Summary: In a multiverse of endless possibilities, everything we imagine exists somewhere. The bad choices we didn't make, the good choices we should have made and, most of all, the choices we wish we'd made. This is a story about the choices that change the world.
Disclaimer: The concept of L-space belongs entirely to Terry Pratchett.
Author's Notes: Thank you to my betas jonem, pooklet, and mrsquizzical for making this worth my while.
By dictionary definition, a quantum leap is 'an abrupt change or step, especially in method, information, or knowledge'. Or, as microwaves101.com has it: 'a tiny hop for mankind.'
It's hard to see the writing on the wall when your back is up against it.
(Sean Og O'Halpin)
Harry lay on his back with his arms tucked behind his head, the picture of slovenly indulgence. Ever since his second year at Hogwarts, his duties in the Dursleys' household had become less and less onerous. From scrubbing each individual kitchen tile with a toothbrush until it achieved a diamond-like glow, he had been relegated to mowing the back yard. The hot afternoon was one of a chain of sweltering summer days, which had dried out the grass to the point that it was so withered as to save Harry the trouble of cutting it.
The heat was attacking more than just the grass: the tarmac of Privet Drive was reduced to bubbling pools of tar and the pavement stones were cracking under the stress. It was most unseasonable weather for England in July, a month more usually noted for its incessant drizzle.
Uncle Vernon had taken to going around in his shirtsleeves, the awfulness of which was only bested by Dudley's string vest. His budding career as a heavyweight boxer had defined his muscles, but lard still ringed them in a manner unfit for public consumption.
Predictably, Uncle Vernon was no fan of hot weather. He was often heard to declaim that, "We never got indecent temperatures like this in my day!" Aunt Petunia had nothing to say on the decorum of the weather; but Harry had, on more than one occasion, seen her bite her lips as she checked the barometer.
A newspaper lay open across Harry's chest, fluttering with the movement of his breathing. No breeze was present to chase the pages around the dying grass. The air was still and heavy, as it had been for many weeks. Walking from one room to the next was enough to break a sweat.
Harry mulled over the unusual weather, trying not to pant in the heat so as to preclude swallowing his own perspiration. A month and a half of living in a sauna had put him off salt for life. However, his daily perusal of the Muggle Times was enough to help him attain some perspective. He greatly preferred drinking his weight in water every day to prevent dehydration than to live through forty-five tornadoes, like the people of Dover; or to experience an earthquake, such as the scale six on the Isle of Wight; or to endure the torrential rain that had driven inhabitants of even three-storey buildings from their flooded homes in Chester.
There was a more than slight possibility that Voldemort was behind these unlikely disasters. Harry thought the earthquake was going a little far Britain wasn't remotely near a continental bridge, unless his fourth-form geography teacher had told the most vicious lies. People were bound to get suspicious...
His inadvertent sigh dislodged a corner of the paper, which allowed him to see the end of a headline: fear global warming to blame.
On the other hand, perhaps Voldemort was brighter than Harry gave him credit for.
If Voldemort did in fact stick to a plan of weather manipulation to rid England of the Muggle parasites, there was no way for any authority to pin it on him. The Muggles were hoist by their own petard in that respect. It didn't quench Harry's thirst for revenge, however: there were far nicer ways to die than by baking to death.
He supposed he'd better make a start with the lawnmower, given that he was being paid for it and everything. (Uncle Vernon had taken him aside the day before and hissed from under his moustache: "I'll give you ten pence if you cut the grass tomorrow. Don't tell your aunt we overspent on the last phone bill." He'd first attempted to bully Harry into it, but Harry two inches taller than him now, and with his wand in his back pocket laughed in his face.) His t-shirt stuck to his arms and between his shoulder-blades, but Harry had learned the perils of shirtless gardening the hard way. As he walked to the shed, his flip-flops kicked up little eddies of dust from the disintegrating verdure.
He passed by the living room window to the sound of a cacophony of voices. Harry tried not to listen as he wrenched open the shed's door. This task was made more difficult by the fact that Uncle Vernon had had glaziers remove the glass from the back and upstairs windows a fortnight before. Glaziers all over Surrey were making a fortune through such requests, and had invested for the future by storing the removed glass 'free of charge (until retrieval).'
Aunt Petunia was dryly sobbing. Uncle Vernon bellowed something about 'abysmal performance.' The date on the newspaper was the twenty-fourth of July. Harry did some quick mental arithmetic and nodded. It was always about this time of year when Smeltings sent out their annual report cards.
Harry ducked into the shed, which was darker than outside and about two degrees cooler. It made up for this by being seventy Pascals stuffier. Harry pulled on some gardening gloves and immediately began sweating more profusely. He got his fingers around the handle of the lawnmower the metal burned even through the reinforced fabric and trundled the antique machine out into the sunlight, where bits of the plastic casing began to melt.
On the point of turning on the engine, Harry happened to glance at the fuel gauge. It was empty useless. He reluctantly pushed the mower back into the shed. He had no choice, for it would turn into a half-mangled, half-broiled lump if he left it out in the searing heat.
By the end of his fruitless exertion he could smell himself, rather more eau de toil than eau de toilette. Unfortunately, water restrictions limited him to one two-minute shower a day, and the washing machine was put to use only once a month. Harry was already out of clothes, his wardrobe not being extensive to start with. He was going to have to shower clothed yet again. He never knew he'd miss bathing naked quite so much.
"Uncle Vernon," he called, stepping over the window sill into the kitchen, "I need some money for petrol."
There was no reply bar the yelling from the next room. Harry shrugged and stood in front of the fan for a while.
When the heat wave initially hit, most people failed to take it seriously. Only Aunt Petunia, an obsessively comprehensive housekeeper, had five freestanding fans squirreled away in her attic. When Dudley and Harry were sent to retrieve them, they were still wrapped in white paper decorated with silver bells. If it were anyone else Harry would have assumed they were superfluous presents but this was Aunt Petunia, the woman with fourteen toasters. He wouldn't have been surprised if she'd put all five fans down on her wedding list.
In the weeks that followed, while the sun made concerted attempts to bring the desert to Mohammed, a roaring trade in cooling devices began. It was far too hot to drive any great distance, as people ended up welded to the car seats, so the black market was confined to Surrey and the borders of neighbouring counties. Hand-held fans crossed hands for hundreds of pounds, antique jewellery or slave labour. People with large fridges and freezers were feted and held soirees for a chosen few, who got to stand in front of the open machines for a minutes at a time.
Aunt Petunia had already sold three of her fans for an undivulged sum. She spent all of her time in the living room, dressed in a French negligee Harry tried not to look at, and didn't seem to care if the rest of the house simulated Equatorial climates.
She was currently involved in bargaining away the kitchen fan, but fortunately for Dudley, who slept with his head in the fridge, and the rest of the family, demand had slackened of late. Fans brought the temperature down to merely very hot, but they recycled the same stale air over and over. Removing windows brought a greater, if equally temporary, relief to the inhabitants of Surrey a proceeding that vexed Aunt Petunia greatly.
From the sound of her voice, Harry doubted that this was the matter at hand. Aunt Petunia was a sharp bargainer, who became shrill when things didn't go her way. She was sobbing at the moment, which effulgence of emotion she reserved for only one thing in her life: her son.
His curiosity overcoming his stunted caution, Harry grabbed the rare opportunity of appropriating a can of Coke from the fridge and sauntered into the living room. The sight that greeted him there would have made his jaw drop, if the Coke can wasn't already wedged under it to cool his neck.
Aunt Petunia was procumbent upon the floor, her nightie rucked up to alarming heights. Uncle Vernon, jowls a-quiver, was slapping a piece of paper as if it were Harry's face. The most curious thing of all, however, was Dudley. He was standing in the centre of the room, his arms crossed as far as they would go across his straining midriff. There was a look on his face Harry hadn't seen in a long time since before Harry's nascent magic allowed him to escape the machinations of Dudley's gang.
It was triumph.
Uncle Vernon took a deep breath to stoke his ranting fire. Harry, seeing his opportunity, jumped in with, "So, the lawnmower? Needs some juice."
"Juice is just what I need," said Dudley. "Give me that." He attempted to wrest the can from under Harry's chin.
"Get your own, lazy-arse," said Harry, "or "
"I know you can't use your poxy magic on me yet unless there're no Dementors around here, are there?" Dudley spun wildly, giving the appearance of a planet in orbit.
Harry cracked the tab on the can and licked the opening. "I was going to say, 'or I'll bite you,'" he said, "but your version works too. Anyway, my germs are on it now."
"Yuck. That better not have been the last can."
"It was, but there's plenty of Diet left." Harry smiled innocently.
Forestalling Dudley's lecture on the inherent deception of marketing 'diet' drinks with equal sugar levels as ordinary sodas, Uncle Vernon said, "Son, I have nothing left to say to you."
"Great," said Dudley. "I've been waiting for this moment to come for, what? A whole hour?"
"I can't believe this," wailed Aunt Petunia, clawing the carpet in agony. "The shame of it! My own son! Expelled!"
Harry turned to his cousin. "They expelled you?"
"Yup." And there was the triumphant expression again.
Harry thought this over as he took a long sip of soda. Smeltings had put up with Dudley's bullying, his poor academic record, his gangland warfare, and the strain his obesity had put on their healthcare system, for five whole years. Only now, when they were finally getting some use out of him in the sporting arena, did they decide to expel him. It made no sense to Harry. He was forced to ask: "What for?"
"'Behaviour unbecoming in a Smeltings' man,'" intoned Uncle Vernon. He sounded as if he were reciting a dirge.
"Were they a little more specific than that?"
"We blew up the Vice-Principal's office," explained Dudley.
"While he was in it?" said Harry, aghast.
"Oh, no. He was at a swim meet in Cumberland at the time."
"So that was the 'behaviour unbecoming'?"
"No, I think that might have been the graffiti we sprayed in the gym. Piers is quite artistic, in certain areas." Dudley tapped his chin. "Or maybe it was the defacement of the founding fathers' portraits, the tutus on the antique statuary or the flashing during the Queen's visit. You know, I'm just not sure."
"I never thought I'd live to see the day," spat Uncle Vernon. "My son. A ringleader."
"You came up with all of this?" Harry was genuinely surprised. Such ingenuity was out of character for a Dursley.
Dudley just smiled.
"What shall we do?" shrieked Aunt Petunia. "Where will he go? Smeltings will have told all the best places by now there's not a school in England that will accept him after this "
"There's always Stonewall Comp," said Harry, not without a little amusement.
The Stonewall High of Harry's past, where he was to have been introduced to a toilet bowl head-first, was a long-disappeared relic. In its place was Stonewall Comprehensive, where students were encouraged to talk about their feelings and learn at their own pace. As a consequence of such enlightened thinking, it was obliged to take all comers. It was populated in the main by the worst thugs and delinquents in the catchment area, all of whom had been dumped there by despairing teachers in other schools.
"I think he'd fit right in," added Harry. He turned a face reeking with earnest compassion on his uncle. "Anyway, the lawnmower?"
"Petrol, was it?" As if in a daze, Uncle Vernon reached into his pocket and took out a ball of notes. "Here. Take Dudley. Your aunt and I need to have a serious discussion."
Harry crumpled the money in his fist before Dudley could take note of the denominations. By mutual and unspoken consent, he and Dudley repaired to the kitchen to stand in front of the rotating fan prior to leaving.
"How much'd he give you?" Dudley's fat face was almost languid, but Harry saw the beady look in his eye. Heat made Dudley slow; plus, he'd been relaxing in the fridge all summer while Harry attempted to mow what was left of the lawn. If push came to shove, Harry was pretty sure he could outrun Dudley, Saharan temperatures notwithstanding.
Harry hunched his shoulder away from Dudley and smoothed out the notes. There were two twenties; Uncle Vernon must have been seriously distracted. "Here." Harry held out one to Dudley. It hung limply from his fingertips.
"You'll get the petrol with yours."
"Yes," said Harry, rolling his eyes. It was quite a long trek to the nearest petrol station, but he fully intended on borrowing Dudley's bike and Petunia's sunhat. If he was lucky, he'd have change left over to buy sunscreen. And deodorant.
Dudley was rolling the twenty between his fingers, leaving it even limper with sweat. He appeared to come to a decision. "I'll get a box of ice lollies," he said, "and you can have one."
Harry gaped at this unprecedented liberality.
"Just one, mind," Dudley hastened to add; clearly something in Harry's face suggested the notion that six-packs of ice-cream could be split more fairly than in a ten-ninety ratio. "After all, you did save my life."
"I did?" said Harry. "Oh, I did. Yes. Accidentally."
"Thanks for that," said Dudley. After a difficult pause, he added, "Maybe two lollies?"
"Don't over-burden yourself with generosity," said Harry. "You might pull a muscle in your brain. I'm going to borrow your bike, okay?"
"Sure." Dudley waved this off, as well he should; Aunt Petunia's black market connections had ensured the construction of an ice-cream stand right outside Number Four. As Harry reluctantly tore himself from the fan, Dudley yelled after him, "Take Mum's hat, too."
Meanwhile, in Spinner's End
Narcissa Malfoy Apparated on to a riverbank a few co-ordinates shy of where she'd intended, and stepped on a fox. The fox took exception to this and bit her ankle, so the first thing Bellatrix Lestrange heard upon Apparating to the same riverbank was the sound of her sister's screaming. Unused to hearing such a noise without being the direct cause of it, Bellatrix hurled off a Killing Curse in the approximate direction of Narcissa's squeals.
The fox dropped down dead, and Narcissa trod on its head. With an unpleasantly squishy crack, its skull broke under her foot.
"Oh, oh!" cried Narcissa. "You killed it! Why did you kill it?"
Bellatrix stared at Narcissa. "Correct me if I'm mistaken, but don't you own several genuine fox-fur robes? That requires them to have been killed first, you know."
"Yes," and Narcissa was pouting, "but I don't do it myself. How perfectly savage. Besides," she added, "you could have killed me. That curse went right past my leg!"
"Good grief." Bellatrix rolled her eyes. "Have you so soon forgotten our Lord's teaching? Killing Curses will rarely take effect unless they catch the victim in the head or chest. At most I would have given you a necrotising gangrene, and you can certainly manage with only one leg."
Narcissa scowled, which for the first time lent some strength to her babyish features. "Of course I listened. I also heard a part about care and caution, not to mention refraining from killing unless absolutely necessary. I don't imagine that fox posed a significant threat to your well-being. I think," she said with relish, "I'm going to add this to your tally."
It was Bellatrix's turn to scowl, an expression which momentarily lifted her from femme tres fatale to pantomime dame. "See if I care!"
"You will when the Dark Lord returns," taunted Narcissa, "to see five new tallies in three days. I don't think he'll be pleased."
"You waste time," sniffed Bellatrix. "Pray lead me to your destination, so I may return to serving my Lord in more useful ways."
Narcissa merely lifted an eyebrow to this. She turned on her heel and tripped lightly across the bridge. In the blessed silence she could feel her heart beating an erratic rhythm at every pulse point. Sparring with Bellatrix had distracted her from her purpose, as it always did; but now Bellatrix was following in sullen silence, leaving Narcissa alone with her thoughts.
"Are you sure you won't go back?" said Bellatrix in a wheedling tone. Narcissa almost welcomed the interruption.
Almost. "Haven't we discussed this already?" she snapped. "Oh, wait we have! Forty times! Don't you think you'd have talked me out of it by now, if you were going to?"
"Forty-first time's the charm," panted Bellatrix. Stouter and less active than her younger sister, and weakened by years of incarceration, Bellatrix was finding the steep climb up the riverbank tough going.
Narcissa waited for her at the top of the bank. A chilly mist sprayed droplets in her hair, where they glittered as if trapped in a spiderweb. She felt the first moistness coalesce on her nose as the mist gathered around them.
"Oh, oh, disgusting," she said. "Dementor sperm." With exaggerated revulsion she wiped off her face with her sleeve, taking care not to smear her lipstick, and Vanished the droplets from her hair.
"You should not speak ill of our Lord's creatures," reproved Bellatrix, but not as sternly as she might have done. She had a cat's dislike of water, and this water was trying to be up close and personal in a way she thought unwarrantedly forward.
"I'm not speaking ill of them," said Narcissa. "I just wish they wouldn't reproduce on me. These robes are new, I'll have you know." She shook her silver silk sleeve in Bellatrix's face for emphasis.
"Our Lord's followers should dress only in black."
"That's not black."
"Black drains my face, as you are well aware." Narcissa wielded her wand. "Expecto Patronum! Remember the time Mother tried to get us in the family robes for that portrait? Shield form, please. I looked like a vampire."
"I thought it was Uncle Wilhelm who looked like a vampire?"
"No, Uncle Wilhelm was a vampire. But he rouged, so he didn't look it. I, on the other hand " Narcissa shook her head over this ancient woe "- did."
"I don't think this charm is " Bellatrix began, looking at the glowing shield that had grown from Narcissa's elephant Patronus.
"You can come under it, if you like."
Bellatrix wrung out her hair and made no further objections.
They made their way down the dingy street, glowing silver from the Patronus' shield. Bellatrix's wand hand quivered as she fought the urge to blast the filthy Muggles to oblivion. Narcissa knew the tic well; it had last been responsible for a blown-up street and fifty additions the tally.
The Black family motto was officially Toujours pur, but any fool could see that made for a lot of nutcases and fruitcakes. While paying lip-service to that motto by marrying their cousins, Blacks of latter days had invented their own adage: stick by family, family first. That was the reason why Narcissa was exposing herself in this horrible shanty town in the first place.
Voldemort's decision to have Draco murder Dumbledore was his way of punishing Lucius for his many failures, including the latest and greatest. Lucius was perfectly willing to sacrifice his own son's safety in favour of his own, just as he had been perfectly willing to carry out Voldemort's other orders to the letter, but had been prevented by circumstance. The circumstance in question was his own over-inflated ego and sad lack of cunning. The Malfoys were another family in which inbreeding was rife.
Although closely related to the Blacks (Lucius was Narcissa's second cousin, once removed), the Malfoys did not share their single-minded devotion to family. This went some way to explaining why there was rarely more than one Malfoy child per generation. The other explanation that 'they're a bunch of poofy fairies' was not one on which Narcissa liked to dwell, although it had been tendered by her own grandmother on the eve of Narcissa's wedding.
Narcissa's duty to her son was greater than the duty she owed to her husband; which was greater again than what she owed to her sister. And there was no greater duty than ensuring that her son had a future. What Lucius and Bell didn't know wouldn't hurt them, and if they believed she was here to help her son in his appointed task then it was all to the purpose.
At last Narcissa recognised Snape's house. His description had been fleeting 'The one that looks like God picked it up after an earthquake in Rio de Janiro and drop-kicked it to England' but it was the only establishment with a light in the window.
"We're here," she said.
"What a dump," observed Bellatrix.
"Yes, well, less of that to Snape." Narcissa regarded the insalubrious hovel with disapprobation, but she wasn't here to give Snape's DIY skills marks out of ten. She raised her hand to knock, saw the dirt that had collected in the splintered wood, and said, "You do it."
"Knock or I'll put ten new marks on your tally!"
"No need to be nasty about it," muttered Bellatrix. She gave three smart raps on the door. The dirt smeared across her knuckles seemed to bother her not at all; although, given the state of her two-inch fingernails, Narcissa wasn't surprised.
After a long wait and some muffled cursing, the door was wrenched open. Wormtail peered out, blinking in the bright light of the Patronus.
"Who's there?" he quavered. "Am I dead? Are you God?"
"You've been reading too many Reincarnation manuals," snarled Bellatrix. She and Wormtail were not on the best of terms, each being jealous of the other's apparently favoured position with the Dark Lord.
"Those are my orders," said Wormtail. "The Dark Lord said, and I quote, 'Go do some research on life after death and stay out of my way.' And all the books say there's supposed to be white light and you're supposed to walk into it and there's supposed to be an angel who guides you " He stopped short at the sight of Narcissa, radiant in the light of a streetlamp. "I am dead."
"No, you're not," said Bellatrix, "although it's only a matter of time. Make yourself useful and go fetch Snape."
"No need." Snape's oily voice preceded him into the vestibule. "Ah, Narcissa, Bellatrix. Welcome to my humble abode. Forgive the delay; Wormtail just exploded my kitchen for the third time this week, and I had to set it to rights."
"I was making baked beans," Wormtail simpered at Narcissa.
Snape raised his eyebrows. "That explains the orange things on the ceiling." He turned and smiled at Narcissa, showing off cracked and yellowed teeth. "Perhaps we might adjourn to a more comfortable apartment?"
"I could help you with the clean-up, I mean," offered Narcissa. "I'm a whiz in the kitchen."
"I thought you had house-elves." Bellatrix frowned.
"I could come," said Wormtail. "I could make you some baked beans."
"No!" said Snape and Narcissa, at the same time. Narcissa softened her denial with, "Be a dear and show Bell your research. I'm sure she'll be happy to make the Dark Lord a full report of your progress."
"Certainly," said Wormtail. Bellatrix's eyes lit up. She wasn't the only one with a tally.
As soon as Wormtail led Bellatrix away, Narcissa grabbed Snape by the elbow and yanked him down into the kitchen, guessing her way by the smell of burning.
"We haven't got much time, so I'll make this quick," she said, pointing her wand at the door and layering it with a Silencing Charm.
"Your passion overpowers me," drawled Snape. "Come, have your way with me right here on the singed kitchen table."
"Enough of that nonsense," said Narcissa. "Lucius overheard you, you know, the last time. It's a good thing he doesn't know what VPL is or you'd be a dead man." She smoothed down the front of her robes in a vain attempt to stop her hands from trembling.
"Out with it," said Snape, in a tone that wouldn't have sounded a mite gentler except to the trained expert. Narcissa, who'd known Snape for twenty years, was one such.
"Draco's been sent to kill Dumbledore," said Narcissa baldly. "I'm not allowed to tell you. I'm not allowed to tell anyone, I'm just supposed to stand by and let it happen but I won't. I tell you, I won't!"
"I never thought you would." Snape, whose arms were crossed, sent a spell at the outside door under his elbow. Narcissa, overwrought with the force of her emotions, didn't notice. "I'm glad to be proved right. You're one of the few people I'd call a friend, and I wouldn't like to think you could happily let your son walk to his death."
"So it's true," breathed Narcissa. "It is just a trap, to kill Draco and punish Lucius?"
"You know the Dark Lord," said Snape. "Do you think he would arrange it any other way? that he would have his most feared enemy vanquished by a callow boy?"
"You've got to help him." Narcissa's voice was ragged with fear. "Please, please help him. I'll do anything. I'll swear any vow, only save my son. Kill Dumbledore for him."
"Now, now," said a new and, to Narcissa, not wholly unfamiliar voice. "I don't think we need to go do such drastic lengths do you, Severus?"
"I take it that's a rhetorical question," said Snape, but Narcissa didn't heed him. His voice faded into so much white noise as she looked into the smiling face of one Albus Dumbledore.
Harry woke up sweating, yet it was not entirely due to the sticky night air. He'd been having a nightmare, one that involved tall dark men falling through curtains in a flash of blinding light. The light was sometimes red and sometimes green, but it always blasted the insides of Harry's eyelids when he blinked himself awake.
Of late he'd made his bed on the floor, using a thin blanket and a pillow. The threadbare carpet trapped less heat than the mattress that lay directly under the window frame. He'd begun the summer wearing pyjamas as normal, but had gradually pared down his night attire to airy cotton boxers. He would have forgone any clothing at all had not his natural modesty, and frequent need for nocturnal bathroom visits, prevented him.
He decided it was as good a time as any to fetch another glass of ice. Even refrigerated water failed to stay cool for very long once exposed to the outside air. Ice was a reasonable, if less convenient, alternative. Harry wiped off the excess sweat with the sheet from his bed and stood up, only for his head to collide with Hedwig as she soared into the room.
Harry fell back on to his bed in a flurry of feathers. Hedwig, much affronted, dropped the letters she was carrying on his nose.
"Ow, papercut!" Harry rubbed his nose and glared at her. Insomuch as she could, Hedwig looked smug.
There were three letters in total. Harry recognised Hermione and Ron's handwriting on two. The third was addressed merely to 'Harry Potter, esq' in florid purple ink. Harry ripped open his friends' correspondence and hastily perused the opening paragraphs. Both Hermione and Ron complained vociferously of the cold, wet fog that enveloped the Burrow and surrounding environs. Harry shivered with reflexive delight at the thought of the cold. His birthday, with its attendant visit to the Burrow, couldn't come soon enough.
If they had urgent news to impart they probably wouldn't have eulogised on the weather first, so Harry felt safe in leaving the rest of the letters for the moment. He creaked down the stairs to the kitchen, where the fan was still whirring valiantly. Harry stepped over the recumbent form of his cousin. Little crystals of frost were gathering in Dudley's hair where it lay in the freezer compartment; the rest of his body glistened with sweat.
Harry reached into the deep freeze in the pantry, relishing the sub-zero tingle as he scooped up a handful of ice. He was about to dump it into a glass when Hedwig landed on his shoulder with soft whump. She dropped the third letter on top of his glacial booty.
Grimacing, Harry picked up the letter with his other hand and broke the seal with his teeth. Watermarks from the ice had already soaked through, leaving the parchment dotted with lavender bruises.
"I get it," said Harry. "Urgent message in the dead of night. I promise to read it right away, so you can go to sleep."
Hedwig hooted her assent and flew out the kitchen window. Harry spread the letter open on the counter with his elbow.
"Dear Harry," it ran. "I have taken the liberty of commandeering your postal service, as I recently had need to visit your friends Mr Weasley and Miss Granger. It will be necessary for me to pay a call to your uncle's home in the coming days, on a matter of some urgency. But do not be alarmed, my dear boy. It is mainly good news that I come to impart. Yours, A. Dumbledore."
"Interesting," Harry mused. He popped an ice cube into his mouth and began to suck, only to choke at the pop and swish of several people Apparating into his kitchen. Almost immediately the sounds were followed by bumps and exclamations of pain, as said people tripped over Dudley.
"What in the world " Snape flicked his robes away from the still-snoring sleeper, abject disgust pinching his features. "Let us leave at once, Dumbledore, you've Apparated us into a zoo."
"I should think that vastly unlikely." Dumbledore stepped around Snape. The rising sun glinted off his spectacles. "Although I cannot be certain while his head is hidden by a cabbage, I would strongly guess that the creature you refer to is Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter's cousin."
"Much," said Snape, sneering down at Dudley, "becomes clear."
"Hello, Headmaster," said Harry. He pointedly excluded Snape from his greeting a snub Snape apparently didn't register, rapt as he was with horrified fascination.
"Salutations, Harry. I trust I find you well on this fine night."
"Not bad," said Harry. He fished some ice from his already-melting stash and ran it over his forehead.
"I think it best we begin wait." Dumbledore held up a finger. "We appear to have misplaced one of our number."
"I'm here," said a third voice. Harry groaned. That cut-glass accent could only belong to one of his hated enemies (differing, as it did, from Snape's contemptuous drawl and Voldemort's noseless hiss). "I fell over the dog."
"How clumsy of you," murmured Snape.
Draco clambered to his feet, using the table for leverage, as Dumbledore looked on benevolently; Harry wrathfully; and Snape studied his fingernails. On seeing that Dudley was not, in fact, a dog, Draco gave a great start and banged his hip against the breakfast bar.
"Good grief," he said, "it's a walrus! We've accidentally Apparated to a zoo."
"Severus, I give you the floor," said Dumbledore.
"It's not a walrus," said Snape. "It's related to Potter."
"Ah." Draco curled his lip.
Harry, scowling, took proper notice of him for the first time. While Snape and Dumbledore were dressed as usual, in narrow black robes for the former and flowing sapphire with gold dragon embroidery for the latter, Draco was Draco as Harry had never seen him before. He was wearing a voluminous white shirt that spun out moonlight. It was tied with strings at the throat. This unlikely garment was tucked into tight-fitting blue trousers. The outfit was completed by knee-high leather boots with silver spurs and finishings.
Clearly, he'd been on his way to a fancy-dress party, dressed as an idiot.
"I'm sorry," said Harry to Dumbledore. "Obviously you were on your way to Azkaban and Apparated to the wrong place."
Draco and Snape raised their eyebrows at each other. "That wasn't very witty," said Draco. "Zero out of ten."
"If everyone could restrain themselves from denigrating my Apparation skills for just a moment," said Dumbledore, "I would like to explain the situation to Harry."
"You're wasting your time," said Draco. "It's all in one ear, out the other with that boy. You'd be better off telling the walrus." He kicked Dudley's shins, not very gently, and Dudley woke up.
"Ow," he groaned. "I think I got frostbite of the ear again."
"Some hazards are to be expected, when one sleeps in a fridge," said Snape.
"What on earth is a fridge?" demanded Draco.
Snape paused. "It is ... a Muggle device, for cooling food and beverages."
"Oh," said Draco. "Like a house elf, you mean?"
"Muggles don't keep slaves!" shouted Harry.
"How very plebeian of them," said Draco, leaning back as if Harry's breath smelled.
"Silence!" thundered Dumbledore. He waved his wand, and Harry felt his mouth freeze in position he'd opened it wide to begin yelling in earnest. Draco's was caught in a knowing smirk; even through the facial paralysis he seemed to be laughing at Harry.
"That's better." Dumbledore smiled. Beads of sweat were popping out on his forehead. He pulled a lilac-scented handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his face with it. "My word, but it's very close in here. Perhaps we should open a window."
Harry tried to speak, failed, and pointed instead. Dumbledore turned to survey the night and the small army of midges, frogs and crickets that had advanced through the glass-less window.
"How very odd," said Dumbledore. "You don't often see Eleutherodactylinae Barycholos here in Surrey."
Harry shrugged. The fan was faltering in its appointed task, and Harry could feel heat building across his skin. He shovelled up the last ice-cube from the gloopy mess in the glass and crushed it into his chest. Draco's eyes blazed open at this, then shut very tightly.
"Now that we're all ready to listen," said Dumbledore, "it may be best to begin at the beginning." He surveyed the ceiling for a moment, where a number of heat-struck spiders dangled from their webs. "Or perhaps not. Suffice it to say: for the safety of the students, I have shut up Hogwarts Castle."
Harry tried to scream his protest, forgetting again that his tongue was spelled motionless.
"Hogwarts, the institution, I will not suffer to fall under Voldemort's sway. As such, I have made arrangements for those who cannot be taught at home to be farmed out to Muggle schools. I made sure to choose those with ties to Hogwarts, through siblings or cousins. Stonewall Comprehensive is one such. You will be enrolled in the fifth form come September first."
Dumbledore smiled at Harry. At the news, even Harry's brain fell silent.
"To ensure that no one falls behind in their magical studies during this time, every group of students will have a Hogwarts teacher to guide them. I have established an L-space portal in the living quarters of the students so that they may access Hogwarts' library, while giving the teachers a safe means of travelling between their charges. Your tutor is Professor Snape, here, and young Draco will be living with you. If you have any questions, you should address them to your new house-mates I must be off. I have four hundred other students to settle in the next month."
Snape was making fierce gestures at Dumbledore, which he at last deigned to notice. "Have I forgotten something? Oh, yes, of course." Dumbledore retrieved yet another letter from inside his robes. "For your aunt and uncle. Explanations ... and a little monetary recompense." Dumbledore winked and Disapparated.
Harry tried to say something very rude indeed, but his mouth was still magically uncooperative. Snape face still bland despite the fury flashing in his eyes whipped out his wand and voicelessly cast the counter-spell.
