The Very Magnitude of Guilt
After the medals and the parades and the parties and the funerals, when the streets of London are once again filled with people behaving as if there wasn't a time when they feared for their lives, Harry comes to an understanding that he's homeless, jobless, and his parent's funds won't last him forever. And more importantly, in all the chaotic years of defeating evil and saving the wizarding world, he understands that he forgot one very, very crucial thing: he forgot to plan his life.
"You want to move in with us?" Ron asks.
"We'd love to have you," Hermione says.
Harry glances down at Ron's hand, which is resting on Hermione's thigh. "No, uh, that's really alright. I'll manage."
It's easy enough to secure the interview; after all, there are so many dead now, what with the war and all. Harry feels somewhat like a git for taking advantage of that. But he knows he can do this job. He's seen and done more than anyone in the Ministry. Well, anyone still living, anyways. He's fought wizards more powerful than him. He's faced monsters. He's stood face-to-face with pure evil and walked away unscathed.
Halfway through the interview, Harry realises he has absolutely no idea what he's doing.
"And why do you wish to be an Auror, Mr Potter?" the man asks.
First he almost answers, "Because I'm Harry Potter," but the last thing he wants is preferential treatment. Maybe.
Then he almost says, "Because I can't do anything else. I took Potions, you see."
A lone drop of sweat runs down the back of his neck. He clamps his sweaty hands together. He can't remember ever being so nervous; honestly, he'd probably been less nervous fighting Voldemort. At least then his future had been in his own hands. Maybe he should've done better in school.
The chap is still staring at him, and Harry figures he should probably answer.
"I want to rid the world of the remaining supporters of Voldemort," he says finally.
This seems to be the right thing to say. It's a bold statement -- fitting of a hero, which is what they're calling him in the papers -- and besides, it's true. The interviewer nods slightly, scribbling something quickly on his notepad. Harry wills himself to breathe.
When it's over, he finds himself hurried out of the office and back into the lounge. He thinks he recognises the secretary; maybe she went to Hogwarts either a few years above or below him. She looks at him like she knows him, certainly. "I'm surprised you even needed an interview," she murmurs as he walks past.
"Maybe it's a formality." He means to be sarcastic, but it doesn't come out that way, and he gets embarrassed when she blinks at him.
The walk back to his place from the Ministry is too short, so he just keeps walking until he stops recognising street names. Eventually, he passes an old second-hand bookshop. There's a 'Now Hiring' sign in the window, and for a long moment he just stands there, tempted to go in. Of course, he won't; Hermione would tell him he's wasting his life, and Ron would be disappointed Harry wouldn't be working with him, and who knows what Mr and Mrs Weasley would say (although he likes to think they'd support him no matter what, just like his parents, only less dead). Remus would have loved to live to see Harry working at a bookstore.
He frowns at the reflection of himself in the mirror, pushing his fringe to the side. He still can't get used to his scar being gone, but it looks... alright. While he's trying to flatten his fringe with his palm, a familiar figure casually strolls down the reflected road:
Harry spins round, breath catching in his throat. But it's not Lucius -- who Harry actually saw die in the end -- walking into an alley; it's Draco. Draco Malfoy, assumed long dead, marching across a London street like it hasn't been a year since anyone's seen him.
Before he can fully process what's going on, Harry's taking off after him, pulling out his wand. He dives into the same back alley, but on the other side, it's a new bustling, crowded street, even fuller than Diagon Alley. Harry ducks in time to avoid being hit by movers carrying a large painting of a woman eating grapes.
"Malfoy," he shouts, scanning the crowd. He can barely hear his own voice. "Malfoy!"
He's walked right into an open market. Fruit stands, vegetables stands, jewelry kiosks, and robe racks from one end of the narrow court to the other. He bumps right into a man playing a flute. A flock of girls in Hogwarts robes look at him and giggle. He pushes past them, trying to look through the crowd. He sees a flash of white-blond hair, and--
"Here's to having a real job," Ron cheers, clinking their pints together. In the dim light of the pub, he looks eerily like his father. Harry tries to think of Hermione ginger-haired and plump, and he covers his laugh with a cough.
"I don't even know if I got it," Harry reminds him.
Ron drowns half his glass in a single gulp. "What d'you mean? Of course you got it! You're Harry Potter. You were born for this job."
Harry winces as Ron's faux-pas, but Ron doesn't seem to notice. He fixes his eyes on a set of blokes playing arrows in the corner. They look like they don't have a care in the world. "I saw Malfoy earlier today," he says.
He risks a glance back at Ron, who's squinting at him. "Isn't he dead?"
"No, not Lucius," Harry explains. He feels ridiculous saying it out loud. "Draco. I saw Draco while I was taking a walk."
"You're sure it was him?" Ron asks.
"Dead sure," Harry snaps.
"Oh," Ron says. He plays with his pint, tipping it one way, and then the other. "He's going to be really bloody mad at us if he's been alive this whole time."
That's what Harry's been thinking, only he feels Draco Malfoy will be less "mad" and more "homicidal." Especially since the last time they saw him--
"Do you ever feel bad about it?" Harry blurts.
Harry doesn't have to explain what he means. Ron looks up from his glass. "No," he replies, and Harry expects him to say something along the lines of, "I'd forgotten all about it," but Ron surprises him: "We couldn't do anything. If we'd tried, we'd've been dead. Even if Malfoy wasn't, you know, Malfoy, his life wasn't worth the lives of everyone else."
Ron's right, of course, and Harry hasn't thought about this in ages. There's no reason for him to feel guilty. He saved the world, didn't he?
