Returning back to Hogwarts after the war wasn’t an easy task.
For some, it was like returning to an old home. The building was damaged and many tablemates were missing, but it was, nonetheless, a place of growth, understanding, and renewal. Hogwarts was home, the real place where these kids grew up, grew into themselves. However, even though that was true for many, a multitude of students had a hard time feeling like they belonged confined within the walls of Hogwarts after such a traumatizing and maturing ordeal.
Everyone was coping in their own way.
Neville was buried in the greenhouse, tending to plants nearly constantly. It gave him a sense of peace, being able to grow and heal such vulnerable things.
Luna was often found wandering toward the thestrals, creatures that now were much more visible to the students returning to study, or wandering about the castle spreading good natured kindness.
Hermione and Ron were inseparable; though it often resulted in one doing an enjoyable task while the other one sat in quaint (or whiney) silence, they tended to enjoy being with one another.
Ginny confidently took on quidditch, pulling a routine into her life once again and pushing herself to be a person her family would be proud of, a person her brothers would be proud of.
But Harry wasn’t handling the transition so well. For once in his life, he had no purpose, no destiny to fulfill. And now he was famous, being traipsed to news agencies and meetings to receive praise for his bravery, for defeating the Dark Lord. He was a hero.
But he didn’t really believe that.
So being back here, surrounded by people, most notably the youngest years, constantly praising him and idolizing him for his bravery, despite all the other brave people that had fought alongside him, made him feel quite sick.
Although he still worked in class, he often found himself receding from the rest of the students, finding places to hide away from the world.
He wasn’t the only one.
Draco Malfoy was not well liked among those left at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Most of the Slytherins hadn’t bothered to come back, but with the trials his family was facing for their part in the war, Draco figured the grounds of Hogwarts, though rather hostile, would provide a far more comfortable environment than what the manor would most likely provide.
That being said, the grounds were still hostile.
I mean, you don’t just walk over to Voldemort’s army and expect a warm reunion from the people you’d been fighting against.
He was a coward.
That’s what each day reminded him.
So Draco often found himself curled up in the foliage near the Black Lake, eyes gazing over the hazy water. The leaves would rustle with the breeze, the gentle noise blocking out his thoughts in a way the loud chatter of the Great Hall never could. With nothing but the natural world providing him company, Draco could almost forget the feelings of self-loathing and shame that whirled through his mind like the Tasmanian Devil, wrecking every good thing in its path.
At first, he was just curling up beside the lake, out in the crisp foliage near the murky depths during the day, but as the weeks progressed, he found himself beside the lake more and more often.
Under the twinkle of starlight, the pads of his fingers would rub against the rough stone slabs he settled on, eyes tracing the scene before him. He liked it that way, settled out there with the dark and deep woods pressing against his back. Night made Draco feel better; he was by himself on that rock because the world was sleeping, not because he was, in fact, alone. For those fleeting hours of darkness, he would feel once again like he wasn’t completely and totally alone in the world, isolated from all others due to his actions.
Everyone was avoiding him.
For good reason, of course.
He was a coward, after all.
He always would be.
The dark mark, now reduced to a complex, aggravated scar across his pale flesh, would always brand him as a coward.
And, truthfully, it hurt.
It hurt to know that there would never be a place for him in this world, that he would have to settle for being worthless in the eyes of the wizarding community.
At one time, his name had equalled power. He was the heir to the Malfoy estates, afterall, but now his name only set him apart from the world.
He no longer belonged.
For even in life after the war, he would always be a Death Eater, regardless of whether he chose to be one or not.
So when Harry Potter stumbled onto his little paradise rock one night, Draco expected to taste death, a flavor he imagined to be remarkably sweeter than the vile taste of guilt that constantly bubbled at the back of his throat now, to come swiftly. That was what Potter wanted, wasn’t it? Vengeance? Draco let them into the castle. Draco allowed Dumbledore to be killed. Draco allowed so many people to be killed. He was a murderer. And Potter wanted him to pay for it. Right?
Briefly, he closed his eyes, shuddering slightly at the autumnal chill in the air. He waited, expecting a curse, probably a painful one at that, to slip from Potter’s chapped lips.
But the words never came.
Instead, the dark haired boy moved beside Draco, body resting against the hard ground as he allowed his eyes to trace over the water.
The two sat in silence, Harry examining the landscape while Draco eyed him suspiciously, attempting to keep the look of horror out of his usually hollow eyes. Numbness from the insults of his peers had been his only savior these last few weeks.
