First of December - Sunrise
The sky outside the windows of Gryffindor Tower glows with soft gold, vivid pink and liquid orange as the winter sun climbs above the horizon, creeping lazy tendrils into the eighth-year boys’ dormitory where Harry is curled on the brightest windowsill, gazing silently into the grounds and attempting, without much success, to put his socks on.
It is well past seven, and he thinks he promised to follow the others down to breakfast several minutes ago, but he can’t quite seem to drag his eyes away from the slowly-waking landscape. He can see movement in the distance as students drift around in the other visible parts of the castle and the stomping gait of Madam Hooch as she stalks across the frosted grass towards the broom shed, breath emerging in visible plumes in the bitter air. The forest, still mostly in darkness, hulks menacingly at the edge of the vast lawn, bare branches and spiky conifers harsh against the gentle colours of the sunrise, but Harry doesn’t shiver at the sight like he thinks the forest wants him to. He knows what’s in there and he’s not afraid. Not any more.
Hogwarts is home, every last bit of it, and he can’t quite believe that after everything that has happened, he has been given the chance to return, to attempt one more year in peace before being thrust out into a world that he’s not quite sure what to do with. The castle, rebuilt by hundreds of tireless, eager hands over a single dry, parched summer, is here once again to protect him, to protect all of them, and he is seized with the desire to appreciate every last moment of it.
Everyone had wanted to help, from students and teachers to Aurors and Apothecaries, ancient witches and wizards with canes and flasks of tea and stories, tiny children clinging to their parents, torn between pleading to lend a hand and peering around for a glimpse of the actual Harry Potter. All had descended on the devastated castle and all had been warmly received by Minerva McGonagall, who had managed the restoration with a wonderful, stern sort of grace that had turned almost everyone involved into friends and colleagues.
Harry smiles to himself, struggling briefly with his second sock and then giving up again. Business partnerships had been made during those long, hot weeks. Romances had sparked in the unlikeliest of places. Lost friends and relatives had been honoured with tears and laughter and stories upon stories of their lives. When Ron had laid a stone into the new parapet of Gryffindor Tower, turned it bright orange and dedicated it to Fred, the idea had spread like wildfire among the volunteers and soon, Hogwarts was alive with the memories of those it had once held, each spirit woven into its walls and preserved for all time. The castle is now dotted with coloured and patterned bricks, each representing the life of a person taken by the war with Voldemort, and Ron, much to his secret pleasure and not-so-secret embarrassment, has received a Special Award for Services to the School.
Harry tries again with the sock, finally looking down to see that he has been attempting to put both socks onto the same foot. He sighs, trying not to think about when or if his focus is going to return, and repositions the sock on the correct foot. His stomach growls and he glances down at it in surprise. He hasn’t been particularly interested in food lately, but he supposes he ought to eat something before Hermione tells him he’s looking thin again. The last time she had said so had been within earshot of Ginny, who may have agreed that she and Harry are better off as friends, but does not seem to have taken this as a reason to cease fussing about Harry’s health. Harry loves her to pieces, of course, but he doesn’t want any more lectures and he certainly doesn’t want any more vile-tasting vitamin potions in his tea, so he heaves himself off the windowsill and goes in search of his shoes.
The smell of bacon and toast and coffee reaches him as he walks down the last staircase before the Great Hall and he inhales deeply, feeling comforted but still unenthusiastic. He searches the Gryffindor table for his friends, finally finding them sandwiched between a group of third-years who are scribbling frantically with their Potions textbooks propped against their juice jugs and a cluster of tiny students who stare and giggle and nudge each other at the sight of him. He’s almost used to it by now, and he only feels a little bit embarrassed as he squeezes in next to Neville and one of them whispers, “Oh my goodness, he touched me!”
Neville grins and pours Harry a cup of tea. “I was just about to come looking for you. Did you get lost in your thoughts again?”
“Something like that,” Harry admits. “Thanks. I was also having some sock trouble.”
“Is that a euphemism?” Seamus asks, looking up from where he and Dean are leafing through a battered copy of ‘Commercial Lettings in Wizarding London’.
Harry wrinkles his nose. “No, but thanks for that,” he says, sensing movement and looking down at his plate to see that someone has placed four rashers of bacon and a mountain of fried mushrooms on it. Across the table, Ginny is staring at her Daily Prophet a little too hard.
“My gran says you need starchy foods if you’re trying to build yourself up,” Neville offers, looking at Harry’s plate and then at Ginny. “Not that I think you need to... sorry.” Nev sighs and closes his mouth guiltily.