The four men in the sweltering kitchen stared at each other in cyclical horror. After a few minutes of this, Harry dashed to the calendar and grabbed Dudley's fat fist to check his high-tech watch.
"What are you doing?" asked Draco.
"Checking that it's not April Fool's Day," said Harry. "It's not, actually. And it's also five-thirty pm in Mozambique."
"I wish I was in Mozambique," sighed Draco.
"I'm sure they have plenty of slaves there," said Harry.
"Slavery was outlawed in 1878," objected Dudley. "By the way, am I dreaming this?"
"If only," said Snape. "It truly is unreasonably hot." And indeed, Snape's waxy cheeks were lit up with two flares of pink. Draco didn't look much better.
"That explains your clothes or lack of them." Draco tilted his chin the direction of Harry's boxers and, for the first time, Harry felt a little self-conscious. "It pains me to say this, but for once I think Potter's sartorial contribution is the right one."
"I can't take much more tonight," said Snape. "Direct us to our quarters and leave us be."
"Our rooms, Potter," said Snape, "the place where we are to abide, the chambers fitted up for our use. How much simpler can I make this?"
"You don't have any," said Harry. The full force of Snape and Draco's glares would have cowed a lesser man. "Get off it! Dumbledore only told me about this whole thing five minutes ago. Besides, it's a ridiculous idea. Me and, and him -" he waved dismissively at Draco "- just, no. And I don't think you're very happy to be living with me, sir. I'm sure Dumbledore will think better of it in the morning."
"Well, that gives him approximately two minutes," said Draco, nodding at the pinkening sky.
"You've known Dumbledore for five years." Snape suddenly sounded infinitely weary. "I've known him for thirty. Believe me when I say, heaven and earth will not move that man."
Harry made a face. Draco felt it indigent upon him to observe, "He means the old coot won't change his mind."
"You don't talk like that about Dumbledore in front of me!" Harry felt himself turning red. He really didn't need the additional sweat that arguing made him extrude. "He's ten times the human being you are, you you dung-weasel."
"Yes, the requests for his canonisation are flooding in," said Draco. Harry hated the way he managed to sound so bored when he, Harry, was furious. "Please. Dumbledore isn't as snow-white as you think, Grumpy."
"Hush," said Snape. Amazingly, Draco did. Snape turned to Harry. "Regardless of your feelings on the subject and of mine," he said, "will you accede to the Headmaster's request at least for the night? I mean, the day."
"I suppose," said Harry, very reluctantly. "I don't know where you'll sleep, though."
Dudley had remained quiet throughout these proceedings, engrossed in searching the fridge for a solitary non-Diet Coke. His quest foiled, he now piped up.
"There's always the basement," he said.
Harry left Draco and Snape in the basement a scant ten minutes after guiding them there. It had been a long, tiresome day, despite being only six hours long. He didn't think he could stand any more interior decorating advice from Draco "How about some Grecian pillars? You can never go wrong with Grecian pillars" without giving in to his not-so-sublimated urge to paste Draco across the nearest wall.
Harry fell asleep again as gaudy streaks of gold claimed the sky, only to be subjected to the same nightmare from which he'd previously awoken. He wasn't in the Department of Mysteries this time. He and Sirius were having a picnic in a park with improbably emerald grass, surrounded by the chirping laughter of children. But between one cress sandwich and the next, the sky was rent by purple lightning. A curtain enveloped the world. Sirius was sucked into its folds. Laughter turned to wailing; Harry shouted his godfather's name, and woke himself up.
He lay on the floor with his breath coming in harsh rattles. As he gradually calmed down, he thought to check the time on his clock-radio. It was eleven am, three hours past Aunt Petunia's habitual hour of rising. Harry was surprised not to have been awoken earlier by screams of discovery coming from the basement.
Harry went to pull on the still damp t-shirt of the day before, and was suddenly reminded of the disapproving way Draco had looked at his boxers. Although he could ill afford the change, Harry took a dry and clean if sadly wrinkled t-shirt from the drawer and donned it instead. He exchanged his boxers for surfer shorts that reached his calves (Dudley had gone through a phase), the heat not permitting him to wear both at once. His feet in flip-flops to stop the soles being scorched by the ground outside, and he was ready, and more sincerely regretful of his lack of deodorant than he would have supposed possible yesterday.
Dudley was still slumbering in the kitchen, so Harry poured some cornflakes into a bowl with milk and drank it standing. It was too near to the midday zenith to attempt mowing the lawn, so Harry reluctantly went to check on his visitors.
In the living room Aunt Petunia was holding court, having sent her husband off to work in swimming trunks several hours earlier. She was grandly serving iced tea to none other than Professor Snape.
"- I'm afraid I've had several higher offers," Aunt Petunia was saying. "You will have to at least match them to gain a foothold in the bidding."
"Tea," said Snape, not appearing to heed her in the slightest. "In a heatwave, the English offer tea! All the ice in the world will not cool this little hand, oh no."
"Morning," said Harry, loudly enough to alert the two orators to his presence.
"That's my nephew, Harry. Likes to loiter," said Aunt Petunia. "Harry, meet Mr Snape. He's come to bid on the kitchen fan."
"A plague! A plague on both their ice-houses!" cried Snape, staring wildly. Aunt Petunia chuckled.
"He drives a hard bargain, all right," she said.
"I'm going to ... the basement," said Harry, after racking his brains for a good reason and finding none. But Aunt Petunia's mind was on greater matters.
"See if there's any iced tea there," was all she said. "Mr Snape's already drunk three pints of it."
Harry stared at his professor as he walked to the basement door. Snape was still dressed in his robes, although they were in considerable disarray and loose around the collar. Visible sweat patches stuck out under his arms, quite a feat in black cloth. His face was bright red, his hair plastered to his skull.
"Probably sick," Harry muttered to himself, not caring as hard as he could.
Miracles had been wrought in the basement overnight, although they were not the sort to feature in Better Homes and Gardens. An ornate stone doorway leading to blank breezeblocks suggested the successful establishment of an L-space portal. Oil lamps flickered from the walls, bathing the room with a sickly glow.
The heat was intense. It looked like Draco's aspirations for a temple-like abode had been halted, for there was nothing ornate in the room except two camp-beds laden with velvet cushions, quilted blankets and silk sheets. In the middle of one lay Draco, shirt undone, sleeves rolled up, and barefoot to the knee.
"Well, if it isn't my favourite Potter," said Draco, his voice thick and hazy. "Wait. That was supposed to come out more sarcastic than it did."
"I figured." Harry ventured further into the room, trying not to breathe too deeply. The burning oil made the air cloying as well as arid. "What did you do with all the junk that was here?"
"You're looking at it." Draco thumped the bed. The exertion seemed to weary him excessively, for his hand rolled uselessly off the pillows. "Snape went ... he went, and it's so very hot in here ... I think we have the fever."
"No, it's just hot," said Harry. "There hasn't been a temperature under forty since the first of May, including during the night. You need to get Snape to cast some Cooling Charms down here. If you stay, that is."
"Oh, we're staying." Draco laughed: a clamouring, humourless hack. "No doubt about that, no siree."
"You'd better come upstairs," said Harry, "where there's a fan. Two hundred people have died of heatstroke in the last few months."
"I didn't know you cared."
"I don't," said Harry, "but Dumbledore would probably be upset. A little bit, anyway. C'mon, get up."
"You're so masterful," said Draco, making no effort to move. "There's one tiny flaw to that plan, however, and it is: I can't get up. Too weak. Dying of thirst. Et cetera, et cetera."
"I'll get Snape," sighed Harry. He propped open the door at the top of the basement stairs and spent some futile minutes attempting to waft cooler air through it. Then he went to rescue Snape.
Who was sprawled on the sofa, being fanned by Aunt Petunia. The peacock feathers distributed as much dust as refreshment, especially with Aunt Petunia's level of enthusiasm for the task.
"What happened?" asked Harry.
"He fainted," said Aunt Petunia. "Very cunning business ploy I must remember to use it myself some time."
"I think he's gone heat-mad," said Harry. "You you'd better undress him. I'll get the ice."
As Harry once more plunged his hands into the sweet, sweet relief that was the deep freeze, Dudley spluttered into wakefulness. He trotted into the living room and, a few seconds later, ran back into the kitchen.
"There's a naked man in there!" he half-screamed.
"Naked?" Harry dropped the ice in dismay. "What'd she take all his clothes off for?"
Dudley's eyes narrowed. "You know about this? I could have been scarred for life!"
"Calm down," said Harry. "It's just Prof Snape, from last night, remember? He and Malfoy only went and slept in the hundred-degree basement all night. They're both going heat-mad."
"Didn't you tell them not to do that?" asked Dudley. Harry didn't care for the implication of neglect in his question.
"I forgot, all right! Besides, it's not as if they're the two nicest people on the planet or anything. Quite the opposite, in fact."
"I thought all you magic freaks stuck together," said Dudley.
"You wouldn't believe how much that's not the case," said Harry. "Do me a favour? Take some ice down to Malfoy?"
"Okay." Dudley bumped Harry aside with his bulk and thrust his hands into the freezer. "Ah-h, lovely."
Harry returned to the living room with a wok full of ice, thankful to discover that Snape still had on his underpants. From the grey, frayed appearance of said underpants, Harry was of two minds as to whether they were the same ones his father had exposed several decades before.
Aunt Petunia was nowhere to be seen. Harry dithered, his conscience warring with some painfully poignant memories. In the end his conscience won, but mainly because Snape grabbed his hand and pulled him down so they were nose-to-nose.
"Lily," he whispered hoarsely. "Where's Lily? Got to save her. Got to save Lily, save them all."
"Er," said Harry. Instantly Snape's eyes grew less dim.
"As eloquent as ever, I see," he snapped. "Tell me you've brought some ice."
"Here." Harry handed over the wok, immensely grateful to be spared the task of touching Snape's pale, weedy body.
"Where'd that woman put my clothes? My wand's in the robe pocket." Snape began rubbing himself down with ice, his arms trembling with effort. "Bring them to me. No, don't touch my wand! What are you, an idiot?"
As Snape's insults went, it lacked panache, so Harry waited a minute for a more cutting rejoinder before saying, "No."
"Glad to hear your certainty in the matter." Snape stuck his wand in his mouth and cast a garbled spell. Ice began forming a web across his skin and turned his hair into so many icicles. He next pointed the wand at his robes, which crackled with frost.
"Did you check on Draco? No, of course you didn't." Snape struggled to get his arms into his solid robes, gave up, and spelled them on.
"He's weak. Thinks he has a fever," said Harry. "I sent Dudley to give him some ice."
Snape stood up in a swish of thawing linen, betraying no surprise or hint of apology. Harry was angered by his lack of response, but as this was a baseline reaction to having Snape in his vicinity, he didn't pay it much mind.
"Transfigure his stupid shirt into some shorts and flip-flops," he said to Snape's retreating back. "And get rid of the stupid oil lamps."
"And some advice for you: find a synonym for stupid," said Snape, without turning around.
Dinner that evening was an interesting affair. It used, of recent times, to consist of dishes that could be served cold sandwiches, quiche, and a lot of ice-cream. In honour of their house-guests, however, Aunt Petunia had laid out a spread fit for company and they were all suffering. The boiling tomato soup, roast lamb and baked Alaska would have been enough to melt an ice-cap had there been one handy.
Snape and Draco, under the protection of interwoven Cooling Charms, picked at their meal. The indefinite upkeep of one charm would have tested any magic-user's endurance; the effort of two was starting to show on Snape's face. Harry caught himself idly considering Owling Hermione, in case she could come up with a theoretical solution. The cumulative effect of sun damage was clearly taking its toll. In the cooler climes of Scotland he would never have thought something so charitable regarding the two Slytherins.
Otherwise, the atmosphere in the kitchen was polite but strained. Harry had been privy to his aunt and uncle's conversation upon Vernon's arrival home. The 'monetary recompense' had obviously been substantial; at any rate, Uncle Vernon's indignant bellows were abruptly cut short when Aunt Petunia waved the letter in his face. All Harry had to contend with was the minor fact of having his schoolboy nemesis and most hated teacher under one small roof.
He had never realised it before, but hatred took a lot of energy, and heat sapped more of it. The former drain ousted the latter by a magnitude of ten. Even the sniping Harry would have expected was rarely in evidence, probably because Draco and Snape were too exhausted to make the effort.
Snape had taken Harry's advice and Transfigured Draco's clothes into a t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. The t-shirt was still white, with laces at the neck, and the flip-flops were black and silver, but Harry felt he'd carried the point. Snape was still in robes, trusting the strength of his Cooling Charm. He was slowly turning pink, so Harry decided to keep an eye on him. It was not a purely altruistic move: he didn't want to have to see Snape undressed again if he could help it.
"So you lot are wizards, eh?" grunted Uncle Vernon. He'd made no pretence at liking his visitors; but to be fair, neither had they.
"No," said Draco, "we're circus performers who have tragically lost our way." He turned to Snape. "Must we?"
"Yes," said Snape, in the tones of one who'd answered this question many times before, and knew he would again.
"I think the other thing would have been easier," muttered Draco. He prodded his baked Alaska, plainly with every expectation that it would prod back.
"As you are sixteen," said Snape, "and foolish, I am sure you do."
"How do you like your pudding?" Aunt Petunia asked them.
"Is that what this was?" said Draco. Snape coughed, covering most of the question.
"It is, without doubt, a culinary feat," said Snape. Aunt Petunia simpered.
"I understand your son is to attend Stonewall Comprehensive in the autumn," continued Snape. Uncle Vernon glared at his wife.
"That's not settled "
"But, darling "
Their verbal skirmish was lost on Harry. How did Snape know that? And, more importantly, why did he care?
"Draco, d'you fancy an ice-cream?" asked Dudley.
"More than you," said Draco, and they both laughed. Harry stared. Dudley lumbered into the pantry and Draco hummed to himself, meticulously avoiding Harry's gaze.
"- I find it incumbent upon me to enrol my charges there, temporarily. For security reasons."
"Not much security at Stonewall," rumbled Uncle Vernon. "Unless you count keeping all the neighbourhood thugs locked up in one place for eight hours a day."
Aunt Petunia tittered dutifully. Slowly, Snape raised one eyebrow. "Indeed," he said. "In any case, if you're collecting one of those forms Muggles love so much, I wonder if you would bring two extra on my account."
"That's no trouble," said Uncle Vernon. "Rum thing to do, though. Foisting all these deviants on honest, hard-working people like ourselves. Bit late to try and make them normal by this stage, ain't it?"
Harry felt his scalp prickle as he built up a fountainhead of rage. In deference to the heat, it was a small one.
"I really couldn't say," murmured Snape.
"So." Draco surveyed the table and the ravages of his baked Alaska. "We'll all be going to school together: you, me, and Big D. Won't it be peachy?"
Draco rolled his eyes. "Keep up. They're discussing your parole terms for the next year."
"I'll be at Hogwarts for the next "
And then the knowledge, which had been kept back by a dam of too-early awakenings, unwanted guests and general befuddledness, crashed in upon Harry like a tidal wave. He gibbered, clutching the sides of his chair for support. There was to be no Hogwarts for a whole year. He was stuck here, with Draco and the Dursleys and Snape, with no escape no Hermione and Ron no Quidditch no Hagrid
He took a huge gulp of lukewarm water and felt his throat contract as he almost retched it back up. "Dumbledore," he snarled, "you bastard."
"Now, if that were the only thing I'd ever heard you say," said Draco, "we could have been the best of friends. Except for the part where you're a total prat."
"Nah," said Dudley, meditatively, "Harry's always been more of a geek, I thought." He handed Draco an ice-cream.
"A man after my own heart." Draco unwrapped the ice-cream and licked it delicately. Harry wanted to smash it into his face. He wanted to strangle Draco with his own tongue.
But unpredictably this was not Draco's fault. He was as much a victim of circumstance as Harry. This was all Dumbledore's doing.
Harry recalled Dumbledore's speech from the night before. He'd talked about safety, and four hundred children, and ... 'those who cannot be taught at home.'
Harry instantly brightened. The Weasleys were sure to be taught at home, and Hermione along with them. It was a mere oversight that Harry had not been included in their party. He would write to Dumbledore straight after dinner, pointing out the facts, and requesting a transfer.
Thus engaged, he failed for some time to notice that Dudley was trying to get his attention. Dudley had to resort to waving his offering in Harry's face before Harry blinked himself back to the present.
"I told you," said Draco. "Slow-witted. Probably dropped on his head as a child."
"Well, yes but it was only the one time!" protested Dudley.
"What is it?" snapped Harry.
"The ice-cream I got you," said Dudley. "Do you want it or not?"
Harry was drinking his cereal the next morning, and minding his own business, when he was rudely interrupted. Milk streaming down his chin, Harry turned to confront Draco, who was prosing from the prime spot in front of the fan.
"- funny thing, Snape's charms get really weak really quickly, and it's not like Snape doesn't have the tenacity of a bulldog. His charms should last for days without him needing to top them up. Yet here I am, boiling to death. The incongruity is striking."
Draco's hair was blowing back from his face. Tendrils were getting caught in his mouth as he prattled on. He kept tugging them away.
"I think " Draco paused, his lip curling. "You have milk. On your chin. Oh sweet Merlin, are you drinking from the bowl?"
"The milk sours if you leave it out too long!"
"It won't if you don't want it to," said Draco. "You have magical powers - remember those? The Underage Wizarding restrictions were put in place to curtail excessive magic-using in children, but they can't legislate for unconscious wish-fulfilment. Here." He yanked the bowl out of Harry's hands. "Get a spoon. The milk won't spoil."
Harry did as he was bid, with bad grace. However, when he swallowed the first mouthful he discovered that the milk was icy cold just the way he liked it.
Draco was watching him. "I'm surprised the Mudblood didn't tell you about that loophole. It's hardly possible she didn't know about it."
"Don't call Hermione that!" Harry slapped the spoon into the bowl so hard that milk splashed everywhere. Draco flinched. "This is my home sort of and you're only here on sufferance, so be civil or be quiet."
"Civil it is, then," sighed Draco.
Harry ate in silence for a few more minutes, before Draco felt obliged to mar his peace once more.
"What's this Stonewall place like, then?" he asked.
Harry shrugged. "Dunno," he said with his mouth full. "Never been there."
"We're going to be spending the next six months there, at least. Aren't you at all curious?"
"No," said Harry. He slurped away the last of his breakfast, enjoying the pained expression on Draco's face, and clattered the bowl into the sink. "See you."
"Where are you going?"
"To check on my owl, see if she's brought letters from my friends the pureblood traitors," said Harry. "And then I have to mow the lawn."
"I shall ask Lee if he wants to visit our new school together," announced Draco.
"Wow, I'm sorry," said Harry. "Are you mistaking me for someone who cares what you do?" He shoved his shoulder into Draco's. "Move."
The weather had to be turning them all a little loopy, Harry decided. If he hadn't known better, he might have thought he'd just had a half-civilised conversation with Draco Malfoy.
Harry was ensconced in the shed, filling up the petrol tank in the lawnmower, when pitiful wails tore through the silence. Forces were at work that were greater than his comprehension; someone really didn't want him to mow the lawn.
Harry abandoned his task and stepped out into the blazing morning sunshine. A small, offensively ugly monster was rolling around in what was left of the herbaceous border. Dumbledore stood over it, a gold watch dangling from his fingers.
"Ah, there you are," said Dumbledore, as Harry emerged.
"Did you get my letter, sir?" asked Harry eagerly.
"I did. And I'm sorry, but your request is impossible for me to fulfil."
"But why?" Harry was severely disappointed. "The Weasleys are getting taught at home, and Hermione with them they said so in their last letter. I don't see why "
"Don't you?" Dumbledore stroked his beard. "You can't think of one reason why it would be safer for you to remain here, under your aunt's protection?"
"Oh, well, but," said Harry, "it's not very safe for them, is it? While I'm here?"
"Actually, the protection works both ways," said Dumbledore. "So long as you remain under this roof, Voldemort will not be able to attack you. When you are at Hogwarts, he has ample opportunity to raze this place to the ground. That he has not already done so merely means he regards you as the prime target. But he would not scruple to do so, if he thought it would anger you."
"It wouldn't," said Harry. A flame of defiance forced the words from his mouth, although they left him slightly sickened.
"I am sorry to hear that. I understand that your aunt and uncle, as guardians, are not ... all that I could have wished. However, to know that you do not care if they live or die that is deeply mortifying to me."
"I'm sure it is. It was your decision to abandon me here, after all." The contemplation of a bleak vista, which encompassed a houseful of Dursleys and Slytherins for months and months, made Harry sharper than he intended. "I can still go to the Burrow for my birthday, can't I?"
"But of course," said Dumbledore. "Only between sun-up and sun-down, however. You cannot stay the night, or the protection will fail."
"Better and better," muttered Harry.
"I'm sure they wouldn't mind if you brought an extra guest," said Dumbledore. "Or two."
"If you mean Malfoy and Snape," said Harry, "then I hope you're joking. Living with them is bad enough, never mind taking them somewhere I actually want to enjoy myself."
"So charitable!" called Draco, from the kitchen window. "One might almost have mistaken you for a Hufflepuff." He disappeared again, sniggering. Harry bit back a snarl.
"See what I mean?" he exclaimed.
"My dear boy." Dumbledore laid a heavy hand on Harry's shoulder. "You are not the only one with burdens not the only one with a grim road to travel. If kindness has not often been shown you in your life, there is all the more reason why you should cultivate it in your own self."
"I'm extremely kind to Malfoy," said Harry. "For example, I haven't killed him at all yet."
"Malfoy!" The creature rolling in the dirt sat up, its exultant tone belying its grubby, tear-streaked face. "Did I hear the name of the beautiful son of the House of Black, the pureblood hope?"
"No, you heard the name Malfoy, idiot supreme and racist twit," snapped Harry. "Professor, what is that slimeball of an elf doing here?"
"His name is Kreacher, as you very well know," said Dumbledore, "and it has recently fallen to my lot to deliver him to you, as part of your inheritance."
"That's okay, I'm good."
"The situation is a little less simple than that." Dumbledore tucked his watch into his waistcoat, after noting the time. "Twelve point three minutes of continuous bewailing of your lot. Impressive."
Kreacher preened. "Kreacher thanks the traitorous Muggle-loving pervert."
"Oy, that's enough out of you." Harry aimed a kick at Kreacher's head. It failed to connect and he instead toppled some of the rockery.
"Since your godfather and his brother both died leaving no issue," intervened Dumbledore, who was starting to look as though he felt the heat, "and Sirius' will leaves Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place in your possession, we must perform the test that ascertains your ownership of a pureblood estate."
Harry's fingers and toes tingled as the blood drained out of them. The world swayed around him, and he grabbed the nearest thing to support himself. Unfortunately, this turned out to be Kreacher's bald head. Harry snatched his hand back.
"Sirius' will?" he repeated. "Sirius made a will?"
"Of course. It was during his imprisonment in Azkaban, I believe, when he thought he would never leave."
"And he still willed it to me?"
"You were the only thing left in the world he had permission to love," said Dumbledore gently. "There was no worthier candidate for his inheritance."
Harry gulped back a sob. "So he's really he's really but the curtain, I thought, maybe "
"I'm so sorry, Harry." Dumbledore gripped Harry's shoulder again, hard enough to bruise. "You've suffered so much loss already. I wish I could say people return from Hell's Portal, but I have never heard of it happening."
"Hell's Portal?" The words stuck in Harry's throat. "Sirius is in hell?"
Dumbledore looked uncomfortable. "An unfortunate misnomer. The curtain is not in the Department of Mysteries for nothing. No one knows where it leads; the only fact known is that no one who once ventures through ever emerges again."
"Oh." Harry took a shuddering breath. His glazed eyes took in Kreacher, who was caressing the dislodged stones from the rockery with a meaningful expression.
Sirius hated Kreacher. Sirius would want him to honour his inheritance. Sirius was dead.
"What do you want to do?" Harry asked the house-elf.
"Kreacher misunderstands the filthy half-blood," said Kreacher, but there was definite confusion on his face.
"Do you want to stay at Grimmauld Place? Or is there someone else you'd rather serve?"
"Kreacher is Kreacher does not know " Kreacher looked down at the ground and up at the sky, as if they would inspire him.
"You can do what you like," said Harry, infinitely weary all of a sudden. "My only order to you is to tell no one else what you've heard in Grimmauld Place since Sirius ... since he died. Including Mrs Malfoy. Is that clear?"
Kreacher mimed a zipping motion across his mouth.
At that moment Draco sauntered into the garden, nibbling at his fourteenth ice-cream of the day. "Does anyone happen to know if these are all fat-free?" he asked no one in particular. "I know Lee's supposed to be on this diet, but I also know he buys full-cream tubs of the stuff on the sly."
"Who is Lee?" said Harry in disgust.
"Oh, Potter. I didn't see you there, all skulking-like." Draco sent Harry a brilliant smile, which was a little dimmed by the strawberry smudges around his mouth. "I was referring to your cousin. Large individual, sleeps in the ice-box? I've decided to call him Lee. Dudley is a most unfortunate name."
"I see what you mean, Draco," said Harry.
While this conversation was taking place, Kreacher had stopped his perusal of the inspirational cumulous and sidled up to Draco, an adoring expression on his face.
"Kreacher wishes to serve the beautiful master," he simpered.
"How perfect," said Harry. "Perfectly sickening, that is."
"You did promise " began Dumbledore.
"I know. Malfoy, say hello to Kreacher your new house-elf."
Draco, to his credit, looked neither affronted nor alarmed, although Harry would have felt both on being confronted with the nauseating smile on Kreacher's face.
"You're serious," he said.
"As cancer," said Harry. "He was mine, now he's yours, you're not allowed to tell him to kill me, enjoy."
"House-elves are forbidden from doing mortal harm to humans," whispered Dumbledore.
"Excellent," purred Draco. He patted Kreacher's head and didn't even wince. "A dry Martini on the rocks, no twist, and keep them coming."
" and now they're living in the basement with Kreacher," finished Harry.
He was sitting in state at the head of the Weasley dining table. Hermione and Ron were clustered as his elbow, and Ginny listened in as she polished off the treacle tart.
"Phew." Ron gave vent to his feelings. "That's full-on, mate. What was Dumbledore thinking?"
"Or was he even thinking? I'm just not sure," said Harry.
"Well " Hermione looked thoughtful, chewing absently on her little fingernail "- perhaps it's his way of ensuring House solidarity."
"Yeah," said Harry. "Because everyone knows barely-concealed murderous urges are the way to go with that." He shivered. "Is it me, or is it freezing in here?"
Ron and Hermione exchanged looks. They were both bundled up in chunky sweaters and scarves.
"That might be because you're in shorts and sandals," said Ginny, her chin tucked into the collar of the lambswool dressing-gown she'd pulled on over her party frock. "Er not that it isn't a good look for you."
"They're flip-flops, actually." Harry wriggled his toes, which were turning blue.
"We did tell you about the mist," said Ron. He turned to Hermione for confirmation. "We did tell him about the mist?"
"It's the Dementors," she said. "Ever since the break-out from Azkaban, they've been multiplying like mad. This miasma is actually clouds of despair."
Harry was caught on 'multiplying.' "Dementors having sex?" He pushed away his dessert dish. "I've suddenly lost my appetite."
"It's probably more like binary fission." Hermione sounded disapproving.
Ginny hooked Harry's dish with her spoon. "No need to be coy. There's nothing more natural than the physical act of love."
"In this case, I'm all in favour of enforced sterilisation," said Hermione dryly. "Of course, the Ministry's trying to play everything down, not to mention that it fits right in with the weird weather everywhere else in England."
"I'm going to grab a jumper," said Harry. "You don't mind?"
"Of course not." Ron waved him away.
Harry expected to be swamped with longing when he entered Ron's familiar bedroom. He'd been forced to endure the Dursleys for two months, and Snape and Draco for a week that felt like two months; his desire to leave should have increased exponentially. And he no doubt that it had, except that he had no room at the minute to feel anything but the cold creeping into places it really shouldn't.
He hurriedly hauled on a ragged polo-neck and a Weasley jumper, teeth chattering. He was still looking for some jeans or tracksuit pants when Ginny knocked at the open door. Not waiting to be invited, she slipped inside. She was wearing high heels with gold straps that matched her dress. They made her the same height as Harry, who'd grown a few inches since May.
"Aren't you cold?" asked Harry, in reference to the fact that Ginny had forgotten her dressing-gown. Her dress was strapless, baring smooth freckled shoulders.
"Nah," said Ginny, who was briskly rubbing the circulation back into her arms.
"Really? I still am. And I can't find a pair of trousers anywhere."
Ginny stepped in behind him and threaded her arms around his waist. "Let me warm you up." Her voice was muffled against the prickly wool of Harry's jumper.
"That's okay," said Harry, "I'm fine, really " He yelped as cold lips met the back of his neck.
"Did I hurt you?" cried Ginny, as Harry stumbled over the desk chair. She put out two hands to steady him and Harry found himself staring straight down her cleavage.
"Um," he said, blushing furiously.
"Are you still cold?" whispered Ginny. "I'm feeling pretty ... hot."
"You are? Oh." Harry jumped when Ginny leaned down. "Aren't you Dean Thomas?"
"Well, yeah." Ginny shrugged. "Dean isn't here, though. Don't you want to kiss me?"
"No!" Ginny stepped back, looking hurt. "I mean, yes! Very much. I'd like to kiss you. But not when you're going out with my friend."
Ginny looked instantly more cheerful. "What if I broke up with Dean?" She brushed her fingers across Harry's lips, making him shiver: her hands were cold as ice.
"Then, after a certain mourning period, we could possibly do a lot of kissing," said Harry firmly. He felt a twinge of regret at passing on this fine opportunity; but on the other hand, the first time he kissed Ginny he'd quite like to be able to feel it.
Ginny heaved a great sigh. "It's your call." She sauntered to the door and struck a pose, hand on hip. Breathing suddenly became difficult as Harry realised just how gauzy the material of her dress was, and how little she seemed to be wearing under it. The cold had one or two advantages that he could now appreciate. "But you don't know what you're missing. I'm a great kisser." She blew him a kiss and wandered downstairs.
"Oh boy." Harry took a few deep breaths. He looked down. "Why can't we ever agree?" he demanded. "Now is not the time."
Then, because it was too cold to do otherwise, he wrapped himself in Ron's quilt and went back to the living room, where there was a fire.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch
"It's huge," said Draco, awestruck.
Dudley nodded his agreement. "I've never seen a bigger tub of ice-cream in my life. Not even in Tesco."
"Kreacher did well?" Kreacher clasped his hands, trying, and failing, to look winning.
Draco looked around Dudley's bedroom. At nine o'clock that morning, it had been a stuffy ruin, coated with dust and bird droppings. Dudley hadn't had reason to use it since the heatwave hit, sleeping, as he did, in the kitchen, with his Playstation hooked up to the living room television.
Now it was a veritable wonderland. By making full use of Kreacher's kleptomaniac tendencies, the two boys had assembled no less than three desk-fans, mounted in various corners of the room. The place was sparkling clean; all that was broken, fixed; and a mountain of goodies took pride of place next to the fish tank.
"I think it's safe to say you've pleased your master," said Draco. "Although, I'm still not entirely convinced about the goldfish."
"Kreacher likes a snack now and then, gracious sir."
"Now I'm convinced and nauseated," said Draco. "You may retire for the evening, Kreacher. Lee tells me there's a cupboard under the stairs you can sleep in."
"Beautiful, kind master," crooned Kreacher. "If sir needs anything else, sir only has to call Kreacher and he will come running!"
