The large cast iron gates loomed ahead, half hidden in the low cloud clinging to the trees. The low-lying mist made it look like the trees were sighing in the icy Scottish air. The giant castle sat hidden in the damp veil, the sinister gates looming darkly ahead giving the only hint to the grandeur which sat waiting.
The twin statues of Chrysaor, the winded boar, glared angrily down at him as he passed between them, he was sure they had never looked so hostile in all the times he had seen them before. He sauntered morosely along the well-worn path towards the only other home he’d ever known. He hoped to feel some relief there as he had done in the past but with each footstep closer he took, came another layer of dread and grief. He watched his numb feet absently as he plodded up the steps towards the grand hall. He paused and looked around realising where he was, as he sat down on the step. Had it really been just over a week since he had put his past with Draco behind him? Just a week since he had sat in that very spot shivering as he pondered life alone without Ginny. He felt the same cold seeping into his already fridged bones as it leeched from the stone, stealing away any warmth left. He felt a tiny pang of guilt that he hadn’t thought of Ginny once since everything had finished. He sat and thought of Ginny with her bright and vibrant personality and knew that she was better off. He was too different from the boy who had loved her.
His mind wandered back to the reunion party, seeing Draco across the room after so many years. He shuddered again at the way the image played in his mind. He didn’t think he had ever had any romantic thoughts about him at school, or any other boy for that matter, what was it about him in that moment? Harry shook his head in a daze as he sat in the same spot, shivering as he half expected the beloved green jacket to fall on his shoulders again. He felt his heart wring in his chest the longer his shoulders went without it. He had never been one to wallow in his own self-pity, but at that moment, he wanted to fall down into that well and wallow away the rest of his life. Time passed him by as he remembered all the choices and decisions which had left him here. Had there been anything he could have changed? Anything he could have done differently. He didn’t know exactly how long he sat there, playing with a thread hanging from his jeans.
“Harry?” Harry looked around stupidly as he noticed the tall figure standing next to him for the first time. He scrabbled as quickly as he could to his feet, the cold stealing some of his dexterity as he’d sat slowly freezing. He thought distantly that his feet hurt with a dull numb cold.
“Neville?” He said hastily as he tried to gather himself back together. “Been there long?”
“Long enough, come on, I’ve got the kettle on” Harry nodded as he followed his old school friend through the familiar corridors. Finally, they arrived at his quarters which Harry realised was right next to the hospital wing. He remembered that Hannah Abbott, now Longbottom was now the matron, Madam Pomfrey having retired finally.
“How’s Hannah?” Harry asked quietly as they entered the small sitting room. A small irrepressible shiver had begun at his core and he suddenly realised how very cold he really was.
The room looked like it was an extension of the Gryffindor common room with sashes of deep reds and golds handing over the walls, the yellow and black of the Hufflepuff crest colours matching seamlessly into the colour scheme.
“Yeah, she’s sound mate. She’s in the infirmary, making sure everything’s ready for the new school year.” Harry nodded as he listened to Neville’s Yorkshire accent as he tried to think warm thoughts. “Sit down and I’ll sort the tea.” Harry nodded again as he sank down into the threadbare sofa in the centre of the room. He pulled himself close as he tried to warm up and hold himself still, his eyes distracted by the pictures on the wall, the ones he could see between the different plants dotted around.
He could see the photo of the original Order of the Phoenix in a frame surrounded by photos of friends and family. Photos of people he’d never seen before, a mix of moving wizard photos and still Muggle ones. He turned away from them as soon as he started to see people he recognised, people who had never grown up. Harry still couldn’t bear to look at the heroes they’d lost in the war, the memories still too painful. He shivered again as he felt the tremor move towards his hands and feet. He grasped his hands tightly together hoping that the blue tint to them would fade.
He watched Neville move confidently around the small kitchenette before he turned around with two steaming mugs. He walked over carefully and sat down on the armchair opposite Harry. He passed Harry his mug before sitting back and cuddling his own.
