chapter two: the return

Ginny waved out the window as the Hogwarts Express departed.

Her mother had been especially tearful that morning, which had made it difficult for Ginny to leave her, knowing how the emptiness of the Burrow would echo louder this year than it had in years past.

Her father stood at her mother’s side, one consoling arm around her. Ginny had done her best not to notice the sparkle of tears in his eyes before she’d boarded the train. As much as she would have liked to console her parents, there was nothing she could do, nothing they could do, to stop Ginny from going back to Hogwarts.

It wasn’t her parents, however, who captured her attention as the train pulled away from the station. Harry and Ron waved from the edge of the platform, and it was the former who dominated Ginny’s thoughts.

She sighed in relief as the train went around a bend and Platform Nine and Three-Quarters sped away from sight.

“Do you think they’ll be all right?” Hermione asked across from Ginny, a worried wrinkle in her brow as she continued to peer out the window as if hoping for one more glance of the station.

“If anyone can handle Auror training, it’s those two,” Neville said from behind an herbology textbook.

“If anyone can attract trouble, it’s those two,” Luna amended. “I gave them good luck charms to help them in their crusade. I hope they remember to wear them.”

The train rocked as it continued to pick up speed and Hermione finally pulled away from the window. Like Neville, she rummaged in her beaded bag to retrieve a book, but though she opened it and her eyes moved as if consuming the information within, Ginny could tell that her mind was far away.

The thought of going back to Hogwarts, where Fred had died but Harry had defeated Voldemort, only made Ginny feel empty. Hermione worried about what she was leaving behind; Ginny worried about what lay ahead.

Would she recognize the corridor where Fred drew his last breath? Would she be plagued with memories in every class? Could she stomach eating in the same room in which Voldemort had perished?

Somehow, despite her anxiety, the uncertainty of returning to a battlefield was more inviting than facing the people she’d left at home.

Beside her, Luna looked up from a shawl she was knitting, head cocked to the side. “Do you hear that?”

Hermione, Neville, and Ginny listened. There was a sound coming from the corridor, a muffled babble and stampeding footsteps. The silhouettes of two people darted past their compartment, followed a second later by a single person, followed almost instantly by a group.

Ginny’s hand automatically reached for the waistband of her jeans, where her wand was tucked under her shirt, but Hermione stood up and poked her head into the corridor.

She stopped the next person passing by and said, “Excuse me, I’m Head Girl! What’s going on?”

“We just heard that Malfoy is on the train. We’re trying to find him.”

“Why would you want to do that?” Hermione asked with an exasperated huff.

“Well, don’t you want to know where the Death Eater is hiding? What if he does something?”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” she said as she closed the compartment door. She turned to her three companions. “I’m going to have to break up whatever crowd is forming where Malfoy is sitting. I’ll meet with the Prefects afterward, so don’t wait up for me.” She was gone in a righteous flurry of bushy hair a moment later.

Neville lowered his book. “They’re acting like they didn’t know he was coming back to Hogwarts.”

“They had to know,” Ginny said with a hint of irritation. “It was blasted all over the Prophet for weeks.”

“Did you go to his trial?” Luna asked.

With a shake of his head, Neville said, “My gran wouldn’t let me. You, Ginny?”

She turned her head, giving the impression of looking out the window, but she stared at her own reflection instead. The end of the war should have returned some color to her cheeks, should have rounded her face out more. Instead, Ginny looked more tired than she’d actually felt while leading a rebellion.

“I thought about it, but I decided not to go. Hermione told me about it afterward.”

Truthfully, her parents had forbidden her from going to the trial the same way they’d forbidden her from fighting at the Battle of Hogwarts. And like at the battle, Ginny had planned to disobey and sneak herself into the courtroom, but Harry had known exactly what she was going to do, and he’d begged her not to go.

She’d listened to him.

“Is it true Malfoy cried?”

“Yes,” Luna and Ginny said at the same time.

“How do you know that?” Ginny asked.

Luna’s knitting needles clicked together as she continued working on her shawl, the colors of which made Ginny’s head spin with its psychedelic design. “He cried sometimes when he came to visit me in the dungeons at his house. It doesn’t seem particularly out of character for him.”

Hermione had said the tears hadn’t been noticeable, but when Malfoy had been escorted out of the courtroom, she’d seen them running down his face while he held his head high with angry eyes and clenched fists.

Hermione didn’t return until well after lunch, which she’d eaten with the Prefects and Ernie Macmillan, the Head Boy.

While she’d been away, Neville had stretched out across the seats for a nap, but he sat up now and yawned. “Did you save Malfoy from the angry horde, then?”

“Angry! By the time I arrived they’d all turned into admirers.”

“What do you mean?” Ginny asked.

“Malfoy was sitting in the compartment at the back of the train. There were a group of people just standing around it, staring through the door into the compartment. They weren’t angry at all! They just stood there gaping at him and whoever else was in there with him.”

