His own noisy breathing fills his ears as his sneakers pound on the shore. He runs close to the waves where the sand is firm and a dark slick brown, like a wet dog. Shells crunch underfoot as he grunts, breathing out the seconds and timing himself. Overhead, the stars begin to melt away as an overcast dawn breaks.
He collapses, as always, by the withered knoll of a tree. It overhangs the bank where the sidewalk drops abruptly away into soft, white sand. He clasps his side and allows himself the luxury of deep, heavy breaths.
It's getting into the heart of winter now. It is the twenty-seventh of December, and Draco Malfoy is determined to bring in the new year with a new job: Auror. He looks ruefully at his arms. He is slender, and, it seems, destined to be forever slender. No matter how much he trains, he develops a sleek, svelte physique instead of the solid muscles he longs for.
He has rested enough. He gets to his feet and begins, once more, with a slow jog.
He gets up at three a.m and doesn't want to die.
People always seem to die at three a.m and he does not want to join their ranks. So he stumbles from bed, pulling the soft covers away slowly and knocking over a glass of water from his bedside table. He cleans it up carefully, slowly, in the dark. He doesn't want to turn the lamp on. Light burns mystery away.
He pads into the cold dark kitchen. The tiles are freezing to his feet. He ignores the coffee-maker. He ignores the toaster, his slippers, the shower, the light switches. These are ordinary things that will not be part of his morning. These are things that are meant for eight o'clock, when parents pack children's lunches and businessmen catch the morning express to work, their newspapers folded neatly under their arms. These are things for sun and busyness and people.
Harry doesn't like people much.
He goes to the front door, pushing it open and jamming his sneakers on. They are grainy against his bare feet; perhaps some would find the sensation uncomfortable but Harry doesn't mind it. He goes for a walk now, past the empty bus stops and silent streets. He doesn't know where he wants to go but he doesn't mind. His heart leads the way.
And then he finds himself on the beach, which he has not visited since three years ago when Ron was still alive and everything was beautiful. There was a summer, once, when they had all sat on this beach eating ice-creams...
Harry allows the memory to float away. He doesn't need to think about the past right now, not the past with all its mistakes and events and stupid little things and stupid people.
Yes, he is right here now, isn't he? Yes. He is walking in the sand and watching the waves. And Merlin, they are beautiful, those waves. How has he never noticed them before? A beautiful froth of white crests slowly along a wave, each side of it, until it meets perfectly in the middle and crashes down in a perfect crescendo. Harry stares, mesmerised, as the wave fades to nothing. The foam edges slowly towards his feet.
He blinks, then kneels suddenly in the wet sand. Here is an enormous amount of perfect abalone shells. Harry likes to beach-comb, likes to search shores for treasure, and he has never seen so many shells. He examines them slowly, carefully. But he never picks one up.
Draco has reached the withered tree again. He will finish now, he decides. Do some stretches and walk home. Dawn has not completely arrived but it will soon. The morning bus service will roar along the beach. Residents will begin to walk their dogs and go for runs. School children will frequent the sidewalk, pausing occasionally to run onto the beach.
He casts his gaze along the beach. He never pauses to admire it, really, but it is quite a nice place. In the grey half-dawn light, he can see it properly now: the houses on the hill, the lone pontoon bobbing in the bay, the dilapidated yacht club on the very end of the beach...
And a lone beach-comber. Draco observes for a moment as the figure kneels down slowly in the sand and gazes at something. There are never many shells on this beach, at least nothing interesting. The beach-comber should have saved his sleep. Draco grins to himself.
The grin slowly makes way for a frown. The lone person stands up slowly, gazes at the waves for a long time - so long Draco thinks they must be praying or something - and then slowly walks forwards until the waves begin to wash over their sneakers.
Harry gazes at the abalone shells for some time. The beautiful glistening curves, the shining patterns, silver and gleaming like spilt oil. He stares at the waves, the foaming peaks and beyond them to the dark ocean on the horizon.
That ocean looks so beautiful, so inviting that Harry finds himself desperately wanting to walk into it. To just keep walking. Yes. Just keep walking.
So he does.
The beach-comber is up to their waist now.
Draco doesn't like it. It isn't sinister, or unsettling. There is just something strange in the way the figure never looks down at the waves, always looks ahead. They walk steadily, slowly, their chin raised, never looking back.
The water has reached their chest now.
Draco gets slowly to his feet, sand caking along his legs where they have been resting.
"Hey!" he calls out, breaking the silence. "Hey!"
A wave crests over the person's head. Draco stands for a moment, his heart thundering, blood racing through his veins.
He breaks into a run.
Water fills his world but he doesn't notice. The winter has been particularly biting but Harry can't feel it. He can't feel anything. He can't see or hear or smell or breathe but that's okay because everything is beautiful and perfect in this silent world.
He opens his eyes and looks at it all, at the dark water and past it, a smudge of light where dawn is breaking through the heavy grey clouds.
And then, a sudden flurry of bubbles.
Something is dark and thrashing to his left. He catches pale glimpses and gazes calmly as bright pinpricks of pain spatter across his vision.
