As always, that which you recognize from the books belongs to JK Rowling.
An inch of fresh snow adorned the streets of Hogsmeade Village when Draco apparated in front of the Three Broomsticks and began to trudge toward Hogwarts. He pulled the hood of his cloak tightly around his head, but it had little to do with the biting chill in the air. He hadn’t set foot in Scotland since the morning after the war ended. The residents and shopkeepers of the village were bustling around, preparing for the New Years Eve festivities that would begin later in the day. Draco knew what sort of reaction he could expect if anybody recognized him, so he hurried up the path that led to the front gates of the school.
The reception that awaited him there probably wasn’t any warmer. The Board of Governors had been deeply divided over whether to allow Draco to complete his studies. Twisting arms was out of the question; his family’s influence with the Ministry’s new leadership was non-existent. In the end, a large donation to a charity which provided for the education of war orphans persuaded a slim majority of the governors to side with him.
Draco relaxed slightly after he rounded the first bend in the path without any hexes hitting him in the back. The momentary reprieve came to an abrupt end as the castle came into view. The snow did little to conceal the lingering damage from the battle. Large sections of new, lighter-colored stone stood out like scars on the ancient walls. The covered bridge hung awkwardly in the air, held up by enchantments until the wooden framework beneath it could be rebuilt. Many of the large trees that once adorned the grounds were gone, replaced by deep divots in the snowy ground. Large holes in the North Tower and the Astronomy Tower were still being repaired, leaving the insides exposed to the elements. It was all too real, too fresh, too familiar.
His heart started to pound inside his chest. He closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to force the disturbing images from his mind. They were replaced by visions of giants thundering toward the castle walls while clouds of Dementors circled overhead. Draco felt himself being pulled back into that awful night he had tried so hard to erase from his memory in the dingy wizarding pubs of London. His breath came in short gasps as the fire and curses and screams of agony rushed back to him. The battle was raging all around. His mad aunt cackled somewhere nearby while she hurled curses at an unseen opponent. The din of the fighting was deafening.
Moment by horrible moment, he relived the battle inside his mind. A hail of curses flew over his head, pummeling the school’s defenses. Deafening explosions tore through the fabric of the night and chunks of the castle were blown away. The ground undulated and churned as thousands of giant spiders were driven from the Forbidden Forest toward the defenders of Hogwarts. Just as it felt as though his heart couldn’t beat any faster, he heard the Dark Lord’s serpentine hiss, ordering him into the ruins to find Harry Potter.
Draco wasn’t aware that he had fallen to his knees and he had no memory of drawing his wand. Feelings of panic and helplessness threatened to consume him and the urge to flee was overwhelming. He could hear strangled moans escaping from his constricted throat. Slowly, and with tremendous effort, he managed to force his eyes open and unclench his balled-up fists. His wand fell from his fingers, sinking a short way into the powdery snow. Little by little, his breathing slowed as he focused on the empty whiteness of the ground in front of him.
Mustering every bit of his determination, Draco snatched his wand and pulled himself to his feet. This weakness was unacceptable. His parents had sacrificed too much to make this opportunity possible. He wouldn’t let them down by succumbing to his demons. That wasn’t the Malfoy way. Draco forced himself to trudge the rest of the way to the school gates. His feet felt like lead and each step was an exercise in controlling his anxiety and fear. Slowly, deliberately, he covered the remaining distance.
A figure wearing a wide-brimmed, pointed hat and a tartan overcoat was waiting for him. Draco fought back a renewed urge to flee and lifted his face to meet the fearsome, piercing stare of Minerva McGonagall. He took two more steps forward, already dreading the sight of the Great Hall. A new avalanche of horrible memories lay ahead, moments that all of the alcohol and wishful thinking in London hadn’t been able to erase from his mind. As it turned out, that particular moment of reckoning would have to wait for another day. He paused in front of the castle gates, surprised to find that they did not part.
“That’s far enough, Mr. Malfoy.”
The Headmistress’s words charged the frosty air with tension. Draco studied her eyes and noticed the simmering rage lurking just beneath her icy glare. He wasn’t sure what to say, so he didn’t bother with any sort of pleasantries.
“I’m here to discuss my timetable for lessons. May I come in?”
