Sitting quietly, snapping the rubber band he’d taken to wearing around his wrist at all times, Dean listened absentmindedly while a young guy, maybe younger than him, cleared his throat and began to speak.
“Hi, I’m Ryan and today is my first day with the group…”
Dean looked Ryan directly in the eyes. His mum had talked about one of the kids he’d gone to school with going off to Afghanistan, but he’d always imagined soldiers to be grown men. Older than him, surely. But here was this kid, talking about all the horrors of war. Dean connected to the words Ryan spoke, the constant fear and paranoia, wanting to feel optimistic, meeting people in a strange country but never trusting that they wouldn’t inform on them to the enemy. Dean knew this all too well. His war had happened in this country, but none of these guys could know that.
Chairs scraped the floor and the men began to stand up and stretch while Dean stayed rooted in place, staring off into the distance.
“Alfred? Earth to Alfred.”
Hands waving in his face snapped him back to reality.
“Oh, sorry.” Dean was brought out of his reverie by an older guy with a patchy beard.
“You were miles away mate, you sure you’re ok? Never too late to share.”
“Oh, no, thanks, Russ. Maybe next time…” Dean stood up and helped move the rest of the chairs.
“You’ve been coming to this support group for about a month and haven’t shared more than your name and where you were stationed. You know the point of this group is for all of us to support you, but we can’t do that without you trusting us and sharing.”
“No I hear you, and I will. Hearing from everyone else is really helpful. I just, it’s still…I don’t know…”
“Look, I get it, but next week you share. Alright, Alfred?” Russ clasped his shoulder and looked at him reassuringly. “I promise, it’ll help. Tell us your story. Tell us about your struggles. It’ll help. We’ll help you.”
Dean nodded, “Next week. Cheers.”
Dean knew he couldn’t share his story even if he omitted the magic and changed the location. He hadn’t actually been a soldier, he’d been a coward. He hadn’t fought, he ran and hid. Dean had thought about the past almost constantly, replaying different moments in a loop over and over in his head. Though he didn’t know what he could have done differently, he kept feeling as though he hadn’t done enough.
He knew what his classmates who were allowed back at Hogwarts had gone through, though he had spent the majority of that year on the run. Meeting Ted Tonks and Dirk Cresswell, who looked after him like the parents he had left behind. He remembered being too paralyzed by fear to fight the Snatchers who found them and his guilt at not helping Ted and Dirk fight them off. True, they had told him to hide, but had all those months in the D.A. not prepared him to fight? Dean had made a promise to himself, Ted, and Dirk that he wouldn’t freeze again, and after being rescued by Harry, Ron, and Hermione he had shown up to fight at Hogwarts. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had been too late.
Dean, pulled on his coat as he left the community center where the meetings were held and shoved his hands deep into the pockets. His fist closed around the galleon there, and as he turned down the alleyway to Apparate home, he had an idea.
Blaise walked into the Leaky Cauldron. He was completely knackered, but this was not the kind of meeting you rescheduled. He saw Dean sitting alone in the corner and nodded at him as he walked up. Dean pushed a glass of firewhisky over in his direction.
“Hey bro, long time. When did you get back to London?”
“A few weeks ago,” Dean said, his eyes not meeting Blaise’s face. His voice was low, almost lifeless.
Blaise had hoped Dean would return from traveling to be the same kid he met and befriended in school. Kind and easygoing, laughing a bit too loud and relishing in all the attention he naturally received from every girl in their year. Even the most pureblood maniacs like Pansy Parkinson would stare a little too long when Dean walked into their line of sight. However, Dean still seemed withdrawn. His leg was shaking restlessly and he kept snapping an ugly ribbon against his wrist, which must be some strange Muggle fashion. Blaise had all but given up on Dean, who was never the most fashionable in the best of times, but he could never get his friend to completely give up Muggle trends. Blaise paused at that thought and took note of the anti-Muggle sentiment that laid under the surface. Desiree would be proud of him for catching that.
“So what’s up? I’m glad to hear from you man but I’ve had quite the day at work and I’m truly knackered. We miss you at the Ministry. How can I help?”
Dean looked at him, “So you remember when we started the BSU? How much fun we had, but also how we had everyone’s back?”
“Of course, I actually saw McG, er, Headmistress McGonagall a few weeks back. She said the group is still going strong.”
“That’s great. Really.” Dean smiled, and for a second Blaise recognized his old friend.
But Dean’s smile faded and he took another long drink from his glass, leaving only ice where dark brown liquid had once been. Blaise sat quietly, knowing Dean was working himself up to something and not wanting to distract him any further.
“So, since I’ve been back I’ve going to this group where Muggle soldiers talk about what happened in the war they’re fighting over in Afghanistan.”
“You didn’t.” Blaise stared anxiously. He had thought this was about Dean coming back to work at the Ministry, getting his life back on track.
“I’ve been using my dad’s name, Alfred.”
“I thought your dad’s name was Gary.”
“That’s my stepdad. My real father, the wizard, was named Alfred.”
“Oh, right, he was a writer yeah?”
Blaise remembered when Dean had found out about his dad. He had still worked at the Ministry then, changed by the war as they all had been, but still as friendly and easy-going as ever. After finding his dad’s writings, Dean had been determined to learn all he could. He started spending almost all of his time with Granger doing research, and then a lot of time alone. Blaise liked Granger but always suspected something had happened between her and Dean that coincided with Dean’s sudden resignation from the Ministry and his decision to travel for a year. Dean had told Blaise he was taking the gap year he wanted instead of the one he was forced into when Voldemort took over the Ministry, but Blaise knew better. He had kept Dean’s room in their shared flat open, waiting for him, but a year passed and then two and Dean hadn’t returned, sending the rare owl every few months with no real details. Blaise forced himself out of the memory and back into the present, focusing on what Dean was telling him.
“Yeah. So, anyway, the group helps. The Muggle war is a real disaster and no one really knows why we — Muggles, I mean — are fighting in the first place or how long it’ll last.”
Dean took a breath and finally looked at him. Blaise stared back in the quiet way that Desiree had told him people saw as cold and distant but which she and his real friends realized was him being open and non-judgmental. He wasn’t going to speak again until asked a direct question and so Dean, after a moment, kept talking.
“So anyway, the bloke who runs the group told me that talking about what I’ve gone through is the only thing that’ll help. That I’ve got to be open and honest, and well, I think he’s right. Obviously, I can’t be 100% honest with Muggles, can’t tell them the whole truth y’know? So I started thinking about who I could talk to. Seamus is my best mate and he went through hell at Hogwarts with the Carrows, but at least he was at Hogwarts…no offense.”
Blaise shook his head to signal that it was nothing, but still didn’t utter a word.
“Well, I was thinking that the last time I got to be completely honest about everything was with the BSU, and I figured a lot of us could use that right now. A group to talk to about what happened, what we went through. What do you think?”
Blaise looked hard at his friend. He thought about what it was like during that last year, distancing himself from his friends, from Desiree. Hearing the children of Death Eaters (most all in Slytherin) saying the vilest comments not just about Muggles and Muggle-borns, but the students of color as well. Whispering in case he caught them and laughing in feigned embarrassment when he did. Blaise thought about the Battle of Hogwarts and telling Draco Malfoy off before running to find Desiree badly hurt in the kitchens. Thought about Desiree now, who would wake up with nightmares and fall back asleep crying in his arms.
“Yeah, I think it’s a great idea. Let’s do it.”