“Thanks” Harry added as he tried not to spill the contents over him.
“Harry! You’re shaking. How long were you out there for?” Neville asked in alarm.
“A while, I think. Lunchtime?” His brain felt fuzzy as he tried to think back.
“It’s almost five now! Oh, Harry! Come on, we’ll get Hannah to take a look at you” Neville took the mug from Harry and placed it on the table. Harry tried to object but Neville had already pulled him to his feet by his elbow.
Harry was gently frogmarched to the infirmary next door and felt a twinge of nostalgia as Neville sat him down on one of the beds before disappearing out the back. The large flagstones and the high windows brought so many memories flooding back. He cursed himself as he wished he could stop shivering. He knew that if he had to do it all over again he would, but he might consider at least using a warming charm. Neville reappeared shortly afterwards followed by his wife. She wasn’t in her matron uniform yet but she still carried the air of authority that Madam Pomfrey used to own. Harry watched dazedly as this lithe woman walked towards him, her long blond hair billowing behind him. She was pretty enough, but all he could think was that the hair wasn’t pale enough and the features of her face not angular enough. He looked down when she approached the bed, feeling disappointed that her features wouldn’t change into the ones he desired most.
“Harry!” She chided as she pushed Neville out the way gently. “What’s this I hear about you gallivanting across the highlands in nothing more than a muggle hoodie and jeans?” Harry tried to smile but knew it was more of a grimace.
“He was looking for Malfoy, Pet,” Neville said from the foot of the bed.
“Ah,” She said wisely as if everything became clear. She ran her wand over him as she cast some nonverbal diagnostic spells before she began to speak again. “Mild hypothermia, just as well you came here when you did!” She turned to grab some items from a cabinet on the wall, opening it with a key which hung around her neck. “That bloody Prophet! It’s a disgusting rag! Nothing more than a gossip column these days! Can you believe I actually read the quibbler more often than not, the articles are usually more factual” She complained as she pulled out some vials and measured out a dose of a bright orange liquid which Harry recognised straight away. “Still a few oddball articles, but then again there needs to be something for everyone.” She shrugged as she returned to the bed, handing Harry the vial.
“Here we go, Pepper-up potion, this should restore your body temperature with minimal steam at the ear. However, I would advise that you go back and finish that cup of tea and wrap up in a blanket to ensure that it doesn’t get any worse while you wait for it to kick in. No more wandering the highlands by yourself, and certainly not today!” Harry nodded solemnly as his shaking hand reached for the vial. She handed it to him but after a second it was clear he was about to drop it. She wrapped her painfully hot hand around his and steadily guided his hand to his mouth.
She tutted as she shook her head taking in his state. “That’s it, drink up” She soothed as he downed the vial. “There,” She smiled as she took the vial away. He nodded his head as a thank you only to be answered with a smile.
“You alright Harry?” Neville asked from the bottom of the bed. Harry took a moment to answer as he waiting to feel the shivering stop completely. Harry nodded but didn’t say anything more, embarrassed that he was needing to be looked after for being stupid and careless.
“Come on, back we go, if we stay here cluttering up the hospital, she’ll tell us off” Neville’s voice had lowered into a conspiratorial whisper. He helped Harry from off the bed and walked him towards the door. “See you later love!” He called back loudly over his shoulder.
“I’ll be finished soon get the kettle back on” She called back with a smile.
Neville guided Harry back to the threadbare sofa and tucked Harry in with a knitted blanket. He sat back down before handing Harry his mug again.
“There, that better?” He asked sympathetically.
Harry nodded, not really in the mood for talking. He looked down at his hands and noticed how red and cracked they were. He bit his lip as he thought of Draco.
“Mate, I know you’ve been outside all day, but why are you covered in mud?” Neville asked after a long silence. Drawing Harry from his thoughts. Harry blushed as he looked down at his jeans, noting the drying mud. He turned towards the door and cursed.