Even beneath her thick, winter clothes, her slender form seemed to vibrate with barely contained fury. It took her a long moment to respond.
“You most certainly may not. Let us get one thing perfectly straight. The Governors have decided to allow you to attend Hogwarts over my explicit objection. You are a Death Eater and a coward, Mr. Malfoy. Your hands are stained with the blood of loved ones who are still being mourned by our students and staff. Your presence is not wanted here. But the Governors have made their decision and I must abide by it.”
McGonagall came as close to spitting out the final words as her rigidly proper enunciation would allow. But the weight of her glare did not waver.
“You will only be permitted on the grounds of Hogwarts during the school day. A teacher will meet you at these gates each morning and escort you to your first class. You will surrender your wand and it will be returned to you only when required for the practical portions of your lessons. You will not be permitted to socialize with the other students outside of your lessons and you will take your meals in Professor Slughorn’s office. Should you have a free period between lessons, it will be spent in the library, quietly revising for your upcoming exams. Any disciplinary infraction, no matter how small, will result in your immediate expulsion. These conditions are not negotiable. Do you understand?”
Draco nodded his head slowly. He hadn’t expected a friendly greeting, but the outrage and contempt in her eyes made him question all over again whether he was making the right decision. It wasn’t as though he needed a job. As soon as he told his father about the shabby way he was being treated, the old man would have no qualms about his change of heart. His mother was a different story, however. She might try to hide it, but she would definitely be disappointed in him. And Draco simply couldn’t handle that.
McGonagall turned and started to walk back toward the castle doors without another word. Feeling a need to salvage some measure of dignity, Draco called out after her.
“That will be acceptable. See that I’m not kept waiting. The forecast is for snow on Monday morning!”
The Headmistress didn’t even slow down in acknowledgment. Draco turned and began to walk back toward Hogsmeade. In the back of his mind, it dawned on him that he was virtually guaranteed to spend a long time waiting in the snow.
Astoria lifted the stack of thick cashmere sweaters out of her school trunk for the fourth time, turned them ninety degrees clockwise and tried to wedge them into a small space between her cauldron and her Arithmancy text. The thick, luxurious fabric continued to resist her attempts to make it conform to the available space, mushrooming upward after each time she smashed it down. She furrowed her brow in frustration. When she was younger, she thought the way that Daphne complained about not being able to do magic outside of school was ridiculous. Now that she had more clothes, books and other possessions that needed to be packed for each trip, the temptation to shrink them with her wand was hard to resist. She twirled the thin piece of wood between her fingers for a moment and then sighed.
The small elf appeared with a pop and made a deep bow toward her. Astoria smiled sweetly, trying to reassure the nervous little creature. She knew that other families didn’t treat their elves as well as her mother insisted that they treat Linny, and it bothered her that the elf always seemed to regard her with a touch of fear in those large eyes.
“Please shrink the contents of my trunk so that they fit properly. I’ll be able to put them right again once I’m back at school and I’m allowed to do magic.”
The elf bowed again and snapped her fingers. The great mass of books and clothing contracted and the lid of the trunk flipped closed and latched itself.
“May I be taking your trunk to the foyer, Miss Astoria? Master wished to leave within the hour.”
“Of course. Thank you, Linny.”
The elf and the trunk both disappeared with a pop. Astoria took a last look around her room as she rounded up the few small items that she would be carrying onto the train. It was always bittersweet leaving home after the holidays. As much as she was looking forward to seeing her friends, she would miss her parents and her sister. It also occurred to her that her time at Hogwarts was beginning to run short. In one year, she would be starting her final term of school and the future loomed uncertainly before her.
“Astoria, are you all ready to go?”
She banished the worrisome thoughts from her mind and turned to greet the pretty blonde girl in her doorway with a smile.
“Yes. Linny just took my trunk to the foyer. Let’s start walking that way so we don’t keep Father waiting.”
Astoria’s friend Isadore Nott had gratefully accepted her invitation to spend the final week of the holidays with her family. Mrs. Nott had passed away shortly after Isadore was born and now her father was locked away in Azkaban. Her only remaining family were her brother Theo, who was rarely seen outside of a pub during the daytime, and her elderly, spinster aunt who insisted that Isadore spend most of her waking hours helping to groom the herd of cats that she shared her home with. Astoria was happy to have somebody to enjoy the holiday with, since her mother and sister were deep in the throes of wedding planning; Daphne had finally caught Jeremy Gamp in a moment of weakness and wheedled a proposal out of him.
