Back at Last.
Harry stood on platform nine and three-quarters with Luna and Neville on one side and Ron, Hermione and Ginny on the right. He was staring ahead, resolutely ignoring the saccharine hand-holding on his right, the bitter girl on their other side, and his well-meaning but over-bearing friends on the left. They had arrived absurdly early, due to Hermione's ever-present nagging, and the train hadn't even pulled into the station yet.
"It's wonderful to be returning to Hogwarts, isn't it, Harry?" Luna asked, looking at him serenely.
"Oh, er, yes, I imagine it will be," he stammered, imagining no such thing. Before he had been The Boy Who Lived; now he was, as Rita Skeeter so eloquently put it, The Boy Who Lived Twice: Hero of our generation, or of the entire history of wizarding? Harry had spent the summer hiding out at Grimmauld Place, sending Kreacher out on grocery runs and only venturing out when absolutely necessary. Ron and Hermione had insisted on visiting at the beginning of summer, but had slowly stopped coming as they realized how determined Harry was to live life as a hermit. Ginny hadn't been allowed over at all, resulting in a rather unclimactic end to their relationship. He hadn't owled anyone, other than to inform Hermione that yes, he was returning to Hogwarts, and yes, he would meet them at the Burrow that morning so they could apparate to the station together. He had hoped that the presence of their other friends, not to mention Ron's little sister, would mean Hermione and Ron wouldn't be all over each other, but it hadn't, and frankly Harry had found the whole morning rather sickening.
"You'll be alright," Neville said cheerfully. "After all, you must be used to the publicity by now, and I imagine you'll fly through our courses, given what you've been through." Harry made a non-committal noise, and was saved from a real answer by the Hogwarts Express pulling in with screeching breaks and a piercing whistle.
The five friends quickly boarded the train, Neville and Luna breaking off to sit with other members of the now defunct Dumbledore's Army, Ginny going to sit with other Gryffindors (though not before giving Harry a nasty glance), leaving Harry begrudgingly following Ron and Hermione into one of the empty compartments. He quickly saw there was no reason to rush; in the aftermath of the war, most of the Slytherins had chosen not to return, rendering the train emptier than Harry had ever seen it.
Ron and Hermione managed to disengage from just each other, including Harry in speculation of the coming year, how the N.E.W.T.S. would go, and who the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor would be. The train's whistle blew again, and soon they were gliding quietly through the English countryside. Conversation remained easy, easier than it had been all summer, leaving Harry to wonder if he should have given his friends more credit, and spent more time at the Burrow instead of holed away with no one but a grouchy house elf to keep him company. Then the sweets trolley came and went, and Ron and Hermione exchanged a look, and Harry knew he hadn't been wrong.
"Er, Harry," Ron started, a flush creeping up his neck. Hermione suddenly found something interesting to look at out the window.
"What?" Harry snapped, not bothering to check his temper. After a summer alone, he had gotten used to letting his emotions run rampant, as several now-destroyed rooms at Grimmauld Place could attest to.
Ron's flush deepened. "Well, Hermione and I were wondering if we could maybe, er, get some, ah, alone time?"
Harry glared at him. "Going to have a shag on the train, eh? How long have you been waiting to cross that one off your list? All summer? Or have you been imagining it since Hermione first burst in on us back in first year?"
Hermione turned away from the window and looked at Harry imploringly. "Please, Harry. It's nothing personal. And, well…" she trailed off, seeming to think the better of her words. But Harry was feeling cranky, and not particularly emotionally giving.
"Well what, Hermione?"
"It's just that, well…"
"If you hadn't been such a git to Ginny, you might be busy now yourself," Ron finished, not looking at Harry, face ears and neck all an alarming shade of scarlet.
"That's it," Harry proclaimed, standing up and enchanting his trunk to follow him. "Have your fun. See you later." He stormed out, hearing Hermione call weakly after him before slamming the door.
Finding an empty compartment was not as easy as Harry expected. True, there were fewer Slytherins, but there seemed to be double the amount of first-years as usual, and by the time Harry reached the end of the train, he had resigned himself to any empty seat, even if it meant a bunch of first-years ogling his scar and staring at him, star struck.
"Oh, thank Merlin," Harry muttered. The very last compartment on the left was empty, save for some luggage pushed into a corner. Harry slid his trunk into the corner and settled down by the window, prepared to relax, and maybe even snag a nap, for the rest of the long journey.
"Well, it's good to know I've perfected my Disappearing Draft," an all-too familiar voice drawled from the seat across from Harry. He jerked up, reaching for his wand and was met with a cool chuckle. "Relax, Potter, I'm not going to hex you. Hang on a minute." Still pointing his wand at the place he assumed contained Malfoy, he heard the rustling of clothes, the sound of a cork popping, and a swallow. Suddenly Malfoy appeared in front of him, hands raised in surrender. "Easy, Potter. I just wanted some peace and quiet."
