A/N: Alright. This is my first fic, and I'm really quite nervous. First of all, I know that the title has been used before, but I couldn't bring myself to change it - my head said yes, my heart replied with a definite no. Sorry. Secondly, I hope I'll be able to update regularly, and that this will eventually get finished. I already have 12 chapters written, but I'm gonna post slowly, to give myself time to write ahead (I'm a very paranoid person).
Obviously this is not epilogue compliant, but it fits with almost everything else - however, Bellatrix Lestrange and a couple of other Death Eaters are running around free. You'll see why later.
And finally, a disclaimer. As you've probably already gathered from the fact that I am most definitely not JK Rowling, I don't own this lot. If I did, I wouldn't be sharing Draco with you. (Sorry, but it's true.) I just couldn't let that awful epilogue stand without some serious contest.
It was the shock of blonde hair that first alerted Harry to the presence of his ex-arch-nemesis, and it was the regal way the slender figure was upheld that confirmed his identity.
"Blimey, what the hell's he doing here?" Ron asked incredulously, when Harry pointed Draco Malfoy out to his friends.
Hermione sighed in annoyance, tugging at her boyfriend's hair to straighten it out, and it was obvious from her demeanour that she'd answered similar questions many times before. "The same thing we are, Ronald. Finishing his education."
It had been a little over a year ago that the war had finally ended, and for the majority of the wizarding world, life was finally getting back to normal. This was reflected in Hogwarts castle, which now bore few signs of the battle that had raged there, and in the hundreds of children that were being admitted back into the school for the first time since the war.
Harry looked around the Great Hall absently. He remembered the scenes of death and destruction that had occupied this space not so long ago, but the Hall no longer showed any signs of that; instead, it looked just like it had in all his years of being at the school. He marvelled at the skill with which the castle had been restored, noting with relief that the Marauder's Map would most likely still come in useful.
Harry blinked through the series of memories that his return to the castle had dredged up. The image of Voldemort, face contorted in hatred, stood in this very room, juxtaposed too heavily with the warm, glowing atmosphere, impossible to reconcile. Instead, Harry surprised himself with an odd feeling of contentedness; all summer, he had doubted the decision to retake his final year of school, worried that the hideous memories would make the castle a bad place for him to be. But returning felt like the wisest choice, and Harry was gripped by a strong sense of returning home.
Sat with Harry, Ron and Hermione were a crowd of old friends, including Ginny and Neville, the latter of whom could be seen exchanging smiles with Luna Lovegood over at her table every few minutes or so. It seemed that a large majority of their year group – the only year given a choice about the matter, considering they were old enough to pursue a career now – had taken the bittersweet risk and elected to come back to Hogwarts.
And so, apparently, had Draco Malfoy.
Harry felt a grudging respect for the blonde Slytherin. He knew that the war had not exactly been easy on Malfoy, compounded by the animosity that the majority of people still felt for his family. Lucius was rotting in Azkaban, and the magical society had not forgiven his son and wife for their involvement with Voldemort, although testimonies had kept them out of prison themselves. It was brave of Malfoy to come back to Hogwarts, where Harry suspected he would be met with both a traumatising recollection of his past and a large dose of hatred from fellow students.
"... the houses this year, don't you think, Harry?"
Harry was jolted out of his reverie at the sound of his name, and realised that he'd been staring thoughtfully across the Hall at the blonde head sat at the Slytherin table. He forced his attention onto Hermione, who was watching him expectantly. "Sorry?"
She rolled her eyes. "I said, they've relaxed the house system a little this year, and I was asking you what you thought about it. Classes won't be separated out the same way they used to be; they're going to mix all four houses from now on."
Ron suddenly looked worried. "Wait, does that mean that we'll still get to play the Quidditch tournament and stuff? And we don't have to share dorms with the Slytherins, do we?"
"Yes, of course they're keeping Quidditch, and no they're not changing the dorms. They're leaving the house cup, too, although it's not supposed to be as important now," Hermione reassured him, seeming annoyed, but it was obvious that she was somewhat pleased at the chance to demonstrate her superior knowledge before the year had even started. "It was McGonagall's idea, though, to try and mix different houses more. They're trying to minimise rivalry, and stop some of the stereotyping."