The two girls strolled down the long corridor that led from Astoria’s chambers to the front entrance of the Greengrass family home. The portraits of her ancestors regarded Astoria fondly as they passed, and Isadore was humming softly to herself. She stared at the ceiling, trying -- and failing -- to sound very casual.
“So... I heard from Pansy Parkinson that she talked to Lucien Bole who heard from Blaise Zabini that Blaise had lunch with him and he has decided to return to Hogwarts for the spring term.”
Astoria could hear the eagerness in her friend’s voice. At times she regretted sharing the story of her chance encounter with Draco Malfoy. Isadore was entirely too eager to see Astoria in a relationship. She spent far too much time reading trashy romance novels, and she tended to go overboard with enthusiasm whenever one of her friends mentioned any new romantic interest. Still, Astoria hoped that the rumor was true. And it was nice to have at least one person who didn’t cringe at the notion of her speaking to a former Death Eater.
“That’s good to hear. It would be a shame if he missed out on the chance to earn his N.E.W.T.s.”
Isadore rolled her eyes and then fixed Astoria with a knowing look. Astoria put on her best innocent look, but after a few seconds her facade began to crack. Isadore grinned at her and within a few seconds both girls erupted into a fit of giggles.
“Alright, alright, I might fancy him just a bit.”
Isadore practically squealed with delight and seized Astoria’s shoulders, shaking her gently.
“Oh, Astoria! I just know that you two are going to be perfect together. He’s so handsome and mysterious and he has those beautiful grey eyes...”
Astoria sighed and gave her friend a beseeching look. Isadore was definitely letting her imagination run wild. Also, for reasons that Astoria didn’t quite understand, the dreamy look in Isadore’s eyes bothered her. More than she cared to admit, if she was being honest with herself.
“Isadore, please don’t get too worked up over this. I told you how father took it when I brought up his name. He seemed really sweet, but it would be so... complicated.”
Astoria heard her parents instructing the elves at the far end of the corridor. She wished with all her might that Isadore would simply allow the subject to drop, but her body language made it clear that she was only warming up.
“Astoria, your father is being ridiculous! If he’s going to reject anyone who’s related to a Death Eater, there’s hardly a boy in our house that you’d be allowed to date.”
The conversation was getting far too personal to continue in front of a bunch of chatty portraits. Astoria lowered her voice to a whisper, hoping that Isadore would have the good sense to follow suit.
“If Draco just had an uncle or a cousin who was sent to Azkaban, that would be different. I think father could get past it. But his father was arrested in the Department of Mysteries, Isadore. The Dark Lord was a guest in their house. I heard... I heard he even has that mark on his arm.”
The two girls stood silently for a moment. Isadore suddenly turned and started to walk again. Astoria hurried to catch up and she was surprised to see that her friend's eyes were slightly damp. She caught Isadore’s elbow and gave her a pleading look. Isadore paused and spoke slowly, her voice barely a whisper.
“It was a war, Astoria. Lots of people made really awful choices. My father will spend the rest of his life in Azkaban and my brother... he’s like a stranger now. We barely speak any more. Do you think that makes me a bad person?”
Astoria couldn’t resist the urge to pat her friend gently on the back as she slowly but emphatically shook her head in response. Isadore took a steadying breath and continued to speak softly.
“I think it’s great that your family didn’t get caught up in all of that awful business, Astoria. Really, I do. Please just don’t judge the rest of us too harshly, alright?”
Astoria stared straight ahead as they resumed their walk. She did want to see Draco again, but her father’s warning still rang in her ears. The boy she met in Diagon Alley -- young man, she corrected herself -- didn’t seem like he was dangerous or evil. Was it possible for someone to spend so much time surrounded by darkness and death and still turn out alright? There was only one thing she could do. She had to find out for herself.
On the fourth of January, Professor Slughorn met Draco at the gates of Hogwarts. Apparently he hadn’t paid any attention to the weather forecast, as he was attired in a lightweight set of robes that did little to shield him from the wind-driven snow. It pained Draco to hand his wand to the doddering old fool, but at least the Professor had the grace to be apologetic about it.