“Sorry Neville, I fell, I’ll clean it up, I didn’t realise.”
“Harry!” Neville said making Harry look up startled. Neville’s face was sympathetic and kind as he offered a smile. “It’s all right, I’ll sort it out in a minute” Neville sat up and looked squarely at Harry as he put his mug on the cluttered coffee table. Leaning forward intently as he began to talk again. “Tell me what’s going on, you sent me a letter out of nowhere and suddenly you turn up on our doorstep looking like you’ve been rolling around in a puddle,” Harry nodded, feeling his face flush.
“You’re right, Neville. Sorry, I’ll go” Harry went to stand again.
“Harry, will you sit down!” Neville chided sternly. Harry sat back down quickly, having never heard that sort of authority in his friend’s voice before. “Seriously, Mate. For once do as your told!” He sighed as he leant forward to tuck Harry in the blankets again. “That wasn’t why I was asking, I’ve seen the paper and I talk to Ron and Hermione, I know bits and pieces of what’s going on” He sighed “How can I help”
Harry sat back as he opened his mouth and then closed it again “I don’t really know, to be honest”
“Okay, let’s start from the beginning. Why are you here in Scotland? and why do you need a place to stay?”
Harry took a deep and shaky breath as he ran his hand through his damp hair. He began to tell Neville everything. When he had finally finished he felt close to tears again.
“Wow, mate” Neville stared into the distance and shook his head. “I never expected that. I wish there was something I could do to help. As you can see, our rooms aren’t huge, so you can’t stay here, however when I got your letter I went to see Professor Sprout, she asked you to swing by and speak with her first, I reckon she might be able to put you up for a few days.” He nodded as he turned back to Harry, his brow furrowed in concentration. “You could always try using one of the school owls. If Malfoy doesn’t know who the message is from, he might read it, It may give you a chance to explain.”
Harry nodded feeling empty as he sipped his tea. He could feel Neville’s eye on him as he looked up.
“So how has work been Nev?”
“Yeah, all good, I’m teaching the second years about mandrake roots, first lesson,” He laughed as his eyes glazed over as he remembered his own disastrous run-in with that plant. “Oh, by the way. Did you know that the Defence Against the Dark Arts position is up for grabs again?” Neville said finally filling the silence with his chatter.
Harry shook his head, “No one has broken that curse yet?” Neville shrugged and shook his head.
“Don’t think anyone’s up to the challenge. I thought the last one was going to last but a wayward tongue-tying curse took her out, She wasn’t great at non-verbal and couldn’t get her shields up quick enough. I think she’s still in St Mungo’s.” Neville bit his fingernails as he glances back at Harry. Harry thought he looked like he was working up to something. “I know there’s no real reason to do Defence anymore, but I can’t help but remember how helpful the DA was when we were in 5th year! The kids just need someone to teach them properly” Neville said as he stared down at his tea cup, before looking back up at Harry.
“I don’t know, there’s always going to be a need to protect yourself, you never know what careers these kids are going to go into, I think DADA is only slightly less important than it’s ever been.”
Neville smiled a small knowing smile as he eyed up Harry. “Maybe you should do it?” Harry thought he sounded hopeful. This was what he had been gearing up to ask. Harry rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly at the suggestion.
“Come off it” he brushed off.
“I’m serious Harry! Your name has been banded about before for the role, especially since you are the boy-that-lived-twice, who better to teach the next generation?”
Harry shook his head. “I hate that title!” He complained as he took a sip of his tea. “How could I ever get that job Nev? I’ve got no qualifications to my name, I’ve never taught kids and I didn’t even come back and finish my N.E.W.T’s. No one in their right mind would hire me without qualifications.”
“You defeated Voldemort, Harry! I don’t think there are many other qualifications you need. And you have taught kids before, you taught Dumbledore’s Army remember? If you weren’t a good teacher how come most of us from the DA survived the war? I know we wouldn’t have if you hadn’t trained us.” Neville looked up again with a sincerity that Harry found hard to face. “When you go and see Pomona, maybe you should drop it to her that you’re thinking of applying. You’re a great teacher Harry!”
