feel so ashamed about this, given that Harry had seen him in literal filth for months. But, somehow everything at Azkaban felt... apart, outside of real life. At the prison, there were only guards and prisoners, nothing in between. Out here - this was where there were tiers of society, the hierarchy that his parents taught him was so very important. And, he was suddenly very acutely aware of how far he’d fallen.
“Well, that’s good, I suppose. That you have a place to stay,” Harry said.
Draco really didn’t want to talk about his situation for one more minute. He was already feeling flushed and panicky from just being in the restaurant, his focus flitting from one unfamiliar thing to another.
He tried to change the subject and focus on Harry.
“You aren’t in Auror robes.” He was pretty sure Harry had told him he was leaving the Aurors and that wasn’t one of his made up conversations from the past eight months, but he wasn’t really sure of anything anymore.
“Ah, yes.” Harry smiled. “I quit pretty much the moment I got back. Robards was fairly unimpressed.”
“I’m sure,” Draco replied. He wasn’t sure what kind of an Auror Harry would have made at the end of the day, particularly since he clearly couldn’t follow rules, but he was sure that losing the Chosen One from the ranks couldn’t have looked good.
“I was able to get a job in Magical Sports and Games within the month though. My official title is Junior Engagement and Regulation Advisor, which sounds much fancier than it actually is. I have to help work out how to get more people to games and also handle all the paperwork for league regulation issues. I still don't really know what I want to do, you know, in the long run, but this is fine for now. Most of my day is just filling out paperwork or following up with Quidditch teams that didn’t fill out their paperwork correctly. Basically, I’m still just doing paperwork all the time” Harry smiled.
“Yes, but at least you are doing paperwork in London and not in a prison in the North Sea,” Draco replied. He felt himself relax marginally as he listened to Harry talk. Draco felt like it shouldn’t be that easy. Since that morning, Draco had felt like he was drowning in rough waters—feeling almost separate from his body as he went through everything, only the panic in his chest grounding him. The people and the conversations and all the noise was just too much. But, somehow, sitting here with Harry he felt okay, if only for a moment. This was familiar.
“Very true. But, really, you would think there was a job out there that wasn’t all paperwork,” Harry complained.
“Are you ready?” The waiter asked as he walked up to their table.
Harry looked at Draco for confirmation. “Yes, I’ll have the Grilled Chicken Pesto baguette”
“And for you?”
“The Antipasto Misto,” Draco replied, forcing his voice to be steady. Like so many things that day, this felt so strange. Ordering food—this simple thing he’d done a thousand times in his youth at restaurants with his parents or friends, but it now felt foreign at the same time, and he felt a rising panic as he spoke to the Muggle waiter.
“Very good.” The waiter took away their menus.
“So what is the Transitional Home like?” Harry asked.
“I don’t know. How’s your home coming along?” Draco asked, quickly changing the subject again.
“Oh, it’s good. It’s nearly done actually. The bathrooms took a lot longer than anticipated. I wound up having to hire a professional. Apparently there are certain jobs I shouldn’t try to do myself,” Harry cocked a self-deprecating smile. “Let’s just say I flooded a good portion of my house trying to remove bath fixtures.”
“Oh no,” Draco replied. He found he wasn’t having a hard time imagining Harry doing something daft like vanishing his tub without cutting off the water. He felt the sudden urge to smile, but his lips never curved as if the muscles in his face couldn’t remember how.
“Fortunately, the flooded areas hadn’t been fully renovated yet, so the damage was minimal.” Harry smiled, his eyes crinkling.
Harry continued to talk, updating Draco on things going on with his life and his friends and the Weasleys. Draco found it hard not to get wrapped up in the comfort of the conversation, in listening to Harry talk and felt some of the anxiety mellow as he focused on the other man.
A short while later, the food arrived. Draco suddenly felt overwhelmed by emotion looking at his plate. He mentally chastised himself; he was not going to fall apart in the middle of a restaurant over a salad in front of Harry.
He took a deep breath and gingerly took a bite of artichoke and mozzarella. It took all his self-restraint not to moan out loud. It had been so long since he’d had anything edible, let alone that tasted so good—really since Christmas the year Harry had been there, he realized with a start. They had barely even been friends then. Draco had been so affected by Harry’s gesture of kindness. He never had even told him, and he suddenly found himself wondering if Harry even knew what that year had meant to him. Then, he suddenly felt embarrassed at the thought that Harry did.
Draco kept his eyes on his plate as he slowly ate as much as he could, making sure to get a little bit of all of the different ingredients. Too soon, he knew he needed to stop to keep from getting sick. His salad looked barely touched.
Harry made his way through his messy sandwich, stopping every once in awhile to tell Draco another story of something that had happened at his new job or with his friends or with his house renovation over the past eight months. Draco nodded and made small comments to show interest every so often, but found himself so overwhelmed by the whole day that he just wanted to get out of there.
Eventually, they were done and the waiter brought the check, for which Harry quickly paid.
As they got up to leave, Draco eyed the leftover food on his plate. He remembered years ago mocking the American sensibility of taking leftovers home when he’d first heard about it after Blaise took a holiday there. Now, he felt mildly ill at the idea of leaving so much perfectly good food behind.
Harry must have guessed at his thoughts. “Do- erm… do you need some food? To take with you to the transitional place? I mean, we can stop- there’s a corner shop just down the street and I could get you some food to take back.”
“No. There will be food at the house. Let’s go,” Draco said quickly. What shreds of dignity still remained were mortified at the idea of accepting any more help from Harry. It was bad enough in the prison when he had no other choice, but now, out here, it felt even worse. Accepting lunch was one thing, something done amongst friends—he could pretend this was just lunch with friends—but the idea of being Harry’s charity case and letting him do his shopping was too much.
“Are you sure? I it’s really not a problem-”
“Leave it, Potter.” Draco grabbed his tote bag with all his belongings in the world from under his seat and walked out of the restaurant, not waiting for Harry.
“I’m sorry. I was just trying to help,” Harry said as he caught up to him.
“I don’t need your help.”
“Okay. I’m sorry,” Harry said carefully.
They stood on the pavement awkwardly.
“I need to go,” Draco finally said.
Draco tried to pretend he didn’t see the hurt and confusion on Harry’s face as he turned and walked away. He knew he’d just behaved very rudely, not even thanking Harry for lunch, but he needed to get out of there. He’d need to call the Knight Bus to get to his destination, but he’d wait until he was out of sight. He couldn’t stand being there for another minute.