They came back.
To finish their education, some said. To see everyone and everything for one last year, others said. To see if everyone was alright, still more claimed. Some came back because they were nosy. Some came back in the hope that they would just pick up their old lives again.
Draco Malfoy came back because he'd been ordered to.
"Luc – Lucius would have wanted it," his mother said shakily. But when she spoke of his education, she did so with a firm voice, for once her eyes direct. "You must continue to learn. You must finish your schooling."
He's not dead, Draco wanted to say. Please don't cry. We can go and visit him…we can be happy…
She had sold their manor. Too many memories, she said. Draco understood. He couldn't enter the drawing room without gagging.
"Things are different now," his mother had said. Yes, different. Happier now, but it was a bittersweet happiness. The war was over, his family was still alive, but a price had still been paid. His father was in prison and there were too many glances, too many mumblings and mutterings for Draco to ignore. They were on his side too; they ought to join him in Azkaban too!
The Littlest Death-Eater. The mocking nickname passed around the streets and was whispered gleefully as he went past. Those horrible beady-eyed, rat-nosed bastards, all looking at him and giggling behind their hands. He could see the challenge in their eyes. Go on, tell us to shut up, call us Mudbloods…and we'll claw your eyeballs out. We'll fight dirty, cast spells you can't imagine. He started it!, we'll cry. And everyone will say "Oh yes. Once a death-eater, always a death-eater…"
But he was smarter now. He would not bite.
"Draco, please pay attention."
He snapped around, distracted by the sight of them scuttling away and sneering over their shoulders at him.
"I'm sorry, I - "
"Ignore them. Focus on your education. You're very clever, you know…take after your cousin."
"All of them," Narcissa said quickly, realising she couldn't recall any of them. Little Marschius, wasn't it, Orion's boy? Or maybe she was thinking of Septimus…
"I only have one and he's so inbred people keep mistaking him for a troll," Draco said in an attempt to make his mother laugh. He got a weak smile and was satisfied.
"Nonsense, you have two. What about that second cousin, twice removed?"
"He was killed. At the Battle," Draco said quickly, as though the faster he said it the less painful it would be. Narcissa didn't reply although her mouth thinned.
"Mother, about my education," he prodded, trying to change the subject. "Must I go?"
"I don't want to leave you…by yourself." He hesitated.
Narcissa looked at him properly and sighed, smiling lightly for what seemed the first time in ages.
"I'll be fine. Go on, finish your education and become the herbologist you've always wanted to be."
"Mother, that was last year," said Draco, his voice filled with that pained tone all teenagers adopt when their parents say things like "Oh, isn't Weird Sisters still your favourite band?" or "Don't be silly, nobody's too old for a pet puffskein."
"Oh, what is it this year then?"
"I don't know." He kicked at the floor morosely and Narcissa, sensing a Mood coming on, decided wisely to move off the topic.
"Well, I'm certain you'll enjoy your final year."
"You sure you'll be alright?"
"Of course, darling."
"Only…you – you won't do anything…rash, will you?"
Narcissa caught the meaning instantly.
"Please don't think that, Draco. I still have home, and family and friends. A lot to live for." She smiled and pushed him through the platform wall; he was instantly assaulted by the noise.
"Oi – Finnigan! Finnigan!"
"Theo, sweetie, you forgot your owl."
"You! You didn't write all summer, you jerk!"
"Ooooh, you've really grown!"
"How was Greece, you lucky thing?"
"OUCH! That was my foot, you idiot!"
"Yes, mother, I've got a clean handkerchief."
"Don't forget to write, dear!"
"For Merlinsakes shut up Dean, I'm right here!"
Draco felt as though he was watching a play. An exciting, strange play that he didn't have the script for. Maybe his lines had been erased, thick black crosses through his name.