And then, there is air and noise and light and he gasps and splutters, hearing a voice as if from far away.
"...what the hell...doing...alright? Are....okay...?"
No, Harry wants to say. I am not okay. Does it look like I'm okay?
But he doesn't. He finds he doesn't want to say anything.
So he lets himself be taken ashore.
Draco breathes hard as he half-drags the unresponsive person onto the beach. What the hell had the man been doing? Why had he just walked into the ocean, fully dressed? Was he crazy? Or just something he did, some quirk of his?
"Merlin," Draco says, forgetting for a moment it was a possible Muggle he was dealing with, "are you alright?"
The man says nothing. He merely sits in the sand examining minute grains. Then he rises to his feet.
"Hey, where are you going? You were under a pretty long time, maybe -" Draco stops short. Dawn has finally blossomed completely. The man's face is illuminated. There is a moment's silence.
Thoughts rummage through Draco's mind, searching for morals. A moment ago, he had been quite concerned by this man who had apparently set out for a fully-clothed swim. Now he wants to walk away, say something acerbic, humiliate Harry. But nothing springs to mind. Every insult he can think of doesn't work; it reeks of school-aged pettishness. It doesn't belong here, in this soft strange dawn. His brain goes into auto-pilot and finishes his sentence for him.
" - you should go to the hospital and check for fluid in your lungs."
Harry stares at him. Draco has his back to the rising sun; his face has been in shadow until now when he turns.
"Draco Malfoy," Harry states as though confirming something in his mind.
"Did you hear what I said? You should go to the doctor."
"To check for fluid in -"
Harry shrugs, an odd little half-shrug, and begins walking away.
"Where are you going?" Draco calls.
Harry stares for a while into the distance. The row of lights from a distant city are still visible in the dawn, like a beacon for the wandering and the weary. Then he turns abruptly.
"Where's home?" Draco repeats, and he finds himself treating Harry like a complete stranger. Perhaps because he is. His eyes, so full of fiery emotion at Hogwarts now gaze, unreadable, at inanimate things. A lumpy string of seaweed, a broken aglet on Draco's shoelace. His lips, always spitting out angry rubbish or nauseous sentiment, are now still and silent. Even his countenance has changed - his hair is now sleek and straight with water, his eyes devoid of spectacles, his skin bronzed. A strip of tiny freckles crosses his nose. He looks so...un-Harry.
"Where's home?" Draco repeats for a third time but Harry merely ambles off. The other man hurries to catch up. "It's freezing, you might catch hypothermia." This idea latches onto him suddenly - visions of Harry dying and accusatory fingers being pointed at Draco. "Listen, take my jacket at least." He opens his mouth to add 'please don't return it' but thinks the better of it.
Harry gazes at something just past Draco's left ear; Draco turns and sees the city lights fading into the daylight. A dogwalker makes their way down the steps at the far end of the beach. People are beginning to sleepily emerge, rising to greet the new day and all the horrors and dreams it will hold for them.
Harry listens to a song in his head. He can't remember the title, only the lyrics.
Fly the ocean to the silver city
Has anybody seen the boy in gray?
See the dark to the evermore star
Stretched on from September to May...
It goes round and round like a nonsensical verse and Harry stares at the tiny pebbles below his squelching sneakers, cemented forever into gray stone.
And then he is home.
Harry departs, turning onto another road. Draco glances up at the sign. Peppermint Drive. With that little redheaded girl, he supposes. Except she wouldn't be a girl now, she'd be a woman. And most likely a mother. Peppermint Drive. Yes. The perfect name for Harry's perfect street and perfect life.
Draco continues on to his own home on the main road, kicking off his sneakers in the front hall.
"You're leaving a trail of sand through the house again," a voice sniffs from nearby, female and distinctly chiding. "And who, I wonder, will clean it up?"
"I don't know." Draco goes into the kitchen and prepares himself breakfast.
"It's a wonder you don't have a house-elf for that. You've got some mail, by the way. Bills. I don't know how you let them spiral out of control."
Draco ignores the stack of bills, pulling a tub of butter from the fridge.
"Look at all these Muggle devices. I don't know why you have them when you can just as easily get by without these great big ugly things."
There is a long silence. Draco butters his toast and sits at the breakfast table, reaching for the paper. Narcissa tugs it from his hand.
"I've been nagging all morning," she says gently, "and you haven't said a word. What's wrong?"
"Didn't your little jog go so well?"
Draco knows Narcissa is deliberately baiting him; he takes his training extremely seriously and is always seized by fury when his mother refers to it as his 'little activities'.
He shakes his head. He is pre-occupied, thinking of a boy walking towards the horizon.
Narcissa frowns, genuinely worried.
"If I've outstayed my welcome, darling -"
"Of course not." Draco takes a bite of toast.
"If your father -"
"We haven't argued."
Narcissa sits back and sighs, observing her only child. It is on the tip of her tongue to say, you remind me of your father sometimes, but she doesn't. She knows how infuriated he gets on the subject.
Instead, she sighs and pours herself an orange juice.
As soon as Harry gets home, he takes his sneakers off by the front door. Rain is already beginning to spatter lightly across his face and he stands for a moment, letting the rain join the sea-water on his face and body.
