All was well.
Harry had defeated Voldemort. He'd become an Auror, had a woman he loved by his side, friends he loved as much at his back. A life of family, adventure, success, or all three spread out before him.
Of course there was the part about how defeating Voldemort just might have driven him mad.
And about how being an Auror probably drove him madder still. As evidenced by the minor incident in which he'd managed to Splinch three foreign dignitaries. And when he'd made dragon abandon her eggs with a wave of his hand. And defeated an entire army of Inferi single-handedly. In one night. And there was also that time he killed Dolores Umbridge. Accidentally. With his brain.
And as for the woman he loved by his side: at first, it'd just been a monster in Harry's chest when he knew other men were looking at Ginny, wanting her. But then it had begun to claw inside him when anyone looked at her, and then when she looked at anyone else. The problem was with her being by his side—he didn't want her to leave, not ever; he wanted to own her, possess her, control her. He didn't want Ginny to cross the room to get herself a glass of water, and he knew that this must be wrong.
He felt the monster sometimes even with Ron and Hermione; he was jealous of them too. He was jealous even of the way they loved each other; he wanted them to stop; he wanted them to include him; he thought of them in ways he shouldn't; he didn't know what he wanted.
Harry woke up sometimes in King's Cross. The platform was covered by thin mist, silver in the dream-light. Something there was crying. A broken, mutilated thing was crying. It was under the chair. It was under the stairs. It was a child; it was dying inside every dark place.
Harry never saved it, and woke up.
Maybe the thing inside was Voldemort, still at work. Maybe Voldemort had given Harry something of himself the second time the Dark Lord had lobbed a killing curse at the Boy Who Lived, just like the first time. Maybe Voldemort had made a last Horcrux the moment before he died; maybe it was a piece of the Dark Lord's soul inside Harry welling with power, scraping against his ribs and heart, hungry for revenge, possession, control, life. Harry was more powerful than he had ever been. He was more powerful than almost anyone had ever been.
Or perhaps, in defeating Voldemort, Harry had gained not the presence of the Dark Lord within him, but something more of himself. Maybe it made sense that Harry Potter could dance with dragons and kill people with a glance; he had defeated the most powerful wizard in existence. Maybe, having saved all their lives, it was even right that he should be in control; maybe it was just that he should do whatever he wanted, how he wanted to.
Just like the Dark Lord.
Naturally, Harry couldn't stand the thought. So he quit the Aurors for a life of wild depravity, and quit Ginny Weasley for a long line of prostitutes and desperate characters. Of course, wizarding papers had a field day with Harry Potter's descent into the depths, but Harry thought that in living a life filled with parties, wild society, irresponsible, ill-advised liaisons, he would be putting no one in danger but himself.
Which, of course, was utterly untrue. He could hurt everyone.
After twenty months, he quit the life of wild depravity for the life of a subdued hermit, and quit relationships completely.
As for the bit about his friends at his back, he turned his back on them altogether.
Well, Harry did get better. Eventually.
That's what this story is about.
The first time Draco Malfoy came to Chimera Downs, twilight was just falling.
Harry felt the wards breach and went outside. Forearms on the fence that was not white, he watched the small figure on the field progress down the slope into the form of a man. There was no road down.
The man strode through the grass, which came up knee high or to thigh and was interspersed with weeds. As the figure came closer, Harry could see his hair was so light it was almost white. He wore a cream colored suit without a waistcoat, the jacket slung over his shoulder. His shirt was white, open at the throat.
The light that time of evening was magical. The man's hair was painted gold, his shirt likewise; the line of his throat shone gold. Gold glowed all around him. When the man was at last at the gate, Harry needed a moment to realize that the features were pointed, the expression pinched. The posture was arrogant and proud, and the turn of the lip was ugly. Of course it was; it was Draco Malfoy.
"What do you want, Malfoy?" Harry had not moved.
"Hullo, Harry Potter."
His tone was easy, laid-back, but underneath was a current just as snide as Harry remembered. "Some people put up wards for a reason," Harry said.
"We've all heard how you want to be alone to feel sorry for yourself and brood."
Carefully, Malfoy put his jacket over the top rung of the gate. "I think I'll stay, thank you."
"What do you want?" Harry asked again.
Malfoy appeared to be considering. "It has to do with Granger," he condescended to answer at long last.
Harry went very still. He had not seen Hermione in six months. "What about Hermione?"
"So you do care about her." Malfoy's expression now was smug.
"I said, what about her," Harry said through gritted teeth.
"Did you know she's going to have a baby?"
"I—what?" Harry felt a sinking feeling in his stomach, like a sickness only worse. It came to settle somewhere at his center, hard and tight, twisting him all the way up to his throat.
"Due in three months."
"How do you know about . . . Hermione?"
Malfoy hummed again, looking very nonchalant, or else self-satisfied. "When was the last time you talked to her?"
"Why should I believe anything you say?"
"My, my. Aren't we touchy." Malfoy started inspecting his nails.
Harry could feel himself getting angry. The tight feeling spiraling up from his gut to his throat was beginning to claw, and soon he would not be able to keep it down. This was why he hadn't seen Hermione. This was why he hadn't been seeing anyone. He was not fit to be near other human beings, and Malfoy had no right to make implications. Malfoy had no idea. "Fuck you," Harry said.
Malfoy nails apparently fascinated him. "No, thank you. I expect you don't want further information on Granger, then, if you're going to be in a strop."
Harry's knuckles were white. "I don't need to find out about Hermione from you."