"Yes, you've made that abundantly clear," murmured Draco. With a crack, the elf disappeared.
"That's well cool," said Dudley. "Wish I had one."
"I wouldn't count on it," said Draco. "Muggles can't own slaves, remember?"
Dudley looked very much as if he would make an exception in this case. To distract him, Draco handed him a spoon.
"He even got the TV working!" said Dudley. "The man at Currys said it was beyond repair."
"What happened to the TV?"
"Oh, I put my foot through it when a show got cancelled," said Dudley. Draco looked at him in admiration. It was just what he'd have done.
"What do you want to watch?" asked Dudley. "I have all the Rambos, all the Bonds, and a lot of porn. And Seinfeld."
"I somehow doubt your porn would be to my tastes," said Draco. "What's this Seinfeld about, then?"
Some hours later, Draco had got over the first wonder of television. He'd stopped answering the onscreen actors as if they were talking to him, and eventually remembered to blink. Dudley was just as happy to eat the ice-cream without him.
"That," said Draco, slightly shaken, "was quite seriously impressive."
"Yes, it was." Dudley burped. He cast a regretful glance at his weight machine, but in spite of the three fans it was still too warm to attempt a work-out.
Draco leaned back against the bed and stretched out his long, still frightfully pale, legs in front of him. Malfoy Manor was very poorly situated in the middle of a dell, and caught no sunlight from any direction. He'd had every intention of doing some serious sunbathing that morning, but Dudley had chased him inside with dire imprecations on his dangerous plan.
"Why are you here?" asked Dudley.
"Because my mother had a duty to produce an heir for my father," said Draco promptly.
"No, I mean why are you here - here in this house? You aren't friends with Harry."
Draco shuddered. "Perish the thought."
"Do you really want to know? I'm not supposed to tell anyone."
"Then don't go into specifics," said Dudley. "That always got me out of trouble. Until I was expelled."
"I'm supposed to murder someone so my father won't be killed," said Draco in a great rush.
"Well." There was no sound for a time bar Dudley's heavy breathing. "That was actually pretty specific."
"No, specific would be the plans I came up with to carry out said murder, before circumstances intervened."
"The first thing I thought of was a cursed necklace," said Draco.
"Cursed?" Dudley looked blank.
"Ah, Muggle. I forgot." Draco struggled for a moment to translate. "It has spell on it you know what spells are, yes? that makes anyone who wears it die."
"Hmm." Dudley shifted around on the bed. It creaked under his bulk. "Can these spell things be traced? You know, like fingerprints?"
"I think it's possible to identify the magical signature, as long as the spell isn't too old," said Draco. "Why?"
"Because that makes it a stupid plan," said Dudley. Draco bristled. "If it were an invisible spell, okay, maybe. But someone puts on necklace and kicks the bucket straight off, people are gonna be suspicious. They're gonna ask, 'So who gave the stiff the necklace?'" Warming to his theme, Dudley sat up in bed. "Plus, if they can trace the magic back to you, they will. It's not like they're looking around for some killing object they don't know about, while the spell gets cold. They have it right there, fresh off the mark."
"Huh." Draco pulled his lip. "I never thought of that. Good thing I abandoned that idea anyway. I actually decided to poison them instead."
"Better," acknowledged Dudley. "But how were you going to do it?"
In a small voice, Draco ventured, "Poison some wine and give it to someone who'd pass it on to the person as a gift?"
"Covering your back: always a good move," said Dudley. "Unlikely anyone would be able to pin it on you this time. On the other hand, there's too many intervening variables. What if someone else drank the wine? Or the pigeon you gave it to didn't give it away like he was supposed to? Poisoning is something you have to do over a long time, sprinkling a bit in their food every day, so they look like they're getting sick naturally."
"I wouldn't have enough access to the person to do that," said Draco. "Hey, you're rather good at this."
"I watch a lot of cop shows." Still, Dudley couldn't help but preen.
"What would you do, in my position? Where you had to kill someone you didn't particularly like, but didn't hate either, to save your family?"
"That's easy," said Dudley. "I'd make us new identities and head to Brazil until the fuss died down."
Draco nodded. "That's pretty much what happened to me. My mother made Snape and I swear an Unbreakable Vow that neither of us would kill D the person I'm supposed to murder. The Dark the man in charge doesn't know it yet, but once he does, we're officially on the run."
"Or you could pretend," said Dudley, "that you're still on the mark's tail, I mean. You could act like that's why you moved here to stalk him better."
Draco was much struck. "That's not a bad idea at all," he said. "Lee, I'm very glad I met you."
"Likewise," said Dudley.
Harry hadn't imagined that he would have such good luck as to find a trundle wheel in Uncle Vernon's shed; but Uncle Vernon was the sort of man who paid other men to put up shelves for him, and consequently there was not even so much as a measuring tape on the property. Harry was forced to resort to rummaging in Dudley's second-hand junk for a ruler, which he was now using to measure the perimeter of the house.
Somewhere between the laundry window and the back door, Draco emerged from the house. He crept up on Harry as noiselessly as a cat and watched him work with an expression of deep amusement.
Harry was alerted to his presence only when he started to measure across Draco's feet. Draco obligingly fell back a pace or two and said, "I'd ask what you were doing, but then you might stop, and this is too entertaining to miss."
"What makes you think I'd answer you anyway?" growled Harry. He shuffled a few inches across on his knees, wishing there was some way to speed up what he was doing and save his dignity.
"Fair argument," said Draco. "Then again, you've always been dreadfully easy to provoke."
Harry sat back on his heels to dispute the point, only to realise he was proving it. With careless unconcern, Draco set about unfolding a deck chair in the scant shade of a dying sycamore.
"Where'd you get that?"
"It was in the basement," said Draco. "Lee said I could use it."
"Stop calling him that!"
"Why? He doesn't mind." Draco brushed off the worst of the dust from the chair. "There. Not bad for Muggle workmanship. Now all that stands between me and perfection is Kreacher!"
Kreacher materialised, breathless. "How may I serve the exquisite master today?"
"Make me some lemonade," said Draco. Harry couldn't suppress a derisive snort. "Oh, and whatever he's having, I suppose."
"What do you want, stain on the honour of my House?" Kreacher asked Harry's feet.
"I'm good," said Harry, and added belatedly, "Thanks?"
Kreacher sniffed and disappeared. Draco twitched the chair into a better alignment, then went to work on the lacings of his shirt. Harry didn't think it was the same shirt Draco had worn on the first day for one thing, it was blue but it was of the same Regency style cut down to beach-bum casual.
It didn't dawn on Harry what Draco was doing until Draco pulled the shirt over his head. "Hey, what!" Harry protested. "You can't do that!"
"Do what?" Draco sounded genuinely puzzled as he wadded up his shirt into a pillow. He stretched out on the deck chair and tucked his arms behind his head. Harry was horror-struck, unable to tear his eyes away from the smooth shift of muscles beneath marble-white skin.
"Be naked like that," spluttered Harry. "Not around me."
"Jealous, are you?" Draco smirked and ran a hand down his pecs.
"Hardly." Harry snorted again and decided to refrain from doing so in future; it stung his throat.
"Then what's the problem?"
"It's ... indecent." Aware of the lameness of his complaint, Harry huffed a sigh and returned to what he'd been doing. Unfortunately, Draco had made him lose count, and he hadn't thought to make a note of the measurements he'd already done.
"No, seriously, I can't contain myself any longer. Just what are you doing?"
"Measuring the size of the house, all right?" grunted Harry.
"Surely there are easier ways to do it than that," said Draco. "Snape. Kreacher. A measuring tape."
"No measuring tapes," said Harry. "And no way am I asking those two for anything."
"Why do you hate Snape so much?" asked Draco. "I know we have a long-standing history and you're a total prat, which makes my disparagement of you and everything about you easy to understand, but Snape?"
"He started it," said Harry. "First day of school, I don't know him from Adam, and he starts ragging on me like I'd killed his pet toad. Turns out my dad bullied him in school and somehow that's my fault."
"You could try being the bigger man," said Draco. "Live and let live, let bygones be bygones and all that."
"A philosophy to live by," agreed Harry. "Except not for you, of course."
Draco shrugged. "What can I say? You'll be a prat until the end of time, and short of Obliviating me I'll never forget it."
"There's that winning charm again." Harry shut his eyes and counted to ten. Then twenty. He had stuff to do, most of which included avoiding everyone else in the house. He needed to stop Draco getting to him. That's what Hermione had said, but unfortunately she had no firmer advice than that; Draco still got to her, after all.
"Ah, here's Kreacher with the lemonade." This was said in tones of heartfelt satisfaction. Harry didn't turn around, merely listened to the chink and tinkle of refreshments being served as he slowly added twenty centimetres to twenty centimetres. "Sure you don't want some?"
"No thanks," said Harry. "Kreacher'd probably spit in it."
"Your loss," said Draco.
For the next five minutes all Harry could hear was Draco slurping at his drink, loudly and undoubtedly by design. Harry'd nearly got to the edge of the house when Draco spoke again.
"Indulge me: what is the purpose of you scrabbling around in the dirt like a dog? Not that I don't think it's a very fitting place for you."
"You know what? Shut up!" Harry shouted. "As a matter of fact, I was measuring the house to figure out where to create nodes for the spell I asked Hermione to design. If Snape casts it, it'll put a matrix bubble of Cooling Charms over the house. It would mean Snape wouldn't have to keep casting charms to keep the two of you from dying of heatstroke. But I don't think I'll be bothered now!"
He stared at Draco, who for a full second looked something like discomposed. Then his customary expression shuttered his features once more.
"Temper, temper," he said. "We don't need that anyway. Kreacher will steal us some more fans, won't you, Kreacher?"
"Kreacher would be glad to be of service to the delightful master!"
"There, see?" Draco smirked at Harry and took a long sip of his lemonade. There was a lemon slice and an umbrella in it.
Harry felt rage curdle his blood. In a few short strides he'd crossed the parched lawn and grabbed up the lemonade pitcher, which he dumped over Draco's head before Draco or, more to the point, Kreacher could do a thing about it.
Draco spluttered and wiped his stringy hair out of his eyes. He looked like a drowned kitten, with his sopping locks and lemonade dribbling down his pale chest. Harry felt a vicious satisfaction.
"I hope you fry to a crisp, you inbred loser," he said.
"I have sunscreen, you know!" Draco shrieked after him. Harry closed his ears. He passed the kitchen table, where Hermione's carefully drawn plans were spread across several dozen sheaves of parchment. In an angry gesture, Harry crumpled them up and threw them at the bin with unwarranted force.
He felt all the impotence of being sixteen and unable to legally drive or use magic. The heat stopped him from walking far in any direction. There was nowhere for him to go except...
Harry smiled though it was difficult when his face was cast so heavily into a frown and headed for the basement.
Harry passed a contented few hours in Hogwarts' library. The portal was simplicity itself to open: all Harry needed to do was to touch the handle and the concrete blocks were replaced by an ornate oak door, which obligingly swung open to let him pass.
Never had Harry taken a stroll around the library with more pleasure. In the past it had been the scene of frantic research or frantic swotting. He'd never before noticed the many squashy armchairs that were dotted around the stacks.
He had planned to be happy in reading over one of his textbooks, but a quick survey revealed that there was no need. He found shelves full of remarkable books of the sort that often caught his eye in Flourish and Blotts. He chose one entitled 'From Bedknobs to Broomsticks: A Short History of Magical Flight' and settled in for the afternoon.
He emerged, blinking, six hours later. The library was dim and enchantingly cool, and the changeover was strong enough for Harry to feel like an animal coming out of hibernation. He could hear voices from outside. They didn't sound agitated, but Harry decided to investigate anyway.
The other inhabitants of the house, minus Kreacher, were arrayed in the back yard in what looked like battle formation. Each of the Dursleys stooped over a small object, while Snape was firing incantations at a football boot and Draco was tensed as if for flight.
"Look who decided to join us," crowed Draco, glancing up as Harry tripped over the stoop.
Snape looked up also, but without halting his spell-casting. He jerked his head in the direction of a kettle on the ground beside Dudley. Taking the hint, Harry crouched down beside it.
He looked down the row and saw Dudley holding a dustpan for dear life; Aunt Petunia with her hands around a toasted sandwich maker; and Uncle Vernon wheezing over a Folio collection of Shakespeare that, to the best of Harry's knowledge, had never before been touched.
"What are you doing?" asked Harry, just as Snape finished his incantation with a flourish.
A ribbon of light exploded from the football boot at his feet, arrowing up into the air. Draco raced around to the front of the house as the ribbon floated down and across the roof, where it lay winking in the sunlight. Harry grabbed the kettle as it began to dance in place, fighting the vibrations that clattered his teeth in his skull. Beside him, Dudley threw himself bodily on the dustpan to hold it still.
"Got it!" Draco's voice echoed. At once, Harry's kettle stopped shaking. Snape picked up the boot and disappeared around the front of the house. Harry jumped up to follow.
By the time he reached the front lawn, Snape was kneeling with the boot while Draco cupped the end of the ribbon of light in both hands. He seemed to be trying to tug it down to the ground. Meanwhile, Mr and Mrs Irving from Number Eight, out for a walk with their five corgis, watched with unqualified amazement.
"Hi," called Harry. "We're having some problems with the, um, electricity. Got some men in to help with the wiring."
Mr Irving nodded slightly. Mrs Irving gathered up the dog leads and hustled him away, muttering something very audible about 'there goes the neighbourhood'.
Snape finally managed to attach the ribbon to the boot, at which point it ballooned out in a blaze of light, then faded to nothing.
"One down, four to go," said Draco. Snape merely grunted.
"Are you " Harry looked at the football boot suspiciously. Hermione had suggested using objects that usually stayed inside the house as keystones for the nodes. "This is the spell I was trying to set up earlier!"
"No," said Snape, "it's the plan you tried to throw in the bin. Very gracious of you, I must say, trying to deprive everyone else of it like that."
"But I didn't!" exclaimed Harry. "He " Harry gesticulated impotently at Draco, who smirked.
"I, for one, cannot wait to live in a proper, magically-cooled house," he said. "Those pitiful fan things just don't cut it."
"And I'm very grateful to you for bringing it to my attention," said Snape. "Now can we get on?"
"Certainly, Professor." Still smirking, Draco brushed past Harry on his way to the back yard.
Harry had time to appreciate the fact that, added to his other crimes, Draco was now sporting the beginnings of a fine, even, honey-coloured tan. Not even the tip of his nose was remotely pink. Harry's hand went unconsciously to his own nose. In the first week of summer Harry, in his innocence, had taken off his shirt when sweat dyed it from grey to black. He'd been in agony for days afterwards. Even now, his nose was still peeling a little. The skin there was far darker than everywhere else, with a dozen blotchy freckles.
"Try lemon juice," advised Snape.
"What?" Harry snatched his hand away.
"For those unslightly blemishes," said Snape.
Harry scowled. "What would you have done if I wasn't there to stabilise the last keystone?"
"We would have managed," said Snape airily. "If you want to go and lose yourself again I'm sure I won't object."
"I wouldn't give you the satisfaction," snarled Harry, leaning in. He realised he was now as tall as Snape, who had to lean back instead of looming over him.
"How very like your dear father you are," said Snape. "He, too, could only grant a favour grudgingly, and only if he thought it wasn't really wanted."
"Maybe if you were more like my dad," said Harry, struck with sudden inspiration, "my mum would have taken more notice of you."
Snape's eyes narrowed, but not before Harry saw a flash of fear in them. "Your mind wanders alarmingly, boy. Perhaps you need a cooling compress."
"Whatever," said Harry. He felt a rare sense of satisfaction: something told him he'd won that round.
It took them the better part of the evening to complete the spell. The few Muggles abroad in the swelter of sunset seemed to buy Harry's explanations, but he was still worried. On the other hand, if the Ministry was going to berate anyone for performing magic in front of Muggles it would be Snape, not him.
Sweat was running in rivulets down Snape's face by the end. He'd even gone so far as to take off his outer robe, revealing a loose black shirt and breeches much like Draco's. Harry wondered if they were a half-way house to underwear. Certainly the Weasleys had never worn anything like them that Harry knew of but then again, the Weasleys might not have afforded such fripperies.
"I think the spell will hold," panted Snape. "Quick, take the keystones back inside."
The Dursleys scurried to do his bidding. There came a concerted 'ah-h' sound as they entered the house. Dudley poked his head out the front door. "It's like Antarctica in here," he said gleefully.
"That ... was difficult." Snape took a few deep breaths. "I can feel a force fighting it. This is no ... natural weather."
"It's not," said Harry. Draco and Snape turned to face him. "At least, I don't think so, and neither does Hermione. We reckon Voldemort's behind it." He noted the twin flinches at the mention of the name.
"The ... Dark Lord," said Snape, carefully, "is no lover of hot weather."
"That wouldn't be a problem unless he was in Surrey," said Harry. "Scrimgeour's not denying that Voldemort's back, but he's got enough on his plate, I reckon, without acknowledging that Voldemort's wreaking havoc all over the Muggle world too."
"The wizards would surely have noticed " objected Draco. Harry shook his head.
"Hermione's looked into that," he said, "of course. The wizarding villages, Diagon Alley, Hogwarts, most individual wizards' houses they all have enchantments and protective spells built into their walls. Given that we can move around without actually going outside at all, I think it's safe to say few, if any, wizards have noticed the changes. And how many wizards read Muggle newspapers?"
"My father always used to say they'd rot my brain," said Draco.
"Little did he know it was already too late." Harry rolled his eyes and turned slightly away from Draco. Snape was a spiteful individual and there was no love lost between them, but at least he was an adult. "I think it's part of Voldemort's plan to take over England get rid of as many Muggles as he can, first. Is it?"
"The Dark Lord has many plans," said Snape in lofty tones. "I am not privy to all of them."
"You don't know, in other words," said Harry. "Or he didn't trust you enough to tell you, which makes a lot of sense."
"Watch your tongue," said Snape.
"What, are you insulted by the idea that someone might not trust a double-dealer?" taunted Harry. "Or are you still trying to buy your way back in?" He thrust his fist in Snape's face. "I'm here, defenceless, unarmed. Take me to your master. Win back his loyalty. No one will stop you."
"That's where you're wrong," said Draco. Snape and Harry whirled around. Draco's face looked like he'd both smelled and eaten something impossibly sour. His hands were balled into his pockets like a naughty child. "Uh, Professor Snape, if you're in any way tempted by Potter's offer, it's my duty to inform you, uh, that I'd have to stop you "
"Be silent, both of you!" thundered Snape. He massaged his temples. "Thank god I never had children."
Harry bit back a grin and accidentally caught Draco ducking his head to hide a smile. He was shocked by the notion that they both might have been thinking the exact same thing.
After a minute, Snape's hands slackened. "If your ... notions are correct," he said stiffly, "why haven't you informed the Ministry? Someone has to be casting these spells, someone they could arrest."
"Of course! Great idea. Because the Ministry's always been such a fan of mine, and never tried to have me committed for insanity or anything."
"Ah yes." Snape's fingers ground into his head once more. "And the Muggles themselves? What do they have to say about this? It's been a long time since I had reason to keep up with their current affairs. Is Fidel Castro still in power?"
"Yeah, I think so," said Harry. "But even in his hey-day I don't think he had control of the weather. You must be thinking of the X-Men."
"Then how are they explaining this excessive heat?"
"And earthquakes, freezing mist, floods and tornadoes?" Harry shrugged. "Global warming."
He was met with two blank expressions. His heart sank at the thought of explaining the greenhouse effect and hydroflurocarbons topics he barely understood himself to people who'd never used either aerosols or carbon-based fuels.
"I think I'll have to pass you on to Dudley, for that one," he said weakly.
Snape was still deep in conversation with Dudley long after Draco had given it up, satisfied to learn that Muggles had put a hole in the sky, and not much beyond the fact. It was, after all, of a piece with everything he'd been brought up to believe about Muggles.
His skin was beginning to tingle, so he sent Kreacher off to procure some after-sun lotion for him. It was probably the last few hours setting up the spell that had done the mischief, when he'd been too busy to remember to top up his sunscreen. Otherwise, he felt complacent about the outcome of his day's sunbathing. It would have taken a full month to get such sun exposure in Malfoy Manor, not to mention that his father would be forever calling him away from the patio to discuss his grades or his duties as a Malfoy or, latterly, his devotion to the Dark Lord.
Draco felt a little guilty about enjoying himself in this misbegotten hellhole. He was with Muggles and Potter - theoretically, he hardly knew which was worse.
In practice, the Dursleys were tolerable enough. The uncle was at work all day, the aunt sequestered in the living room, and Lee was certainly an acceptable companion. He had more wit than Goyle and Crabbe put together, which made sense, because he probably weighed the same as the two of them. Television was an unlooked-for boon. Snape was usually off on errands through the L-space portal, and as for Potter...
Draco thought about Harry as he sat in the now habitable parlour and smoothed lotion into his stinging legs.
Harry was quieter than Draco remembered, if still as liable to go off at odd moments. During the grey hours of that July morning, when Draco had awoken to the shock of his mother packing his trunk by herself, he'd picked up something of the history of the underground group with which he was now, apparently, affiliated. Draco had much rather simply skip town for a few years and not be affiliated with anybody, but as yet the Order of the Phoenix hadn't asked him to kill someone, and that was a definite plus in their favour.
In between Draco's swearing of vows and checking that he'd brought his favourite pair of socks, Snape mentioned something about Sirius Black's death. Draco learned enough concerning Black to realise he was a sort of criminal and also related to Harry Potter, which was exceedingly apt.
Harry didn't seem the sort to throw himself on a long couch and weep over the death of a relative, even such a long-lost one as Black, despite it being really the only appropriate course of action. But if Draco had to put a name to Harry's behaviour of late taking into account his long silences, his more than usually gloomy expression, and the way his angry outbursts seemed to end on a half-sob he would have called it grief. Of a sort. Harry was evidently too manly and Gryffindorish to own up to his true feelings on the matter.
Draco wiggled his toes in his dusty flip-flops. The lotion was doing its job. He lay back on the stiff, brocaded sofa and wondered if one of the ugly cabinets held another TV.
What sounded like an elephant in labour reverberated through the hall. It could only be "Potter," groaned Draco. He'd wanted a moment's peace and quiet, so of course Harry had been divinely ordained to annoy him.
"Did somebody say my " Harry stopped in the doorway, mouth hanging open. It went well with his general appearance: that of a village idiot. "What are you doing here? In Aunt Petunia's good room?"
"I could ask you the same question." Draco smirked. He knew he had a tendency to smirk and talk too much when he was nervous or troubled, and he also knew he didn't have a Crabbe or a Goyle to back him up here. Still, Harry invited the mocking. Draco's fingers itched to pick up one of the almost spherical cushions and lob it at Harry's head.
Harry bit his lips as if chewing down a retort. He'd clearly been doing that a lot of late: his mouth was red and chapped. "What did you mean by what you said before?"
Aware of how it would annoy Harry, Draco squished himself down into the sofa before replying. "You're going to have to narrow that down a bit. I say a lot of things."
"I'd noticed." Harry toed off his flip-flops and walked into the room barefoot. Given how little difference in cleanliness there was between feet and shoes in this heat, Draco took the act for merely symbolic. In keeping with pointed gestures, he propped both his feet up on the fussy coffee table. Harry frowned, but went on, "About having to stop Snape, if he tried to hand me over to Voldemort."
Draco shivered reflexively at the name. He'd accuse Harry of bravado if he hadn't known Harry had seen the man in the flesh, many times more than Draco had. "Don't worry about it," he said. "It's just a little promise I made to my mother nothing that concerns you."
"It does concern me," persisted Harry, "if you're making promises about my safety."
"It wasn't about your safety, it was about mine," snapped Draco. "It had everything to do with family loyalty something you'll never understand."
Draco knew his slings and spurs nettled Harry, offended his pride and dignity, but never before had he felt that he'd actually wounded Harry by anything he said. The feeling was not as pleasant as he'd imagined.
"Right, well." Harry seemed at a loss. "Dinner in five minutes."
"Have Snape and Lee concluded their discussion?" Draco made a derisive noise. "Holes in the sky! Honestly, Muggles will bend over backwards to be stupider than they are to begin with."
"Did you ever stop to think that they have to try and explain something they're not allowed to understand?" spat Harry. "They don't know magic exists outside of films and fairy-tales. It's logical enough that changes in gas and atmospheres and things would cause funny weather, especially when you don't have any other reasons!"
"So cry me a river." Draco picked up a hideous crystal ornament and used it to scratch his leg.
"You're insufferable, you know that?"
"I can but try." Draco slit his eyes and smiled lazily at his foe. Harry looked ready to beat him into a pulp. "I haven't got all day. Either hit me or make some noble speech about how I'm not worth it."
"You're not," said Harry tightly. "You're not worth a damn thing."
He turned on his heel and slammed out of the room. Draco shrugged and lounged back.
For some reason, that had stung just a bit more than it should. It was probably the sunburn.
The following week brought both some relief from the awful weather and the open day at Stonewall Comprehensive. Snape, his duty done by filling in the application forms with some judicious lies and informing Draco of the date of the open day, would have nothing more to do with it. He unbent only enough to put a Cooling Charm on Uncle Vernon's car, so that they could drive to the school in relative comfort.
Relative being the operative word, thought Harry. Aunt Petunia, naturally, rode shotgun. Harry, by dint of being skinnier than Dudley and less capricious than Draco, was squashed between the two on the hump.
Draco found much to marvel at in such an inconvenient, uncomfortable and protracted method of travelling.
"Your knee bumped mine," he remarked to Harry as Uncle Vernon took a corner. "I shall get a bruise."
"If you don't stop complaining," said Harry through gritted teeth, "you can get out and walk."
"I wasn't complaining," said Draco. "I was just stating a fact. Ow, there you go again."
Harry crossed his arms, determined to remain silent. Both Draco and Dudley then accused him of jabbing them with his elbows.
Knots of sunburnt people decorated the carpark into which Uncle Vernon drove. Either the place had been ramshackle to begin with thin gravel, an abundance of weeds, and no lots painted or the sun had done its worst. The three boys oozed out, Harry and Draco both picking at their sunburn. Dudley disdained to go outside at all, so he was white as a lily. He'd refused to say that Draco's tan was nicer than Harry's 'I think tans are awfully common, actually' and consequently Draco was in a sulk with him.
Uncle Vernon lead the way to a tired-looking banner saying 'Welcome,' Aunt Petunia on his arm. Harry followed at a distance, trying to pretend he wasn't associated with any of the other four, while Draco and Dudley did the same.
"There are tours every hour, arrows on the walls if you want to explore, which you are encouraged to do," a gum-chewing girl was droning to a nervous family party. "The teachers are on hand to answer any questions you might have." She caught sight of Draco and suddenly looked significantly less bored.
"She mustn't think tans are common," whispered Draco triumphantly, to Harry, who jerked away from him.
"Did you have to spit in my ear like that?" he growled.
The girl was definitely checking out Draco as she repeated her spiel to the Dursleys. Harry glared at Draco, wondering what it was she saw in him. His tan was the colour of light toffee and very even, because of his propensity to strip down no matter who was around to be bothered by it, and his hair sun-bleached to a sort of white-blonde. He was wearing a cream vest with the inevitable laces, shorts, flip-flops, and a leather necklace with a shark's tooth that he'd conned out of Dudley after becoming deeply enamoured of Home and Away.
Harry saw nothing there worthy of the half-smile on the girl's face, or her sultry glances. Of course, he wasn't supposed to, because Draco was a boy and Harry was a boy, but he wished Draco looked more like the git he actually was.
The girl wasn't that pretty anyway, Harry decided, as she gave him and Dudley a 'bitch, please' once-over.
"Piers!" cried Dudley once they were free of the reception booth. "Thought I recognised that rat-tail. How's things, dude?"
"Not bad, dude." The boy belonging to the nervous family high-fived Dudley. Harry had to stare hard at him to find any remnant of the boy who'd been the second-greatest bane of his childhood.
Piers was still short and with a tendency towards weediness, but he'd worked with nature instead of against it. His lank, ash-blonde hair was peeled back into a ponytail, and he was wearing a loud waistcoat over a white muscle t-shirt, white shorts and Birkenstocks. He looked like the star of a video warning kids about the dangers of drugs.
"Draco, this is my old friend Piers Polkiss," said Dudley. "And of course you know Harry."
"He's grown a bit," said Piers, looking up the ten inches that separated his eyeline from the rest of Harry. "Draco. That's an interesting name."
"So is Piers," said Draco flatly. Harry was a little astonished that Draco didn't have the same instant approbation for Piers as he'd had for Dudley. "Delighted to make your acquaintance. Potter, don't we have to go see the science labs?"
"Er," said Harry. He let Draco take his arm and drag him away, remembering too late to wrench it out of Draco's grasp. Draco's fingers were dry and warm, but his fingernails bit into Harry's flesh.
"What are science labs, anyway?" asked Draco. "Is that where Muggles make potions?"
"Yeah, if you like." Harry was aware of a few curious glances and herded Draco into the first room he saw. It was, indeed, a science lab, fitted up with long desks on which a number of experiments were quietly bubbling. Flasks were filled with chemicals of every available colour, Bunsen burners flared and the burettes sparkled in the sun streaming in through the slatted blinds. It looked, to Harry, like a torture chamber.
Little wonder, then, that Draco adored it. "This place is great!" he enthused. "What are these things?" He picked up a Bunsen burner.
"Something that is on fire." Harry snatched it away, the flame uncomfortably hot until he remembered how to turn it off. Draco had already turned to the next toy: a flask full of potassium permanganate.
"Are we allowed to use this stuff in school?" he asked, eyes shining. Harry shrugged. Science had never interested him one way or another; he'd mainly liked geography, as it seemed to be a way to plan escape routes.
"We should find the others," said Harry. The idea of being trapped in a small room with Draco and fire did not appeal. Draco idly twirled the flask of crystals, looking stubborn.
"Do you know that Piers person?" he asked.
"Yeah," said Harry. "He used to hold my head over the toilet bowl while Dudley flushed it. Why?"
"I don't he didn't seem very nice to me," muttered Draco. Harry was about to make a remark wondering how Draco could tell, when he realised a delightful fact.
"You're jealous!" he laughed.
"Am not!" Draco's head snapped up.
"Are too!" Harry felt full of glee. "You're jealous that Piers will steal away your precious Lee and you'll have no one left to play with except Kreacher."
"With enemies like you, who needs friends?" asked Draco, and threw the crystals in Harry's face. Harry, expecting something of the kind, was already ducking. The crystals rained down on a basin of water containing a number of flasks and glass tubing. The water immediately began to fizz alarmingly. Harry and Draco scrambled backwards, ending up crushed against the same desk.
"If we are blown up," gasped Harry, "I'm holding you fully responsible."
"Don't be ridiculous." Draco shielded his face with the empty flask. "You provoked me."
"You're dreadfully easy to provoke." Harry's face twisted up into an expression that was more malicious than a smile.
"Hey!" Draco took his hands down. "You stole my comeback!"
"Ha, ha," said Harry meanly, while also being aware that it was hardly a comeback worth stealing.
The door the lab opened. Draco shoved the flask into Harry's hands and stepped away, the picture of innocence. Harry looked from the door to the bubbling water and back, but it was too late.
A man in a shabby short-sleeved shirt, knife-pleated khaki shorts and socks with sandals shuffled into the room, holding a cup of ice water and an armful of folders.
"Oh, hello," he said, his eyes creasing up. "Here for the open day, are you? How do you like the experiments?"
"He did it!" said Draco, pointing at the bubbling and now bright purple water.