"Hullo, don't tell me I've missed the dramatics!" Blaise arrived, grinning maliciously and pointing at Pansy who had just arrived with her mother. "Oooh, another one of Pansy's fond goodbyes! How she loves her dear mummy," Blaise said gleefully.
But Pansy had learned her lesson. Too long had she endured the mocking of the Slytherins after her long and tear-sodden goodbyes, and she was on her guard now.
"Pansy, darling, please write, how I shall miss you…" her mother began to dab at her eyes, the beginning of a tirade of tears.
"Mother, don't," hissed Pansy, standing awkwardly as her mother tried to throw her arms around her.
"My beautiful baby girl -"
"Mother, I'm seventeen!"
"You'll always be my baby girl to me!"
"Mother, please don't make a show, people are watching," she pleaded, but her mother clung to her weepily and Pansy was forced to suffer.
"Poor old Pansy. What a laugh." Blaise grinned as Pansy spotted him and, blushing furiously, made a beeline for them.
"Don't be cruel, Blaise, what about your mother last year? Going on about what a big strong boy you've grown into, ooh my little Blaisey-Waisey…." Theodore Nott made his voice high-pitched and whiny; Blaise blushed and mumbled an insult as Pansy arrived.
"At least we've got parents, I suppose," Pansy said, with usual insensitivity to Theodore, and Draco thought of his with relief. Yes, you could see them dotted here and there in the crowd…by themselves, pulling their own luggage, smiling in a kind of self-conscious way. The orphans, with no one to hold them and no one to say goodbye.
And Potter was there too, chatting amicably to a fourth-year. Why exactly had he returned to Hogwarts? If that had been Draco, he would've wanted to suffer a nervous breakdown. Surely being killed was a good excuse to miss a school year.
The train let off a warning whistle, and the group was momentarily split up; Theodore returned to his family and swept his younger brother up in a bone-crushing hug. Blaise grudgingly returned to his parents, looking around anxiously in case Theo was watching. He only permitted his mother a quick, one-armed hug just in case.
"Your friends will take care of you, I can see that," Narcissa said. "Take care, darling."
They embraced for a moment before Draco ran quickly as the train whistled again and the students squabbled and scrambled.
"Has anyone seen my exploding snap cards?"
"Oi, you – you're standing on my jeans!"
"Yeah, budge up you fat lumps, there's hardly any room!"
"Prefects this way!"
"Would you quit doing that -"
"Is this yours?"
"Not that carriage, she's in there!"
"Is it true about the goat and the blender?"
"Scuse me, coming through…"
"What do you mean, you're not ready for commitment?"
"…and that damn Danish albino!"
He loved it, this chaotic jumble when everyone just kind of got mixed up and were too busy to pick fights – Gryffindors and Slytherins milling around each other, not paying attention. As though they weren't in school yet so they could let little things go – treading on each others toes, running luggage over feet, bumping into each other – they were just too busy to care, caught up in their own little world of excited goodbyes and hellos.
"Quiet at last!"
They were settled; the carriage door was shut, the train let off its third and final whistle and then a bell rang to signal its movement – and they were off, chugging away.
"I'm starved. Where's the witch and her trolley?"
"We only just go on! Anyway, you've put on a bit of weight, Blaise," Pansy said unkindly. "You're starting to look a little…podgy…"
"Shut up, Pansy, you're not exactly an oil painting yourself…well, except maybe the oil bit -"
They resumed their bickering and Draco frowned. It was just like first year…all the excited nervousness, everybody trying to return to their old lives. But for him things felt too strange, like ill-fitted clothes.
"I'm bored. Exploding Snap?" Theo produced a deck of cards hopefully.
"Let's go find Potter and rib him about something," Pansy said reliably.
"What about, Pansy?" Draco asked.
"What? Oh – I don't know," Pansy said, slightly disconcerted. "Anything. Dumbledore's pet?"
"Um – hangs out with a Mudblood?"
"I wouldn't use that term anymore if I were you," Theodore said slowly, ever the diplomat.