"Oh, yes. I imagine you're in splendid touch with her. Owl her regularly, do you? Take afternoon tea?"
"What business is it of yours?"
Malfoy at last seemed to grow bored of his nails. He rolled his eyes. "Because everything revolves around you, Potter. Or have you forgotten? I happen to work in the Ministry of Magic. Granger happens to be my immediate supervisor. Honestly, you can't have been ignorant of this fact. Or does your complete lack of attention to people you presume to call friends—"
"Someone has to talk sense to you."
"No," Harry said, turning around. "No one really does." He went back into the cottage.
Malfoy stood at the fence and watched him go.
The second time Draco Malfoy came to Chimera Downs, Harry knew that he should not go down to the fence. He should not open his mouth. He should pretend Malfoy was not there at all. In fact, he should hex Malfoy into next week so Malfoy couldn't be there at all. He could eliminate Malfoy completely if he wanted. That was why Harry went down to the fence: he was afraid of what he might do otherwise.
Harry had come to Chimera Downs to protect his friends and everyone else from such impulses. He had meant to learn to control the monster in his chest, to lock it away so that it could never hurt anyone. He had been in Chimera Downs six months, and was no further along than he had been when he had arrived. He needed more time, and Malfoy wasn't helping.
Malfoy walked down the slope. Again he wore white, his lean torso a shadow in the thin shirt, silk translucent in the light. Somewhere between Malfoy and the setting sun, a crane rose from its nest, spreading wide milk wings.
When Malfoy came up to the fence, he laid his jacket over the rail. "Hullo, Potter," he said softly, as though he were there at the gate by appointment.
Harry scowled darkly and said nothing.
Slowly, Malfoy smirked. "Granger sends regards."
Harry's hand itched by his side. He still said nothing.
"Actually," Malfoy went on conversationally, "she's a bit too busy with her life falling apart to pay much attention to you. Sorry. I know you like attention."
Harry's hand clenched into a fist.
"It's Weasel. Naturally. Weasel never was good enough for her."
Harry felt like he was going to hurt Malfoy. He made himself stop, forcibly unclenching his hand and his jaw. He turned his face away. "What about Ron?" he asked, voice quiet.
"You know Weasel. Always the coward. The moment anything becomes difficult, he turns tail."
Harry opened his mouth, because Ron wasn't a coward; he never ran away; he stood up to anything and everything and he did it by Harry's side. Draco Malfoy was a prat, and Malfoy calling Ron a coward was—but Ron wasn't by Harry's side any more.
"It's the idea of being a father that Weasel can't handle," Malfoy went on. "He's a failure, not good enough: that sort of rot."
Harry closed his eyes. "Why are you here?" he asked for the third time.
Malfoy glanced at the sycamore that stood on the horizon of the slope. He looked at the cottage, and then at Harry. When he spoke, his voice was light. "Why are you?"
"This is where I live."
"Yes. But why?"
"I'm the one asking questions, Malfoy."
Malfoy made a quiet humming noise, looking thoughtful. His posture mimicked Harry's, leaning against the fence, standing about three feet away. His wrists dangled over onto Harry's side, and Malfoy had neatly folded back the cuffs of his shirt. It was a warm night. Malfoy had bony wrists.
At last, Malfoy stirred. "If you'll remember," he said quietly, and the crickets whispered too, "you defeated the Dark Lord. You saved us; me, Goyle, who knows how many others."
"So, what?" Harry said. "You've come to thank me?" His voice was thick with sarcasm. He was sick of people thanking him, frankly, as though he were a hero. They were only thinking of themselves, the comforting image they held of him. The fact that even Malfoy felt that way set him right on edge.
Malfoy looked startled, then sneered. "Of course not." He looked at Harry shrewdly, his eyes narrowed, lips pressed together. "What kind of life is this for the Boy Who Lived? Save everyone your quarter-life crisis angst, and Avada Kedavra yourself already. It would save everyone a great deal of worry; your friends needn't be concerned with giving you the time and space you supposedly need. You could just die." He seemed to think this was a grand idea.
Harry, of course, had already thought of that. Looking down at his hands, he asked quietly, "Is that what you came here for, then?"
"What? No." Malfoy looked mildly disgusted.
"I've told you: Granger keeps storming about like a Hippogriff with its head cut off. Unbearable to work with, and it's your fault. Worse still, she's likely to make you the baby's godfather whether you're around or not, and you know what absent godfathers are like: they completely ruin a chap."
Harry looked at his hands again. "You can't expect me to believe you came here just because you're concerned about Hermione."
Malfoy smiled grimly. "Concerned for Granger? I'm concerned for myself, Potter. Hormones are frightening things. Combined with a suicidal best friend—well, I haven't a hope of getting any work done. And that's not even factoring in Weasel, who is 'worth something, and won't make a miserable father, ihonestly/i, Ron.'"
It was a fair imitation, and made Harry swallow hard. He could hear Hermione saying those words, and Ron refusing to believe them. He could see himself being there, taking Ron out for Butterbeers, reminiscing about old times—about Malfoy getting turned into a ferret, about the saves Ron had made in Quidditch, about all the times Ron had saved his life. And then Ron would remember he could do it after all, and everything would be fine.
Harry almost put a hand up to his scar. Of course it wasn't burning. The scar would never burn again—and yet, sometimes, he could swear that it still hurt. "Go away," he said, pressing his hands to his temples instead.
"I'll just convey your regrets to Granger, shall I?" Malfoy didn't move.
Harry's tone was weary. "She's a Weasley."
Malfoy looked scandalized. "What filthy things you do say."