“You didn’t see?” Luna asked. “Maybe they were cloaked by a—”

“No!” Hermione interrupted, preventing Luna from mentioning her current favorite creature or conspiracy.

Ginny stifled a smile at the crazed look on Hermione’s face.

She continued. “I didn’t get a chance to see him. There were too many people, and I couldn’t convince any of them to return to their own compartments, not even when I flashed my Head Girl badge! They acted like I had no authority at all!”

Now Ginny pressed a hand to her mouth and tried to swallow her laughter. She was glad that Hermione was her old self again and no longer worrying about Harry and Ron. It gave her hope for the new school year, that maybe this year would feel like Hogwarts used to, back before the war.

“The nerve of them!” Luna said in solidarity.

Bolstered by Luna’s support, Hermione continued her tirade and told them about her meeting with the Prefects and her satisfaction with Ernie as Head Boy. She only paused long enough for each of them to change into their school robes minutes before pulling into Hogsmeade Station, and then she was off again to make sure the first years made it to the boats for their traditional lake crossing.

Ginny climbed into a carriage with Luna, Neville, and the Patil twins, who had not attended Hogwarts at all while it had been under Ministry and Death Eater control.

“We’re going to be so far behind,” Padma said as she wrung her hands in her lap. “How will we ever catch up?”

Parvati patted her sister’s knee. “Our parents tried to give us lessons while we were home, but they went to school in India so they perform magic differently. What if we get kicked out of Hogwarts because we can’t do magic the English way anymore?”

Ginny didn’t know Padma or Parvati very well, so she wasn’t sure how to comfort them. But Neville spoke up, preventing her from saying something bland and meaningless.

“Surely Professor McGonagall wouldn’t expel you? That doesn’t seem like a fair result of all this madness.”

“Since when has the world been fair?” Parvati snapped, eyes shimmering with tears. She bowed her head and her shoulders began to shake. Padma put her arm around her twin and glared at Neville.

Then Ginny remembered that Lavender Brown had been Parvati’s best friend. She’d been attacked by Fenrir Greyback at the Battle of Hogwarts, and though she’d lived to see the end of the battle, she succumbed to her injuries afterward while being treated at St. Mungo’s.

They conducted the rest of the carriage ride in awkward silence.

The silence only persisted when they arrived. Where the train had been lively and full of activity due to friends reuniting and students seeking out Malfoy, the castle was morbidly somber. As students passed through the great oak doors, a spell seemed to be cast over them, preventing them from making a sound.

Ginny found herself walking as lightly as possible on the flagstones, as if her footsteps alone were loud enough to rouse the spirits of the dead. The Great Hall was even worse. Not completely silent, but certainly full of muffled whispers that pressed against her ears like cotton stuffing. Even the ghosts floated above the tables in more of a depression than usual. Ginny couldn’t look too closely at them, however, because she couldn’t bear to see if any familiar faces had joined their ranks. Part of her was afraid she’d see Colin sitting transparently at the Gryffindor table, oblivious to his own demise.

Luna parted with them at the Ravenclaw table as Neville and Ginny continued on to Gryffindor. They claimed seats in the middle of the table, facing the rest of the hall. This was automatically a mistake because then Ginny was forced to confront the diminished population of students despite so many former seventh years, like Hermione, returning to retake their classes. As students continued to file into the Great Hall, she couldn’t help but notice that none of the tables filled up. Either students had chosen not to return, had been prevented from returning by their parents, or had perished in attacks from Death Eaters and their followers alike over the past year.

Malfoy walked into the hall nearly last, trickling in at the back of the crowd with Pansy Parkinson at his side. As he took his seat at the Slytherin table, the whispers ceased for a moment and then grew in volume. Heads turned toward Slytherin, fingers pointed, mouths gaped. Malfoy and Parkinson acted as though they did not notice they were the center of attention. They sat at the end of their table, as far away from the Head table as possible, and did not acknowledge anyone, not even their fellow Housemates.

Ginny nudged Neville with an elbow. “Why are they all surprised he’s here? Didn’t enough people see him on the train?”

Neville didn’t respond. He stared ahead, eyes glued to the end of the Slytherin table, a faint blush on his cheeks.

“Neville?” Ginny prompted, giving him another shove.

“Yeah, yeah, the train, right,” Neville replied, clearly not listening.

Hermione sat down across from Ginny and Neville, returning from helping the first years line up outside the Great Hall. “What on earth is going on?”

“It’s Malfoy and Parkinson. They’ve done something, I think. Half the hall is transfixed.”

Hermione began to turn her head, but Ginny reached across the table to snatch at her robes. “No! Don’t look. What if they suck you in as well?”

“Oh, please! Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t appear to be under any influences!”

Ginny released Hermione, her brow creasing in confusion. Why was that, then? Why were some people desperately ensnared by the sight of Malfoy and Parkinson but not others if not for some kind of magical interference? She leaned to the side, peering around Hermione to take another look at them.