"Potassium permanganate? I do like to see the spirit of scientific endeavour." The man creased up his eyes at Harry. It seemed to be his way of smiling, for he didn't move his mouth. "Good for you."
"Actually, I did it." Draco slid smoothly between Harry and the man. Harry had to shake his head at Draco's blatant attention-seeking.
"Would you like to see some more experiments? I'm Mr Blake, by the way."
"Would I!" exclaimed Draco. "I'm Draco, this is ... well, never mind him."
"Harry," interposed Harry.
"Draco, the dragon." The eyes creased again. "Interesting. Harry short for Harold, slain by William the Conqueror? Or Henry after many of our great kings?"
"No, it's just Harry." Harry felt obscurely sorry that his name wasn't short for something.
"Hmm, well, come along, come along." Mr Blake ushered them to the top of the room. "Have you taken chemistry before?"
"Nope," said Draco and Harry together. Draco sent Harry a scathing look, as if he'd done it on purpose.
"Hmm," said Mr Blake. "You're in for a surprise."
Harry and Draco caught up with Dudley and Piers in the English Literature classroom. They had been corralled by a young woman in a shapeless, flowing garment the colour of fresh compost, with innumerable beads strung about her person. As he came closer, Harry discovered that she smelled about as good as she looked: fresh and old sweat intermingled with a scent of sour apples.
Her face couldn't be older than thirty, and she seemed to be in love with William Wordsworth.
"There is such a freshness, such a vivacity, to all his descriptions of nature frankly, boys, I'm quite overpowered. The Daffodils sends me into new raptures every time I read it. Oh! To 'wander lonely as a cloud' sounds like such a delicious fate, don't you think? And 'oft when in my pensive mood' I sometimes go to the threeway crossing outside my house, where there's a bit of dirt. In spring, I mean, when the daffs are out." She took a deep breath, her sack-dress quivering. Harry wondered just how recently she'd been standing in dirt: her toenails had a distinctly earthy look to them. "And his Lucy poems poor Lucy, so young, so lamented! He says she will be forgotten but of course we all remember her "
"Was Snape here?" Draco glanced back at the door. "Did she just get hit with a Confundus or what?"
"She's talking about poetry," said Harry. "I think."
Draco's eyes glittered. "You don't mean like ... 'his eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad'..."
"Shut it," hissed Harry. But Draco was not to be repressed.
He fell to his knees before Harry. Harry shoved at his head, but was left with a handful of fine gold threads as Draco didn't move an inch, simply clasped his hands and looked up at Harry with an expression distressingly akin to Kreacher's.
"I'm warning you "
"'His hair is as dark as a blackboard'!" roared Draco, attracting the attention of the teacher. Dudley and Piers had been staring at them for ages, hoping that they represented a way out. "'I wish he was mine, he's really divine "
"Oh my." The teacher fussed with her bracelets and came towards them, taking fluttery little steps as if she were dancing a miniature waltz. "Did you compose that, how shall I say, little ditty, yourself, young man?"
In lieu of answering, Draco whispered, "The hero who defeated the Dark Lord," a look of sinister aspect on his face. With a whimpery sigh he fell forward and wrapped his arms around Harry's legs.
"But, how charming!" said the teacher. "You, you have been the recipient of a love sonnet! Or, not exactly a sonnet I can't say it was in iambic pentameter but it is traditional to call such offerings sonnets. Indeed I do believe it could be called a sonnet, if we stretch the term far enough."
Harry could feel Draco shaking against his legs. It took him a minute to realise Draco was laughing. Harry stared at the woman with dumbfounded shock.
"How do you feel?" the teacher addressed herself eagerly to Harry. "Perhaps, do you think you could, address something to the young man in turn? I am sure it would be nice, it would be very nice. Even a negative answer, kindly and, of course, poetically expressed, would be welcome. I daresay it would be welcome, don't you think?"
"No," said Harry. He kicked Draco before he could mutter something about Harry never thinking. "Malfoy was only having a laugh."
The teacher's eyes widened. They were an indeterminate shade, somewhere between blue and grey, and gave her the appearance of a sombre rabbit. "I see, I do see! It was comic poetry, an attempt at comedy."
"That's it exactly." Draco hopped to his feet. "For no one could seriously write love poems for Potter." He stretched out his hand and, when she held out hers, he turned it and kissed it. "Draco Malfoy, at your service."
"Oh, my," said the teacher faintly. "That is, I think it is rather inappropriate. Mr Malfoy, it was inappropriate."
"But very dashing, don't you think?" Draco winked at Harry, very much as if to say 'look at the two birds I've bagged!'
Harry felt the strong urge to sit somewhere quiet and then, maybe, bang his head against a few walls.
Dudley and Piers tried to slip out while the teacher was explaining to Draco that her name was 'Helena Thompson, which is to say, Helena with an a, and Thompson with a h you cannot conceive how many people get that wrong' and that his behaviour 'might have been dashing, yes, I can agree that it was dashing, but it was still inappropriate.' Alas for them, Miss Thompson (with a h) spotted them.
"Oh, Piers, oh, Dudley," she cried, "we haven't yet finished our discussion. I'm sure we haven't finished our discussion, for we haven't spoken of Tintern Abbey at all. You must stay and tell me what you think of Tintern."
"That's a great idea, Miss Thompson," said Draco, exactly as he used to all those years ago with Snape. He didn't do it so much with Snape any longer, Harry had reason to recall. Probably Snape had seen through him. Harry hated to think well of Snape in any way, but he wasn't fooled by flattery, however he might turn it to his own ends.
Then he realised that Draco was saving him.
"- and I have an appointment with Mr Blake," Draco was saying. "I know he'd spare us if he could, but..." Draco turned his palms to heaven and put his head on one side. Despise the boy as he would, Harry couldn't help but think it a winning performance.
"Of course, Mr Blake has a higher demand on you," said Miss Thompson, "I understand it perfectly, Mr Malfoy. Only do come later and we can discuss love sonnets. You and I and your friend can discuss love sonnets."
Draco smiled a sort of genuine smile, Harry noticed, but he was still hung up on 'your friend'. As Draco hurried him out of the room, Harry said, "Did she ever get that wrong."
"Poor woman," sighed Draco, clearly on an entirely different train of thought. "She'll never catch a husband looking like that. If only Pansy were here I notice Mr Blake wasn't wearing a ring, and he's not very old "
And try as he might, Harry could not get Draco to notice Miss Thompson's appalling oversight.
It wasn't until much later that Harry realised it might not have been an oversight that Draco's rescuing of Harry as well as himself, might, in other lives and circumstances, earn him the right to be called a friend.
Harry lay on the floor of Dudley's bedroom, reading a motorcycle magazine that was four years out of date. From downstairs, the sounds of a dozen ladies lamenting the awful heat outside drifted upwards. Aunt Petunia, thanks to Snape's spell, was now the toast of the Little Whinging set. People came to visit her for the luxury of air-conditioning that actually lowered the temperature, and stayed for the novelty of eating hot food.
Harry had been outside for most of the day. The troops of admirers weren't the sort of people he liked to share breathing space with, and he was bound to run into either them, Draco, Snape, Kreacher or one of Dudley's gang if he limited his movements too much. That he was now in Dudley's bedroom, where Dudley and Piers were sprawled on the bed and Draco had commandeered the easy chair, was a hypocrisy on which Harry chose not to dwell. There had been offers of ice-cream and an alleviation of his dreadful boredom: nations had fallen for less.
Draco was sitting backwards in the chair, which, because it was a bespoke item designed to accommodate Dudley's unique load, left his feet dangling several inches from the floor. "I've signed up for Chemistry, English Literature, Art and History," he announced, for the topic of discussion was Stonewall Comprehensive.
Tomorrow was the first day of term for Dudley, Piers, their friend Cherub and, of course, Harry and Draco. The only person who felt an abiding interest in the fact was Draco, but Piers and Dudley seemed happy enough to oblige him in it. Harry was tuning them all out by carefully inspecting every page of his magazine, hoping to find a machine that resembled Sirius'.
"I'm taking the same subjects as I did at Smeltings," said Piers. "Hopefully they sent over our files I was getting straight As before we were expelled."
"They probably burnt them," snorted Dudley. "Besides, this is a progressive school, remember? They don't believe in grades."
"In which case, poor marks like yours won't matter," said Draco. Harry, try as he might to ignore the conversation, had to snicker at this. "What's your problem?"
"A is the highest grade you can get in M in Piers' school," said Harry.
"Like an O, you mean?" Draco smiled lazily. "I got five Os in my OWLs."
"Not to worry," said Piers, probably feeling the same level of academic sympathy for Draco as Draco did for him. "This school is meant to be a clean slate for all of us."
"All of us?" echoed Draco.
"Yeah," said Piers. "Me and Lee " Piers had quickly picked up the new nickname, which smoothed his rocky path to becoming friends with Draco " and Cherub were expelled from Smeltings, Harry was expelled from St Brutus' "
"Wait, what?" Draco sat up straight. "St Brutus'? What's that?"
"St Brutus' School for Criminally Insane Boys," said Harry, before Piers had a chance to gloat. When he'd first discovered Aunt Petunia's cover-story for his prolonged habituation of her house, he'd been doubly annoyed: not only that everyone thought him criminally insane, but that he was supposedly too criminally insane for even a hard-line detention centre to handle.
"O-oh," sighed Draco, a long and heartfelt sound. He twirled his chair around, making his hair fly out in a buttery halo. "That is so completely the most beautiful thing I've ever heard, I don't even know what to say."
"And you're here under Witness Protection," continued Piers. "With your dad."
"My dad?" Draco stopped spinning abruptly, a look of abject disgust pulling at his mouth. "You don't mean - Snape? Oh, now you've made me think of Snape reproducing Snape having sex "
"Don't!" Harry kicked Draco's chair, but not before some very unholy images started appearing in his brain.
"He's not your dad, then?" Piers frowned. "But you look so alike."
Harry held his stomach and laughed and laughed at the look on Draco's face.
"If you're quite finished," said Draco, "I was going to ask "
Harry thought about Draco having the same nose as Snape and wheezed a bit more.
"- what you're all wearing tomorrow. I don't quite understand this 'no uniform' rule."
"It's not a rule," said Dudley. "Making us wear uniforms is a rule. Stonewall is pretty much against rules in general."
"That's no fun," complained Draco. "How do you know when you're breaking them in that case?"
"Why do you care?" asked Harry. "You always preferred dobbing in other people to breaking the rules yourself."
"Shows how much you know," sniffed Draco, "in other words, nothing."
"Oh, so when Ron and I got detention for getting Norbert off the Astronomy Tower, that was someone else's fault? And don't even get me started on the Inquisitorial Squad "
"Think of it as payback for all the times you single-handedly stole the House Cup from the Slytherins "
"Don't even try to make this about the bloody House Cup. You're not that stupid, you had to know what Umbridge was!"
"Yeah she actually punished you for a change, so she was fair!"
"She made me cut myself for telling the truth. How is that fair?"
"What are you blathering on about?"
"Here." Harry struck his hand in Draco's face. The livid lines had faded, but it was still possible to read the words formed from the pale scars.
Draco shook himself. "I mean fair in a general sense, not in a ... specific sense," he said. He didn't sound quite so confident now.
"Why am I not surprised? You'd go around chopping off people's hands for stealing, I bet."
"Like you're any different," sneered Draco. "You'd cut me to ribbons if you had the chance, just because I'm not very nice to you."
"Sure, I'd beat you up in a fair fight any day," said Harry. "I wouldn't attack you from behind. That's what being a Gryffindor means."
"Utter stupidity is what being a Gryffindor means," retorted Draco. "I mean, honestly, what else do you call trying to offload a dragon in the middle of the..."
"Maybe talking about magic in front of Muggles?" Harry whispered furiously. Dudley looked intrigued, and Piers was leaning forward, hands on knees.
"Hang on," he said, "do you two know each other? Like, from before?"
"We go to school I mean no, of course not," said Draco.
"You seem pretty angry for people who don't know each other," Piers pointed out.
"What can I say?" said Harry. "Malfoy just inspires that sort of blind hatred in people."
"Malfoy? Who's Malfoy?"
"He's Malfoy." Harry jerked a thumb in Draco's direction.
"No, he's Draco," said Piers.
"Yeah. Draco Malfoy." Harry was tired of this conversation.
"Anyway," said Draco, sending Harry a fiery glare, "I was thinking of wearing a blue t-shirt and these shorts. I had Kreacher I mean, I washed them yesterday, so they should be okay, right?"
Piers didn't seem to have caught Draco's sentence about the dragon, or else he thought it was obscure slang. Harry breathed easier and returned to his magazine, until Draco's drawl ripped his concentration away from it yet again.
"Please don't tell me you're wearing those to school tomorrow," he said. He waved his fingers at Harry's over-sized grey t-shirt, baggy black shorts and serviceable flip-flops.
"Okay, fine," said Harry. "I won't tell you."
"You have to own something more respectable than that."
Harry flipped a page over. "Ask Dudley."
"For the love of pete," said Draco. "You wear his hand-me-downs? You're as rich as Croesus. You could now here's a startling thought buy your own clothes."
"I'd have to change the money," said Harry, making it sound like a huge effort. "Besides, at school I wore r my uniform, and who's here to see me now?"
"I suppose we don't count."
"How do I put this? No."
"What about you, Lee?" Draco turned his back on Harry. "You've invested at least a little thought into this, I hope. First impressions are vitally important."
Harry thought of his own first impression of Draco that he was incredibly similar to Dudley. The impression hadn't been wrong, but Harry hadn't foreseen how saving Dudley from Dementors would soften his attitude towards Harry. Not that Harry cared, one way or another, what any of the Dursleys thought about him but it had certainly made for a less unpleasant summer than the last.
"Cherub brought me back a wicked Guns 'n' Roses t-shirt from America," said Dudley. "Think I'll wear that."
Piers looked up from rifling though Dudley's porn collection. "You've heard from Cherub?" he said, all eagerness. "How is he?"
"I dunno." Dudley shrugged. "I only saw him for five minutes. His dad was waiting in the car while he dropped it off. He doesn't look so much like a skeleton, so that's good. I guess."
"It is," said Piers fervently.
"I'm surprised he didn't stay to meet your house-guests." Draco fluffed his hair. He'd taken to doing that since it changed colour, with the end result that it stood out in all directions like a dandelion clock.
"Cherub had a rough time last year," said Dudley, after exchanging a significant glance with Piers.
"Sounds intriguing," said Draco. "Tell on."
"I don't know if we should " said Dudley. Piers protested.
"Don't be silly. Draco's our friend. We can trust him."
"I'll leave the room if you want," said Harry dryly.
"Harry has to be trustworthy, it says so in his user manual," said Draco. "Besides, if he tattles, I'll have him lynched." Harry rolled his eyes.
"Cherub is ... kind of the reason we got expelled," said Dudley.
"A troublemaker, eh?" Draco had swung back around in his chair, enough that his toe could easily nudge Harry in the elbow. Harry twitched away.
"No. Well, yes, sort of. He loved playing pranks on people, but he never took them that far," said Dudley.
"That was our job," explained Piers.
"Smeltings is ... okay, they give you sticks to hit each other with," said Dudley. "That should have been the first clue."
"So far, so Hogwarts," breathed Draco.
"The school is this huge old mansion house with no central heating. There were cold showers and five mile runs every morning "
"Which you managed to get out of." Piers sounded like he was airing an old grievance. "Bloody notes from home."
"My mother's a caring woman," said Dudley. "The windows were always open, even when it snowed. The older years beat up the younger years every day. If you didn't get a beating at least once a week you were doing something wrong. Also, the sixth form got to use first formers as their personal servants. I got off pretty lightly. I just had to make toast and warm toilet seats."
"They used to make me scribble over their homework and blame me for it in class," said Piers. "Clean a hundred pairs of football boots right before matches, which was the essence of futility. And as for Cherub..."
"Cherub got the worst of it," said Dudley.
"But " Harry tossed aside his magazine "- I remember your report cards accused you of bullying loads of times."
"That's what happened if you complained," said Dudley. "I pushed around a few people all right, but it was mainly in self-defence. Squash or get squashed, eat or get eaten. But if you told the teachers what they did to you like we did with Cherub you got a black mark on your report, and an extra beating or ten."
"But that was just the game we played," said Piers. "We knew if we survived we'd get to lord it over the littlies in our turn. Plus, Smeltings is practically an open door to Oxbridge."
"What they did to Cherub, though," said Dudley, a hard look settling around his eyes, "that was wrong."
"But what did they do to Cherub?" Draco burst out.
"They raped him," said Dudley. "First it was just one of the older boys, because he was little and delicate and basically looked like a girl. That wasn't so bad, I think. Cherub didn't really want to, he didn't like it who could blame him? But Joe was on the rugby team and popular and I suppose he just thought ... anyway. Then it was Mr Fleming."
"Cherub ain't his real name," said Piers. "It's Charles or something. But he had these " He twirled his hand around his head "- big girly curls. He looked like one of the angel statues in chapel. The name just stuck, even after he shaved his head."
"Which didn't work," said Dudley. "He wasn't half so pretty with the bald head. But then Mr Fleming got the Vice-Principal's job and took over the swim-team. And, I dunno, I guess Cherub was maybe ashamed. When we found out "
"We knew no one'd believe us," said Piers. "None of the parentals did neither no adult'll believe anything bad about a teacher in a posh school like Smeltings. So we took matters into our own hands."
Piers and Dudley smiled at each other, a smile of fierce solidarity.
Harry felt like the bottom had dropped out of his world.
He knew bad things happened that had nothing to do with magic or evil wizards. Sirius had even told him that the world 'wasn't divided into good people and Death Eaters.' But he'd never truly understood what that meant until now.
Draco had gone very white. He didn't seem able to speak, but the two ex-Smeltings alumni didn't expect it.
"It's getting late," said Piers. "I'd better head off home. See you lot tomorrow."
"See ya," said Dudley, and Draco echoed, "Bye, Piers."
"Guess I'll head too," said Harry. He fumbled over the next words: "G'night, Dudley."
"Sleep well," said Dudley.
Harry made it as far as the corridor before Draco caught up with him. "Just where do you think you're going?" he asked, sounding subdued.
"To a wild shindig down at the Irving homestead," said Harry. "Where do you think?"
"You're going nowhere till we do something about your clothes," said Draco. "Kreacher!"
Harry opened his mouth to say something cutting and saw Draco's face, half-turned away in the dim light. It was broken open, all the superciliousness washed away to let the underlying dread show through.
"Fine," said Harry, letting himself be herded downstairs by Draco and Kreacher.
"I'm sorry, did you think that was a question?" called Draco.
Harry just smiled.
Harry hadn't paid any attention to the classes he'd signed up for, mainly because Snape had filled in the forms and Harry didn't want to incur his wrath by asking to see them or anything equally presumptuous. As it turned out, he needn't have worried, for the first thing that happened on entering the school was that they were all shepherded into a hall, handed a timetable, and asked to wait for the opening ceremony.
It sounded reassuringly like Hogwarts, although nothing about the appearance of the hall suggested Hogwartian grandeur. The paint was peeling; here and there pieces of old artwork swung by a wad of blu-tack; and the floor clearly hadn't seen the business end of a sweeping brush for some time. Harry had lived in a cupboard for eleven years; he was inured to squalor. Draco was having a harder time of it.
"See, see," he was whispering furiously, "this is why people are so against Muggles! Look at the state of this floor. Pigs would turn their noses up at it!"
"Their snouts, you mean," said Harry. "Besides, people aren't against Muggles, only pureblood crackpots like your dad."
"If he saw this place, he'd think he was entirely justified," sniffed Draco.
"Justified in what? Ethnic cleansing or realising that there's not much funding for crap schools like this one?"
"Look at you, being all sensible," said Draco, and walked off in disgust.
Harry peeled a strip of sunburn on his forearm and tried not to think about what a good time he should be having, in the Great Hall with Hermione and Ron and the table groaning with every good thing imaginable. His only consolation was that Hermione and Ron weren't having a much better time than he was: being home-schooled by Mrs Weasley was no barrel of laughs. Besides which, the Burrow had never been so full for so long, and nerves were starting to fray. Even at that, Harry wasn't much mollified: he'd prefer to think that someone was enjoying this penance.
Oddly enough, that person seemed to be Draco. On leaving Harry he'd immediately been accosted by the girl he'd enchanted on the opening day. Trust Draco to fall in with a bunch of girls in string tops and short skirts, thought Harry, unable to exactly pinpoint his annoyance. Yet again the girls all looked terribly approving of Draco, whose indigo vest made his skin glow. Irritably, Harry scratched at his sunburn and reflected that, tan or no tan, Draco was still pointy and unhandsome enough for Piers to compare him with Snape.
Piers and Dudley had been swallowed up into the crowd. Harry was loath to admit to feeling lonely, but he did wish there was someone here he knew, besides his cousin and his public enemy number three...
"That's Harry Potter," Draco was saying, loudly enough to be heard in three counties. Harry winced. "He's deaf, can't hear a word I'm saying, apparently."
"What are you on about now?" groaned Harry. A few steps took him over to Draco and his fanclub before he quite knew what he was doing.
"It speaks!" Draco clasped his hands to his chest and staggered about. The three girls tittered, at least one the speaker from the booth seeming genuinely amused. "Potter, this is Tilda, Karen and Lucy. Girls, meet the thing from the black lagoon."
"Lay off, Malfoy," said Harry. Before he had to beat Draco into silence, silence was called for. The teachers were assembled on a podium at the far end of the hall, and one of them was ineffectually tapping on a microphone.
"Later, boys," said the one Draco had identified as Tilda. She was taller than the other two and Draco and there was a brazenness to her manner that suggested she was the alpha female of the posse. Lucy and Karen twinkled their fingers. Draco bowed.
"They clearly liked me best," sighed Draco. "And who could blame them? Obviously creatures of refinement and taste "
"What, those tarts?" said Harry in astonishment.
Draco rounded on him. "Don't talk about girls that way, you ignorant buffoon. Or do you never want to have sex?"
"Shut up, it's starting."
The teacher who turned out to be the Headmistress, Terri Webber ('Call me Terri') had wrestled the microphone into submission. She began a long speech, which drifted in and out of great bursts of static. Harry caught something about 'solidarity' and 'community,' but was bored long before he could string any of it together in a way that made sense. After a while, he became aware that Draco was staring at him.
"What?" he snapped.
"Oh nothing." Draco looked a little pink. "Kreacher did a good job, that's all."
Harry stared at him. "Yeah? Well, anytime you want to take some lessons in needlework, I'm sure he'll be happy to oblige."
He shifted slightly so that Draco was out of his line of vision, but not before Draco had huffed out a not-so-inaudible rant on the ingratitude of certain people.
Kreacher had done a good job, complaining all the while. Harry was wearing a modified red tank-top made from his old t-shirt, and his black shorts now fit him properly. Most students were wearing flip-flops or sandals, with stuck-on jewels and flowers for the girls, so Harry fit in admirably.
Harry might have spent a good ten minutes admiring how the shirt set off the slight definition of musculature he'd gained from hauling the lawnmower around all summer, but he wouldn't have told Draco that for a million Galleons.
When the interminable speech came to an end, Harry pulled out his timetable and discovered that he was due in chemistry, same as Draco. He lingered behind, far enough so that he didn't have to walk near Draco, but close enough so that he could follow him to the appointed destination. Unlike Draco, Harry hadn't made an effort to learn the school's layout during the open day.
Draco had already taken a seat beside Tilda when Harry finally entered. The two of them were yabbering away like the oldest of friends. Harry frowned and swallowed against a sudden knot in his throat. He saw an open stool in front of the desk Dudley was sharing with Piers. There was another boy already sitting on the other side of the desk, but by now Harry didn't have a whole lot of options left.
"Hey," he said, awkwardly, "d'you mind if I sit here?"
His voice trailed off as the boy, who'd been sitting with his head on the desk, slowly straightened. In spite of the heat which was only slightly diffused by the uninsulated, thick concrete walls he was wearing a long-sleeved, baggy shirt, combat trousers and Doc Martens.
But it wasn't that so much as his face that brought Harry up short. The boy's stubbly head and rather prominent ears highlighted, rather than detracted from, a set of truly beautiful features.
And his expression Harry had seen twice before very briefly, before they died on the faces of Cedric Diggory and Sirius Black.
Harry couldn't ever remember being so tired after a day of school. From the first class (when Mr Blake asked what the students felt like doing today, and Draco said, "Blowing something up") to the last (where Draco had quickly imbibed the theory of performance art and decided throwing paint at Harry counted), Harry had been expected to participate to an extent he'd never thought possible, and which he could hardly believe to be durable. Draco was still buzzing, but Dudley looked fit for nothing but a long nap. It was perhaps fortunate that the progressive ethos of Stonewall eschewed homework, but Harry doubted the trade-off was as fair as it looked on paper.
Harry could hardly contain his dismay when Kreacher came to fetch him down to the basement. He found he was expected to do a second day's work before dinner, as Snape had set him and Draco a potion to brew. Snape himself was not in evidence, which was a small mercy, but he'd set up two separate work stations. His reasons for this were clear and outlined in a note that read: 'Potter, if you try to cheat from Draco, I will know.'
Harry crumpled up the note and flung it at the L-space portal, which helpfully sucked it in. Years of being friends with Hermione and the git still thought he'd cheat? It was beyond the pale. Harry was perfectly willing to hand up a sub-standard potion had done it, in fact, nine times out of ten, his whole Potions career.
Draco drooped over his cauldron, slowly crushing St Anne's lace in a pestle. Harry noted jealously that Kreacher was chopping a marrow at a great pace. Draco would be done a hundred times quicker with that sort of help which could be construed as cheating. If only Snape could see his pet pupil now!
Harry smoothed out the potion Snape had handwritten. His eyes widened as he noted the difference between it and the potions printed in his textbook/ Snape's writing was small and cramped, and he used half a dozen short-cuts and abbreviations that were gobbledegook to Harry. Harry made the noise of discontent that was usually only elicited by Snape's dungeons and resigned himself to handing up a cauldron full of muck.
Aside from a few undertoned commands to Kreacher, Draco was quiet. Harry found himself waiting for Draco to say something, and made irritable from the waiting. He diced his ingredients far too roughly, tossed them in the cauldron and put it atop the small fire Snape had prepared. A postscript to his note informed them that they could use magic in the basement from midnight on the first of September, so Harry reeled off the spell and stuck his wand back in his shorts, where it had been hidden all summer.
"You're finished?" said Draco, as Harry put a foot on the stairs. "This potion takes an hour to prepare properly "
"Well, it took me ten minutes to prepare badly," said Harry. "Great time saver, don't you think?"
Without waiting for an answer, he mounted the stairs, although not without seeing the confused, almost hurt? look on Draco's face.
His getaway would have been perfect if Dumbledore hadn't chosen that moment to Apparate into the basement, Snape in tow.
Harry sat sullenly mashing flies' wings as Draco, his preparations nearly complete, began sifting ingredients into his caldron. A sweet, pungent smell soon arose from Draco's potion, but Harry was in no mood to appreciate it.
Dumbledore and Snape were having a private conference on the other side of the basement. If they'd come only to talk in whispers, Harry thought, why couldn't they have done it elsewhere and saved Harry the trouble of starting his potion over?
"Here." Draco was standing over him, chopping board in hand. "I've got some marrow and fennel-root left over."
Harry barely spared a glance for the piles of fine powder Draco was offering. "Thanks, but no thanks," he said. "I wouldn't like anyone to think I was cheating, or getting extra help, or wait! They're the same thing."
"Suit yourself." Draco Vanished the ingredients with his wand and stalked back over to his own work station. Harry bent over his own preparations once more, bothered by a disagreeable tugging sensation in his belly. It was probably hunger.
"Well, boys, how do you get on?" asked Dumbledore. "Mr Malfoy, your potion smells promising."
"It's burning!" cried Draco. He started firing spells at the cauldron, but it was too late: even Harry could tell the potion was ruined. He wondered how Draco had been so careless as to let that happen.
"Good lord." Snape tilted the cauldron towards him with languid fingers. "I thought I clearly stated that this had to be watched like a hawk between five and seven minutes. You've let it boil fifteen seconds too long."
"I know." Draco sounded distressed.
"You'll have to start over as well." Snape let the cauldron fall back with a clang. "Two disappointments in one evening. Potter's imbecility must be catching."
"In other matters," said Dumbledore swiftly, "Professor Snape and I have been discussing a certain plan we wish to set in motion. You two could be of great help to us."
"Yes, particularly if it involves making a complete mess of everything." Snape smiled thinly. "That is Potter's speciality, is it not?"
"You do like your little jokes," said Dumbledore. "The wards are up?"
"The Dark Lord himself could not hear us, even if he had his ear to the door," said Snape. "And if he still had ears."
"Now, boys Harry, leave that potion be for a moment. This will require a little explanation. Earlier this summer, I convinced Horace Slughorn, the Potions teacher before Professor Snape, to come out of retirement and look after some of my students. I believe he has vital information regarding Lord Voldemort's ... reincarnation. I wish you two to retrieve it for me. He has proved remarkably reticent on the subject every time I have tried to extract it."
"Okay," agreed Harry. Anything to get out of this house and away from these people, he thought.
"I don't know," said Draco slowly. Harry managed to turn a snort into a cough under Snape's eagle eye. "What kind of information are you talking about? We can't go in there and blindly question him it'd take years."
Snape twisted his hands together. Dumbledore sent him a reassuring look. "It is to do with Lord Voldemort's early interest in the subject of Horcruxes. I have reason to believe that Professor Slughorn was the first person to discuss them with him."
"What are Horcruxes?" said Harry, at the same time Draco frowned and said, "Oh." Dumbledore immediately zoned in on this.
"Have you come across the word before, Mr Malfoy?" he asked. This time it was his hands that fidgeted, stroking the clasp of a small iron box he held in his lap.
"Once, I..." Draco flushed, an ugly colour that spread across his cheeks like a rash. "It was after I was told ... after I met the Dark Lord. It was a large gathering. I got separated from Father and I went to find him. I heard him and the Dark Lord talking about a Horcrux."
"What exactly did he say?" asked Dumbledore urgently.
"Oh, um." Draco rubbed his forehead. "The Dark Lord said, 'You have re-proven your loyalty to me tonight. I shall reward you greatly,' then my father thanked him, and asked when. The Dark Lord told him, 'When the sacrifice is made.' Then they saw me and started talking about the Dark Lord's snake."
Snape made a strangled noise. Harry looked up. Snape was dead white, and clutching his throat like it pained him.
"I still don't know what a Horcrux is," added Draco. "Some powerful magic object?"
"In a way," said Dumbledore. "It is a very evil thing. One of the wickedest acts Lord Voldemort committed was to make several Horcruxes. They ensured his immortality by guarding pieces of his soul but at a terrible price."
"Pieces of his soul?" said Harry. "How can you cut up your soul? Isn't it, like, some big invisible thing?"
"Not quite," said Dumbledore, as Snape muttered 'big invisible thing' and looked more like himself. "When I say soul, I refer to the magical spirit that resides in all witches and wizards. You put forth a little of that spirit every time you cast a spell; so, eventually, it is used up. Most people have enough reserve to last them a century or more. For Lord Voldemort, of course, this was not enough. Creating a Horcrux, I understand, puts a piece of this magic out of reach of the drain from everyday spell-casting. As long as it remains intact, the person who created it enjoys longer life but at the expense of another's."
"So you have to kill someone else to make it," said Draco flatly. "Looks like Horcruxes are out for me."