"Seriously, Malfoy. Just go away." Harry felt his fists clench without him meaning them to. "No one will get hurt."
"Are you threatening me now?" Malfoy looked interested.
Yes! "No," Harry gritted out.
"Your eyes have gone rather strange."
Harry closed them quickly. They were hot; the rest of him felt cold. He felt as though he were losing blood. He looked at his hand; it was a tell-tale pale.
Harry kept his eyes closed and took deep breaths. He had been teaching himself to do this, but he could not think of pleasant things—not happy memories, anyway: his parents' smiles, holidays at the Burrow, one late night with Ron, Neville, and Seamus in the Gryffindor common room, a breakfast with Sirius, Hermione's arms around him, kissing Ginny Weasley.
Instead, Harry thought of the field. There was a smooth plain of grass. A hill rolled gently down. There was no road. Breezes came quite softly, ruffling the grass, and insects made steady, heavy droning noises. Then Draco Malfoy strode through the field, and the peace of it was marred.
"No need to throw a fit," Malfoy said.
Harry breathed out, and opened his eyes. "I'm not."
"Looked like you were." Malfoy's tone was lazy, unconcerned.
"What do you want?" Harry asked.
"I want you to visit Granger," Malfoy said promptly.
Harry looked away. "I can't."
Harry didn't answer. After a while, Malfoy said, "It's because you're so special, isn't it."
Harry's hand ached to hex Malfoy into the next century, but he thought of the field, and unclenched his fist. "It's late," he said instead.
It was getting darker, and Malfoy's throat was a gleam in the shadows. "It is, rather; isn't it?" He spoke in a pleasant tone, but Harry got the impression he wasn't talking about the evening. "How long are you going to stay here in your grotto?"
"What business is it of yours?"
"No business." Malfoy paused delicately. "But I'm interested."
"Go away, Malfoy."
Malfoy had gray eyes. Usually they seemed colorless, like water: sometimes blue, sometimes stormy, always clear. Now in the evening light they looked silver, and seemed to glitter at Harry, hard like flint or steel. "It's a rather pitiful hovel," he said, nodding at the cottage that stood behind Harry's back.
"I said go away."
"You do realize that it's selfish holing yourself away down here," Malfoy went on, as though he hadn't heard.
"Selfish?" Harry was startled into asking.
"Oh, yes," Malfoy hissed. "You're just thinking of what you need, aren't you. Your friends try to give it to you, because you're Harry Potter, and you deserve anything you need, whatsoever you desire. And what of them? They don't deserve a thing, because they're not you."
There was a clamoring in Harry's ears, the monster coiled tight in his chest. Harry hated Malfoy in that moment, because every word he said was true. "Shut up," Harry said.
Malfoy smiled slightly. "No."
"What do you know about friends, anyway?" Harry sneered, because lobbing insults was an effective form of self-defense, however inelegant.
There was a line at the side of Malfoy's mouth which appeared when he smiled. Not quite a dimple—more of a crease, really—it deepened now. "More than you, it seems," he said, rather carelessly. "I'm in a position to help you particularly, Potter."
"I am," Malfoy insisted. "Most people like you. I don't at all. In that regard I have the advantage over . . . almost everyone, really."
"Here to help now, are you?" Harry mocked. "Thought you didn't want to thank me."
Straightening up, Malfoy slipped his hands into his pockets. He had a kind of easy posture, as though he belonged just there. The night was getting darker, but twilight lasted forever at Chimera Downs in this time of the summer. "Pansy Parkinson's grandmother is Czech," Malfoy said suddenly.
"Er," Harry said. "That's nice for her."
Malfoy ignored him. "A year ago, Pansy visited the Czech Republic."
"Did she now," Harry said blandly. "Fascinating."
"Quiet. I'm talking."
"Well then," said Harry.
"This is an origin story, Potter. Once a story ends, you go back to the beginning. You read everything taking into account the end, and the parts you thought you understood before take on new meaning. Pansy had come up to an ending, and that was why she went to the Czech Republic."
"That's nice," said Harry.
"I'm very clever with metaphor," Malfoy agreed, smiling smugly.
"And the point of your story is?"
Malfoy cocked his head to one side. "That Pansy is part Czech?" he suggested.
Harry had been part Voldemort. He didn't say anything.
For a while, there was only the sound of crickets, singing in the night. Malfoy was looking speculatively at the cottage. At last, his eyes slid over to Harry's. "She didn't find out anything. Pansy," he explained. "The places her grandmother had known were gone. No one knew her grandmother. Nobody remembered her. Everything was different."
"It happens," Harry said, without much sympathy.
"Yes," Malfoy said. "It does." He picked his jacket up off the rail, his fingers long and slender in the night. "So long, Harry Potter."
"Malfoy," Harry said.
Malfoy half turned back, his brow raised inquiringly.
Harry didn't know what had compelled him to call out. He didn't know what to say.
"Visit Granger," Malfoy said, then turned and walked away.
He moved in shadows, the moon catching his hair. Harry watched him until he became very small, and then he simply disappeared, like a flame blown out by the wind.
The sky was full of stars.
The third time Draco Malfoy came to Chimera Downs, Harry had had owls from Hermione, Ron, and Molly Weasley.
Hermione did not beg Harry to come back. Instead, she said, I understand. We understand. We miss you, but we understand. When you come back, we'll still be here for you. You do what you need to do. Between the lines Harry read, Come back, and We need you.
She asked how Harry was. iWe're worried/i and iyou're scaring us/i, read unwritten lines, and when she said that everything was alright, Harry wondered when she had learned to lie.
