Group Therapy


Story Summary:
Life after war is not the storybook that everyone expected. People still die, children still grow up, and Harry Potter still finds himself struggling. Fortunately, he finds someone else to struggle with.

Chapter 01


"Harry?" He looked up. Rather, he opened his eyes, pulling his sight away from the pictures on the backs of his eyelids and instead letting it focus on the room around him. Unfortunately familiar faces pointed in different directions (some at him, some at the floor, some at folded hands.) Slick, speckled tile reflected fluorescent lights back into his eyes, making him squint against the new light. Someone far to his right let out a hacking cough. "Do you have anything to share today?"

He really didn't. It was only by Hermione's suggestion -- and unrelenting insistence -- that Harry was even sitting in one of these white chairs, nestled between a brown-haired woman who cried too much and another who seemingly cried so little that she had no means of empathy for anyone else who did. He fancied himself the modest barrier that separated them; the silent wall that prevented Heartless from leaping upon QuiverChin every time she sniffled and began to talk about just how hard it was. Surely, Harry thought, it must be difficult to have just one place to share one's plight, one bi-weekly hour-long session with a group of semi-strangers who probably couldn't remember the names of much of the group despite weeks of reintroductions. Maybe it didn't really matter to her.

"No, I'm just about fine, thanks," he finally offered, using the back of his hand to push his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. The leader of the group, Nathan Prastien, let out a short sigh from the deepest recesses of his nostrils. Harry hadn't known that one could even sigh like that before he met Nathan Prastien. But the man was a master of unexpected and improbable noises, with a wind ensemble delicately arranged between his nose and throat, and a percussion leading into his diaphragm. He wheezed like a man who had smoked a horrendous number of cigarettes in his lifetime, though Harry had never seen him once light one. He wore bulky sweaters in the midst of summer and let sweat pool in his age lines. And clearly, he was not pleased with Harry's level of participation.

According to Hermione, support groups like these were an integral part of "recovery." She said that being integrated into a community of people who have "shared struggles" and who "understand the unique pains of our situation" would help in "coming to terms with what happened." In an attempt to be wholly supportive -- and to rid herself of the guilt of being a hypocrite, he assumed -- she was attending her own group meetings every few weeks. She would always bring them up when the three of them had lunches together, chatting about the nice women she had met and how much better she would feel after leaving a session. Harry would shrug and gather lettuce onto his fork and try to muster up the same amount of enthusiasm, and was always grateful when Ron rushed to change the subject on his behalf.

In the time that Harry spent in his own thoughts, Nathan Prastien had moved on and tried to coax other members of the group to speak. A thin man across the circle was wringing his hands and mumbling something about nightmares. Harry let his eyes flicker up and to the right, subtly trying to find the clock that he knew to be fixed upon the wall. 2:37. Three more minutes.

Although time at the clinic was never an outstanding joy, Harry always had an incentive to get through them: his children. Both days of the week that he attended his sessions were days that he was responsible for picking up Lily and James from their day care, and they were worth any amount of tolerating the wise words of Nathan Prastien.

Upon leaving the clinic on a Wednesday afternoon, Harry found himself humming at the warmth of the sun. He hated the fluorescents of the building. It was stale light illuminating stale air, and it made him want to breathe deep into his lungs and expel everything he could in one thick sigh. Ruffling his own hair and readjusting his glasses, he descended the steps of his apartment and headed east, towards the quieter section of London. It was there that he would find little shops, pristine parks, and the day care center where Ginny had left the children only hours ago. She worked late hours at St. Mungo's on Mondays and Wednesdays, thus ensuring him those evenings with the children.

He wondered how she should tolerate a career wherein the majority of her time was spent inside of a hospital. He could barely manage two hours a week in a clinic sitting room; she was rushing between wards all day, wand constantly at the ready, breathing in lemon-scented disinfectant and watching patients refuse to get well. He imagined her as he continued his walk, her tight little form folded into her nurse's costume, buttons curving down the right side of her body. She had a cap, too. A white little cap that perched itself at the center of her head, its fasteners concealed beneath her bright hair. That same hair she often kept tucked back into a bun at the nape of her nec--

"S'cuse me!"

Harry stumbled back, suddenly aware of a pain in his right shoulder. Rushing past him was a man whom he had presumably just nudged into, bearing what appeared to be weighted grocery bags. He called an apology in the man's direction, but it was either unheard or unackowledged. Harry felt blood rush to his face. Pivoting, he made to continue his journey, his thoughts under stricter reign this time around.

After about ten minutes of navigating the side streets of the neighborhood, Harry found himself approaching a four-story building, the same that was squeezed in between seemingly residential housing. Harry slipped inside and made his way down a pair of staircases, his footfalls echoing through the empty stairwell. His destination, the children's daycare, was tucked away in the basement of a Muggle office building, an expansive room brimming with brightly-colored toys and tables and inspirational posters. (Harry always wondered about the appropriateness of such posters, as most of the children in the program were too young to read them.) He smirked to himself, as he always did when the realization struck him, and made to enter the bottom floor.