“But I wasn’t and I’m not!” Harry argued. He had never been good at receiving praise.
“So, you want to stay at St Mungo’s for the rest of your life? Really? Doing mind numbing admin?” Harry didn’t want to face the disbelief in Neville’s face as he wasn’t sure that he didn’t want the job. He ran a hand around his neck again as he weighed up his options. He had been thinking about teaching and that had been his best subject by far. Maybe he could do the job, he felt a wave of crushing insecurity rain on his thoughts and shook his head.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea” He sipped his tea and he relished the numbing pain leaving his feet finally. There was a silence between them for a while before Neville spoke up again.
“Can I ask why?” Harry looked at him this time and noticed his face was twisted in confusion.
“Why what?” Harry responded.
“Why you don’t think it’d be a good idea?”
“I’m not good for much these days, I can’t even go into my crappy job because someone has made up a story about me in the Prophet, what if that happened again when I’m a teacher? The kid’s parents would be owling left right and centre demanding my resignation.”
“True” Harry raised his eyebrows, not expecting Neville to agree so quickly. “However this place is warded to the hilt, the reporters would only be able to get access if they were invited and I don’t think Pomona would allow that and to be honest Harry the only reason this story has hit records is because of you getting divorced and being seen alone with Malfoy, to be honest that a lot of juicy gossip right there for the avid Potter fan, that extra article about the affair, whilst ridiculous is to keep the reader’s attention isn’t it?”
“Yes, well thanks to that article, I don’t think Draco will see me again so…” Harry added dejectedly
“Stop your wallowing Harry! This too shall pass. He’ll see sense once he’s cooled down, just give him time and mark my words he’ll be back! You’ll see” Neville said as he patted Harry on the leg. “Don’t let a momentary blip rule the rest of your life.” Neville smiled wistfully
“I remember I read a series of books once which I really loved. The author was quoted to have said “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”” He looked back at Harry. “If Pomona doesn’t think you’ll be right for the role, or if she thinks your life’ll get in the way, you know her, she won’t mince her words. She’ll tell you straight! At least pop round and say Hello and tell her that I told you about the job.”
Harry stared into his empty cup and saw the leaves clinging to each other at the bottom. He paid them no mind as his discarded the cup before looking at the shapes the leaves made. He had never believed in tealeaf reading and wasn’t about to start looking for omens. He put the cup down and stood up slowly waiting for the dizziness return. When it didn’t he smiled slightly.
“Thanks, Nev, I’m going to go and find Pomona and ask about a room for a night. I’ve got to sort Teddy out for school on Sunday so can only stay the one.” Neville stood up to and looked down at him.
“That’s alright, you know you’re always welcome here and please, I meant it! Speak to her about the job”
“Ok,” Harry sighed.
“Harry!” Neville chided. “Promise me that you will”
“Alright I promise.” Harry was rewarded with a wide and crooked grin and Neville leant in to hug him.
“Good, Pop back here when you’re done, I want to hear all about it”
Harry nodded, trying to be noncommittal as he turned to leave. He pulled open the door and tried to reacquaint himself with the distantly familiar hallways as he tried to remember the way to the headmistress’s office.
Harry wandered the corridor slowly as he looked around, marvelling how everything looked exactly the same. He felt his heart give a sudden lurch as his mind drifted back to Draco. He crouched down and slowly slid to the floor as he waited for the devastating and overwhelming sadness to pass. His gut twisted painfully as he pulled his legs into himself. He realised that he was on the verge of a mild panic attack, his breath seemed not to be enough. He tried closing his eyes to focus on his breathing. In all the fuss over how cold he’d been, he’d been distracted, not enough to forget completely, but enough to function. He felt a rising panic within him. What was he going to do? How could he move on from this? If it were a break up because one of them were at fault he would have some sort of closure, but this ending was hollow, agonising and meaningless. Knowing they had been so good together, only to be separated because of that stupid tabloid. He was starting to feel angry now. He preferred being angry, he could use it to function. He would bring the people down that had caused this stabbing, ceaseless pain within him.