Well, if it works... Harry thought wryly. Something told him that the "stereotyping" and "rivalry" was too integral to the way Hogwarts functioned for it to be dissipated by a few mixed classes, but it was a nice gesture. Harry imagined it was the unspoken assumption that Slytherins were evil that the new system was designed to combat most of all.
The Sorting went quickly. The new 11-year-olds augmented the number of students who were repeating their first year, finding their seats with nervous glances and shaking knees, before McGonagall – who was taking over as Headmistress this year – stood to make a speech.
Harry was reminded painfully of Professor Dumbledore as McGonagall issued the regular warnings and notices. Once again, the Forbidden Forest was proclaimed to be out of bounds, and the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, ex-Auror Professor Carter, was introduced. It was clear from the look on many of the older students' faces that Harry wasn't the only one whose memory was being jolted, and he couldn't help glancing over at Malfoy – the Slytherin's face was drawn, and his posture closed, but there was no emotion on his normally expressive face. Harry expected he was fighting off memories of the night in the Astronomy Tower more than two years prior, and he felt another jolt of pity for his childhood enemy.
Then the speech was finished, and any uncomfortable memories from the last few years were gratefully abandoned as the traditional feast materialised on the tables. Chatter could be heard erupting through the Great Hall as students began to settle into the school year.
"Feels weird to be back, doesn't it?" Neville grinned across the table at Harry.
"Just a bit." He smiled back at his friend. Neville had grown up since the last time he was at Hogwarts; the shy, forgetful boy had been almost completely replaced with a confident and competent wizard. Most of the time. He still struggled with an understandable phobia of Cornish pixies. "I can't believe how many people have decided to retake the year."
Ron gestured wildly with a fork, speaking around a mouthful of food. "I can't believe I've let myself be talked into coming back to school." He glanced accusingly but fondly at Hermione, who Harry knew had spent months bothering his best friend until he consented to return to Hogwarts this year.
"It's for your own good, Ron," she retorted primly. "People will take you much more seriously if you have qualifications under your belt. Besides, I think it's nice to be back."
"I agree with Hermione," Ginny joined the conversation, looking up from the glass of pumpkin juice she was pouring herself. Her comment earned her a glare from her older brother, who clearly disliked being ganged up on. "I like how normal it feels to be in the castle."
Impressed at how easily she'd summed up his own opinion, Harry met her gaze, and gave her a rueful smile, which she returned. Even though their relationship had collapsed just half a year after it had properly begun – to the relief of both parties – the two of them were still close. Closer, maybe, as without the pressure of romance, their bond had developed into more of a brother-sister love, and they shared a way of thinking and a sense of humour that meant they got along very well.
"I see the staring and whispering has already started," Hermione noted with a frown, looking pointedly at Harry.
With a sigh, Harry acknowledged she was right. Ever since he'd stepped foot on the Hogwarts Express, students had been pointing at him or engaging their friends in murmured conversations as he'd walked past. A few had seemed hostile, although no one had openly said or did anything aggressive, and the majority simply seemed in awe – some had deigned to approach Harry for a handshake or kind word, and others had just gazed open-mouthed from a distance. The sorting and McGonagall's speech had seemed to distract them, but the staring had resumed when the food had appeared.
It had been more than a year since Voldemort had died, but memories of the war hadn't dulled in anyone's mind, not yet. Harry had known this would be the price to pay for returning to Hogwarts, but somehow the reality was a little more overwhelming than he'd expected... Not, however, that it would be any easier outside the castle, and he knew that the novelty of him would eventually wear off. Exams and homework tended to have that effect on students.
In all honesty, since the battle here at the school and Voldemort's death, Harry had started to get used to the attention that his role as the Chosen One had brought. He would gladly have exchanged it for a peaceful existence, but between his adoring fans and the unshakeable press, the chore of dealing with his unwanted celebrity status had started to dull into something as mundane as breathing.
Harry just hoped this year would be marginally more peaceful than the last few.