Harry slowly lowered his wand and tucked it back into his robes. This was the first time he had seen Malfoy since he had left the final battle, and he didn't know what to say to him. Thankfully, Malfoy broke the silence.
"Would've thought you'd be sitting with Granger and the Weasel."
Harry didn't have enough good will to bother correcting Malfoy. "Got kicked out so they could have a shag," he muttered angrily. Malfoy raised a delicate eyebrow, and Harry glared at him. "Notice you're not overrun with admirers yourself."
Malfoy's eyes hardened. "I'm not too popular these days," he said curtly. "The Slytherins blame me for not staying to fight Voldemort, and the rest of you lot hate me for running away. Some year this'll be," he said, the last sentence barely a whisper.
Harry eyed Malfoy carefully. "Why did you leave?"
"Because Malfoys are just a bunch of cowardly snakes, didn't you know?" he replied bitingly. Then he sighed, and his shoulders sagged almost imperceptivity. "I don't know. It's complicated."
Harry didn't have a reply to that, and Malfoy didn't seem eager to elaborate. Silence stretched on, slowly becoming more comfortable. Harry leaned back, closing his eyes, realizing this was perhaps the first time the actually felt comfortable around Malfoy. Or at least didn't feel the need to keep his guard up.
"Suppose there'll be Quidditch this year?" Malfoy asked eventually.
Harry started. Of all the possibilities of how this year would play out, Quidditch had never occurred to him. "I dunno."
Malfoy's look changed from uncharacteristically pensive to a much more familiar contempt. "I certainly hope so. It's high time I beat you. Again," he added, voice dripping with gleeful disdain.
"Again?" Harry flustered. "I seem to remember it differently. Gryffindor won sixth year, if you recall."
"Gryffindor, perhaps," Malfoy drawled, "but I seem to remember a certain star seeker stuck in detention for the final match."
Harry glared at him. "If you can't even get a seat-mate on the train, I can hardly see you being welcomed back on your team."
Malfoy looked as though he had been slapped. "Shut it," he snapped. "I could beat you one on one any day."
"Oh yeah?" Harry challenged, taking an odd comfort in the familiar rivalry. "Any time, any day. Name it and I'll be there."
Malfoy opened his mouth, perhaps to set a date, when the train slowed to a stop. Harry glanced out the window. They were there already?
"Stop gawping and hurry up. I'd hate to see you get into trouble your first day back," Malfoy sneered, expertly levitating his trunk down from the shelf. "Imagine the headline: The Boy Who Lived Twice Can't Even Be Bothered To Make It To His Own Feast On Time."
"It's not my bloody feast," Harry grumbled, following Malfoy out of the train and over to the Thestral-drawn carriages. Malfoy climbed into the nearest carriage, and Harry surprised himself by joining him. "This your first time seeing the Thestrals?" Harry asked, looking around at the shocked expressions of his classmates.
"No," Malfoy said curtly, and Harry turned to see the pinched look on his face before it quickly returned to his usual look of contempt. "Not that it's any of your business."
It took longer than usual to get going, no doubt due to the shock of the Thestrals and the need for the few students who already knew about them to explain. Harry and Malfoy spent the ride to the castle in near silence, breaking into conversation only when they rounded a corner and saw the castle for the first time.
"It looks perfect," Harry breathed. "Like nothing ever happened."
"What did you expect? That they'd leave it ruins?" Malfoy replied, but he, too, sounded subdued. Harry wondered if he was feeling guilty that he and his people had been responsible, but he quickly shook the thought from his head. Malfoy was hardly the type to feel guilt.
They separated without a word as soon as they arrived at the castle steps. Harry was almost immediately accosted by Ron and Hermione.
"Is it true you sat with Malfoy?" Ron demanded as they walked up the steps.
"You didn't leave me much choice," Harry threw back. Somehow it didn't seem right to say it hadn't actually been that bad, and that Malfoy might be human after all.
"Well, I think it's spectacular," Hermione said. "With the war over, we should be focusing on uniting the wizarding world."
Ron looked at her as if she had grown three heads. "Are you mad?" he sputtered. "Don't you remember all the things he did?"
Harry tuned them out as they entered the castle, and the Great Hall. Everything looked exactly how it used to, yet Harry couldn't help feeling that something great and terrible hung in the air, and in the very stones of the walls themselves. Harry settled down at the Gryffindor table, trying not to think about all the missing faces. It was most evident at the Slytherin table, of course. Malfoy sat by himself, Harry was unsurprised to see, but the only other faces he recognized were those of Pansy, Goyle and Zabini; only four students left in their year.
Ron waved a hand in front of Harry's face. "Hello, earth to Harry. What're you doing staring at the Slytherin table?"
Harry was jolted out of his thoughts. "Nothing, sorry. Just zoning out, I guess."
"Well you better pay attention, the Sorting's about to start," Hermione said.