"He's rich. His brothers have built a small joke shop empire and they're not hesitating to share their fortune."
"Er – he's a stupid scarhead?"
"Original," Blaise said morosely.
"Alright, how about – how much he sucks, in general?"
"He just killed the most powerful wizard in the world," snapped Blaise.
"So? Doesn't change the fact that he still sucks," Pansy said defiantly. "He was never on our side -"
"Times have changed now," Theo said once more, in his slow voice. "There are no more sides."
"But we -"
"- were in over our heads. Our parents should have known better," Theo snapped. "They dragged us into it all. And now they have been defeated, their leader dead and their ranks broken."
There was a tiny silence in which they all tried very hard not to look at Draco; his heart quickened at the thought of anyone bringing it up. The Littlest Death-Eater.
Pansy opened her mouth again – Theo sent her a look – Draco pretended to settle down for a nap but spent the entire journey staring at his reflection in the window. His face flickered between shadows and sunlight until the sun set low and the evening star appeared.
"This feels – refreshing." Hermione was smiling, pushing her hair behind her ears; Ron was playing a game of chess against Luna. With a sudden burst of energy, she leaped across the carriage and embraced a surprised Harry tightly. "Harry, doesn't it feel – better?"
"Yes," Harry said quietly. "Yeah, it does." It was true. He'd had enough time over summer to mourn, to feel the losses – though he had told nobody about the Resurrection Stone, he thought about it all the time. Sirius, his parents, rising up and telling him – we'll always be right here with you…and that he, too, had known what they had gone through. Death…so quick and easy…easier than falling asleep…Their deaths, so painless and without unhappiness. And this year – his final year! – without anything. His scar, gone. His nightmares, vanquished. His enemy dead, his followers broken. No more fear, hurt, worry. Nothing.
People still followed him around, still stared and whispered, but people had always done that. He didn't know why they had to be in so much awe all the time! All he'd done really, when it came down to it, was pretend to be dead. He didn't see where that ranked in the list of top heroics, and (thank Merlin) Hermione and Ron saw this too (or at least, pretended to.) In any case, they certainly didn't faun over him or fill his head with gushing praise.
"This is just like first year!"
"Except we're a bit taller," Ron pointed out.
"I made my move."
"What? When? Where?" Ron stared down at the chessboard whilst Luna smiled serenely at him.
"How's it going, Neville?" Harry moved over as Neville entered the carriage, having chatted to Professor McGonagall about his Head Boy duties.
"Alright. They keep following me," he groaned, but Harry thought he detected a note of delight in his voice. Several beady eyes appeared in the crack between the doorframe and the door. Neville shut it pointedly and they heard soft sighs from the other side.
"You could say that," he admitted. It wasn't hard to see why; Neville had grown a lot since the chubby, clumsy boy that had first stumbled nervously into Hogwarts. His improved physique, teamed with the fact he had helped defeat Voldemort, had won him as many fans as Harry.
"Where's your cactus?"
"Gran said I was developing an unhealthy relationship with it and it was to stay at home."
A short silence fell over the carriage; they were all too scared to ask. Except, of course, Luna.
"Why, what do you do with it?"
"Oh, you know. Chat to it, play music for it, that kind of thing. Helps it grow."
"Oh." Everyone breathed again.
"I told her not to forget to water it once a month, and not to forget to tell it how good it's looking. It has self esteem issues." Neville shuffled a pack of cards, dropping a few. "So it should be alright." He dropped a few more. He may have saved the world with Harry, but he still managed to trip on his robes every now and again, knock over an inkwell when he wasn't concentrating.
Harry found this strangely reassuring.
"So, what are you going to do this year, Harry?"
"Learn," said Harry, and smiled.
Professor McGonagall sat down again; apparently, that was the extent of her welcome speech. After a pause the students began to eat, the noise rising again.
"How's George?" Hermione murmured uncertainly to Ron.