Harry folded up Hermione's letter and put it in the drawer.
The owls from Ron and Molly arrived in the next few days. Harry didn't read them, and put them in the drawer. Then he took out a sheet of parchment, and wrote, Stop telling people where I am, because it was easier than, I'm fine or I still think I might never be fine again. It was easier than, I'll be here for you or I can't be there for you. It was easier than I love you.
Harry didn't have an owl. He made the letter disappear with a tap of his wand.
When the wards broke that night, Harry thought about simply leaving. He could so easily run away. But through the window he saw the speck coming down the slope, and it was white. Harry went outside and waited at the gate. The speck resolved itself into a figure, and the figure was Malfoy.
Malfoy had always walked with a kind of saunter. At Hogwarts it had made him look ridiculous, and Harry had always thought it one of Malfoy's pretentions, just a put-on to make him look more sophisticated than he was. Watching him now, for the first time Harry realized that in school, Malfoy had been gawky, which may have accounted for at least a little of that ridiculousness.
Malfoy wasn't gawky now, and whether or not his saunter had been faked then, now it was just how he moved. He had grown into it, and there was a peculiar kind of grace in his gait, even if it still made him look like a cocky git.
"I didn't tell anyone where you are," Malfoy said, and waved Harry's note in front of his face. "How long do you think I've spent looking for you, versus how long Granger's spent?"
"What?" Harry said.
Malfoy shrugged. "I had a look at her notes."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Should have known. You're a little spy."
Smirking, Malfoy said, "So says the bloke who couldn't stop following me around sixth year."
Harry frowned. "I knew you were up to something."
"I was always up to something." The smirk grew lazy, and Harry's frown deepened.
"What are you doing back here?"
Malfoy raised a brow, feigning surprise. He waved the letter again. "Why, Potter. I thought you wanted me."
"I wanted you to get away from me."
"Mm. That's why you go sending me special little messages."
"Give me that." Harry grabbed the letter. It said just what he had written on it. "This isn't special; it's for you to stop annoying me."
"It's special when you're not sending them to the other boys in class."
"What is wrong with you?"
"Nothing. I'm splendid. Thank you for asking."
"I just want to be left alone!"
Malfoy went a shade paler, but his indolent tone didn't change. "Careful. You'll break your little house."
Behind them, the cottage was shaking. Harry's eyes were hot again, his blood gone cold. He tried to picture grass, and couldn't. He tried to picture ice, and couldn't. All of it was rainstorms and fire, and the ground was shaking, the old sycamore in the hollow was shaking, the fence was shaking, and Draco Malfoy just stood there. His eyes were wide and his skin had gone pasty, but he stood there still.
Harry felt the clawing in his chest. The monster could claw all the way out, out his mouth, out his fingertips. It was dark and coiled tight, but it could slither out, the way Nagini had slithered out of Bathilda Bagshot; it would wind and coil and with claws, it could kill. He could kill; he could hurt; he was pain and death and—
"Leave," Harry whispered. "It's not safe for you here."
"You can quit the theatrics, Potter," Malfoy said. His arms were still resting on the gate, but his face was ashen, and his voice trembled.
"I can't always control it," Harry said. There was pleading in his voice.
Malfoy's eyes were huge and dilated, so that they looked black in his white face. His voice still trembled. "You're not special," Malfoy whispered. "You're just some bloke. You're just spoiled and indulged for being the Savior of the Wizarding World."
Harry shuddered, and the world stopped shaking.
Malfoy's face was very sharp. "Don't make me hit you over the head with a frying pan."
Harry breathed and breathed and breathed, and at last the world seemed to tilt upright. Blood was coming back to his fingers, his hands. His head was pounding, his stomach roiling, but the world around him was still. It felt like his scar hurt again, even though he knew it didn't.
Malfoy stood there, slender and tall, wrists dangling over the gate, collar open to the night air.
Swallowing, Harry closed his eyes. "A frying pan?" he asked at last.
"I saw it in a film." Malfoy sniffed.
Harry blinked. "A film?"
"Yes, a film; you know, Muggle moving pictures. Roger Rabbit, as it happens. Potter, are you feeling quite well."
Harry frowned. He was feeling much better. "But you can't watch Roger Rabbit."
"It's a PG, for goodness sake. Why on earth not?"
"But you're a Malfoy. You don't watch Rodger Rabbit."
Malfoy stared at him. Color was slowly coming back to his face, a healthy pink that was nothing like that ghastly white, and his eyes were becoming normal size—and narrowing. "I feel sorry for you," he said finally, his voice tight. "Very sorry. I feel sorry that your emotional growth is so stunted that you're stuck at the age of seventeen, unable to learn or accept anything new, and isorry/i that now all those Muggles and Ministers and Aurors a-and Dumbledores—" here his voice stumbled a little—"finally stopped manipulating you, you feel like you have to let loose and go crazy, that you can do anything you want, that you should be able to, that defeating the Dark Lord and saving us all and years of being used and—and—"
Malfoy stopped suddenly, and shoved his fists in his pockets. "I'm sorry for you," he said again. "I really am. And I—but it doesn't matter, really. You are still a human being, Harry Potter, no matter what you've done. No matter all the things that've happened to you that you think make you special—whether you think it makes you better than us or worse than us. You are still a man and you still have to act like one." He turned away a little. "Oh yeah. And you're still a specky git with bad hair." Malfoy turned around to go away.
"Don't," Harry said.