“Ah Mr Potter, Neville told me I’d find you here, very good!” Came the brisk greeting. Harry jumped to his feet as he wiped his face free of any tears which may have escaped.
“Professor Sprout!” Harry greeted loudly. He felt his face redden as he continued “How are you?” He asked in a normal volume.
“Pomona,” She said firmly as she held out her hand. “You’re not a student any more Mr Potter” She smiled kindly. Harry saw her eyes assess his face as he tried to smile.
“It’s Harry then, Prof-Pomona” He smiled as he shook her hand.
“Very good” She turned and walked off, not waiting to see whether he would follow or not.
Harry trailed uncertainly behind her as he gave his face a more thorough wipe over, making sure all traces of his tears were gone.
“Well, here we are,” She said in brusque bark as she turned to Harry. She winked as she said the password “Sorbus Aucuparia” Harry watched as the familiar Griffin statue began to twist and turn, the stairway appearing from the floor. They both waited for a second before the griffin stopped moving, then walked up the stairs in silence.
Harry expected Dumbledore’s office, because it would forever be Dumbledore’s office to him, to be filled to the brim with plant and herbs and other green, living things. When he looked up, it took him a moment to adjust. The room was not the magical jungle he had expected. The walls were still filled with books and the desk still sat in the centre of the grand stone arches, but it looked strangely untouched and empty, almost abandoned. The small desk to the left was covered with open text books filled with colourful sketches of plants and roots.
“What do you think?” She asked loudly as she hung up her billowing cloak. She turned, not waiting for an answer “I haven’t done much to it since Minerva took her things, and as Neville and Hannah have shared rooms near the hospital wing, I left most of my paraphernalia down in my rooms closer to the green houses.” She shook her head “I don’t know how Albus and Minerva handled all these stairs” She huffed tiredly as she sat at the small desk and transfigured another chair for Harry to sit in.
“Sit down so that we can talk. Neville said you were interested in the Defence Against the Dark Arts position” She said in her no-nonsense tone.
“Excellent! We do have a couple of obstacles. That you didn’t return to complete you N.E.W.T’s being the main one, however I’m sure that this can be rectified. I can think of no one better for the role.” She looked at Harry approvingly.
“What I propose is that we keep Professor Obrona on this year whilst you study for your N.E.W.T’s and teaching qualifications, as a paid apprentice of course, food and board all paid for. Oh, Professor Obrona is the substitute teacher who covered for Professor Squires after her awful accident last year. Helga Obrona is over from Durmstrang until a more permanent replacement can be found.” She took a breath before continuing “Once you are fully up to speed and your qualifications are in order, you can take over the role. In the interim, on a trial basis you can help and eventually take over the first 3 years whilst Helga concentrates on the 4th to 7th years.”
“Pomona!” She chided “The qualifications are only a formality to appease the Ministry minions. I’m sure that there is no one in the Wizarding world who would argue that you could step into the role tomorrow, but you know how parents can be, very over protective of their offshoots”
Harry sat and just breathed for a moment. He hadn’t been able to get a word in edgeways, not that he really had anything to argue. Every time he thought he had a valid point, she had shot him down.
“Yes Harry?” She smiled as she looked over the books on her table. Harry thought she looked quite smug.
“Did you ever study Legilimens?” Harry asked with a small smile.
“Oh good heavens No! I’m just good at listening to things that don’t always know what’s best for them or that can’t speak up for themselves, I did mentor Mr Longbottom after all” She smiled wryly as she winked.
Harry ran a hand through his hair as he took a deep breath. His mind racing, not sure whether there was anything else he needed to ask.