“Your gran’s been feeding you something this last year or so,” Dean says, gazing at Neville’s solid form with clear envy.
Neville blushes and Harry focuses on his breakfast in an attempt to spare his friend’s embarrassment, but Dean is right. Neville is now almost the tallest of all his friends, only edged out by Ron, and he has become rather an impressive figure over the last couple of years. Impulsively, Harry reaches for a piece of toast and crunches into it, wondering idly about starches and adding just a couple of inches to his five-foot-not-quite-ten frame.
The thing he really admires about Neville, though, is not his size but his new-found confidence. The war has not been easy on any of them, but it has forced Nev to find his strength and the courage that was always inside him. He has fought fearlessly against the people who destroyed his parents, made his grandmother proud enough to burst and come back to Hogwarts with the weight of uncertainty plainly gone from his shoulders. Of course, he still turns pink if anyone mentions his appearance and freezes with panic at the idea of making a potion, but he is doing marvellously.
“Did your forms come?” Harry asks, noticing that the post owls have been and gone.
“Not yet,” Neville says, turning to Harry with a worried expression. “Do you think they’ve changed their minds? Maybe they did some more research into me and decided I wasn’t the right person for the job at all.”
“No chance,” Ron says stoutly through a mouthful of toast and Neville shoots him a grateful smile.
“Nev, I am pretty sure that there is no one better suited to going to the Amazon and studying tropical Mimbulas,” Harry says, oddly comforted by this exchange, which is now as much of a part of breakfast as staring first-years and Hermione’s horrible cereal. “They have not changed their minds.”
Neville nods firmly. “Right. Yeah. Of course they haven’t.”
“There’s plenty of time,” Ginny says over the top of her paper. “You’re not going until the summer. It’s only the first of December.”
“It’s the first of December?!” Ron splutters, eyes wide.
“All day,” Ginny says absently, disappearing back behind her newspaper.
Harry frowns. “What’s the matter?”
“I forgot to finish that essay for Flitwick,” he says, stuffing half a piece of toast into his mouth and getting to his feet. “And I gotta feed Fang,” he adds, chewing briskly.
“I’ll feed... him...” Harry tries, but Ron is already jogging across the hall, robes flapping behind him.
“Hagrid still away?” Neville asks.
“He’s back on Saturday,” Hermione says, seeming to notice them at last. She smiles at Harry and then pokes at her cereal with her spoon, lips pursed. “I still don’t understand why he hasn’t given me a job to do. It’s not as though I’m not trustworthy.”
Neville laughs. “Hermione, you’re probably the most trustworthy out of all of us. I’m sure that’s not the reason.”
“Of course it’s not,” Harry says, attempting to comfort her. “McGonagall’s the one handing out most of those jobs anyway, and I’m sure she just thought you had enough on your plate, what with taking half a million NEWTS...”
“And the first-year mentoring programme,” Ginny adds.
“And the duelling club,” Neville says.
Harry nods. “And the—”
“Yes, alright,” Hermione sighs, cutting him off. “I just hate the thought that he might think I don’t want to help.”
Harry nudges her knee under the table with his own. “Hagrid would never think that,” he says, and he really wouldn’t.
On the rare occasion that he has been able to catch up with Hagrid since the start of term, he has been nothing but grateful for all the help and support he has received, and he couldn’t be prouder of Harry, Ron and Hermione for returning to finish their education. In turn, they couldn’t be prouder of him for all of his hard work with the post-war Emergency Unicorn Breeding Programme, but it has been strange having him away so much, and Harry makes a mental note to head down to his cabin on Saturday for tea and an update.
“How are the Thestrals doing?” Hermione asks Neville, all traces of petulance gone from her tone.
“Really well, actually,” Nev says with a grin. “It’s all Luna, though, I’m just doing exactly what I’m told.”
“Just so you know, the idea of Luna bossing you about is really funny,” Ginny says, grinning.
“She doesn’t exactly boss me, she just sort of...” Neville pauses. “She’s behind me, isn’t she?”
Harry looks around slowly. Sure enough, Luna is standing behind Neville wearing a beatific expression and an alice band with conkers stuck all over it.
“Hello, Gryffindors,” she says, resting pale hands on Neville’s shoulders. “I think we should check on the foals before lessons start, don’t you?”
“We absolutely should,” Neville says, voice a little scratchy, and he scrambles to his feet, grabbing his bag and hurrying after Luna without another word.