"And for most of us," said Dumbledore. "Few people find the lure of endless life attractive in the first place, let alone at the price of brutal murder it entails in this case. However, my hypothesis is just that a hypothesis. I think, I strongly believe, that Lord Voldemort created not just one, but many Horcruxes. However, I cannot be certain. Professor Slughorn is the key. But he is too ashamed of his past associations with, and positive opinion of, Lord Voldemort, to own to having any memory of Horcruxes."
"What, so the guy's a Death Eater?" demanded Harry.
"Not in the least," said Dumbledore.
"The Dark Lord has myriad faults," said Snape, "but at least he wouldn't put up with that bumbling fool."
Dumbledore hesitated, then whispered behind his hand, "You were never invited to the Slug Club, were you, Severus?"
"To answer your question more fully " Dumbledore turned back to Harry " in his early days, before his ideologies became too unpalatable for most, Lord Voldemort or, should I say, Tom Riddle had many followers. He was charming, good-looking and persuasive. All three attributes are very attractive to Professor Slughorn as indeed they are for many others."
"But getting back to the Horcruxes," said Draco. "Even if we do find out that the Dark Lord made some, what good does that do?"
"They are the key to his downfall," said Dumbledore. "Destroy the Horcruxes, and we weaken Lord Voldemort enough to destroy him as well."
Harry felt a shiver go down his spine at the thought. There was something ... wrong, about the way Dumbledore said 'destroy' in his kindly old voice.
"And how do we destroy them?" asked Harry.
"Alas, I do not know," said Dumbledore. "I presume it would take almost as much effort as their creation."
"Someone else would have to die to get rid of them?" said Draco. "I'm rather hoping he didn't make any. This sounds far too much like effort."
Harry clenched his fists, but didn't dare hit Draco in front of the teachers. For once, however, Draco didn't seem to be provoking him: his eyes were fixed on Dumbledore. Draco's opinion of his Headmaster had never been high, but there was a grudging respect on Draco's face that Harry had never seen there before. For the first time, Harry wondered if there was something more to Draco's being placed with Harry, away from his fellow Slytherins more than random mischance, that was.
"Exactly my point." Snape was glaring at Dumbledore now.
"Death is not too great a price to pay," said Dumbledore.
"Yes it is," said Harry. "Death is too many people have " He couldn't finish the sentence. Dumbledore looked truly astonished.
"He's right," said Snape. "Ye gods, that felt unclean."
"If someone discovered a way to make Horcruxes, there must be a way to un-make them," said Draco. "Besides throwing them at people and hoping they die from the blow to the head, I mean. There's always a loophole if you look for one."
Dumbledore looked down at the little box in his lap; then, resolutely, he tucked it away into his pocket. "Loopholes," he repeated, looking between Harry and Draco with a new twinkle in his eye. "When you look for them, they're where you'd least expect."
Harry stared down at a page in The Collected Poems of Louis MacNiece. From the outside he looked terribly studious, but this was a false image adopted by most students in Miss Thompson's class. Except they weren't students, they were 'colleagues'. And instead of being taught, they 'discussed.'
Every person in the class had a different volume of poetry before them they looked exactly like what they were, a job lot from a jumble sale. Beside Harry, Cherub was changing all the 'thee's and 'thou's in his Penguin book of Elizabethan poetry to 'u's.
At the front of the room, Miss Thompson perched on a desk in a way that showed how rarely she shaved her legs was extorting a bullock-necked boy to have an opinion on e.e. cummings.
The boy looked hunted. Like many 'difficult' students, he was used to thwarting rules and discipline. But in a place where rules were anathema, and discipline rejected in favour of participation, there was nowhere for him to hide.
Harry knew the boy was called Rocky by his peers and minions, but Miss Thompson, using ninja-like teacher skills, had discovered his real name to be Barry. And she wasn't about to let him forget it.
"Barry, what do you think? You must think something. I am sure you are thinking something. What did you think when you read the poem?"
Barry had already tried out all permutations of the answers, from 'nothin'' to 'the footie last night.' Now he tried to take a different tack. "Fought it were stupid," he said.
"You " To her credit, Miss Thompson only took half a minute to translate this. "You thought it was stupid. What did you think was stupid about it? Something must have made you think it was stupid. You must tell me what made you think it was stupid."
In clear desperation, Barry said, "He don't use no capital letters. I was always told I were fick for not usin' capital letters. So this guy's fick too, and his poems are well stupid."
It was the longest speech anyone had ever heard him make. Harry even looked up from his book where his gaze was constantly trained lest he make eye contact with Miss Thompson and bring on a 'discussion' to observe this unique event.
"I see, you are caught, yes you are caught, by cumming's avant-garde disregard for the rules of grammar. You are quite shocked by this, Barry. You are shocked by the lack of traditional forms. You are a traditionalist. You are a conservative traditionalist. You demand stanzas and rhyming couplets and the creativity that can be invoked by adhering strictly to form. I think you are a traditionalist, Barry."
"Yes miss," said Barry.
"Mm, perhaps you would do better with someone less modern," said Miss Thompson. "I say modern although of course, in these post-modern times, e.e. cummings is old hat. But the shock value never grows old. Shock value can never be under-rated. Who would like to swap with Barry?"
Thirty pairs of eyes became riveted to their poetry books in apparent dedication. Miss Thompson was blithely undaunted by the lack of response.
"Who has the Elizabethan poetry?" she asked. She turned to Barry and said confidingly, as if the topic had never been brought up before, "I think you will get on with the traditional poetry, Barry. I think you will like the Elizabethans."
"I have it," said Cherub.
"Would you mind swapping with Barry?" said Miss Thompson. "It is only for one class. You can swap back tomorrow. If you do not like e.e. cummings either, you can change tomorrow."
"Don't care," said Cherub. "Poetry's bloody crap anyway."
Harry was taken aback by his vehemence. Cherub wasn't a great talker: he said as much as he needed to fulfil the obligations of daily intercourse and no more. Even that was spoken in a sleepy tone, as if he'd much rather not be bothered.
"Why do you say that?" Miss Thompson advanced down the room, a half-smile on her lips. "I do not need to repeat my admonition to Barry, I hope. Reasons, one always needs reasons, for such decidedly negative opinions."
In response, Cherub turned over a page, liberally littered with 'u's, and began to read.
"Sorrow rip up all thy senses,
Nearest unto horror's nature;
Taste of all thy quintessences
That may kill a wretched creature.
Then, behold my woeful spirit,
All in passions overthrown,
And, full closely like a ferret,
Seize upon it for thine own.
For thy sighs, thy sobs and tears,
But thy common badges been,
While the pain the spirit bears
Eats away the heart unseen."
Harry had never heard poetry spoken well before, so he was in no position to judge the quality of Cherub's reading. All he knew was that there was something in Cherub's silky-smooth voice that made him want to keep listening that made him believe there was a great and painful meaning to the words he was saying beyond all that Harry could understand.
A hush fell over the classroom, broken only by the dying song of gnats in the dry grass.
"Couldn't he just have bloody said 'I'm miserable, and it sucks'?" said Cherub.
Miss Thompson carefully took the book and folded the cover closed. "No."
"Why not?" The poem had clearly awakened something in Cherub: he looked like he wanted to hit things, or fly.
"You know why not." Miss Thompson laid the volume of e.e. cumming's Selected Poems on Cherub's desk and went to winkle out her next victim.
"Are you all right?" asked Harry. Cherub was shaking.
"'Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss,'" said Cherub, which Harry took for a yes.
Draco leaned over from the desk he shared with Tilda. "I didn't think much of that poem. I don't know how anyone could call themselves a poet who writes about ferrets."
"What have you got against ferrets?" Tilda wanted to know. Harry smiled, both at Tilda's question and the outrage on Draco's face. "I think they've got lovely faces."
"Yeah, very pointy," Harry couldn't help adding, which made Draco go pink with helpless rage.
"You read really well," Tilda told Cherub. "It made me go all shivery inside."
Draco and Harry snorted at the same moment. Cherub didn't notice. He seemed to take note of Tilda for the first time which, given that Tilda had what Draco called 'the most amazing breasts' (and to her face, too), always shown to their full advantage was no mean feat of abstraction.
"Thanks," was all Cherub said, before he began defacing his new book by capitalising all the sentences.
"You have a thing for him!" Harry heard Draco accusing Tilda. "Don't deny it, I can sense these things."
"So what if I do? I'm not the only one with a "
At this point Draco clapped a hand over Tilda's mouth, bringing them to the attention of Miss Thompson. Draco had to spend the next five minutes explaining, in detail, why Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese was 'trashy, sentimental nonsense.'
Harry was soon lost to the particulars of that argument, which he was sure Draco would lose. He flipped through his own book, tempted for the first time to actually read a poem from it. The book fell open at Aubade.
Having bitten on life like a sharp apple
Or, playing it like a fish, been happy,
Having felt with fingers that the sky is blue,
What have we after that to look forward to?
Not the twilight of the gods but a precise dawn
Of sallow and grey bricks, and newsboys crying war.
Now what the hell did that mean, Harry wondered.
"I'm tired," groaned Harry as Draco all but threw him down the basement stairs. "I can't believe you volunteered us to clean up the chem lab. No, that's wrong I can't believe you volunteered me to clean up the chem lab. Next time you can wallow alone in your insanity, okay?"
"You don't half whine," said Draco. "I needed to ... appropriate some of the needful." He swung a flask in front of Harry's eyes: Harry read 'C2H5OH' on the label.
"And you needed me, what, as lookout?" asked Harry. "You should have warned me first."
"No, you half-monkey, half-human," said Draco. "I wanted someone to blame if we were caught. Kreacher!"
There was a pop and some obsequious reference to Draco's hair shining like a star. Harry did his best to tune out before he got sick.
Harry watched as Kreacher lugged what looked like a toy distillery from behind Snape's bed. Draco handed his elf the ethanol and watched, replete with satisfaction, as Kreacher poured it into a funnel and added it to the gelatinous mess.
"This is what you've been stalling about for two weeks?" said Harry. "You needed to make moonshine?"
"I'm not letting you have any, if that's what you're thinking," said Draco. "It's for Slughorn." He tapped his wand against the stolen flask and said, "Operer bon chic bon genre!"
The bottle lengthened and gained a greenish hue, while a label appeared from the ether and wrapped itself neatly around the body. Slowly the slight shimmer in the air faded. Draco was very good at quiet, subtle magic, Harry had to admit. Harry preferred loud noises and colour, as had been obvious from the very first touch of his wand. Draco would probably have something very cutting to say about that.
"Chateau Maison 1894," read Harry. "But it's really, what? Rocket fuel? Cunning."
"Slytherin," said Draco. "Here, I have your outfit ready." He held up a hand before Harry had even parted his lips. "No, you can't go as you are. Slughorn is going to be far more open if we come bearing gifts and looking pretty."
"What do you mean by that?" Harry's voice was dark with suspicion. "How do you know him so well, anyway?"
"My father was rich, pureblood and, er, handsome." Draco looked rather sickened at speaking like that of his father. "If not terribly clever. So he was in the Slughorn club. So was your mother, I think, if that's who Father meant when he talked about 'the carroty chit who married Potter.'"
"My mother was " Harry bit his lips. It was a tragedy to think that even Lucius Malfoy had memories of his mother, when Harry had none.
"A clever Mudblood, yes," said Draco.
Only one thing stopped Harry from hitting Draco at that moment, and it was that Slughorn probably wouldn't be thrilled if Draco showed up with a black eye and a few less teeth. Harry needed to succeed at this, to prove his worth to Dumbledore after the shambles in the Department of Mysteries.
"You can say this for Slughorn, which is why Dumbledore likes him: he's all about equal opportunities. As long as you were good-looking, clever, funny, or all three, he welcomed you with open arms. Being pureblood helped, of course, but only if you had something else going for you as well."
"He sounds like a swell guy," said Harry.
"The sincerity is just dripping off your voice," said Draco. He threw a silky bundle in Harry's direction. Although Harry made a good catch, the slippery fabric almost eluded him.
"What is this? It feels like ladies' underwear."
"Because you'd know so much about that." Draco smirked. "Hide your light under a bushel, Casanova. There's a screen over there. I suggest you use it."
"Why " said Harry. Draco pointed his wand to his own chest: the laces of his vest untied and the fabric fell away, revealing far more Malfoy skin than Harry had ever cared to see. "Oh, right."
Draco just shook his head and continued undressing. Harry ducked behind a screen obviously set up to preserve Draco's modesty when Snape was in situ. Harry was blushing hotly, for some reason, but his hands were freezing. He held them to his cheeks to cool them before scrambling out of his own clothes.
Just how Harry got into the things Draco had given him, he was never quite sure. The black leather breeches were like iron manacles around his thighs. The lacings of the shirt ten times fancier than the ones Draco usually sported were beyond him, so Harry left them untied. He was horribly conscious of the fact that this failure left his chest practically bare. He shuffled out barefoot, clutching the edges of the shirt in a vain attempt to keep them closed.
"There are shoes on the bed." Draco was flicking bits of a handkerchief around his neck and so didn't notice Harry's dilemma for a few seconds. "You can oh, Christ. I suppose you can't tie shoelaces either."
It had taken Harry six long months to learn, but he wasn't about to tell Draco that.
"Hang on," sighed Draco. He pressed down the edge of the handkerchief with his thumb, took a last long look at it in the mirror, and pushed Harry on to the bed.
Harry noticed that Draco's hair was smoothed down and tucked behind his ears, and that it smelled of flowers in a way that was very girly and also sort of nice.
He decided not to tell Draco that, either.
Draco pointed his wand at Harry's shirt, and Harry managed not to flinch. He was almost sure that Draco wouldn't gut him like a fish, but not entirely.
As it happened, Draco spent a good five minutes incanting, "Agrafe! ... no. Desserrer! Hmm. Agrafe!" He varied the level and pitch of his voice, so that the laces fastened faster or slower, tighter or looser, as Draco seemed to command. Again, this was a nuance of magic unknown to Harry, and one that left him slightly impressed. He made a mental note to tell Hermione about it in his next letter.
Draco made a voiceless growl of frustration and tossed his wand aside. He yanked Harry's head back by the hair and started pulling at the laces with his hands.
"It never looks quite right unless you do it yourself," he muttered.
Harry was speechless. Draco's fingers were brutal and efficient, and Harry didn't understand why the hard brushes against his neck felt so ... so ... nice.
Draco was satisfied at last, but far from finished. "Don't move!" he commanded, although Harry was meek as a lamb after his ministrations. "I have to do something with that " it looked as if it pained him to say the next word " hair."
"What's wrong with my hair?"
"'Everything' about covers it," said Draco.
He rubbed his fingers together and they came away smelling flowery, the same as his hair. Harry tried to look upwards while staying perfectly still, and earned himself an eyestrain for his trouble. Draco was gentler as he dragged his fingers through Harry's hair, saying "Soft" in a tone of surprise. He curled his hands into Harry's head, tickling his scalp. Harry shivered.
"Stop twitching," complained Draco. "Honestly, you'd think this was medieval water torture."
Harry was going to say something: a great retort. He really was. But then Draco's fingertips stroked the sensitive skin behind his ears, and it was all he could do not to sigh in pleasure.
"There," said Draco, at last, too soon. He curled Harry's forelock one last time and stood back, hands on hips. "That's the best I can do. Ideally I'd need tongs and for you to have brushed your hair sometime in the last five years, but I could only work with what I had."
"I'm sure it's fine." Harry glanced in the mirror. "Hey, this is this isn't bad."
"Gee, thanks," said Draco.
"I mean it." Harry raised a hand to touch the rakish curls, which fell gleaming over his forehead. Draco slapped his hand away.
"No touching!" he said.
"Fine. Are we done?" asked Harry.
"Certainly," said Draco. "Unless you'd like to put some shoes on. I don't know; I find they complete any outfit, but I bow before your superior fashion sense."
"What are these things, anyway?" Harry stared at the shoes and socks on the bed, trying to convince himself they weren't stockings and pumps with buckles. "Who dresses like this?"
"Every pureblood family does," said Draco. "Robes are all very well for uniforms and poor people, but they're ... dull. Wizards like to show off, and that's a little hard to do with the stylistic equivalent of a sack." He watched Harry gingerly slip his feet into the shoes. "And if you think these are bad, you should see what girls have to wear."
"It can't be worse than this." Harry wrinkled his nose.
"I have just one word for you, Potter: corsets."
"Are we ready now?" Harry stood up, wriggling his toes in the stiff shoes.
Draco favoured Harry with a long stare, starting at his silver-buckled toes and travelling slowly upwards. By the end of it Harry felt like he'd gone skinny-dipping in the Atlantic, but Draco just gave a small nod and said, "You'll do."
It was only as Harry followed Draco through the L-space portal wondering if Draco's cream breeches were even tighter than Harry's, or if it was just his imagination that he realised Draco was wearing boots.
Harry wished he'd thought to bring snacks. They'd been walking up and down Hogwarts' library for over an hour, waiting for Slughorn's portal to appear.
They were alone. Dumbledore had explained that every portal opened to a different dimension: all stacked as close together as a packet of wafers, but different nonetheless. Harry hadn't quite understood the concept, except for the bit about never seeing anyone else there.
The clothes Harry was wearing didn't exactly repel the cold, either. After months of living in sweltering heat, he was ill-adapted to spend a long time in a subterranean cavern. At least, that was what it felt like. The thin silk moulded to his body like a second skin, whereas Harry would have preferred a woolly pelt.
Draco stopped pacing to snap at Harry, "Straighten up! You look like a dunce with your shoulders all hunched like that."
"I'm cold," said Harry.
In reply, Draco shoved at Harry's shoulders till he straightened them just to stop Draco touching him. Draco returned to pacing, hands behind his back like a cross general. The cold was no kinder to him than to Harry. Draco's teeth were chattering, and two tiny bumps stood out from his shirt. Harry was wondering what strange kind of necklace Draco was wearing when he realised he was staring at Draco's nipples.
Harry, aghast, switched his gaze to the floor. In passing he realised his own nipples were hard and cold, straining against the tight silk. Swallowing rapidly, Harry crossed his arms over them.
He found his gaze straying back to Draco's chest. If he looked carefully, Harry could see not just nipples, but the contours of Draco's stomach. It was slender, tapering into narrow hips cinched by his breeches. Harry felt guilty for staring, but the guilt only heightened the thrill of the staring. It was definitely weird to be thinking so much about Draco's nipples, comparing them to the time he'd seen Ginny's through her dress, and thinking that Draco's seemed larger and flatter...
" gay," said Draco. Harry started as he realised Draco was talking.
"I'm not," he said automatically, dismissing the five minute nipple-staring incident to the back of his mind.
Draco scowled. "Calm down, Mr Homophobia 1996," he said. "It isn't catching."
"It's not?" Harry jostled for a meaning, however slight, to this conversation.
"Of course not!" snapped Draco. "Otherwise, you'd have caught it from Dumbledore years ago."
"I'd have caught gay from Dumbledore?" Harry repeated aloud. Nope; it didn't make any more sense that way.
"That's my point," said Draco. "You haven't, but if it was you would, because Dumbledore's as gay as a picnic. Anyway, as I was saying "
"Did you turn into a parrot while I wasn't looking?" Draco surveyed Harry with displeasure. "Let me tell you, the changeover makes you even more suicidally dense "
"But you said ... Dumbledore..."
Draco stared, then laughed. "You oh, you didn't know!" he choked. "That's classic, honestly. I think even the Weasel copped that after a year or two." Draco clasped his hands under his chin and fluttered his eyelashes, doing a disturbingly realistic impression of Dame Edna Everage. "Dumbledore was deeply in love with his best friend, Gellert Grindelwald ... until tragically, Gellert turned to the dark side, and Dumbledore had to dump him."
"You you're making this up!"
"I wish I was," said Draco. "I mean, come on. Dumbledore icon for gay little wizards everywhere? Please. Now, Slughorn isn't gay, per se, in that he's never come out. But he certainly likes pretty boys as much as pretty girls. I've done my best with you. If you stay out of the light you'll probably pass for a pretty boy." Draco's voice changed timbre, becoming deeper and slightly hoarse, but Harry was too shell-shocked to notice. "All I'm saying is we should ham it up as much as possible. If he's distracted by our act he might let more slip than he intended to which was probably Dumbledore's plan all along."
"Yeah, sure." Harry nodded along, then nearly jumped out of his skin when Draco ran a hand down his arm. Draco's scowl immediately grounded him.
"See, you can't do that look like someone dropped a spider down your pants."
"You want us to be all touchy-feely?" Harry clarified, disgusted. At least, the way his stomach dropped felt like disgust.
"I'm saying it would be a good idea," said Draco. "For the greater good, of course. That's if you can handle it."
Harry pushed back his shoulders, missing the way Draco's eyes flicked to his taut nipples. "Gryffindor," he said.
At that precise moment, a portal opened up before them. The runes twisted until they read Slughorn's Abode (please knock before you enter).
"Here goes nothing," murmured Draco, and raised a fist.
Harry sat bolt upright on a chintz sofa. Draco's arm was draped over the back of said sofa; every time he moved Harry heard the rasp of silk on silk. He'd decided to sit as still as possible to prevent it happening, because he'd never felt so freaked out in his life.
Slughorn was all affability when he heard who they were. He invited them in for tea and began regaling them with tales of their respective parents. At any other time Harry would have hung on his words. But Draco's leg nudged his every time Slughorn looked their way, their thighs were touching and, once, Draco had laughed and rested his head momentarily on Harry's shoulder. Harry had inhaled the peculiar scent of Draco's hair and hadn't been able to breathe properly since. He was starting to think Draco's pomade was poisoned.
Slughorn excused himself for a moment to fetch more biscuits. Draco immediately dropped his soft smile in favour of a glower and dug Harry in the ribs.
"Ow!" Harry massaged his side. Draco had hard fingers.
"What is with you?" demanded Draco. "I thought you agreed to play along! Instead you're sitting there squirming like I'm trying to steal your virtue." As he spoke, Draco was filling up their teacups and emptying Slughorn's. He glugged a good three-quarters of his moonshine into the teapot and spelled the bottle to look full. Meanwhile, Harry did his best to catch his breath and find a plausible excuse.
"Whatever you do," said Draco, "don't drink too much tea."
"Right," said Harry, not hearing a word Draco said because Slughorn chose that moment to return and Draco put his hand on Harry's knee.
Draco coaxed Slughorn into drinking three more cups of tea by flattering his chinaware, interior decorating and waistcoat. All the while, he found excuses to touch Harry, affectionately and as if by accident. His fingers grazed the back of Harry's neck when Harry leaned forward for a biscuit. His ankle rubbed Harry's while they admired Slughorn's new teaspoons. His thumb stroked the back of Harry's hand for a good minute while Slughorn drained his last cup of tea.
"Now, I hope you don't mind, Professor," said Draco, leaning forward with a coy smile that did strange things to Harry's stomach, "but I took the liberty of bringing you a present."
Slughorn clapped his plump hands together. "I do love presents! You are kind, Mr Malfoy."
"Please, call me Draco." Balancing himself with a hand on Harry's thigh a gesture Slughorn did not fail to notice Draco reached down to his side, where he'd stowed the bottle of moonshine. "I hope you like this vintage."
He held out the bottle. Slughorn's eyes lit up. "It's one of my absolute favourites! Draco, you clever, clever boy. I must try some right away. It's been a long time since I've had such a superior vine."
"Please do," urged Draco.
Harry swallowed the dregs of his tea. Heedless to Draco's warning, he'd drunk at least as much of it as Slughorn. But while Slughorn, whose girth and experience allowed him a better head for alcohol, was merely tipsy, Harry was sliding into the fuzzy warm arms of a drunken stupor.
From his current side of the alcohol divide, Harry was feeling much better about the whole situation. Kreacher had been right: Draco's hair did glow a little. His voice, although it came from miles away, was very soothing. Harry didn't understand what Draco was saying, but he heard the worry in his voice. He raised a hand to smooth away the frown line between Draco's eyes.
"Oh dear God," he thought he heard Draco whisper. "You stupid wanker, you drank the tea!"
"Oh I'm not interrupting anything?" Slughorn paused on the threshold of his sitting room after answering a call of nature. Draco caught hold of Harry's wrist and forced it away from his face. With a false smile, Draco shook his head.
"Don't be silly, Professor," he said. "Harry " he shot a narrow glare at Harry, who didn't even notice his name on Draco's lips " gets rather giddy when we're alone together, even for a few minutes."
Harry slumped against him, his glazed eyes bright. "You're pretty," he told Draco, in a loud whisper.
"Ah, to be young and in love," said Slughorn indulgently. "We should have a toast." Draco watched eagerly as Slughorn poured himself a goodly amount of 'wine,' with two splashes into a tumbler for Harry and Draco.
"To youth!" said Slughorn, holding his glass aloft.
Draco wrapped Harry's fingers around the tumbler and held them in place with his own. "To youth," he agreed.
Draco forced Harry to drink; sadly, this did not take much urging. Harry swallowed thirstily and handed the tumbler to Draco with a sweet, trusting smile.
Harry's lips were shiny when wet.
Draco didn't know why he'd noticed that.
Slughorn liberally served himself another glass. The first had disappeared nearly as quickly as Harry's. Draco nodded to himself. The enchantments Snape had helped him to design, and Kreacher to implement, were having the intended effect. When undiluted by theophylline, the moonshine became all that it could be: moreish and rapidly intoxicating.
"This is very good," Slughorn told Draco, his voice slightly slurred. "Very, very good. Reminds me of the time your father "
"I was meaning to ask you something about my father," Draco interrupted smoothly. "The last time I saw him, he mentioned something odd ... a Horcrux. You don't happen to know anything about those, do you?"
Slughorn's pasty face went paler. "I don't that is, I have no idea " he blustered.
Harry's eyes fluttered at the noise he'd been falling asleep. A drinker's flush burned his cheeks. Draco had only time for one smug thought about Harry's future career as an alcoholic before Harry's knuckles swept down his cheek.
"Pretty," he murmured again, as if it were the only word he knew. His damp lips touched Draco's neck. Before Draco could stop him, or even think, Harry licked a warm stripe up to his ear, which he began to nibble. Draco felt his breath stutter. He grabbed Harry's hand to he hardly knew what; force him away, perhaps. Harry took this as permission to slide closer and wind his fingers through Draco's.
"I'm so sorry," gasped Draco, "I think the wine "
Slughorn coughed. "Horcruxes," he said rapidly. His eyes were fixed on the spot under Draco's jaw, which Harry was stroking with his tongue. "I don't like to speak of them You-Know-Who asked me about them once. I'm afraid to say I told him all I knew, which wasn't much. I'm no practitioner of the Dark Arts. Horcruxes split one's soul through an act of murder: that is the extent of my knowledge. I'm not proud that he came to know of them through me, but he was a very charming young man ... very handsome ... once."
"I'm sure." Draco tried to smile reassuringly, but this was difficult as Harry had just decided to drift a warm hand across his stomach.
When Harry began laying close-mouthed kisses along his jawline, Draco decided enough was enough. He'd had sufficient contact with Harry to contract Gryffindorian rabies, and Slughorn had confirmed what everyone already suspected.
"I think I'd better get this boy home before he does something silly." Draco attempted a smile, but it was as if his mouth wouldn't work. It kept trying to sigh.
"It was a pleasure meeting you," Slughorn tried to say. It came out more like 'iwhasa plez meenu.' Draco cut short the civilities and dragged Harry to the L-space portal. They'd been at Slughorn's rooms at a Bath inn for several hours, as Draco could tell from the darkening windows.
The cold air of the library seemed to hit Harry like an anvil, for he crumpled up against Draco. Draco contemplated Levitating Harry back to the Dursley's house but Harry's weight on his shoulder was warm and Levitating Charms had never been his strong suit. Thus confused in mind, Draco wrapped his arm around Harry's solid waist and pulled Harry's hand around his own shoulders. They limped slowly towards the Dursley portal.
Draco felt sick to his stomach: a tight, roiling feeling that was only exacerbated every time he felt Harry's breath on his cheek. Harry stunk of hops. It was revolting.
Harry chuckled. Draco had never heard him laugh like that before a throaty sound that sent hot darts into the pit of Draco's stomach. Harry's tongue lapped his cheek - again! Did Potter think he was an over-sized ice-cream? Draco tried to jerk away, but it was hard when he had both arms around Harry to hold him upright.
"Pretty," mumbled Harry, to the backdrop of Draco losing his mind.
When Harry first woke up he thought he hadn't, the blackness of his vision was so absolute. Then he realised he'd inadvertently squeezed his eyes shut against the pain in his head.
It felt like someone was playing patty-cake against his temples and belly, only using flaming hot torches of pain. He couldn't help groaning as he winched his eyes open, a sound that became only more intense as he took in the blare of illumination that confronted him.
The blurs of light and shade resolved into objects and people, albeit far more slowly than Harry was used to. He wondered how he'd come to be this sick. He couldn't remember eating anything funny, and he was hardly about to catch a bad cold in this weather.
"Ow," he whimpered, as one of the people moved and revealed the light source in its full strength.
"It speaks," came Snape's dry voice from above him. "On the table, Potter."
"What?" Harry managed.
"On the table!" The words were saws across Harry's brain. "Drink the potion, you silly sot."
Harry twisted around, his hand flailing for the beaker that had been thoughtfully placed on a foldaway table beside his cot? Harry didn't have the willpower to decipher this, so he swilled down the bitter potion. It took him a good five minutes to drink it all. By the end, his vision was no longer burning at the edges and most of his headache had gone.
His stomach was another matter: the combination of the potion and whatever was wrong with him was not a happy one. Harry lay down flat, hoping to beat off the waves of nausea using gravity.
Snape didn't exhort him to rise, so Harry took stock of his surroundings. He was in the Dursley's basement. Snape was bent over a stone bowl, from which reflected blue light shone on his face. It made him look more consumptive than ever. It took Harry a few beats to recognise the Pensieve.
Draco's cot was occupied, which meant that Harry had to be lying on Snape's bed. Harry couldn't summon the energy to be properly horrified. He noted that the pillows, instead of being greasy as expected, were in fact fluffy and smelt of Ariel.
Soft snores emanated from Draco's bed. As Harry watched, one long, thin arm flopped out of the covers. It hung limply off the side of the bed. Draco's movements had dislodged his pile of blankets and they slid down his shoulders his bare shoulders and why was Harry feeling this odd twist of guilt and something in his gut, rather than vague amusement that Draco apparently slept in the nude?
Snape's voice cut across his bewildered thoughts. "Dumbledore leaves you his regards. Your fact-finding mission proved very fruitful, astonishing as it is to me. Dumbledore's plans can now proceed apace."
"What plans are those?" asked Harry.
"I'm not at liberty to say," said Snape, "but I'm sure you can guess." He slit a glare at Harry. "On second thoughts, you're hungover, and your friend the walking encyclopaedia is not here to help you. He's going to hunt Horcruxes."
"Oh," said Harry. "Wait hungover?"
"Yes," said Snape, drawing out the word for a long time, it felt to Harry. "Can you remember anything that happened yesterday?"
Harry frowned. "Yeah: I went to school, we did poetry and Malfoy blew things up in the lab again. Then we came home and got dressed up like ponces " Harry looked down. His torso was still tightly swathed in turquoise silk; that, at least, hadn't been a dream, although it was still a nightmare " and went to Slughorn's."
"And what went on there?"
"We drank tea." Harry's frown deepened. "I after that, I just remember fog. Maybe we went for a walk?"