Harry had been right; there were more first-years than normal. And he could swear that…"There is no way that girl is eleven," Harry said, staring as "Jones, Aurora" stepped onto the platform and was declared a Hufflepuff.
Hermione heaved a great sigh. "Weren't you paying attention, Harry? Given our—" she paused, searching for a word that didn't sound too fatalistic—"somewhat diminished numbers, for the next few years Hogwarts will be accepting students from other countries, as well as other wizarding schools. Muggles call it studying abroad."
"Oh," Harry said stupidly.
The unusually empty tables slowly began to fill up, including Slytherin, though their numbers remained smaller than any other house. Harry half-listened as McGonagall introduced the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor—a middle-aged witch named Whisp—and zoned out completely as she went over the school rules, instead finding his eyes drawn to Malfoy, who was still sitting alone. Apparently his reputation had preceded him. Still, he sat tall and proud, eyes fixed at a point somewhere just above McGonagall's head, eyes looking glazed over. Then suddenly his head snapped around, ice grey eyes locking with Harry's. Harry couldn't read his expression at all, and it only lasted a moment before the room burst into applause and food appeared on the table. Suddenly ravenous, Harry dug in with gusto. He hadn't realized how poorly he had been eating over the summer, and it was good to know some things about Hogwarts never changed.
After the feast, Neville, who seemed just as surprised as everyone else to be Head Boy, lead the Gryffindors up to the tower, and letting them in with the current password: lemon drop. Harry's heart clenched; it was clearly meant as a tribute to Dumbledore, but it just made his overly-full stomach turn. After a quick check of the eight-year dorms (same as they had always been, of course), he joined Ron and Hermione by the fireplace, watching as the two played an inaugural game of wizard chess. After Hermione's queen took a particularly nasty headshot from one of Ron's bishops, she turned to Harry, and asked,
"So, did Malfoy say anything interesting on the train?"
Harry's stomach did another flip. He supposed he shouldn't be surprised that she was asking about it, whatever she had said about wizard camaraderie before. "Er, no, not really," he replied, staring into the fireplace. "Asked if there was going to be Quidditch this year."
Ron stopped suddenly, leaving his bishop to finish demolishing Hermione's queen. "Quidditch! Blimey, that never occurred to me."
"Yeah, me neither," Harry said.
Hermione frowned at the chess game as her queen was once and for all dragged off to the side. "Ron, I hardly see the point in finishing this."
But the glint in Ron's eye told her that he wasn't going to let her off that easy. "Come on, 'Mione. I promise I'll make it quick and painless."
She made a face at him, but continued. "So why wasn't he sitting with his friends?"
Harry sighed. He thought about telling her what Malfoy had said, but he had an odd feeling it was told to him in confidence, and it seemed too much like something the other boy would do, to go around blurting secrets in the middle of the Gryffindor common room. "Didn't mention it," Harry muttered. "Probably just fancied a nap."
They fell into silence again, the only sounds being the utter annihilation of Hermione's chess pieces at the hands of Ron. Harry kept his eyes on the fireplace, knowing that Ginny was on the other side of the common room and resolutely not looking at her. They hadn't exactly broken up, not properly. He just hadn't responded to any of her owls, or visited her, or allowed her in his house. Despite the lack of response, Hermione had still written him weekly all summer, but she skirted around the issue of Ginny with a simple, "Ginny seems well," or "Ginny's off visiting friends this week". Harry supposed they'd need to have a talk sometime soon, but right now all he wanted to do was doze in front of the fireplace and try to readjust to having other people around.
A sudden shout of victory broke him out of his repose, and Harry glanced over to see Ron's queen bashing in the head of Hermione's king.
"Well done, Ron, you've proved once again you're the best chess player Hogwarts has ever seen," Hermione said stiffly. "Come on, let's go to bed."
Harry stared blankly at him. "You two are sharing quarters?" he asked bluntly. "Cause you're certainly not sleeping together in my room."
Hermione glared at him. "Yes, Harry, we have our own room. Professor McGonagall gave us special permission, seeing as we're eighth-years, and should have graduated already. Your innocence will remain intact." She took Ron by the hand and led him over to a portrait Harry hadn't noticed before. Rather than uttering a password, she simply swept it aside, revealing a staircase.
"See you for breakfast," Ron said over his shoulder before the portrait swung shut.
Harry sighed. He supposed he should be getting to bed himself, especially as he could see Ginny noticing that he was alone, and starting to approach him. He hurried up the steps to his room, closing the door behind him and collapsing onto his bed.
"Long day, Harry?" Neville asked from the next bed over.
"Yeah," he said shortly, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. He should have noticed earlier that there was one less bed than there used to be. As annoyed as he was with Ron, the room seemed empty without him, and Harry found himself, for about the millionth time, wishing for simpler times.
"At least there's no Dark Lord that needs defeating," Neville said brightly. "We might even be able to have a normal school year."
Somehow, Harry doubted it.