"Listen to me," Ron says, rolling his eyes. But Harry thinks he sounds chuffed. "All grown up. I sound like Hermione."
Harry has to grin at that. "I won't tell anyone."
Not that there were many people left to tell.
That night, when Harry stumbles into the tiny, one-room flat he's hired, an owl's waiting for him.
Before Harry can set off for Godric's Hollow to start on his genius plan to rid the world of Voldemort -- he isn't sure what it is yet, but he knows that if he puts his mind to it, he can maybe possibly sort of come up with something brilliant -- he heads back to the Dursleys' to wait until his seventeenth birthday. For the first time in a while, Harry feels completely, utterly calm; he knows he has to get rid of Voldemort, and he knows he might die trying, and that, for some reason, doesn't bother him in the least.
"I'm back," Harry calls, dragging his trunk behind him.
The Dursleys barely looked up from watching the telly. "I hadn't even noticed you'd left," Uncle Vernon says, throwing him a beady-eyed glance before turning back to his programme.
"I was gone for the whole bloody summer," Harry grumbles under his breath, loudly dragging his stuff upstairs, much to the chagrin of his uncle, aunt, and cousin. He makes sure his luggage hits every single stair. He isn't sure which is worse: them gloating when he left, or them not noticing he left at all.
When Harry opens the door, a tall, dark-haired boy with plastic glasses jumps to his feet.
Polyjuice, Harry thinks immediately, whipping out his wand. "Stupefy!"
The other boy falls over onto the floor, knocking off-- his black wig? Come to think of it, the other boy looks nothing like Harry. His nose pokes through the empty eyepieces. He's thinner and blond--
"Malfoy!" Harry exclaims. Then he groans: "Malfoy."
Moaning, Malfoy starts to prop himself up with his elbows, but Harry steps over his body and grabs the front of his shirt. His shirt that belongs to Harry. "You have thirty seconds to tell me what you're doing here."
"Er," Malfoy says, eyes growing wide.
"Twenty-five seconds," he threatens. "I'm not up for games, Malfoy."
"Alright, alright," Malfoy chokes. "At least let me get off the floor, will you?"
Keeping a careful eye on him, Harry lets go of Malfoy's -- his -- shirt, roughly dropping the other boy to the floor. Malfoy shakily climbs to his feet. He fixes the wig and puts his fake glasses back straight.
"Get on with it," Harry says.
"Not much for reunions, are you, Potter?" Malfoy sneers, but his thin lips are trembling. Harry doesn't have any sympathy for him. "Alright then. I'm on a mission. I've been sent to kill you."
"You couldn't possibly kill me," Harry says. Not just because he'd easily win against Malfoy in a duel ("Unless it was a duel on who could be the biggest ponce," Ron once said spitefully.), but because Harry knows of Malfoy's struggle to kill Dumbledore. Fleetingly, he wonders if Malfoy cried over him the way he cried over their fallen headmaster.
Draco starts to wring his hands. In the six, almost seven, years they've known each other, Harry's never seen him do that. He starts to feel a little bad. But not too bad. "No, I know. I know. I think--" Malfoy's voice drops. "I think that was the idea."
Harry frowns. "You think Voldemort -- come on now, you work for him, you can handle hearing his name -- sent you here so I'd kill you?"
"Listen, Potter, you don't know what happened after we left Hogwarts," Malfoy retorts, and Harry's filled with a sudden, blinding rage at the image of Snape and Malfoy landing safely at the Death Eater's hideout, Voldemort waiting eagerly for the news of Dumbledore's demise. But if it shows on his face, Malfoy doesn't comment on it. "The Dark Lord was surprised to see me. He, er, it didn't seem like he knew what to do, with me surviving. So he sent me here."
"And that's proof you're supposed to fail?" Harry asks, swallowing his rage.
Malfoy gives him a very familiar contemptuous look. "I believe his exact words were, 'Oh. Draco. You made it. How... lovely.'"
Thinking of those words coming out of Voldemort's mouth makes Harry's head hurt. "So you decided to dress up as me? How long have you been here?"
"Not long." At Harry's scowl, he adds, "Three or four days."
"And no one happened to notice you look nothing like me?" Harry asks, irritated. He really hates the Dursleys.
"I--" Malfoy starts, but the door opens, and in walks Petunia with a single cheese sandwich (cheese and bread, no spread or meat) and a cup of tea (no milk or sugar).
Petunia takes one look at them and drops the tray with a loud clash. "Vernon," she screams out the door, "Harry's multiplied himself!"
"I have bad news, and I have worse news," Harry announces.
Hermione and Ron look up from bickering about -- furniture, or some sort. Harry hasn't been listening. He doesn't have anything to do with their normal, every day problems. Instead, he's been stirring sugar into his tea, pressing his fingers against the cup until it burns. It's been eight hours since he received the message. He thinks he might be in shock.
"What is it?" Hermione asks.
"It's sort of hard to explain," he adds. "I'm not even sure I understand what's happening."
"Out with it," Ron pushes, taking on a determined expression.
Harry brushes his hair out of his eyes. He reckons the best way to do this is to say it quickly, like pulling off a plaster. "Turns out there were eight horcruxes. And the remaining one is suing me for offing the real Voldemort."
They both stare at him like he's grown a second head and it's started speaking in tongues.
"Is that... is that even possible?" Ron asks.
"Apparently, since it's happening," Harry says harshly, pulling the owl from his robes.
Hermione snatches it, eyes running furiously over the script. He hopes she understands it better than he does. It's ridiculous, he tells himself, ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous. Her shoulders slump.