"Where? In Yorkshire? No. You imbibed freely of Draco's concoction, which seems to have wiped your memory. That's all to the good. If you can't remember, after the amount you drank, Slughorn certainly won't. I don't know the man if he didn't finish off that bottle after you left."
"How much did I drink?"
"Come and see for yourself." Snape waved at the Pensieve and smiled or bared his teeth; regardless, the expression was far from reassuring.
Harry heaved himself off the bed and staggered over to Snape, clutching his stomach. On top of the nausea, his legs felt like rubber foam.
"I wouldn't suggest actually entering the memory," said Snape. "It induces a measure of vertigo unnoticed in sober individuals, but which seriously potentiates the after-effects of alcohol."
"Whose memory is it?" Harry braced his hands on the table. He smelled old sweat on himself and winced; bad, bad idea, to sleep in his clothes.
"Draco was so kind as to donate it," said Snape. "I intend on returning it to him once he wakes."
"Hungover too?" Harry smirked.
"Not in the least." Snape's voice was crisp. He didn't elaborate on whether Draco had an excellent head for drink, or if he hadn't drunk at all. Harry thought about asking, but his fuzzy brain suggested he cut out the middle man and look at Draco's memory.
Harry fumbled with his wand for a few seconds. It was firmly wedged into his breeches and, in trying to retrieve it, Harry relearned how blindlingly tight they were. He must have been drunk to sleep still wearing them. Snape grew impatient and shoved his own wand into the Pensieve, sending out little ripples across the surface.
Harry leaned in and almost overbalanced, his head spinning. Snape grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and held him in place. At first this irritated Harry, but as he progressed further into the memory he had no room left for anything but hideous embarrassment.
It was uncomfortable, seeing Draco be so flirtatious with his past self. However, from this vantage point, Harry could see clearly how little Draco liked it, and how much Slughorn did. They certainly made a pair, he and Draco: one dark in turquoise, the other blonde in violet.
Harry could tell on his own face exactly when the moonshine took effect. He looked like he'd been sucker-punched. Slughorn's transition was more gradual, for his bloated face was already red and damp.
And Harry had kissed Draco's ear...
"Oh hell," mumbled Harry, and was violently sick in a bucket.
"All done?" asked Snape. "I'd hate to waste two Vanishing spells."
"I'm never drinking again," swore Harry.
"I'm sure you will," said Snape. "You only have the sense God gave a flea. Besides with skills like yours, every gay club in the country will be crying out for your services."
"I'm not gay," said Harry. "That act was all Draco's idea. He said Slughorn would be more distracted if we were ... 'touchy-feely.'"
"That's not bad." Snape cast an approving look on Draco, who was nuzzling his pillow. "I never thought he could read people that well. And Slughorn was so intent on not being aroused by your little display that he spilled everything he knew on Horcruxes. Yes, it's quite clever."
"Aroused? Oh my god." Harry went cold and reached for the bucket.
"Get sick again and you'll clean it yourself," Snape informed him. "Don't get into a tizzy. Slughorn is no paedophile. He just appreciates beauty, in all its ... forms."
Harry leaned his forehead against the rim of the bucket, wishing he'd never looked in the Pensieve and seen that he'd had an erection for Draco Malfoy.
He could only hope Draco himself hadn't, and wouldn't, notice. It was too much to expect Snape not to have, but perhaps he wouldn't say anything. The memories in Pensieves were magical; they showed more what the person who owned them saw. So if Draco hadn't seen it or felt it
"Bloody hell," said Harry. "Bloody fucking hell."
"There is no need to take that tone," said Snape sharply. "This is war, boy. You don't think I, and Dumbledore, and your precious godfather, haven't all done worse in the line of duty?"
Harry thought about it: Snape and his Dark Mark, his ostracism from society; Dumbledore and the impossible burdens he had to shoulder; Sirius, dead.
It all paled in comparison to having an erection for Draco Malfoy.
Who chose that moment to stir and slump into a semi-upright position, knuckling his eyes. His hair had become unruly overnight, while still retaining a slight burnish from the pomade. He looked about five years old.
"Morning, Professor," he yawned. His eyes fell on Harry and he instantly became warily alert. Harry felt a blush start; an answering one stained Draco's cheeks. His eyes darted away from Harry, and he quickly wrapped himself in a sheet.
"Good morning," said Snape. "Dumbledore was very pleased with your work."
Draco sent him a small smile. He padded over to the Pensieve.
"You'd better put this back, then, if you've finished with it," he said to Snape. "We have school in an hour."
School. Harry had forgotten about school.
He wondered if he could bring the bucket.
Harry had hoped to keep his head down that day, avoiding both Draco and bright light, but fate didn't smile on him. Their history teacher was having a sick day one of many and Miss Thompson had taken over the class for their period. Instead of being told to make posters of their favourite dictators or read whatever chapters they liked best from Roebucks' The World of Ancient Times, they had to form a circle with their chairs for yet another 'discussion.'
Harry sat as far away from Draco as possible, only to realise, to his chagrin, that the circle put them directly opposite each other. Beside Harry, Cherub was staring across the room slightly less blankly than usual. Tilda, while purporting to converse with Draco, kept tossing steaming looks Cherub's way. Harry couldn't fail to notice; nor, indeed, could the rest of the class, with the possible exception of Draco. Draco was staring at the linked fingers in his lap, giving one-syllable answers to Tilda's frequent questions.
Miss Thompson collared Piers first, demanding to know his opinion on Hiroshima. First, however, she had to ascertain that he knew where Hiroshima was, what had happened there, and when. Piers kept trying to break into her monologue, without success: he probably could have told her who piloted the Enola Gay, its designer and interior layout, if she had but let him.
" indeed, a great tragedy; but the nature of war is such, it is bleak and cruel, and in Hiroshima Hiroshima being one of the islands that make up the nation of Japan think of geishas and cherry blossoms I am sure you've all heard of Japan, the country of Japan, with its famous geishas "
Harry wasn't entirely certain what geishas were, so he actually listened in, hoping she'd drop a hint.
Cherub nudged him in the shoulder and said not loudly, but not in the whisper it deserved, either "Have you ever had sex with a girl?"
Most of the class were now captivated by Miss Thompson's attempts to explain prostitution without using the word prostitution. With relief, Harry tried to will down his blush. He almost succeeded, until he looked up and saw Draco watching them closely, as if he'd heard and was waiting for an answer.
"Er, no," said Harry, trying not to move his lips. Could Draco lip read?
"Me neither." Cherub looked speculatively at Tilda. She was weeping with mirth, her glorious breasts shuddering with the movement. "I think I'd like to, though. Stick it in someone instead of having it stuck into me."
"Right," gasped Harry. "Good, good plan."
"It's not that it wasn't nice," said Cherub, "in a way." His lips curved up a little. Harry wondered if he even knew he was speaking aloud. "Joe used to sneak out of his dorm after lights-out. He'd slip into the bed behind me and stroke me for ages ... then he'd suck me off. I think he actually was gay. And Mr Fleming knew how to fuck, too. He just never knew when someone didn't want to."
Harry pressed a trembling hand to his throat, trying to push down the bile. He was stuck in some kind of gay nightmare. Maybe he'd wake up soon.
He needed to say something to halt Cherub before he revealed too much to someone he barely knew, or the class stopped egging on Miss Thompson in time to hear him.
What he said was: "Did it hurt?"
"What?" Cherub drifted his eyes to Harry's face. They were a deep, almost navy blue. "Oh, that. Yeah. I'm not saying he didn't make it easier, but it hurt like fire. Until he was in, then it was okay. It hurt way more with the sixth form, though, because they just used spit."
Harry made a gurgling noise. He shifted restlessly, unable to keep still.
He felt awful for Cherub, he truly did. Getting a blowjob from someone you didn't want to get a blowjob from, no matter how good the blowjob, was tantamount to taking unfair advantage. What Mr Fleming had done was a hundred million times worse.
But Mr Fleming's face wasn't the one in Harry's head, and neither was Cherub's. Harry kept thinking the word 'blowjob.' It scratched across his brain, sending warm sparks down his spine, as he imagined Draco's mouth
Wait, Ginny's mouth
"Do you want my book?" asked Cherub, holding out a copy of Roebucks.
"To cover your boner," said Cherub. He sounded unconcerned, tilting his head to see up Tilda's skirt.
Harry took the book.
Miss Thompson had at last wrenched the topic away from geisha girls and on to Hiroshima. Piers was practically jumping up and down in his enthusiasm to give an opinion. For a tiny second Harry was reminded of Hermione, and the strain against Roebucks decreased.
Harry thought maybe he should be worried about that.
"I think dropping the bomb was an essential move to end the war." Piers shot out his words like a machine gun, in case Miss Thompson started declaiming again. "Otherwise it might have dragged on for years, crippling the European economy even further and perhaps allowing Hitler to recoup some of his losses in the east."
Obviously a little startled to hear such a cogent reply, Miss Thompson said, "From a purely practical perspective, you may be right. Indeed there is a correctness, a truth in what you say. But think just for a moment think of all the lives lost that day, in such a terrible fashion. Skin stripped from the bones of the victims and melted. That is not a kind way to die, it is not pleasant. The people of Hiroshima had done nothing wrong."
"There's no such thing as a kind or pleasant way to die," Harry heard a voice say. With a shock, he realised it was his own. "If one huge act, even a brutal one, could end a war for good, then it should be taken."
"But the loss, the great and terrible loss of life "
"If the war " and Harry wondered which war it even was "- dragged on the way Piers said, hundreds or thousands more people would have died anyway."
"So what you're saying is: people die, and it doesn't matter how." Draco's voice was hard; he was leaning forward with eyes like flecks of granite. "If they died with honour, in a way they chose, or with their backs to the wall frying to death like ants under a magnifying glass, it's all the same?"
"Dead is dead." Harry spat out the words like a bitter pill. "It's harder to find a way to keep living, to keep fighting, than it is to die."
"Life is harder than death," said Draco. "How pithy. That's what my mother said, only better. It would have been easy for her to die; to let me die; but we chose to live. And here I am, in this grotty little hole with you."
"So why don't you just leave?" said Harry.
"Because, gnat-brain," said Draco, "I chose the hard path. I chose to avoid taking the one brutal act that would end a war for good, because it was wrong. Murder is wrong. It doesn't matter who is murdered or why, there can be no justification, and no," his voice dropped, "forgiveness."
"This is an interesting discussion," called Miss Thompson. "It is quite intriguing, but if we could keep to the subject of atomic bombs, that would be excellent. Yes, it would be best."
"What's an atomic bomb?" asked Draco.
Draco seemed very taken with nuclear warfare. At least, he asked Mr Blake if he could build a bomb, and seemed quite put out when Mr Blake said no.
"Well, can you build a bomb?" he asked.
"I could, given the right materials and conditions," said Mr Blake. "But whether I would or not, hmm, that's a different matter. Bombs are evil things."
"Bombs aren't evil," argued Draco, who interpreted the ethics of modern warfare his own sweet way. "It's what people do with them that's evil."
"What else is to be done with them, hmm?" asked Mr Blake. "Would you use them to wash the dishes?"
Draco alternately begged and pleaded all the way through the class, while Tilda and Cherub looked at each other constantly, and Harry tried his level best not to look at Draco at all. Especially his ears, which were small and slightly sunburnt and Harry was not thinking about them.
Draco pulled his trump card. "Miss Thompson said she liked your shirt," he said, referring to a mustard-yellow atrocity with a black felt collar.
At last Mr Blake relented a little. "You have a textbook," he said. "There's a library in the school somewhere. I have it, hmm, on reliable information. You read up on the theory of bomb-making, get it correct, and we can design a, hmm, theoretical model."
"Thanks!" Draco sounded ecstatic. Harry looked away. Cherub was fiddling with his shirt sleeves, which covered his knuckles.
"Aren't you warm?" Harry asked, letting solicitude overpower delicacy. "No one'll notice if you take off a few layers."
"I suppose," said Cherub. He hesitated a moment longer, then pushed up his sleeves. Harry swallowed an exclamation. It looked like Cherub's arms had been raked by rabid cats. Healing weals criss-crossed the skin of his inner forearms up as far as his elbows.
"They look sore," said Harry, inanely.
"Yeah," said Cherub.
"You know, my ... tutor is great at ... old-fashioned herbal remedies," said Harry. "I could get you some ... salves."
Cherub glanced behind him, to where Tilda was leaning forward with wide eyes. He cleared his throat. "That'd be good. Thanks."
"No problem," said Harry. Cherub folded his arms. "Hey," added Harry, "do you want to come over to my house after school? You could pick up the stuff yourself."
"I'd like that," said Cherub. And he smiled with such blinding intensity that it was five minutes before Harry stopped wishing fervently for a copy of Roebuck.
Draco disappeared downstairs as soon as they got home. Cherub, silent as the grave though he was, proved an effective buffer zone between Harry and Draco. Draco hadn't said a word to Harry since waking up or, to put it another way, since Harry had got drunk and molested him.
And although that was a correct way of putting it, it didn't sound like the truth to Harry. But how could he show the difference so that it mattered? The best thing to do was to ignore Draco, which had been his preferred option all along. It was only Draco who had interfered with that plan. Now that Draco was avoiding him in turn, life should be easy.
"Ground control to Major Tom," said Cherub.
"You were miles away," explained Cherub. "I didn't know you lived with Dudley."
"I'm his cousin," said Harry. He realised that Cherub's placidity had translated into him being taken for granted; Harry assumed Cherub knew far more about his situation than he did.
"Right." But that was the good thing about Cherub. Nothing seemed to faze him, because he didn't really care. "Petunia always keeps cakes in the breadbox, shall we have some?"
Harry, who hadn't known this, agreed with alacrity.
Dudley and Piers came home a little later. They were so delighted to see Cherub that Harry wondered why he hadn't been invited over before. Harry thought it might have something to do with the way they let Cherub take all the initiative: from getting more cakes to guiding the conversation. Given Cherub's lassitude this was like hiring a dead fish to conduct an orchestra, but Harry was not such an expert on human relationships that he felt like advising them.
After a while Harry excused himself to see if Snape was around. He'd made his promise to Cherub in the heat of the moment, but he wasn't planning on breaking it just because Snape was a miserable git who'd made Harry's school life hell for five years. If that fact slowed his steps, however, no Hogwarts student in the world would blame him.
He got a surprise to see Dumbledore sitting in a conjured armchair in the basement. No, he corrected himself: it was reasonable for Dumbledore to check up on the house. It was outrageous, not surprising, that he hadn't been notified.
"Ah, Harry," said Dumbledore warmly. "I'm glad you could join us. Mr Malfoy informed me that you were entertaining guests."
Draco glowered at Harry in a way that suggested his real explanation had been rather more colourful.
"I was," said Harry. "Is Snape around?"
"Professor Snape," Dumbledore corrected him for the seventy-ninth time, "is away on business. Did you require him urgently?"
"I was hoping he'd have some Murtlap essence," said Harry. "It's for my friend he's got some bad cuts on his hands."
"I'm sure Professor Snape will be happy to oblige you when he returns," said Dumbledore. Harry stared. The idea of Snape being happy, about anything, was blasphemous; and Harry wouldn't like to be within a twenty-mile radius if it ever did happen.
A sudden stinging pain on the back of his neck distracted Harry. He clapped a hand to it, expecting to come up with a squashed insect for his troubles. There was nothing, however; and a few seconds later his cheek was stung.
"What the " Harry spun around on the spot, bypassing Draco's vindictive expression out of sheer mortification. But the fact that Draco had a bagful of pistachios didn't escape his attention; nor did what he was doing, when a third shell thwacked Harry right in the nose.
Dumbledore hadn't noticed the goings-on behind his back. He was busy returning a thought to the Pensieve. Harry's heart sank at the thought of exactly what memory Dumbledore had been mentally examining. No wonder Draco was in such a foul mood fouler than usual, Harry amended, then worried that he actually knew Draco's gradations of emotion.
Dumbledore flicked his wand. Harry felt a rush of magic glitter against his skin. He assumed it was the wards going up.
"I'm now certain that Lord Voldemort has made Horcruxes," said Dumbledore. Harry couldn't help glancing at Draco, but he didn't betray so much as a flicker at the name; he was hardening to it. "From my other intelligence I gather he's made seven in total. Here, sit down in comfort. Harry, will your friends miss you for a few moments?"
"Who'd miss him?" said Draco in an undertone.
"No, they'll be fine," said Harry. His fingernails dug into his palms as he fought not to rise to the barb which, for Draco, was an exceptionally dull one.
Dumbledore conjured two more armchairs on either side of his own. Glaring daggers at each other, the two boys sat. Dumbledore smiled congenially for all the world as if he were at a tea party and whipped up a Wedgwood teapot and three cups out of thin air. Draco kept his bag of nuts on his lap. Harry couldn't see how he'd manage to aim past Dumbledore, but if he knew the Slytherin at all, Draco would find a way.
"My first piece of information may come as news to both of you." Dumbledore poured the tea. "Milk and sugar? No? You both like your tea black and bitter? How singular. Anyway Draco, in your second year Harry vanquished an evil diary belonging to Lord Voldemort by driving a basilisk tooth through it. The reason you may not know about this is that we hushed it up. There was no need to incite panic when the beast was dead, slain by Harry here. In fact, Harry, you accomplished more that night than even I knew. The diary was itself a Horcrux, given its properties; and basilisk venom is one of the few ways to destroy Horcruxes. The others include Fiendfyre, or deep remorse on the part of the creator a remorse so great that it often proves fatal."
"That's good," said Harry.
"Yes, except for the bit where you killed the only living basilisk in Britain," said Draco. "That leaves us with even fewer options than before, with five more Horcruxes to destroy to say nothing of the Dark Lord himself."
"What's it to you, anyway? You're practically a Death Eater." Harry turned on Dumbledore. "Who's to say Malfoy isn't a spy? He could carry all this information back to Voldemort in a heartbeat."
"Actually, he couldn't," said Dumbledore. "It was a clause in the bargain he struck with me, personally, in case you have any doubts. He and Mrs Malfoy both submitted to undergo a Tongueless Jinx. Anything they say to us, or a member of the Order of the Phoenix, they cannot repeat to anyone else even under pain of torture or death."
"So I'd make a pretty useless spy," drawled Draco, "unless you think I have hidden talents in mime."
"I wouldn't put anything past you," muttered Harry.
"Even a career in mime? How cruelly you judge me." Draco flicked another pistachio shell at Harry, clipping him on the ear. Dumbledore apparently did not notice it whizzing past his nose.
"So, do you have any idea where any of the other Horcruxes are, or what they are?" asked Harry. "It seems like a needle in a haystack situation. I mean, what if his other Horcruxes are a pair of old boots and a set of robes? How would we even know?"
"Only you, Potter, would think of putting your soul in a pair of old boots."
"Mr Malfoy has hit the nail on the head," said Dumbledore. "Lord Voldemort had more pride than most, as I think you know. His quest to kill you by his own hand alone is proof of that. He would want only the most exalted, the most distinguished receptacles for his Horcruxes. His old diary, humble as it may seem, was a tool for carnage. If we assume that he did not intend the same purpose for the rest, it appears likely that the Horcruxes are sealed in heirlooms of one sort or another. During the course of my research this summer, I came across one likely object: the Cup of Hufflepuff. It was stolen from the house of Hepzibah Smith, whose memories reveal that she received a visit from Tom Riddle just before it was reported missing. She also died in suspicious circumstances, and her house elf was charged with her murder."
"But you told me before house elves can't cause mortal harm to humans," said Harry.
"Which is exactly why it's suspicious," said Draco. Another nutshell nipped Harry's nose.
Dumbledore sighed. "Unfortunately, in cases like these, the finger of accusation falls easily upon those unable to defend themselves. The house elf underwent trial in a kangaroo court and was sentenced to death when found guilty."
"If he used the Cup of Hufflepuff, he probably wanted the other great symbols too: the Diadem of Ravenclaw, the Sword of Gryffindor, the Locket of Slytherin," said Draco. "He'd hardly run after Hufflepuff's treasures and leave the rest."
"How do you know about these things?" demanded Harry.
"How do you not know about these things?" countered Draco.
"As I have had guardianship of the Sword of Gryffindor since before Tom Riddle was born," said Dumbledore, "I think we can safely rule that one out. I drew the same conclusion as you, Mr Malfoy. The others are unaccounted for. The Diadem of Ravenclaw was lost sometime in the mid-fourteenth century, during the witch-burnings. The Locket of Slytherin was a pureblood heirloom, but the records do not show what family passed it on after the Shakespeares died out."
"Look, what the hell's a diadem?" said Harry.
"A sort of crown thing." Draco sketched a picture in the air with his hands. "Smaller than a tiara. Rowena Ravenclaw apparently wore it when she was alive. The sapphire's supposed to be enchanted to bestow wisdom on the wearer. It's the sort of nonsense Ravenclaws believe."
"Yeah, 'cause a locket's so deeply unfroofy."
"That locket turned aside the Sword of Gryffindor when he tried to stab Salazar Slytherin in the heart," said Draco. "It bestows invulnerability in battle, although any Slytherin would know to wear full body armour as well."
"Obviously a sword's a sword," said Harry. "What's the Cup about?"
"Oh ... it's like a horn of plenty," said Draco, sounding vague. "I was never very interested in it who would be, in something a Hufflepuff made? Whoever holds it can make any kind of food and drink come out of it. That's why most Hufflepuffs are fat. Helga's idea of a legacy to her descendants was an endless buffet."
"That's still only five," said Harry.
"Use your other hand, you'll be able to count higher," Draco advised.
"Lord Voldemort began making the Horcruxes a few years before you were both born," interposed Dumbledore. "He became more reckless in the early months of 1980. Professor Snape was present when he killed Caradoc Dearborn to make his snake companion into a Horcrux in June of that year. It seems unwise, perhaps, to store your soul inside a living creature that will eventually die. But, as I said, he was reckless, and perhaps desperate."
"What about the last one? Any leads on that?" asked Draco.
Dumbledore hesitated. "It is hard to say what might have become the seventh Horcrux. You see, he was going to use a certain death to create it: yours, Harry."
"But I'm still alive," said Harry dumbly.
"In body, if not in mind," quipped Draco.
"The spell was obviously incomplete," said Dumbledore. "However, I think what little magic went into it resides in you ... in your scar."
Harry's hand went to his scar. The scar that sent him nightmares and throbbed fit to burst whenever Voldemort was near; oh, that made sense. That made too much sense.
"So to destroy it, we'd have to cut off my head, or something."
"No time like the present."
Harry reached the frayed end of his rope. "Shut up, Malfoy! Jeez, you'd think everything that happened at Slughorn's was my idea."
"Wait, wait. You're trying to pin you licking my neck on me?"
"You said act touchy-feely!"
"You chewed my ear!" roared Draco. "That isn't touchy-feely, that's cannibalism!"
"Boys! Harry, Draco!"
Harry subsided, muttering.
"It is time to put this useless, energy-consuming feud behind you. Put out your hands."
Shrugging, Harry obeyed. Dumbledore took his wrist, in a grip firm and cold, and circled Draco's wrist with the other. Dumbledore exerted almost no strength to haul two seventy-kilo boys out of their chairs to face each other. He clasped their hands together and let go.
"Now," said Dumbledore, "shake."
Harry and Draco shook, scowling like bulldogs at each other's feet.
"This is over, do you understand?" said Dumbledore. "You may not like each other you may not be able to stand each other but it is no longer important. You will put this behind you and act like rational human beings, at least where the Order is concerned."
They both mumbled something that, in the right light, could have passed for agreement. Dumbledore sighed and poured more tea.
When Harry got his hand back, it was covered in crushed pistachio shells.
Draco pawed through Snape's stores left-handed. His right he'd stuck in his pocket, to guard from further harm or Potter mauling.
He felt a fizz as Dumbledore took the wards down, heard a faint 'Goodbye, Draco' before the old man Apparated away. It was only the creak of Harry's foot on the stairs that roused him to speak.
"Hang on a sec," he mumbled, half-hoping Harry wouldn't hear. The stairs creaked again, then Harry's flip-flops scuffed the concrete floor.
"What?" Harry's voice wasn't as strident as usual.
"I have " Draco dragged out the linen-wrapped package. "You'll need to dissolve it in warm water for three minutes before applying."
"This is the Murtlap essence?"
"No, it's fairy spit," snapped Draco. "Of course, Murtlap essence." His fingers dug into the package before he turned and thrust it at Harry. "Sorry."
"Don't " Harry's brow creased. "Don't apologise. It sounds weird."
Draco prissed up his mouth, battling his natural impulse to tear Harry's statement apart. "Fine. I apologise for apologising; it won't happen again."
Harry just gave a half-nod, which he turned into an ear-scratch. "Thanks," he said.
Draco went and sat on his bed, the lines of his back clearly saying dismissed. Harry stood still for a few more seconds, tugging at his ear, before the stairs creaked again and with finality.
As soon as he was sure Harry was gone, Draco flopped backwards. His eyes were stinging. He wasn't sure if it were the after-effects of having Harry's tongue on his face or the farce of a truce Dumbledore had forced him into that did it. In any case, he was not going to cry over the stupid Gryffindors, or because he missed his mother and his friends. Or at all.
After a few moments, he rolled over and hugged his pillow. It might have got a little damp when he crushed his face into it, but that was why Drying Charms had been invented.
"Kreacher," he called. A pop, and the elf was crouched beside Draco's cot. "Could you make me some lemon tea? My throat is sore."
"Of course, delightful master," said Kreacher. "Is there anything else sir might desire?"
"No, that's all." Draco stretched out a hand and patted Kreacher's knobbly head. Kreacher smiled up at him: a terrifying expression, but Draco was becoming accustomed to it. He doubted Kreacher had ever had much previous occasion to practice.
Draco curled up and waited for Kreacher to return. He'd always liked house-elves. His father held them in the deepest contempt, and his mother displayed barely-veiled distaste whenever she had to deal with one directly, but Draco's nursemaid had been an elf called Twinky.
Draco had Twinky wrapped around his little finger. She could always be coerced into turning on the night-light after his father turned it off, saying that Draco was old enough to sleep in the dark. She brought him late-night snacks and books when his mother sent him to bed early. Even after she was nominally removed from his service and sent back to the kitchens, Draco saw more of her than he did his parents. She made sure his bedroom was just how he liked it when he came home for holidays, during which times she spoiled him rotten.
Draco had been truly grieved at her death. He'd put a marker up over her grave, which was beside the kitchen garden where Malfoy elves had been buried for generations, and often snuck down there to leave flowers and tell her his news. Twinky always liked hearing about Hogwarts, where her sister worked. She listened with flattering interest to everything he had to say. His father just wanted to discuss his marks; and his mother, the pureblood girls he was expected to escort to society events in the summers. Even if Twinky was in some elfish heaven, he thought she might still be interested in his feud with Potter, Blaise's jokes and Theodore's experiments, Draco's futile attempts to tutor Gregory, Vince's not-so-secret pressed flower collection.
Twinky had once cried and ignored Draco for a week when he kicked Dobby. It was through her that he'd learned how much could be achieved through politeness. Unfortunately, he could never get it to work on Harry. Try as he might make all the good, sensible intentions he would about ignoring Harry he could never apply it. To see Harry was to needle him. It only irritated Draco more that Harry could ignore Draco very well; it was clear that if Draco didn't attack first, Harry would never attack at all. It was most unnerving to have a bκte noir whose only action was defensive.
Kreacher returned with a teapot, cup and saucer, and a plate of scalloped biscuits on a tray. There was even a tiny vase with a plastic flower in it all the real ones having long since withered in the heat.
"This looks very nice," said Draco.
"The amiable master is very kind to say such things to old Kreacher!" said Kreacher ecstatically.
Draco sat cross-legged on the bed and poured out the tea. The hot liquid was soothing against his throat. He didn't think he was ill. If that were the case, he'd have summoned Snape at once. But it was nice to have some company. Harry and Dumbledore didn't count. Draco smiled at Kreacher and didn't dismiss him.
"Would you like some tea?" he asked.
Kreacher gasped. "Never has Kreacher been asked to partake of a master's meal! Kreacher would not dream of it."
"If you're sure," said Draco. "I won't finish the whole pot. Don't throw it away if you want some afterwards."
"Thank you, master," said Kreacher. "Kreacher knows the master does not like it here. Kreacher likes to be of service."
"It's not that bad," said Draco, "living here. Of course, I have to deal with Potter's constant stupidity, which gives me a headache. He's just so ... loud, and angry, and, and it's like he doesn't notice one thing going on around him. He's dense. I can't believe he's Dumbledore's golden boy. He probably wants them to hunt Horcruxes together. It'll be like following a blind man through a crocodile park. Potter has the planning skills of a dead ape. He wouldn't know where to begin." Draco's brain caught up with his mouth. "Not that I would, either," he added. "But it's typical of Gryffindors. Bloody typical. Rushing in where angels would fear to tread."
Kreacher's little body stiffened. "Would the precious master like a Horcrux?"
Draco raised his eyebrows. "Not for myself. But it would be terribly satisfying to find one and present it to Dumbledore in front of Potter. It'd be one in the eye for both of them."
"And this would make the master happy?"
Draco thought about it. What would make him happy? For life to be as it was before, when his main problem was trying to beat Harry at Quidditch. He'd never defined happiness until it disappeared from his life.
There were one or two other, separate things that would make him happy. He was a little confused as to what form they took, but they had to do with ... heavy moans, touch and tongues, strong hands parting his thighs ... Draco didn't like to think much about them. They were as frightening as they were pleasurable.
It would be gratifying to find a Horcrux before Harry. Harry couldn't fail to pay attention to that.
"It would," said Draco. "Pity that it's about as likely as Potter getting down on one knee and proposing."
"Maybe more likely than that," said Kreacher.
Cherub was rightly impressed with the Murtlap essence. "It tickles," he said, as he dabbed it on to his cuts with a sponge. By the time it was all gone, the colour of the injuries had faded from raw-meat red to dusky pink.
"I'll get you some more tomorrow," said Harry.
They were all seated around the kitchen table, eating scones with cream and healthy appetites. Stonewall's buildings weren't killingly stuffy and they were situated on a hill, where they caught some breezes, but it was still hot enough there to make everyone lethargic about eating. The magically cooled environment of the Dursley homestead was far more conducive to the activity.
Harry's mind kept drifting to Draco. It was odd. He could suppress most of his bad memories. The deaths of Sirius and Cedric, the constant throb of loss from his parents' murders, even the lambasting from the press in the last year: all these were nightmare-fodder, little more. But the scenes from the Pensieve kept repeating in his mind, until he convinced himself he could actually remember touching and caressing Draco like they were ... lovers, or something. Despite the artificial coolness of the kitchen, he felt hot and flushed.
"Do you fancy it?" asked Dudley.
"Tilda invited us to a party tonight," said Cherub. "Her house, nine onwards."
"I'm in," said Harry. Parties meant girls. Girls were normal. He preferred thinking about girls to thinking about Draco, even if his mind wasn't currently cooperating.
"I'll go ask Draco." Dudley lumbered out of the kitchen.
"Does he live here too?" asked Cherub. "It's a regular orgy round here."
"Cherub!" said Piers, sounding amused. Harry felt his heart throb, sending blood rushing south.
Dudley returned with Draco in tow. Although Draco was pale, there was a feverish air to his movements. He kept biting his lips like he wanted to say something but couldn't, and Harry kept ... looking.
Harry balled his hands together and shoved them in his lap, hoping they'd do the job of a Roebuck.
"I guess I'll go home and change," said Piers. "Will we meet back here? Considering Cherub is the only one with the directions..."
"Sounds good," said Dudley. "I'd better let Mum know we're going, too."