“Headmistress’s orders, you know. Wouldn’t want to put her in a tizzy on your first day back.”
The two of them walked in silence toward the great wooden doors. Slughorn produced Draco’s timetable from the pockets of his damp, snow-crusted robes upon reaching the Entrance Hall and then led the way to the Potions classroom in the dungeons. Draco stared intently at the small sheet of parchment, trying to avoid seeing anything that would stir the terrible memories that still haunted his dreams. It indicated that he would start the day with double Potions on Mondays and Wednesdays, followed by Charms after lunch. Tuesday and Thursday mornings were devoted to Transfiguration, with additional Charms lessons on Tuesday afternoons and...
“Professor, there must be some mistake. I don’t recall ever choosing Muggle Studies as an elective, let alone pursuing it at a N.E.W.T. level. And where are my Defense lessons?”
Slughorn gave him a practised smile as he tried to brush the snow off of his right side.
“Ah, yes. According to Professor McGonagall, the Governors decided that due to your relative inexperience with the muggles, it would benefit you to continue your studies of their customs. As far as Defense, well, I think we can all agree that putting you in a classroom where students are hurling spells at one another could lead to, shall we say, misunderstandings.”
Draco was fuming as he followed his former Head of House down the long staircase. The only misunderstanding he could see was the one made by the person who assumed that he was going to take this insult lying down. The very notion of spending two hours each week listening to some self-important half-wit drone on about the filthy muggles and their rubbish made him itch. And he had no concerns about his ability to hold his own in Defense lessons. Even without the dark spells he learned during the war, he felt sure that he was more than a match for the other students. As the walked down the dungeon corridor, Draco pondered what sort of donation could be made to put things right.
The Potions classroom was empty when they arrived. Slughorn gestured absently toward the stone-topped workbenches as he walked toward his office door.
“Take any seat you like. I’m going to fetch some dry robes.”
Draco surveyed the classroom and selected a bench in the back, where nobody would be able to sit behind him. He dropped his books onto the bench and draped his heavy winter cloak over one of the stools before plopping listlessly onto the other. Somehow, he didn’t think that anyone was going to want to sit next to him. He pulled his crisp, new copy of Advanced Potion-Making out of his bag and started to reread the section that described the Draught of Living Death. Maybe Slughorn would repeat his little brewing competition. If there was one thing that his life had been missing, Draco reasoned, it was a dose of good luck.
Voices sounded in the hallway outside of the classroom. Draco looked at his watch and realized that lessons were about to begin. He flipped back to the table of contents and studied the list of potions that the book contained. Most of the names were familiar to him, but in a hazy, somewhat distant way. He felt a twinge of regret. He had once been good at Potions, even without Professor Snape’s constant prompting and tutelage. Draco had barely paid any attention to his studies the prior year. On the rare occasion when one of his teachers dared to admonish him, he either ignored them or threatened them with the mark on his left forearm. Pleasing the Dark Lord had been his only priority, the thing that kept him alive.
Draco was shaken from his reverie by approaching footsteps. He looked up from his text to find the points of two wands aimed at his face. Behind them were the shocked, angry expressions of two boys that he recognized as Gryffindors. The nearest of the two had frizzy, brown hair twisted into dreadlocks. His head made Draco think of a nest full of Flobberworm larvae. The second boy was shorter, with pale skin and curly brown hair. Draco managed to stop himself from reaching for his empty pocket. He would have felt foolish if he’d taken a curse to the head for nothing.
“Bloody hell. It’s really him.”
“Looks like the rumors were right for once.”
Draco shifted uncomfortably on his stool and both wands twitched dangerously. He slowly raised his palms and looked the closer of the two boys in the eye.
“Look, I don’t want-”
“Shut the hell up, Malfoy.”