Malfoy paused, the line of his thin shoulders stiff. When Harry didn't say any more, he slowly turned around. "Afraid you'll miss me, Potter?" he sneered.
Harry opened his mouth, and then realized he didn't know why he had called Malfoy back. "About Hermione," he said finally.
"Yes?" Malfoy looked impatient.
"I'm not ready."
"Bollocks you're not ready," Malfoy said immediately. "You're just the kind of 'not ready' you'll always be if you don't do something." Malfoy came back, directly on the other side of the gate from Harry. He leaned in, his voice swift and low. "Don't you think I know?"
"You don't know anything about it."
Malfoy drew himself up. "You're the one who doesn't know anything." Harry expected Malfoy's voice to be cold, but it wasn't. "You think you're falling apart. You think you'll break apart. Then you'll get swept along the street, so many bits of debris, just rubbish in a bin. You think you might be nothing, and you just might let it happen. Let me tell you something, Potter. It won't happen. You'll stay together, not because you're strong, but because you can't fall apart. You'll wake up every morning, and you'll still be there. You're still something and you're someone, and it goes on and on and on."
"I'm not afraid of being nothing." Harry frowned. "I'm afraid of being everything."
The easy air, the not-cold tone, fell away. "You're afraid of yourself!" Malfoy exploded.
"Yes!" Harry shouted back.
Malfoy looked badly startled. "Oh."
Harry relaxed a little. Talking to Malfoy was easier than talking to Ron or Hermione would be, easier than anyone else would be. Malfoy didn't understand what was wrong. Malfoy didn't want to understand what was wrong, and that was the best part, because it meant didn't have to talk about it. Harry didn't have to think about it, and Malfoy wouldn't be concerned or pitying or understanding. Malfoy would just talk at him and Harry would talk back, and the thought of being able to do that made the monster curl quietly inside him, settling as if to go to sleep.
"Oh," Malfoy said again. He gave a twisted smile. "Well, they say admitting you have a problem is the first step."
"To what?" Harry said, with some suspicion.
"To pulling yourself together. Doing something. To not wallowing around feeling sorry for yourself making all your friends miserable."
"Friends?" Harry's suspicion remained.
Malfoy didn't move for a moment. Then he stirred. "Not me, of course. I'm happy as a clam. Couldn't care less how miserable you are."
Harry realized his suspicions regarding Draco Malfoy were not going to subside any time soon. "Hmm," was all he said, and Malfoy looked badly startled again.
"No, really," Malfoy said anxiously.
"If you're so happy, why do you keep coming here?"
"You mean this den of dreary depression?" Malfoy rolled his eyes. "I can't imagine why."
"Really," Harry said. "Why waste your time?"
"I did tell you about my work situation, right?"
"It's an awful lot of effort to here, just because you're being harangued by your boss."
Malfoy looked at him incredulously. "Do you remember getting harangued by Granger? Because if you do, you'll remember that no length is too great."
Talking like this, conversing just as if he were an actual human being, made Harry think he could almost do it. He still didn't have the monster under control as much as he would like, but in these three evenings with Malfoy, Harry felt he'd come farther than he'd been in the last six months. Maybe Malfoy was right, maybe he needed to move on. He was never going to be ready if he didn't try. "Alright," Harry said.
Malfoy suddenly looked as suspicious as Harry had felt earlier. "Alright, what?"
"I'll go see Hermione. Then will you be happy?"
Both Malfoy's brows slowly rose, but he said only, "I told you I'm already happy."
"Whatever, Malfoy," Harry said, turning to go back to the cottage.
"Don't make false promises," Malfoy called out to him.
The next day, Harry took out Ron and Hermione's letters, and tried to write out a reply.
He couldn't stop thinking about what had happened with Malfoy—the shaking house, the grounds, the monster that clawed up inside him, the way he couldn't seem to make it stop. If all of that could happen with someone he was indifferent to, it could be worse with people he really cared for. He could still hurt them.
Harry was trying to get better. He didn't want to be wild and destructive, out of control, but he didn't want to be a hermit, either. What he wanted to be was ready. He wanted to have time enough and space to control his power, whatever Voldemort had done to him, or he had done to himself. He wanted to deal with torture he had seen, those who had died, crimes he had helped commit. He wanted to process all the things he'd never been able to because he'd been too busy saving the world, and after that, too busy forgetting.
Harry wanted to take his losses—of friends, of battles, of self and heart and freedom—take them one by one and look at them, understand them, and deal with them. Then he wanted to put them in a deep dark place inside himself where they could never hurt anyone, where they could never scratch out from his chest and demand some kind of vengeance, recompense, life or light.
When he had wanted to leave, Ron and Hermione had been torn between making him stay, and giving him the time and space he needed. They knew what he had been through. They knew that as bad as things had gotten for them, Harry was the one who had walked into that forest alone. They understood that they couldn't understand what had happened to him, and they understood that better than everyone else, and that was why they had let him go.
They were all like that—Harry's friends, everyone he loved, so sad and understanding and willing to help, even after all Harry had done. Even Dean Thomas thought that Harry probably couldn't help the way he'd been with Ginny; Dean had just wished Harry would be that way with someone else.
Then there was the rest of the world. The rest of the world fell into two categories: those who were in awe of Harry Potter, and those who feared him. He had, after all, saved the world. He was a hero, wasn't he? But he had also Splinched three foreign dignitaries, tamed a nesting dragon, fought an army of Inferi, and killed Dolores Umbridge by accident. He was terrifying, and amazing, and no one could seem to decide which was prevalent.