"You're early today, Mr. Potter," came the immediate voice of the teacher's assistant, a young woman who was called Nicole. She was quite a small girl, barely scraping five feet, with blond hair that she always kept in a lose ponytail at the back of her head. It swayed as she weaved through tables and chairs and approached him. He watched the tip touch each of her ears in turn.

"Aye, thought I'd come surprise them," he said, smiling from the corner of his mouth. His eyes flickered over her shoulder to search for his little redheaded daughter. She was the easiest to spot in a crowd of children. He imagined that the Weasley's had loved this trait in their children when they were small, as they were never to be lost in a sea of anything. But today he found no crowd; instead the children were all seated at small tables, seemingly immersed in some sort of art project. "Never seen them this quiet," he remarked. He was careful to raise his voice, hoping that one of his children would perk up and notice that he had arrived.

"I know, Marie's been exceptionally clever this week with all the projects." Marie, who was far rounder in the middle than Nicole, was the founder of the day care center that both the Potter and Weasley children attended. Hermione had searched for weeks before stumbling upon her program, and her research (as always) had produced wonderful results. Marie was a believer in the relationship between work and play, of rewarding oneself after one had learned something new or accomplished something important. "We're making butterfly paintings today. Learning about symmetry."

"Oh? Where is she? Marie, I mean." He squinted his eyes as he glanced about the room, searching for another figure who exceeded three feet in height.

"She's been in a meeting for nearly an hour now," Nicole replied, motioning towards the green door at the back of the room. She chuckled gently and added, "some overprotective parent trying to make sure that his son's going to be a good fit here. He wouldn't even agree to meet with me, had to speak directly to her. I wasn't offended, naturally, but..."

"I could understand it, I'suppose." Harry shrugged. "Especially if the child's never been to a program like this before. I know that--"

"Daddy!" Response completely shattered, he glanced down to find his youngest child with her arms wound tightly around his leg, never having once anticipated her advance. He laughed and reached down to untangle her pudgy arms, lifting from beneath them and letting her sit on his hip, his hands laced beneath her thighs.

"My Lily," he told in her reply, and planted a wet kiss on her tiny nose. Her freckled face wrinkled with her giggling. James was in her wake, scrambling to greet his father. His hair stayed fixed despite the will of the wind, sticking out in every direction the strands could reach. It was odd to see such an immediate reflection of oneself in one's child; he imagined that his own father had a similar feeling while watching Harry grow, even for as short a time as he did. Or perhaps he was "projecting", as Nathan Prastien would say. Perhaps he was pressing his own thoughts upon his father's, trying to create the image of the person he hoped to have helped in creating him. He wondered frequently about the legitimacy of these thoughts. He'd had plenty of reasons to doubt James Potter's supposedly noble nature.

"Are we seein' Mum today?" came James' (young James', real and tangible James') voice, which sounded more like a yell than anything else. He wasn't a subtle child.

"Don't think so," Harry replied, willing a smile as he pushed more questionable thoughts to the further corners of his mind. "Stuck with me, aren't you?"

Harry sent his well-wishes for Marie with her assistant as he gathered up his children's belongings. James was sprinting out the door before Harry was remotely ready, and he heard Nicole laugh as Harry rushed to trail behind him, calling his name and clutching Lily tighter to his hip.

Harry had grown quite accustomed to this routine of life. Some days work, some days attend therapy, some days spend time with the children. It was a good rotation. Allowed lots of time for "personal reflection" while balancing out with "real world responsibilties." Most people would envy his position, he supposed. Harry was musing this one evening after dropping the children off with Ginny, and was on another one of his newly trademarked long walks. He rarely apparated anymore; he reserved that unpleasant pulling from his navel for those times when walking simply wasn't an option. An emergency with James. A meeting that he was already terribly late for (though, admittedly, that was a rare occasion these days.) The walking felt good -- it was something that he, infamous Dr. Prastien, and Hermione could all agree upon. Walking was healthy in every sense of the word. So he did it. And on this particular Friday evening, with the sun just barely having set over Harry's horizon, he was walking towards The Den.

Keeping in family tradition, the newest Weasley couple had found an enormous home to bestow a loving name, and in which to raise their family. Hermione had not immediately taken to the home; it was a bit too aged for her liking, and it would be an understatement to say that it was "out of the way." But it became evident that this house was soon to be Ron's second love: he spent weeks repairing the weak spots in the roof and the broken pipelines, days repainting all of the bedrooms, and hours restoring the outside fence to what could have been its former glory. He was always eager to slip on his overalls -- "Muggles are brilliant, aren't they? Never worn something so comfortable, and so damn practical! Can get these as filthy as I need and 'Mione can still get the stains out. Nothing like a jumper!" -- and start his work. And perhaps it was through Ron that Hermione, too, came to think of the massive construction project as home. By the time Hugo was born, the couple could have sold the home for twice its original value.