"Alright," he said heavily. "I miss Fred every day but…George will always miss him more, I think. It's like he's missing part of himself, too, part of his mind, like he's forgotten who he is."
"He'll get better," Hermione said. "He has to."
"Yeah…" Ron turned and smiled sadly. "He's asked if I'd fill Fred's shoes. You know. Become a business partner with the shop."
Hermione wasn't sure exactly what reaction would be appropriate and so she settled for saying nothing, but watched Ron carefully. He had been so easy to read before the war; now, things were different. His brother's death had changed him.
"I said yeah," Ron said, allowing himself a happier smile. "It's good, you know…for him to keep busy with things. For both of us. Thinking of the future. I told him I've had to come back here though for my final year, so Lee Jordan's stepped in temporarily. Just til I've finished my education, as Mum puts it."
The war had been particularly hard on Molly too but she was grimly determined to fight her way out of the depression that Fred's death brought.
"Some people lost so much more," she had said and Harry thought of Teddy Lupin crying out for parents that he would never see. He was, at the moment, living with his grandmother, Andromeda. Harry had often visited in the holidays with the whole ex-Order in tow, barging around and cooing over him. Harry thought Andromeda wouldn't like so many people intruding, but she seemed very happy, allowing Teddy to be handed round and making cups of tea. He had realised exactly how much she had lost. A husband, a daughter, a son-in-law. To go from that into a family of two…it was the emptiness, he knew. The places at the table, a vacant armchair, an empty bed. The excited crowds that had swept through twice a week could temporarily fill those gaps at least. Of course, Teddy helped fill more then most. He was a constant source of happiness in her lonely world. And Harry said he'd write once a week, at the very least, from Hogwarts. And a note to Teddy.
"I'll read them to him – he knows you now," Andromeda reassured him, and when she clapped her hands and said "Harry, Harry!" the little infant smiled gooily and gave that happy, ear-piercing scream only small children and banshees can manage.
"Let's go up to the common room before all Neville's fans ambush him." Hermione voice broke through Harry's memories.
"I don't know, he doesn't look that worried to me," Ron commented as Neville blushed and tried to extricate himself from a collection of doe-eyed fifth-years. But nevertheless the trio pushed their chairs back and 'saved' him and he followed them up the stairs uncomplainingly to where soft beds and blissful silence awaited.
"Double potions on a Monday morning! I should have stayed with George at the shop," moaned Ron.
"Don't be silly. Slughorn's still on, I see."
"Course he is, why would they replace him?"
So many people come and go…
"Just hurry up would you, or we'll be late. To our first potions class!" added Hermione, and clearly this crime rated up there along with 'playing Quidditch instead of studying', 'daydreaming in class' and 'writing in huge loopy letters to fill up the last four inches of a Charms essay' (this hadn't worked; Professor Flitwick had made Ron re-submit it.)
"Alright, so, if I choke on my bacon whilst rushing to make first class on your orders…"
"I won't feel guilty, no. Come on Ron, you can eat much faster than that. I've seen you."
"I'm not a bloody garbage disposal, you know!"
They finally left the Hall, making their way down to the dungeons and into the classroom.
"Quiet, please," Slughorn said, and Harry could see the war written across his face. He remembered him jumping in and dueling Voldemort and felt quite guilty about his dislike of the man earlier last year.
"Today we are learning how to concoct the Panacis Potion. Page five-hundred and" – he flipped the pages, frowning – "seven."
"Doesn't that take ages?" Theo stared.
"Professor, that's very difficult," Blaise objected.
There was a tiny silence.
"Who are you?"
Slughorn looked at him closely.
"Aren't you that Calweiss boy? Father owns that French Quidditch chain..."
"Er – Zabini actually..."
Slughorn considered this, then apparently wrote him off as a non-Slug Club member. "You're not taking NEWT level potions are you?"