When Harry Potter tried to tell anyone whom he did not already know, "I'm just a man," they never seemed to believe him.
This was the way in which Malfoy was different.
If Harry told Ron and Hermione he wasn't ready, they would understand. They shouldn't, though. They should have given up on him by now; they should have given up on him by the time he quit the Aurors. Even then he had begun to be too wild, too careless. But Ron and Hermione would forgive him anything he did, because they loved him.
Harry's hand closed on the parchment lying blank before him, and crumpled it into rubbish.
The next day, Harry visited Ron and Hermione.
The first time was difficult. They were so understanding, and he didn't deserve it; people should earn things like love and trust, not be granted them. Harry was careful not to get angry, though. Things would go badly if he got angry. Hermione and Ron, in turn, could tell that he was being careful, and became even more understanding. Harry focused on the field.
There was a plain of grass, gently ruffled by a breeze. There was no road, and Draco Malfoy walked down the slope. Behind him flared up gold.
Hermione was talking about work and drafting legislation, something about Pygmy Puffs and werewolf rights. If she had been talking about the baby or Ron or the millions of things Harry had missed in the past six months, Harry didn't think he could have stood it. Instead she talked and talked, so Harry didn't have to. She had a pleasant voice. He had always liked it.
Ron kept plying him with Butterbeer, grinning like a madman.
When he was leaving, Hermione said, "Can we visit you at Chimera Downs?"
Harry's chest grew tight. "I . . ." he began.
"That's alright," Hermione said smoothly. She did not sound kind; she sounded like business. It sounded so good, Harry tried to get his breath back. "Come and see us every Thursday," Hermione suggested instead.
Harry breathed out. "I don't know if . . ."
"It can be quite regular," Hermione said, in that same businesslike tone. "Every Thursday at seven. You can come by Floo. We can eat and talk for one hour, and then you can go home."
"If you want," Ron added.
"Okay," Harry said. They were making it so easy by making it so very hard to say no.
"Missed you, mate," Ron said, and clapped him on the back.
Harry thought that he could do this.
The next evening, Malfoy came strolling down the slope just at twilight. His legs looked long long long in the green grass, and Harry knew the way grasshoppers sometimes jumped up and snapped thighs. Saturn was in the sky.
When he got closer, Harry could tell that Malfoy had showered recently. His hair looked wet. It was darker, and curled under the ears.
"Well, you did it."
Harry just looked at him. "How do you know?"
Malfoy put his nose in the air. "As if I can't read Granger like a book."
"I guess you like her."
"Who, me?" Malfoy looked mildly perturbed. "Anyone can read Granger, Potter. She lights up like a Lumos whenever someone comes through for her. So few people do. She's surrounded by incompetence."
"You think she deserves better."
"Of course she deserves better!" Malfoy exclaimed, ruffled.
"See what I mean?" A dry smile tugged at Harry's mouth.
"I admire intelligence," Malfoy said irritably. "I don't like seeing it put to waste."
Malfoy frowned. "I didn't say anything about your own intelligence. Granger's cleverness is completely wasted on—"
Somehow while Harry had been slowly going mad, Malfoy had forgotten how to be a mindless bigoted prat. "I meant thanks for suggesting I visit."
Malfoy opened his mouth. Then he closed it again, and swallowed. "Oh," he said, scowling.
"What you said about . . . about being ready," Harry said. "That helped."
"I'm a very helpful person."
Harry was watching him. Malfoy had brightened considerably. "That stuff you said about being nothing—"
"—was all wisdom I've garnered in my old age," Malfoy said quickly. "I have become sage-like. Ask me anything. I'm thinking about growing a beard."
Harry blinked. "A beard?"
Malfoy tilted his head. "Why not?"
"It would be . . ." Harry frowned, ". . . wispy."
Drawing himself up, Malfoy said, "My beard would not be wispy."
Harry realized they were talking about Malfoy's beard. He was okay with that, he thought.
When Harry thought of the field, with the waving grass and the sycamore on the horizon, Malfoy strolling down the rise. Somehow that was alright; Harry wondered why. Ginny never could be in that field, or Ron or Hermione. People he had loved, friends, enemies, strangers, could never be in that field.
Harry had disliked Malfoy intensely, had mistrusted him, yet now he felt no animosity. He felt no friendship either, but the result was not indifference. Now when he thought of Malfoy, he felt, more than anything, a sense of resolution. Perhaps that was something you could feel only towards someone you had once considered an enemy. It felt like peace.
"It would be wispy," Harry said, and smirked.
Malfoy's shoulders were the stiff little line they became when he was cross. "I'll have you know that my family has a great tradition of sporting fine facial hair."
"I asked you to come inside."
Malfoy looked startled. His shoulders hunched. "Why?"
"I might want to cut you up into little pieces and use you for dark rituals," Harry suggested.
Malfoy darted a nervous glance over Harry's shoulder at the cottage. "Not funny."
"We can play Exploding Snap."
"Because you're twelve?"
Harry tried to think of something else normal people did. "We can have a drinks."
"Potter," Malfoy started, and then stopped, seeming to steel himself. "I . . . yes. Alright." He looked defiant. "Fine. Let's go in and have a drink."
Harry brushed down the wards, and opened the gate.
Still looking slightly pale and distinctly ruffled, Malfoy stepped through the gate, then followed Harry down the garden path to the cottage. Inside, Harry got him a glass of Knotgrass Mead and sat down on the big chair.
Malfoy stood looking around, about as uncomfortable as Harry had ever seen him. But Harry had seen him worse than uncomfortable, had seen him cowering and crying, and Harry found this strangely soothing.