"Oh, Harry," she says.
Ron gulps. "You mean it's real then?"
"How could we've missed an eighth one?" she asks Harry. "You were so sure there were only seven!"
Harry winces. "That's because Dumbledore told me there were seven."
None of them want to say "Dumbledore was wrong," so Ron just says, "Bloody hell!"
"What're you going to do?" Hermione asks.
"I don't know. I didn't even know wizards could sue each other. I guess..." He straightens his shoulders, trying to look determined, instead of confused and sick. "I guess I have to defeat him a second time."
Harry doesn't sleep for three nights, and then he passes out while practicing defensive spells on his wardrobe. When he wakes up, there's a crease on his cheek from the shoebox he used as a pillow, and there's an owl in his hands. It says he's to report for the next Auror training session the Monday after next, at seven AM sharp.
He's not sure how feels about this. When he tries to imagine himself as an Auror, he can't see that far ahead.
Harry expects it to take months before his case actually goes to court, but it actually takes less than a week. He figures the wizarding world is just much more efficient than the Muggle world. Maybe it won't take long for the judge to see how ridiculous this whole mess is, and Harry can be out in time to catch dinner at Ron and Hermione's. He's looking forward to getting this over with.
He changes his mind when Percy Weasley sits beside him.
"What're you doing here?" Harry asks.
Percy takes several scrolls and books out of a large leather bag he brought in. "Ron owled me. He said you planned on defending yourself. I know I'm not a barrister, but I thought -- we all thought -- you might need someone with, ah, experience in law."
"You're my barrister?" Harry says. "I'm going to lose, aren't I."
"Yes, yes," Percy says distractedly, opening a bottle of ink.
Harry shakes the chains round his wrists, frowning. "So what's with these? I thought this was a civil trial."
"Procedure," Percy replies, without looking up from his scrolls.
At least it's not the cage; Harry always thought that seemed like some sort of human right's violation.
Harry wasn't there when the Ministry was rounding up the most recent batch of Death Eaters. He could've been; they wanted him there, of course, but he was still recovering from the final battle, and he hadn't felt up to looking into the faces of those who had just tried to kill him. He hadn't been in this room since he fell into Dumbledore's Pensieve. It's not as dark as he remembers, but the air smells damp and musty, like old books. Across the way, he spots another bar like his, and a man bending down to talk to--
"What's that?" Harry asks, straightening up.
Percy actually glances up. "That's what's -- er, who, rather, is suing you."
"Is that a piece of paper?" Harry asks in disbelief.
Percy adjusts his glasses, looking rather uncomfortable. "Ah, actually, it's a receipt for Chinese food. From 1978."
"You mean to tell me Voldemort--" Percy winces slightly. "--put the very last piece of his soul in a receipt for take away?"
"Well," Percy sniffs, "you didn't find it, did you? Seems to me his evil plan worked."
Things go downhill from there. Harry gets thrown out of court for screaming, "But it's Voldemort!" over and over, and they're told to come back the next day, "But check your anger at the door, Mr Potter." Percy follows the guards who are dragging Harry out, covering his reddening face with his bag.
Harry sits in Percy's office, stewing, while Percy just glares at him from across the desk.
"You should settle," Percy says after some time.
"I want a new attorney," Harry says flatly.
"Frankly, Harry, there's no one else who wants to work your case, because of who's involved," Percy replies, peering up over the rim of his glasses. "Hermione and Ron have been trying to get some high-profile types to help you, without success, I'm afraid."
"It's Voldemort," says Harry. "You'd think I'd have a heap of barristers banging on my door."
Percy leans forward, voice dropping to a conspiratorial level. Resentment causes Harry to bristle. Percy's trying to make up for all those years of being against him by playing the big brother, but it's not working. "That's just it. It's not You-Know-Who, not really. It's something that represents him, and that frightens people."
Harry frowns. "But-- it is him. It's a piece of his soul. Except in a take away receipt. Okay, now I'm beginning to understand why no one wants to help me."
Naturally, he decides not to settle. Percy lectures him about being stubborn and pig-headed (ironic, coming from Percy), but Harry stops listening. Percy doesn't understand that he just can't let Voldemort win, not after everything's that's happened. But he doesn't know how to fix this; it's not a problem he can solve by magic and skill. He's out of his league in a way he's never been before.
Maybe then, he thinks, growing cold, he's already lost.
When Percy finally lets him leave, he spots Ginny Weasley sitting on a chair in the corridor. He slows his pace until he's right in front of her, and she looks up from her magazine and smiles.
"Hermione told me about the eighth horcrux," is the first thing she says.
"Oh, yeah," Harry says, "I would've told you, but..."
They haven't seen each other since the first week after Voldemort died. Or almost died. Or whatever. He danced with her once, when he was really pissed, and he's sure he told her some things, but he can't remember what. He still cares about her, but he doesn't want to be with her. He likes what they had; he likes looking back fondly. He doesn't want to ruin that.
"Percy wants me to pay whatever Voldemort wants," he says, shrugging.
She snorts. "Percy's a git. He's probably still mad you made Fudge look like a clot."
Harry smiles. "Yeah, but unfortunately, he's the only one here who knows what he's doing."
Ginny puts her hand on his arm. He almost has to look up to look into her eyes now. Weasleys are too tall for their own good. "Harry," she says softly, "I want you to know, I'm here if you need me."
"It was good to see you again," he says, pulling away. She looks disappointed.