At the table, Harry, Hermione and Ginny exchange glances.
“I think it’s nice,” Ginny says suddenly.
“I think you’re imagining things,” Hermione teases. “Neville and Luna? Really?”
Ginny just shrugs and returns to her paper. Harry abandons his food and leans on the table, cup of tea cradled in his hands. Stranger things have happened than Neville and Luna falling in love, he’s pretty sure of that. Strange things like the two girls sitting at the end of the Slytherin table, giggling like they’ve been friends for years, one in a green striped tie and the other in yellow and black. Even in his very first year at Hogwarts, when Voldemort was all but a memory, he never once saw the Slytherins mix with other houses like that, and looking back, he can’t say he blames them. He wasn’t the only one fed those toxic lies, those ideas about all dark wizards originating in that one house, and he wasn’t the only one who allowed those lies to colour his perceptions for far too long.
The restoration project had helped, of course, but it had been McGonagall’s firm insistence to the press, the Ministry, and anyone else who would listen that any student, regardless of what had happened during the war, who wanted to finish their education, would be welcome at the newly-rebuilt Hogwarts, that had made the difference. The change has not been immediate, but it has begun, and it can be seen in new inter-house friendships, the tentative feeling of unity, and, perhaps most interestingly of all, the presence of Draco Malfoy.
Harry doesn’t know why he had been surprised to see Draco on the first of September; he had, like so many others, spent his entire summer at Hogwarts, and though Harry had been too busy and preoccupied to spend much time with him, he knows that Draco had worked as hard as anyone and perhaps harder than most, working mostly alone and rebuilding entire sections of the castle by himself. He had proved himself skilled and committed, and his inevitable hearing in front of the Wizengamot found multiple witnesses, including Harry, Luna, and McGonagall herself, willing to testify on his behalf. Still, when he returned to the restoration project, changing his sober dark suit for stiff jeans and boots, he had remained isolated, angry, and almost completely silent.
Nothing much has changed since school started, Harry reflects, finishing his tea and heading out of the Great Hall in the direction of his first lesson. Bound over to good behaviour for two years, and with his father starting a long sentence in Azkaban, Draco remains quiet and shadowlike, speaking only when spoken to and hanging back very much on the edges of Hogwarts life.
Something about this tangles up Harry’s insides, makes him want to yell at Draco, to rile and provoke him, to do something so unexpected that he will have no choice but to react, but he resists, knowing that everyone must be allowed to deal with their grief and loss in their own way. The Weasleys are immensely well-equipped for such a process, he has found. There is no holding back or stiff upper lip for them; they cry and rage and hug and drink tea until every last bit of darkness is out, and then they pull tight together, hanging onto each other through tearful celebrations of lives lost and saved. He and Hermione have been folded effortlessly into these rituals, and while Harry suspects that he might have been quite lost without them, he’s still not sure where he belongs.
“Here. I belong here,” he mutters to himself, turning down the Charms corridor and slowing almost to a stop when he sees Draco leaning against the wall next to the classroom door.
Are you talking to yourself, Potter? his subconscious demands, but Draco merely glances up at the sound of his footsteps and then stares at the opposite wall again.
Harry bites his lip, discomfited. At one time, a situation like this would have led inevitably to a fight of some kind, but now he has no idea what to do. If it were anyone else, he would try to strike up a conversation, just to fill the silence, but he has tried that with Draco several times since term began, and it has never ended in anything but awkwardness. Still, giving up easily has never been his style.
He takes a deep breath of cold, damp air and scuffs his shoe on the stone floor.
“So... erm... have you done the homework?” he asks, voice seeming entirely too loud in the empty corridor.
“Yes,” Draco says, eyes still trained on the wall, expression blank. “Why, do you want to copy it?”
Harry leans against the wall several feet away, face heating. “No,” he sighs.
Harry looks away. He doubts he could get any more words out of Draco if he took off all his clothes and started dancing around the corridor, and it’s far too cold for anything like that. He supposes that it doesn’t really matter whether Draco Malfoy talks to him or not. There are more important things, like what the hell he’s going to do with his life now, or passing his NEWTs, or...
He closes his eyes and lets out a long breath. The trouble is that somehow it is important. He has seen this person broken, has seen him at his worst, seen him ruined, and yet he’s still here. He’s not his father, perhaps he’s not even a bad person, but as for what he is, Harry doesn’t know.
When he opens his eyes again, the door to the Charms classroom is open, and he is alone in the corridor.