"You can sit down," Harry told him, "if you want."
"Your politeness, as always, astonishes me." Malfoy looked around, his lip curling. "How long do you plan to stay here?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, you can't always be a hermit. Even one who visits people."
Harry wanted to touch his scar, and stopped himself. "Why not?"
Malfoy rolled his eyes. "Don't pretend you don't love being famous."
Harry blinked. "Do people who love being famous usually do everything they can not to be found?"
"Whatever. No doubt you just did it for the attention."
Harry smiled. "Where should I be living instead?"
Malfoy shrugged. "How should I know? Get a flat."
"People live in them, Potter. You find them in towns, where there are other people."
Harry's mouth twitched.
"Then, once you've got somewhere respectable, you find yourself an occupation."
"Yes," Malfoy said, irritably. "Are you going to repeat everything I say?"
"What do you do?"
Malfoy looked surprised, then annoyed again. "I told you. I work for Granger. Don't you know what she does?"
"Er," said Harry. "She drafts legislation."
"Merlin." For a moment Malfoy looked very put-upon, then he waved his hand dismissively. "For your information, your erstwhile girlfriend is head of the Department of Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures."
"I knew that, actually." Harry ignored the 'girlfriend' jibe.
"Good on you. Can you spell her name?"
"Even that," Harry said, and grinned unabashedly.
"Lord save us." Malfoy rolled his eyes. "I liaise with the International Court of Magical Creature Law, specifically."
"How did you get into that?"
"By means of a very long story that wouldn't interest you," Malfoy said, pursing his lips. He had relaxed somewhat, which meant leaning back and crossing his legs, ankle to his knee. He had bony ankles, too.
Pulling his eyes away from Malfoy's socks, Harry said, "Try me."
Malfoy narrowed his eyes at him. "I put in an application. I was qualified so they accepted me. One day I was reading through a bill and noticed that it violated international law. I pointed it out to Granger. She pushed it and got promoted. I did too."
"That's not a long story," Harry pointed out.
"I shortened it for your tiny brain."
"Come off it, Malfoy."
Malfoy gestured wildly. "What do you want me to say? You want to hear how I was a clerk shut up in a cupboard and ignored for two years, that I worked my fingers to the bone just to find something that would make someone notice me? Do you want to hear how I groveled to Granger? Do you want to hear about how if she hadn't sponsored me, no one would have given a toss for a former Death Eater?" The color was high in Malfoy's face. His eyes were bright.
"No." Harry raised his brows. "I'm just making conversation."
Malfoy gave an ugly little laugh. "Excellent. Take the sordid details of my life and make them into idle small talk, how exquisitely well-mannered."
"I'm not making fun of you."
"Really?" Malfoy said sarcastically. "Then what are you trying to do?"
Harry resisted the urge to touch his scar, and looked away instead. "Be human."
"I—oh." Malfoy had narrow, slender shoulders, but Harry was used to the way that he tried to square them up, setting them as though he could make himself bigger. Now they sagged; Malfoy deflated, and suddenly he looked tired.
"Well," Malfoy began again, and visibly recouped. Up the shoulders came, square they set, so much like a soldier gathering his courage that Malfoy somehow looked brittle. He gave a small tight smile that held no mirth at all and was obviously forced. "I see. That's very . . . valiant of you. I rather expected you to expend such efforts on Granger and Weasel and such. You'll pardon me if—if—" He seemed to grope for words.
"I guess us having a normal conversation isn't very normal."
"Just so. That's it exactly. You've hit the nail on the—" Seeming to realize he was babbling, Malfoy stopped himself by swallowing. "I didn't come here to be friends," he said suddenly.
"It wasn't an attempt to begin again, with you." Malfoy waved a vague hand. "What I said about beginnings, it wasn't because I once—" Malfoy stopped himself again. "What's done is done. We were never friends, Potter."
Harry was scowling. "You mean that story about Parkinson and the Czech Republic?"
"Oh good," Malfoy said. "You were listening. I came because I thought I could do something right for once. Granger was in a strop and you were sulking in a corner, and everyone still talks about you as though you're the second coming of Merlin, except I know that you're not. I'm the only one who knows, and I thought that if someone talked to you as though you were a human being you might—maybe you could act like one."
Harry gritted his teeth and looked away. "I'm trying."
"Yes," Malfoy said, still sounding agitated. "I just didn't think you would try to act like a human being to me."
Harry barked a laugh. "Is that all?"
Malfoy bristled. "Is what all?"
"Malfoy. You're not special either, you know."
Malfoy looked shocked. Then he masked his expression, an odd sort of thing to see, just like the setting of his shoulders. When he spoke, however, he sounded merely annoyed. "I'm special, Potter. I'm a special unique snowflake. You will note that I, however, am not the one hermiting in a hovel as though my specialness somehow exonerates me from living life."
"Alright," Harry said, and smirked again.
Disconcerted, Malfoy moved away and pretended to look at the bookshelves. He coughed politely, and eventually asked, "How do you occupy your time here, anyway?" His voice was a note less confident than usual.
"Small talk?" Harry asked.
"We can fling insults if you'd rather," Malfoy snapped.
"No, that's okay," Harry said, and smiled again. Malfoy looked distinctly uncomfortable, staying rather close to the bookshelves, as though they might protect him. "I've done a lot of reading."
Malfoy looked as though he were fighting a smart remark. Instead he only said, "You never struck me as a bookish type."