And then he opens the door and stands, waiting in silence, waiting for something...
There is a clink of cutlery against a plate in the kitchen.
He closes the door gently, silently, and steals his way down the hallway, not stopping until he reaches the bathroom. There he takes off his sodden clothes and stands under the shower until the water runs cold.
He looks up, staring into the girl's concerned face.
"Harry, are you alright?"
He nods, managing to find a word to mumble. "Yes."
"Okay. You were just in the shower a long time, that's all. I worry about you."
Hermione touches the bundle of wet clothes in his arms. "Why are your clothes all wet?"
"I'm doing some laundry." The lie comes easily to his lips; he doesn't blink.
"Well, they're soaked. It looks like you forgot to leave them on spin cycle again."
He nods. He can't think of anything to say. He just wants to go to his room and crawl into bed and start the day again.
But he doesn't. Besides, Hermione will need him today.
And everyone else.
It's the most important day of Draco's life. If he gets this job, everything will be perfect. He looks at himself in the mirror, frowning. His mother comes up behind him.
"Draco, I still don't understand."
He folds his robes into a small bag. He wants to use the Muggle transport system to get there.
"Draco, darling, you don't need a job -"
"Yes I do."
"I can give you money, you have a whole inheritance waiting -"
Narcissa stops abruptly as emotion flashes through her son's eyes, too quick for her to catch. But she can sense the danger anyway.
"Good luck," she murmurs although she doesn't mean it. She doesn't want her child to be an Auror. Aurors get killed. Aurors get hurt. Aurors sometimes never come home, not even in a pine box.
"Thanks," he says and turns away.
Somebody, somewhere, is practising on their violin.
Harry listens to the high, fluttering notes. It's pretty. Not in a well-trained, classical way. In a rough, beginner's sort of way. Despite the pauses and off notes, there's something brash and raw and bold about it. The practising violinist isn't afraid of mistakes.
Nor is Harry.
He draws a circle in the sand by his sneakers, mesmerised by the way the spilled grains spread under his fingers. Big bold strokes. Like the violin.
He's sitting on the front steps. He'd come out here to do something, he can't remember what. But it's nice, with the big pale moon and the waves crashing in the distance and he thinks maybe he'll just stay here until...until it all ends.
Yes. Until it all ends.
There's light spilling out the window behind him. Laughter, loud noises. The door opens suddenly behind Harry.
"Oh! You scared me half to death. What are you doing out here?"
Harry considers the question for a while. His mind forms an answer.
"Watching...watching the stars."
"Oh. We're watching a movie, if you want to come inside?"
There's a pause. Harry ignores Ginny, gazing into the sky. Presently, she speaks again.
"Well...as long as you're alright. It's sort of really cold out here, I might go back in. Don't freeze to death," Ginny warns, retreating hastily into the warm light. Harry doesn't reply. The temperature is low, very low, but he can't feel it.
He can't feel anything.
Harry has a house full of people.
They came after Ron. Yes. That's right. At first there was just Harry and Ron. After spending seven years sharing sleeping quarters, they couldn't wait to spend time apart. Ron had a flat in Leeds. Harry had an apartment in Kingsbury. And after six months apart, Harry thought perhaps Ron's snoring wasn't so bad after all. Ron decided that maybe sharing a room with his best friend hadn't actually been that annoying.
So they pooled their funds and bought a house in far away, in a little place with a little sign saying Peppermint Drive. And it was perfect.
But now there was no Ron.
And after Ron went away, the people came. Oh, the people. So many of them. They all had smiling faces which was sort of funny because Harry hadn't smiled for a long time.
But now he has a house full of people, and they smile and talk but he doesn't feel like he's really there. No. He's not there. He's somewhere else.
Underneath the ocean, perhaps.
Draco pushes a sliver of roast beef around his plate. His mother watches from the corner of her eye.
"How did the interview go?"
Draco shrugs listlessly. A lone pea balances delicately on the end of his fork.
"Draco, for heaven's sake talk to me. I'm your mother. I'm supposed to -"
Narcissa stops, staring at her only son. He ignores her. He has never ignored her before, never dropped a non sequitur in mid-conversation. He has never been so distant. She holds out a hand but he withdraws.
"The water?" she asks. "What about the water?"
He stands up and walks away.
"What? Darling! What are you talking about -"
But he is gone.
The water. The boy and the water and the boy is walking into it, a strong silhouette standing alone. The sun blossoms across his cheekbones and Draco waits on the sand, waits until the boy's hair is wet and silken, waits until he disappears from sight.
Then he gets slowly to his feet and follows him.
He walks into those icy depths, he walks into the opaque blue ocean of his childhood beach holidays, and everything is beautiful underwater.
And then he wakes, gasping for breath.
And the dream happens every night.
There's a willow tree by Harry's home.
Ron was never fond of it. He could never forgive willow trees, not after second year.
But Harry sits in it now, running a long, stringy branch through his fingers. The stem catches roughly on his skin but the leaves are soft and silken like a time-worn secret.
Harry hasn't got a secret.
Just a head full of memories that are too bitterly beautiful to share.