“I’m sure if you owl Madam Dayholt, She’ll advise that the standard notice period is a week.”
“One thing I am concerned about,” Harry said finally.
“Only one?” She smiled.
“Have you seen the papers recently?” Harry asked, feeling the bile rise up in his stomach. He struggled to stop his hands from shaking a he looked down at the bottom of his mud-soaked hoodie, twisting and tugging at a loose thread.
“I am aware of your reported bed-swerving ways, I am also aware of how convoluted that paper has become in recent years” She smiled
“Bed-swerving?” He hadn’t heard that term before but knew it didn’t sound good.
“Bed-swerving? Bed-hopping? I would say womanising, but I’ve not seen any photos of you with women since young Ms Weasley, so I can only assume that your proclivities have changed” Harry felt his cheeks flame at the candid conversation they were having. He hadn’t yet come out to anyone as liking men and he wasn’t exactly sure he was completely gay. He opened his mouth to speak.
“I-” Pomona held up a finger to silence him.
“I don’t believe a word of it, I remember you and the Malfoy boy at each other’s throats, that was a tall tale for the paper to sell” She laughed.
“Actually-” He saw her already wide eyes bulge slightly at the revelation.
“Oh” Is all she said for a long moment “And the other man?” Harry started to shake his head profusely not looking her in the eye as he stared down at the thread again, tears threatening to escape. He took a deep and steadying breath. He refused to cry here and now.
“Draco-Mr Malfoy and I started talking at the reunion party last week and put a lot of our issues and misconceptions behind us. Ginny and I had already signed the papers to divorce. Thanks to the most recent article in the paper, which was staged, Mr Malfoy and I are…”
“At odds?” she asked gently. Harry nodded but said no more. “I understand” She continued. “Living your life in the spotlight is never easy, even for those that choose to do so, I can only imagine the disturbances it causes in normal life.”
“The reason I bring it up is that Madam Dayholt advised me to stay home this week due to being overwhelmed with reporters at St Mungo’s trying to get an exclusive interview with me about it. I wouldn’t want to take a position here if it would affect others around me, especially the children. I wanted to check whether that would be a factor in your decision?” Harry asked carefully.
“As you know from your school days Harry, Hogwarts is more secure than Gringotts in the face of reporters. The vanishing cabinet has long since gone and apparitions are still impossible within the school grounds.” She advised confidently. “As long as you are not running around actively drawing Hogwarts into a media farce I don’t think it will be a much of a consideration.”
“Of course not, I would never actively seek the sort of media attention I have recently been receiving. However, as you said, Parents can be quite overprotective of their offshoots.” Harry said sadly.
“Indeed, I did.” She nodded “I am not a divination teacher and I hold no store in such nonsense myself, however to turn down this position or any opportunity for that matter over ‘if’s’ ‘but’s’ and ‘maybe’s’” she shook her head sadly “That would be a half-life and a waste, I cannot promise what the future holds but as Albus used to say ‘help will always be given at Hogwarts, to those who ask for it.’ Please mull it over and let me know by the end of the day. I know that it is a big decision to make in such a short space of time, especially with other personal matters playing on your mind but If you start as an apprentice, you start with the other students in this upcoming school year”
Harry nodded as he felt the conversation conclude, He went to stand as Pomona did. She smiled as she looked up at him. “Regardless of your decision, there will always be a place for you here at Hogwarts” He smiled down at her and nodded as he turned to leave.
“Oh and on that note, Harry?” She asked causing him to turn around. “You may stay in the room of requirement for now until you make your decision. If you do decide to take the position, then more permanent arrangements will be made for you. Supper, as I have no doubt you remember, is at 6 sharp in the great hall. Now go and fire call those friends of yours, Mr Weasley and Ms Granger so that they can convince you to stay” She smiled and waved her hand dismissing him.
“Thank you, headmistress.” He nodded his head as he descended down the stairs again. His mind buzzing with thoughts and feelings.