Draco slid into a chair, all gangly limbs and too-bright eyes. Cherub calmly buttered another scone and passed it to him.
"Thanks," said Draco. He added jam and cream. His first bite smeared his mouth with cream, which he licked away like a cat.
Harry's hands started flexing instead of clenching. He snatched them out of his lap and dragged his chair closer to the table.
"So, are you hoping to score with Tilda tonight?" Draco asked Cherub.
"Dunno." Cherub ran a hand over his half-healed cuts. "See if she's interested, first."
"Oh, she's interested, believe me," said Draco. "Even if she didn't talk about you non-stop and all but detail her plans of seduction, the way she looks at you would be enough."
"Cool," said Cherub. His lips twitched. "I'm off to paint my toenails and curl my hair. See you lot later."
"Bye," said Draco, holding a hand up for Cherub to high-five. Harry wondered where he'd learned that.
And then there were two. Draco finished his scone and dipped his little finger into the bowl of cream, stretching out his tongue to catch the drips before licking the liquid off his skin. He did it absently, his eyes faraway. Harry resigned himself to sitting very still on his chair until Draco saw fit to leave. Harry was in no condition to walk. And if Draco didn't stop his little performance soon, Harry was afraid he'd be more permanently crippled.
"Are you going to this party?" asked Draco.
"Yes," Harry ground out. Hopefully Draco would tire of mocking Harry more quickly if he got no response, and go away.
"You should wear your red t-shirt," said Draco.
"Uh," said Harry, "okay." He'd have agreed if Draco had suggested he went naked wearing a paper crown, if it got Draco to leave.
He wished he hadn't thought about being naked and Draco at the same time.
"And this." Draco dangled a gold chain from his fingers. "I think it'd go so well with your eyes." He was smirking.
"What is that?"
Draco stood up and went round behind Harry's chair. Harry tensed even further. He felt Draco's cool fingertips on the back of his neck, as Draco dropped the chain around his neck.
"Have a look," said Draco. He picked up the locket hanging on the chain and held it in front of Harry's face. The snakes seemed to come alive. "Horcruxes: the last word in style."
"Slytherin's locket!" Harry reached out, his predicament momentarily forgotten.
"Ah-ah!" admonished Draco. He whipped the locket away again. "This is my victory, and I don't do sharing." He tucked the Horcrux into his shorts' pocket.
Harry resolutely kept his eyes away. Draco's shorts were a danger to his sanity, the way they clung and made Harry wonder if Draco went commando and not looking, dammit.
"Snape's back," said Draco. "Dumbledore's on his way. He'll probably disinherit you in favour of me when he gets this."
"Where?" managed Harry.
"It's the damndest thing." Draco put his lips close to Harry's ear. Harry bit his tongue, tasting copper. "Kreacher picked it out of the rubbish. It belonged to his last master, Regulus Black. He's been keeping it as a memento ever since in the cupboard under the stairs."
"That's ... great," said Harry. His knuckles were white; every word was an effort.
Draco clapped him on the shoulder. Harry choked back a cry. "You're so magnanimous in defeat, Potter."
"Are you giving it to Dumbledore? Now?"
"Yes," said Draco. He sauntered to the door and looked over his shoulder. "Are you coming?"
"Not yet," managed Harry. His eyes followed Draco out of the room.
It was a pathetically short five seconds until he could breathe again.
Harry walked down Privet Drive in the hazy dusk, trailing Cherub and Draco, Piers and Dudley, who were in pairs. Harry half-wanted to catch them up, walk on Cherub's other side, but he didn't think it wise to stray too close to Draco.
Besides, Harry had the strange feeling he was being watched. The street was quiet, all the law-abiding citizens of the Drive tucked up in bed, or at least within their four walls. There wasn't so much as a pet animal roaming, yet Harry kept feeling prickles run down his spine. More than once he'd turned suddenly, expecting a shadowy figure to dart behind a hedge or streetlight. But there was never anyone there. Harry kept his hand on his wand and tried not to get too jumpy.
Tilda's house was three streets away from Privet Drive, in Bloomfield Avenue. A loud brass beat identified the location of the party. In Privet Drive, complaints were made to the Neighbourhood Association if someone had their TV on too loud. Bloomfield's inhabitants were clearly more laid-back. Or deaf, Harry thought, as Cherub's knock was drowned out by the raucous noise from inside.
After a minute Cherub abandoned Plan A and pushed at the door. It swung open easily, letting a waft of fumes and smoke out into the night air. Cherub beamed. "Just in time," he said.
Harry's group fanned out as soon as they crossed the threshold. Piers spotted the drinks table, Dudley a bowl of crisps, and they hared off in the direction of these delights. Cherub's mission was somewhat less clear-cut. He scanned the crowds of people and, coming up with zero Tildas, wandered off in search of her.
Harry looked sideways at Draco, who was looking sideways at him. They both switched their gazes and coughed. Harry had an insane urge to laugh, but it was buried under a rising tide of trepidation.
"I'm going this way." Harry pointed to the left side of the staircase. "Don't follow me." His promise to Dumbledore made him add, "Please."
"Since you commanded so nicely," said Draco. He took a step to the right. "Oh, hey, Karen!"
One of Tilda's blonder compatriots broke away from the herd and took possession of Draco's arm. The girl was clearly under the influence. No one would stroke Draco's arm that way unless they'd had too much to drink.
Harry should know.
Aware that he didn't need to be watching them, despite the knot in his stomach telling him otherwise, Harry turned smartly on his heel. The direction he'd chosen led him into a kitchen area. He caught sight of a stove between the legs of a couple making out on top of it. The heat, which was fierce in the overcrowded house, didn't seem to deter them at all.
Harry spotted another bowl of crisps. He appropriated a handful, deciding it was a good sign, and was just about to start eating when someone knocked against his hand. He dropped the crisps on the floor, where they were promptly crushed to death under the feet of a conga-line.
"Aw, damn," said Harry.
"You weren't going to eat those, were you?" demanded a shocked voice. Harry turned and saw Tilda's breasts, spilling over the top of her inadequate shirt like rising dough. He quickly switched his gaze to her face.
"No," said Harry. "It's gone past five seconds. Still, there's more in the bowl you want some?"
"Harry," said Tilda, "these are salt and vinegar crisps."
"Oh. I suppose there must be cheese and onion around somewhere "
"Are you stupid?" howled Tilda. Her pupils were dilated and her mascara smeared, so Harry could forgive the yelling; but her tone sounded too much like Draco's for comfort. She'd clearly been coming under the sway of his dastardly influence.
"No," Harry remembered to say.
"Your breath will stink," said Tilda. "No crisps for you. What you need is gum. Or a breath mint."
Realisation dawned. "But I'm not going to I mean, there's no one here I would "
"You're blushing," said Tilda. "All down your neck, too. Did Cherub come with you?"
"Yeah, but I think he's gone looking for you." Harry tried to tug the collar of his t-shirt up to his ears. It meant exposing his stomach for the all the world to see, but Harry seriously doubted he was blushing on his stomach.
"Sweet," said Tilda. "But honestly, are you just shy? There's plenty of girls here who'd swoon over that bod." She poked a finger into Harry's exposed stomach.
Harry let his shirt fall and moved a step away from her. Bloody sharp fingernails. "I'm not interested," he started, meaning to say I'm not interested in getting off with anyone here because I have a girl back home, only she has a boyfriend and we're not together right now. The explanation was more than a little convoluted. While Harry was puzzling over a better way to say it, Tilda's eyes lit up.
"Really?" she chirped. "That's fantastic. He'll be over the moon."
"Who? Why? What are you talking about?"
"Draco." Tilda patted Harry's cheeks in what was obviously intended to be an affectionate gesture. Her level of inebriation brought it just shy of GBH. "He's mad about you, and since you like boys after all "
"Draco?" repeated Harry. The pain in his face seemed to be diverting a lot of essential blood from his brain.
"How much have you drunk?" Tilda rolled her eyes. "Never mind. You know, Draco. Tall, blonde, tanned, face like a hatchet but nice arms. Always trying to make you notice him. He thinks you're straight, though, so you better set him right about that."
"Always trying to make me..."
"He thinks he's so subtle." Tilda gave a snuffling laugh. "It's always 'Hey Potter, look what I blew up' or 'Hey Potter, you smell' or 'Hey Potter, want to suck my cock?'"
"He never said that one." Harry was definite on that point. It was easy to ignore the swooping feeling in his chest. Tilda was drunk. Harry had been drunk, when he'd fondled Draco and kissed his jaw. The two weren't connected.
"Naw, he just thinks it," said Tilda. "A lot, judging by how much he stares at you. And it's tragic, the way you never seem to notice."
"I ... didn't. I didn't notice," said Harry. "Has he said something to you?"
"Of course not," scoffed Tilda. "He's a boy. He'd sooner cut off his feet than talk about feelings. I just watched him watching you. Matter of fact," she mused, "he might get a bit belligerent if you spring this on him. Maybe you should get him drunk first, then have your wicked way with him."
"My wicked way?" said Harry, faintly. He thought of Draco's sweet-smelling hair spread across a pillow, skin laced with sweat as Harry ... as Harry what? Kissed him? Wrung his neck? This was Malfoy, not some pornographic fantasy stand-in.
"Look, there's Cherub!" Tilda slapped her beer bottle into Harry's hand. "Mind that for me. Cherub!"
She wriggled away through the crowd. Harry took a look at the half-empty bottle. Curiosity overcame him. Up to now, his experience with alcohol was limited to Butterbeer, one nip of Arthur Weasley's Firewhiskey and Draco's infamous moonshine. He took a sip of the beer and almost spat it out again. It was like licking a towel from the Quidditch locker rooms.
Three bottles later, weaving slightly as he walked, Harry decided to revise his opinion. Beer was pretty tasty. He felt a lot calmer than before, if slightly light-headed. So what if he wanted to lick Draco's ears? Draco wasn't anywhere nearby. Proximity had been his downfall, not willpower.
"Watch where you're going!" said a sharp voice, attached to a sharp face, with narrowed grey eyes and fluffy blonde hair.
"Pretty," slipped out of Harry's mouth.
"Good God in heaven," said Draco fervently, as if afraid the plea would be sent to the wrong address. "You're drunk. Don't molest me. I mean it. I have a wand and I'll use it, Muggles be damned."
"I didn't molest you the first time," said Harry, rather proud of how clearly that had come out. "I didn't. I only licked you because you told me to. You taste nice," he remembered, smiling.
"What is with you and these drunken gay epiphanies?" demanded Draco. "How much have you had to drink?"
"Three ... no four, of these." Harry held up the bottle for proof.
"Beer? Just beer? I suppose I should be thankful. If you'd got into the spirits you'd probably be doing a floorshow by now."
As Draco ranted he threw his eyes up to the ceiling. His hair looked soft. Acting on impulse, Harry cupped the back of Draco's head, running his fingers through it. Draco froze like a deer in the headlights. For a full five second Harry got to pet him. His hair was soft not soft like mattresses or velvet or anything else soft Harry had ever felt, but there was no other word for it.
Draco seemed to snap out of a daze. He yanked Harry's hand away, bending his wrist back to the point of pain. "Don't touch me again," he grated out.
"Okay." The world seemed to be spinning. Harry shook his head, which only made it worse. He staggered slightly and caught Draco's shoulders for balance. Draco's admonition faded as Harry saw the creamy skin of Draco's neck, all exposed as he tried to strongarm Harry away.
Harry had, he just had to lick it. He buried his face in the crook of Draco's neck, his tongue urgently seeking that delicious little hollow above Draco's collarbone. He heard a strangled exclamation from Draco as his tongue swirled. Harry's hands found Draco's waist and held him still; his squirming was distracting.
"Grisiti!" shouted Draco. His wand jabbed Harry in the stomach a second before invisible insects armed with bayonets began stabbing every inch of Harry's skin. He dropped to the floor in a huddle, biting his tongue to stop himself screaming.
In a few seconds the sensations faded. Harry was left with nothing but a headache that clanged relentlessly against his temples. He uncurled his limbs. Using the wall for leverage, he shoved himself upright.
Draco looked scared, defensive and unapologetic, all at once. "I didn't know what else you asked for it."
Harry held out his arms, expecting to see hundreds of lacerations. The skin was smooth and unbroken. "What the hell was that?"
"Instant sobriety spell," said Draco. "That's why most people use potions."
Harry looked around. There were people all around, but none of them were paying him the least bit of attention. Further inspection informed him as to why. Nearly everyone was replaying the scene Harry had just enacted, from crouching down (to vomit), falling around in drunken incoordination, to...
"Shit," said Harry. The events of the last few seconds returned to him with full force. "I didn't."
"You did." Draco looked grim. "I'm not sure what Muggles think of homosexual activities, so I had to stop you."
Harry stared at him. That wasn't quite the answer he'd been expecting. It lacked Draco cursing him for a million generations, for one thing.
Under Harry's eye, Draco flushed. It was hardly noticeable, except that Harry was noticing, and remembering Tilda's cryptic comments.
"Not that I would have let you keep going either way," snapped Draco, several beats too late. "You were ... I mean, you were drunk."
"Not anymore." Harry drove his fingers into his head, hoping to scare away the pain. "We'd better get out of here before the Ministry goons arrive."
"You think it'll look better if I did magic in some other Muggle's house?"
"Yeah the Dursley's," said Harry shortly. "They track wands, not locations. Come on."
Draco said softly, "Why, Potter. I didn't think you cared."
Harry bit his lips and pretended not to hear. He forced his way through the crowd to the front door, picking up Dudley along the way.
"Are you guys leaving?" he said.
"Yeah," said Harry. "Bit of an emergency."
"Totally," said Dudley. "There's no crisps left in the whole house. I checked. I'll come with you."
"What about Piers and Cherub?" asked Harry.
"Last I saw of Cherub, he had his tongue so far down Tilda's throat he could probably taste her intestines," said Dudley. He sounded vicariously proud of his friend's achievements, without any apparent desire to emulate them. "Piers'll be fine. What about Draco?"
"He's coming," said Harry.
The fresh air hit Harry like an ice pick. What he really wanted to do was lie down on the grass and wait a few years for his headache to recede. But Draco had caught up to Dudley and they were already at the pavement.
Piers strolled round the side of the house, Cherub in tow, as Harry kicked open the garden gate.
"You lot aren't going home, are you?" teased Piers. "Me'n Cherub have come up with the greatest idea for a prank."
"I'm in," said Draco.
"The Ministry," mouthed Harry. Draco shrugged.
"Do you see them? I don't. They'll probably come in the morning, by which time I'll be safe in bed with an excellent alibi."
Harry frowned. The letter prompted by Dobby's raid had arrived almost instantaneously, but that had been during the day. Probably the Department Magical Law Enforcement kept to office hours when dealing with transgressions.
Piers had appropriated spray cans of paint on his travels. He and Cherub were conspiring as they jogged ahead of the other three, leading the way. Harry was trying to follow Dudley and Draco's hushed conversation which had something to do with Karen when he felt it again: the itch of someone watching him.
He loosened his wand in his shorts and rotated slowly in a circle. There was no one around, but he was certain he heard a rustle near the rosebush in Number Seven's garden.
"Malfoy," he called quietly. Draco tossed his head, evidently hearing but ignoring him. Harry sprinted forward and caught at Draco's elbow. Draco pulled it away.
"God, aren't you done touching me up for one night?" he said. Dudley's mouth went into an O.
"I need to talk to you," said Harry. "Now."
"Fine, fine." Draco made a production of brushing off his arm, but it was clear he'd picked up the urgency in Harry's tone. "Excuse me for a moment, Lee."
"Are you two ... okay?" asked Dudley. He looked like he'd just found out that the sun rose in the east.
"We're dandy," snapped Harry. He yanked Draco closer and whispered in his ear, "I think we're being followed."
"Is that all?" Draco laughed. "It's probably some drunken reveller who's lost his way. Or one of a hundred other people who has every right to be out at night, same as us. How do you know they're following us?"
"I don't know." Harry swallowed. "I didn't see them."
"So now it's invisible stalkers?" Draco slid his arm out of Harry's grasp and stepped away. "Get a grip. And for the love of Merlin, stop touching me."
He stomped off after Dudley. Harry remained standing for a few seconds, his eyes scoping out the darkness. There was the tiniest of noises from the rosebush, like a gasp hastily smothered. Harry waited, but there were no more sounds, and no attacks.
He slipped out his wand and held it against his forearm before running to join the others.
Piers' great idea involved bringing the municipal swimming pool and his misappropriated paint cans into sudden and unholy union.
Harry had to admit that Piers wasn't bad at graffiti. He did have a tendency to draw women who looked like the contents of their bikinis had been blown up with bicycle pumps, but Harry didn't feel he was in a position to comment.
Piers' chosen canvas was the outer wall of the changing rooms, which fronted the still waters of the pool. Floodlights had come on when they entered, triggered by their movement, but as yet no one had arrived to investigate.
"Nothing to rob from a pool," was Piers' succinct comment.
Cherub and Dudley were busy colouring in behind Piers: it was clearly a task they'd performed many times before. Piers took a break between busts and tossed a can each to Harry and Draco.
"Make yourselves useful," he said.
Harry had to laugh; his spray-can was green, Draco's red.
"We can swap if you like," he said, thinking red might offend Draco's Slytherin sensibilities.
"Why?" asked Draco. "I like red." Quick as blinking, he aimed the nozzle and covered Harry's chest in paint.
"Hey!" Harry waved away the stinking fumes.
"Yes," mused Draco, "it's definitely your colour."
Harry's eyes narrowed. Draco wasn't going to get away with that, he vowed. A minute later, Draco's hair was an attractive shade of lime.
"My hair, what have you done to my hair?" shrieked Draco.
"Keep it down!" said Piers.
Dudley, oblivious to the altercation, surveyed his work. "All done."
"Paint fight!" said Cherub gleefully, and smothered Dudley's back in blue.
For a few minutes the sound of enraged shouts and the hiss of escaping gas filled the air. Then, one by one, the boys ran out of paint.
"Look at the floor," groaned Piers, whose face was dripping purple. They all looked down: the tiles were a mess of swirled colours with stamped-out footprints. "It's so messy," he lamented.
"This stuff feels gross," observed Dudley. He rubbed his nose with his shirt-sleeve, to no visible effect.
"We're standing in front of a huge bath," Piers pointed out. "Who's for a swim?"
"Good idea." Dudley pulled off his t-shirt. Harry averted his eyes from the rings of man-flesh thus revealed. Piers stepped out of his flip-flops, and even Cherub was undoing the fastenings of his combats.
"But we haven't any swimming trunks," said Draco.
"Skinny-dipping!" said Dudley. He dive-bombed the pool. Harry covered his eyes, but it was clear from Draco's gasp that he'd got an eyeful of lardy-arse.
Piers made a neat dive. Harry decided he had nothing to be ashamed of, at least if compared to Piers. He slipped off his flip-flops.
"Scared?" he said, unable to resist bumping Draco's shoulder.
"Not on your life." Draco instantly began stripping. Harry wanted to watch, but the desire was overridden by horror at wanting to do something so deviant, and also fear that Draco would punch his lights out.
Cherub had climbed to the top of the diving board. He spread his arms wide. Harry held his breath. Bathed in moonlight, his stubbled head barely visible, Cherub looked like one of those white statues Harry had seen in the National Gallery. Cherub dropped forwards and folded up in midair, entering the water with scarcely a ripple.
Well, he had been sleeping with his swim coach.
Harry dragged off the rest of his clothes and tucked his glasses underneath them. Draco was testing the water with his toe. The movement sculpted his behind in a way that made Harry need to be underwater right now.
He couldn't resist shoving Draco in first, though. Unfortunately, Draco seemed to be anticipating such a move, for he twisted and pinned Harry as he fell. They hit the water with a painful smack.
Harry gasped for air and got a mouthful of water instead. He clawed at Draco, trying to reach the surface. Draco's arms went around him, holding him under. Their bodies slithered together. Harry surged and his head broke the water. He pushed Draco under before kicking away, half-laughing, half-gasping.
Draco came up spluttering. "You you underhanded slug, you'll pay for that!"
"Fair's fair!" shouted Harry. "You tried to drown me!"
"I did not!"
Then what was that hug thing about, Harry wondered only briefly, for now Cherub was ducking him.
Harry rolled away, his vision full of bubbles. His hands hit the side and he clung on.
Dudley had flopped out of the pool to dive-bomb again. Cherub abandoned Harry in favour of turning somersaults under water, and Draco...
Draco was floating, chest upwards, arms outstretched. His honey-coloured skin looked even more inviting when wet. Harry felt his throat move against the side of the pool as his breathing became shallower. Heat stirred between his legs. He wasn't even drunk, he thought despairingly. His unfortunate reaction was probably a coincidence. It had to be.
Harry got a grip on himself before he had to get a grip on himself. It was the perfect opportunity for revenge, nothing more.
He slithered away from the wall of the pool and paddled towards Draco. The sounds and splashes from Dudley and Piers' water-fight muffled his own. Before Draco could so much as open his eyes, Harry had two hands on his chest and was pushing downwards.
Draco sank with a gargled scream. Harry's triumph was short-lived; he felt a hand curl around his ankle and tug mightily. Harry kicked, but this only gave his other ankle into Draco's possession. The water closed over his head once more.
Draco's hands slid up to his knees, holding tight, preventing him from floating upwards. His torso was slick against Harry's thighs if he wasn't careful he might feel
Harry brought his knees up to his chest, shaking off Draco's grip. They both hit topside at the same time. Unable to help himself, Harry laughed. After a moment, Draco joined in.
The previously muffled sounds of Dudley and Piers' epic battle raged on, louder and unabated. Cherub was lying on the side of the pool, one leg trailing in the water. He was smiling at his friends' antics, and rubbing his belly.
Wait, Harry thought, his face flaming, that's not his belly...
Draco's eyes were wide when Harry glanced at him. He seemed to be breathing faster than normal, too, and he didn't object when Harry floated closer to him.
Cherub's hand was slow and steady, his expression blissful. Harry had just wound up enough courage to touch Draco's shoulder when Cherub spoke.
"It's impolite to stare," he said. His eyes were slits as he brought his thumb to his mouth and licked it.
Harry paused, one hand floating on the water separating him and Draco. Their eyes met. Draco's gaze was unreadable, but he stopped treading water with one hand and slid it under. Harry could see a flurry of movement, distorted by refraction. It made him hot in a way staring at Cherub hadn't even come near.
Following Draco's lead, Harry closed one hand around his straining cock. His fingers were cold against the warm skin. The water felt like silk against his over-sensitized body. He sighed in relief.
Only to have his erection shrivel up in horror when high heels clipped against the tile, and an amused female voice said, "Hello, Draco darling."
"I told you we were being followed," muttered Harry, shoving his head into an arm-hole.
"Shut up, shut up," hissed Draco. He was hopping on one leg, trying to get his shorts on (and what made Harry's heart speed up: he wasn't wearing a thing underneath them). "This is so incredibly not the time."
"Are you ready yet?" A tinge of impatience marred Narcissa Malfoy's well-modulated voice.
"Mother! Don't peek!"
"I did give birth to you, you know," said Narcissa. "It's nothing I haven't seen before."
"Seven hells," Draco swore. He stabbed his feet into his flip-flops. "All right, you can look now."
"No she can't!" howled three voices.
Draco strode around the side of the changing rooms. Harry followed in time to see Draco embrace his mother in a bear hug that dislodged her artfully sculpted hair-do.
Narcissa hugged back briefly before stepping away, her hands flying to her jewelled hair-clasp. "You've grown," she accused her son. "And Merlin's trousers, what have you done to your hair?"
"Is it still green? Damn it, Potter. He " Draco jerked his thumb at Harry " fancied himself an amateur hairdresser."
"Oh my." Narcissa's hands were at her mouth. "I don't think it's a terribly promising career move for him."
"Never mind the stupid sod," said Draco, "what are you doing here?"
"I came to see you, my dragon." Narcissa pinched Draco's cheek. Something about her mouth suggested to Harry that she knew exactly how embarrassing it was for him. "I wanted to find out how you were getting along with the filthy Muggles. Snape's reports are so unsatisfactory. It's all 'he's fine, stop fussing' or 'he never stops eating' or 'do you actually want to know how much he talks about Potter or will I spare us both the agony?'"
Harry raised his eyebrows. Draco muttered something about 'plotting your painful demise.'
"Filthy Muggles?" repeated Harry.
Narcissa took stock of him for the first time, her eyes raking over his scar. Her thin lips curved into a smile. Although her appearance was polished well-cut robes, diamond earrings, up-till-recently perfectly coiffed hair she was like Draco: attractive, but not good-looking.
"It's just a figure of speech," she said. "You know. Like 'The Boy Who Lived.'"
"Don't flatter his ego," grouched Draco. "It's already the size of Africa."
"I wasn't," said Narcissa. "It was just a reminder."
She smiled again, and Harry shivered. That cold expression was something she most emphatically did not share with Draco Draco who was all fire and brimstone, Draco who was as reckless as any Gryffindor when it came to running his mouth.
"Come, Draco," said Narcissa. "Introduce me to your ... friends."
"You know who Harry is," said Draco, sounding surprised.
"Your other friends," said Narcissa, with light emphasis. "The Muggle ones."
"Oh, right. Them." Draco led his mother poolside. "That's Piers. Cherub is the one with the bald head, and Lee has the misfortune to be Potter's first cousin."
"That," said Narcissa, "is possibly the least courteous introduction I've ever heard." She glided over to Piers and kissed him on both cheeks. "Hello Piers, was it? Charming name, just charming. I'm Draco's mother."
"Huh," said Piers, sounding a little dazed, with lipstick smears on his cheeks.
"Can you stay long?" Draco asked his mother. Harry wondered if anyone else could hear the bare naked longing in his voice. Harry didn't like Narcissa Malfoy, but he couldn't fault Draco for loving her.
"An hour or two," said Narcissa. "I don't want your father to know I'm gone. He'll be up soon, doing our Lord's business."
"You were the one following us here?" Harry persisted.
"Indeed. I thought it best that no one saw me entering your safehouse."
"Right." Harry ran a hand through his wet hair. Narcissa's robe had long sleeves. She could be leading them into a trap. If he pulled his wand now, would he have time to Stun her before Draco got him?
"Oh dear!" Narcissa's hand went to her hair. "Great-Aunt Sophia's amethyst comb! I must have dropped it behind that squalid little hut. Draco, be a darling and fetch it for me."
"I'll help," said Piers throatily. Draco gave him an odd look as they moved to do his mother's bidding.
As soon as Draco's back was turned, Narcissa took Harry's arm in a grip so tight his fingers began to tingle. He knew he should have Stunned her when he had the chance.
"Can you get a message to Dumbledore?" she breathed into his ear.
"A message. To. Dumbledore." She shook his arm. "Can you do it?"
Harry shook his head. "Snape is the only one who knows how to contact him."
"Snape is the reason I need Dumbledore. Is there something in his quarters, some device for emergencies?"
"Malfoy would know that, not me. They sleep in the same room."
"Draco can know nothing of this!" Narcissa's eyes were wild. "He must know as little as possible, so he will have as little as possible to tell if he is captured and tortured."
"We would never torture people!"
"Are you sure of that?" Narcissa released his arm. "Besides, I was not talking of your side. Tell me quickly, how essential are these Muggles? Can I dispose of them?"
"I'm not going to let you kill them!" said Harry.
Narcissa made an impatient noise. "I had no intention of doing so. A Killing Curse would alert every Death Eater and Ministry hag in ten miles to my presence. I suppose I can always Obliviate them later."
"There was no sign of the comb." Draco emerged, looking puzzled.
"I know. It was in my hair all the time." Narcissa gave a tinkly little laugh. "How silly of me."
"Are you all right?" Draco stared at his mother.
"Absolutely. Never better." In a whisper, Narcissa said to Harry, "You, get my son."
With unprecedented speed, or possibly a Summoning Charm, Narcissa had Dudley and Cherub by the collar. In the same time, Harry gingerly put a hand on Draco's shoulder. Catching on, Draco grabbed Piers' shirtfront. Narcissa took Harry's hand and they were spinning, spinning, spinning out of time...
They landed with four distinct thuds on the Dursley's front lawn, as the experienced wizards kept their balance, and the Muggles fell over backwards.
"What the " Piers began, but Narcissa held up her hand. Her fine brows knotted together.
"Something's not right," she whispered. "Everybody get down."
Harry dropped like a stone, just in time. The first spell ruffled his hair and rebounded off the intact front windows, shattering the glass. Red, not green: they were going for capture.
"Impedimenta!" he yelled, aiming his wand in the direction of the Stunning Spell. A shout told him he'd hit his target. The spells came thick and fast after that, in all directions. Harry dodged one, deflected another with a Shield Charm, and caught a Stunner on his left arm. It fell to his side, limp and nerveless.
"Get inside!" he roared to the others. "Get inside the house!"
"I'll cover them," said Narcissa. She all but threw the scrambling boys behind her, firing white arcs of light. Harry didn't know the spell, but it was certainly effective. Bodies thumped to the ground in its wake.
It wasn't until Harry heard him yell "Expelliarmus!" that he realised Draco was at his side.
"Inside ... Stupefy! ... house," he panted.
"You too," said Draco, and yelled, "Grisiti!" Under a chorus of moans, he grabbed Harry's arm and dragged him through the front door.
"Does that work on sober people?" asked Harry, trying to catch his breath.
Draco's smirk could have eaten the sun. "Twice as hard."
"Now what?" asked Narcissa.
"The basement," said Harry, at the same time as Draco said, "The L-space portal."
"The whaty whata?" said Piers.
"I'll explain," said Dudley, "later."
"If you know what's going on, why don't you have a firestick?" said Cherub.
"Bad luck, I guess." Dudley shrugged. Harry had never thought about what it must be like, to see magic all around whilst being magic-deprived. He didn't have time to dwell on it: the house was shaking from the impact of the spells being hurled at it.
They slipped and slid down the basement stairs. Harry was the first to reach the portal; he held it open while shoving the others through. Draco was the last.
"Go on," said Harry.
Draco nodded his head and dived through.
Harry could hear the Death Eaters outside, calling his name, taunting him. Snape might be among them, playing turncoat. Or he might not. Harry Levitated a quill and some parchment, scrawled 'Gone to Padfoot's', and tossed it on to Snape's bed. The portal was starting to shimmer. Harry slid through just before it snapped closed.
The Malfoys were standing to one side, away from the 'filthy Muggles.' None of the ex-Smeltings boys looked terribly impressed at being in a magical castle. Then again, perhaps the library wasn't the best place to start in terms of the wow-factor. Books were books, whether you were a wizard or not.
Harry moved his gaze. Draco was white under his tan; the hand that held his wand was trembling. Narcissa, on the other hand, looked as cool as a mountain breeze, albeit with dust on her robes and a smudge on her nose.
"You don't seem surprised by this," he accused her. "Were you in on the plot?"
"Of course, Potter," she said, sounding exactly like her son. "That's why I'm here, with you, after nearly being razed to the ground by quadruple Stunning Spells. It's the usual outcome for one of my plots."
"You knew something, though," he said. "Tell me what it was or I swear on Sirius' grave I will "
"You waste your breath on empty threats," said Narcissa. "You've been living with my son for two months and you haven't killed him yet; I'm in no fear of my life."
A loud bang permeated the hallowed stillness. A number of portals hung in the air, grey as photocopies, awaiting activation. One of them was limned in gold as it came to life.
"How can " said Draco. Harry knew what he was about to say: how could another portal open on to their dimension?