Rather than returning to the emptiness of his flat, he sits at a cafe in front of the second-hand bookstore and waits until Malfoy walks by. It takes nearly four hours, but eventually he catches Malfoy, who still struts as if every eye should be on him, walking in the same direction as a week ago.
This time Malfoy's surprisingly easy to follow. Harry, keeping a respectable distance and wishing for his Invisibility Cloak, trails Malfoy down narrow, shadowed alleyways of broken cobblestone. They cross the square Harry remembers being lost in, and eventually Malfoy stops at a cluster of lopsided houses. Harry waits in the shadows while Malfoy walks up to one of the doors.
He waits until he heard the creak of a door opening before he steps out. "Hey, Malfoy."
Malfoy yelps and spins round, eyes wide. "What the bloody--? Potter?"
There's a moment where neither of them know what to say to each other.
"So I guess you found me," Malfoy says arrogantly.
"You have been walking round London," Harry points out.
"Are you going to stand here and mouth off, or are you coming inside for tea?"
Harry's too startled to be properly offended. Malfoy goes inside, but he doesn't completely shut the door. For about ten seconds, Harry seriously debates whether or not he's going to follow, but in the end, curiosity gets the better of him. He pulls his wand out of his pocket and enters.
Malfoy's home is actually the bottom level. Harry has to pass another doorway beside the stairwell. The flat's small and shoddy, with white plaster walls that are beginning to crumble. From his spot in the entrance, Harry can see the kitchen and the lounge, which also might be the bedroom. There are newspaper clippings stuck to the wall, probably with magic, and even from a distance Harry can tell they're about Malfoy's parents. There's one of Snape, too, but Harry can't bring himself to get a good look at it.
Malfoy fills the kettle and turns on the cooker. He looks exactly the same as he did a year ago. Harry feels weird about that, and then he feels weird for feeling weird.
"I saw you a few weeks ago," Harry says without thinking. "I called your name, but you didn't stop."
Malfoy eyes him warily. "Did you?" He looks down at the two cups he's pulled out, then back up. "So I hear you killed the Dark Lord."
"Yeah, well, you know," Harry says, "most of him, anyway."
Malfoy's white eyebrows knit into a frown. He looks at Harry like there might be something wrong with him, but then the kettle goes off, and Harry's pulling up a chair to the wobbly table while Malfoy pours them tea.
"I'd offer milk and sugar," Malfoy says snidely, "but I'm sort of starving to death from being on the run and having my family's fortune confiscated by the Ministry."
Harry ignores the jab. "You've been in London this whole time then?"
Malfoy snorts. "Don't be ridiculous. First I was in France, but not speaking French kept getting in the way. Then I was in the Highlands, but that's such a miserable place, I don't understand how anyone could possibly live there. After that I was in Manchester, but that was full of Welshmen."
Harry's beginning to remember why he hated Malfoy. "So you came back here, where anyone could spot you? Real good work there, Malfoy."
He waves a vague hand. "Everyone thought I was dead anyway. I thought London was big enough for me to get by without running into people I know. Obviously, I was mistaken."
"Seems that way," Harry agrees. He takes a sip of his tea, which is still hot enough to burn.
"They left me to die," Malfoy says, answering the question Harry hasn't asked. "They left me naked in a forest somewhere on the continent. They said I'd never survive on my own. But I did, as you can see." His chin tilts haughtily. "Well?"
"Well, what?" Harry asks.
"Aren't you going to tell me how brave and strong I am?"
Harry resists the urge to laugh in his face. "I'm sorry," he says instead.
Malfoy goes utterly still, expression unreadable. This is all very uncomfortable, and it's not like Harry had a plan, but this isn't going the way he wants. He reaches out to touch Malfoy's shoulder, but then he decides that might be a bad idea. "I'm sorry I didn't protect you when I was supposed to," Harry rambles on. "I'm just really sorry, okay?"
He suddenly knows what he wants more than anything is for Malfoy to forgive him. He needs Malfoy to forgive him, to give him hope that maybe everything isn't all screwed up.
But then Malfoy leans back in his chair, pale eyes cold, and Harry's heart sinks. "Excellent," he says, drawing each word out slowly, "I'm glad you're sorry. You should be."
Harry and Malfoy sit on the curb of the entrance to Privet Drive, their trunks resting on the grass behind them. Malfoy's gotten rid of that ridiculous wig, but Harry didn't see whether or not he threw away the glasses. Uncle Vernon kicked Harry out as soon as he thought Harry was performing magic. "I won't have two bloody wizards in my home!" he screamed, to which Harry replied, "Fine by me."
Now they're waiting for Arthur Weasley to arrive. Harry sent an owl explaining he didn't have access to a fireplace, and that his trunk and Hedwig would make it difficult to Apparate. They've been sitting there in complete silence for hours. Harry's been seriously considering just hopping onto his broom and leaving.
"I don't suppose you can drive," Harry says finally.
Malfoy merely looks at him. "I don't even know what that means."
The silence continues.
Malfoy lets out a long, painful sigh, and leans back so far he's almost laying on the road. "I can't believe I'm going to the Weasley's. My father would die if he knew I set foot into that cramped, disgusting hovel."
Harry can't believe he was ever intimidated this prat. "Listen," he says, turning to Malfoy, "from here on out, if you say a single bad thing about the Weasleys, you're on your own. I'm not helping you because I like you, or even because I think you're a good person." Malfoy starts to say something, but Harry silences him. "And if I hear the words 'my father' come out of your mouth, I'll kill you."
Malfoy audibly clenches his teeth and looks away.