The blonde couldn’t figure out which was worse: the fact that he was sitting beside Harry Potter or the fact that Harry Potter made no means to insult or kill Draco for his past actions. The quiet was haunting.
After a few minutes of silence, Draco spoke. His voice was little more than a hoarse whisper as he attempted to choke out the words that had been clawing up his throat since Potter arrived. “Are you not going to hex me?”
For the first time that night, Harry’s eyes, as vibrant as the greenery shrouding their stooped figures from the castle, settled on Draco’s own, surprise clearly evident in his features. “No, Malfoy, I’m not.”
Draco cast him an uncertain gaze, as skittish as an abused puppy. “Then what are you doing here?” Although he’d intended for the phrase sound a tad more biting, the words were soft, unsteady against the night air.
“I saw you coming out here all the time. I wanted to see how you were handling everything. Figured maybe your way could help me.”
With a scoff, only mildly halfhearted, Draco’s eyes fell back over the lake, gaze wandering across the treeline. “I thought you hated me, Potter.”
Harry hummed, eyes following Draco’s across the lake. “The war’s over. Let’s put that behind us now.”
Silence lapsed between them as they each settled into their own minds, slowly growing more comfortable having a warm figure by their sides. As the leaves rustled and the water gently rippled from the creatures below, Draco realized that maybe things weren’t quite so bad with Harry being here, too. But why was he here?
“What could you possibly need help with?” he muttered softly. “You’re a hero.”
“Oh sod off,” the boy replied, eyes still sweeping the scene before him.
The rest of that night they spent in silence, watching the world break into amber beams of warmth as the sun rose on the horizon. Only then did they leave. Slowly, diligently, they made their way back to the castle to spend another day day in agony. While Draco was isolated for his mistakes, Harry was isolated for his accomplishments.
Yet neither knew quite how much the other one suffered.
Draco expected that night to be a singular instance in their lives where the two appeared beside one another without a vengeful rivalry flourishing. However, it was not.
Throughout the rest of that week, Harry would arrive at Draco’s spot after hours and sit with him. Sometimes he’d bring a snack or a spare cloak to keep both of them warm, other times he’d come as he was; regardless, silence permeated the air around them. The companionship was nice, comforting, in a way, and neither wanted to ruin it with idle chatter.
But that didn’t stop the thoughts that would whirl through Draco’s mind each time Harry settled beside him on the cool stones. He didn’t understand it. He didn’t understand why, after everything, Harry would choose to come sit beside him each night. Draco was nearly the embodiment of everything Harry hated. He couldn’t fathom why the raven haired boy would choose to acknowledge his existence, let alone remain in his company, each night.
Because Draco couldn’t see that Harry was struggling, too.
But Harry could see past Draco’s brave facade.
And Draco knew it.
So when Draco sat at the edge of the water that evening, wishing ardently for the inky blackness of night to swallow him whole, he didn’t bother to hide his ragged breaths or the tears trickling down his angled cheeks when Potter approached.
Because Harry already knew.
His father has been sent to Azkaban, mother leaving for France in an attempt to avoid shame from those left in the wizarding community. Eventually she would come back, she assured, but in the meantime, he was on his own. Indefinitely.
And then in potions one of the students was harassing Draco, who now sat at the very back corner of the room. He would perform his work diligently, but would seldom speak, unlike the intelligent, quick witted Draco he’d been before the war. Usually, he worked alone, avoiding all others like the plague, and, typically, that worked. However, when the potion got a tad messy, requiring all the students to push up the sleeves of their robes, Draco had refused, and, softly, politely, asked the sweet Hufflepuff that sat a table over from him if she would be kind enough to help with the messy part. Of course, she was kind enough, despite all that Draco had done that could’ve very easily allowed her to refuse his request.
Yet not everyone was quite so kind.
As she stepped forward to help, some boys in the row in front of him began to make an ordeal of it. Some of them taunted him, mocked him for his mark or insulted the sweet girl for opting to help Draco, others called forth the professor, who swept before him with a dark glare, warning him he either must do his own work or forfeit the assignment.
For the first time in his life, Draco Malfoy swept his bag up off the floor and marched out of class with the full intention of failing the assignment.
Because anything was better than having to stare his scar in the face.
Anything was better than acknowledging who he was, who he had been during the war.