They sat apart from the rest of their Housemates, but Ginny couldn’t tell if it was by their own design or if the ostracization was forced upon them. Not many Slytherin students had chosen to return to Hogwarts, but those who had all occupied the opposite end of the table.

Parkinson’s head turned to survey the room, her eyes rolling every now and then as though what she saw annoyed her. Ginny hadn’t seen the witch since the Battle of Hogwarts when she’d tried to convince the whole school to give up Harry to Voldemort, prompting Professor McGonagall to expel the Slytherins from the school and the battle. She seemed to have recovered from her embarrassing display quickly enough.

Malfoy had his chin in his hand, which would have suggested boredom if not for the tension in his face. He looked like he was holding himself back from something, an assumption supported by the tight fist that lay on the table. His skin was exceptionally pale and his hair was blindingly white—more so than Ginny remembered anyway—giving him an ethereal glow, but Ginny couldn’t see anything intriguing enough about Malfoy or Parkinson to warrant all the attention they were receiving. The students’ reactions seemed too exaggerated to be merely shock at their presence back at Hogwarts.

Parkinson leaned toward him to whisper something, and then both of them glanced in Ginny’s direction.

As soon as Malfoy made eye contact, a blaze went through Ginny’s body, as if his gaze had the power to incinerate her on the spot. Lava ran through her veins, running slowly, so slowly, burning her from the inside, starting at her stomach and expanding outward. She couldn’t look away, and for some reason she didn’t want to.

Malfoy’s eyes widened, his pupils dilating until all that could be seen of his eyes was gaping blackness. He shoved to his feet, the bench scraping against the flagstones and drawing even more attention to himself.

And then… he fled. Right out the door, turning not for the stairs that would take him to the dungeons or the upper levels of the castle, but toward the great oak doors that would lead him to the grounds. And maybe it was Ginny’s imagination, but he seemed to be hiding something under his robes, a hump on his back she hadn’t noticed until he’d turned away.

As soon as he was out of sight, the inferno inside Ginny died down, and the chatter in the Great Hall increased, naturally. Who wouldn’t talk about Malfoy’s strange and sudden retreat?

Neville blinked owlishly and shook his head, jolted out of his stupor. All around the Great Hall, other students were doing the same, confusion etched on their faces as if they didn’t know what had come over them.

“What was that about?” Hermione asked.

Ginny looked at Parkinson one more time, who stared back through narrowed eyes. They considered each other with mutual speculation as Ginny replied, “I have no idea.”

But she was going to find out.

The heat suffocated Draco as he raced down the drive, his back aching from the strain of his wings confined inside his robes. As he ran, he unbuttoned them and tossed them aside in the hopes that losing the garment would prevent him from overheating. Without the robe he was bare except for his underwear, but despite the lack of an extra layer, he began to convulse with the hot, hot heat raging through him.

He fell to his knees while still within sight of the castle, wings extending, luxuriating in their freedom. Draco grabbed his face and groaned in agony. He was burning, just like in the dreams that had plagued him since his birthday. Any moment now, he would feel his skin dripping off his frame, puddling underneath him grotesquely.

Under his hands, his face began to contort, and Draco’s breath came out shallow and panicked. It was happening just like the dreams, but this wasn’t real, it wasn’t, it couldn’t

Weasley’s face flashed through his mind, the catalyst of this agony.

“Would you look at Longbottom?” Pansy had said. “He looks like he’s ready to fight you or devour you.”

But when Draco had peered over at the Gryffindor table, it was Weasley who had captured his attention, not Longbottom, not even Granger with her back turned as if he didn’t interest her at all, though the rest of the school was very interested indeed.

Weasley and her flaming red hair and her heated gaze that felt so familiar and so distant at the same time. Like the beast from his dreams, the hidden creature that never revealed itself to him, though Draco could always sense its presence in the wildfire that consumed him.

The sight of Weasley had set Draco aflame, but the thought of her now cooled him. The tremors in his body began to recede. The wings calmed, flattening against his back.

When he released his face, the joints of his fingers ached from the strain and his stomach roiled to see blood on his fingertips. He realized with a hesitant touch that there were puncture marks on his forehead and temples, each gash trickling blood down his face.

His heart rate returned to an even pace, making it easier to draw breath. No one had seen the wings or the way his face had distorted. No one knew his secret.

Weasley wasn’t the monster from his dreams. Draco was.

“What the bloody—”

The gravel of the drive bit into Draco’s knees and palms as he turned to face Seamus Finnigan looming over him in the darkness, a flask dangling in his hand at his side. In an instant, the wings receded, disappearing to wherever they chose to go when they weren’t making Draco’s life difficult.

But it was too late, because Finnigan’s eyes were wide and horrified as he peered down at Draco, and Draco understood—he’d been caught.
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