Arthur Weasley arrives with a pop. He rushes towards Harry, looking frantic. "What now, Harry?" he asks, putting a steady hand on Harry's shoulder as Harry climbs to his feet. "They kicked you out? They can't do that, Dumbledore would--"
Then he notices Malfoy.
Arthur looks at Harry sharply. "What's going on here?"
This is the most humiliating moment of Harry's life. Worse than the whole Cho fiasco. Worse than when he kissed Ginny in front of the entire House. "Er, he asked me to protect him from Voldemort."
"And you believed him?"
"He seemed rather, uh, desperate," Harry says.
"Is this the truth?" Arthur asks Malfoy. "Don't think I won't personally hand you over to the Ministry myself. We have ways of making you talk."
Malfoy starts to sneer, then seems to think better of it. "Yes, sir."
Arthur stares at Malfoy for a long beat, and for a second, Harry thinks maybe Arthur's going to tell Malfoy to get lost. But he's Arthur Weasley; he'd never do that to anyone, no matter how horrible they are. Instead, he pulls an old rubix cube out of his pocket.
"Now, both of you grab your trunks with one hand, and put the other on the portkey," Arthur says.
Malfoy puts his hand on it quickly, but it takes Harry a second to bite down his anxiety. He hates portkeys.
A spin and a headache later, they're in the Weasley's yard. Harry breathes in the cool air, but when he glances at Malfoy, Malfoy's gazing at the Burrow like he's just seen something obscene.
Inside, it's a flurry of activity, as usual, and no one even notices that Arthur brought home more than one boy. Mrs Weasley is furiously directing objects to clean themselves for their unexpected ("But very welcomed, of course.") guest. And then Ron and Hermione come clambering down the stairs.
"Harry, love, how are you?" Mrs Weasley asks, folding a tea towel.
"Alright," Harry says. He feels a million times better just walking into the Burrow.
"Harry--" Hermione starts, as Ron clasps his shoulder and begins, "Great to--"
Ron's the one to notice Draco first. His face turns the same colour as his hair. "What the bloody hell is he doing here?"
Harry really doesn't want to explain this. "Potter's protecting me from the Death Eaters," Malfoy sneers, before Harry can say anything.
"I'm not," Harry mouths to Ron, who's looking slightly ill, and Hermione, who just appears furious.
"Arthur," Mrs Weasley calls hotly, "can I have a word with you in the kitchen?"
Arthur looks panicked for a second, but he follows her, leaving Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Draco to stand there and stare at each other.
"Potter," Malfoy says, crossing his arms over his chest, "I've changed my mind. I'd rather the Dark Lord killed me."
Harry goes for his first day of Auror training, and he has a complete, utter freak-out.
On his way home, he buys a loaf of bread and a pint of milk. He makes it back to Malfoy's place (after getting lost twice) and knocks on the door.
Malfoy pokes his head out a second later. "What the hell are you doing here? You're not making a social call, are you?"
"I brought you some food," Harry says, holding out the goods. He starts to step inside.
"I don't want your pity," Malfoy snarls, shoving Harry out the front door, but he snatches the bread and milk anyway.
Harry tries to block him. For someone so thin and pointy, Malfoy puts up a good fight. "Then what do you want?"
"I want you to get a life!"
The door slams behind him.
Just like when they were kids, Harry constantly seems to find himself at Ron's place. Except it's Ron's and Hermione's now. They're all proper and grown up; he lies awake every night in a room above a pub while his parents' galleons dwindle. When he gets to his friends' flat, they serve him tea and biscuits, a habit he knows they picked up from Ron's mother. There's an overstuffed bookshelf in between two of Ron's Quidditch posters. Their home is the complete opposite of Malfoy's, and for some reason, that bothers him.
"I saw Zacharias Smith at the Ministry today," Ron says, talking with his mouth full. "He's working in Records now. You should've seen the look on his face when I told him we were Aurors."
"I'm not an Auror anymore," Harry says.
"What?" Hermione and Ron ask simultaneously. Or rather, Ron tries to ask, but he starts choking instead.
"Er, I botched it."
"How could you botch it?" demands Ron, taking a big swill of his tea to wash down his biscuit. "You defeated Voldemort!"
"Yeah, well, it's kind of hard to keep your job when everything you see and do reminds you of the final duel between you and the man who killed your family," Harry snaps.
Both Ron and Hermione seem taken aback. "Oh, Harry," Hermione says. "What happened?"
He runs a hand over his smooth, unfamiliar forehead. "They were giving me a run-down in the Dark Arts. I just didn't want to have to deal with that again."
What he doesn't mention is he made it as far as Avada Kedavra before remembering every single time that particular curse was used against him, his friends, and his family, in vivid, glorifying detail. He walked right out of the Ministry offices and just stood on the sidewalk, sucking in deep breaths until the urge to scream or vomit or who-knows-what subsided. In the seven years he struggled with Voldemort, in the seven years he watched people he cared about die, he's never once had a reaction like that. That worries him a lot more than what he's going to do without employment.
"I think I need a quiet job," Harry says, rubbing his forehead again. "Something where nobody dies."
"Listen, Harry, I think you might have a condition known as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder," says Hermione. "It's the result of having experienced something life-threatening. Do you feel detached? Have you been having flashbacks?"
Horrified, Harry can't even formulate a response. He turns from her to Ron, who looks like he'd rather be doing anything other than having this conversation.
"You think I'm traumatised?" Harry manages.
"Well, mate," Ron says hesitantly, "you did sorta kill someone."
"For the good of humanity!" Harry sputters. "And-- and you killed someone too!"
"And that is why Ron cries himself to sleep every night," Hermione says. "Anyway, it doesn't matter why. The point is that you did. And you can't just walk away from that unaffected."