Worm-head closed the gap separating them with two short steps and pressed his wand against Draco’s neck. It was a foolish posture for an unqualified wizard to assume. Draco could have easily swatted the wand away and taken the boy down in less time than it took to utter an incantation. But that left the unfortunate problem of the second boy, who was maintaining a calculated separation and kept his wand pointed squarely at Draco’s face. A quick scan of the immediate vicinity revealed nothing that Draco could possibly use to defend himself. For the moment, shutting the hell up seemed like the safest choice.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve, showing your face here. Everyone in this castle lost somebody because of you and the rest of Voldemort’s scum. You see this scar on my neck? She’s a real beauty, isn’t she? Alecto gave it to me. The bitch caught me slipping notes from Potterwatch to the Hufflepuffs. Do you know what curse she used to do it? Well do you?”
Draco stared blankly ahead, trying not to let his facial expression betray the pounding of his heart against his ribcage. He shook his head slowly from side to side, wondering how even a fat, old fossil like Slughorn could take this long to change his robes. A cruel sneer spread across Worm-head’s face.
“Whaddya know, Nigel? I guess he doesn’t know every dark curse in the book. Let’s give him a little demonstration.”
“Put your wand away, Ritchie.”
Draco couldn’t immediately see his savior, focused as he was on the angry eyes glaring at him from several inches away. The voice was familiar, however. It had an airy quality to it, but also the casual certainty of a person who expected to be listened to.
“Shut up, Luna! You know whose side he was on. The things his family did. We won the war, not them. Now he thinks he’s gonna waltz back in here and walk around this castle like he owns it? Over my dead body.”
An angry shout and a loud snap echoed through the dungeon classroom, closely followed by a cry of alarm from Professor Slughorn. Draco’s hands flew to his face, which he discovered was completely intact and free of boils and lesions. He opened his eyes just enough to see the pale, blond girl holding the Gryffindor boy’s wand in one hand and her own in the other. Slughorn waddled across the room, waving his arms in consternation.
“This is a Potions classroom, not a dueling range! The shelves and cupboards are filled with ingredients that are flammable, explosive and above all else, quite difficult to obtain. I had to call in valuable favors to obtain the Lethe River Water we’ll be using in today’s lesson. Ten points from Gryffindor, Mr. Coote! Miss Lovegood, while your non-verbal disarming charm was quite impressive, Ravenclaw will also surrender ten points.”
The Gryffindor boy hung his head for a moment, then spoke slowly and quietly.
“It wasn’t her fault, Professor. I saw this festering heap of Hippogriff dung and I lost my cool.”
Slughorn seemed to deflate a bit. He slid his hands into his robe pockets and his green eyes flicked from Luna to Draco before finally settling back on the Gryffindor boy.
“Cursing an unarmed opponent is a base and cowardly act no matter who they are, Mr. Coote. Consider yourself fortunate that Miss Lovegood intervened. Oh, and twenty points to Ravenclaw for allowing cooler heads to prevail.”
With one final glare in Draco’s direction, the Gryffindor boy snatched his wand from the Lovegood girl’s hand and made his way to a bench near the back of the classroom. The remaining students gradually arrived and settled into their seats. Granger and Weasley’s little sister wandered in and Draco mentally prepared for another confrontation, but the bushy-haired girl simply looked away and pulled the angry red-head toward a bench on the far side of the room. He felt very annoyed with himself when he realized that he’d been holding his breath.
Draco stared straight ahead as Slughorn welcomed the class and began to lecture about the preparation and properties of the Forgetfulness Potion. He tried to listen, but his mind was hundreds of miles away. Why had the Lovegood girl come to his defense? It made no sense whatsoever. She had suffered horribly in the basement of Malfoy Manor; starved, brutalized and constantly threatened with death. Had she taken a curse to the head and forgotten?
When the Professor instructed the students to pair off and begin brewing, Draco simply retrieved his own ingredients and set to work by himself. Nobody made eye contact, which didn’t bother him in the slightest. In a strange sort of way, the isolation was liberating. He had always been preoccupied with impressing his housemates in the past, directing snide comments and insults toward Potter and the rest of the Gryffindors. Now he simply focused on his work and even though his skills were rusty and he made a few simple mistakes, Draco still managed to finish before most of his classmates.
Slughorn wandered over and studied Draco’s potion, stirring it gently and ladling a small portion into a glass vial to check the color. He nodded approvingly and then lowered his voice to a whisper.