But perhaps the Weasley's home was not eternally one of idealism and uninterrupted support, as when Harry opened the door that night, he was greeted with:

"It's a bloody outrage, Hermione!"

Ron's voice had carved its own groove over the top of Harry's brain, a memory so unmovable that Harry was confident in his ability to never forget the tone of his best mate's whine. He grinned to himself as he slipped inside the home of his dearest mates, the spare key already back in its protected space in his back pocket. He closed the door behind him and trapped the hot August air outside.

"Don't use that language, Ron," Hermione chided, though Harry could hear the emptiness of her scolding. She sounded rather bored, a tired witness to a lunatic's ravings.

"That lang--don't tell me that you aren't worked up about it?"

Harry moved to greet the pair in their sitting room, where he found Hermione seated cross-legged on the couch and Ron pacing wildly before her. Ron paused in his aimless circles to glance at Harry, entirely red-faced, and rush over to him, as though to find a companion in his exasperation.

"Harry, you've heard about this, haven't you? It's mad."

Harry shook his head in helpless response, laughing gently. "Ron, I've just arrived. What's he on about?" he directed his question towards Hermione, who rolled her eyes and leaned back against the couch.

"Ronald," she said, "is upset. He thinks it's completely acceptable to pass unwarranted judgement upon--"

"It's hardly unwarranted, is it? He was ruthless, Hermione. Called you that filthy name loads of times. Not to mention that he was all too quick to follow along in his father's precious foot steps, helping--"

"Honestly, Ron, we were children. I don't very well want to marry the man--"

"Well I should bloody well hope not!"

"I do not want Rose speaking like that, Ronald. Mind yourself."

"Yeah? I'm positive that Malfoy doesn't mind anything."

The name drew back the image of platinum hair, purposely fixed in place by charm. A sneer composed of thin pink lips. Another unforgettable voice that rattled around in his skull, crisp and unwelcome, like the first rush of autumn air upon cheeks still warm from bed sheets. Harry remembered smearing his blood between his own hands in the wake of a clumsy curse, and the heat of his breath upon his ear as flames raced them to the door of the Room of Requirement, licking their feet and crackling with incredible delight. He recalled girlish shrieks. He recalled the familiar noise of uncontrollable sobs, the kind that threaten to break ribs and make organs bleed, just so long as it hurts as bad as you already hurt.

"Malfoy?" he asked. He had forgotten that he was grinning moments ago.

"He's enrolling his son with Marie," Hermione finally explained, her voice small and breathless. She raked a hand through her mane and then let it cup her chin, watching the two men out of the corner of her eye. "Scorpius was introduced to the class this afternoon."

"Oh," is what he finally said.

"OH?" Ron stormed out of the room, grumbling something about getting the children ready for bed. It seemed that Hermione would have been swift to follow him if she had the energy, but Harry saw in her face that she wanted a rest from the heated conversation. She let breath come out slowly from her nose and sank deeper into the couch. He walked over to sit with her.

"He's been like this all afternoon," she told him, delicately closing her eyes. She raised a hand and pinched the bridge of her nose. Harry wondered if all women learned to do this eventually, when they became mothers or lovers or workers or people who were suddenly so tired. They pinched the bridges of their noses and tried to alleviate some sort of tension that they couldn't reach. "He's a child, honestly."

"It's just strange," he offered, pushing his glasses up his own nose. "I think I was there when he was, y'know."

Hermione peeked one eye open at him. "You saw him?"

"No, no, I think he was meeting with Marie. When I picked up the kids last Wednesday, just Nicole was watching everyone. Said that Marie was in with some picky father who was worried about his son." Harry scratched a terrible itch at the back of his head, vaguely aware of the mess he was going to make of his hair. It was never kind to him, his hair. "I dunno."

"Regardless," she began, "I don't think it's fair to get so worked up. It's been years since we've had any sort of contact with Draco, and we don't know anything about him or his life outside of school. Obviously he's concerned about his son's education, if he's applying here and having private meetings and all of that. That's surely positive." His name sounded strange on her tongue.

"You're happy about it, then?" He was surprised at how quick his response came, and was grateful to note that it lacked a bite. Hermione shook her head at the ceiling.

"Of course I'm not thrilled, Harry. But I'm trying to be open-minded. Being spiteful isn't being progressive." He recognized those words from several of his sessions at the clinic, spoken in Nathan Prastien's gravel-y tongue. It was his time to nod, slowly and silently, as he watched those spiteful gray eyes stare through memory straight into his soul. He wondered if he bore the same hateful eyes in adulthood. He wondered if Malfoy looked even more like Lucius now than he did in his youth.

"No, I suppose not," he answered. He heard bath water running in the upstairs restroom, and he listened as Hermione cleared her throat and straightened herself. She offered Harry a motherly smile.

"So, how was therapy this week?"