Sudden, irrational fury pulses through him, and he clenches his fists. He knows Hermione just wants to help, but he wishes for once she'd just listen to him. He's not insane; he just needs time to get used to this new world where Voldemort's (mostly) gone and Harry's expected to be a hero.
"Have you thought of what you're going to do now?" Hermione asks.
He snaps, "You know, between the not sleeping and the nervous breakdown, I hadn't really given it much thought."
She brightens at "not sleeping." "I was right, you do have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder."
"You alright?" Ron asks.
Harry's sitting in the entrance to their building. It's chilly out, and he wishes he'd worn a thicker jumper. He glances over his shoulder at Ron; Hermione's frizzy-haired silhouette is pacing back and forth on the other side of the window.
Ron clunks down beside him. "Sorry about all that up there," he says, bumping Harry's shoulder with his. "You know how she is when she's worried."
Harry studies him. "Do you really cry yourself to sleep every night?"
Ron pauses. "Not... every night."
Harry presses his palms against his eyes. He wants a drink. No, actually he wants to be back at Hogwarts. "You ever think about the future?"
"Yeah, sure," Ron says, voice lifting in surprise.
"Yeah? What sort of things do you think about?"
Ron's still looking at him strangely, but answers, "You know, the usual. Good job, nice home, maybe a family. I used to think about making a name for myself, but, well, I don't really have to worry about that anymore. Order of Merlin, Second Class," he reminds Harry, beaming.
"I've never thought about any of that," Harry admits. "Ever since I found out about Voldemort and my parents, all I've thought about is doing my homework, playing Quidditch, maybe defeating an evil or two." Ron chuckles at that. "Last summer, before Malfoy showed up, I'd been trying to think of a plan on how to kill Voldemort. But I couldn't think of a single thing."
Ron frowns. "But you did, eventually."
"Yeah, thanks to you and Hermione. Not on my own. I can't think that far ahead on my own. Now it's like I can't even think what I'm doing tomorrow."
"Maybe Hermione's onto something," Ron says carefully.
"You think I'm nutters," Harry accuses. He doesn't need this from his supposed best chum.
"No," Ron says, "I think you're stressed. Come on, Harry, mate, you were raised in a cupboard. You were bound to come out maladjusted no matter what."
Harry wants to ask where Ron learned the word "maladjusted," but he knows the answer.
"We're just worried," Ron adds. "You haven't been the same since..."
Harry closes his eyes. "So you've got me all figured out then, haven't you? Well, I'm sorry I'm not adjusting as well as you and Hermione. I'm sorry that my whole life was leading up to one moment, and now that it's over, I can't--" He shakes his head. "It's not even really over. I mucked it up. I thought there were seven, and there were eight."
"Man," Ron says, gazing up at the stars, "I don't think anyone saw the receipt thing coming. That was really clever, wasn't it? Sort of makes you appreciate his evil genius. It's a wonder any of us lived."
Ottery St Catchpole is a lot smaller than Harry expected. It's not more than a few narrow streets, a patch or two of bright green parks, and a handful of buildings that lean suspiciously to the left. The weather's boiling hot, and Harry can smell the Otter River from where they are. Harry loves being at the Burrow.
"This place reeks," Malfoy grumbles, wrinkling his nose in disgust.
Mr and Mrs Weasley sent the younger ones -- minus Ginny, since Arthur seemed to be having a hard time adjusting to the fact his little girl was seriously dating, even if the bloke was someone he knew for years, and even if they already broke up -- to town, because Malfoy was grating everyone's nerves. Ron whinged Malfoy was annoying them, but his parents ordered them to take Malfoy out or else.
"Hey," Ron murmurs, bumping Harry with his shoulder, "let's chuck him in the river."
"If you're willing to listen to him complain about it for the next week," Harry whispers.
"I'm right here," Malfoy says loudly. "I can hear you. You'd better not throw me in. These robes alone are worth more than your miserable life, Weasley."
"Shut up," reply Ron and Harry, as Hermione snorts.
"There's not really much to see here," Ron says as they walk onto the high street. "They have a wicked sweets shop, but it's, you know, Muggle candy, and Mum doesn't like us to eat it. Something about not knowing what's in it."
They walk up and down the road a few times, peering into the shops. Ron's right, there isn't much; they see the sweets shop, as well as a single coffee bar, a travel agency, and a post office. Harry notices Hermione smile to herself when they pass the public library. Ron starts telling them a story from when he was a kid and the twins made him eat sand out of the park sandbox, and how ever since then he's had a hard time stomaching porridge, when Harry notices something's off.
"Malfoy, you've been awfully--" He turns and find he's been talking to empty space. Malfoy's gone. "--Quiet."
"Uh-oh," Ron mutters.
All three of them take out their wands. The streets are eerily still, but there's something dangerous in the air. The hair rises on the back of Harry's neck.
"Maybe he just ran away?" Ron says hopefully, but his voice is low.
"Help!" they hear, and it's definitely Malfoy's whiny voice.
"Harry," Hermione says, grabbing his sleeve and pointing.
Harry braces himself for the Dark Mark floating above the village, but there's nothing. So he takes off running in the direction of Malfoy's scream, hoping maybe Malfoy's just thick and got lost. He's not prepared for when Ron knocks both him and Hermione to the ground. The wind rushes out of him, and he gasps, "What're you doing?" and braces himself against the wall of the most definitely left-leaning building on their side. Hermione also has a pale, shocked look about her.
Without sound, Ron nods to indicate Harry should peek round the corner.