"Well – actually, I was hoping I could talk to you about it, actually…"
Slughorn just stared, until Blaise muttered away into silence and collected his things, slinking away.
Draco, engrossed in trying to read some interesting graffiti someone had left on his desk, jumped when Slughorn called them to attention.
"…and don't bring any more friends in, Malfoy. Alright. So, the Panacis Potion is extremely difficult but a very helpful potion. However, it does have two downsides to it. Miss Granger?"
"The length of time it takes to brew, and the times at which is must be brewed."
"Very true. It takes precisely six months to brew. It also has several rare ingredients in it and I will require an essay on each one. Only when you hand in the essay and receive a satisfactory remark will you be given the ingredient."
Unnecessarily cruel, Harry thought, flipping open his Advanced Potion-Making. It was the last potion, right at the back.
"Is our whole grade marked on this one potion?" Hermione asked anxiously.
"No. You will also be given smaller tasks to complete. The Panacis has to be allowed to sit for several amounts of time; this allows for lessons to be put aside for other potions." He paused, as if withholding a large treat, then grinned round. "I'll be making the potion too, so you can compare your progress to mine."
Everyone looked mildly relieved.
"Right, to work!" Slughorn said, and two hours later the students emerged, blinking slowly in the light.
"We didn't even do any prac, just read all about the potion and its properties!" complained Ron bitterly.
"That's the most important part, Ron," Hermione said earnestly, but Harry wasn't convinced.
"Do I detect a note of unhappiness?" he asked her.
"Well…it's such a fantastic potion, I wouldn't mind getting stuck into it right away," Hermione admitted and Ron raised his hands in victory.
Behind them, Draco followed, keeping his eyes on the ground. Around him, the voices hissed. Awww, it's the littlest Death-Eater! How cute! What were his duties? Kissing You-Know-Who's robe hems, didn't you know? I hope he joins his father! Yes, he deserves Azkaban, the little coward…I heard they're thinking of putting him on trial! Oooh, I hope he gets the Dementor's kiss!
The Minister had actually come round in person. Narcissa had offered him a cup of tea. No milk please, he had said and Draco wanted to laugh and tell him that were he was sitting, the Dark Lord once sat. The Dark Lord had sat there and all sorts of insidious curses and words had snaked from his mouth, like poison…and the Minister sat in that very chair now, smiling and saying "No milk, please." Draco had the feeling he could have gone crazy but Narcissa had sold the manor and its memories before Draco could edge over that line.
And the minister, Kingsley Shacklebolt, had told them that the days of the Fudge ministry were over (and Scrimgeour – but he had happened so quickly, people just tended to push him aside) and that this wasn't the sort of government that went around locking up people and all that now. We're quite understanding of your position, he'd said, and then Narcissa had murmured something about Lucius that Draco couldn't quite catch, and then she'd told him to leave the room!
"Yes – it might be best if you go, Draco," the minister had said quietly, and Draco stormed from the room. He listened on the other side for ages but all he heard was indistinct voices, a short silence, and then his mother had ushered the minister out politely and told Draco "Everything is alright now." But it wasn't, with these voices hissing at him, the faces melting into shadows…they sounded like snakes…
"What's going on back there?" Ron turned around interestedly. His eyes skimmed automatically over Draco as though he couldn't see him. "Looks like your fan club, Harry…"
Harry turned too and saw the faces.
"What are you lot looking at? Clear off, the lot of you!" he snapped irritably and the faces stared, then dispersed grudgingly.
"I was only kidding, I don't think they were your fan club," Ron said.
"Yeah, well, I don't like large groups of people skulking around and hissing like that," Harry said.
"I don't like small groups of people skulking around and hissing," Ron said and it broke the tension. They laughed and Draco walked easier.
But they came again in the night, the dark shadows, their faces morphing, their voices low and accusatory. Murderer. Murderer!
He woke and splayed his hands flat against his mattress to stop them trembling.