“Mr. Malfoy, considering the animosity that some of your fellow students seem to be feeling toward you, I think it would be wise if you remained here in this classroom when the hour is up. I’ll send an elf to retrieve any books you might need from the library. If you eat a bit early, you can make your way to Professor Flitwick’s classroom while the other students are taking their lunch.”
Draco nodded slowly, but he couldn’t bring himself to feel any gratitude. Slughorn was probably more concerned about having to break up fights than anything else. As he packed away his potions text and pulled out The Standard Book of Spells, Grade Seven, Draco bitterly contemplated his new lot in life. When McGonagall was dictating her terms to him, it didn’t seem real. He knew that people were going to be angry with him, but somehow he hadn’t expected things to be this bad. Whatever state of denial he’d been living in, the truth was now staring him right in the face. McGonagall wasn’t alone in blaming him for the Dark Lord’s reign of terror.
When the bell rang, the professor made a point of standing near his bench as the other students filed out of the classroom. Most of them simply refused to look in his direction. A couple of the Gryffindors glared at him. Luna Lovegood was one of the last to exit and Draco managed to catch her attention as she passed.
“You didn’t have to do that. It was kind of you.”
The blonde girl paused at his bench, allowing the remaining students to leave. Slughorn stared at the two of them curiously for a moment, but apparently decided that there wasn’t any sort of confrontation brewing. He quietly excused himself to his office.
“It was nothing. This school has seen enough fighting, don’t you think?”
Draco could only nod in response. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say on that topic. Fortunately, she was unfazed by the awkward silence and continued to speak.
“Also, I owe you a favor. You gave me some food when I was being held in the basement of your house last summer.”
Draco stared at her with his mouth slightly open. His mind was completely blank. She appeared to notice his confusion, and leaned closer, lowering her voice.
“It was beef stew of some sort. You were visiting the cellar while Voldemort was asking Mr. Ollivander questions upstairs.”
The memory erupted inside Draco’s head and he closed his eyes tightly as he rested his forehead in his hand. The Dark Lord’s menacing, airy voice filled his thoughts, followed by the old man’s screams of agony. His mother had been trying to make him eat, to keep his strength up. He fled to the cellar, but even there, he couldn’t escape the sound of the wandmaker crying out in pain. The rich, savory stew tasted like poison in his mouth. He saw the blond girl standing on the other side of the metal bars, battered and filthy but still seeming as though the horrors that surrounded them were unable to touch her. He couldn’t bear the sight of her, so calm.
“I threw it at you. I... I couldn’t stand to look at you any more. I’m sorry.”
The last two words slipped from between his lips before he realized what had happened. Predictably, Luna Lovegood didn’t seem to notice. Draco felt grateful for the same obliviousness that drove him mad when she had been a prisoner in his home.
“Oh, I know. It was the first food I’d had in a week, even if I did have to suck most of it out of my hair. Your elf used to bring me leftover scraps from dinner to eat, but then your aunt almost caught him at it.”
Draco stared at her from between his thumb and forefinger. What she was telling him didn’t add up.
“Kriffin wouldn’t have done that unless somebody told him to.”
The blond girl looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook her head.
“I’m quite sure you’re right. He is your family’s elf, after all. But I couldn’t ask him to risk his life, even though I was very hungry. When I told him that he needed to stop bringing me food, he said that he’d have to ask for his mistress’s permission.”
Draco was dumbfounded. His mother had risked the Dark Lord’s wrath to keep the girl from starving. She stared at him for a moment, then nodded over his shoulder toward the classroom door.
“I should be going now. Somebody else wants to talk to you.”
He looked away from her grey eyes toward the door of the classroom just in time to catch a flash of dark hair and the swirl of green-trimmed school robes.
Draco leapt from his stool and rushed out of the room. He skidded through the doorway and looked up the corridor that led back to the upper floors of the castle. Astoria Greengrass looked over her shoulder and smiled shyly before disappearing around the corner. A flicker of orange caught his eye and he looked at the wall next to the classroom door. The rapidly dwindling enchanted flames spelled out a single word, barely visible against the ancient stone.
Hello, there! It's been ages since the last time I updated this and I apologize for the delay. The slow chapters are always the hardest to write. Thanks as always to my wonderful beta reader sophie_hatter. If you like the way that this chapter flows, most of the credit belongs to her. Thanks for reading and please take a moment to review!