"Death Eaters," Hermione hisses.
Indeed, roughly a dozen men in Death Eater masks and robes are carrying Malfoy down a path that leads out of Ottery St Catchpole. Malfoy's struggling to get out of their grasps, but he's no match for twelve large, hulking adults. He's also shrieking very loudly and hysterically.
Harry leans back against the wall and squeezes his eyes shut. They should do something. They should definitely do something. "Anyone have a plan?"
"You want to save him?" Ron asks incredulously. "I'm not putting my neck out for Malfoy!"
"Ron!" Hermione snaps. She turns to Harry. "You think we can get all of them before they either kill us or kill him?"
"I don't know," Harry replies honestly, trying to remember what happened at Hogwarts, or the year before at the Ministry. How many Death Eaters did they fight then, and how did they win?
They all watch until the Death Eaters disappear into the distance. Eventually, Malfoy's screams die off.
"We should go after them," Hermione says to Harry, but he voice is hesitant. "Malfoy's a horrible, terrible, despicable person, but they're probably going to kill him."
"Yeah, that'd be a shame," Ron says, studying his trainers.
Guilt tightens Harry's chest. On the one hand, he doesn't want Malfoy to die, but on the other hand, he does.
When they make it back to the Burrow, none of them speaking, Arthur, Molly, and Ginny are all in the lounge. There must've been something on their faces, because Arthur goes slightly grey and climbs to his feet. "Where's Draco?" he asks.
"We're assuming he's dead," Ron explains for them all. "We're rather optimistic."
"It's not that I'm stalking you," Harry starts when Malfoy leans out the doorway.
"It's just that you have this compulsive need to be around me?" Malfoy raises a cool brow.
They do that whole shuffle again where Harry tries to get inside and Malfoy struggles to keep him out. This time Harry wins, and Malfoy's left following him.
"I'm beginning to think you might be in love with me," Malfoy drawls at Harry's back.
"Yeah," Harry says sarcastically, "I love you so much, I let Death Eaters carry you off to your death."
"Supposed death, Potter. Supposed."
There's a new -- and very sinister-looking -- clock leaning against the wall in the lounge. Harry's somewhat ashamed he's been here often enough to notice things like that. He really needs Malfoy to forgive him now so he can get over it. He wonders if maybe they should go somewhere else for once. Although it's hardly like he can ask Malfoy to play Quidditch or go for a drink, him being on the run and all, even if Malfoy seems to think he can walk round this part of London without worry.
"Ron and Hermione think I'm losing it," he says, eyeing the clock.
"I don't care, Potter." Malfoy gets up, starts to pace, and then sits down again.
"They think I feel guilty because of stress."
Malfoy sighs. "Is that so?" he says, in a tone that clearly means it doesn't matter to him what Harry's answer is.
"So I came here to apologise again," Harry continues.
"Yes, that's very compelling evidence of your sanity."
"Why won't you accept my apology?" Harry yells, clenching his fists. "Do you know what my life's been like?"
"No," Malfoy shouts back, "I've been too busy being nearly murdered by Death Eaters and running away from Aurors."
The rage seeps right out of Harry. He presses a hand against his forehead, saying quietly, "I wasn't supposed to be the person who leaves people behind."
"Yeah, well, I wasn't supposed to be the person to get left behind," Malfoy says angrily. "I was supposed to be the one who helped You-Know-Who rise to power, and then I was supposed to be the one to kill him and take over the Death Eaters. Instead I'm here pouring tea for everyone's hero, Harry-bleeding-Potter, who's having a complete mental breakdown in my kitchen."
"I don't think it's a complete breakdown until I start sobbing uncontrollably," Harry points out.
Malfoy's face turns slightly purple. "What is it that you want from me? What's the reason you're wasting my time now and every other day this past week?"
Harry frowns. "I told you, I just wanted to say--"
"Right, right, you're sorry. You're always sorry now. It's pathetic, really. You've gone from being someone I hated, to someone I could have possibly one day not minded your being alive, to someone I truly pity."
"Is a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder rage blackouts?" Harry asks coolly. "Because I think I'm about to have one right now."
"Are you sorry about what you did to my parents?" Malfoy asks suddenly.
Harry's startled. "No," he says firmly. "I didn't turn them into Death Eaters. They got what they deserved."
Malfoy's mouth curls into a tight sneer. "Are you sorry for killing Voldemort?"
"Technically, I only killed seven eighths of him, but no, I'm not sorry." He pauses and thinks about that. "I mean, I am sorry, but only sorry I didn't kill him entirely."
"What would happen if I said I forgave you? Would this huge weight suddenly be lifted off your chest, and suddenly the birds will sing and the sun will shine and you'll walk into the sunset with that Weasley of yours?"
"Ginny?" Harry asks.
"Sure," Malfoy says.
In all honesty, he's not sure what would happen if Malfoy accepts his apology. He hasn't really given much thought about it, about anything, really, in what feels like months. Somehow he doesn't think he'd feel any better.
"I think," he says slowly, "your forgiveness would make me feel as if I'm the hero everyone claims me to be."
But by the time Malfoy kicks him out, Harry's realised that's a complete, total lie. He doesn't need Malfoy's forgiveness; he needs Malfoy's fury to keep his mind off the people he really failed.
"I'm coming back tomorrow," he shouts at the door.
He hears something like sputtered curses rising on the other side.
Actually, he doesn't return the next day. Rather, just as he's about to walk out the door, Ron asks him to referee a Quidditch game between him and some other blokes from the Ministry. Harry's a little hurt Ron didn't even bother to ask him to play, but he says yes anyway.