"It's our portal." Harry pointed at the runes that were spelling out 'Dursley Residence.'
"Oh, Potter! Are you in there?" It was a man's voice, a deep growl. Harry didn't recognise it, but it was evident from their stiffened faces that the Malfoys did.
"We need to leave," said Narcissa. "Rather urgently."
"Hogwarts portal, open!" Harry ran down the line, searching. One at the very end lit up. "Come on!"
The others ran after him, the Muggles infected with the Malfoys' fear. A thickset blonde man was climbing out of the Dursley portal, and he was not alone. Harry tumbled through the Hogwarts portal, Draco on his heels. Draco helped to pull Piers and Dudley through. Harry aimed a Stunner over Draco's head. It missed, but earned him one in return. Narcissa was shielding Cherub as he half-fell through the portal; the Stunner got her right between the eyes. She plummeted, her head crashing on the tiles of the Entrance Hall.
"Mother!" shouted Draco.
"Renervate!" Harry's spell caused Narcissa's eyes to flutter, nothing more. "Malfoy, help me! Renervate!"
Their spells combined opened Narcissa's eyes. She winced. "I feel a little woozy," she said thickly.
"Dudley, Piers, help her up," snapped Harry. He turned to Draco. "I know a safe place to hide, but we have to get to the fifth floor."
"She can barely walk!" objected Draco.
"She'll be barely alive if we stay here." He pointed his wand at Narcissa. "Wingardium Leviosa! That should help."
"Gee, she's light," he heard Piers say.
With Draco leading and Harry guarding the rear, they ran up the first flight of stairs, jogged up the second flight, walked up the third flight, and staggered up the fifth flight.
"This place had better be a fucking fortress," growled Draco. His face was running with sweat.
"Language, Draco," murmured Narcissa.
Although his legs felt like lead, Harry forced himself to jog back and forth three times, thinking I need somewhere safe to hide as hard as he could. The others were too exhausted to question him, although Draco looked his severe doubts about Harry's sanity.
Harry nearly cried with relief when a battered door opened into the wall. Just in time: he could hear shouts and angry curses coming from the staircase. Once everyone was through, Harry kicked the door shut and locked it. Within seconds it had disappeared from sight.
"This is your safe place?" said Draco. "A store-room?"
Harry's voice trailed away as he took in his surroundings. Shelves rose to the cathedral-like ceiling; boxes of junk were dumped willy-nilly all over the floor. It looked like the room time forgot.
There was a clattering outside, voices. "I saw him come this way!" "He ain't here now let's keep moving. Carrow, go back the way we came, see if they doubled back." "What'll we do with the others?" "Kill 'em. But make sure you don't hit Potter or the Malfoy woman. I'll take care of her myself."
Harry turned to Narcissa, whose tight lips betrayed the only crack in her facade. "Looks like your cover's blown."
"I'm well aware of that," said Narcissa. "I helped Snape escape after hacking off the head of that wretched beast. I would have got away with it, too, if he hadn't been so insistent that I bring the body." She fumbled in her skirt pocket, withdrawing a small pouch. "Here. He said to give it to you. I shrunk it, of course. I wasn't about to walk out with it slung around my neck, like some Amazonian tribeswoman."
Harry pulled the strings of the pouch. A miniscule, scale-perfect snake fell on to his palm. "Nagini..." he breathed.
"Will someone please tell me what's going on?" demanded Piers.
Draco shrugged. "We're a couple of good wizards, on the run from a couple of bad wizards."
"Don't say 'good,' say 'ambivalent,'" murmured Narcissa, who'd brought out a compact and was fixing her face. "'Good' would mean I had to wear tartan."
"When you say wizards..."
Narcissa snapped her compact shut and pointed her wand at Cherub. He blanched. Harry didn't hear her spell, but a second later Cherub's head was covered in thickly clustered curls the precise shade of rust. "Better," she said. "You really weren't carrying off the bald look, not with those ears."
"Magic-workers, in other words," said Draco, as Cherub gaped.
"And the ones outside?"
"Came to kill us and capture Potter." Draco cut a glance in Harry's direction. "No idea why, personally. I should think the Dark Lord would prefer a tame lion."
Harry ignored him. "We might as well sit down. We're going to be here for a while."
Silence reigned for a short time. Then Draco said, "What I don't understand is how the Death Eaters penetrated the protective wards around Lee's house. I thought they weren't due to break until Potter was seventeen."
"The Dark Lord forced Snape to brew a potion with what was left of Potter's blood," said Narcissa. "By drinking it, the Death Eaters could pass through the wards. Snape intended to warn you far sooner, but he saw an opportunity to kill Nagini while it was sated from feeding on Amelia Bones. Why he needed to kill it I'm not sure. It was a horrible thing, used to leave slime all over my good floors, but judging from the state of Snape's boots he wasn't inordinately worried about that."
"Are we going to be here for long?" asked Dudley. "Only, I'm hungry, and Mum and Dad will be worried."
"Is there a back way out of here?" asked Draco.
Harry shook his head. "Not that I know of."
"Great plan," said Draco, sarcastically.
"Yeah, I thought so," said Harry. "None of us are dead yet."
"My kingdom for a ham sandwich," sighed Dudley.
"Or a cocktail," added Narcissa.
Dudley glumly sagged into the box on which he was sitting. It began to buckle. In quick succession he was deposited on the floor, while the stack of things holding up the box bounced around his feet.
"This looks kind of valuable." Dudley plunged a hand into the sea of screwed-up parchment, torn books and broken quills. He held up what Harry thought was a sparkling necklace.
"Would you look at that," said Draco in awe. "It's Ravenclaw's Diadem."
Four hours later, even the wonderful serendipity of literally falling over a Horcrux dimmed. Ravenous hunger took its place, accompanied by snarling tempers.
"Trust you to get us into this mess," groaned Draco, over the grumbles from his stomach. "A Gryffindor couldn't find his way out of a paper bag without instructions."
"What's your cunning plan then, huh?" demanded Harry. "Slytherin?"
"As if I'd tell you," retorted Draco. "It'd hardly be cunning then. You repel cunning like a magnet."
"Magnets attract things, doofus."
"Yeah, like you attract stupidity and ugly friends."
"My friends aren't ugly!"
"Of course not. Red hair and freckles are marks of beauty how could I forget? And the Mudblood would be exceptionally pretty if you stood her beside a row of furze bushes."
"Last I looked, Crabbe and Goyle weren't winning any beauty pageants."
"Um, hello? Have you seen Blaise Zabini?"
"Your powers of observation continue to astound." Draco rolled on to his side, pushing his head into an embroidered pillow. It was the only one the room had yielded so far, but as it was covered in suspicious stains no one was fighting Draco for it.
"Name me all the Gryffindors in our year," challenged Harry.
"The Mudblood, the Weasel, Seamus the randy Irishman, Thomas with the awful accent, useless Neville, wears-too-much-eyeshadow Brown, the hot one Parvati Patil, Griselda of the lantern jaw." Draco reeled them off effortlessly. Harry had to keep from sniggering at some of the accurate descriptions.
But "There's no Griselda in our year," said Harry.
"Yes, there is," said Draco, in his 'talking to idiots' voice. "She has the aforementioned lantern-jaw, a nose that could batter down a door and quite nice red hair. I'm surprised you didn't notice or has the combined Weasley effect made you colour-blind?"
"Would you two just give it a rest?" groaned Piers. "You realise you've been arguing the entire time we've been here?"
"Now that you mention it, my throat is a little dry," said Draco. "I'd kill for a lemonade. Well, I'd kill Potter for a lemon. Or for free. If only Kreacher were here."
The noise was more of a tearing smack than a pop, but within in instant Kreacher was bowing before Draco. "The diaphanous master called for me? What is it sir requires?"
"A lemonade with ice," said Draco.
"No! Ask him to get a message to Dumbledore or better yet, get us out of here," said Harry.
"What he said." Draco smiled at the elf. "But the lemonade first."
"Sir, Kreacher is a house-elf, sir." There was a faintly disapproving look on Kreacher's face.
"Amazing how that escaped my notice," murmured Narcissa, waving a hand in front of her nose.
"Kreacher can do more than one thing at a time," said Kreacher. He put a hand behind his back; when he held it out again, a frosted glass of lemonade was in it. He passed it to Draco.
"Thanks," said Draco. He smirked at Harry, and drained the glass in one gulp.
"The master wishes to remove from this place?" asked Kreacher.
"Can you take us back to the Dursleys?" asked Draco.
"No to Grimmauld Place," said Harry. The elf's eyes lit up, and he nodded.
"Hold on," said Kreacher. "This might be a bumpy ride..."
Two Months Later
The plant manager was pathetically pleased to see them.
"We don't get many school tours anymore," he said. "Been here nearly thirty years now, and there was a time when you couldn't move for little buggers in ties trying to push buttons. All stopped after 1986, of course."
"I can imagine," said Mr Blake, with a thin edge of malice in his polite tone. Miss Thompson had turned out to be the easier sell, of the two.
The plant manager was called Bob and he wore a faded pair of navy overalls. Draco had been expecting something more unctuous, borderline sleazy, so he was surprised at the lack of pinstripe and hair oil. Bob was moreover older than a dinosaur and about as well-informed. He wasn't officially the public face of Sellafield, Draco could tell; but then again, this wasn't an official visit. Mr Blake had called in a few favours.
They trooped dutifully behind Bob: Mr Blake, Miss Thompson, Draco and Harry, of course, plus Cherub and Tilda and Piers, for the look of the thing. It was one of Dudley's days to go visit his parents in St Mungo's, so he'd cried off. Vernon hadn't spoken since the attack, but Petunia was grimly determined to mobilise on her good leg and, then, to kill the dragon who'd eaten the other one. With her bare hands.
Draco soon tuned out of Bob's monologue, which was on the dull and dreary side of boring. Even Miss Thompson could find little to rhapsodise over in all the gunmetal grey, and had contented herself with murmuring Ogden Nash ditties under her breath at intervals. One thing Draco didn't miss was the curious look on Mr Blake's face when Miss Thompson did that.
He hadn't time to spare for worrying over the proceeding of their courtship. His wand was buzzing hotly in his pocket, warning him that the time was near. Weeks of careful preparation preceded this moment; he could afford to be nothing less than diligent.
Draco stepped a little away from the group. Harry, watching his every movement, did the same. He adjusted the backpack on his shoulder as he did so.
Harry's hand brushed Draco's as if by accident, but didn't move off. Ignoring the tremulous thrill the touch brought him, Draco curled his thumb behind Harry's palm and whispered a spell.
Bob shook his head; Tilda looked puzzled. The others, who'd been expecting it, pursed their lips or hissed. Draco felt as if a bucket of cold water had been emptied over him. He put a hand to his head, almost expecting to wipe away wet hair, and was surprised when it felt as light and dry as ever.
"Smooth," said Harry.
Draco couldn't tell if it were an insult or a compliment, but either way he didn't care. Hours upon hours of Snape's best work had gone into devising a potion that would, on Draco's word, trigger off a series of essential chain reactions. Now, Bob had never seen them; Tilda thought they were home with colds. Voldemort might have extracted the information from Cherub's head, or Piers'; but he'd have a devil of a time finding them, considering the effort that had gone into insuring that he thought Harry was in Leeds heading a covert Order attack on one of Voldemort's primary Death Eater cells.
Harry dropped to his knees and rummaged through the backpack, extracting an enchanted screwdriver. He tapped it with his wand and it hovered in the air, then flew straight upwards. Harry and Draco watched as it unscrewed the bolts in a ceiling hatch with great precision and even greater slowness.
"I thought you said you'd practiced this," said Draco.
"I did," said Harry. "You should have seen how slow it was before."
At last the screwdriver's work was done. Harry tucked it back into the bag and pointed his wand at Draco. Draco couldn't help feeling apprehensive. The first few times Harry tried to levitate him, he'd ended up flat on the bed with his head near the floor. Not that it hadn't been a good position to practice other essential manoeuvres but still.
"Don't look so scared," said Harry. "I always have rope if this fails."
"I'm not scared, I'm realistic," retorted Draco. "How about you show some positive thinking, eh? 'Plan to fail' and all that."
Harry just rolled his eyes. A second later Draco realised he was floating.
He reached up and grabbed the edge of the hatch, hauling himself in. As soon as his feet slithered over the side, Harry cut loose the spell. Now it was Draco's turn.
"Oh god, oh god," Draco breathed. He'd smashed every wine glass he'd ever been asked to levitate. Harry was bigger than a wine glass, and so much more important. "Give me the strength to do this one thing, and I might even start believing in you..."
"Get a wriggle on, Malfoy," yelled Harry.
(Snape added a sound-proofing element to the spell the morning after he'd had to bed down in the room Draco and Harry shared in Grimmauld Place.
"I hope you don't think that was subtle," Snape had told Draco. "Potter one expects little of; he's been going around with the most idiotic smile I've ever had the misfortune to see. But I'm disappointed in you."
"It was all him," said Draco quickly. "He's completely insatiable typical Gryffindor."
"You were in his bed," said Snape. "And, Potter's egotism aside, I don't think even he says his own name when he ")
Draco chewed on his tongue for a further three seconds. He tried to coalesce all the willpower he possessed and channel it into his wand.
Swish. And flick.
"You can open your eyes now," said Harry. He sounded amused.
"I what?" Draco dropped his wand. Harry, who'd been drifting up and smirking, suddenly lost momentum. He scrabbled at Draco's legs and heaved himself over the side of the hatch. Draco got a mouthful of hair as Harry slumped over him.
"You're okay," he whispered, patting Harry's back.
Harry wriggled upright. He grabbed Draco's hand. "There's a time and a place," said Harry severely, "and this is not it."
"Shut up," said Draco. He wrenched his hand out of Harry's grip.
Harry kicked the hatch cover back in place. "Make sure to bolt it back afterwards," he said unnecessarily.
"You're the one with the magic screwdriver," Draco pointed out.
"Which way?" asked Harry, but not before giving Draco a little shove in the back. Draco shivered and resisted the compulsion to rub his face in Harry's neck, just for a second. Instead, he consulted his wand.
"Left," he said.
Harry crawled ahead of him. Draco resolutely kept his eyes on the 'floor,' as he forced himself to call it (he didn't like to think he was actually crawling through a metal pipe six feet from the ground). Now was not> the time to be getting hot and bothered by Harry.
That was sort of the problem, however. Ever since Cherub a few days after the alarm over the attack on Privet Drive had worn off, and things were explained had come up with the idea, it had been all stations go. When they weren't plotting and planning, they were gathering obscure potions ingredients with a full guard from the Order, or trying to get to school inconspicuously so as to involve Mr Blake in the scheme.
The night after the attack was the first and last they were truly alone together. The others were treated in St Mungo's for shock, but both Harry and Draco resolutely refused. They were backed up by Narcissa, so all three, under the auspices of Lupin, were escorted to Grimmauld Place. Narcissa immediately went to delve for lost treasures in the attic while Lupin returned to the hospital.
The hows and whats and wherefores of that night were lost to time and a fog of Firewhiskey, found squirreled away in a window-seat by Harry. He said the bottle was Sirius'; Draco didn't care if it was the man in the moon's so long as he got some. He might not have wanted to be prodded by Healers all night in the name of shock, but that didn't mean he wasn't still shocked. Such a vast quantity of blood would do that to a person.
There'd been kissing, Draco remembered that. And touching. Then nakedness, of a sort that meant most of Draco's shirt was still on, shoved down his arms, and one of Harry's socks, and Harry's boxers around his knees. The nakedness required more kissing and more touching, until Draco couldn't breathe from it, felt dizzy and hot and stupid. Fortunately, some things came naturally.
The days after were a whirlwind of activity. Draco was sure he was supposed to deny what had happened, or say it meant nothing when in fact it meant everything, but in fact he and Harry only spoke of essential things. How do we get in, how do we remain undetected, how to we make sure no one gets hurt, how do we keep Voldemort away until the deal is done? In the mire of essentials, the non-essentials got lost.
One day Draco looked up and it had been three weeks since The Night, as he thought of it (wakeful in the dark, with Harry snoring in the next bed and Draco's hand in his pyjamas). In the intervening time, his mother had waltzed into Gringotts, used the family password to extract a random Horcrux from her sister's vault, and had all her hair singed off by a marauding dragon. She hadn't stopped complaining about it since. And, of course, there was the Plan which required enormous amounts of Planning.
They were finally taking a breather or rather, Lupin was taking it for them. He complained that Harry's face was two big purple bags and Draco looked like a withered tree. If Hermione and Ron didn't come in for their fair share of insults it was because they were already asleep, poised over books in uncomfortable attitudes that promised neck-ache come morning.
"Bed, bed, bed," chanted Lupin. Draco paused only to sprinkle a few spitballs in Weasley's hair old habits died hard. Lupin was small and skinny, but that only made his fierce face more disturbing.
Draco was tired so tired that he accidentally fell into Harry's bed. He only half-pulled on his pyjama top and couldn't find the strength to swap his boxers for pyjama pants, which must have meant something different in Harry's world than 'lazy' and 'unappetising.' He came back from the bathroom smelling overpoweringly of mint and stopped. When Draco rolled over and realised his mistake, Harry was staring.
Before Draco could move or pretend to apologise, Harry crawled in beside him, shoving his legs straight with gentle hands. He curled into Draco with his lips on Draco's neck, mumbled, "You taste of books" and fell asleep.
Of course, Draco was wide awake after that. He busied himself tucking Harry's arms around his waist and warming his cold toes between Harry's hot, carelessly splayed thighs. Harry woke up as dawn was breaking. Without opening his eyes, he fumbled with one hand until he found Draco's cheek, then opened his mouth and kissed him.
They'd never spoken of that, either, but since then they shared a bed every night. Draco thought it was a fair trade-off.
None of it made crawling down a small dark tunnel behind Harry any easier.
Draco kept wanting to grab his ankle.
Eventually the feeling faded, because it was replaced by a host of other things clamouring for his attention. At the head of the pack were his knees and palms, scraped raw, and not letting up for a second with the complaints.
"Hang on a minute," said Draco. Harry scrambled up against the side of the shaft, wincing.
There was a brief, hazy interlude while Draco took Harry's hands and magically cooled the bruised places. Harry did the same thing for him.
"We probably should have done this at the beginning," said Draco.
"Don't look at me," said Harry. "You're the brains of the outfit, or so you keep saying."
Draco was about to snap out something about relative brain sizes, probably involving pea metaphors, when Harry reached up and cupped his cheek. Nothing more, and just for a second, but Draco felt it all the way to the end of the shaft.
They passed through air ducts and blank walls and locked doors. Never had Draco been so grateful for magic. The place was clearly designed to be impenetrable, for good reason. If they hadn't been wizards, it would have been.
Draco's wand was nearly burning his thigh. "I think this is it," he said, failing utterly to conceal the shake in his voice.
"Right. All right." Harry's voice jumped octaves between every syllable. "This is it, then. It's going to work."
It wasn't a question, but Draco said, "Yes, of bloody course it is," anyway.
Harry pulled a gas mask out of his bag and put it on. He handed the second, 'just in case' mask to Draco.
"You'll Apparate right back out," said Draco, confirming.
Harry's smile was weak behind his mask. "I want to give you something," he said.
"I can have it when you get back, just hurry." Draco was struck by a sudden sick urgency.
"Here," said Harry. He pushed a circular box into Draco's hand. It looked like the sort of cheap antique with which Grimmauld Place was littered. Draco opened it: the inside shimmered with memories. It's a Pensieve, thought Draco, he's going to
...number four, Privet Drive was ravaged by dragon fire. Bits of it were still smouldering in the flowerbed, flickering pale green. The house itself was a blackened ruin. Here and there glinted remnants of normality: a charred saucepan. A faucet. Half an armchair.
Dudley started saying, "Mum? Dad?" in a queer, high-pitched voice. Harry didn't want to look, but he wasn't about to let Dudley do it instead.
He stepped forward, feeling movement beside him. Draco's shirtsleeve swished against his own.
"This is not a good place to be right now," he said.
"No kidding," said Harry. He tried to pretend there was no smell of burnt flesh in the air.
This was not the way to die, Harry realised. He had hated the Dursleys growing up, but they deserved a kinder end than being turned into dragon kebabs. The thought felt like it should be more profound than it was.
Draco was at his side when they found...
..."C'mon, then;" Draco bit his lip and lifted the covers, looking shy and hopeful and excited and a tiny bit nauseated, all at once. Harry could relate: cold sweat was breaking out on the back of his neck and behind his ears, making his scalp prickle.
Draco scooted back against the wall, as if it would make a difference - the bed was barely spacious enough to accommodate him; adding an extra blanket was asking too much of it. It felt to Harry that it was in slow motion when Draco peeled a sheet from his hip, exposing faded pyjamas and a scooped-out hollow under his hipbone.
And above that well. Harry knew Draco was shirtless: had seen him take off the t-shirt and toss it over his head; could remember being very thoughtful about the effect that had on the pit of his belly. But it was different to see Draco's flesh in the flesh, with the wisps of downy hair and scored lines of muscle and now Harry's stomach was turning over, not in a good way, but like he was going to be sick.
"I " said Harry. He stepped closer, the laces of his untied shoes slapping on the floor. Draco sucked in a breath as if to make even more room, and that was it, Harry was in the bed with him.
"You hopeless boor," said Draco. "Are you usually this undomesticated or has lust addled what's left of your brain?"
"I," said Harry. "What?"
"Boots." Draco put a hiss on the s and scraped his foot against Harry's calf. One of them reached down, or they both did, then the boots were on the floor and Draco was chest to chest with Harry, his bare skin burning where it touched.
"I ..." Harry reached out a hand to brush the hair out of Draco's face. At the same time, Draco tried to touch Harry's cheek.
Their wrists knocked in mid-air and they both pulled back in confusion. It was Draco's turn to mutter something incomprehensible. The words dried up in Harry's mouth. His heart was beating so hard he was afraid it would explode through his chest, although it wasn't the main thing he was worried about imminently exploding.
"Just let me -" Draco mumbled. He slid backwards, pulling Harry to face him and wedging his thigh between Harry's legs. A host of strange sensations warmth, dampness, hardness, friction assailed Harry, and then he could hardly breathe, on top of everything else.
"Maybe I could," continued Draco, rubbing his palm up Harry's neck as if this were the end to the sentence. His eyes were a lovely colour, Harry thought wildly, like clouds, or concrete, and was that Draco's dick he could feel?
"I really want to kiss you," whispered Draco. His voice was breathless and there was a sudden burst of red in his cheeks. "I want to, can I kiss you?"
That hadn't been part of the arrangement. They said they were just going to, Harry distinctly remembered. There was a sofa and Firewhiskey and, lips, ghosting across his mouth...
He turned his face into the kiss. It was instinctive, like closing your eyes against the glare of the sun, or breathing deeply in a warm bakery. He raised his arm and pawed Draco closer to him, his elbow on Draco's ear, mouths crushing in the rush. Harry gasped for air and caught Draco's tongue beneath his lips. It was a good kiss. Harry was okay with the kissing, he decided. There should be plenty more kissing, with Draco's cool fingers trailing up his back and fisting in his hair and lots, lots of licking tongues.
Harry didn't notice the soft 'uh' noises Draco was making, probably because he could only hear his own, but he did notice when Draco got his legs around Harry's waist. Their hips collided, but it seemed as if Draco had meant for that to happen, because he pressed in tighter and began to arch himself into Harry. Harry wasn't having any of it. This wasn't what he'd signed up for, oh no, he'd thought warm hands in the dark, two minutes to bring him off quickly not this wide-open breezeblock stare, Draco sucking at the corner of Harry's mouth while his hands and hips did unspeakable things.
"I can't," said Harry, forcefully, "I can't feel this way."
"You already are," whispered Draco...
Draco's cheek was smeared with inky fingerprints. It made Harry smile, from a combination of simple amusement and the warm, secret knowledge that Draco had a habit of missing the inkpot with his quill when he was concentrating hard. His fingers went in the inkpot instead, and when he went to push his hair out of his face it fell in his face a lot, obscuring his eyes, making him coy the ink went everywhere.
Harry was allowed to know that. You were allowed to know things like that about the person you were sleeping with, about the person you
"Hey." Dudley dropped on to the sofa beside Harry literally. It sunk about a foot.
"How's it going, Big D?" asked Harry. It was a mental shift to treat Dudley with civility, let alone sympathy, but Harry was learning a lot of new things lately. "Did Healer Rosenbaum have any news?"
Dudley nodded. "She said Mum was coming on in leaps and bounds. She knows this doctor I mean, this wizard in France who's worked his whole life on regenerating nerves with some spell or other. Hermione will know. Anyway, Rosenbaum told me there was a possibility that they could make a new leg for Mum. Later, you know, when the war's over."
Harry felt a cold shiver at the matter-of-fact way Dudley referred to the situation. It was war, of course it was; but for so long it had been covert a Harry-against-everyone operation. Another thing that required some getting used to.
"For now, she's making her this brilliant fake leg," continued Dudley. "Practically looks real I saw the toes. They match Mum's other foot perfectly. They're just as completely freaky."
"What about Uncle Vernon?" Harry ventured. Dudley's smile wavered, but didn't fall.
"Still not talking," said Dudley, "or eating. They've been giving him magical stuff, but he's. I've never seen him this thin."
"Maybe he'll like being skinny," said Harry. "You know, when he ... talks again."
Dudley sounded doubtful. "He always said he was a 'real man with real bones.' Not that it matters, of course. Mum thinks we should take him to a doctor. It might be post-traumatic stress or something."
"I'm sure Healers know about that," said Harry.
"I don't think so," said Hermione. She'd come in for the last exchange of the conversation and was now perched on the sofa arm. "Healers are used to dealing with straightforward magical catastrophes. Their idea of psychiatric treatment is to give people a potion to make them forget what they were worried about."
"Sounds good to me," said Harry.
"You think so?" said Hermione. "The trials in life are what make us strong. They're the things that make us who we are. Do you really want to forget all that?"
"Not all," amended Harry, "but some." He still woke at night sweating, Sirius' and Cedric's surprised faces plastered across his vision.
Hermione patted his shoulder. "You don't get to pick and choose," she said. "In a few years or decades it will make more sense."
"Do you really always know what you're talking about?"
"No," laughed Hermione. "But I believe I do. That's good enough."
Ron ambled into the room. Something in Hermione's face went painfully soft. Harry looked away, into Dudley's amused gaze.
"No move yet?" he whispered. Ron had two sandwiches on a plate; he held it out to Hermione, as if she would honestly be tempted by two day old bread and soggy lettuce.
Apparently she was, because she smiled and took one.
"Give them another twenty years," Harry whispered back. "By then, they might have admitted they're more than just friends. But don't expect miracles."
"Now I see why you lot invented love potions." Dudley shook his head. "Cherub says hi, by the way. He went to the cinema with Tilda last night."
"What did they go to see?"
"I haven't got the slightest idea," said Dudley. "Neither does Cherub, by all accounts. I don't think he took in a thing. But he could tell me every detail of Tilda's outfit and Tilda's perfume and what Tilda said and what Tilda laughed at "
Harry wrinkled his nose. "He's got it bad."
"Terminal," agreed Dudley. He glanced around the room. "Hey, Draco! Didn't see you there, behind all those books."
"Protective camouflage." Draco spread his fingers across a yawn. The index was black. "There's a Weasley in the room. I wouldn't want him to smell me."
"Hey, Malfoy," said Ron, in a neutral voice.
"Too late!" said Draco, tragically.
Ron dropped the plate, with its one sad sandwich, on top of Draco's parchment. "Snacktime at the zoo," he said.
"What is this?" Draco prodded the limp object with his quill. "Has it already been eaten?"
"You're welcome," said Ron, and went back to Hermione. As soon as he saw Ron was distracted, Draco picked up the sandwich and crammed it whole into his mouth.
Draco was hungry. Harry didn't realise he'd said it aloud until Dudley said, "When's the last time he ate?"
"Well, he went off to research metal-breaking jinxes at four..." Harry's voice trailed off as he checked his watch. It was ten pm. "Shit, I'd better make him something."
Dudley's mouth twitched. "I'm sure he's capable of making his own dinner."
"He's been working hard," said Harry defensively. "It's the least I can do."
"Sure," said Dudley. "His favourite sandwich filling is ham and cheese. He told me once."
"Really?" Harry glanced at Draco again. He snuck looks at him a lot, actually. It was like he was reassuring himself that Draco still existed and, more importantly, that he was still there. In a room with Harry. "He doesn't look like a ham and cheese person."
"Appearances can be deceiving," said Dudley. "So, you're really going through with Cherub's comic book masterplan?"
"Yeah," said Harry. "It's a good plan, no matter where it came from."
He thought back to the sun-drenched afternoon. A kindly rescue witch, hoping no doubt to restore a semblance of normality to Dudley's life, had boxed up what remained of his bedroom and sent it to St Mungo's. The yield was pitifully small: the melted remains of his Playstation, a teddy bear's head, a remarkably unscathed pillow, and a stack of charred comic books.
Although none of them said it, it was clear that the Muggles didn't want to leave the safety of the hospital. For two days, every time Harry visited they were bent over the adventures of Superman, Batman, Ironman and the Incredible Hulk. Indeed, the only way Cherub could process the recent events of his life was through superhero metaphors.
"So what's this Dark Lord's kryptonite, then?" he asked.
Harry turned to Dudley with habitual bafflement. "Superman," Dudley referenced. "He's got all these amazing powers, strength and flight and so on, but as soon as he comes near kryptonite he loses them all."
"Yeah! Couldn't you break the Dark Lord's magic stick?" suggested Cherub.
"It would be difficult to get it off him," said Harry. "As in, I'd be dead before I got to it. But it's a good thought."
"But his soul-boxes are kind of like kryptonite," reflected Cherub. "If you blew them up, all his powers would be sucked away."
"Yes, but we can't blow them up," said Harry.
"Why not? You could chuck 'em in a nuclear reactor. Pow! Vaporised."
"It wouldn't work," said Harry. "They have to be destroyed by magic."
Draco looked up from the travails of the Silver Surfer, which he was devouring with gusto.
"Who says?" he asked.
Back in the present, Dudley nudged Harry in the side. Slightly winded, Harry gasped, "What?"
"Is nuclear power really stronger than magic?" Dudley sounded doubtful.
"Lots of things are stronger than magic," said Harry. Music, Dumbledore had said once. Love... "Nuclear power happens to be one of them, fortunately. And Voldemort's such a Muggle-hater, he won't even take it into account. Hopefully."
"Did you find the last Hor-thing yet?" asked Dudley. "Or are you just going to destroy the ones you have and hope for the best?"
"Pretty much," said Harry. An icy vine curled around his heart and squeezed. "The last Horcrux is ... the last Horcrux might turn up before then."
"Right." Dudley yawned. "If you're making Draco that sandwich, will you get me one too? Tuna and mayo, if poss."
"What am I, your slave?" grumbled Harry, getting to his feet.
"Nah," said Dudley, smiling sleepily. "You're my cousin."
"Huh," said Harry. He couldn't think of anything else to say to that.
He took one last look at Draco before he went out. Draco's quill was scratching slowly across the parchment, held loosely in his lax grip. His other hand propped up his face; his little finger rubbed absently across his lower lip.
Something inside of Harry rose up, singing. I love you, I love you, I love you I love you iloveyouiloveyouilove...
Draco jerked his consciousness out of the Pensieve, heart beating too fast to bear.
"Harry!" he yelled. "What are you doing, you said you'd come back, you promised !"
His hand slammed into the side of the shaft as he whirled around.
It was empty. Harry was gone.