Harry was surprised that night to see the blonde sat upon the ground in khaki pants, an emerald sweater pulled delicately over hands, but he wasn’t surprised to see the tears washing down Draco’s face. He knew the news. He saw the way people treated Draco in the halls. He saw Draco in a way the boy would probably never fully understand.
The last thing Draco expected to happen that night was for Harry to hunker beside him like he usually did, draping a large, warm cloak over Draco’s legs and delicately placing a chocolate bar in the Slytherin’s lap. Harry leaned toward him a little, their shoulders brushing and sharing warmth as Harry let Draco cry every tear he could possibly shed.
When his breathing finally returned to normal, Draco finally croaked out the first of many thoughts that had been bubbling in his mind from the moment Harry Potter first joined him in his secret space. “What could you possibly need help learning from me?”
His tired eyes fell upon Draco’s watery ones, and his face softened at the image before him. A few moments of silence lapsed between the pair as the dark haired boy gazed upon his companion. He stayed quiet, watching Draco’s pale face contort in frustration and confusion while Harry just stared at him with those solemn eyes.
When he didn’t respond, Draco continued, a bitter, pained tone straining his voice as he wiped the tears from his face with his sweater sleeve. “I mean, you’re the bloody sodding hero after all. Everything’s gone right for you. What could you possibly need from a person like-” his voice cracked, “a person like me?”
With a sigh, Harry scanned his face once more before he spoke. “Draco, why do you come out here? Sit out here day and night?”
The boy paused, clearly not anticipating having a question thrown back in his face, let alone his once arch nemesis using his first name so casually after years of rivalry. “You know why,” he grumbled, shooting Potter a half hearted glare, a feeling of vulnerability bubbling up his throat.
“Tell me anyway.”
“I’m alone,” Draco muttered, gaze once again drifting out over the landscape he’d spent countless hours studying. “I was a Death Eater. I stood for everything that was wrong and now everyone hates me for it. I’ve lost everything I had in life, and it’s not that easy to deal with.” He sniffled again, eyes darting back to Harry’s face cautiously.
“And I did something that sets me apart from everyone else,” Harry murmured back, eyes trained on Draco’s thin features as he continued. “I’m alone-” Draco scoffed, earning a stern glance from his companion. “I’m set apart from everyone else in this school because I did something different. Everyone is pressuring me to be some ‘golden boy’ that I’m certainly not. I just did something different, and now everyone wants something from me.”
“But you’re a hero. I’m a coward. We’re nothing alike.” It came out as more of a whispered statement than something emotional, but Harry could still hear the pain hidden behind Draco’s tone as he uttered the word ‘coward.’ He hadn’t forgiven himself; something told Harry that Draco probably never would.
His bangs fanned out across the top edge of his glasses as he shook his head at the broken blonde before him. “I’m as much a hero and as much a coward as you are.”
“How do you figure?” the boy replied with an indignant glance.
With a sigh, Harry turned toward him once again. “My destiny was to die. I had to die so everyone else could live. Had it been my destiny to kill others so that everyone could live, I don’t think you and I would be sitting here today with the war over.” Draco’s glance was confused, quizzical as he eyed the boy who for so long he’d considered a hero of the wizarding world. “You went against what you wanted, hurt people, to protect those you love most. While you may see that as cowardly, that you went along with Voldemort’s plan, became a Death Eater, I don’t. You were doing it to protect your mother. You went against everything you wanted to do just to keep her safe. I think that’s pretty brave of you, myself. And me? I died instead of sacrificing others, killed myself so that my friends could live. But if my fate had been to kill them? Kill anyone other than myself? Defy my beliefs? I don’t know that I could have been brave enough to go through with it.”
Draco’s eyes were glassy and wide, gaping at Harry as if he’d just discovered an entirely new person. “You think I’m brave?” he whispered, tears already dripping down his pale cheeks.
“Yeah, yeah I do,” Harry whispered back, pulling the cloak a little higher up on their figures.
The bugs were chirping through the forest, leaves delicately crinkling behind them as the light breeze fluttered through their thin clothes. Slowly, Draco rose to his feet, offering a chilly hand to Harry. “Let’s go back. We can find something warm to eat in the kitchen.”
Gathering the cloak, Harry took Draco’s hand in his own. Together they walked back to the castle, cold hands clasped together loosely. It was an odd sensation, they both pondered, but one they could certainly get used to.
It would be nice to be a little less alone.
After all, everyone was coping in their own way.