"It's dead boring," Harry agreed. "I've also been trying to get better at potions brewing, and wandless casting. That sort of thing."
"You cheated in sixth year," Malfoy said. "I heard about it."
"You cheated all the time," Harry pointed out mildly.
"I did, rather," Malfoy said smugly. He seemed pleased Harry had noticed.
"See," Harry said. "This isn't so bad."
Malfoy looked like he was warring with himself again. At last, with effort, he managed, "I don't suppose it is." A wrinkle appeared in his forehead when he frowned thoughtfully, which he was doing now. His hands were in his pockets, making him look at ease despite the frown, and his shoulders sloped naturally.
Malfoy was the first person ever to be in the cottage besides himself, Harry realized suddenly. Harry had built the cottage, built it all himself with magic. The terrifying part was that it had not been hard. But here was Malfoy with his hands in his pockets, reading the titles of books and frowning in that thoughtful way. He could almost be a normal person, and Harry could almost be normal too here with him, as though they merely were acquaintances having a normal conversation. It was easier than with Ron and Hermione. It was easier than anything.
"What do I do after I get a job?" Harry asked suddenly.
"Hmm?" Malfoy murmured, and turned toward him again.
"You said I have to get a flat, then a job. After that?"
Malfoy's eyes rounded in surprise, and then the mask returned. "Everyone knows that one," he said lightly, turning back to the books. "Marry the girl of your dreams, have three children, name them after your father or your father's father or better yet, your great-uncle. Buy a house and send the squealing brats to Hogwarts, and live happily ever after."
"Oh," said Harry.
"Cheer up," Malfoy said, smirking slowly. "Maybe for your midlife crisis you can buy a fancy new broom."
"Is that what you're doing?"
"Living happily ever after?"
Malfoy's gaze drifted down. His eyelashes looked silver in this light. "Naturally," he murmured. "That's how the story ends, isn't it?"
"I don't know," Harry told him honestly.
"Mmm," Malfoy said again, seeming to think that low drawled hum as good as words. "It's what we're all supposed to be doing, anyway," he said after a time. "With the Dark Lord gone, there's nothing to stand in our way; isn't that so? We should all be living happily ever after." His tone was light and ironic; he had a strange smile playing about one side of his mouth that suggested amusement, but not particularly happiness.
"Are you happy?" Harry surprised himself by asking.
Malfoy turned away again. "I've told you. I'm perfectly content."
Harry looked at Malfoy's back, the slim figure that held itself so tall, those shoulders, the minute tightness that spoke of Malfoy squaring up again. "So you said," Harry agreed.
"I had better go," Malfoy said, turning around again.
"Alright." Harry could not read his expression. He followed Malfoy to the door, where Malfoy paused.
"Thank you, Potter." Malfoy sounded more stilted than ever. "This has been . . ."
"Nice?" Harry suggested.
The line appeared beside Malfoy's mouth, the precursor to the smile, and the corner of his mouth twitched. "I do hope you won't get carried away."
Harry smiled. "We could do it again."
The line deepened. "See what I mean."
"Gosh, Malfoy. No need to sound so enthusiastic."
A smile was definitely playing at Malfoy's lips. "Whatever do you mean? I'm near to giddy."
"See you," said Harry.
"You should be so lucky," said Malfoy, and went out into the night.
Harry spent the next Thursday with Ron and Hermione, and the next, and the next.
Hermione was helping him institute routines. The appointments she helped him arrange generally only lasted a short period of time, but he had to do them regularly: things like going with her to the Tesco just by her and Ron's flat, things like going out to Diagon Alley for the first time since he'd found Chimera Downs. Somehow, she seemed to understand how much everything exhausted him, how much control it took. With her help, he knew that he could get away as soon as he felt frayed; he also knew he had to come back.
Hermione was very good at helping him to do normal things, but it was Ron who was better at helping him to be normal. They went out for drinks once, then again.
The next time, Ron invited Neville. The time after that it was George. Ron kept inviting people. At first, Harry thought maybe Ron didn't realize how difficult it was for him to be around people, even those he cared about—especially those he cared about—but Ron never invited more than one person at a time. And he was always there.
Harry thought he helped Ron, too, even if he wasn't sure how. They talked about the times Ron had saved him, and the Quidditch matches he'd helped win, and that time Malfoy was a ferret, and it made things better.
"I can't always . . ." Ron pressed his lips together, his hands clenched futilely. "Sometimes I feel like I can't just do anything right. Like I just have to get away."
Things were going so well that Harry was able to lift a slow brow and say, "I know the feeling."
Ron laughed a little. "Sorry."
Harry looked down. "Don't be."
"I fucked it up," Ron said. "I still think of it, sometimes. The way I ran from you and Hermione, and you were both alone."
"You pulled me out of a freezing lake," Harry pointed out.
"But I can't always . . . . Look. You're not in a freezing lake."
Harry blinked, not because he needed to. Sometimes he thought he needed to less and less, when his eyes went hot this way. He did it to cool down. He did it because he knew it was creepy when he didn't. "I don't need saving," he said, keeping his voice very steady.
Ron scowled, took a sip of his mead, and said, "Whatever it is, mate. I'm going to be there. It's just Hermione, she's so . . . The thing is, Hermione's perfect. She actually really is. What am I supposed to do with that?"
They were over a little hurdle, and Harry allowed himself a very dry half smile. "You're not so bad."
Ron laughed. "Thanks." He took another swig, and then looked horrified. "But a father? Me?"
It was going to be alright, Harry realized. It was really going to be alright, because he could do this now.