Because of all the equipment and the unusually nice weather, they decide it'll be more fun to walk than Apparate. Ron's in quite a good mood, humming to himself as they move, which Harry kills by saying:
"I want to tell you something important."
For a second, Ron looks positively terrified. "Alright," he squeaks.
Harry adjusts the pack on his shoulder, swallowing the lump in his throat. "I've been seeing Malfoy."
Ron falters. "You what?"
"Not, like, seeing-seeing. Just seeing. We've been talking."
"Talking?" Ron repeats shrilly. He goggles. Then shakes his head. Then goggles again. "About what? How you're going to turn him in to the Ministry?"
"I'm not turning him in, Ron. I just... wanted to make sure he was okay. Look, I shouldn't have left him last year. I wouldn't've done it to anyone but him."
Ron stops abruptly and grabs his arm, face darkening in anger. A few people behind them mutter curses as they bump into the six-foot-plus redhead. "Is that what all this is about, your guilt?" Ron demands. "Listen, Harry, it was war. It was a war we barely survived. People do daft things when their necks are on the line, and you know what? I think we did the right thing. Yeah, we hated him, and he hated us, but I'd do it all over again. Because if you'd gone after that pack of Death Eaters, then we might not be here. My family, Hermione, our friends -- they might all be dead. So stop bloody thinking about the one bad thing out of all the good you did."
"I did plenty of bad," Harry almost says, turning away.
Ron lets go of him, and they walk the rest of the way without speaking.
Harry's afraid that if he stops thinking about Malfoy, then he's going to have to think about Sirius and Remus and Tonks and Luna and Snape and Dumbledore and everyone else he couldn't save. At least Malfoy is here now, where he can fix his mistake.
Harry doesn't sleep that night. He tosses and turns for about three hours, but eventually he gets fed up and puts on his robes.
Under his bed, Harry keeps a box filled with all the owls Sirius and Remus ever sent him, a worn-out copy of The Quibbler, and even a few of his old Potions scrolls with failing marks on them (including one that suggested he drop out of Hogwarts and become "something more suited to your intelligence, perhaps a bin man"). He never considered himself particularly sentimental until he kept losing people he cared about (and in Snape's case, someone he just feels very awful for not trusting). He has another box full of things from Ron and Hermione, just in case.
He opens the box and reads Sirius's letters until he can't take it anymore.
After pulling on his trainers, he practically runs to Ron and Hermione's flat. Being London, there are still plenty out of people out and about, but he doesn't look at any of them.
He bangs and bangs until Ron finally opens his door, hair mussed, eyes wide. "Blimey, Harry, what--?"
"It's not about Malfoy," Harry rushes.
Ron frowns. "Okay?"
"When Sirius died, that's all I could think about for months," Harry says, words falling out of mouth. He doesn't understand them, but he needs to say them. "I never stopped feeling bad about it. And now it's more than just Sirius. A bunch of people died because of me, Ron. They died so I can live, only now I'm not really living. I can't wake up every day and feel happy that I survived the war, knowing that they didn't."
Ron's expression softens. He puts a hand on Harry's shoulder and leads him inside. "Hermione's usually right about these things."
A fortnight later, Harry comes to after a long twelve-hour sleep. It's been four months, one week, and two days after his final duel with Voldemort. For the first time since he left Hogwarts for the final time, he wakes up and feels... not terrible.
His case is still in court (Percy told him not to show his face). Ron and Hermione are still worried about him. His friends and family are still dead. Malfoy's still a prat.
During breakfast, he reads the Daily Prophet, takes a walk to feel the sun on his face, and thinks about what he needs to do. The first thing, he decides, is to get a bloody job already. Eventually, he Apparates to a familiar little neighbourhood in a different part of London.
He knocks on Malfoy's door for about ten minutes (it's a good thing Malfoy doesn't seem to have neighbours, because otherwise they'd probably not be very happy with him) before it opens a crack. Malfoy peers at him with narrowed eyes. "Why do you look so happy? You know, I keep telling you I don't forgive you, yet you keep coming back."
"Yeah," Harry says. He tries not to smile, but fails. "I won't bother you any more after I say this."
"Oh," Malfoy says, blinking. He leans against the doorway. "I wasn't serious. I, er, don't mind being bothered every now and then. Especially if you keep bringing me food."
Harry pretends he doesn't hear that. "I'm sorry for--"
Scowling, Malfoy waves his hands. "Yes, yes! I know! Leaving me to die. You've said it a thousand times by now."
"No, this time I'm sorry for using you as a substitute for all my guilt," Harry says. "Which has actually caused me more guilt in the process. It's been a rough couple of weeks."
Malfoy squints. "Are you even speaking English anymore?"
"I've, er, been talking to Hermione."
"So you don't feel bad anymore for breaking your promise to keep me safe?" Malfoy asks, sounding dubious. He keeps narrowing his eyes, as if trying to look angry, in between bouts of seeming surprised.
Harry rubs the back of his neck. "I do," he says honestly, "but I think I can live with it."
He turns to leave, but Malfoy's voice stops him: "Hey, Potter, I'm sorry too -- for ruining your life."
When the door shuts, all Harry can do is laugh at Malfoy's sense of self-importance.
That night, Harry sneaks into the Ministry of Magic and rips up the receipt. The next day, the Ministry launches a formal investigation, but Harry receives an owl from the new Minister of Magic, congratulating him on saving everyone. Again. Harry puts the owl in his desk drawer next to his medals, and then he leaves to meet Ron for a game of Quidditch.
Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.